Announcing Publication of Phoenix Rising

I am delighted to announce the publication of Phoenix Rising:  A Journey of Self-Discovery through Addiction Recovery. The book is comprised of excerpts from my blog, edited by Laurel Sindewald. Phoenix Rising is available for the Kindle through Amazon.

Truly, I am indebted to thousands for help in writing this book.

Phoenix Rising:  A Journey of Self-Discovery through Addiction Recovery Many times over the two years about which this book is written – my first two years in recovery from addiction to alcohol – when I was confronted with a challenge, I envisioned myself standing alone in front of an inquisitor. The answer would be life or death for me or for someone I cared about. But seated behind me were rows of the strongest people who have guided me my entire life: my teachers – Mrs. Shane Pollet, Mrs. Loreta Walker, Mrs. Annette Perkins, Dr. Doreen Hunter; my family – my mother, my father, my Uncle Gaines, my Aunt Peg, my Uncle George, my Aunt Lena; my counselors – Mr. N., Dr. P., Dr. X., Mary, Dr. S., Dr. H. – all there for me to consult. And my sister, Margaret, for whom I was once protectress and so regret becoming like another child for which to care. Even my former husbands and boyfriends are there, if silent. I have no right to ask them anything, but I remember well their intelligence and skills.

All the knowledge and experience and wisdom of all the people were at my back. I felt as if I spoke my answers alternately, confidently, with their voices.

Even though I haven’t seen many of them in decades, they have been with me and I am grateful for their efforts on my behalf.

Many people contributed to the writing of this book but I am naming several specifically for their direct help with this particular project, or for their direct help with me making it through the two years of my life this book covers. In every moment was a potential dealbreaker. Those are high stakes and none of these people flinched.

Alex Edelman is the one with whom I can share the hardest questions and count on receiving probing, expansive, radically informed, humane answers.

Dan Smith read my blog and sent me supportive emails when I was rolling in agony on the floor in early recovery and a “this is a book” email when I began to regain my balance.

Coach Sarah Beth Jones shared what she felt and thought about my writing, then asked me to probe more deeply about what I wanted and what I meant.

Robert Giles, my father, has nudged me for decades to do what I said I’ve wanted to do since Mrs. Pollet asked us in fifth grade to make dolls of who we wanted to be when we grew up. My doll was a writer. My father has personally and financially supported his troubled daughter and I think my mind would be broken and my body homeless if he had not. He made the leisure required to write this book possible and I am grateful.

Janeson Keeley models writing honestly and deeply and commented generously and supportively on my blog, even before this book was an idea. Kelly Alcorn also commented thoughtfully and often on my blog.

Debbie Palombo climbed her Mt. Everest – the real one! – and in her inimitable, genuine, cheerful way said I should and could climb my own.

Karan Rains told me decades ago, “It’s harder with smart people.” But she helps me find my way, or my way back, to my heart.

Rosemary Sullivan stated outright to me that hiring an addictions counselor at 15 months sober was a risk but she took a chance and gave my desperately grief-stricken life meaning and purpose.

Z. Kelly Queijo and Gail Billingsley reside with me in a small town. They were my friends before and they are still my friends. They would not say so, but I consider their unwavering support heroic.

The cover art for Phoenix Rising is a detail from “Woman Rising,” created and designed by Jackie Harder then painted by, in alphabetical order: Gail Billingsley, Catherine Fae, Anne Giles, Robert Giles, Ben Harder, Jackie Harder, Greg Kiebuzinski, Brandon Lowe, Kelly Queijo and Laurel Sindewald.

The men and women who seek addictions treatment awe me and steel me with their honesty and bravery.

Without the men and women who attend support group meetings, I would be floating, spread-eagled, in chaos. They calm me, then guide me, then inspire me. How can I adequately thank rescuers? I hope this book in some small way honors their gifts to me by attempting to pass them forward.

Without Laurel Sindewald, this book would not exist. When she began assisting my father with his work in June, 2013, I was secretly six months into my first year of abstinence from alcohol. It would take me another ten months to share in public that I was in recovery from addiction to alcohol. I shared for many reasons, but one of them was seeing the bright, shining, passionate honesty of Laurel Sindewald and not matching it with my own.

Openness created a synergy I’ve experienced with only a few. Laurel deepened my thinking, feeling, insights and writing with her fine mind, thoughtful discussion, and impeccable, extensive research. Then she took on a herculean task. She read my entire blog, excerpted it, organized it, and edited it as a book manuscript. As if it were her own, she entitled the book, designed the cover, and meticulously prepared the entire package for publication. The writing is mine. The book is hers. My gratitude is without bounds. I appreciate, respect and love you, Laurel.

Woman Rising

I wrote in an email to Jackie Harder in November, 2014: “I have a vision of a mural with a woman rising. I see her profile, I think her arms or hands are raised, and she is both lifting herself and being lifted, perhaps from fire and ashes, like a phoenix.”

Jackie transformed my vision into art.

Woman Rising by Jackie Harder

Jackie created the original painting by hand, designed a digital image, then orchestrated its birth on the entry wall in my home over a series of sessions during the spring of 2015. These wonderful and creative people, in alphabetical order by last name, held the paint brushes:

  • Gail Billingsley
  • Catherine Fae
  • Robert Giles (my dad!)
  • Ben Harder
  • Jackie Harder
  • Greg Kiebuzinski
  • Brandon Lowe
  • Kelly Queijo
  • Laurel Sindewald

Painting a woman rising

I painted a bit, too, primarily the green leaves in the bottom right-hand corner!

I am so grateful for this beauty in my home and the humanity and generosity that made it happen.

. . . . .

See, start to finish, all the photos of the project’s progress.

Read more about Woman Rising: A Community Mural Art Project.

After One Year as an Addictions Counselor

After one year as an addictions counselor, for my own recovery from addiction to alcohol, I’ve learned that if I don’t handle upset, I’m doomed.

That’s the killer of abstinence that I’ve seen. Stress, frustration, anxiety, sadness, hurt, doubt – if they’re not dealt with as they happen, they accumulate like backpacks. The person topples, not from lack of willpower, lack of character, lack of desire, lack of making “good choices,” but from the weight of carrying too much for too long. To keep from feeling crushed by upset, to numb the pain, to escape the too-heavy load, the person drinks or uses.

Upset piles upAs an addictions counselor, it’s inhumane for me to shout, “You can resist!” at the person face down in the dirt of distress, miserable beyond bearing, immobilized by heaviness. Why should they resist? What do they get for abstaining? More unrelenting imprisonment in anguish? Who would choose that?!

The work of someone trying to abstain or practice harm reduction is to not let the load of upset get that heavy. Once one’s down, it’s nearly impossible to get back up. It feels like self-mercy to use.

How do I keep from letting upsets pile up? It’s not life that I have to handle, but how I feel when life happens. How do I do that?

What I, and many people who struggle with addictions, feel when life happens is fear. Any life happening, from a broken dryer to a death in the family, feels pretty much the same. Paired with that feeling is the belief that fear threatens safety, even survival, and needs to be fixed. Immediately. Fear necessitates a reaction.

The first reaction is protective. I might react with more feelings such as anger or hurt, or with an action – hit or shout to stop whoever or whatever is perceived to be causing the fear. Then the reactions get more intricate, designed to control others and situations to stop the source of fear.

Fear, reactivity, control. That’s the raw inner experience of people trying not to use.

Add longing. Add longing for love, for connection, for acceptance.

That longing leads us to relationships. Fear, reactivity and control aren’t great tools for building relationships. A sense of confidence in my ability to be authentic, vulnerable and intimate? A sense of personal security, personal power, a desire to give and receive? Nah, I don’t have those. In relationships, I fear judgment, rejection, and abandonment.

Fear, fear, fear.

I was so used to feeling fear that I thought it was normal, even correct. Life is scary! React! I’m being a good girl when I protect!

But I was increasingly miserable, I was behaving miserably, and people in my life felt miserable because of my misery. I sought help.

What I was taught is so simple.

If I can become aware of what I am feeling and thinking, I can make a choice about what I do, or don’t do, next. As someone recovering from addiction, I can assume fear is my primary feeling.

My first choice, then, needs to be to calm myself.

Why and how I calm myself are crucial. Why? I calm myself to keep myself from accumulating upset. That it’s. How? I use my own self as the calming tool – not external sources like substances, or processes (eating, working, gambling, shopping, porn, etc.), or other people or relationships. I become aware I’m feeling upset, I accept that I am upset, and I make a a matter-of-fact, neutral, strategic decision to calm myself.

I do not calm myself because I am bad and wrong for getting upset. I don’t judge myself. I may have every reason to get upset! I’m just going to calm myself first. Then I’ll deal with the reason. Scolding and scorning myself for getting upset upsets me further.

And telling myself to “stay positive” and “be grateful” and “stay in the moment” denies the reality of my experience. The experience may deserve negativity and ingratitude and departure. Again, I calm myself because it’s simply the first order of business for addictions recovery.

Once I calm myself from a flood of feeling – for me, primarily from fear – I rescue my brain from being soaked with emotion so now I can think.

I become aware of what I’m thinking. As dispassionately and objectively as I can, I examine the reality of my thoughts.

What I have discovered about my thoughts when I am upset is they are primarily negative beliefs about myself and about life. In sum, when something in life distresses me, I think, “This has happened because of me. I am ineffectual. That this could even happen at all negates everything I’ve ever believed in, stood for, and done in my life. I am helpless to make myself or anything better. I, therefore, deserve rejection, abandonment and shunning.”

Such battering thoughts! They bring me to my knees!

Who knew that my little pile of genuine, reasonable distress over life events was being heaped upon by my own thoughts?! No wonder distress accumulates so thickly and so quickly that, before I’m conscious of having a choice, I’m on the ground and want to drink.

Sometimes I can un-upset myself all by myself. Sometimes I can’t. What’s a person recovering from addictions to do when calming isn’t happening?! Calming has to happen.

If I find I can’t calm myself, I’ve got to reach out for help. Not for help with directly calming me – that perpetuates my lack of skill with self-calming. I need to reach out to someone who will help me calm myself.

When I began my work as an addictions counselor a year ago, I thought my job was to help people struggling with addiction to have insights. I was using that method myself, trying to figure out what I needed to understand to free myself. Surely I just needed to think harder and longer and addiction would yield to the force of my intent and intellect.

I accept and appreciate my novice counselor self. She was cute! I understand why she thought the way she did. And she wasn’t wrong, exactly. Face pinned to the ground below unremitting upset, I’m incapable of looking within. I’m looking for a way out. If I don’t calm myself and give myself even half a chance to choose differently, I know what feels blissfully like a way out…

Perfectionist Seeks Good Enough Gardener

“Perfectionism is the destroyer of emotional health and addictions recovery.”
– A local counselor

Yes, but perfectionism is all I’ve got to try to make you love, like, accept, or approve of me. If I give up perfectionism, I give up my way to you. I give up any hope of any connection ever. I free-float, spread-eagled in chaos.

My garden, my teacher, my tormenter?If I give up perfectionism, if I give up straining ceaselessly to get it right, I have to let things be wrong. And when they’re wrong, I am the Farmer in the Dell‘s cheese. I sit all alone in a bewildered, woebegone, forlorn heap of never being enough to make things go right.

And perfectionism is all I’ve got to protect myself from relapse. If I am not perfectly abstinent from alcohol, I risk destruction.

Today is 2.5 years for me without a drink. According to these numbers, I’ve got 2.5 more years to go to significantly decrease my chances of relapse. I can’t do another 2.5 years like the first 2.5.

I’m trying to be perfectly:

  • abstinent from alcohol
  • squeezed into the confines of “I only want positive people in my life” so people will want to be with me
  • a good person, a good person in recovery, a good friend, girlfriend, mentor, counselor, citizen, neighbor, homeowner, housekeeper, gardener, cat care giver, daughter, sister, writer

That’s a full plate, but who doesn’t have one?

I have an overgrown garden. A lot of people do. It’s just a garden, right? Ah, but the local counselor is right. Look how unconscious perfectionism terrifies me, and destroys any hope for contentment, even acceptance or equanimity.

“Because I have failed at being a perfect garden owner, I am a bad person, do things badly, and deserve bad treatment. The garden is growing a maw like the monstrous flower Audrey and will begin to snack on me limb by limb and render me increasingly unable to anything about anything and I will be a legless, armless torso watching her smile approach, helpless against her petals as she lips me into her darkness.”

Isn’t it awesome to be me, to have my mind?! My friend Karan Rains says, “It’s harder with smart people.” Yes! I love my smarts, but gee.

I get “Lighten up, Anne” pretty frequently, but I can’t obey. While my spread-eagled self still has her feet on the ground, I’m going to take it full on the chest. Here’s one reason why: “More reliance on approach coping and less on avoidance coping…is linked to a higher likelihood of remission [among those with alcohol use disorder].” I understand the impetus to turn from pain. But it doesn’t work.

If I’m going to approach what’s bothering me instead of avoid it, however, I’ve got to be able to regulate my feelings, mood and behavior. A predictor of relapse is inability to self-regulate. If I become flooded with feeling, my brain gets flooded, too, and I can’t think. I can’t make sense of what I’m feeling – stress, distress, pain – and I become instinct. Pain is threat unto death. Instinct directs me to relieve it or die.

And that’s the double bind of addiction. Approaching either option risks failure. If I don’t address what’s eating me, distress will accumulate behind my back to such heaviness that I’ll be bent with pain before I’m aware of it. I’ll be called to drink out of hopeless anger or helpless despair.

If I do address what’s eating me, I’m eye-to-eye with pain. In agony, it’s very hard to see pain as teacher, not tormenter. I can be driven to my knees. Drinking would feel like mercy.

My near-relapse troubles me. The garden et al. troubles me. I gotta watch out for trouble. I wish my locale had more help, but it is what it is and I am determinedly my own addictions treatment planner and provider.

How to untangle that double bind? First, I become aware I’m in need of self-care. Then I calm myself. Then I use everything I know about addictions treatment and implement it for my own case. Then I practice self-kindness.

So. That little heap of woebegone is a child.  I prescribed myself a stuffed animal which I bought yesterday. The stuffed animal can be a transitional object or comfort object that can help me heal my attachment issues, a tragic part of addiction. I kindly suspended judgment and let my 56 year-old self hold the little teddy bear. Not surprisingly, I began to sob like a child. And, as hoped, felt comforted.

Now for Audrey, The Garden. I prescribe myself support. I will try to find a gardener. I accept with kindness that I am not enough for the garden. But I am enough for me.

. . . . .

If you are interested in working part-time as a good enough gardener in Blacksburg, Virginia, here’s the job description. I would love to hear from you.

Practicing Radical Self-Kindness

When the clothes dryer broke, I thought, “I deserve bad things happening to me because I am bad.”

When the newly installed air conditioner broke, I thought, “That’s what I get for being too big for my britches and thinking I deserve better than I have.”

When the handyman tightened only half the kitchen sink after replacing the counter top and stopped returning my calls, I thought, “I deserve bad treatment. I’m not worthy of better.”

Ah-ha! I caught those thoughts in the thickly padded catcher’s mitt of my increasingly muscular and acute self-awareness. Those thoughts hurt! They don’t help!

black_raspberriesThinking that I am bad, wrong, inadequate, undeserving – these self-judgmental thoughts are as automatic and unconscious as my blink when a bug beelines for my eye. That bad things happen to me because I am at fault and faulty? My secret shame and pain. That good things might happen only if I work and strain and extend myself? Over-doing seems a logical antidote to under-deserving.

I writhed in agony and sobbed in anguish during most of the first year and half of my abstinence from alcohol after about seven years of increasingly problematic drinking. I beat myself with a baseball bat of self-judgment. What was the matter with me that I couldn’t stop myself from drinking? What was the matter with me that I couldn’t feel better after stopping? I knew the answer: justice was being served to my disgraceful, disgusting self.

I don’t know when and why the turn came – I attended support groups, I was in counseling, I was self-administering every evidence-based addictions treatment I and people helping me could discover – but I began to see that I was getting frighteningly worse, not better. I realized what I was thinking wasn’t helping me.

I had a simple realization. I felt better when I was kind to myself. I felt worse when I scorned myself. When I felt good, I had few thoughts of drinking. When I felt bad, I badly wanted to drink.

The center of my self-administered addictions treatment plan became radical self-kindness.

Why radical? In year 1 of abstinence, I had an 80% chance of relapse. At 2.5 years sober, I still have a 40% chance. Last month when I was driving to the grocery store just to look at the wine, I had a 99% chance. Please, no.

Becoming a practitioner of radical kindness does not result from an act of will. Like abstinence, it takes sustained effort over time with the support of others.

For me, the practice of self-kindness had to be preceded by the practice of self-care followed by the practice of self-calming.

self-care > self-calming > self-kindness

When I began my internship as an addictions counselor in 2005, my supervisor, Cary Hopkins-Eyles, handed me my job description and the first line read, “Self-care first.”  That was a world view shift from my primary mode of operation: other-focus, other-care. 

Deficits in self-care are common with people in recovery from addictions. I was lucky. “Self-care first” kicked in when I became abstinent and I knew I must become my own addictions recovery caregiver.

In the context of administering self-care to myself, I could then begin to understand how self-calming is a part of self-care. If I am flooded with feeling, I can’t think kind thoughts. I can’t think much of any kind of thought – I am all instinct, ready for fight, fight, flee or freeze. I have to calm myself first. Then I can become aware of what I’m thinking. And I can decide if I want to keep thinking that. Or I can choose to think something else.

I can choose to think something kind.

Instead of giving myself a talking to, I now speak with myself. Here’s an example of a radically kind conversation with myself:

“Oh, Anne, I’m aware you’re thinking self-scolding thoughts and feeling distressed! Hang on! You believe the way to be a very good girl – maybe worthy of, if not love, then approval – is to accept the judgment and blame of others and and to judge and blame yourself. That doesn’t feel very good at all, does it? It’s okay to want to feel better, to feel good. You’ve lived 56 years harshly judged. You’ve done your time with that way. Let’s try something different. So, self-care for you right now would begin with self-calming. Deep breaths and shoulder shrugs work for you. Let’s do those. Good. Now, what would be self-kindness for you? How ’bout we talk through that clothes dryer thinking? And then get you on the clothes dryer problem-solving team, okay? Wow, can you make things happen when you see the problem to solve!”

When I open my catcher’s mitt of awareness, those misery-making, unhelpful hard ball thoughts have transformed to dandelion seeds and I blow them, kindly, away.

. . . . .

Photo: I looked in the yard for a dandelion but couldn’t find one so took a picture of a bunch of black raspberries transformed by me eating every last one of the ripe ones.