Friday, June 19, 2009

The Gifts

Most 12 Step groups have several readings that form a large portion of every meeting. There are preambles, statements of problems, welcomes to newcomers, and of course the reading of the 12 and 12. S-Anon is no different. There are about 6 or 7 standard readings that are "suggested" by S-Anon International, and the two groups I attend read them all.

It sounds repetitive to the newcomer, but hearing these readings every week really provides a touchstone for each week, and I always seem to get something new out of at least one of the readings. In my groups (we have basically the same members at both groups) we get almost childishly excited about our last reading, "The Gifts of the S-Anon Program." It seems to be everyone's favorite.

Gifts of the S-Anon Program

When we approach the process of recovery with honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to apply the principles of the Twelve Steps to our lives, we will soon begin to see the rewards. We will become able to surrender our self-defeating behavior. We will find that we have strength and insight to make good choices for ourselves. Our ability to act positively on behalf of our health, families, jobs and bank accounts will amaze us. We will find that others are doing things for themselves which we thought we had to do for them. Our ability to give and receive love will expand tremendously, and we will become increasingly available for loving relationships with others. We will recover the feeling of joy. We will become more honest with ourselves and experience a new comfort in our intimate relationships. We will feel the security that arises from true fellowship with others in the program, knowing that we are loved and accepted just as we are. Feelings of failure and inadequacy will be replaced by self-confidence and independence of spirit. We will no longer expect other people to provide us with an identity or a sense of self-worth. We will find the courage to be true to ourselves. We will know peace of mind and feel a stronger connection with the Higher Power of our understanding, and our Hope will turn to faith that God is really working in our lives, as we explore the wonders of serenity, dignity, and emotional growth.

These are powerful promises. They are an affirmation, and hopefully a self-fulfilling prophesy. We WILL surrender our self-defeating behavior. We WILL have strength and insight to be able to make good choices for ourselves. All it takes is honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to apply the principles. When I was first coming into the program five months ago, I clung to these promises.

It really helps when we no longer feel so alone in our problems. In the beginning I felt like there was no one I could talk to who understood the situation I was in. I felt a lot of shame for wanting to stay in my marriage because I thought others would view me as weak or dependent if I remained in the relationship despite everything that had happened. Now I realize that staying and working on my own recovery, and supporting my husband as he works on his, takes more strength than most people understand, and it was the fellowship of others who had been through this same fire that helped me see this. Having the open-mindedness to see this situation as something more than just a series of wrongs that were done to me, but rather a pattern of shame-based behavior that both of us had a part in, and both of us could learn from and work through, didn't come naturally, but really as a gift of applying myself to my own recovery.

I have heard other women in my meetings say that their husbands' addictions were a gift to them, and I can see this in my own life now. Without the reality of my husband's addictions staring me in the face, I would not have confronted the parts of my own life and my own behavior that need attention. I could easily have walked away and chalked this all up to Ways That I Have Been Wronged, but that would have denied my own opportunity for growth. Without my own recovery, I would have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, continuing my own pattern of relationships with addicts, until eventually one of them might have destroyed me. Fortunately, I ended up with one who is strong enough to face his own recovery with grace and honesty, and this inspires me to face my own.

We will become more honest with ourselves and experience a new comfort in our intimate longer using sex to medicate or cover up the problems in my relationship, or using physical intimacy to avoid looking at the lack of true intimacy and honesty that I couldn't face was really there.

We will no longer expect other people to provide us with an identity or a sense of self-worth...learning to be comfortable with my partner's emotions, allowing him to be sad or depressed without immediately feeling it must be something that I did. I am still working on this one. It is still hard for me not to mirror my husband's moods, which means that if I want to be happy, he has to be happy too. This is neither realistic nor fair to him. And although I always prided myself on not needing to be in a relationship to have an identity, I can't deny that being my husband's wife became a big part of my identity. That's okay to an extent, but I think that can easily morph into my requiring him to be a certain way and fulfill certain expectations of mine in order for my identity to remain intact, which isn't so healthy.

We will find the courage to be true to ourselves...again, something that I thought I was good at before. Over time I slowly allowed this to erode, as I denied my own intuitive sense that something was wrong. The more excuses I found myself making for my husband's addictive behavior, and the more excuses I made for my own codependent behavior, the less integrity I had, which creates a lot of shame and allows the behavior to continue.

I am fortunate to already be experiencing the gifts of recovery in my life, although mine is just beginning.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Anicca: Impermanence

According to the Buddhist tradition, all phenomena other than Nirvana are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma seals: impermanence, suffering, and impersonality. (Swiped from Wikipedia.)

All things in this life are impermanent. Our health, our stuff, the fact that we are alive at all: all impermanent. Clinging to our belief that things are permanent leads to suffering, according to the Buddha. But this is not a bad thing, or a good thing. It's just the way it is, and it's an idea that makes sense without having to be a Buddhist or be anything in particular. Our feelings are impermanent, and this is something I forget all the time. When I am mired in self-pity, or sadness, or anxiety, I forget that this is a feeling and that feelings pass, usually much more quickly than I ever expected. Good feelings pass, too. After all, that is part of what makes happiness and joy so sweet, the fact that we do not always have these emotions with us. Their fleeting nature and their impermanence are what make them such a treasure.

When I first began to learn of my husband's sex addiction, I fell into grief. I mourned the loss of my idea of our marriage. I had an idea that I was the only person my husband would ever do certain things with, that he would not have desires except for me, that he would not do things that could hurt me so deeply. Once I had to release these beliefs, I thought that I would not be able to remain in a marriage in which those things were not true. Yet our marriage is in a constant state of becoming, as are we as people. Thankfully my blinders of denial and self-delusion were removed, and when that happened I learned that I can survive the loss of my carefully tended dreams. Losing those dreams didn't mean that my husband did not love me, nor did it mean that I was not worth having the love and the goodness of the universe in my life. It did help to teach me that everything does change. We cannot step into the same river twice, as the saying goes.

The idea of impermanence helps me moment-to-moment as well. Knowing that our feelings are fleeting and ephemeral makes it easier to spend time feeling them. Doing all of the destructive things we have done to keep from feeling them only prolongs our suffering, and does not protect us from them anyway. It compounds our misery rather than allowing us to escape it. Our current situation is not the most comfortable: we are both unemployed, I am racking up thousands of dollars of debt each semester, our apartment life drives me crazy sometimes, our family relationships are not what we would like them to be. But things will not always be this way. And of course, our life right now isn't exactly miserable, either. There is plenty of joy to be found in each day, even if on the surface I don't have the things in place that I think would make me more content.

Knowing that nothing in life is permanent is knowing that we have capacity for change. In fact, change is imperative. We can try to direct this change toward good, or we can allow it to go in the most comfortable direction, which we will often have to deal with later on. If the painful parts of life were permanent, where would hope be?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Good Books

Thanks for the comments and encouragement. I have noticed last night and tonight that my eating has been less problematic. I guess being more aware and thinking about this issue has improved things, but I know in the long run I have a lot of work to do in this area. I'm sure I'll be sharing more about this as my recovery progresses, as I think food and eating are going to play a big part.

I finished the book--America Anonymous by Benoit Denizet-Lewis--tonight, and I loved it. It is very compelling, easy to read, thought-provoking and touching. One thing I especially liked about the book was the attention to addictions that many of us are less familiar with, like gambling and compulsive shoplifting, as well as the "old familiars", and how all the different stories emphasize that addiction is essentially the same no matter what the substance or behavior.

While I'm at it, I recently finished Susan Cheever's "Desire" which is about her own struggles with sex and love addiction and what she learned from research about it. It is somewhere between a memoir and a conversation about sex addiction. One fascinating chapter outlines all the evidence for Bill W. being a sex addict after achieving sobriety from alcohol (Susan Cheever wrote a definitive biography about Bill W. called "My Name Is Bill" some years ago, but did not include the things she uncovered about his compulsive sexuality in the book). In other chapters she talks about her father's addictions (her father was the well-known author John Cheever). I enjoyed this book as well, but a lot of reviewers seemed to have difficulty with the fact that you can't really classify this book as research or scientific or personal memoir. That's what made it compelling to me, but consider this fair warning.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Stuffing Feelings

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to my own potentially addictive behaviors, such as overeating. I am especially noticing how I eat (in the evenings mostly) to relieve stress, how I feel anxious prior to eating, how I get hungry "for" certain comfort foods (as opposed to just being hungry) etc. This isn't a new concept to me, but I am seeing it with fresh eyes this time. All of this has had me wondering if I need to look into some more intensive "treatment" for potentially addictive overeating behaviors--perhaps OA? But OA scares me a little, I have to admit.

I should probably mention that I have always had issues with food and weight. In brief, I struggled with eating disorders in my teen years, and as an adult gained weight steadily until I was obese. In the last few years I have lost a lot of weight, and am now very close to where I want my weight to be. Some of this (the weight loss) was probably an indirect attempt to again control my husband. Most of it was a continuation of the struggle I have had my whole life. My parents both have an unhealthy food addiction: my father is a compulsive overeater, my mother a lifelong anorexic and bulemic. My mother may also be a sex and/or love addict. These things are why my family acted and looked from the inside like an alcoholic home, although no one in my family was drinking. Food addiction was something I never really believed in before I began my recovery and started to wonder why my family acted the way it did when there was no obvious "substance" abuse in sight. Now I understand a little better how it becomes addictive, in a similar way that sex can be an addiction.

I've been reading a new book lately called America Anonymous by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. It came out a few months ago, and in this book the author follows eight addicts along their recovery through 12 step groups, and other recovery modalities. The addicts include a grandmother who is a crack addict, an elderly man who is an alcoholic, a bodybuilder addicted to meth and steroids (and the discussion of the possibility of chemical dependency on steroids is interesting), a compulsive shoplifter, a sex addict, a food addict, a heroin addict, and an addiction counselor in recovery for multiple substances and for gambling. The author himself is a recovering sex addict.

The author spends a lot of time with each of the addicts in question, and interviews many addiction experts. He assembles a fascinating portrait of addiction and recovery from multiple perspectives. Today I was reading about the food addict and was really struck by a passage in which the food addict discusses using food to escape emotions and how it relates to spirituality. What struck me was that what the speakers described could be considered an addiction in itself, or it can also be seen as a part of codependent behavior. In our S-Anon readings using food to manage our emotions is specifically mentioned as part of "the problem." I guess it was just the first time that it really struck me how this is all a part of the same process, and how much codependence really is not only a response to living with addiction but is very similar to addiction itself--and often it really IS addiction, to another person or relationship. I like it when pieces start to fit together in my mind.

Food addicts are familiar with the idea of eating to avoid experiencing feelings--they get a brief "high" from the actual eating, then they may feel full and sick for a while, but even that feeling allows them to avoid whatever emotions they were avoiding in the first place. I can certainly relate to both of those things. But as a codependent, I also learned to avoid feeling my own feelings, because they upset other people, because they made me seem "weak", because it was easier to focus on other people than myself. Anything I could do to help make the feelings disappear so I didn't experience so much dissonance was helpful. Certainly as co-addicts, many of us use weight gain and weight loss as (mostly unconscious) ways of controlling our sex addicts, and misuse of food helps control our own emotions and control our sex addict at the same time. Like many of the coping mechanisms we learned, they may have helped us at one time, but eventually they become more harmful to us than the original problem was, and we have to learn to let them go. Food addiction versus using food as part of codependence or co-addiction: are they any different from each other?

Anyway, tonight, rather than being overwhelmed that I have this whole other "problem" that I have to find a "solution" for, I can find a little peace in the thought that it is part of the same problem that I am already working my recovery for, and maybe, just maybe, it will get better as my recovery progresses. I hope my thought on this makes some sense to someone. It's a little jumbled yet in my brain, but it feels like an important emotional realization, even if the intellectual knowledge was there all along. Sometimes my brain just doesn't communicate correctly to the rest of me...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This Year's Love

I don't have a lot of big, grand recovery insights very often. When I hear the other members of my S-Anon groups share, it seems like many of them are constantly having these great insights every week. Maybe they just are good at articulating their thoughts into a coherent "share", or perhaps they think about this stuff more than I do. I often feel like I am "reaching." But I take comfort in that old AA adage, "Easy Does It", and try to be patient with myself.

Tonight I did some cleaning around the house, listening to a S-Anon speaker on my iPod. When I was done I had the privilege of reading my husband's goodbye letter to alcohol and drugs, which is a part of the recovery program he is in. (The program doesn't address sex addiction, so he wasn't able to include that directly, although we both see everything as intertwined into a single addiction process.) It was beautifully and thoughtfully written. It made me more interested in completing my First Step with a "my story" kind of statement, and made me very proud of the progress my husband has made. He is living a life he is proud of for the first time in many years, and it's really an honor to be a part of it.

As I write this I am listening to David Gray. He has a song called "This Year's Love" that struck me differently tonight. As he sings "this year's love had better last," I thought, not for the first time, of my marriage, and how I think of it as an entirely different marriage and relationship than it was before discovery. I realized that I am getting to know my husband all over again, the him that I had always hoped was there but never really met before. He's real. Where in previous years I knew him to be cheerful but avoidant of any subject which was painful or uncomfortable (and there were many), now he is optimistic in a much more realistic way. When in the past he put on a good game face, and sometimes would make sarcastic, self-deprecating comments that could be my only clue that something might be bothering him, now he is much more likely to be quiet and obviously sad when that is how he is actually feeling. I am sure that much of this process must be sad for him, as he is starting to feel and connect with past traumas from his life that have been waiting for him to unpack and examine them.

We have times when we seem to lack intimacy, and reestablishing our sex life has been challenging at times. But I think we really are in a new relationship in a very real way, and in a new relationship these things are awkward and uncomfortable at times. It's okay for us to take our time in getting comfortable with each other as we figure out our new relationship, one based on honesty and respect. Never mind that we have been married for a few years, and together a few years longer than that.

This year's love had better last...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I am working on a formal First Step now. It is happening slowly, partly because I don't have very much time to devote to Step work and not to school work, and partly because I am doing it alone, with several books and workbooks to guide me. I have never seen or heard another person's formal First Step. I don't even know if it's a good idea to do it by myself, but I am doing it because going through the exercises and doing all the writing and journaling is good for me, and because my hope/plan is that in time I will find a good S Anon sponsor and be able to share this with them, and perhaps get some guidance. If not, I can hopefully share it with another S Anon who at least has a little more time in recovery than me, and can give me some feedback.

When I think of my powerlessness over the effects of sex addiction and alcoholism, thinking of this in relationship to my husband is the easy part, because that is what has happened most recently. Doing the exercises (in the Gentle Path workbook, by Carnes) has helped me start to see powerlessness and ways that my life was unmanageable at other previous points in my life, like my childhood, and my first marriage. I'm not even sure what addictions I was dealing with in my childhood--food addiction in both my parents, for sure, and possibly sex addiction in my mother, perhaps some others--but I can at least look at my own powerlessness and my own unmanageability with respect to my response to crazy behavior in my home.

In my childhood, my life became unmanageable when I banned my friends from my home from the time I was around 12. My home was a dark place where strange things happened--my mother slept on the couch every night since I was about 4, and claimed it was because my father snored. The house was messy and dark. But more than that, it was tense, and the inhabitants were not connected to one another in any real way other than DNA. I knew that other people sensed this, and I was too ashamed to let people see it any longer if I had any control over it. Around this time I also tried to be the family housekeeper, trying to clean and make the place liveable. This was thwarted by my mom, the chief mess-maker, who wouldn't let me throw away any of the papers she kept in numerous precarious stacks around the house. So eventually I settled on keeping my own bedroom, and the bathroom next to it when I could, clean, and I stayed in there until I was old enough to spend most of my time out of the house. These aren't the kinds of things I was thinking of when I first started looking at the 12 steps.

This process has also helped me to start to look at my own emotional state, not in an abstract or distant way, like I have done before, but in the moment. I'm noticing my moment-to-moment stress more now. On the weekends I have this restless, irritable feeling, like I am dissatisfied, or I should be doing something that I'm not doing. During the week I am in the position in my training of always feeling like I am out of place or doing something wrong. When I get a break, I feel the urge to eat something sweet, and it is not out of hunger. I can tell that it is the urge for something to make me feel better, more relaxed. By gosh, that's addiction if I've ever seen it. I've been trying to lose weight and have only managed to maintain or gain over the last 4 months. I do well during the days but indulge in the evenings when I get away. I know this isn't about managing physical hunger; now I can see it is something that I feel powerless over. And I use shopping the same way, which is shameful for me to admit but nevertheless is true. I haven't gotten uncontrollably in debt, but the fact that I sometimes shop to make myself feel better is a sign of trouble. It's not that I have never seen these things before, but I've never really felt the emotions in the moment and seen exactly why I have the urges to act in the way that I do.

I feel out of control when I do those things in an unhealthy way. I guess that's a part of unmanageability.

I'll keep working away as time permits, keep going to meetings and to our therapist. I am thinking of seeing our therapist on my own to talk about some of my own issues, not because I don't want to talk about them with my husband there but because I feel like we have to be working on other things when he is there. And I think it would be more helpful for me to address some of these things with her alone. For now, I keep writing, and running...