Made a decision…

Everyday we make hundreds of decisions – choices. In fact, according to various sources on the internet we make an average of 35,000 decisions EVERY Day; over 276 involve food. Not all require a grand analysis. Many are routine like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. These simple choices have become so automatic they require little, if any thought, for most. Others, like deciding which is the fastest way to get to work, or where you would like to take your next vacation, require some analysis, planning, and weighing of pros and cons.

When it comes to recovery, the road map for many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts is laid out in the first 164 pages of the AA big book. There are 12 steps to follow.

Like many important decisions it wise to seek counsel and/or feed back from someone with experience regarding the choices and actions that need to be made. In AA that counselor is called a sponsor. A sponsor in AA is someone to  guide your through the 12- step program of recovery. Yet even with resources and support at our side, many stubbornly declare, “I can do it on my own.” My response is, yeah you could, we have have the freedom of choice, but the odds are slim to nil that you will stay sober if you don’t seek help, not only from a sponsor, but also from a higher power.

As it says in the preamble of the Big book, Chapter 5 “How it Works”:

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of be­ing honest with themselves…”
In recovery, being honest can be the difference between life or death. Can I be blunt? If you want to get sober, follow and work the steps,preferably with a sponsor. Don’t bullshit yourself thinking you can do it alone. Half measures  will avail you nothing.

In my previous two blogs of this series, I discussed steps one and two:

1-Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.

2-Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Now, I address step three:

3-Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

What does this mean “a God of my understanding?” It means a power greater than yourself. Something that is not a derivative of your self will.

Why not be more specific? Because the founders of AA wanted to be as all encompassing as they possibly could with respect to varied religious and spiritual leanings. One thing they found to be true was that lasting sobriety required reliance upon a “power grater than ourselves.” In the Big Book they devoted several chapters to  a deeper explanation of this topic.

How does one do this in AA? That is, how do you make a decision to turn your will and life over to something can’t see? That is a fair question and one I struggled with in early recovery.

In my memoir, Beyond Recovery: A Journey of Grace , Love and Forgiveness
I talk about the fear I had at my first meeting. During the reading of the steps I heard the word God and it scared me. I didn’t really have any frame of reference or reason to fear it, yet my own conception of what I thought it meant was enough to scare me away and back to the bottle.

Eventually I found my way home, back to the rooms that eventually became an integral part of saving my life.

It’s funny but it’s also sad how much we fear things we really don’t fully understand. In the early days of recovery there was an old-timer named Maxine who used to say for the benefit of the newcomers in the room, “If the word God frightens you, a bottle of booze will frighten you right back.” In the first 120 days of recovery those words saved me on more than one occasion.

Even though I was doing everything that was suggested: I went to ninety meetings in ninety days (as an over achiever full of fear, I actually went to 180.), I had a sponsor, I read the Big Book, had commitments at meetings and, most importantly, I was not drinking between meetings, even though I still thought about alcohol all the time. i heard others in meetings tell how they were sober; how the obsession  was lifted from them. I was impatient. I wanted to be free from that demon so bad. I longed for the  obsession to be removed from me. There were occasions where I lay on my back at night shouting in my head, sometimes out loud to take it away. I was still operating under self will. My knuckles were white from hanging on so tightly.

Finally the day came when I was ready to do my third step with my sponsor.

The weight of all that I thought I had drank over for so many years; my dad leaving and the multitude of anger and resentment, which I would later discover was just another form of self-centered fear, was weighing me down so heavily I worried if I would make it.

It was a sunny day and my sponsor had suggested we meet on the dusty hillside behind Mt. Carmel church in Mill Valley. I had done the first two steps to the best of my ability but was not confident that I would experience any grand miracle by just becoming willing to believe in this so-called “higher power.” But, honestly, I had no other choice.

Earlier we had read how it works and page 60 of “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Now in the bright sun my sponsor and I walked along the small path behind the church. He told me what we were going to do,”See this garbage can?”  He asked, lifting the lid to the steel can.

I nodded.

“I want you to take all that anger, fear, hurt and resentment you’ve been carrying around like a sack of rocks, and imagine yourself dumping it into this can. Then we’re going to get on our knees, hold hands, and say the third step prayer out loud. Afterward the compulsion to drink will be lifted from you.” He offered with compassionate certitude.

Despite being briefly distracted with worry over what passers by may say or think if they spied two men kneeling  in the dirt holding hands under the summer sun, I did as he suggested. My sobriety was more important. We said this prayer:

The Third Step Prayer
from page 63 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
God, I offer myself to Thee-
To build with me
and to do with me as Thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self,
that I may better do Thy will.
Take away my difficulties,
that victory over them may bear witness
to those I would help of Thy Power,
Thy Love, and Thy Way of life.
May I do Thy will always!
Amen
I spoke the words and let go.
As we stood  I felt a peace wash over me. I had “dropped the rock.”
I felt protected, even if I didn’t fully understand what had just happened.
Being willing to let go was the cornerstone upon which I was able to continue along the path of recovery. That is not to say that the thought to drink was completely removed. That day though, I was given a reprieve from the mental obsession over alcohol.
It stuck. I have gone back to that hillside in my mind many times throughout my life. It symbolizes a safe place of letting go.
The next step would require more than just willingness, it would require deep introspection, faith, courage and work.
I was now at step four, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Stay tuned for step four.

Came to believe…

When I staggered into my first AA meeting in July of 1986 I didn’t know what exactly to expect. I had a few friends who’d managed to stay sober but knew nothing about what it took. Like many before and after me, I heard the word God in the reading of the steps  at that first meeting and immediately bristled. Why? I don’t know. I was not brought up with any religious background and really had no reason to be afraid of the word God, but, nonetheless, it bothered me. In fact it bugged me so much that I went back out and tried to control my drinking on my own for another three months after that initial meeting.

On sheer will power, I managed to string together a few days of sobriety but, inevitably I started up again. I quickly realized that my own will power was not enough for me to stay stopped. I had to find a power greater than myself. I found that in the second step of AA:

Step 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The founders of AA understood the varied dynamic of people’s spiritual, religious, agnostic, and even atheistic leanings and address it in great length in the basic text of 12 step recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, aka the “Big Book.”

In fact, they discovered that those who managed to stop and stay stopped had a common thread-spirituality. This was baffling to many in the medical community at the time.

As I mentioned in my  previous post, I had no problem with the first step when I finally had been beaten. I knew I was powerless over alcohol and that my life was unmanageable.

But, when it came time to work the second step, I struggled.  Even after reading “More about alcoholism” and “We agnostics” in the AA “Big Book,” I didn’t know if I could “get it” and worried I would drink again. These chapters address very real concerns for those struggling with a concept of a higher power. My sponsor at the time said that I didn’t have to fully explain it or even understand it. Rather, he asked me to address this short question from page 47:

“Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?”

When I was willing to believe, my life began to change.

At first my higher power was a doorknob-something to focus on besides the floor, when I sat in a meeting.

After a month or two, I began to feel better on the inside. The mental obsession to drink began to wane. Soon my eyes lifted up from my shoes or the doorknob and I began to witness the “lights go on” in other newcomers who came in after me. I saw them smile. I listened to their stories and those of others and identified with what they were going through. In the meetings, many AA’s talked about a “Higher Power” or spirituality as the key to their sobriety. I listened and began to believe that this “Higher Power” would work for me too.

As a reminder to the steady stream of newcomers in meetings, one old-timer used to say,”If the word God frightens you, a bottle of booze will scare you right back.” His statement always got a chuckle, but it was true. It took me awhile, and the word God scared me away at first, but I had nowhere else to go. I was willing to do whatever it took to stay sober, even if that meant developing a better understanding of the spiritual experience necessary to stay sober in AA.

Today, I honor my faith daily. I nurture it and maintain constant contact with my higher power whom I call God. It has become a regular part of who I am.

The benefits are clear:

Not only has the obsession to drink been removed, but when I maintain and grow my connection with God, my days are good. When I don’t intentionally practice a spiritual way of life, I drift along in self-will. I quickly become selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking and my days turn to shit in a heartbeat.

Getting sober is not an easy task. It takes work. You may think that after thirty years of sobriety it is automatic for me to be nice and “spiritual”. Hardly. I have days where I am a complete asshole. Fortunately, I am much quicker to recognize it and change my attitude and when I don’t, I have a wife who is not too shy to let me know.  Like anything worthwhile, I must practice spiritual living daily. When I do, I am filled with joy and gratitude and life doesn’t seem to be such a struggle. Today I choose to be happy, joyous and free.

For more on my personal journey, check out Beyond Recovery: A Journey of Grace, Love, and Forgiveness.

Peace.

Shawn

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” – Lao Tzu

The first step in any endeavor is always the most difficult.

For some the fear of failure keeps us stuck where we are and trying to find the courage to begin often becomes paralyzing. We think of all the things that could go wrong and may worry that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, strong enough, brave enough, educated enough or whatever.

For others, the converse is true. It may seem silly, but there are many people who are actually afraid of success.

It doesn’t matter what it is that we seek,the reality is that it takes courage to start.

When it comes to addiction this can’t be more true. Millions have vowed to never drink again or ____ (fill in the blank). Yet, for those, like me who have addictive tendencies, the day comes again when temptation and desire overpowers any modicum of self will and, once again, we’re off and running.

For me this was a vicious cycle that, though it only lasted a short time, brought me to my knees, begging for help.

When I was nearing the end of my drinking career I vividly recall the utter insanity in my head-

It was a summer day in 1986. Stoned, coked out, and drunk, my heart pounded inside my chest.  I laid on my back in my 8′ x 8′ room staring at the 7′ wainscot ceiling above gasping for each breath, afraid that if I fell asleep I would not wake up.

My mind raced. Voices entered into my head as if they were speaking to me. I heard my mom telling me to get help. Others- my grandmother, my brother, and close friends and relatives, all implored me to get help. They were all talking over each other. I got scared. The room started to spin and I couldn’t shut the voices off. I put one foot on the floor hoping it would stop the room from spinning. It helped for a bit but the voices clamored on- “You need help.” “We love you!”  “Hang on.” Each one seeming to call out to me like angels from on high.

I heard them but wanted them to go away. I thought I was either going insane, dying, or that I may have a problem with drugs and alcohol.

“God help me!” I cried out. “Make it stop!”

That incident was the catalyst that brought me one step closer to seeking help.

As many before me, I wasn’t done yet. I thought I could control it. I would stop for two or four days then be right back at it for another week or more.

Near the end, I recall actually going to a bar one night with the intention of getting wasted. I ordered a double-nothing. I ordered two more. Still nothing. Alcohol had stopped working.

Why? Because I was an alcoholic; I had lost the ability to control my drinking.

But I had not yet been beaten down to the point of admitting it. That would take a few more crazy episodes, one in which I literally hallucinated that my mom had called an insane asylum. They were going to put me in a straight jacket and take me away.

Eventually I gave in. I admitted lost the ability to control my drinking and checked into a 28 day rehab. That was on October 10, 1986.

After three days of detox, I was introduced to the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Step One:
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives were unmanageable.”

I was beaten and fully surrendered to taking the first step toward a journey that would change the course of my life forever. For that, I am eternally grateful.

This is the first of  twelve posts, in which I will outline a portion of my experience with the twelve steps for one sole purpose- to carry the message of hope for those who still suffer.

If you or someone you know has struggled or you are currently in recovery, I encourage you to follow this series. Share it if you want. I am just another alcoholic who has not found it necessary to drink or use drugs, one day at a time, since October, 10, 1986.

Step One
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—
that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Expect a miracle, every day.

Miracles happen all the time. Regardless of whether we choose to call them miracles or chalk them up as mere coincidence, one has to admit that some things are beyond logical explanation.

I have experienced so many miracles in my short time on this planet that I literally could write a book about them. Perhaps, someday I will.

One that comes to mind was on a trip to Disney World fifteen years ago. After months of planning and preparation, the big day had arrived. My first wife, son, and I boarded a plane and flew to sunny Orlando. Even though I was a little edgy from not getting to smoke for nearly five hours, my excitement overshadowed my nicotine withdrawals, or so I thought.

We climbed into our rental car and began our way to the condo in Celebration, FL. That’s where things started to go sideways. I was aware that there were several toll roads in Florida and had packed change to pay for them. What I didn’t realize though, is how many there were from our short drive from the airport to the condo. It seemed that every mile or two I had to reach for more small bills or change.

Most of the toll booths were unmanned and required you to toss change into a scoop. Somewhere around the second or third one I started to get frustrated and was running out of small bills and change.

With my wallet in my lap for easier access, I approached yet another toll booth. This one required me to toss coins, not bills. I was out of change and had to pop the trunk to get more change  from my luggage. I grabbed a handful of change, shrugging my shoulders at the driver behind me, then dropped some in the big scoop before getting back into the car to pull away.

It wasn’t long before we approached another toll booth. This one required bills. I reached down to pull some singles out of my wallet and it wasn’t there. I panicked. I asked my wife to look on the floor. It was nowhere to be found.

A line of cars began to form behind me. My blood sugar was crashing. I was tired and wanted a cigarette. I felt so helpless.

Now what?!, I thought. We came all this way and now I’ve lost my wallet. This is a disaster. I am a F**K up. How could I be so stupid? I probably dropped it on the ground at the last toll plaza. How do I get out of this? 

“Dammit, I lost my wallet” I cussed. “I have to go back,” I said to my wife. So I blew through the toll crossing,  flipped a dangerous u-turn to head back to the previous toll gate.

I parked the car on the shoulder and searched anxiously for my wallet, but, it was nowhere in sight.

I began to sob. Once again I had let my family down. My irritation and impatience had gotten the best of me.

“Now what?” my wife asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, wiping the tears from my eyes.

We found a diner, ate something, and got cash using her card. Shortly after we ate, we checked into our condo. As soon as we got inside, I grabbed the local phone book (this was before smart phones and the internet) to look up the local police dept.

Long story short, a miracle happened. As it turned out, a woman behind us had spotted me dropping my wallet, picked it up, and turned it into the local authorities. She happened to work as a nurse, mere blocks from our condo and, fifteen minutes later, an officer came by to return my wallet. Nothing was missing.

Miracles do happen.

Three days ago I received a text from my half-brother, Tyler, whom I had not spoken to in over twenty five years. My step-sister, Lori had reached out to me a year or so ago on Facebook and was instrumental in reconnecting me with Tyler. They both had read my book and Tyler sent me a text the day before yesterday thanking me for sharing some of the family history that he was not aware of. He also sent me a text asking for my opinion about “something.”

Now, my mind was reeling with all the what-ifs that he may want to ask, not to mention what I may say to a brother I barely knew.

Sometimes we have to take a deep breath and trust that the right words will come out and walk through any fear or apprehension and make the call. So I did.

We started talking and within minutes, I felt connected. I felt like I knew him. He is my blood. He is my brother.  We chatted for a bit, before I asked what advice  he needed. Tyler said mentioned that he has a friend  who is struggling with addiction and wanted to know what to do.

I shared what I could  from my experience and suggested that he offer to take him to a meeting. And, if he doesn’t want to go that, “all you can do is love him, but maintain your own boundaries.”

“I don’t want to enable him. I may have to give him some ‘tough love’,” he said. I smiled. He knows a little about this stuff. How cool, I thought.

Folks, this conversation and the re-connection with my brother is a miracle. So is the fact that my primary purpose of writing Beyond Recovery was to help at least one person. It appears to have done that.

Tyler and I will plan to hang out in the months to come as soon as this nasty storm passes.

In the meantime, may we all face the storms of our own lives with the quiet confidence that there is something far greater than us guiding us, watching over us, and protecting us. We need only trust in that power and learn to expect a miracle everyday.

Love,

Shawn

“Thy will, not mine, be done.”

I awoke four times in the middle of the night to pee. 

One o’clock, two o’clock, three.

Woke up the last time at 4:04. “Sorry, go back to sleep.”I said to my wife as she rolled out of bed, heading for the door.

Too early to think with a head so foggy, only five hours of sleep – I still feel groggy. 

Yet after she got up and quietly closed the door, I thought briefly of hitting the floor. Instead, my mind took off. The starting gun had fired. Why does my mind do that, when I’m so very tired?

I made some coffee and began to think, my mind wandered off in self-will- to that dangerous neighborhood, where thoughts usually stink.

I paused, sipped my coffee, and grabbed my phone. Not for Facebook, email, or reading. No. Instead I began to write a few words- in search of a meaning.

Why was I awake at this cold dark hour? Perhaps it was to be still, let go of self-will and ask God for help; to do what I know works best- to turn my day over to my higher power.

Yes, that’s what I believe, because things happen for a reason. Even if I don’t know why, I’m beginning a new season. Christmas is over and the new year draws near. I’m practicing living without any fear. 

It starts by me asking God for courage, guidance, and strength. In a morning prayer where I let go, turn it over and say, “Thy will, not mine be done.” 

Happy New Year all! Now let’s have some fun!

Longing for a white Christmas and a holiday of joy

Christmas is supposed to be a joy and a celebration right? Then why does this time of year have me all knotted up?

I long for the memories of a white Christmas past.  Like the story I shared in my book…

White Christmas

It had snowed like crazy in the middle of the night. The branches of towering Ponderosa Pines that lined their property sagged under the weight of the snow. The five ton granite boulder that sat outside the dining room window, looked like part of a gigantic snowman. A blanket of virgin white snow surrounded the ground and patio outside the cabin. Untouched—it was calling our name. The gifts would have to wait.

My brothers, two cousins and I couldn’t wait to make tracks and have a snowball fight.

After we pelted each other a few times with snowballs, my Grandma Pauline beckoned us inside to breakfast and then to open gifts. We inhaled our bacon and eggs and pancakes and took turns shredding open our gifts. All the boys got Pogo sticks and my cousin Sheila got a bike.

“Let’s make a snowman!” Aunt Bonnie suggested to my mom…

Kelly started to make a snowman, but thought it would be better to chuck a big snowball at Seth—“Snowball fight!” Kelly cried out as he pummeled Seth in the back.

We laughed and giggled chucking snowballs at each other.

My cousins, Michael and Sheila, joined in, while my mom and aunt finished their snowman. They had already made arms with branches and put a carrot in the middle of the head for a nose.

“Hey, want some coal?” my grandpa asked as he handed them two lumps of coal—he had disappeared a few minutes earlier get some from the big sack that sat near the pot belly stove used to heat the upstairs bedroom area.

That was one of the best Christmases ever!

I have been blessed with so much. More than I ever imagined as a teenager. Then why do I feel empty inside, like something is missing?  Perhaps its tough because I miss those who are no longer here to celebrate the holidays and life: my dad, my grandparents, and my brother, Seth. Perhaps it’s residual feelings  I’ve held onto like this story of my early teens that  I shared in Beyond Recovery

Lost Christmas Joy

I have spent many years trying to get past my hurt and anger, primarily toward my father for leaving us. As a kid from a broken family, it was hard to not hold a grudge. Especially when the rent was due, my brothers and I had to wear hand me downs and needed new shoes, and there was barely enough food in the fridge. Early on, there were times when we’d open the cupboards and they were practically bare.

People step up when needed—my dad’s parents always gave my mom five hundred bucks at Christmas so we could get clothes. I took on more responsibility. Her boyfriend helped with more firewood. We made do. We survived. However, winters were difficult for me, especially around Christmas time. What once brought me great joy with food, family, presents, and at least one snowball fight, became a day I dreaded. Most of this was perpetuated by an overwhelming lack of gratitude and focus on what we didn’t have rather than being grateful for what we had. We could only afford a small four-foot tree that we propped up on a coffee table to make it look bigger. To make matters worse, our sole heat source was a wood burning stove upstairs and a toxic kerosene heater downstairs. We had no money for firewood, so my two brothers and I cut bay trees that were so green they hissed when we tried to burn them. Pat, my mom’s new boyfriend, would collect scrap lumber he found in dumpsters for us to use as kindling, and my grandpa let us use the discarded oak parquet tiles from his work. Those would burn hot enough to get the green bay going, but the tar backing and finish made some nasty smoke while the fire was starting.

I’m grateful that our home was not condemned. It had been built as a summer home and had no insulation. There was no bathroom downstairs and the single wire, ungrounded 110 amp electrical almost killed me; I was taking a bath one day, and while standing in a tub full of water, reached over to turn on the electric heater—bad idea.

 Our roof was shot. It leaked like a sieve, and we had no money to get it repaired. Instead, we stapled plastic sheeting to the ceiling to collect the drips, then poked in the low spots and placed buckets underneath to catch the drips in four spots instead of twenty. If my dad were still around, we could have fixed all these problems. But our limited resources stared us in the face anytime we needed repairs, new clothes, or saw how many presents our friends and relatives got at Christmas. How could a mother not feel resentful about the lack of child support? How could us kids not be pissed about a father who was not there to take us to baseball, basketball, or soccer games? I missed my dad. It sucked.

I don’t share this to be a downer. I  share it to let others who may also wrestle with joy and  discontentment around the holidays, know they are not alone. On one hand I want to be cheerful yet on the other,  I wallow in grief over family members, and sometimes feel all alone.

The struggle is real. Talking helps, so does writing it down. I figured if maybe I shared a little of my heart, it may help another realize that they are not alone.

So what do I do to get out of the holiday blues? I try to smile more. I give more. I try not to think so much about myself. I give more hugs. There’s something magical about smiling at someone that lifts their spirits and in turns lifts mine. Hugs do the same thing. Physical contact is known to improve mental  well being and health.

So for the next two weeks I am going to try and smile more and give more hugs.

 

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Oh Tenuous Life, Fly Away Cary, Fly Away.

Today I reconnected with some old friends from my youth. We gathered to pay our respects and say farewell to yet another “valley kid”, Cary Smith, who had been taken far too young.

The more days I walk the face of the earth, I realize how very tenuous life is. I am also reminded of how insidious the disease of drug addiction and alcoholism is. It is truly “…cunning, baffling, powerful.” Though I don’t know the exact circumstances leading to the demise of my childhood friend, I do know how easy it is to fall prey to addiction.

But that’s not what I remember about him. I remember that he always made me laugh and made me feel welcome.

When I was still partying, I recall showing up to a party feeling incredibly uncomfortable. I was shy. Booze helped me overcome that, but so did my friend Cary. With sweaty palms I scanned the room looking for someone I could talk to. There on the deck, Cary stood sipping a beer. “Langwell! What’s up?!” he shouted, waving me over.

“Have a beer,” he said, handing me a kegger cup.

Instantly, after a beer and my friend reaching out to make me feel welcome, my anxiety dissipated.

That was many years ago. I hadn’t seen him in well over 30 years. When I read his obituary two weeks ago, I felt raw.  He, too, was fifty-two. It could’ve been me.

Now, I stood alongside the stables at Dickson Ranch in the crisp fall air, swapping stories and catching up with some friends whom I had not seen in over 35 years. Unlike the parties of 30 + years ago, I felt at ease. I didn’t need to drink.

As I was getting ready to leave, my friend PJ asked if I had a copy of my book that he could buy. As I handed it to him he asked if it was going to make him cry. “Yes.” I said, choking back my own tears.

We hugged and said goodbye.  I drove away with tears in my eyes. Ten minutes later, as I traveled along Nicasio Valley Road, I reflected on the loss of my own brother, and others and thought how grateful I was that I have been forsaken. Just then, I looked up to see a white car speeding toward me at at nearly eighty miles-per-hour on the wrong side of the road. I slowed, breathed, and let out a sigh of relief as the driver safely passed back onto the right side of the road.

What if I hadn’t looked up?  I could’ve been another statistic of yet one more “valley kid” taken “too soon.” But today was not my day.

My thoughts turned immediately to my friend who had passed. He is suffering no longer. I pray he is now at peace.