Trust is work

My husband’s willingness to trust me with his color choices seems like a silly, small matter. But his struggle was real and I often think about how hard it was for him to admit this one true thing about himself - he mixes up black and blue. How hard should that be? It isn’t like he was copping to being a serial killer! If I think a bit longer, I realize that I too have trouble with small truths.

Is it any wonder that, if we struggle with realistically assessing ourselves in areas where the results really are no big deal, we will struggle in the arena of trusting God with our WILL and our LIFE? For decades I did not have much hope that I would ever understand God enough to trust him. My vision of who God is was impaired. One day I came across these verses:

So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course. Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

~ James 1:16-18, The Message

I had a moment of receiving “light cascading down” as a series of new thoughts. (I did not realize at the time that this was my experience; it is only in hindsight that I understand that this is what happened to me.) Here is a list of what eventually became a new way of seeing for me. (Kind of like having my own spiritual form of color blindness taken from me.)

* I am off course; how much more off course can I get? I’m dying from my disease.

* What if I am off course in part because I have been wrong and blinded by my own faulty way of seeing and understanding the world?

* What if the book of James is right, and I am wrong?

* What do I have to lose?

* What if I choose to believe in this God who is not deceitful, not two-faced, not fickle?

* What if God really believes that we humans are the crown of all his creatures?

* What if God believes in me?

In the AA Big Book, and in meeting rooms, there are talks about having a moment of clarity. This was one of mine. In some ways it felt like I had been in a dark, airless, windowless room for a long, long time and someone had swept in, turned on a light, thrown back the curtains and opened the windows. Fresh air blew in and cleared away the stench of stagnation. I do not believe I could have “done this” on my own. I believe that God was doing for me what I absolutely could not do for myself - giving me, a blind beggar, sight. How about you? Is it time for a good Spring cleaning of old ways?


Resentment.  The dictionary definition basically sums up the experience of resentment as  a perceived mistreatment or unfair situation that results in bitter indignation.  I think of it more as a slow burn of ill-will towards another - often without much conscious thought about why I have this feeling.

The capacity to resent people and circumstances does NOT show up on any resiliency skill list.  Mutual Aid societies like AA have been clear about the toxicity of resentment for decades.  According to their literature, someone who has a substance use disorder cannot bear up under the weight of resentment without falling prey to relapse.

Other recovery writings have talked at length about resentment and its ties to expectations.  Expectations, particularly ones we have for others, provide fertile soil for growing resentments.  It’s an over-statement to say that we should have NO expectations for others but it is important to pay attention to times when we have unrealistic expectations of others that cause us and them harm.  

Think about this:  our resentment can be more harmful than the unfairness of the situation we obsess over.  How has your resentment hurt you? Others?

Overall, resentment is not particularly healthy if we do not treat it appropriately and swiftly.  What exactly does that mean?  Tomorrow we will talk about that!  In the meantime, consider your own experience with resentment.

Are you struggling with feeling like you have been treated unfairly?
Can you identify your bitter indignation over this belief?
Does it feel an awful lot like resentment?

Tomorrow we will chat about it

How hard is too hard?

For years I resisted the idea of adding a Saturday night large group experience to our NSC calendar.  It felt TOO HARD for me to think about speaking both times. It seemed to me that my weekend would be totally taken over by the relentless consistency of attending Saturday night and Sunday morning meetings.  But there were compelling reasons to do so and I believed that I could, even wanted to, do hard things for the cause that NSC fights to support. It was an adjustment. Sometimes it is hard. But it is so worth it.  In the summer, with vacations and all, our attendance fluctuates wildly and sometimes our team is tempted to go to one service. But we look around and realize that if we did that someone would be left out. And we notice that some people come every single stinking week and that means that they are doing a hard thing.  WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.


After we wrap our mind around and accept the belief that when the purpose matters even if the action is hard, we do it anyway, an interesting thing happens.  Suddenly, what I feared would be hard doesn’t feel hard at all. AA talks about this effect in its 12 promises. In that document, AAers are promised things like:  amazement in the process, new freedom, new happiness, no regrets, serenity and peace, loss of self-pity, self-seeking and selfishness, fear and insecurity will slip away.  All these beautiful gifts are the by-product of doing the next right thing, day after day after day. It isn’t so much a big grand gesture as it is having the grit to stay present to the work in a relentlessly consistent manner.


Resilient people learn how to get clear about the definition of HARD. You know what is really hard?  Losing your kid to an overdose. Being homeless. Finding out your spouse has been cheating on you. Discovering that your best friend embezzled from your business and you are going to lose everything. Jail time.  DUI’s. Divorce. That stuff is hard.


People going through extremely hard times deserve to have a place to come to for solace.  Ultimately, what I learned is that having two meetings every weekend is more about privilege and purpose and meaning than it is about convenience.  


What conveniences are you holding onto that are actually holding your back?

Re-establishing a sense of purpose

Complaining is a way we discharge our anxiety - and I am really, really good at it.  But it is NOT a key component for building a decent life. One common complaint I hear comes from parents who report to me about how often their children complain about their NA or AA meetings.  I understand that there is plenty to complain about in almost every area of recovery work. But much of it misses the point.


Where else can someone go who has totally wrecked their life and find a whole room full of people who have wrecked their lives in pretty much the exact same way?  Where else are substance use disorder sufferers provided an opportunity to serve? Make coffee. Throw a dollar in a basket. Participate in a meeting. Go on a twelve step call.  Go out to eat afterwards with a group of fellow attendees. Give someone a ride. Ask for a ride and be given one without feeling like a burden? Be able to tell the truth about your life and have everyone nod in understanding and agreement?


Mutual aid societies and other organizations can serve as venues for helping others find purpose and meaning in their lives.  People who believe they have purpose and meaning in their daily living turn out to be amazingly resilient. This resiliency allows people to experience trauma without being wrecked by it.


Many people who struggle with stress-related diseases, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder and more...are folks who have experienced trauma!  In fact, we all experience trauma to one degree or another, don’t we?


Why is it that some of us can be traumatized and recover, even find meaning in it and eventually thrive after it while others cannot?  It is not the degree of the trauma, or even the frequency that determines our reaction. It is all about the resiliency.


Want to help people learn how to do hard things?  Support the tribes and causes that allow others to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  Even when it is hard.

New things can be "good" without being "better"

People like shiny new things.  I know that I do! I get tired of sofas, slacks and even cars.  I enjoy throwing out the old in anticipation of something new. I wonder if folks are tempted to feel this way about the 12 steps.  12 step meetings show up in Disney movies for goodness sake! Doesn’t that say something about our cultural awareness of AA and the other mutual aid groups?


Sometimes I worry that we have gotten so accustomed to the concept of the 12 steps that we perhaps have not fully evaluated - or taken advantage of - or appreciated - the gift of actually working them.  And they are in every sense of the word meant to be worked!


I had a friend tell me one time that he just got tired of being associated with “the program.”  He lamented, “How many times do I need to go over these damn steps?” I totally understand his perspective.  And to be fair, I know folks who got sober at AA, eventually stopped attending AA and as far as I know are still sober.  (However research indicates that going to AA for 14 years, averaging 3 meetings a week is a best practice.)


The other factor is access and availability.  These mutual aid societies are so accessible, have free access and offer tons of meetings per week.  Is it easy to take them for granted? I dunno. Maybe.


New research related to the association of trauma and the addictive process is challenging all of us to take a good hard look at how we can offer resilience training to those who suffer from substance use disorder.  And I’ve heard people say - “If it’s all about the trauma, what good is AA?” To that I would suggest we actually investigate that excellent question rather than assume that the answer is “Nothing!” Let me issue my own personal spoiler alert and say this - I think that to the extent that mutual aid societies have been a helpful tool in recovery, in part it is because, hidden within the archaic language and repetitive structure, we discover some of the key elements that support and build resilience (antidote to trauma) in those who work the steps!


My thought is that these “new things” (alternative approaches to recovery) are super important AND we should take care and avoid taking a dismissive tone as it relates to AA and other groups.  I am convinced that AA, NA and the rest have some old and hard earned wisdom about recovery that fits nicely with our new-fangled ideas about trauma and resilience. If you are willing, I’d like to explore these concepts for a few days AND challenge us to consider how we might take these findings and use them to guide us in our own recovery journey.  With or without the 12 steps, building resilience is a recovery essential!


How are you doing in the area of trauma, healing and resiliency?

The Good Ole Days

Getting old has its advantages if you look hard enough. One of those advantages is the beautiful gift of experience.  Back in the old days when dinosaurs roamed the earth – you know, the 90’s….our local community had only a few options for treating substance use disorder.  


We suggested that everyone access and use the appropriate mutual aid society like AA, NA, etc. as their recovery resource.  As in all things there were exceptions. Some people were able to afford to kick start their recovery by going into an in-house treatment program.  There were outpatient programs as well. Whatever route a person chose, it ALWAYS led to AA or NA or the like. (Hence the oft heard phrase for folks coming out of treatment, “90 in 90”.)


Today we recognize that there are many pathways to recovery and I am all for this approach!  We are not making the progress we need in the area of treatment for substance use disorder - of course we need to keep trying new things!


But I have a deep and abiding respect for the 12 steps and those who work them. I have a hunch that, as time passes, research in the field of addiction and recovery will find ways to articulate why mutual aid societies have worked for many people trying to get sober and recover their lives.


For the next few days I’m going to talk about my opinions on the subject.  But first, I have to issue a strong warning and a few advisories!


Stay tuned!

One Day at a Time

One famous phrase that sprung out of AA is “one day at at time”; this is incredibly hard advice to accept.  When my friend got outed for her adulterous ways, she wanted to hurry up and get on with it.  



She grew impatient with her husband’s “unwillingness to forgive and forget since he’s a Christian” - her words exactly.  I was more amazed that he stayed quiet and didn’t retort, “Well, I’m a little surprised that you, being a Christian and all, forgot to not cheat on me with every Tom, Dick and Harry within the city and four surrounding counties.”  


Transformation is no small thing and it is more like a marathon than a sprint.  This is no excuse for complacency, but there needs to be room for rest (as opposed to relapse) as we work.  


My friend had the nerve to suggest that maybe I wasn’t trusting her enough to suggest more “assignments” so that she could move forward in her recovery a rate that was more fitting to her drive to succeed.  But I heard all this as true signs that her journey back to wellness had barely begun.


Rest.  Figure out how to do so.  It’s important.


Here are a few suggestions:  workout but not like a maniac, take walks without worrying about if you get in 10,000 steps, draw, color in a coloring book, read fiction, clean out your garage, mow your lawn, keep a puzzle going, if it’s winter build a fire in the fireplace and enjoy it, use good mugs for your coffee,  go to the movies….what else?  See - this recovery work isn’t all work and no play!!


Emotional Sobriety

There is a temptation, I suspect, in any work of self-reflection, to get to a moment when we believe we must overcome our inclination and push forward.  I think of this as courage, and certainly it is a necessary tool for transformation.



But we can mess this up terribly when we push aside our feelings simply because we are afraid they will lead us astray.  Our feelings count.  They aren’t the ONLY thing we count, but to repress them, suppress them or try to deny them is futile work and we can end up sick as a result.


Where do feelings come into play in our work?  We start with recognizing and owning them.  This allows us to start the journey of handling our feelings in ways that are healthy and appropriate.  


In my family of origin, anxious people expressed anxiety and fear as anger.  This was the norm.  I was a grown up with children of my own before I was able to recognize that what I had called rage and anger and frustration all my life were thin veils for a ton of anxiety and fear.  


Much of our work, if we want to grow and change, will require us to come to grips with our own unawareness of our true feelings, learn how to develop healthy and appropriate emotions, and deal responsibly with those that are destructive in ourselves or others.


I hear people in meetings talk about emotional sobriety.  This is no small thing.  


How have your own emotions hindered your relationships?  Have others ever given you feedback about yourself that startled you as it relates to your emotional expressiveness?


Dealing with our emotions may require a supportive team.  Perhaps finding one will be part of many of our “to do” lists as well….


Living independently of God

I’m not a big fan of the word “sin” - maybe it is my weak spiritual stomach or perhaps it is because I have seen so many instances when someone is willing to use the word as a weapon but utterly incapable of applying it personally.  Somewhere along the line I was encouraged to think of sin as “living independently of God” and this simple way of seeing has helped me stomach the “s” word.  One of the things I love about this definition is that it frees us from unhealthy arguments over things Christian people have argued about - quite unattractively - for centuries.  Pair that with the work of the 12 steps, which is all about focusing on our side of the street and “doing” things in response to what we find clogging up our gutters and we have a combination that I think really helps us make progress in terms of meaningful change.  



This doesn’t make sin irrelevant.  This too is reflective in mutual aid societies like AA, where we learn that our “ism” may be a disease but that doesn’t let us off the hook.  Disease is not an excuse, merely part of the story.


A part of any transformational story requires us to think about sin.  I thought I’d list some words that pop up in conversations about living independently of God - infidelity in all its forms, arrogance, pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, laziness, selfishness, disrespect towards self and others, hate, stealing, cheating, and perhaps overarching all of this suffering - failure to live, truly live, our one precious, wild life (paraphrasing Mary Oliver).  


I go to all sorts of lengths to NOT deal with my ways of living independently of God in thought, word and deed.  It shows up in defensiveness, justifications, blaming others, and more.  One way I avoid seeing “sin” is by dodging my own emotions.  So if you’re digging around in the foundation of your soul, maybe you could set aside time to consider how you do - or do not - handle your own emotions.  I tend to set mine aside, but I have friends who go the opposite direction with almost identical results.  They marinate in their emotions, and some tell me that it has been helpful to them to realize that just because they feel something intensely, it doesn’t mean that the intense feeling is the only data point in choosing what comes next.  Things to look for?  Self-pity, anger, negativity, resentment, depression, controlling behaviors.  


Also, look for fear.  In our community we often refer to that as operating by the law of scarcity.  What we mean by that is living independently of the core beliefs that include:  God wants to bless us, there is enough to go around.  In AA they say “self-centered fear of not getting what we want or of losing what we have.”  


All these possibilities are tricky to recognize in ourselves, which is why we suggest that transformation is a journey not a destination.  This work will be something we commit to even as we eventually realize that how we do the work my shift and morph over time.  What might be part of your transformational work?  Who or what do you need to help you make progress?


It gets worse before it gets better

When I was a young girl visiting my grandmother, my friends took me to the local pool.  While there I managed to step on a big shard to glass.  Once I got back to my grandmother’s, she was unwilling to look at it seeing as how she had a weak stomach.  I knew that glass needed to come out, but being her granddaughter, I too suffer from that same weak stomach.  No way was I able to pull it out.  So I hobbled next door to my friend with tweezers in hand and her mom went to work on my foot.



“Teresa, this is going to hurt worse before I can make it better,”  Dot explained.  I nodded.  What else could I do?  I was a girl out of options.  So she dug it out, cleaned the wound, bandaged me up and I eventually headed back to my grandmother’s weak-kneed but grateful.


I need to say something terribly difficult so let’s all take a deep breath for a moment.  Here’s the hard truth:  we are a people who have not bothered to acquire the skill sets necessary to pull shards of glass out of bleeding people AND we have lost the stomach for the work in the process.


This is a terrible thing.  Because it leaves us with few good options when those days arrive when it is essential for someone to help us see the deeply wounded parts of us that need to be dug out and disinfected to avoid infection.


In the AA literature “The Twelve and Twelve” someone with a stomach for telling hard truths wrote “that most of the alcoholics under investigation were still childish, emotionally sensitive, and grandiose.”  Ouch.  And let me hasten to add that this malady is certainly NOT limited to folks with a substance use disorder.  This is true for all of us some of the time.


How do you think your own childishness, emotional sensitivity and grandiose thinking has hindered your own ability to live the life of your dreams?


People Change

I have a friend who could not stop cheating on her husband.  She often asked me how God could do this to her.  I’ve stopped trying to respond to the question having come to understand that it is both rhetorical and a way to sidestep her own personal responsibility in the mess that is her life.  One day we went to lunch and over dessert she suggested that people don’t change.  I was forced to make a reply.  I couldn’t just let that one stand.


One benefit of being part of a community is the stories I hear.  For years and years, meeting most every single week usually multiple times with said community in various forms gives all of us a fairly honest perspective on our daily lives.  These stories are rich and nuanced and lived out often over decades, not days.  When someone speaks of a changed life it is hard to be a BS’er because if that person is part of our tribe, we see their life unfold in our midst.  Everyone knows I don’t have it all together and I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who are honest enough to admit the same of themselves. But that is not equivalent to saying people don’t change.  People do change.  Sometimes in huge ways, other times in small, uneven next right steps.  There are people who were lost and gone astray from their own core values and who found their way back to themselves and a purposeful, meaningful life.  I felt I needed to share that information with my friend or else I might be complicit in leaving her feeling that she had to accept a duplicitous and self-shaming lifestyle.  I shared a couple of examples from the lives of people in our community that indicated that change is possible; she ate her dessert, sighed and indicated to me that I just didn’t understand.  And she’s right.  I don’t know why or how or who might experience freedom from their compulsions and confusing choices that lead to heartache.  But my confusion doesn’t keep it from happening.


Quoting Sister Monahan again, she says  “…sober AA members who have been able to stop drinking and to ‘stay stopped,’ as we say, often speak of themselves as ‘chosen,’ of having received sobriety as a gift.  I believe that I have indeed received a gift, but my conviction that God loves everyone and desires good for everyone keeps me from thinking of myself as chosen.  I simply do not know why I am among those who are fortunate enough to be in recovery.”  According to Brene Brown, there are actually skill sets that can help us grow, change, even transform.  She likes to call it wholehearted living.  



Tomorrow, I’ll unpack her concept, but for today I invite you to consider this:  do you think you are living wholeheartedly or are you just dialing it in?  Are you stuck in a giant “sigh” of defeat?  Change requires that we start by acknowledging the truth about ourselves.  Today, consider if you are satisfied with your life. Why?  Why not?   What’s unmanageable? What would change if you realized that things could get better?


Stuck in a rut

Most of us want to have a life that has less conflict and more congeniality.  And yet, we often find ourselves stuck in ruts of existence in spite of our desires to live a more fulfilling life.  Day three of a new year, a typical time for us to set resolutions for change or feel the malaise of defeat – giving up on even daring to expect change after years of collapsed good intentions and no meaningful transformation.  This is our norm.


If you are tired of being sick and tired and want to take a step toward a more fulfilling life, listen in to Sister Monahan’s experience in AA – notice what changed for her that allowed her to tackle her demons and recover her life:


I learned that the absence of cross-talk [no advice giving, critiquing or

commenting on other people’s sharing] both protected me from overt criticism and

gave me no cause for wasting time in an imagined rebuttal to what others said.  So the challenge put to me by their honest disclosure, not only about their drinking and how the program worked for them, but about themselves, warts and all, was an interior one.  My only task was to figure out what I really felt and thought and then to say it as clearly as I could.  No small task that, and more helpful to me than any amount of criticism. And I learned that meetings calmed me, brought me peace….As best I can figure out now, these beneficent results come from listening.


Here are some suggestions that I take away from her experience:

1.     95% of the time in a meeting one is listening.

2.     Silence and attentiveness are healing.

3.     Finding a community that can hold suffering is like a giant hug for the soul.

4.     Criticism rarely helps heal.


What great intentions have you promised you will accomplish this new year?  Are you already discouraged by the choices you’ve made these first few days?  Perhaps you didn’t start this devotional blog at the beginning of a new year even though I’m writing it along that timeline.  Can you still relate?  What precipitates fresh starts for you?  If not a new year, what?  Do you find yourself stuck in spite of your goals?  What suggestions from above might be applicable to you?  How will you take action in light of these considerations?


Spiritual Dis-ease

“I knew there was something about you that I liked.”


This sentence saved Sister Molly Monahan from an overwhelming shame attack early in her recovery from alcohol addiction.  Sister Monahan, fresh out of rehab, was serving as a consultant and visiting a college campus in Virginia.  One evening she slipped away from her duties to attend an AA meeting and discovered to her utter dismay that a law professor she had met earlier in the day was also in attendance.  His warm acceptance eased her shame.


As I read her account in her lovely book “Seeds of Grace, A Nun’s Reflections on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous”, I got the sense that it didn’t immediately occur to her that both she and her new professional acquaintance were attending a meeting for the same reason:  to stay sober.  Years later she pens these words about her experiences in AA:


And there it is, the deeper truth – that we need to help others in order to be

helped ourselves, and not just with the disease of alcoholism.  I can only

think that this reciprocity must be a God-given part of our nature, our true

nature, but obscured for us by the illusion of isolation and of independence and by a misguided selfishness. (Meetings: “My Name is Molly and I’m an Alcoholic”, Seeds of Grace)


Sister Monahan found in AA what so many others have – belonging and purpose.  Her personal accounts of isolation in the midst of her affliction leave both herself and others wondering – how is it that a nun felt so spiritually and relationally disconnected?  In her first essay, quoted in part above I believe she gets to the heart of the matter when she talks about what she heard in AA.


…I heard the truth of my own feelings, faults, and sneaky motivations played

back for me with uncommon honesty.  And I began to know that I was not

alone, and that I was not unique.  That is what the suggestion “Identify,

don’t compare,” often given at the beginning of meetings, means.


She hits on several key points that I want to develop in the coming days of devotional readings:

1.     She heard truth.

2.     She found a place to belong with full authenticity.

3.     She discovered she was neither terminally unique or alone.