I am pretty sure I have written about this before, but the display of racial hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia this past 24 hours bears repeating. We all try to raise happy kids, right? And kids that will be kind to other kids, blah blah blah…. I think it is important to remember that BIG things start out as LITTLE things, both good and bad. Liberals, Feminists, whatever you want to call them, often get labeled for calling out acts of hatred 24/7, for acting as self-proclaimed watchdogs of ugliness. In my mind, this is a perfectly acceptable tradeoff – social condemnation in exchange for those constant, nitpicking little nudges of the moral conscience. With my children, I think I strove to teach them they did not have to draw attention to themselves or do anything to bring any kind of condemnation or isolation upon themselves. Instead, I tried to show them quiet, powerful ways of refusing to allow others to normalize hate.
My kids did their fair share of bickering when they were young. I tried to tune it out in my head until it became meanspirited. As soon as the bickering took a turn towards hatefulness, I would step in and announce the “penance”: each one had to do something kind for the other before bedtime. That was it. I did not “follow up” or punish by making them regret losing a favorite toy or pastime. I merely tapped into their moral conscience so they would think about the other for a moment and perform an act of kindness out of human decency. The end.
In this way, I hoped my children would learn to stop and think about others long enough to consider what they could do to alleviate pain and suffering.
Mario was always the first one to enthusiastically embrace words of kindness, acts of forgiveness and deeds of pure goodwill. It was so heartwarming to watch, really! Isa was more contemplative and less demonstrative of her willingness to change, yet she always eventually offered kindness in perfect measure to whatever the situation demanded.
In today’s culture of absolute intolerance, fear and hatred are running amuck. It is very difficult to perceive something as a small act of kindness as an antidote to the enormity of negative forces in our world. Still, with one small little lesson in mind from childhood, I hope my children will continue to practice kindness in the face of evil, knowing that their small efforts contribute to the healing balm of hope this world so desperately needs.
Next week I will celebrate my 2nd consecutive year living in long-term recovery from alcohol use disorder. Notice my language. It is very specific for a reason: I believe that I will spend the rest of my life working to develop deeper understanding of my need to numb feelings and, hopefully, will be granted the Grace and inspiration to pursue ever-deeper practices for managing and maintaining a healthy, well-rounded life without relying on alcohol.
I am so proud of this achievement yet I know that I could “slip” at any time if I begin to neglect the positive practices that keep me humble and eager for continued sobriety. Just like a person who has changed jobs, my openness about my struggles is just one of many facts about my life – in other words, sobriety will never define me as a person. Yet, surprisingly, maybe because of tv shows like “celebrity rehab” or the heavy infiltration of 12-step type phrases in popular culture, it has been my experience that people automatically have their own sets of expectations of what your recovery should look and feel like.
It is impossible to convey to a person who does not have addiction controlling their life the excitement and liberation you feel once you decide to change, accept your limitations, and work everyday to seek newer and better ways to live “a normal life” without obsessing over wanting to numb. That’s why I write about it. But it makes people feel “awkward,” it seems. So I am supposed to confine and limit my experience to groups of other “users.” This does not make sense to me. You wouldn’t avoid talking to a person about their new “job,” so why would the topic of pursuing a life without addiction be any different? This is why maintaining sobriety can be difficult – it is more “polite” to ignore the addiction monster in casual conversation. This kind of sweeping under the rug behavior is bad for our children. They need to hear us talking about and showing them what a life built on zero reliance on alcohol looks and feels like. Just like we introduce our children to the concept of work by taking them to work with us, we should not be afraid to declare our commitment to sobriety to our friends, family and community.
The reality is that the younger a person is when they first experience alcohol, the more likely it will cause an addiction problem later in life. We don’t perpetuate self-sabotaging cycles in other health-related concerns (for instance, heart disease), so why are we reluctant to openly discuss and support addiction and sobriety?
I have a suspicion it is because many of us believe one of two things: that we are already slipping into bad habits of relying on alcohol to “numb” difficult emotional situations or we mistakenly believe we are immune to addiction. Those are highly dangerous beliefs. I think another reason people don’t want to talk about their feelings related to numbing and alcohol is because there is a widespread misunderstanding of what a sober life looks and feels like. I will definitely admit (if you have not already ascertained this fact!) that I am a much more sensitive person sober than drinking. I have to work hard to process my thoughts, feelings and responses to everyone and everything around me to avoid falling into old patterns of numbing. But that doesn’t mean my life is no longer fun or that I will not tolerate others’ drinking around me (everybody has their own barometer of tolerance about this, so it is always thoughtful to ask).
Over the weekend, I felt so many “feels” as we celebrated our first-born child’s Graduation from High School. At once sentimental and fearful, the onslaught of well-wishing from people in your life you may still be reconciling with, the entire weekend was challenging and tiring for me to navigate. And the past two nights, my poorly trained brain with only 2 years of sober thinking under its belt, even began telling me “You should go ahead and enjoy a drink or 2 or 10. You don’t really have a problem.” This is proof to me that I will spend every waking moment for the rest of my life “managing” this enormous force that lives inside of me that wants to numb everything.
Finally, some thoughts about people in Recovery that might help others better understand this journey:
Sober people are fun people;
Getting sober means the party is just beginning, not ending.
Sober People do not intend to make you feel uncomfortable ;
Sober People would rather you throw out all your old ideas about Recovery and learn by engaging with them rather than avoiding the topic altogether;
Just like becoming confident about one’s performance in a new job, living comfortably in your own skin as a sober person takes time, and you should not have any unrealistic expectations about what this should look like – every sober person is unique.
It has been an honor and a pleasure sharing the past 24 months with Readers. I have received so much love, grace and appreciation from the many people who want to understand addiction. This propels me forward, especially after my 99th cup of coffee during absolutely perfect cold Heineken or margarita weather!
As a youngster, I became enthralled with collecting rocks. Someone started talking about arrowheads and geodes at 4-H and the search for these magical stones became an obsession. The very idea that these physical objects contained hundreds or thousands of years of secrets and usefulness in others’ hands was thrilling. I don’t think I ever found either type of rock but the searching, collecting, exploring and handling of all the other rocks I found gave me hours of great joy and my parents some well-deserved quiet.
One Christmas, my Grandmother gave me a rock polishing kit. I could take the rough, raw, basic rocks and immerse them in a capsule with a cleaning solution and after alot of time rolling around, they would come out sparkling, fresh and soft to the touch. It was okay but I much preferred the paper grocery bag full of dusty, mossy, grassy rocks I had been gathering. They were so much more interesting.
It wasn’t until about 5 years later, when adolescence hit and our family moved from our small town to the city that I realized people were like the polished stones. Life was just one big plate of perfectly shining rocks and it was frustrating to me that I would have to work at seeing everything back in its original, perfect state – raw, bumpy, earthy, rugged rocks.
Fortunately, the disillusionment did not last. I realized I could make my life a grand rock collecting adventure and that some of the shiny stones were fun to have around.
On my fortieth birthday, my five-year-old son spent the entire afternoon in our yard searching for “heart-shaped rocks” which he proudly delivered from filthy, chubby hands with this speech, “You gotta get old sometime, Mom!”. I kept them above my sink until a few of them fell into the garbage disposal and ground it to a halt. I was thrilled he understood natural beauty in the rocks and his aging Momma, and this reassured me his character was set.
It is now eleven years past my fortieth birthday. I still have a few of those heart-shaped rocks curated especially for me. They serve as gentle reminders of my purpose in life and the kind of person I want to be and others I choose to spend time with:
Kind – If I had to pick one single trait over everything, of course it would be kindness. Time and time again, practicing kindhearted gentleness brings greater joy and openness. Judgement divides and narrows everything immediately: hearts, feelings, opportunities, experiences and most of all, love.
Patient – Yes, patience is a practice that does not come easily when we are young. At 51, I am a pretty patient person, and I am getting better at ignoring the “productivity culture”. If all you accomplish in one single day is reassuring people of your love and confidence in them, that is enough for me. I have a hard time being with “productive people” for long – they are boring.
Resourceful – You can have the IQ of a genius but still not be able to figure out how to manage simple challenges. More specifically, I am more excited about finding simple ways to handle life that reap positive benefits for the broader world than explaining why that might be a waste of time. To me, being resourceful is an inclusive approach to living and just being smart can be so selfish.
Creative – There is a time and place to be linear and logical (e.g., when applying for FAFSA support for your college-bound senior!) and the rest of life should be interesting and fun. I am not concerned anymore about “making sense” to others, I just need to validate creative energy by using it, damn the judgers! Creative people spend more time enjoying taking risks than calculating failures. That’s why I like them.
Simple – I would rather spend the day with a Humanitarian focused on addressing fundamental needs than talking to the most educated, well-traveled person. I am so happy that my journey has opened my eyes to this basic truth and fortunate to have daily opportunities to practice simplicity. As I am learning, simplicity encompasses more than just getting rid of physical and mental clutter – it is a spiritual practice that helps one focus on being fully present in the now. When all you have is now, you tend to appreciate it and make better choices.
So back to the rocks and their wisdom: I love holding a rock and thinking about where it has been, for how long, what it is made of, the stories it “knows.” It is like holding the Universe and all its mysteries inside your palm and exchanging energy. To me, the unpolished rocks embody all the basic truths about living a good life. They inspire me to live and put my best (but simplest) self forward. I like rocks, yes I do.
“Rocks and minerals: the oldest storytellers.” A.D. Posey
Self-proclaimed “shame researcher” Brene Brown first entered my awareness a few years ago when I was listening to her interviewed on National Public Radio. I was exhilarated to learn there was an actual person researching the phenomenon of shame and extrapolating from those findings practical, hopeful, actionable insights for people desiring to live “in the truth” of who they are. In other words, she appeared in my life at exactly the right time, a period of intense change and transition during which I began asking myself, “How can I live more fully, less materialistically, and enjoy the fruits of just being ME in this crazy world?”.
Having been raised Catholic during the 70’s, the word shame resonated BIG TIME. I was shrouded in shame from an early age. It was the easiest means of eliciting good behavior, I suppose. But damaging to the core once a person learns how to think for herself. I don’t blame anybody for accessing this useful behavior modification technique, but I have been determined to dedicate my adult life to banishing every shred of shame from my path and seeking out ways for understanding the way people think and act, instead.
What does this random thought mean on a Wednesday morning in February, friends? I mention it because I have discovered that Brene Brown, her research and writing, her TedTalks and mere co-existence with me during my time on this Earth, has opened up for me a very optimistic, hopeful and enthusiastic approach to moving forward in life. We live the first part of our lives following the rules and “setting up shop,” so to speak, so we can “have” things like a good job, a nice family, a safe home and other standards of living well. But Brene Brown reminds us to be brave, open-hearted and courageous enough to look withinourselves for the ultimate source of “living well.” Like shame, external forces and identifiers of “success” can pull us off course from the destiny our uniqueness can attain. Brene Brown helps me come closer to finding that “true self” every time I read something she has written and commit to practicing authenticity, allowing my true self to be seen.
I am inspired this morning by the opening quote from the chapter “Cultivating Authenticity” in Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want.
Today, I am just grateful to have access to Brene Brown’s wisdom during this time of my life, and I hope you will seek her work out, too. Joyfully and Authentically yours, Joan