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.