It’s been a long time since I’ve written. So much for my intention of at least once a month! I’ve had several inspirations but nothing fully thought out and life has been so full (not complaining) I haven’t made the time flesh to them out.
I ran across what I’m about to share below by accident this morning; I’d completely forgotten about it. Reading it today seemed fitting, one week after Orlando where so many are trying to make sense out of a world that no longer seems to make any. This reminded me why I often respond so differently than some to what I see around me. These tenets of my spiritual worldview give me a kaleidoscope through which to view external events that allows me to interpret things in a way that helps mitigate anger and sadness and be productive where I want to be. I’m sharing this today hoping it might help you do the same.
What follows is a talk I gave at a grief workshop at the “25thand Final River City Roundup,” a recovery conference for the LGBT community. I was on the executive committee for that conference for its last 4 years and had the privilege of being the Chair for the last one. (A whole other story!) I led this workshop with a friend and this was my contribution. This is it pretty much as I delivered it then, with some slight edits made for the non-recovery folks who may be reading this.
RCRU Grief Workshop, Saturday, November 2, 2013
How many of you have lost someone very, very close to you since you’ve been sober?
This is a human experience that no one will escape, unless you’re not really living. So if you haven’t yet, you might as well start preparing now for how to respond to these events in sobriety, vs. drinking our way through pain as we did before. And while there’s no way to be completely prepared, there are some things you can start practicing today that will help give you tools to use when it happens.
On January 2, 2010, I found my then-partner, Michael, dead in our bed at home of an overdose of prescription meds. He had been beaten in a fight he’d gotten into on New Year’s Eve, spending that night in the hospital and coming home New Year’s Day. He had cracked ribs and a purple, disfigured face to prove it. That purple was now mixed with the gray and lifelessness of death. Nothing can prepare you for that. My body, mind, and soul took a beating for months; I suffered a mild form of PTSD as I kept reliving that moment when I turned him over and realized what has happening. (And just for added perspective: on the morning of New Year’s Eve I was in San Antonio at my father’s funeral. I could feel my phone ringing while standing graveside, which was Michael leaving me a message that he was on the way to the hospital. But I digress…)
As I started to think about how to move forward, I realized that there were things I’d been doing in the program for years that provided the foundation I needed to handle this with some amount of grace.
- Relentless practice of Step 10. “Nothing pays off like the restraint of tongue and pen.” The 12×12 [Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions] makes it clear that the point of this step is to never have to make an amends again, knowing full well that that is an impossible goal. But the closer we can get to it, the better off we are.
Michael and I were in the process of splitting up at the time of his death and had some horrific scenes the last six months of his life, in particular the last 48 hours. He was lost in his own addiction, angry at me and the world, and could hurl some incredibly nasty stuff my way. What I’d learned through the process of Step 10 was to “take it without taking it in.” I could acknowledge what he was feeling without taking it personally. Reacting in kind – which I had done in our earlier years – only threw fuel on the fire and escalated it. Now, I was able to bring enough consciousness to the moment to realize he was sick and hurting, and from there I could decide not to engage with him in that way. I knew from experience that when I did that, eventually the fire would burn out. As it did that weekend. His last words to me the morning he died were “Thank you for taking care of me”.
Had I not been able to restrain my tongue and act in a loving way instead of in anger (cuz it’s not like I didn’t feel it), he would have died with me owing a huge amends that I would never have been able to make. I’m blessed and grateful to not have that hanging over my head, and the realization of that early – like several hours after he died – gave me a sense of comfort that carried me a long way. That his final words to me were said in love and not anger is priceless.
- The Spiritual Experience appendix in the Big Book [Alcoholics Anonymous] suggests our higher power is an inner resource we didn’t know we had, and suggests we use it and call on it regularly. For me it looks like this: I believe we are spirits in search of a human experience. And the goal while we’re here is to experience it All. We don’t want to miss a thing! And in those experiences, we get to call forth spirit to help us respond, and we can chose who we want to be in that situation. This IS what living IS to me. I can only “be” loving if I ACT in a loving way. I can only BE compassionate if I ACT in a compassionate way. And it’s all choice. “Life is 10% what happens to us, 90% how we respond.”
And some of what I chose to be in response to Michael’s death was an example: that I can experience it all without getting lost in it, and to show how that is done. That it’s OK to be angry, to be sad, and to express it whenever you need to; that in fact “expressing it” is “Pressing it Out” and will help you move on more quickly. While I had long ago given up what people thought of me, I knew that, if nothing else, I had sponsees and others who were watching to see how I would handle this and the question “how can I be of service?” took me out of myself and gave me a different perspective from which to make choices. And I chose honoring who he was while honoring my own truth about who I wanted to be, all while moving on. Like with most things in my life, it’s not either/or. It’s both/and. And I got a lot of feedback as the weeks went on about modeling “grace under pressure” so I’m grateful to know that pulled it off to some extent.
- Don’t ignore the pain, and bring gratitude to it.
I’d never experienced a loss like this before. That I was still experiencing it 11 months later at Thanksgiving was shocking to me. It was on and off by that time but still very much there. I was tired of it and ready to be done with it, and angry in a way that it wasn’t over yet. I was tired of crying.
I sat down to do some writing and finally was able to weave together some of the greatest lessons I’ve had through the development of my spiritual worldview in AA: that all things are relative, and that gratitude on a full stomach doesn’t count. We live in relative world – hot has no meaning without cold. If you were happy all the time, you wouldn’t know it. And it’s easy to be grateful when everything is going our way. Our spiritual muscles develop when we can bring gratitude to our poverty, to our joblessness, to our loss. And to our grief. I was able to see – finally – that the only reason I was experiencing grief in the first place is because I had once loved greatly. There’s the relativity. Grief, then, is nothing but evidence that I’m living and loving fully. If I want to avoid the grief, I’m going to have to avoid loving. And I choose to love.
Today, I’m able to be grateful for the grief as a simple sign that I’m living a great life.
6/19/2016 Post Script:
How do I use this today? For years I’ve been very selective about the news I feed my brain, how much I choose to let in. And then I try to be conscious about what, if anything, I want to do about it. I figured out a while ago that my brain will answer any question I ask it. “Why” is rarely, if ever, a productive question. So I’ve trained myself to ask different questions. I’m sharing below three of the questions that are the most helpful to me in getting my frame of mind into a healthier groove:
Who do I want to be in response to this? This correlates to #2 above. I can choose to “be” anything I want to be: compassionate, apathetic, political, angry, sad, and endless array of other choices in any combination. But I choose it, rather than let myself be a victim of it. Choose it and Be That, taking whatever action or not might go with being that.
From “A Course in Miracles:” Do I want to be a hostage to my ego or a host to god? This question gets my head out of self-centeredness, fear, anger and the like – immediately. As a host to god I’m more likely to go to love instead of fear, compassion instead of anger, action instead of hiding, reaching out instead of self-centeredness.
What would love do now? Do that, whatever that means for you.