April 10, 2020
I can’t remember waking up any morning and thinking, “Wow, this is a great day for grieving!” Most of us came to recovery carrying a lot of painful thoughts, memories and experiences we did not want to face. Hooray for the 4th step. So, welcoming pain was probably the last thing on our minds. Because of present circumstances, now may be the time to learn to lean into the amazing process of grieving.
Take a moment to think about what it is like to encounter a loved one, friend or beloved pet, especially after a longer than normal absence. Close your eyes for a moment and take in the feeling. It’s a wonderful feeling. Something that just happens automatically, right? Well maybe. And, what else? I notice when I tap into feeling grief and embrace it, an awareness comes to me that there is choice involved. And you know how we all like choices!
Okay, I get it. Holding feelings is easy for good stuff, you know, the stuff we really want to feel. But what about the feelings we don’t want to feel? Can we embrace them too? Since all feelings are a part of us, good and bad, we have an opportunity to ask for willingness to experience our feelings in real time. In addition, feelings associated with grieving may top the list of feelings we’d rather avoid. Or, would we?
In the April 3 entry on Acceptance in Melody Beattie’s meditation book, “The Language of Letting Go”, she writes, “Feelings are for the present moment. The more quickly we can accept a feeling in the present moment, the more quickly we can move on to the next.” That says to me that I can accept the feelings I like, and the feelings I don’t like. What a concept. How do I do this? How does recovery fit in?
In the early days, I bought into the idea that service was part of the recovery process. My sponsor “suggested” I get involved. So, I did. After all, he was perhaps the first higher power I chose to trust when I came into recovery. He told me lots of things, including, “You need to get into service.” My first assignment was to clean ash trays. I had quit smoking, so what the hell did cleaning ashtrays have to do with sobriety?? Against my rebellious thinking, I cleaned them. I did so well I was promoted to greeter in less than a month. From there, coffee maker and then to meeting secretary. Wow, I was fast-tracking, learning responsibility! Later, I was given the task of inviting “old timer” program types to be main speakers at our big Friday evening meeting, which had a large birthday celebration the last week of the month. I was given a list of names and numbers with some suggestions, so I started making calls.
This was how I met Dr. Earle Marsh, whose story in the AA Big Book is “Physician Heal Thyself.” He became a friend and mentor. I learned a lot from him. One of the most significant discussions we had was about acceptance. He introduced the concept that acceptance is the last phase of the 5-Stages of Grief as outlined in Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s book, “On Grief and Grieving.” The five stages are: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and then ultimately, acceptance. So, how important is going through the first four stages of grief prior to getting to acceptance? Most experts about the grieving process agree that going through all stages is vital. My first 4th step took several months to complete. I learned that the pain of feeling feelings of grief had blocked me from forward movement. A seed was planted that all the stages were important to get through the process. My experience became short term pain equaled long term gain.
Grieving is about loss. In early recovery, I felt lots of pain. So, what had my greatest loss been? After noticing some relief from pain by going to meetings, I found a sponsor. He helped me understand, I had been in a long-term relationship, by choice. The relationship I chose to be in was the relationship I had with alcohol-drugs. In the beginning the use of alcohol provided a sense of belonging, blocked fear and gave me courage. I wasn’t equipped to realize it was a false sense because I didn’t understand that I wasn’t present to accept my own participation in whatever I was doing. I was relying on something outside myself to participate in the first place. Nevertheless, I felt secure, brave, sensitive, or whatever the situation dictated. This was the fun stage. How could any of us not like/depend on the illusion of security, which is what addiction gives us in the “fun” stage? It was a perfect relationship.
Then I entered a stage where I got into scrapes. Nothing major, or so I thought at the time. I didn’t see that my behavior in other relationships got riskier and increasingly unhealthy. There were consequences, but nothing that the condition created by being under the influence couldn’t rationalize as manageable. This was the “fun plus problems” stage. Eventually the “nothing but problems” stage became my daily life. Part of my recovery includes therapy. There I learned that alcohol and drugs had served a purpose, which was to help my adolescent mind deal with the trauma of very painful childhood experiences. I learned the relationship I had with alcohol and drugs saved me from further destruction; I had an aborted suicide attempt. I had no idea how deep my relationship with alcohol and drugs was.
I had a dynamic introduction to Grieving 101 by taking the first step. When I took the step with my sponsor, he asked me, “Are you willing to surrender to the notion that alcohol cannot be part of your life anymore?” He left the room, leaving me alone to think about this for a few minutes, asking me to think sincerely about his question before I answered it. After a few minutes I felt tears surge from a place I had never known. They escalated into wailing sounds, like I had whooping cough. I cried so hard my sponsor broke down crying. I hope I never forget it. Later I shared the experience with Dr. Marsh, who said, “That makes sense; you lost a primary relationship!” True; I had been involved in a primary relationship with alcohol for 28 years. According to Google, the average length for a marriage in the US is 7-8 years. Wow, I had stuck it out for nearly 4 times the average. It began to make sense that I had the grief reaction I did.
Earle’s input introduced me to the realization that everything in life is a relationship, and it’s not just with people. My relationship with my sweetie, business, dog, house plants, my ethics, politics and oh yeah, and my participation in the recovery programs I attend are relationships too. People, places and things enter my life, and leave. Even if they remain in place, they often change, sometimes dramatically. Change can initiate grief, and that includes positive changes too. And what is the main feature of change and loss? Its powerlessness. No, not that again!
In this Covid-19 environment, time on our hands is giving us an opportunity for a closer look at our relationships with powerlessness. Many of us are experiencing our comfort zones being challenged not by our choices. Isolation is necessary, so feelings of all kinds are accelerated as a by-product of it. Plus, it’s hard not to project how other consequences of the virus will affect us for an indefinite time. I notice a subtle shift in the sharing at Zoom meetings. The good, positive vibes are present, yet people also talking more about sadness, fear and uneasiness. There is also a lot of emphasis being placed on missing human contact, which going to meetings in person gives us. This is an expression of grief. I like it when I hear people share support for people who share about their difficult realities and validate them for doing so. It’s not whining or being on a pity pot. It’s real stuff and important to hear and connect to.
Honest open sharing can also help with subtle grief. It helps bring into focus things we take for granted, like going to the movies, taking walks, visiting a friend, traveling and even going shopping. These activities all have new rules, and again, we have no idea when restrictions will be lifted and what will become the new normal for everyday life. Not being able to access these freedoms is a significant loss which brings on grief. It’s in the here and now. In order to help establish a new normal that includes lightness, joy, and laughter, perhaps it’s time to consider grieving our losses by talking about them openly with our life partners, friends, sponsors and in the meetings. While we are at it, it is a great time listen to each other more carefully. After any encounter, a spot check inventory can help with identifying grief.
Over the years, I have become willing to get closer to the grieving process. This requires me to be present when I don’t want to. It helps me avoid paying lip service to being in acceptance, which is easy to do without feeling the feelings. And, avoidance is a relationship I don’t want to develop, and then have to grieve later. Avoidance can be a tough challenge because it gives the same illusion of relief that alcohol/drugs did. I want to steer clear of it one day at a time.
Today, when I bring things to “review” with my sponsor, I have an experience that is like “hearing a broken record.” I should know by now that I’m going to hear him say that I’m in a relationship with powerlessness. If my “review” is repetitive, I hear him say my name as “Bhaab (instead of Bob), you’re dealing with a relationship with powerlessness.” Although, I hate hearing him say my name that way, I must laugh. It keeps me grounded. It’s like a spiritual 2X4 to the forehead. He then gently reminds me that everything is God given, often saying, “Hooray for the Higher Power.” It’s up to me to view it that way, then take action in the steps.
I have come to realize that grieving does not have to be heavy all the time in concept or feeling. I’ve also learned that four of the five-stages offered by Kubler-Ross do not have to be experienced in order, except in my case for the last one, acceptance. It’s hard for me to get to acceptance without experiencing the other four. Patrick Carnes says the Twelve Steps is, “A program to deal with our losses, a program for dealing with our grief.” This helps me realize why a continuous experience with taking the steps is vitally important.
So, what about the yin and yang in this process? What are some things I’m not grieving today? There are many. The main two I am not grieving are hope and my relationship with a power greater than myself. Hope is not lost, and neither is God; Thank God! What a powerful gift our 3rd Step is.
Therefore, I think I’m going to redouble my efforts today to embrace the real world as it is instead of the way I want it to be in order to feel okay. That’s what alcohol and drugs did when I used them, and it was only an illusion that life was good. It’s time to make some simple first step lists on powerlessness and unmanageability. It’s time pick up my 2-ounce cell phone and call my sponsor and program people. I’ll have to make sure there are new entries on the list, so I don’t have to hear “Bhaab.” Then I can hear solution, and if it contains an invitation that will include the grieving process, well then, hooray. Although feeling the feelings that accompany grieving can be a painful choice to embrace, I know it leads to freedom and serenity.