Step four: filling empty spaces.

The calendar went around the table, and I passed it as usual, but not before pausing and looking at the next week’s topic: Step four. I had been thinking about signing up for the lead, but not on step four. Someone else who had actually worked the step could take that one.

By the end of the meeting, still no one had signed up. As I walked out the door, T called my name and asked if I would do the lead. “You would do such a great job,” she said. “I’ll sit next to you and help lead the meeting.”

My Higher Power speaks to me through the kind people I meet in Al Anon. She gave me the push I needed. Later that week, she texted me: “Thank you for offering the lead and I’ll help you along. We just share our experience, strength, and hope of step four. Don’t be concerned with having “worked” the step in some formal way. Higher Power gives us the words and those always speak to the hearts of the members. See you Tuesday and feel free to call me.”

I am so grateful to be a part of this community. Below is my first Al Anon lead.

Step four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory.

When I first signed up to do the lead for this week, I wasn’t sure about what I would talk about. I haven’t “formally” worked step four, so what could I possibly have to share that would be helpful to others? (And by “formally” working a step, I was thinking of someone who worked with a sponsor to physically write out their moral inventory.) But after encouragement from members of this group and thinking it over more, I realized that we all work the steps in different ways. There is no right or wrong way. And I have been weaving step four into my everyday life since I first came to Al Anon. I hope my story today can bring you strength and hope where you need it.

I’d like to start with a reading from Courage to Change, page 55:

Isn’t it exasperating to go to the grocery for an item, only to find the shelf empty? Fortunately, grocers can correct that situation by taking inventory to learn which shelves need replenishment.

The same is true for me. A fourth step inventory illuminates my own empty spaces, my shortcomings. This doesn’t have to be a painful or scary experience. I don’t have to pass judgment on an empty shelf, but unless I take the time to become aware of it, I won’t do anything to fill it, and the problem will continue. By taking inventory, my empty spots can be filled with the help of the remaining steps. I experience the healing power of these steps whenever the formerly hurtful circumstances recur while the pain that I once felt does not.

I believe if we don’t take action to fill our empty spaces with something positive – if we don’t replace the fear with love – resentment begins to grow there, instead.

When my husband was in active addiction, I had a lot of anger. I felt like I was doing most of the work when it came to caring for our child. On the weekdays, I’d get our son ready for daycare, drop him off, pick him up, feed him, play with him, give him a bath – while my husband slept, “worked late,” found some reason to leave the house or spend time in the garage. On the weekends, I’d wake up with our little one while my husband slept in. When I tried to wake him up, I yelled. “Wake up! I’m doing everything! This isn’t fair!” It typically didn’t end well.

As many of you know, sobriety doesn’t solve all of our problems. Our moral inventories are still there, the empty shelves waiting to filled, and no one can fill them but us. My husband got clean, and resentment grew in that angry, empty space.

I remember one Saturday morning, standing in the kitchen, the dishwasher open in front of me. I had just put all the dishes away, and the sink was full of more dishes to load. At my legs, our little one, asking when I would be done. A Sesame Street CD played in the background. Laundry tumbled in the washer downstairs. A to-do list building in my head. Upstairs, my husband’s alarm clock blaring for the last half hour. Him, in bed, sleeping, oblivious.

The anger began to wash over me – the same old thoughts of “this isn’t fair, he’s never going to change, I’m doing everything, I’m all alone, it’s all his fault.” But I didn’t want to feel angry anymore. I didn’t want to go upstairs and yell at him to wake up. I didn’t want to let him sleep and be angry the rest of the day, punishing him with my silence. I had been through all of that before, and it didn’t help. It didn’t help us move forward. The anger held us back.

I cried. The anger moved through me. It turned into sadness, confusion, a feeling of being overwhelmed and alone. I just wanted help. I just wanted him to be with us. I allowed myself to feel and accept these the feelings as mine to face. Then, I released them, and I went upstairs.

I didn’t yell. I replaced the anger with communication, and I told him I needed him. I needed help. It was all too much for me and I couldn’t handle it anymore. Would he please wake up and help me?

He responded better to that. And with love, compassion, communication, came perspective. I realized – he’s trying. He’s clean. He’s working on his issues and he’s not perfect and he needs help, too. He doesn’t want to sleep all day and miss out on his family. And so, with time, it’s getting better. We take it one day at a time. We have breakfasts together on the weekends now. We have a weekday routine in the mornings and evenings, tag-teaming the drives to and from daycare, dinner time, bath time, bed time. I don’t feel like I’m going at it alone anymore. We’re on the same page, doing it together, moving through each day with the same loving rhythm. Our son is four, and starting to feel big emotions. Rather than dismiss them, we are teaching him how to identify them, to know that they’re okay, and to release them. I suppose it’s never too early to start making your searching and fearless moral inventory, right?

As I prepared for this lead, I kept coming back to this: Step four is all about self love. It’s about loving yourself no matter what. Love yourself enough to recognize and celebrate your good qualities. Love yourself and allow yourself to feel, accept, and release the negative. Know that you are not your feelings, or thoughts, or behaviors. Self doubt and self hate have no place in your path forward. Love yourself enough to let go and let your Higher Power guide you. You are enough. Just ask your Higher Power to help you fill the empty spaces with what you already have within.

 

Lean in and pray.

The summer of 2017, M relapsed. And by relapse, I mean he went full force back into using regularly and lying to me about it. After a weeks’ long stay in rehab that past December, months of intensive outpatient and nearly a half a year of clean, hopeful progress – we were back to locked doors, missing money, refusal to open up and be fully transparent, suspicions, fights, tears.

I had coffee with my friend S that summer, someone from my old food blogging days. Although we were not the closest of friends, we could always open up to each other so easily about the deep stuff that had us wondering about the everyday world and the relationships we keep. She had moved out of state but we still got together for coffee now and then when she came back in town.Her faith in God was something that I once ignored about her. Not because it turned me off, but I realized we might never be the friends that I thought, or hoped, we might be because of this difference in values. I didn’t believe in anything. I didn’t believe that God didn’t exist, but I didn’t welcome him into my life, either. I didn’t think I needed him.

So we had coffee and caught up on writing life, motherhood, navigating adulthood. Before we started saying our goodbyes, I opened up to her about my current struggle. I had been thinking about it during the entire date, wondering how to say it – just blurt it out? My husband is a recovering addict and our marriage is hanging on by threads and I feel very alone and confused and scared and the everyday that I once celebrated so much has now become my own struggle. There is no good time in a conversation to bring it up.

But I said it briefly – M had been in rehab, and it brought me to searching for something higher. I told her I admired her own strong faith, that she could just put her life in the hands of God and knew it would be OK. I had had one brief feeling of spirituality, of believing in something larger than me, in Japan, standing before a giant sitting Buddha. Was that what I was looking for? Does God exist in different forms? Is he the image of a man, or is he the energy all around me? I didn’t know. I felt like I was chasing something and I didn’t even know what it was or if it existed.

Lean into those questions, she said. Ask him for a sign.

I hadn’t prayed in a long time. I decided to try.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. // Al-Anon Step 3

I liked the idea of praying, but a part of me felt like I didn’t have a right to do so. Because I’d rejected God for so long, how could just ask him for help now that everything is falling apart? Because I’d always judged people who found God this way – who couldn’t figure out a way to solve their problems themselves, so they just relied on God to fix it, and tell them what to do, and answer all the questions that they didn’t know how to face themselves. And if I did ask him for a sign, how would I know? Would I just be looking at everything after and thinking, is that it? Is that Him? If I did believe in God, did he have to be in the form of a man, and Jesus, or could I continue to believe that he is everything around me, that he is the energy flowing through me and my breath going in and out? Could it be what I wanted to believe, or is it another way? Is that what he would show me?

Lean into those questions. Ask him for a sign.

I didn’t know how to pray. So I wrote a letter.

Dear God,

I’ve been avoiding your name. I’ve been asking lots of questions, and searching, and buying books and not reading them, and meditating, and feeling like I’m forcing spirituality onto myself while also remaining doubtful and pushing away for fear of being a phony and a hypocrite and weak.

I want you. And I’ve been avoiding talking to you because a part of me does not want to be a person who prays. But a part of me wants to embrace prayer.

I need help.

Life is hard, and if I believe that we are all connected somehow, that the breath of life that flows through that tree that I’m looking at through the window also flows through me, that you are that life, that you are everywhere, not just some man looking down at me from the heavens above, listening to me, but that you’re wind blowing through the leaves and birds chirping and the blue, blue sky, and my son’s laughter, and the light shining through the window – then I have to be able to look to you for help.

Because you are life.

And I don’t know what it is you do – make things better? Tell me the answers? Give me a sign in the form of thunder and lightning, some clear vision that floats out of the sky, or maybe something smaller that falls into my path and just works somehow?

I realized that the one thing I haven’t done is let go.

Surrender.

To finally put my faith in you.

To stop trying to answer the questions myself and to let you tell me.

To be completely vulnerable, and to talk to you, and ask you for help, and admit that I don’t know the answers, and that if you’re everywhere and everything, then it will all be okay.

Please give me a sign. And I will be yours truly.

Celebrating progress, not perfection.

It’s been a few months since M’s last slip. Things have been gloriously ordinary around here. People ask “What’s new?” and I’m practically giddy when I tell them, “Nothing! Not much going on here. Just the everyday routine, every day.”

But what I really, really want to tell them are the small wins. Like, “M’s been coming to bed earlier.” Or , “We’re really making progress in our couples therapy sessions.” Also, “We have breakfasts together on the weekends now,” and “He’s quitting smoking!” Or even just, “He made it another day fighting the demons. He won today.”

While it might seem very strange for some people, when you’re living with someone in recovery, these small wins can mean everything. Especially when three years ago, our home was filled with resentment, uncertainty, feelings and hurt and worries unspoken and unheard. In Al-Anon, there is the slogan Progress, not perfection. It taught me perspective – really acknowledging how far we have come from sitting alone in those dark holes to climbing our way out, one step at a time, and finding our way back to each other and ourselves. We continue climbing every day.

It’s hard in this age of social media, where everyone is sharing the “perfect” things – celebrations of birthdays, marriages, a first house, a new job. A pregnancy announcement. A check-in from vacation. And attached to each post, a thread of congratulatory comments, hearts and likes and high fives, virtual hugs and pats on the back to let the poster know – Yes! This is worthy of being celebrated! We see you and how great you are living the life that everyone says you’re supposed to live.

And they are worthy of being celebrated! But what about the things that happen in between the big, happy moments? What about real life? The small, ordinary wins that look like nothing but took everything to achieve? How do we celebrate those?

It’s hard. I don’t like saying “I’m proud of you.” For some reason, it makes me feel separate, as though I’m saying it from above, looking down on him as he climbs. When what I really want to do is climb into the hole with him and cheer him on, and shine a light pointing up, so that he can see a little clearer and climb a little higher.

I don’t want to post on Facebook about what time my husband went to bed last night or our latest couples therapy breakthrough. Because it’s not even about the likes and the comments and the pats on the back. It’s about opening our eyes and noticing. Shining that light every day by saying, “Hey, I see you. I’m so happy you came to bed with me last night. It means a lot and I can feel us getting stronger, better. It feels right.”

Yesterday was the first day in 18 years that he did not have a single cigarette. When he told me, I hugged him. Told him it was amazing. And that we should celebrate. Tonight, we’re going out to eat at our favorite restaurant, out little family of three. We’ll get ice cream for dessert.

Let’s lift each other up. Let’s share our stories, our struggles, our big wins and small wins. Let’s celebrate.

It’s the smallest steps, the ones we take when we’re alone and unsure and afraid, the ones we take even though we can’t be certain we’ll make it to our destination because we’re learning, slowly, that maybe there is no destination. It’s just a constant climb, and not always up. Sometimes sideways, a couple of steps down, a pause to wait for the fog to lift before making the next step. These are the ones that are often the hardest to take, and the ones that are most important to celebrate.

And if we fall, the universe is there to catch us.

Recovery, every day.

We keep a weekly planner open on the kitchen table at all times. Monday at 6 – my therapist appointment. Tuesday at 5 – couples therapy. Wednesday after school – a team meeting for M, then his therapy at 6. Thursday at 5:30 – band practice? Friday at 5:30 – M’s dosing and group. Saturday at 8 – Modest Mouse concert. On the opposite page, a daily habit tracker with check boxes for each day of the week. For me, yoga. For him, play guitar. For us, purge (as in, every day contribute to our long-term effort of decluttering).

This is what our weekly calendar looks like on most weeks, although not always as packed with appointments. This is our new normal, our new routine – very consciously making time for our mental health, self care, recovery. Not written in our calendar is the rest of the everyday, the routine that most families are familiar with – drop off little m at daycare, work, pick up m at daycare, plop m in front of the TV for an hour while I space out in front of my phone and stick a few chicken nuggets in the toaster oven for his dinner, feed m, playtime, bath time, bed time, cook dinner for me and M or more often than not, grab takeout because who has the energy to cook anymore? Eat dinner in front of the TV and, lately, pass out on the couch and wake up in a pissy mood, a messy kitchen still left to clean, the next day hovering over me like a dark cloud. Most days, I am very tired. On days like these, self care and recovery just become another to-do on a long list of to-do’s. On days like these, I want to crawl back into bed and throw my life at someone else to do for me. 

And then there are days like today. Sunday at home, no plans except to get the house back in order and re-energize for the week. I started off the morning feeling overwhelmed by all the housework that had to be done. Everywhere I turned there was something to clean, something to put away, something that kept being ignored. I managed to take one thing at a time, focus on each task at hand, then move on to the next. I made time for little m when he asked if I would play with him. I was able to communicate to M that I need a few hours out of the house to take a break from housework and mommy-ing to breathe. To write. Now, I’m sitting in a new coffee shop downtown, the kind that makes coffee foam designs that beg for an Instagram post. My film camera sits next to me, and old hobby from my twenties that I’m leaning into again, an urge to chase the light, feel the click of the shutter, the dreamy images revealed like a Christmas package after a long wait. Just as I wrote that, the barista picked up my empty coffee cup and complimented the camera – “Minolta?” he asked. “I have one too.”

Soon, I’ll pack up and head back home. The quilt in the dryer will likely need another spin. Little m will be ready for dinner and M will ask me what we’re eating. I’m thinking tacos from our regular Mexican spot. We’ll feed the little, get him ready for bed and start to wind down for the evening. Dinner in front of the TV. I feel relaxed knowing that I spent a good chunk of the day checking items off my to-do list, including “write.” There are many days where I feel like I’m drowning in to-do’s, and self care is almost like an impossible joke. I’m thankful for days like today, and I’m glad to be able to write about it – to remind myself that I’m not really drowning. I’m just riding the waves, and some days are rougher than others, but every day I must keep faith that the universe will keep me safe. That the energy of the moon pulls the waters back and forth, the same moon that guides me home.

On days like today, here are the words that help me:

First thing’s first.
“When there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day, we can accept our limitations and make choices about what has to be done at once and what has to be postponed. We are not superhuman, we cannot do it all. First things first helps us make more workable choices and live with the choices we make.” – from How Al-Anon Works: For Families & Friends of Alcoholics

Let go.
Let go of expectations of what I think my day or my house or my parenting should look like. Accept, embrace, be grateful for my life just the way it is.

Forgive.
It’s okay that little m didn’t have a vegetable with dinner. It’s okay that I didn’t make it to the yoga mat today. It’s okay to leave that last basket of laundry unfolded. It’s okay that m watched TV while I cleaned. It’s going to be okay.

Recovery isn’t always about therapy appointments or even talking about addiction directly. Sometimes it’s about weaving self care into the everyday: Using an Al-Anon slogan to help get through routines. A conversation with M about purging clothes and items we no longer need, and relating that back to our own healing – removing the dead leaves, what no longer serves us. Making room for new growth. And after a good day, saying thank you – to the universe, to M, to myself. We all worked together to make it through. 

Tomorrow is Monday, and we’ll start over again.

A journal entry from April 29, 2018.

I struggle with expectations. I set these expectations, then when they aren’t met, I wonder – don’t I deserve what I want to happen, to happen? Why let go and settle for less?

But there is a difference between expectations and needs.

“Attaching our well being to a particular action or outcome is very risky. In essence, we make that situation a kind of higher power – we give our power over to other people and circumstances… We have the ability to change our attitudes. We can detach from our [expectations], anchoring our well being and peace of mind our Higher Power rather than any external situation.” – How Al Anon Works

Do not let your expectations become your Higher Power.

These past two days, this past weekend, I’ve woken up with this idea in my head of what the morning would look like. Maybe it was the Instagram posts of a local mother, a photographer who manages to make suburban mom life look so perfect – her family stylishly dressed, going to hipster cafes and taking perfectly candid photos in front of painted brick walls. So I wanted a morning spent in our little downtown, at a park and then for a meal or dessert. I wanted to make it out by 11, so we could grab a small breakfast and have time to talk and play. M got out of bed at a decent time but took nearly two hours getting ready. We didn’t make it downtown until 12:30. By the time we left the house, I was crabby and short with M and m. Looking back, it seems so silly to have been so angry after having such a nice day.

A delicious bacon sandwich and iced mocha at a new-to-us cafe. A walk in the sunshine along the river, m pushed on his trike. m running around the park with no fear. His laugh. We made it back to get m down for a nap by 3, then I listened to a podcast while making pasta and roasting vegetables for the week. Shawn Achor was on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, talking about happiness and how worry can be a waste of time. They’re just thoughts, noise, taking up space that would be better used for something that brings joy rather than negativity.

Why focus on what’s going wrong? On how my expectations aren’t being met? Why do I let running late get to me? Even when I set the time frame – when I tell myself we have to be somewhere at a certain time for no real reason, and then I let that dictate my attitude. M will take longer than I like, and I take it out on him. Even though he got out of bed when I asked, and even started getting ready without first going out for a cigarette. I still grumbled about it, and got so impatient and frustrated. I yelled at m and he felt my anger. I saw him get quiet and upset as a reaction to my crabbiness. And for what? Everything turned out fine. We had such a nice day. And I regret those few hours when I was just so upset for no good reason.

I have been confusing my expectation for my needs.

What do I need? To spend quality time with my husband and my son. A husband who wants to spend time with me, who loves his family, who takes care of us. It can’t be about what I expect our days to look like before they even begin. Because by the end of the day – there is a little boy playing in the backyard with his daddy, asking questions and saying things like, “Oh, I have an idea!” when he thinks of something new and exciting on his own. There is laundry clean and dry and waiting to be folded. There are windows flung open and a house that finally smells fresh and clean and full of new again. There are plants with fresh soil, watered and green. There is a just vacuumed carpet and pasta sauce bubbling on the stove. There are healing crystals at work around the house, and a full moon, and a clear sky.

Also feeling today:

  • Scattered. I kept starting chores and then getting distracted by another task. I started to hang dry laundry, then got half way done and started clearing the floor to vacuum, then came downstairs and realized I hadn’t finished the laundry.
  • Mom guilt. Totally felt guilty for letting m watch TV while I vacuumed, when outside, it was beautiful. He wanted to watch TV, and he played outside in the morning (and then again after TV), and how else am I supposed to clean without interruption?
  • Letting go. Of my expectations of what I think my writing should look like. What I actually got out on the page today was not what I wrote in my head earlier. But I got it out.
  • Paying attention to my plants. I actually started talking to them, and I noticed I felt better after I gave them some attention. I realized we all share the same energy in this home. If I put more energy into caring for my plants, maybe they’ll help bring more positive energy to our space.
  • Crystals. Charoite was brought to my attention after finding it in my crystal book by mistake. I read the description and it’s what I have been looking for to help with my fears of relapse, as well as letting go of expectations. Prehnite is a stone I just bought last month because I kept stumbling upon its description. I read today that it’s good for connecting with nature – explains my new connection to my plants!
  • Prayer. Please help me to let go of expectations. To keep a positive attitude. To be grateful for all the ways in which my needs are met every day.

A journal entry from October 25, 2017.

I watch the map. Would he be moving east or west on 88? West meant he was going to his counselor. East meant into the city for drugs. He merges heading west. A sigh of relief.

I sit in my car in a parking lot not far from home. I just made an appointment with a new therapist. I miss those evenings in C’s office – a safe space to talk about all of it. Lately I have been feeling anger. And although I am often aware of it, I still hold on to it. I research which crystals help me let go, but when I’m feeling it consume me, I hang on. Like I own it, like I have a right to keep it.

I held on last night, and again this morning. As the day went on, fear set in. I checked his location at lunchtime. A suspicious stop.

What if?

I can’t control it, I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it.

Then, hurt. Why hadn’t he texted? Shame. Why can’t I just suck it up and tell him I love him? Guilt. He kissed me this morning. He’s trying to let go. He’s going through so much. We both are. Why can’t we just see eye to eye?

I slept on the couch. I didn’t know what else to do.

I pray. I admit my powerlessness, my confusion. Take this pain, this anger, this darkness. Please show me light and love, toward him. Toward myself.