Sunday, December 30, 2007

Keeping Hope Alive in the New Year

As one year ends and another begins, this is usually a good time to look back at all that we’ve accomplished, or intended to accomplish over the past 12 months. Taking some time to make an honest inventory of our lives can give us a clear picture of what we did well, where we fell short and what needs improvement. Once we've done that, we need to first and foremost give ourselves a big pat on the back and celebrate the progress we've made. Then we can move on to review the things we missed and revise our goals for the upcoming year. Ahead of us we have an opportunity to start over with a clean slate, and to renew our hope for our future, for those around us and for the world in general.

To the alcoholic /addict, to have hope is to believe in the possibility of recovery. Many of us have overcome insurmountable odds to achieve sobriety. Sometimes it has taken numerous attempts before we were able to maintain a sober physical state. But time and again we were willing to risk our fear of failure until we attained our goal.

In order to maintain a “Sober Mind”, it's essential to have hope. We must have the willingness and desire to believe in ourselves, even during those times when there seems to be no hope at all. Many of us have difficulty appreciating all we have done and how far we have come. Recovery means using tools like making phone calls to trusted friends, reading self help literature and most importantly attending 12-step meetings. These things serve to remind us of goals we've fulfilled and encourage us to continue to hope.

I would like to wish everyone a New Year filled with hope, and leave you with this quote from Thomas Jefferson: “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on”.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Surviving the Holidays

For many of us next Tuesday is a big family holiday, so I thought it would be a good time to remind everyone of Rita’s Rule # 3: Avoid anyone who does not make you feel good about yourself.

Christmas can be one of those times where it becomes difficult or maybe impossible to follow that rule. There are a great many “command performances” around holiday time. Our parents, our partners, our children as well as extended family and friends all have expectations that we feel required to fulfill. In addition, we have our own expectations of ourselves. It is a time when we easily fall into the trap of believing we can make someone else happy or that we can somehow control situations. Many of us go to great lengths to buy the right present or to dress and behave as expected, which is usually a set-up for disappointment and failure.

At this time of year it is very important to have a plan of self care and a strategy to avoid the people that don’t make us feel good about ourselves. Whether we are actually going home for the holidays, or just experience it virtually in our hearts and minds, having a plan is critical to our mental sobriety at this “wonderful time of year”. I propose a few suggestions:

-Practice the “ums” and “ahs” - listen without engaging or directly responding when someone is saying something that is triggering you in some way. Just nod and insert an “um” or an “ah” to help you resist the need to comment or defend.

-Set up a telephone contact for emergency calls - make sure you have the phone number of someone who will be available to talk to you if you need some reassurance or support.
- For those of you who participate in a twelve step program of recovery from substance abuse or codependence, look for a local meeting if you are going to be out of town - check with intergroup for a meeting and if necessary arrange for a contact person to meet you there.

-Have an exit strategy in place - If all else fails be prepared to remove yourself from the situation. Talk it over with someone you trust in advance of your trip and make a plan so you can leave if you feel uncomfortable.

Remember that your needs are as important as everyone else’s. By taking responsibility for your well being you'll improve your chances of having a happy and mentally sober holiday.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Birthday survival tips

Today Dec. 19th, is my birthday, and that has me thinking about how tied our attitudes about ourselves are to this special day. So I decided I would write a post about birthdays, why they are important and why it is a good idea to develop a plan for celebrating or at least acknowledging them.

Birthdays mark the day we began our life’s journey. Each individual’s life journey is important both to them and to all the people they are connected to. We don’t live in a vacuum - everything we do has an effect – whether positive or negative - on those around us. We are a piece of a very large human puzzle that would not be complete without us.

Many people who come to me for counseling feel that their life is not important because they aren’t financially successful, or they haven’t met the right partner, or they don’t have children. Believe it or not there are others that think that the opposite is true - the fact that they just got married and had children means they are unimportant. The truth is the only life that has no value is a life that is not lived.

Birthdays are an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate our lives, and to ask others to join us in that celebration. Often times, however, instead of celebrating many of us fall into the victim role. We say things to ourselves like, “nobody cares”, “I don’t matter anyway” or we abuse ourselves with other forms of “poor me” self talk. In recovery we have chosen to live our lives fully, and if we want to develop sober thinking it is important to reject the negative self talk and take action. What actions can you take? Here are some suggestions: buy yourself a birthday present, remind the people you care about that it’s your birthday so they have an opportunity to acknowledge it, or host your own birthday party.

I want to leave you all with this quote from a movie I recently saw, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium: “your life is an occasion, rise to it.” So what will I do today? I plan to share the day with people who make me feel good about myself.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dealing with Anger

Anger is an emotion that almost any addict or alcoholic knows very well. Many of us seem to have a great deal of anger at real and perceived injustices. Anger can be self-defeating, or it can energize us and push us to take action. It can protect us and keep us from being vulnerable to psychological assault. Anger can often be used to mask our many fears.

For the addict, anger also can cause feelings of guilt, which serves to fuel the anger further. So we are angry because we are afraid and guilty because we are angry thus creating a damaging cycle of emotion.

Guilt also adds another layer of complexity to our anger. Many of us were raised with the idea that it is wrong to feel anger and that anger and love cannot coexist. If I am angry at someone, I have to reject them and despise them. In sobriety we may feel guilty if we are angry at loved ones that we may have hurt or disappointed. We don’t have the ability to express angry feelings appropriately, and our relationships suffer because of this.

So what are we angry about? Many of us get triggered when we have no control over people and events in our lives. We can’t make others love us, like us or accept us. Mostly we can’t make others meet our needs. Another source of anger is our disease. We feel that nature has betrayed us by inflicting on us a chronic illness that we have no control over, one that causes us to hurt ourselves and those we love.

What are we afraid of? One thing we fear is that we don’t deserve to be loved or liked and we don’t deserve to get our needs met. We are afraid of being unlovable, we fear rejection and we fear facing the things we don’t like about ourselves. Sometimes the most benign comment or gesture can incite anger and rage because it touches those fears.

Another aspect of anger the alcoholic/addict may experience occurs when they first achieve abstinence from their substance of choice. When the fog begins to lift, we are faced with the consequences of our behavior. It is painful to have to confront our actions, especially since we didn’t have control over many of the things we’ve done.

Anger can be a positive force if we learn to accept it as a feeling that is neither good nor bad. We need to use our anger as a motivating force for change and not turn it on ourselves. Through the recovery process, working the 12 steps of whatever fellowship program we participate in or learning anger exercises we can harness this powerful emotion and make it work for us. Anger groups or individual therapy can help us learn about anger and realize it is a universal emotion. These activities can lead us to accept our angry self, explore how anger manipulates us and develop strategies to turn the anger into positive pursuits.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Addicted to chaos

As the holidays approach many of us have conflicted feelings about family, or what Erma Bombeck used to refer to as “the ties that bind and gag”. Visiting with relatives in this hypothetically joyous season tends to illicit fantasy expectations about what it means to be home for the holidays. The reality in many cases is we are returning to our chaotic roots.

A significant number of us grew up in an alcoholic/addicted family system, what is known today as a dysfunctional family. We never felt safe in our family of origin and the only thing we knew for sure was that nothing was for sure. Life was totally unpredictable and we became conditioned to living in chaos. When I talk about chaos in our lives, it was often not the kind that can be seen. In fact, many alcoholic/addict mothers were also super controllers and on the surface, our lives appeared to be perfect. The unsafe and chaotic living conditions of our lives were not visible or obvious to the outside world.

Despite the appearance of everything being under control, we experienced continued chaos, developed a tolerance for chaos and I believe became addicted to chaos. I think it is important to say I have never done a scientific experiment to investigate this theory. It is based on observation of numerous alcoholic/addicts and their behavior.

During the recovery process life becomes more manageable and less chaotic. The alcoholic/addict begins to feel a sense of autonomy and safety. A feeling of calm settles over their life. The paradox for the alcoholic/addict is that feeling calm is so unfamiliar it induces anxiety. There is a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. When there is a crisis, whether real or perceived, we actually experience a physical exhilaration and it feels remarkably like being active. From there it can be a very short distance to a relapse. Even if we don’t pick up we are not in a sober frame of mind.

Addiction to chaos can be very damaging. Once engaged in someone else’s crisis we abandon ourselves and often develop resentments, especially if it is someone we love or are close to. Family chaos is the “best” because it's so familiar and we can really get off on it. When there is a crisis with family or friends we feel compelled to listen to every sordid detail and/or take action. We are unable to let go, we need to be in the mix even though it is painful and upsetting. It requires tremendous effort to detach and not jump in with both feet to the detriment to our well being.

It's important to learn how to determine which events require our attention and which ones do not. We need to ask ourselves: Is this problem mine? What effect will the outcome of the problem have on my life? What can I do to affect the outcome of the problem? What impact will allowing myself to be drawn into someone else’s problem have on my sober thinking? We need to change our behavior and resist getting involved - to detach from the drama.

When we become aware of a problem, we need to resist the compulsion to react.We need to take a positive action, like calling someone we trust and reviewing the questions with them, someone who can remind us that our needs are just as important as the other person's. Initially this will be very difficult because when we are addicted to chaos we experience an intense struggle with our own will to "rescue" the ones we love, and many times others are pressuring us to join them in this self-defeating behavior.

If and when we manage to detach ourselves from the chaos, we may experience guilt and anxiety for not responding to a friend or loved one's problem. Each time we are able to resist we are teaching ourselves to appreciate the lack of chaos in our lives. That appreciation will eventually evolve into a feeling of confidence and soon the impulse to jump into someone else’s chaos lessens.

A sober mind requires that we keep the focus on us, not on the chaos around us. That means doing what is right for us, keeping our head where our feet are, and avoiding people who don’t make us feel good about ourselves.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Loneliness vs Solitude

Most people experience feelings of loneliness from time to time, but for the addict/alcoholic, isolation is a defense mechanism and a chronic symptom. Addiction is characterized by a sense of loneliness and a state of isolation. Often alcoholic/addicts describe feeling alone even when in a crowd. Solitude/aloneness and isolation/loneliness are often used interchangeably, but these terms imply different emotional states and subjective experiences. Isolation for the alcoholic/addict is a negative symptom of their disease. Guilt and shame keep the alcoholic/addict alone in society and shut off from themselves. Solitude is feeling safe and content while enjoying your own company. It is the experience of being alone without being lonely.

The pain of loneliness and isolation creates a significant obstacle to achieving a relationship with oneself. Avoiding healthy social interaction prevents us from seeing ourselves through the eyes of others and experiencing our humanness. The emotional pain from loneliness and/or isolation may also cause people to seek out the company of anyone who is willing to spend time with them. Often the alcoholic/addict will enter into a toxic relationship to avoid spending time by themselves. Both isolation and seeking toxic relationships enable the addict/alcoholic to avoid the person they fear and dislike the most - themselves.

One of the conditions for a satisfactory life is to be of use and to belong. Addicts/alcoholics need to find ways to cope with their tendency to isolate. Developing a safe, sober social network and participating in social activities are two ways to start. For many people, participation in a twelve-step program, a therapy group or individual counseling can be helpful. Joining a volunteer group, book club or a sports team are other ways to practice being social.

Solitude or aloneness, on the other hand, can be a rewarding experience that can help one to gain self knowledge and self acceptance. It can give an individual an opportunity to explore who they are and discover their positive qualities, gifts and talents.

Alcoholics/addicts need to learn how to experience solitude/aloneness without isolating. They need to spend time alone discovering their likes and dislikes. Solitude enables the alcoholic/addict to develop an appreciation of their strengths and their limitations. It is an opportunity to discover and accept their humanness and to not be afraid of who they are. Learning to spend time alone takes time and probably should be done in increments. A few minutes a day spent in meditation, listening to music, reading or just staring at the ocean or the stars are all ways to begin a journey of self discovery.

For the alcoholic/addict, isolation and the resulting loneliness is an undeserved, self imposed prison. Solitude/aloneness is an opportunity to be liberated from ourselves and to continue the journey to a sober mind.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Gratitude in Recovery Often Equals Guilt

Thanksgiving day got me thinking about gratitude lists. Often when we are feeling sorry for ourselves it can be helpful to inventory all the things we have to be grateful for. For the alcoholic/addict however, the more they have to be grateful for, the more guilty they feel. Often the belief that they are unworthy of all that is good keeps them from the Sober Mind they seek.

I once saw a sign in a drug rehab that said, "Guilt Kills". At the time I didn't understand what that meant. Today I know that guilt is dangerous for the alcoholic/addict to indulge in because for them, guilt feelings are not limited to the negative things they have done. Along with the feeling of worthlessness, they often believe they have no right to even the air they breath. The disease of addition/alcoholism distorts their thinking and makes it difficult to appreciate the gifts life has given them. This might lead them to drink or act out in some way.

Awareness and honesty are critical to putting our guilt feelings in perspective. Sometimes we agree to do things we don't want to do out of some real or perceived guilt. The result is resentment. It is important first to be aware of the distorted thinking and then not to minimize or exaggerate our past and/or present behaviors. One way to do that is make a guilt list and a review it honestly. Own the things you have done and find a way to make amends. Then make a gratitude list and appreciate all that is good about yourself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Carol Gotbaum's death could have been prevented

I know this entry is a diversion from my original theme of achieving a sober mind, but the issue I'd like to address is very important to raising awareness for both those of us who suffer from addiction, and those who do not.

After reading an online editorial in “The Arizona Republic” regarding Carol Gotbaum, the woman who died while in custody at the Phoenix airport, I was outraged. Since the news broke there has been a glut of negative reactions and comments about her and her family’s behavior, and it seems there are some trying to justify the actions of the airport police. They have raised issues such as why she was traveling alone if she was ill, and whether alcohol and/or drugs played a role in her death. The most recent article I read states police followed procedures and she died in spite of their efforts. The Arizona Republic editorial stated that police had saved a life the day before and the day after the Carol Gotbaum incident. The editorial did not supply the details of the two heroic rescues. Unfortunately in the case of Carol Gotbaum it resulted in her death.

What the editorial did not say was whether the procedure they followed in order to save those other two lives included taking them into custody and then leaving them alone, shackled in a cell, instead of calling for emergency medical assistance. I am confident that if they had, the rescued would have been three for three and Carol Gotbaum would still be alive.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on how this incident was mishandled, I wrote the following op ed which was published in the Long Island Newsday on 11/19/07: 'Sick' mom's death shows alcoholics' need for aid

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Building a relationship with ourselves

You may be asking yourself, how do I follow Rule #1: “DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR ME”?

The first step is to develop a relationship with yourself. You may think you know you, but do you really? Do you know what you really like, and don't like? Or do you usually go with what your parents, spouse, friends or children choose for you? One definition of co-dependence is a failure to have a relationship with oneself, and that's what happens when we place other people's needs before our own. For many alcoholic/addicts, or those who are affected by them, answering the question "who am I?" is scary. Not only will it mean they can no longer please others, but there's also the fear that deep down they're no good.

So we start slowly, day by day, tuning in to that little voice inside us that holds the key to our true nature. We practice being gentle with ourselves, forgiving our setbacks, and remembering that it's all about "progress, not perfection." The goal is to, over time, build a new relationship with ourselves and those around us that is non-judgmental, loving and patient. Honesty is critical; there are many things about us that are positive and some that are negative, and we must take stock of that regularly. It is very important that we accept our humanness, our "perfect imperfection" and our inability to control anything but ourselves. Most importantly we need to trust our right to be, to exist.

"...You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should." --Desiderata


In the coming weeks I will be posting my rules for mental sobriety, and some tips as to how to apply them in your life. I would be very interested in any questions or comments you care to make and I will try to respond if not individually, to the general theme.

Rule # 1: Do what is right for you.

The most important thing to remember is your needs are as important as everyone else’s. Putting yourself first is not selfish - it is absolutely necessary in order to be a loving, caring, productive human being. It is impossible for a person to care for or love anyone else if they don’t love and care for themselves. The quality of our relationships with others is directly related to the quality of our relationship with ourselves. No one can give what they haven’t got. In order to do what is right for you it is necessary to find out who you are and be able to identify your needs.

Rule # 2: Keep you head where your feet are.

When a crisis happens the first impulse is to try to control the situation, fix it or change it. In many cases the best thing to do is to realize that for that moment nothing has changed and there is no immediate need to change things. For example, if there's gossip at work about people being laid off at the end of the year, when we're surrounded by the possibility of this happening on a we'll experience anxiety and fear. The need to act is very intense, to do something to make those painful feelings go away. It's important to remember that for today nothing has changed, and there are tools that can help us manage our emotions. Making a phone call to a trusted person, writing about the feelings that we experience, or getting up and taking a short walk can all help us regain our composure. Allowing time to experience the feelings and not reacting to them makes it possible for us to step back from the impending crisis and formulate our own plan of action.

Rule # 3: Avoid anyone who does not make you feel good about yourself.

Personal boundaries are very important to mental sobriety. There are people in this world who may be very good and kind, but the chemistry between you and them may be tense and hostile. Many times they're the ones closest to us, the people that love us. It is possible in many instances to teach people how to treat us. In some cases it is necessary to be direct and tell them that their behavior is unacceptable. If we are unable to be direct sometimes we can deliver a message by just not engaging. When a person’s behavior makes us uncomfortable we can just remove ourselves. There are instances when it may be necessary to cut off contact completely, but that kind of drastic action should only be used as a last resort.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Welcome to A Sober Mind

This is the first entry for my blog and I’m not sure what it “should” look like but here goes...

Since I’ve titled it “A Sober Mind”, I thought it fitting to begin with some definition of what I believe is a sober mind, and how one can achieve and maintain it. Sobriety is often thought of as abstinence, or not being intoxicated. But a sober mind goes far beyond not drinking. A sober mind is one that strives for clarity, awareness and acceptance. It’s having a willingness to modify temperament and behavior so that we are respectful to ourselves and to those around us. A sober mind forgives its mistakes and celebrates its accomplishments. It combats negative thinking by making gratitude lists and giving service to others. Asking for help and practicing humility are also traits of a sober mind. A sober mind takes practice, and its’ about “progress not perfection.”

In this space I will share the things that I find important to living a sober life, both emotionally and physically. My goal is to help you find out who you are and what your needs are. To help you become your own best friend, someone you trust, who will keep you safe. My hope is that you will be able to use my thoughts and philosophy on your journey to... a sober mind.