Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve accomplishments and intentions

After reading one of Cheryl Richardson's books some years ago, one of my groups adopted her idea of giving up resolutions and instead listing accomplishments. Each person lists 25 things or more that she is happy to have done, accomplished, experienced during the year and shares them with the group. Then we spend some time thinking about what we would like on next year's list. They aren't commitments or a to do list. More of a dream list. Next year, I'd love to have done, accomplished, experienced XXX.

The group finds this very satisifying as we get to hear from each person all of her pride and joy in the year past and celebrate it with her. And we get to share our desires for the months ahead.

I'm preparing the same exercises for tonight's New Year's Eve ritual here at the retreat. We'll have our usual circle at 7 and read our writing, then a break for snacks and cider, then a sacred circle of completion and beginnings. I've been here to do this three times before and it's lovely. What's even more delicious is that our retreat still has three days to go, time for those desires to be thoroughly contemplated, not just mentioned in passing.

Here's to healthy bodies, minds, and spirits in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Old sugar memories die hard

This week I'm on retreat at Aldermarsh, a retreat center on Whidbey Island north of Seattle. I've been coming here for 8 years. I calculated that this is my 15th retreat here. It is a beautiful place, both the interior spaces and the environs. And the owner is very particular about what kind of events and retreats occur here. She is sensitive to creative and spiritual energies, and that's good news for us as over the last 20 years, this place has become a repository of calm and intuition, imagination and self-expression.

In the first years I came here, the retreats were led by Christina Baldwin, a great writing teacher. The food was catered by the amazing Chef Patti and in addition to succulent meals, there were wonderful desserts. What's more, there were always bountiful chocolates in circle. When I started organizing the retreats, we kept the sweets tradition going, vying with each other for the most delectable gourmet chocolate bars for circle. We began cooking our own meals but bought desserts, especially my favorite caramel banana pie, from Chef Patti.

Now much has changed. Chef Patti went back to school and stopped catering. And I gave up sugar. Since I organize the retreat, I ask that those wanting sweet snacks to keep them to themselves. Occasionally a sorbet will show up in summer but people are respectful. Everyone who comes is a friend and they respect my struggle and my commitment.

But yesterday, in Lind's drugstore where I went to buy index cards for work on the timeframe of my novel, I went by the huge display of gourmet chocolate bars: at least 40 kinds, several of them favorites. And I felt a deep longing. Not for the chocolate itself. If I were going to indulge, it would be caramel banana pie. But for the heedlessness with which I used to eat. Never worrying about the weight or the sugar or the fat, except perhaps in some deeply hidden part of me. Just eating what I wanted whenever I wanted it. I miss that heedlessness sometimes.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

sugar-free holidays

My no-sugar excursion into family Christmas was successful. I was part of the meal planning (we stay pretty simple these days): hearty soups the two evening meals, on my own for one breakfast--I ate a bagel with creamcheese. That was a big treat. Christmas brunch was pancakes and I ate several with a no-sugar jam and no butter. That felt okay. I also ate some scrambled eggs and chicken sausage so I didn't get that carb overload feeling.

There were cookies around and some chocolate and a warm blackberry pie with my favorite kind of ice cream last night. But it wasn't a big deal to just not take any (I didn't even have to say no) and those who ate some were done in a few minutes. I had two bowls of soup and was plenty satisified. None of it seemed worth it to me although I'm sure it would have been delicious.

But I had only to think of what I'd fall back into if I gave myself permission to eat sweets again. I'm not far enough away to trust myself to only eat a little or only eat some once. I don't know if the sugar dependence has the same forever shelf-life as I believe alcohol does so that if I ate some, I'd go back to craving and wanting, but I do know that what has kept me sugar-free since Feb 14 has been my commitment to myself to not eat any. And once I loosen that commitment, I don't know what would happen and I don't think I want to find out.

I'm home. Glad to see my kitties, glad to be alone for a bit. Headed off on a writing retreat tomorrow for the next 9 days. Hurray!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday expectations

At the AA meeting I went to Monday, the usual crowd of 35-40 women was done to 12. Not surprising with all the things there are to do at the holidays: decorating, gift-buying-wrapping-mailing-delivering, special foods to shop for and cook, parties, concerts, recitals, relatives visiting. A lot of crazy-making behaviors. Not so good for those of us who are addicted to expectations and our need to fill them.

When I was newly sober, there was a lot of frank talk about the holidays at meetings. How they were a time of excess: excess drinking, eating, spending--even for non-addicts. How it was so easy for us addicts to fall into that excess since we were by nature excessive consumers. (It's not surprising that more people go into recovery after the holidays than any other time of year.)

How there was a kind of frenzy that took over the culture, a frenzy fueled by the desire to achieve some mythical joy amd fulfillment through spending and consuming. Seduced by the romance of a past that never existed, we think we can create or re-create a happy childhood by doing more and more.

Christmas was, the old-timers said, an excellent time to keep it simple, to realize that Christmas was just another 24 hours, that not drinking (or eating sugar) is the real priority, along with kindness and gentleness to self and others.

Over these years of sobriety, my family's Christmas rituals and consumption have simplified considerably. We buy less, give less to each other and more to charity, eat less, drink not at all. In a way the holidays seem less special, less extraordinary because we don't have big expectations. In another way, they are much sweeter.

Have a wonderful holiday! Jill 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The post-birthday blues

Saturday morning I had breakfast with a very close friend and a lovely conversation that was deep and intimate, the way it always is when we are together. Then we went to a class we're taking on Creative Aging. That too was the most satisfying it's been and I went home happy.

But not for long.

I got home and the apartment was empty and I didn't have any work to ground me or give me structure and I flailed for a bit and then started watching TV and eating. It was very much like the old drinking days. A lone Saturday afternoon with no plans, a big letdown after the very socially engaged Friday and Friday night and Saturday morning and early afternoon. I was alone with me and I wasn't good company.

I feel this way often after a vacation. I'm glad to be home, glad to see my cats, but I feel at loose ends, especially if the vacation time has been joyous and intense. I want more of that kind of high. And the two days of birthday celebration had been a high.

I ate off and on for six hours. I didn't binge on sugar, didn't have any, but of course, there are plenty of things to overeat. The next day I felt lousy and it was good to work out.

I know there is something deep here that needs to shift, some way of being that I can't sit through or be with, that I run from through distractions, TV and eating or work. Saturday afternoon I so wanted ice cream, several gallons, and no one watching. I had the latter, not the former.

I can feel myself really close to knowing something, close to shifting. And yet...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Now I'm 64

Today at lunch, my Writing Friday pals sang the Beatles tune to me--well, the first few lines. That's all any of us could remember. It was enough to provoke hilarity and the laughter was just what I needed. It matched the lovely sunshine that seemed a gift just for me.

I got up early to take my older body to the gym. My buddy and I have a pact to go no fewer than three times a week to work out and to get that in this week it meant going at the crack of dawn. But we went and I had a good workout. One of my friends remarked at lunch that regular exercise is a key to healthy aging. I hope so. I've been a regular exerciser since 1980, never going more than two weeks without a good workout, and most often not more than 3 days. I'm not buff by any means but I want to be ambulatory at 80 and 90, if I should live that long.

But while 60 may be the new 50, I've still lived a long time already. Not only 64 years but 21 years of sobriety. When I was at the end of my drinking, I was pretty close to death. I wasn't dying yet physically of the disease but my psyche was weeks away from the end. I couldn't do it anymore: I couldn't stay drunk enough and I couldn't get sober, and I was so tired of pretending to be okay. The depression was deepening, the nausea was unrelenting, and my brain was full of an inky sludge that thickened with each glass of bourbon. Suicide was looking like a real possibility.

Then I got honest with my doctor and I went to treatment and my whole life changed.

This is not only my 65th Christmas (although I was only a few days old for the first one), it is also my 22nd Christmas sober. I'm so grateful for these sober decades, for this sober life, for being awake in it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When is older really older?

This Friday my personal odometer clicks over another year: 64. Since I've been sober, every year has been better than the last. There have been plenty of ups and downs but no major upheavals, and all the smaller changes I've been able to handle with grace. I've watched the years accumulate but without giving them much thought, just glad to be alive and to be sober in that life.

This time feels different somehow. In truth, I don't feel older, neither physically or emotionally than 2 weeks ago or yesterday. But I'm suddenly acutely aware of the time passing, of the mortality waiting around the corner. Perhaps not of the next block or the one after that but of a block not too far off.

I'm coming up on the age when people retire, when they sail off into the sunset with their long-term partner or their new lover. I'm coming up on the age when friends and acquaintances (or perhaps myself) will fall sick and they won't all recover. I'm coming up on the age when what's behind me is far longer than what's ahead.

I feel thoughtful, reflective, sobered by the realization that it won't go on forever. And I feel this in some deeper part of myself, not just the logical, intellectual understanding that we dismiss and go on as if we have all the time in the world. But in the knowing it's true.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


For a long time, I've known that I'm somebody who needs a lot of alone time. Maybe it's because I'm a caretaker by nature and hypervigilant, so when I'm with others, I'm paying attention to them and figuring out what they need and how I can make that happen. I don't know if that's just part of my nature or part of my upbringing.

When I first got sober, I really avoided solitude. In those last years, I'd become an apartment drinker, a loner with the bottle. I'd grown tired of hiding how much I was drinking, pretending to be sober when I wasn't, pretending to drink very little. It was just easier to be home with my bottles of wine and my TV and drink and sleep. I could do that for days on end and while I knew there was something not right about that, I needed it.

But sober, I was afraid to be in my apartment alone. I needed to get out, to be with others, to hide nothing. I went to lots and lots of meetings, often two a day and three a day on the weekend. I went to the movies, I shopped, I ate out in places that had no liquor license. It took about 5 years to be okay with being with me again. And once I was, it was a source of solace from a too busy life to have a day at home all by myself.

This weekend I've had lovely solitude. I have gone to the gym with my buddy Melanie each morning. But other than that, I've been at home. Yesterday I worked on a big project for a client. Today I worked in the morning, decluttered my bathroom this afternoon, and then did collage cards for each of the members of my creativity group, which meets tomorrow. I've taken care of odds and ends around the house, taking advantage of a rainless hour to get rid of the dead plants on my porch and the recycling that had accumulated on the terrace. I've had one of my favorite kinds of days: doing whatever occurs to me next.

And I've been alone. Well, not strictly speaking. Reinie and Frannie and Nellie have kept me good company all day. But I feel recharged for the social week ahead as friends gather for holiday parties and birthday celebrations. Glad to have had a good dose of solitude this weekend.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Needing things to be dependable

Sometimes my childhood experiences and the way they have formed me sneak up on me. Today was one of those days. Last night my computer monitor was doing some weird stuff and this morning it just decided to give me big trouble, staying lit only a few seconds before fading to black. It was annoying but it didn't stop me from writing in my journal, getting breakfast, taking a shower, getting ready for a day of writing with friends. And I have a great computer guy, perhaps the best PC guy in Portland, and I was sure he'd know what to do. It would mean a drive out to his place but I could fit that into my day.

Well, it wasn't that simple. When we talked on the phone at 9, he said he had no idea what was wrong but come on out so I unplugged everything and took both monitor and the tower to the car. My friends arrived, we had circle, they settled in to write and I drove to David's.

Of course, both the monitor and the computer performed beautifully there in his shop. Murphy's Law, or one of its variations, isn't it? I came on home, plugged it all back together and the monitor immediately didn't work. I called David who said it had to be in my environment so I spent time unplugging all the devices and plugging everything somewhere else and it just kept malfunctioning. Long story short, the monitor isn't working, the warranty has lapsed, and I need a new one. But it took most of the day to figure that out, a day I wanted to spend in another way. And the problem won't be solved now until Monday.

No big deal, right? I've got a laptop, I can sort out a way to do the work I need to do this weekend. It isn't a catastrophe. It's a mechanical glitch. And on the surface, I was okay, but underneath I was anxious. When my computer doesn't work or my phone doesn't work or the power is out or my car is in the shop, I don't feel right. I can talk myself into flexibility and I can pretend that I don't care but I do. I want to control my environment, I need things to be dependable and when they aren't, I don't like it.

I had several impulses to eat around this, to soothe myself. I knew enough not to try to talk myself out of the feelings of anxiety and disruption. It never helps to tell myself I shouldn't feel a certain way. But I didn't find a good soothing solution. I didn't eat but I didn't know how else to take care of myself.

I feel some better knowing that I just need to replace the monitor and that that can happen easily Monday morning and things will go back to being okay. But I'd like to develop more ease when things don't seem so dependable.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The three parts of the serenity prayer

Over the last several days, I've had a couple of conversations about acceptance. It's such a key concept in the 12-step programs. "Acceptance is the key to all my problems." But a single focus on acceptance of what is, of what we cannot change, can leave us feeling impotent and depressed. We forget that accepting the things we cannot change is only 1/3 of the serenity prayer, not the whole idea.

It's a good first step, just like the first step of the 12 steps. But it's only the first step.

What is equally important is figuring out what we can change, and what we want. Those of us in recovery are pretty clear about what we don't want (what it was like). We aren't so clear on what we do want and that seems an important piece to me of sobriety, whatever we're recovering from.

What kind of relationships do we want with friends and family? What kind of work do we want to do to contribute to the well-being of the world? How do we want to express our creativity? How do we want to relate to our Higher Power?

These are things we can change. It may not be easy, it may take substantial time. But if we get stuck at acceptance, we run the risk of falling into resignation ("nothing I can do") instead of moving forward into change.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Travelling with the Good Girl in Chicago

I just got back from my last Hazelden Women Healing Conference. There are 4 each year and I was honored to be a part of the speaker team in 2010. Each trip has been a mini-vacation for me: a nice hotel, a lot of leisure, a chance to meet and know very interesting women, who are doing really great work for women in recovery. I can't express how fortunate I feel to have been part of this.

This last trip was bittersweet and a bit more difficult. First, it was the last time we would all be together, at least in this way, and perhaps forever. Each of the other retreats, there's always been a "next time." Second, my two sisters came along on this weekend and so I felt very divided about where to spend my time.

Typically I have had dinner with the conference friends, breakfast on my own, lots of alone time during the day and quiet evenings of conversation. This time, there was a lot of sightseeing (quite wonderful) and two groups of people to eat with at each meal. My sisters weren't all that interested in getting to know my conference friends, whom they'd never see again; they were interested in a sisters' weekend. My conference friends wanted as much of our last time to be together as possible. So I found myself caught up in trying to please everybody and me too. More boundary issues and great opportunities to practice.

My sister Kerry is a great role model for me in asking for what she wants. She's really clear and direct and I so appreciate that about her. And it helped me be direct too. So I had dinner with conference friends Thursday and Friday night and spent Saturday day with them, spent Friday day and Saturday night with my sisters. Because I didn't get much alone time, I was glad to have taken an earlier flight home so I've had today to myself.

Of course, I realize it isn't my job to make or keep anybody happy. It's my job to be clear in my communication and ask for what I want. But old Good Girl habits die hard.

Friday, December 3, 2010

You're never too old to have poor boundaries

This week has been a week of interesting revelations. I was talking to my spiritual director on Wednesday about how I'd gotten into a jackpot around my schedule yet again. I keep talking about how I am going to organize my week so that I have some days free of appointments to work or to write or do art, confining social events and errands and those pesky meetings with the eye doctor or the financial advisor to one day a week. And it never happens.

My schedule is mine. No one else puts those appointments in my date book, no one else says, "Yes, that would be fine," when somebody wants a coaching session on an already crowded day or a lunch date in a week of big projects.

I was complaining of this to Anna, and she said. "Jill, that's an aspect of poor boundaries." And a huge lightbulb went off for me. I don't like to say no. I don't want people not to like me. I want to be accommodating. It feels selfish to not be. And that aspect of the Good Girl is often more important than taking care of myself.

Anna recommended that I establish a calendar policy in writing. That way I wouldn't be making decisions each time someone calls, but rather I'll have a freely chosen policy to refer myself to. A way to remind myself that this is what I want and need and this is what I can have.

So I'm going to spend time on the airplane home on Sunday doing several things: writing a wish list for my upcoming birthday and Christmas, considering my intentions and goals for 2011, and writing a calendar policy.