Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

change

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change.  I’m not talking about the sixty-seven cents that I have in my wallet, but the kind of change that transforms someone.  The kind of long-lasting, sustained change that reverses our self narrative, that alters our perspectives and improves our lives.  I’m talking about heart-change.  Do we humans have the capacity to change those parts of us that make us sick, hold us back, or limit our happiness?  Does it ever happen?  Can we take what makes us “bad” in the eyes of others or ourselves, and mold it into something “good”?

My immediate response to those questions is yes, of course people can change.   I see it all the time in meetings – people who once were down and out, drinking alcoholically, losing all of the things that were important to them, incapable of living life on life’s terms, now sober with new, richer lives in which they not only don’t regret their pasts, they use their own experiences to help others.   But then I see it.  Or hear it.  Someone says or does something that is inappropriate, hurtful, or insulting to someone else at the meeting and I start to wonder…have they really changed from who they were before?  Or have they just changed some of their behaviors, like choosing not to drink anymore?  Is their motivation for living a life of sobriety a desire to avoid the negative consequences that their active drinking caused, or have they truly had a heart-change?

I guess that’s where the waters get a little bit muddy for me.  I really do think that people have the capacity to change, I’ve seen it and lived it myself.  When I look back at the me of 5 years ago, it is drastically different from the me of today.  Not  just my behaviors and actions, but also my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values.  I honestly believe that I have had a heart-change about a number of things, and that those changes have gotten me to where I am today, which is a much healthier, happier place.  Even so, at times, I still feel my old ways of thinking trying to worm their way into my head.  I have to consciously speak my new truths to myself, otherwise I would be right back where I was before.  It would be so easy.  Is that what happens to the people who I see in meetings acting like dry drunks?  Maybe.  I don’t know.  I guess we’re all on our own paths.  Whether that path leads to real, meaningful and sustained recovery is up to each individual.

I’ve heard it said that the two reasons that people really change are:  they have learned enough to want to change, or they have been hurt enough to want to change.  When it comes to getting sober, for me it took both.  I had been so hurt by others, but more so by myself, that I had to change or I was going to drink myself to death.  I had also learned enough about sobriety and people living sober successfully, that I knew it was possible, if it worked for them, it might work for me.  Making the decision to change was the easy part though.  It took me a really long time to realize that just not drinking wasn’t going to be enough to make me happy and healthy.  I had to make some big changes, practice open-mindedness, and realize that my way of thinking wasn’t the only way.   It was hard at first.  When you go along living for almost 40 years, it feels impossible to let go of some of the things that you held onto as truth, even when you have evolved enough to know intellectually that they are false.  But, I guess that’s where the process begins.

And it is a process.

A long, long process.

But it’s a process worth undertaking.

Change

Have I lost my compassion?

This past week was a rough one.  It was the week before classes start at the school where I work, which is always a crazy busy week for me.  And it was a busy week in my personal life as well, as we had friends over for dinner on Tuesday and I also had to deal with the last bit of the wreckage of my past drinking life.  There was a fair amount of anxiety – how am I going to get the house clean before my friends come for dinner?  How is my court date going to turn out?  How am I going to finish all of the class schedules for the new starts?  It seemed like there was a lot on my plate, but even though I was a little bit anxious, I knew that those things would be alright.  And they were.  The house was clean before dinner on Tuesday and we had a great evening, filled with laughter and friendship. My court date went as expected and I am now finished with worrying about the unknown.  And every student that starts class tomorrow has a schedule.

So why then, was it a rough week?  I found out last Sunday that one of my coworkers had died.  He suffered a brief, but fatal illness that took his life so quickly that many people at work were dumbfounded.  You see, he traveled a lot for work, visiting other campuses and working with agencies all over the southwestern states, so his absence wasn’t felt as much as if he had worked full-time in Tucson like the rest of us.  He was last at our campus in early January, but it took until mid-February for most of us to ask, “where’s Walt?”  I guess we all figured that something was going on, but we didn’t really know.  I found out a couple of weeks ago, that his illness was really serious and that his doctor had said that he only had a matter of weeks.

Then on Monday, I found out that another one of my coworkers who had retired a number of months ago, had also passed away.  She was someone who I had worked more closely with when she was there.  She came back to visit with us a few times since her retirement, and was so happy and loving her time away from working.  She had even started seeing a gentleman recently and was traveling and having fun.  Her death came as a shock.  I guess she didn’t want anyone to know that she was sick, so I didn’t find out that she had been moved to a nursing home and was unconscious until just days before she died.

With news like that, I guess you would expect a rough week.  Things seemed off at work, many people who knew Walt and Jessie were not acting like their usual selves;  work was quieter and people seemed introspective. There was sort of pall over the administration.  It just hung in the air, no one really acknowledging it too much.

Here’s the thing though:  I went on, business as usual.  When I was told about Walt and Jessie, I knew that I was supposed to feel sad at the losses, but I just didn’t.  I felt bad for their families and for the person telling me, because she is one of my closest friends and she was very close to both of them. It was a very hard time for her, and I wished that there was something that I could say to make it better for her.  That said though, I didn’t feel the losses myself.  I knew that I should, they were both my friends, but the sadness and grief just wasn’t there.

I was really perplexed for a few days, wondering what was wrong with me.  I have always been a person that was ruled, almost completely, by my emotions. That’s why I drank – to shut them off.  Where were my emotions now?  I have practiced so hard at acceptance during my recovery, and I have felt good about the progress I’ve made, but had I gone too far?  Was I so deep into acceptance, that I was easily accepting things that clearly should’ve been upsetting?  I didn’t know, but if that was the case, I didn’t like it.  I also thought about the growth of my faith.  It used to be that I thought that once someone died, that was it.  I didn’t believe that there was anything else for them in this world.  But my thoughts about that have changed.  I have faith now, I believe that there is something more, and I believe that both Walt and Jessie are getting to experience that now.  But shouldn’t I still be sad at their absence?  Where were my emotions, my compassion?  Had I lost them?

By the end of the week, I was asking myself those questions.  I didn’t voice them to anyone, instead I kept them to myself.  I was worried about it, but I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I just wasn’t feeling it.

Yesterday though, it hit me.  I went to Walt’s funeral and as I sat there, looking at the photos on the screen that told the story of his life, I was sad.  I did feel a loss.  I thought about the good talks that I had with Walt and the jokes and stories that he always told.  I smiled to myself, and I cried, I felt angry that I wouldn’t get to have those times anymore.  Ah, there were my emotions.  They came on, slowly at first, but then they were awash over me.  After the funeral, I came home and slept.  And slept. And slept.  I was in bed from noon yesterday until 3:00 am this morning.  I woke a few times and ate some oatmeal last night, but for the most part I slept.

When I woke this morning, I realized that my emotions aren’t gone.  I also realized that I am probably dipping my toes into the pool of old behavior.  Before I started drinking alcoholically to quell my exploding emotions, I was very adept at shutting them down.  I could, and did, just turn them off when they got to be too much.  I think that I was doing that again this past week.  I think that’s why I slept so much yesterday; it takes a lot of energy to stuff my emotions and I was exhausted.  Thank God that this week didn’t lead me where it used to – to wanting to drink.  This is the stuff I used to drink over.  It’s amazing how quickly my alcoholic thinking and behavior can return.  I guess that’s why they call it cunning, baffling, and powerful.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily grind, and to miss things like this.  That’s why it’s so important that I keep my recovery fresh, that I remember what it used to be like, and that I have gratitude that it’s different now.  Self-awareness alone isn’t enough to keep me sober, but holy cow, it sure does help.