Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

Here it comes: I’m going to out myself. I am a member of Al-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and family members of alcoholics. Technically anonymity is a big part of the program, but I have decided that keeping myself anonymous in this is actually against my best interests, and so I am finally going to talk about something that quite literally turned my life around five years ago when I found it.

When I first went to Al-Anon, I had no idea that alcoholism had effected me as much as it did – I was not aware of how much I was aware of the people around me, to the point where I was counting others’ drinks, keeping score of others’ behavior, and living a life that revolved mostly around how much I could stay out of the way of whatever terrible thing I imagined could happen, regardless of whether it happened or not. (I wrote about this before without talking about how it was related to Al-Anon; you can read my post on codependence here.)

Now I know that a lot of my behaviors are related to having grown up in the company of an alcoholic; that many of my actions are actually defense mechanisms that were built into my childhood to cope with things beyond my control; some part of me created them to keep me safe in a situation that never felt safe to me on a very deep level.

When I first went to Al-Anon, I was already aware of many of the tenets of the program; the alcoholic in my life had stopped drinking when I was young, and I had been to meetings before, as a child. I knew the first step of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, which, coincidentally, is the first step of Al-Anon, too, although in Al-Anon we focus more on our inability to control another’s relationship to alcohol: 

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable.
In my first Al-Anon meeting of about 4 people in a small village in Mexico, we read this first step, and everyone shared what their first meeting had meant to them. There was a silence when everyone else had finished. I looked down at the book in front of me, swallowing repeatedly to hold back the tears. 

Someone cleared their throat and said, very gently, “You don’t have to say anything, but we are here to listen.”

“I don’t want to be in charge of anyone else anymore,” I said.

And then I cried. 


I think I may have spoken more. I think I may have explained that I wasn’t even sure I belonged there, because I hadn’t lived with an active alcoholic for more than 20 years; I probably expanded on the idea that I had always thought unconsciously that my job in life was to take care of others. I probably said all this, but I have no idea how, because all I really remember of that day was racking sobs and the relief that came from finally giving up the thought that I had the ability to control anyone, any situation, or how anyone acted. Best of all, it wasn’t my job to fix it. It wasn’t about me, and anything outside the sphere of me was none of my business.
At the end of each Al-Anon meeting, there is a line, and it has always been one of my greatest comforts, much the way that Al-Anon became a comfort to me in the fact  that I could go to a meeting anywhere in the world and the format was always the same; the ritual was always similar. That line says, “In closing, I would like to say that the opinions expressed here are solely of the person who holds them. Take what you like and leave the rest.”

Al-Anon – and other 12-step meetings – allow a person to talk about what is bothering them in an environment where people understand where they’re coming from and what they’re going through, but it also allows that not everything heard in a meeting is going to apply to everyone, and that is one of the most comforting parts, as far as I’m concerned.  However, I have not been going to meetings lately, and it has caused me to forget how important this line was to me, and how applicable it is not just in a 12-step environment, but in life in general. 

I’ve been so tired lately, invisible audience. I have stopped answering emails, I have stopped engaging, and I have found myself either holed up in my home or escaping to Costa Rican beach towns, all because I am having problems hearing myself think. This is not a new problem, but it is a cyclical one: when I am trying to grapple with new emotional upheavals or discoveries, I tend to get easily overwhelmed, and during these time periods, anything anyone tells me comes at me in stereo sound, with a lot of bass and not a lot of room for me to hear myself think.
What’s new, however, is an immediate connection to my intuition that wasn’t there before. Before, anyone could state how they felt about something with conviction, and I would find myself wanting to believe it was true because they seemed to know it was, and it very likely IS true…for them. It would take days or weeks for me to finally come to the understanding that just because they believed it didn’t mean I had to…that in fact, the exact opposite might be true for me.

The difference now is that I am suddenly feeling my disagreement in the moment, where I never could before; where, because of my experiences as a child, it was never safe to do anything but defer to the biggest, loudest and most insistent opinion out there. Now, when someone says something that is against my best interests or doesn’t resonate with me, I feel sick. Nauseous. And it is not until I consciously dismiss their words and own that I don’t agree – either out loud or simply to myself – that I start to feel better.

I have to take what I like, and leave the rest. And believe me, there’s a lot to leave: ideas about my role in life; what I am capable of; what is not my responsibility; others’ ideas on spirituality, reincarnation; my career, if I even want one. There is much more to leave than there is to take, and this is news to me. It is no wonder I have always felt overwhelmed, if I somehow thought I had to take all that was handed to me and treat it as truth, even if it didn’t fit.

In Al-Anon, we sometimes refer to emotional sobriety: of an ability to maintain equilibrium in the face of life’s storms. Many people in Al-Anon are still living with active alcoholics, and our own disease is often seeking out these people and trying to care for and change them; making their lives our own. Regardless of whether that’s the case, regardless of how each day shapes itself, the truth of the matter is that there will always be something to rock the emotional boat. I am finding that my own emotional sobriety has more to do with choosing the right battles. I have to work on letting go of the ideas that no longer serve me, and fostering an ability to manage stress that does not actually require an absence of stress, but a healthy awareness of what is mine to own and what I don’t have to; what is outside of the realm of my control or responsibilities. It is about being aware of what I get to take, and what I get to leave when I leave all the rest.

Love and all the rest kisses

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