Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thought for the Day

“People are hungry for messages of hope and life. What are you broadcasting?” - Morgan Brittany

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

St. Francis Prayer

Everybody who knows me knows this is my absolute favorite prayer. To hear it sung by Sarah MacLachlan makes it even better.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

571 Days

I was thinking today about craving alcohol and how I really don't crave it anymore. Even over vacation this past weekend in Santa Fe with family, many of whom are drinkers and some of whom can definitely knock 'em back, their drinking didn't bother me. I'd just hang out a while and then go back to the hotel room to play on Facebook or blog or watch a movie. (I watched 300, by the way, which reminded me somewhat of Spartacus, or at least the special effects did, and I finished up the second season of True Blood. I'm really looking forward to Game of Thrones when it premieres next month, and now I see I've totally gotten off topic.)

I was thinking to myself, what has replaced alcohol in my life? What is keeping me rather painlessly sober? Why, so far (knock on wood) have I not really had to white-knuckle it?

Sobriety happened for me like this:

1. Put down the bottle.

2. Give up the idea that you have any real control over your drinking. Any control or "self-will" is just temporary and never long-term.

3. In fact, while you're admitting to yourself that you can't direct your drinking behavior, admit to the fact that you can't direct A LOT of things. So stop trying. Do what you can, and that's all you can do. Go easy on expectations.

4. Find some faith. Believe that things, good and bad, happen for a reason. There's a purpose to your life. Seek it.

5. Forgive people. We're all human and we all do stupid, senseless, or selfish things. Resentments will eat you alive.

6. Be delighted by the little things, for the big things happen rarely, and if that's all that makes you happy, you'll be rarely contented.

7. Align your values with your actions.

8. Be grateful.

9. Help others as much as you are able.

10. Understand that alcohol makes 2-9 impossible.

In short, giving up alcohol is not at all like having the strength of will to merely say "no" to a second piece of pie. It is all about changing the way you look at, and interact with, the world. It is all about changing yourself.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mental Health Break: Aurora Borealis (Timelapse) over Norway

The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

Pecos National Historical Park

What I really wanted to see was the cliff dwellings at Chaco Canyon, but since we were in New Mexico for only three days, there wasn't time; so, we settled for the next-best-thing close by, Pecos National Historical Park. That's me in the picture looking very happy about life indeed, but actually I was freezing! The park is at about 6,000 feet, and it was extremely windy, so were were a huffing and puffing family as we trudged up the hill towards the ruins. (In fact, in another part of the park, the annual Battle of Glorieta Pass reenactment was scheduled, but it was so windy and dry that they didn't dare shoot off any cannon or muskets. So that wound up being a bust.) But never mind, the rest of our excursion was interesting, and I learned some new things about the Pueblo Indians.

Namely, they didn't live in tipis or wigwams or longhouses. Nope, they lived in apartment complexes.

Seriously. They built blocks of houses around plazas, and each block of houses had four or five stories. There were no doors; the people just climbed up ladders they could then pull back up through hatchways. Each story had about three or four apartments of several rooms each. The rooms were whitewashed. It was highly civilized.

In each plaza, there was an underground kiva for religious ceremonies. Today, the kivas are pretty much all that's left of the pueblos because the houses have long since disintegrated or been knocked down. The park had restored several of the kivas so that you could climb down into them and look around, so naturally we did that. Here is sunlight streaming down into the one I visited:

It was a solemn moment for me as it felt like God was filling the room.

Then along came the Spanish conquistadores, seeking gold. They found none, so next came the friars and bishops, building their missions near to the pueblos so they could convert the Indians (viewed as pagans) to Christianity. There was a brief uprising against the missions by the Pueblos, but the Spanish doggedly returned and rebuilt the missions. Ultimately America won the territory from Mexico, so then came the American settlers on the Santa Fe Trail (you can still see some of the ruts left by wagon wheels). And then Pecos Pueblo was abandoned altogether.

The ruins of the old mission are still there as well:

And here's a shot I snapped looking down the hill from the mission ruins:

Altogether it made for an interesting day. You can't help feeling connected to the land. And you can't help grieving a bit for the loss of a civilization and a way of life that today we can see had value; once again we see religious beliefs causing the virtual destruction of a people. Of course there are descendants of the Pueblo peoples still around, and there is land designated as "Indian land," but really we were the invaders and we wrested their land from them. This got me thinking about the present situation in the Middle East, the struggle between the Jewish and Palestinian people, which in many ways can be reduced to a turf war over religious sites and who was there first.

But that's a post for another day.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Holy Cow, It's Holy Dirt!

America's answer to the healing powers of Lourdes can be found in Chimayo, New Mexico. Legend has it that, well before the Spaniards ever reached the area, the site had a hot spring used by the Tewa Indians for its healing powers. Nowadays, it's a sacred site for Catholics and other Christian pilgrims.

It's known as El Santuario de Chimayo, where you can take containers (or buy them in the gift shop) and fill them with holy water and holy dirt. Yup. Holy dirt. (One of my friends immediately texted me back when I told her I'd picked up some holy dirt for her, saying this was fine as long as it didn't have any holy shit. Ha ha.)

But seriously, apparently in Guatemala, there is a place where the clay is said to be sacred, having healing properties, so the idea of healing dirt isn't all that off the wall. Inside the church, off to the left of the altar is a small room called the pocito; you have to duck to get through the door. In the middle of the pocito is a small round pit full of dirt. The pit itself is said to have once held the crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas. He was killed by Indians and buried in ChimayĆ³. A flood of the Santa Cruz River (a small tributary of the Rio Grande) in the spring of 1810 uncovered the body and the crucifix. People who remembered the priest dedicated the shrine to the Christ of Esquipulas.

There's a scoop in the pit, and you scoop a little of the dirt into your container, and you can then take the dirt away to pray over, rub on an injured part of your body, etc (though it's not suggested that you eat it, apparently many have done so). The dirt is to help with spiritual, mental, or physical healing. Outside the pocito is a room with votives, photographs, discarded crutches, and even a wheelchair left or sent by people who have been miraculously healed after making a pilgrimage to the site.

It's estimated that about 300,000 people visit the site annually.

The energy of the place is incredible. Almost immediately I could feel the energy of the sheer devotion given to the place, much like you can also see the waves of energy coming off the Buddha in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The church and surrounding grounds are covered with small handmade crosses, which pilgrims have tucked into the fences or into crevices in the stone crosses that line the creek (see photo above).

There was also a horse down by the parking lot, standing forlornly by a fence, and he gently nibbled my knuckles when I presented him with my hand.

Here is what the holy dirt looks like:

One thing's for sure. Never underestimate the power of prayer, or the strength of faith and conviction in the human heart and mind.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Loretto Chapel Staircase

This is a photo of the miracle staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe. Why miraculous? Well, it was built by one man with a hammer, saw, carpenters square, and wood. No nails. No glue. No screws. No center support. It has two 360° turns. Originally it had no banisters (see old photo below). It's held together by square wooden pegs. It should have toppled, yet it's never toppled after generations of use, and modern-day engineers can't explain it.

There's a good story behind it, too. Originally, the good sisters of Loretto needed to have a staircase built up to the choir loft (ladders just weren't practical, not to mention terrifying to ascend in long robes). So they decided to do a nine-day novena to St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters and builders. After the last day of prayers, the very next day, there appeared an old, gray-haired, gray-bearded man leading a donkey. He offered his services as a carpenter. About half a year later, he'd completed the staircase, was paid, and went on his way.

People speculate the mysterious old man was really St. Joseph himself.

Check out the photo of the original staircase, minus the banisters and railings. It seemed to float in air. You sure as heck will wonder how on earth it stands solidly, much less bear the weight of people ascending. Yet it did.

Why Alcoholics Drink

From a post made in January, republished for a friend who is presently trying to figure out "why she can't stop drinking every day."

Short answer: because they're alcoholics.

I know, that sounds flip. But it's the truth.

I've blogged about this before, but it's something that bears repeating. For the longest time, I thought my alcohol abuse was due to circumstances, things outside myself. Problems made me drink, stress made me drink, people and situations made me drink, my childhood made me drink. I kept thinking that if I could just pinpoint that overwhelming REASON, that kernel inside me that led to my occasional problem drinking, I could deal with that reason and my drinking problem would go away.

I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, trying to cure myself. I'd go through periods of self-reflection, restraint and abstinence, then commence drinking again with the sincere desire to moderate. Inevitably it would all fall to shit. I'd start binging again and my problem would once again spiral out of control. Friends would ask me, "Why do you drink?" and enable me (unknowingly, of course, and certainly not intentionally) by trying to help me pinpoint the REASON. It was Chelle; it was where I lived; it was child sexual abuse; it was my mother's suicide; it was whatever seemed convenient to blame after any given drinking episode. Therapy, medications, exercise, nothing seemed to get rid, though, of the REASON I drank (whatever it was).

In rehab I finally got it. Looking around at different people running the gamut from a cardiac anesthesiologist to a football coach to a housewife to a high school student, I could see that the only "reason" we had in common was alcohol itself. ALCOHOL IS THE REASON.

We just can't handle alcohol.

Get alcohol in us, however, and we all acted in amazingly predictable ways. Then we had tons of things in common. Hilarious drunkalogues, blackouts, frustrated attempts to control our drinking, hiding our booze, lying about our booze, hangovers, distorting situations, feeling picked on and controlled, finding excuses to drink, planning when to drink, and so on. Every last one of us was in there because we (or our families) were absolutely desperate and at the end of our tethers.

That was key for me finally getting better. I finally let go of the idea that something outside myself, some external thing that I could fix, would get rid of my problem drinking. That is utter bullshit. The reason for the problem is alcohol itself.

If there's a problem drinker in your life, there is no "fixable" REASON they abuse alcohol. They abuse it because they're an alcoholic. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sometimes You Just Need a Vacation

Snapped this one from the car on the way from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Chillin' here for a long, much-needed, essay-free weekend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Lois and Liz

Woke to the news this morning that Liz Taylor has died. Boy, did that take me back. As a kid, I remember our family going to the movies to see National Velvet on the big screen. My stepmother just loved her. (Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, too. I think she aspired to be Scarlett O’Hara.)

My parents volunteered at a local rescue squad in dispatch. It just so happened that there was a big parade down Broad Street in Richmond one year (not the Tobacco Festival; I honestly don’t recall the occasion). The rescue squad had a float in the parade, and my stepmother was on it. It was just a long flat-bed truck decorated with what looked like aluminum foil with a desk on it, and my stepmother sat there the length of the route, pretending to be talking into the microphone the whole way. Very low budget.

For some reason, Liz Taylor was the Grand Marshal of the parade, so Lois was very excited. Dad, Wayne, and I stood perched along the parade route in front of whatever public building it was that seemed to be the parade’s operations center. Along came Liz Taylor waving in her car. And then the car stopped, right in front of us. Men from inside the building came out to help her out of the car, fanning her, offering her a cold drink, as people began swarming around us, calling out, “Liz! Liz!”

She smiled weakly, gave a small wave, and was escorted right past me into the building. Later I learned she’d not been feeling well (probably the heat and humidity). All I really remember was that she was way tinier than I’d ever imagined her to be.

And that is my Elizabeth Taylor story.

And then it struck me. (For some reason, this is the kind of stuff I wind up musing about when I'm showering in the morning.) My parents volunteered dispatching at the local rescue squad. I mean, there was even a police scanner at home and when one or the other of them was doing a shift, we could hear Lois’s or Dad’s voice over the radio. Much older now, I realize what a stressful job dispatching can be, much less doing it for free, and I marvel over the fact that these two people cared enough about complete strangers and the world at large to volunteer for that kind of work on the weekends.

And then I was reminded how many people actually loved my stepmom, how many times people took it upon themselves to tell me how lucky I was she was my mom. She was secretary of the Richmond chapter of Cat Fanciers, she volunteered at the rescue squad, she drove a powder blue Cadillac, she dyed her hair red and wore it piled high on her head in a beehive, even in the 1970s. Outside of the house, she was a ham.

What they didn’t know was what went on inside the house: she was a cat hoarder (13 cats in the house; read here). She was a racist. She had anorexia/bulimia. She was meaner than a snake and pussy-whipped my Dad. When I was fifteen and hospitalized at Tucker Pavilion at Chippenham Hospital with severe depression, after speaking with her, even the psychiatrist, Dr. Fultz, told me she was a lunatic.

She died of kidney failure after years of gobbling laxatives and sticking her finger down her throat in order to stay skinny. I used to like to think she poisoned herself with the self-same venom she spewed at anyone who crossed her.

I hated my stepmother for many, many years. Or maybe it wasn't hate. Maybe it was just profound hurt.

Now I just wonder. I wonder what made her the way she was. I wonder if her gestures of humanity salved her conscience, or if they were just an act. (We are talking about a woman who once snatched a drawing I’d made out of my hands when I’d shown it to her and threw it in the trash, telling me it was “a waste of good crayons.” I was seven or eight.) We are talking about a woman who said there was no God. We are talking about a woman who had an affair with my father while my mother was still living. Even the cats—did she really love those cats, or did she keep them merely, as she once said, to spite her own mother, who wouldn’t let her have a kitty when she was a child?

I never saw Lois shed tears. I never saw her happy. I wonder if really she wasn’t living in utter despair. Somehow, I seem tapped out of anger anymore. What I feel mostly is just a deep sadness and a need to understand her, because at heart I’ve already forgiven her, despite it all. I just feel too tired to even be angry or hurt anymore.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fighting Racism with Humor

By now you've probably heard about UCLA student Alexandra Wallace's rant on Youtube about Asian students being loud in the library. Of course, she has now left UCLA and has been parodied ad infinitum, ad nauseum, but the video below is the most clever rejoinder I've seen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Stop Polishing the Turds

One of the funniest pieces of advice I ever heard in an AA meeting was this: "If you're sick of living in shit, then get out of it. You're not going to make your situation better by sitting there polishing the turds."

Such beauty in simplicity.

How often do we try to improve our situation not by stepping out of it but by sticking on a Band-Aid or by changing the rules a bit or by applying some other little tweak? Alcoholics are great at this. "I'm not really an alcoholic; I'm just a problem drinker. I'll just start drinking beer only." No, you're an alcoholic. Normal drinkers don't have to control their drinking. STOP DRINKING.

The mindset bleeds over into every little thing you do in your life (no matter what your addiction is, be it booze, pot, relationships, shopping, or you name it.)

"It's not really a lie; it's just a little fib." No, it's not; if it's not the truth, it's a lie. If you don't want to be a liar, then start being honest.

"It's not really an affair, at least not a bad one; my wife just has lost all interest in sex." Dude, it's an affair. If you don't want to be a cheater, then don't cheat.

"It's not really stealing; I need to pay my rent, and he has plenty, so it's fair that I swipe this fifty bucks from his wallet." Nope, it's not yours, so it's stealing. If you don't want to be a thief, don't steal.

"She is such a bitch! People need to know how horrible she is." Really? If you don't want to be a gossip, don't gossip.

You can dress up the shit all you like, put glitter on it, spray perfume on it, and tie a big red bow around it, but guess what? It's still shit.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Godley and Creme: "Cry"

Remember this old song from the '80s? It was one of the first, if not the first, music videos to use morphing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

A funny thing happened in class today. Several students were absent, so I cracked, "Uh-huh. Hungover today, too much partying on St. Patrick's Day."

After the expected chuckles, one student asked, "So what did you do to celebrate?"

I said, "Nothing. Stayed home. Graded papers."

She frowned. "Aw. You seem pretty chill and like you'd party every now and then."

I had to smile and shake my head. "No. Too old for that!"

She said, "Yeah, but you don't look or act old." (God bless her.)

Of course I laughed. "Well, tell that to this creaky old body. I just can't handle that stuff anymore."

We dropped it and I went on to start class, but then this same topic came up at today's AA meeting. We were discussing the 12th Tradition, and one of the older members spoke up to say that things are changing nowadays, and more people are willing to break the concept of "anonymity" as long as they're referring to just themselves (it is obviously a bad idea to name names of members, because they may need to remain anonymous for some reason--actually this is the reason I never identify anybody by name on this blog). He then told the story of how at work, he just can't move as quickly as he did when he was a young man. And, he continued, a coworker kept giving him heat about it. "You're so slow," she'd complain, jokingly, of course, but still what people really think is often "concealed" in a joke.

She kept at it, too, until finally he told her, "Honey, I used to abuse alcohol and shoot drugs, and I may move slowly--but I am just grateful to be alive."

That shut her right up.

And that is the lesson I took home from today's meeting. I may not be the carefree, happy, oblivious, don't-give-a-damn "fun" girl I used to be (and seldom was it really fun by the time I'd gotten to the last drink of the night anyway), but I'm still here. Nobody's life is perfect, but with an attitude of gratitude, it's still pretty doggone good.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Letting Go of That Which No Longer Serves You

God doesn't close one door
without opening a better one.


BUT ...

You've got to get your fingers
out of the closing door. The reason you're in
pain is because you have your fingers stuck
in a door God is trying to close.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Class Warfare Looks Like

This graphic by the Center for American Progress has been making the rounds. I've seen it on Andrew Sullivan's blog,, Political Loudmouth, Daily Kos, and other places. It really does speak for itself, quite elegantly. Liberals perceive Republicans as basically robbing Peter (the poor) to pay Paul (the rich). Or, to use another analogy, Robin Hood is now stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

It seems to me, regardless of one's political persuasion, if Congress were actually SERIOUS about putting a dent in the deficit, we'd not be asking just the poor and the middle (working) class to shoulder all the burden of the deficit. We'd cut all these entitlements to the wealthy as well.  Add up both columns and you get quite a chunk of money. Don't ask the people who can least afford it to be the only persons to take a hit.

Do Unto Others

I have a few nontraditional students in my freshman composition class this semester. One is a young man who served in Iraq. Another is an older woman who is Japanese. Her spoken and written English is quite good, though, so I suspect she's lived in the States for some time. Today I asked her if she has family in Japan, and of course she does. I wished her and them well and expressed sympathy for the series of disasters, both natural and man-made, that country is undergoing right now.

And it reminded me of something that happened on Facebook last night. A guy who is a fellow gamer in Castle Age posted a status that surprised me. He expressed indignation that Japan, as he put it, is "demanding" assistance from us in the wake of the disasters. He then went on a rant: what did Japan do for us after 9-11? After Hurricane Katrina? What about kids starving here in the US because their dads lost jobs when our car manufacturers went out of business because everybody was buying Japanese-made cars instead?

Well, I wasn't going to facejack his thread by suggesting it's not the fault of the Japanese if Americans decided to buy Japanese cars instead of American made cars. Maybe he should be considering the buyers of the cars and directing his anger at them. But I did feel the need to calmly state the following: "Actually, Japan was one of the first nations to offer assistance after both 9-11 and Katrina."

That's all I said. I was expecting him to ask me to post a source for this info (which I then would have gladly done), but that's not what he did. He simply unfriended me.

I was surprised. I mean, mine weren't exactly fighting words. I can only surmise that he didn't care for someone questioning his assumptions. No big deal-- he's not in my Guild or anything, so I doubt either of us will miss the other. Still, I found myself marveling.

For me, whether or not Japan has ever offered assistance to us is an entirely irrelevant issue. They had a huge earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami. So far at least 10,000 are dead. Yesterday a volcano started erupting. On top of this, there have been a couple of explosions at nuclear reactors and one at the moment is in dire danger of melting down completely. America doesn't turn its head and say "too bad for you" at this. We do what we have always done. We pitch in and do what we can to help them out. We do this because we are basically a well-intentioned people concerned about our fellow human beings. We do this because it is, frankly, the RIGHT THING TO DO.

And then I felt a little sad for this guy on Facebook. I don't think I'd like to have to live, feeling bitter and angry and doing for others only if I felt like they'd done something for me. I know America is in the middle of a class war right now. I know most of us, me included, are feeling the pinch (and many a vise). I know I do my share of political posts on Facebook (though I try to not rant, and to my pleasant surprise, many times we wind up having some pretty enlightening discussions). But sometimes you just set all this stuff aside for the moment and do what has to be done.

Put it aside. Return to it later. Right now, just do what needs to be done.

It's called the Golden Rule.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

San Francisco Area is Fine

Woke up this morning to lots of texts and emails from people concerned about the tsunami warning on the West Coast. I'm so grateful for my friends and family, and I do appreciate the prayers and good wishes sent our way.

San Francisco itself and San Mateo County did not sustain any major damage as far as I've heard. There was some rough sea and about 2-3 foot higher waves, but thankfully the tsunami waves came in during low tide, so nothing really went over the sea walls as far as I can tell from news reports and such.

Jimmy's condo on Ocean Beach is fine, and Chelle and I of course are fine since we're not near the ocean at all and up a hill from San Francisco Bay. Pacifica and Half Moon Bay were evacuated and residents to the west of Hwy One were directed up the hill on 92, so the traffic congestion and cars stopped along the roadway were probably the biggest hazard.

Santa Cruz to the south of us and Crescent City (far north of us) seemed to get the worst surge, with some damage and a fatality recorded. It made me pause for a moment to reflect upon the fact that an earthquake in Japan could actually result in a death in Northern California. How huge the world seems sometimes, yet today it seems much smaller.

Photos and updates are at the San Francisco Chronicle here.

And, of course, we are sending our prayers, condolences, and good wishes to the people of Japan in the wake of this incredible disaster.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Adele: "Rolling in the Deep"

If you're not familiar with Adele's music, you need to be. I blogged about her here in 2008. Finally she's getting some airplay in the United States.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.

- Buddha

How Do You Know If You're An Alcoholic?

This is a repost (original dated March 30, 2010); I post it again at the request of a friend.

Now that I've started blogging about recovery, I'm starting to get questions from friends about how I came to realize I was ... well, a drunk! Or they're concerned about people they know or their own family members. There are all kinds of little "tests" online that purport to assess one's likeliness to be alcoholic, but the problem is, sometimes those simply say: "If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, you are in danger of being an alcoholic!" I used to roll my eyes at those because anybody can probably answer "yes" to at least one of the questions. The average college student might even answer "yes" to several of them, but they're not necessarily alcoholics. They're just in a kind of occasional binge-drinking stage that they'll eventually grow out of.

An alcoholic is somebody who doesn't grow out of it.

But, for whatever it's worth, here's one test that isn't too bad of an indicator, if you answer the questions honestly: Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test. For the alcoholic who may be trying to "prove" he's not, though, that's a big if.

True, there are some people whose problem is pretty obvious. They're the ones who can't hold down a job because they can't put the booze down long enough to work, or they get bad hangovers so often they're constantly calling in sick and getting fired. Or, they show up at work, but they're so bad-tempered (because they feel like crap) that they constantly pop off at the mouth and they wind up fired. They can't stay in a stable relationship because of the constant fighting. They're generally happy drunks at first who get argumentative when they've had too much. Consequently they may have been in and out of jail (having periods of sobriety when incarcerated) for assault or for petty crimes or for other, illegal, drug use. They may go on the wagon every now and then but somehow always seem to fall back off. They tend to hang out in bars a lot, and their friends are heavy drinkers.

Harder to spot are the "higher functioning" alcoholics. I was one of those, and it took until I was 47 before I finally had to admit I was more than just "a problem drinker." Never had a DUI, never lost a job, never had a relationship break up solely due to my drinking (though it played a part, you bet), never was in jail, and not all of my friends are drinkers. I was, rather, a closet drinker and good enough at it that many people were surprised to find out I had an alcohol problem. (Others weren't surprised at all.) I did a lot of drinking alone. I was pretty good about tossing empties in the trash and getting them down to the recycling before Chelle got home. I was a big liar about how much I actually consumed. (For the curious: on average, I'd have about 15 drinks per drinking episode. And I mixed 'em up. I'd start with a couple cocktails, switch to beer, have wine with dinner, then a few more cocktails or port afterwards. Sometimes if I didn't feel drunk enough, I'd sneak a quick shot or two of vodka or of Chelle's bourbon.) What I would admit to was having maybe...oh, four or five.

So, how do you tell if you're not really sure, and when it seems as if everybody on the planet is way too quick to diagnose you just because you overdo it every now and then (those meddling bastards)?

One sign is blackouts. If you regularly "lose" your memory of a drinking episode, or part of your memory of the night before (a "brownout"), that's a pretty solid sign.

Problem is, not all alcoholics have blackouts. I met several in rehab who'd never had a blackout in their lives. (But I never met anyone who has regular blackouts who isn't an alcoholic.)

Other signs you may be developing, or have developed, a physical dependency on alcohol: Does your blood pressure run a little high? Do you get morning or night sweats? Do you shake a little (even just a little tremor) in the mornings after a drinking episode? If you're really, really addicted, then you might have a seizure after suddenly stopping drinking, and that can be dangerous. Hallucinations, too. Anyone who is physically dependent needs to detox in a hospital because this intense a withdrawal can make you die. There was a guy in rehab who had a seizure and had to be rushed to the hospital. A few months ago, I came out of an AA meeting, and a heavy drinker who'd tried stopping on his own was down on the sidewalk in the middle of a seizure.

As for me, I was not so addicted I needed a medical detox. The most that happened for me was severe hangovers (a hangover, after all, is withdrawal from alcohol), occasional morning tremors, and sweats. (I used to write the sweats off as perimenopause and the tremors as low blood sugar. I was kidding myself.)

I've mentioned sneaking drinks, drinking alone, lying about how much you drink, hiding bottles. Other things to look for: is there alcoholism in your family? Have you tried controlling or managing your alcohol consumption by doing things like switching to beer only or wine only, or drinking only on weekends, or only after 5pm? When you start drinking, does it make you anxious or uncomfortable if you have to stop after only two or three? Do you plan when you can have an opportunity to drink? Have other people expressed concern about your drinking? In short, are there numerous signs that there's a problem, but you have some "excuse" to explain away each of them?

Then there's the issue of, are you a problem drinker, or are you an alcoholic? Any alcoholic is probably going to first argue he or she merely has a problem that they can get under control. Various theories exist about problem drinkers learning to moderate their drinking. My Dad did it. He had lost his driver's license for a DUI, and then his job as a consequence because he couldn't drive (impossible for a salesman). That was enough to shake some sense into him, and he was able to stop for a while and then took to drinking on Saturday nights only. He did get drunk every now and then, but it wasn't enough to be a big deal. However, he did "check out" of living a full life... he spent the week with his head in a book or watching TV after dinner every night and never interacted with his own kids. So he didn't really treat the underlying psychological issues that led to his abuse of alcohol to begin with. He became what we call a "mostly dry drunk." He still thought and acted like an alcoholic in many ways by being emotionally unavailable; he just didn't drink all that much any more.

Some psychiatrists will say that some heavy drinkers, if they haven't been abusing so long that they're addicted to the booze, can "re-teach" themselves to drink in moderation. That's the path I certainly tried to follow for a while, but it just never worked for me. Inevitably I'd spiral out of control and step up the pace again and return to drinking pretty much every other day and all weekend long. (My drunkalogue is here.)

If you're not convinced you're an alcoholic or think you can control your drinking--you just need to truly put your mind to it--then the only thing you can do is give it a whirl. If you succeed, great! If you don't, though, and after a time you keep slipping and overindulging, then it may be time to admit defeat and stop altogether.

If you can reach that conclusion without having to hit the bottom of rock bottoms, you're lucky. Some never do. It takes cirrhosis or something life-threatening to get them there. But I'll close this with a couple thoughts. When was the last time you had a drink? An alcoholic always knows. A normal drinker will have to think about it. Normal drinkers never wonder if they have a problem. If you've been really concerned that you might be an alcoholic, chances are pretty good that you are.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Horse Named Arrrrr

Well, it's not as funny as the horse named Hoof Hearted ("and it's Hoof Hearted by a nose!"), but you have to appreciate how the race caller took the horse's name in stride (yeah, pun intended).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

I got an email from an old college friend today, expressing concern for a relative who has just gotten sober. It sounds like his was a hard fall to bottom, involving demotions at work and an impending divorce. And it won't be easy for him to right his boat and get it sailing forward again.

A knee-jerk reaction is to just chuck it. Sometimes, when we're using, we do so much damage to our reputations and to our friends and loved ones that it seems impossible to repair it all. It especially seems this way when these same people have seen us fall off the wagon, repeatedly, after promising not to. They've lost faith in us. It feels like no matter how much time may pass--years, even--they will never learn to trust us again. They're always going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So starting over, starting fresh, seems the most logical thing to do. Go somewhere where they don't know us. Go somewhere where we won't be running unexpectedly into someone we once hurt, angered, or embarrassed. Go somewhere that's a total change of scene: we've never been in those bars, we'd need to make totally new friends, we won't be exposed to the same old haunts and temptations that led us astray before.

The problem is, this is the same kind of "geographical cure" thinking every alcoholic or addict thinks will save them. We're nothing if not impulsive. Stop drinking, change your address, problem solved, right?

Wrong. Stopping drinking is just the tip of the iceberg. It's the necessary first step. Sometimes I think it's the easiest step. Because the second step in the process of staying sober is a harder one. It's this: now change pretty much everything about yourself. You can move all you like, but you can't move away from yourself. No matter where you go, there you are.

After you stop drinking, you then have to tackle all the reasons--the ways of thinking, the habits of being, the destructive beliefs, etc--that led to your abusing a substance in the first place. You have to grow up. You have to seek forgiveness, make amends, seek serenity, pursue rigorous self-honesty, face some ugly heinous humiliating things about yourself, let go of resentments, learn courage in the face of paralyzing fear, but most of all, learn to love yourself. You do this through your step work, but step work never ends. It's like peeling away the layers of an onion. You peel one layer back, only to discover there are more of them.

Some days you will feel like Sisyphus, rolling and re-rolling that boulder back up that damn hill.

Changing your address isn't going to change a thing.

In the case of my friend's relative, he hasn't lost his job. So it seems wise to me to keep it. He may have lost his wife and most of his friends, but the truth is, they liked him and loved him once upon a time. All is not lost. Things may never be the same, but as I told my friend, when people really get it that you're sober--that you mean it this time--that you are fighting for your sobriety--and that you are transforming, and they can see this for themselves rather than listening to empty promises--most people are amazingly forgiving. They may never forget, but neither should you. Salvage what you can, and learn from your mistakes. Don't expect miracles, but a few will undoubtedly come.

One thing's for sure: miracles won't ever come if you run, because running away is what alcoholics and addicts do.

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Two Favorite Racehorses Ever!

This is what Chelle got me for Valentine's Day, and it finally got back from the framer's today. That's Secretariat and Zenyatta. Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, has signed it (right in the middle), and then all of Zenyatta's connections have signed it: Jerry and Ann Moss, owners; Mike Smith, jockey; John Shirreffs, trainer; Dottie Shirreffs, barn manager. To date, these are the two greatest racehorses I have ever seen, and to have them on one poster is ... well, kinda a cool thing.

Yesterday's Meeting

I was needed at the noon AA meeting yesterday because of the woman who came in late.

She was looking anxiously for a place to sit, so I patted the chair next to me and smiled at her.

It was a step study meeting, and the place was packed, so naturally there weren't enough books to go around. I scooted my chair closer to hers and held my book so she could look on with me. "I don't have my glasses," she said sheepishly, so I brought the book up even closer, angling it so she had the better view of it.

Turned out she's from Half Moon Bay, has been going to meetings for many years, and was just getting bored of seeing the same old people all the time in her usual meetings. I confessed I'd been bad about getting to meetings myself lately, for much the same reason. I told her I tended to like this particular meeting because inevitably someone in our group (it's called the 51-50 Club for a reason, trust me) will say something truly off the wall. True to form, at one point a man stood up and said ... well, I'm not sure what he said, but it had to do with ghosts and quitting smoking. The lady's eyes met my eyes in that moment, and we shared a smile of camaraderie.

I told her about the 5:00 women's meeting in Belmont on Saturdays, and she seemed interested in giving that one a try. She squeezed my hand after the Lord's Prayer.

Who knows? Maybe I'll see her some Saturday.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Don't Overthink It

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

~John Milton, Paradise Lost

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Return to Sanity

A year and a half ago, I'd come home on a Thursday, say, and think to myself, "I'd better have a drink since I don't have to work tomorrow"--meaning that a hangover wouldn't matter. I didn't even necessarily feel like having a drink. No, my reasoning was that since it was a good opportunity to drink, I'd better take it while I could. So I'd drink.

Back then, I didn't see how insane this thinking really was. It seemed perfectly logical and responsible to me. I would've been patting myself on the back for NOT drinking the night before I had to work (although I did plenty of that, too).

And this is what I meant yesterday about the colossal shift I've undergone over the past year and a half. I can see now what a grip alcohol truly had on me.

In rehab, I had trouble with the second step: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." I thought then, "Sanity? I'm not insane." Then my counselor gave me a worksheet that asked me to define "sanity." I scribbled the usual stuff: clear thinking, not delusional, grounded in reality, not self-destructive, makes sense, etc etc.

"Insanity," then, would be the opposite of all this.

Is it sane to drink until you pass out or puke? Are you the sane one when you stand there insisting you have no problem when half of your friends and all of your family are insisting you do? Is it sane to go around stashing empty bottles to throw away later? Is it sane to go into a rage and find yourself apologizing the next morning for a slight that you totally imagined? Is it sane to do this stuff over and over and over again?


Sobriety is a return to sanity.