After more than three years of writing about my successful recovery journey from daily drinking to living alcohol-free, you may think I have run out of new insights to share. No one is more surprised than me that the opposite is true. My growth continues, new truths are regularly discovered as to my delight I find yet another way that the lessons of recovery pertain to so much more than what is in my glass.
At a time when I am inclined to sit back and cruise forward on autopilot, I am giving myself a nudge by signing up for BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo and agreeing to post daily throughout November 2014. This is no small task, since UnPickled is a blog about revelations, truth, self-discovery and brutal honesty. The task of writing daily excites me; it’s the duty to reach deep inside for material that I find daunting.
So with a deep breath for courage, a slow exhale for reflection and a calendar with 30 spaces awaiting X’s, I turn to bravely face November 2014. As soon as the bowl of leftover Halloween candy is installed within reach on Saturday morning, I will be ready to start!
If there is one question I am most asked about living alcohol-free, it is “How did you know it was time to quit drinking?”
Only occasionally is this question asked with dancing eyes that reveal a quest for titillation: I want to hear every detail of rock bottom. If I sense that is the motive, I generally let them down easy: I was the most boring alcoholic ever – I have no stories of catastrophe. I just knew I was losing control and needed to take charge.
More often it is asked with genuine interest, either because someone would like to know me better or is trying to understand addiction better for personal reasons. Sincere questions deserve honest answers.
I have been reading about the “transtheoretical model of behaviour change” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model) and I can easily see how it correlates to my journey. In short, it identifies various stages of decision-making and behaviour changes as such:
- Precontemplation (not ready) – in my case, using wine as a daily antidote for stress and anxiety; enjoying the relief it brought; feeling very comfortable with my routine and experiencing no negative thoughts or consequences.
- Contemplation (getting ready) – I began to feel an acknowledgement and growing discomfort with the reality of my habits. I started to pay attention to the red flags (see below). I began watching Celebrity Rehab with intense focus (while drinking).
- Preparation (ready) – I got up the courage to assess my drinking patterns online (I used http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov) and received confirmation that I needed to make changes. I started trying to quit and failed each day. I took no steps to make myself accountable and did not reach out for help, but these initial unsuccessful efforts confirmed my worst fears. Not only could I not quit, but also not moderate or reduce. Throughout this stage, my intake instead steadily escalated and I began to realize where this was headed.
- Action (initiating change) – for me, this was speaking honestly to a friend, starting this blog, and reaching out to the online community for help and support. I threw myself into the task at hand and little by little made it through each difficult day.
- Maintenance (supporting the change) – I guess this is where I am at now – you could call this ongoing recovery. This is a great place to be and many recovery advocates say the goal should be to engage in this phase forever.
- Termination (completion of change) – remembering that the transtheoretical model of behaviour change is not about recovery specifically, there comes an end point where the change is complete and the new behaviours are effortless and normal. There are different schools of thought in the recovery community as to whether or not one can ever end the process. Some pathways teach that if you stop going to meetings and working their program you’ll either start drinking again or fall into the miserable life of a “dry drunk”. Some pathways encourage striving for a point of supported closure on the change – which does not mean it is possible to start drinking again normally but rather that you can go forward as a “non-drinker” and be done with it. I don’t take a position on this – at this point it doesn’t matter to me because I have a lot of work still to do and see myself in the maintenance phase for many years to come.
So what were those red flags for me? It wasn’t any one single “big” thing that led me to change; it was the accumulation of little things. Here are some I recall:
- Unable to stop drinking daily
- Unable to reduce or limit amount
- Drinking alone
- Shame about bottles in recycling bin
- Hiding extra alcohol in cupboard
- Continual concern about having enough alcohol on hand
- Obsessive awareness of alcohol at every event – planning when and how to get in the “right” amount to get through the evening while still managing to drive sober to and from events, and appear “normal” to the outside world
- Becoming very agitated when unplanned changes disrupted my pattern – specifically I recall a friend dropping by and my husband poured her a glass of wine. I began to panic knowing that it meant there would not be enough to get me through the evening. I secretly drank shots of scotch before bed to compensate. I felt guilty about resenting my friend for visiting unannounced.
- Spending the last hour of work each day deciding if I would stick to my plan of quitting drinking or stop at a liquor store on the way home, all the while knowing I would certainly pick up more wine.
- Rotating stores because I was embarrassed of buying wine every day, but never buying more too much at once because I was planning to quit “tomorrow”.
- Finding out that my drinking habits fell into the “high risk” and “heavy drinking” categories. I knew my drinking was only increasing, never declining, and I was running out of categories. Next stop: rock bottom. No thanks.
Now what about you, readers? Do you recognize yourself in the stages of behaviour changes? What were your red flags, and was it many little things or one big incident that initiated your decision to live alcohol-free?
I’ve learned that it’s useful to view your addiction in terms of your relationship to alcohol, rather than just by how much or how often you drink. During a recent coffee date with my “sober sister” (see “Busted”) this concept made for a lively and eye-opening discussion.
My friend and I have had radically different experiences with alcohol. I was a daily drinker who quietly “pickled” myself each evening, whereas she was a binge drinker who regularly experienced blackouts. While I worked hard to never appear drunk in public (but headed home early to tuck into a bottle in earnest), she was the “woo-girl” waving through the sunroof of a limo on the Las Vegas strip. She has a zillion crazy stories of her antics – often told to her by friends the next day since she couldn’t remember much – whereas I can only say I conquered the world in heels by day and retired to my couch a boring little pickle at night.
Fittingly, how we describe our relationship to alcohol is just as diverse.
I can only hope I do justice to her poignant reflections in this attempt to paraphrase her words:
It’s as though I have this boyfriend who is really great, really fun and all my friends like him. Most of the time we have a great time together and everyone loves having him around. But every few months he beats the shit out of me, so bad that I black out, and the next day I say, “That’s it. We are breaking up for good.”
But all my friends continue to hang out with him and they say, “He is SO FUN! We just love having him around – we still want him come to our parties. Can’t you learn to live with him? He is awesome – why would you want to give up such a great guy?”
And I want to say, “He has really hurt me! Don’t any of you care about what he is doing to me?” It pisses me off that they don’t even care how bad he hurts me. I know I can’t have him in my life anymore.
If a friend came to you and described this relationship, what would you say to her? “It’s fine, just spend less time together,” OR “Get the hell away from the creep! Don’t put up with that abuse. You have to take care of yourself. Don’t go near him ever again. He doesn’t deserve to be part of your life.” I can say for sure that my response would be the latter.
To describe my own nightly pickling as a relationship, I’d say it had become a constant, demanding companion that left me feeling bad about myself. It was the toxic friend that would text me 37 times a day and wanted my attention all the time.
……”don’t forget to meet me after work, ok?”…
……”do you think you could get off work a little early and pick me up?”..
…….”ps don’t tell anyone I asked you to pick me up”…
……..”I will be at the business event tonight but act casual, ok. It’s better if people don’t know that we are such good friends”…
…..”I know you are nervous about your meeting but don’t worry – you are amazing. You have everyone fooled and they’ll never guess how weak and stupid you are. See you after work!”
All day long I’d be annoyed by the constant demands, and would even tell myself, “no more!” but always I’d weaken on the way home from work and stop to pick up this “friend” who I just couldn’t tear myself away from.
This is the kind of friend who makes you feel good at first but then you realize the compliments were actually criticisms in disguise. (“Wow, in those jeans you can hardly tell how big your hips really are!”) THAT friend.
It was a relationship that was sucking up increasing amounts of my time, my joy, my energy, and was taking a toll on my health.
What would you say to me as a casual observer of this relationship? Suggest I cut this person out of my life? Set boundaries and try to limit contact, and if the constant barrage of texts and messages continue consider a restraining order because perhaps my actual safety could be at risk? Certainly you wouldn’t say, “what a great friend, how can I get some of that into my life?”.
So what about you? How would you describe your old relationship with alcohol? How do you describe it now?
I opened the sobriety tracker app on my phone in order to update this blog with my current “score”. With wide eyes and trembling hands, I tell you this: the number I see there is utterly startling. I am looking at it as if it’s a forgein word rather than a straightforward number because it doesn’t make sense to me.
Days. That’s a lot of days. A lot of sober days and nights and hours and minutes. It’s a lot of weekends, family gatherings, trips to the grocery store, loads of laundry, and bottle drives for my son’s football team.
Since quitting, I have made it through weddings and vacations and awards banquets and book clubs. My sober state feels comfortable and normal, but it still takes constant effort.
525. It’s such a big number – it feels like it should have more significance or weight. When you are struggling through day 3, you just want to make it to day 4. At some point I put my head down and stopped counting. I just kept plowing and here I am.
Let me tell you some things I’ve been keeping to myself. Come inside my unpickled head and explore the terrain on Day 525. These are the things that I don’t tell to people around me, but I know you will understand.
Confession A: It pisses me off when someone drinks one of my “special drinks”……
My head nearly spun right around when I walked into the lake cottage and saw my 11-year-old nephew slurping a can of grapefruit San Pelligrino. Those were for me! I tried to fight the panic rising in my chest – what was I going to drink if I ran out fo those? It could be a very long vacation…..
Once I was passing by a neighbour’s house just as the (normally calm) mother was screaming at her (normally adorable) kids: “Don’t touch my f–king stuff. How many times do I have to tell you not to touch my F–KING STUFF!!?” Now, hey – no judgement – we have all snapped our twig on occassion and had moments we pray no one overheard through an open window. But that instance has stuck with me. I don’t want to be that person.
I try not to be possessive. I try to keep the fridge and pantry stocked with enough to share. I try to pick drinks that won’t appeal to the kids (and keep other things that they prefer). [Note: the one sure thing NO ONE wanted to drink was Chinotto. Including me. What the hell is that…..?]
But honestly, on a hot day when my husband cracks the last can of Pelligrino for himself, when he has a fridge full of beer in the garage, there is a brief moment when I want to wig out at him. Then I remember that it is better for him to not have a beer anyway, and that I am a big girl who does not have temper tantrums, and I carry on.
For that teensy little moment, though , I think of all my sober brothers and sisters and I know that you would understand. I think of you and give you a little wink.
Confession: I want to tell people that I am sober, but I don’t….
It’s kind of like telling people when you have your period. It might help them understand what’s going on for you, but then it’s just awkward and you realize they don’t really want/need to know that much about you. I wish everyone in recovery had a yellow dot on their nose that only other addicts could see. That would be super helpful. Otherwise, I keep it on the downlow and don’t talk about it much – except here, anonymously.
Confession: It bothers me when the folks who DO know I’m sober ask if I am ever going to drink again…
I know they don’t mean it to be, but it is insulting. I answer patiently, “All I know is this – right now, I don’t want a glass of wine, I want a whole bottle of wine. So probably I need to stick with not drinking at all for now.” In truth, it feels like they are asking, “Is all this really necessary?”
The answer is “yes”. And screw off.
Confession: I have a lot of anger to muck through.
All of those feelings I tried to suppress with alcohol seem to bubble up and need dealing with. Little by little I am being freed. I am not afraid of facing difficult things anymore. I try to stop the inner rants and the pity-party invitations that happen when you go through all the details of how someone has hurt you. Instead I have been sweeping up the things that feed my anger and use them to create a statement of truth. I did this just today – I was stewing over a recent betrayal by someone in my family I stopped and said to myself, “This person is weak and selfish. Stop expect her to behave differentlly.”
Confession: Some moments of weakness are just plain hilarious.
I was at a formal gala and my patience was wearing thin. I was ready to go home but had to schmooze the room for another 30 minutes before I could sneak away. Everyone had had lots to drink by this time, and the smell of alcohol was heavy in the air.
I was speaking to a rather shy fellow, a supplier to my business who was chattier than usual thanks to the red wine he was drinking. I could smell it on his breath as he spoke and as he gestured with his wineglass little fumes of alcohol tickled my nose. I realized I wasn’t listening to his story at all, but focussing on the wine. Suddenly I envisioned myself grabbing his face with both hands and licking the red wine off his lips and teeth! It was so ridiculous that I started to laugh out loud, which only made him think his story was all the more entertaining. I excused myself and went home, still chuckling at the insanity of it all.
Confession: You keep me going
I love getting the email that says, “You have a new comment” or “You have a new follower”. I love hearing from you, love knowing that this blog has helped you, and love being on this journey together. I couldn’t do this without you. Thank you for your friendship, encouragement, your love, advice, questions, and support.
6 + 6 = 12
The first six months were tough. The next six months flew by. I have made it through the first year of living without wine.
Last night we marked the occasion by going out to dinner with a few dear friends who have been close to me through this journey. When the server asked if anyone would like a drink before table my friends and husband all froze and glanced at me. “Uhhh….”
“Don’t be silly!” I said. “This is a celebration. Go ahead and be sure you drink a toast to me!” I turned to the waiter and ordered a non-alcoholic beer. “And could you please bring me a nice wine glass for that?”
His eyebrows flew up quizzically. “A wine glass for your beer, M’am?”
“Yes,” I answered winking, “it classes it up a bit.”
“That’s smart,” he said, more to himself than to me.
I’ve given up on virgin cocktails or listing out ingredients when ordering (“club soda with a shot of grapefruit juice and a half-ounce of grenadine”). Non-alcoholic beer is easier to order, it comes in the bottle so I don’t have to worry about accidentally getting alcohol, and if I remember to order a stem glass with it it looks and feels elegant (well, elegant enough).
The goal for me is not to approximate or replace the wine. The goal is to have something ELSE that I will enjoy for what it is.
As my friend wrote on the beautiful card she gave me (along with a scrumptious box of chocolate covered strawberries): “Now you get to have fun discovering new indulgences!”
We had a great night – lots of laughs with friends who don’t care a lick what’s in my glass. They enjoyed their cocktails but no one was out to get tanked – our purpose was to celebrate my success and encourage more of it.
At the end of the night my friend’s husband asked, “What do you think now? You made it to a year – are you going to have the odd drink here and there or just keep on having none?”
It was a sincere question, asked out of interest. He is curious about my journey but we haven’t spoken about it together that much. His wife knows every detail but I think he understands that I am guarded around others. I took no offence to his question. I knew he was not implying that I should or could be drinking. He just wants to understand.
“No, oh no,” I chuckled. “This is a lifetime decision for me. If I ever doubt that, all I have to do is look at a bottle of wine. I want it ALL,” I laughed. “And that’s no good. This way is so much better.”
No one knows the stats on how many people just quietly quit drinking on their own, but some readings suggest that that it a very common occurrence. This shocked me a little. I guess I thought the only reason to quit drinking was because you’d hit the bottom, and the only way to quit was through AA. I didn’t consider so many people quit on their own, or know that other methods and programs abound.
Like a lot of folks, I shied away from AA because I just don’t see myself as an alcoholic. Drinking too much, yes. Wanted to quit, yes. Additive behaviour, yes. Alcoholic, no.
I know AA to be a wonderful program, and I have been helped enormously by many people involved in AA who have shared their wisdom and insights through comments on this blog, emails, and other connections. In fact, my own father went to AA as a young man, before he was married. He was only 24 when he quit drinking, and although he quit attending meetings after he was married, he has always been proud of his sobriety. I’ve always known my dad to be an abstainer, and he’s open with the fact that he was in AA as a young man. I’ve always considered it to be a positive force, and I have had the best example of the results lived out right in front of me.
I felt I still had a choice, and I wanted to change my life while I held the power to do so. I could see it was only a matter of time before my drinking patterns swallowed me whole and recovery would be out of my control.
I’ve discovered a recovery support program called “SMART Recovery” (SMART being an acronym for Self-Management and Recovery Training). It is a program for recovery from various types of addiction through learning tools and techniques to support four main points:
- Building and Maintaining Motivation
- Coping with Urges
- Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviours
- Living a Balanced Life
I am benefitting from the program through its literature but have so far not opted to take part in any meetings. There are online meetings as well as local ones, and podcasts of meetings are available as well (I’ve downloaded several). There are free newsletters on the website: www.smartrecovery.org and a bookstore to order literature and support materials.
What most appeals to me about this program is the notion that the recovery process is not eternal. Hold on, hold on – some of you are getting upset just reading that and are mentally preparing a scathing comment. AA teaches that alcoholism is for life, that you are always a recovering alcoholic, never a recovered one.
I don’t dispute that point. I don’t know anything about being a recovered/ing alcoholic. I only know what it’s like to be me, and as I said earlier, I don’t believe myself to be an alcoholic. In an addicted pattern, yes. Hating my life and wanting to change this stupid, horrible, self-destructive pattern I’d engraved, yes.
To say, “The change is complete – I am now a non-drinker and I will continue to be” seems entirely achievable to me. In fact, I feel I am almost there. 9 months and 2 weeks into recovery, and it is starting to feel normal. I feel I have shaken the addiction itself, but there is still other work to be done.
There is so much more to recovery than just the simple (albeit difficult) act of keeping booze from your lips! You really have to do a lot of soul searching and come clean with yourself about what you do and why you do it.
This past year, I have worked hard to understand why I am such a pleaser. Why do I work so hard for approval from everyone including the grocery clerk, cousins I never see, and total strangers on the street? Isn’t it interesting that I found my way into the performing arts, where approval is granted at the end of each song with a round of applause and maybe even a standing ovation at the end of the show? And more ironic that I also have myself on a hamster wheel running a business where sales, profits, and awards motivate my every move?
Who am I if I’m not on centre stage? Who am I if I’m not a top competitor in business? What would it be like to just lay low for a while? To just tow the line and only do things because I either need to or want to, not because I feel obligated to in order to make others like me?
So back to the 4 points of SMART, I built my motivation to quit and now, having quit, I have to work on staying motivated. (Going back and reading my earlier blogs sure helps! I never want to be in that place again.)
I have learned to cope with urges and have adapted some great strategies. I have found other ways to comfort myself and have good support in place.
Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviours is a work in progress and thank goodness! I feel I am a better person because I am spared the humiliation of pulling the wine bladder out of the box and squeezing out every precious drop. That alone is reason enough to have quit. Beyond the obvious benefits of abstinence and sobriety, there is the fact that I am becoming a calmer, gentler version of myself. I am finally being kind to myself. I am getting better but have a long way to go.
Finally, living a balanced life. This is the goal, really. To balance out your comforts and pleasures short term and long term. To be surrounded with good people, engage in positive activities. Be your best you.
I don’t want to get into a debate about which program is right or better. Different programs work for different people. The more options the better, as far as I am concerned! The goal is to get everyone back to sane town, so let’s illuminate as many paths as possible.
In an effort to keep this blog meaningful I have tried to only post when I have some new insight to offer. Some of you have noticed that my posts are coming slower and slower – please take this as a positive sign. Sobriety is become a normal part of my life. I am adapting and honestly, there is little to report.
The new year has just begun, and it’s safe to assume some folks will stumble upon this blog as they try to navigate a January resolution to quit drinking. If I am right about this, someone reading this is mucking through the first terrifying, shaky days of sobriety. Is this you? You are not alone! You are not a freak! You are not strange or even all that unique. You got yourself into something very normal and there is a normal, tried and true process to get you out. My friend, hang on. Stay the course. Keep the carbs and the water and the tissues handy and you will make it through.
You are doing something very, very good for yourself and you will not regret it. Your life will be better, your body will be healthier, and your spirit will be stronger. You will get yourself back.
I’ve spent the holidays at our ski cabin in the mountains, where happy hour starts as soon as the lifts shut down. We gather to eat and drink, visit and drink, play board games and drink, listen to music and drink. Drink in the hot tub then have a nightcap before bed. This year, though, I am drinking pop or tea or sometimes even nothing at all.
I began my journey last year just as ski season ended and I truly wondered how on earth I would survive the season ahead. By the time the hill opened again, I had 9 months of sobriety under my belt and everything has gone smoothly. Everyone around me now knows I don’t drink, though few know all the details. They all respect my decision, but no one seemed to think I had a big problem to begin with. That’s okay, though. They don’t need to know everything. I know, and that’s enough.
I keep equating the experience to running. I am not a serious runner by any means. After I turned 40 I realized it was going to take more effort to stay in decent shape. Running is quick exercise and doesn’t require me to drive anywhere special or face other people. I prefer my elliptical because it’s gentler on the old bones, truth be told, but if the sun is shining I’ll head outside. So let’s establish that I am a runner who would rather not run.
For me, the very hardest part of the run is getting off the couch in the first place. “Just put down the latte and get outside,” I’ll tell myself. The mental bargaining begins – talking myself in and out of going out for the run, all the while knowing I’ll be glad once I do it but still resisting the effort. That’s a lot like it was talking myself in and out of quitting drinking. Half of the battle was just working up to the realization that I needed to change things.
I was very confused and conflicted for a long time over whether I needed to quit drinking because I had mistakenly thought I had to be an alcoholic or hit “rock bottom” in order to quit. I was definitely experiencing addictive behaviour towards alcohol but there was no “rock bottom” in sight and I didn’t truly fit the alcoholic profile. I could see, however, I was drinking more and more and it seemed just a matter of time before things got worse. Everything I read seemed geared towards people who’d hit the bottom. Did I need to wait until I was there in order to quit? That made no sense but then came 4 o’clock and I’d shrug my shoulders and pour a drink.
Eventually I decided not to wait any longer. If I wanted to change my life I could start where I was at, just as someone who wants to weigh 150 lbs can start working on that any time – they don’t have to wait until they are 300 lbs. to start the diet. Once you know where you want to be, you can get up and start heading there. Waiting and falling further behind makes no sense.
When I do finally get out there to run, the first bit is the worst. I constantly check my watch and gulp for air. My body seems determined to convince me it’s a mistake to exercise. I notice every pain and gasp, and time seems to pass so slowly. The first few months of recovery were just like that – I felt every discomfort and the hours crept by. I wondered what I the hell I had gotten myself into. I could not imagine ever enjoying myself again. Marathon runners and sober people all seemed a mysterious lot – were they faking their supposed joy in a miserable existence? Or had they actually found pleasure in the struggle?
A ways into the run, it gets easier. You hit your stride and get lost in thought. Your legs take over and it almost feels like you’re along for the ride. There’s noting hard about it.
That’s where I feel I am at right now – I’m off the couch, I’m through the worst of it. I’m cruising along and now all I have to do is make sure I keep going.
A few months ago, living day after day without the comforts of wine seemed impossible. I never dreamed I could be happy at all, that it would be effortless. It is, though. It’s just who I am, what I do. I am right handed, I wear blue jeans, I drive a Subaru, part my hair off-centre, take cream in my coffee, have crooked toes, speak English (with a Canadian accent, apparently) and I don’t drink alcohol anymore. That’s me, and I am great with who I am.
Every once in a while we are asked to consider what we would do if we only had a few weeks left to live.
I thought about this the other day and realized I wouldn’t do much differently. I’d want the usual routine of family life I now enjoy, morning coffee and paper in bed with my husband and our pups, dropping by the office during the day, family suppers, activities with the kids, evening walks, visits with my sisters and my friends.
Interesting. “Nothing different?” I asked myself. “I guess I could start drinking wine again. What would it hurt?”
I caught my breath. Would I do that? Could I do that?
“Why not?” said my Itty Bitty Shitty Committee. “You’d be dying anyway, so what the heck?”
I thought about it.
If I only had a few weeks, I could probably go back to having wine with friends and with dinner, to give myself a bit of worldly pleasure before leaving it all behind for good. If I only had a few weeks, I could surely keep control over alcohol. I wouldn’t even be alive long enough for things to spiral. It wouldn’t matter. It would be so small in the grand scheme of things.
Yep. That’s what it would take to make it okay for me to start drinking again – terminal illness. Good to know.
Some part of my brain sat back and observed “the committee” in action. Some new, calm part of me that inserts itself between thought and deed was adding a secondary assessment of all this.
After a brief pause, she spoke in a warm, assertive tone.
“Really?” she asked kindly. “Is that really what you’d want, to undo this achievement in your last days? To see disappointment in the eyes of your sons instead of respect and love? To fog the mind and avoid absorbing every second of life? To withdraw and comfort yourself instead of reaching out and comforting others?
“Your last weeks should be your best. You must live out all you’ve learned.”
Yes, I thought. If I were dying, it would be more important than ever to stay the course.
“You are dying,” the rich, warm voice continued in my head. “Everyone is. We just don’t all know the timeline.”
What I learned from this discussion between the forces within me is that even after seven months, my patterns of addiction are still bubbling away beneath the surface. Perhaps they are more dangerous there now, because they continue while I carry on above thinking I have things under control.
I used to think it was an extreme position to say that alcohol addiction is a life long battle. I used to think I would get through extricating myself from an unhealthy pattern and be done with it. In truth, I thought by now I would “finished”.
I understand now how the work goes on and on. The individual evolves intellectually and emotionally but so too does the addiction.
I learned anew that my mind was creating limits for itself, and that I mustn’t become complacent.
I also learned that there is a part of me with a voice like Diane Sawyer – an elegant, strong virtuous woman in there who can override the committee. I like her. She wears cashmere sweaters and tasteful gold jewelry. She smells like fresh flowers, and she doesn’t often bake but she always brings a hostess gift.
She can come out and take over anytime.
Like many good folks in recovery, I have a small plaque printed with the Serenity Prayer: “God, Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; Courage to change those we can; and Wisdom to know the difference.”
Unlike most, though, I’ve had it since my childhood. Unless you’re Drew Barrymore, you probably didn’t know the Serenity Prayer in elementary school. Why did I? It’s a funny thing, and thinking about it made me realize how many other coincides have happened in my life.
Recently I was lost in the mountains driving, of all things, my little sporty white car on a logging road. I was late, upset, scared, and confused but since my teenaged son was also in the car I did my best to only display minor bewilderment. We were trying to find the drop off spot for his 10-day out trip camp.
“Hmm, this is so strange – where can this place be?” I chirped as the voice inside my head swore like a trucker. I knew my son was already anxious about signing up for this demanding trip with an unfamiliar group. I felt badly for getting us lost and wanted to set a good example for how to behave under pressure.
I was pretty sure I was on the wrong road, but it was so narrow I couldn’t turnaround and besides, it seemed to make sense from the vague directions on my smart phone – directions I could no longer access because we were out of cell range. Had I known I’d be on such demanding terrain I would have brought my husband’s truck, not this city car of mine.
“Okay, God. We are lost here. Help us figure this out,” I said aloud, hoping to model a kind of calm desperation for my son as I inched my car up the narrow trail. The answer came swiftly, as around the next bend a fallen tree blocked the road.
“Well I guess that means turn around but how?” I was able to squeak past the tree and turn around, squeak past it again and head back down the trail – praying all the while no one else has been fool enough to make the same mistake. The trail was not built for two.
Moments later, we were back in cell range and called for directions. We soon arrived at the proper place.
Now, obviously I don’t believe God (or in AA-speak “my Higher Power”) dropped that tree the moment I asked for help. You might say it was divine inspiration that caused me to ask a question just ahead of the answer. You might say God (HP) knew I’d be praying that prayer in that spot days before and fell the tree in advance. You might say all kinds of things, including “Meh. Coincidence.”
Call it what you will, but sometimes we are able to look and see how the dots connected and say, “That was pretty darn sweet”.
Take, for example, the family up the street from our home many years ago. For whatever reason, I would run into these people no matter where I went with my (then small, now grown) children. These people would pull up next to me at a traffic light, we’d be shopping the grocery store in reverse orders so our paths would cross in every single aisle – I’d see them everywhere! And this family was hard to miss because the mom was terrifically stunning and her three children were adorable. Sometimes I’d see the husband, sometimes not. But what was both fascinating and irritating was the overwhelming sense that I KNEW them. I didn’t. I’d never seen them before, but it was that same tip-of-your-tongue experience as when you see a celebrity in person and you can’t quite remember the name. Then someone tells you and you’re still not sure – you have to look it up to be convinced, and your mind won’t settle off it until you do. Like that.
In fact, one day I was picking my kids up from school and the daughter from this family was walking past. She was about 9 years old.
“Sweetie, what’s your name?” I asked. She told me. It was a surname so foreign to be I asked her to repeat it twice and the spell it for me. Clearly these were not people I’d ever met.
The coincidences continued and one day I said to a friend, “It’s the strangest thing. I see these people everywhere and I feel so strongly that I know them but I don’t. It’s driving me crazy.”
“Oh,” she said knowingly. “God maybe wants you to pray for them. Whenever you run into them, just say a little prayer.”
At least that gave purpose to it, and it lessened that annoying-ness of the increasing coincidences. So there I’d be, in the grocery store, gassing up my car, picking up my kids, paying a parking ticket and there they’d be. “Oh seriously?! Now?? Oh alright, God bless this family and tend to whatever is going on here that You have to be bothering me with it right now. Amen.”
Irreverent, yes. But it did ease the curious irritation of the situation. Eventually I got to know the woman a bit, when we’d joined the same morning coffee group. I came to understand that she was in a very difficult marriage and under tremendous pressure. Later they divorced and they family moved away.
Can you guess what happen years later?
Wouldn’t you guess that my oldest boy would eventually meet that girl at a summer camp? Wouldn’t you know that after high school they began dating? Wouldn’t you guess they fell in love, got engaged, and are now happily married?
Wouldn’t you call it something of a miracle or a blessing or a coincident that I was praying for my future daughter-in-law since she was 9 years old?
In fact, their marriage was one of the many reasons I wanted to quit drinking – knowing that eventually there will be grandchildren in the picture and I don’t ever want them to be afraid to have be babysit for fear I’ll be snockered.
Back to the Serenity Prayer…
One of my uncles is a priest who would often send small gifts to my sisters, all of my cousins, and I. He must have bought church-y things in bulk and sent them out because we’d all get similar gifts for Christmas or Easter. There were 20-some of us on the list so this was a generous undertaking.
When I was 8 or so, he sent each of us a small wooden plaque with peg to make it stand. About the size of a business envelope, each plaque featured a different prayer or verse. Perhaps he sent them at random. Perhaps he considered which was most fitting for each child. I put mine on my nightstand and memorized the prayer – it was a good one, although I preferred saying the Lord’s Prayer before bed.
It was years before I learned that the simple prayer on that plaque was one famously associated with Alcoholics Anonymous:
“God, Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, Courage to change those we can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
It is a prayer I have been familiar with almost all of my life now, yet here I am all these years later leaving alcohol behind me and understanding the importance of that prayer as never before.
Perhaps the divine goes before us and lays out all kinds of loving booby traps for us to stumble upon. Perhaps it’s all coincidence. No matter what you call it, you must admit it warms the heart to see how life unfolds and yet connects back.