Can you teach an old dog new tricks?


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.


Dance, anyone?


Recently, I have had to deal with a family member that has always brought out the worst in me, pushed all my buttons, and has been able to make me feel completely inadequate and unloved since my teenage years. This family member contacted me about a week and a half ago via text, and because of the situation, I was obligated to respond.  That led me to over a week of non-face to face interaction that I didn’t want or need.  Last night the interaction came to a head, and she baited and baited me, trying to get me to engage in an argument.  It all felt so familiar, it was a dance that we have done a million times before – she baits, I react, she gets defensive, I attack, she uses passive aggression to put me in my place, I feel guilty and cry and wallow in self-pity and self-loathing.  It would’ve been so easy for me to jump right in and start dancing the way we used to.  This time, though, I refused to get on the dance floor.

But it wasn’t easy.  In fact, it was pretty damn hard.  Changing the way that I think about and react to things like this has been a slow process.  I have always been quick to anger and hurt, with guilt and shame following closely behind.  Those first, almost instinctual, feelings come up now, but I am quicker to realize what’s happening and I can sometimes work through things before the guilt and shame set in.

As I sat and read the hostile, accusatory and just plain mean texts, I felt angry.  Very angry.  It took every ounce of restraint that I had to not react the way I always have – by reciprocating with sarcastic insults and laying guilt trips of my own.  Sentences that I could text and that would cause the most amount of harm went through my head.  I even said some of them out loud to my husband.  I went so far as to type one into my phone, but in the end, I deleted it without hitting send.

Along with all of the possible confrontational scenarios that were going through my mind, one rational thought kept stopping me in my tracks – “what is the right thing to do?”  That was new.  Where did that come from?  As I sat there thinking, I realized that was doing something that I hear about all the time in meetings, I was pausing when agitated.  Not only that, but I was trying to figure out what the right thing to do was.  I was trying to figure out how to handle the situation without setting myself up to have to make a new amends.  How should I respond?  I didn’t want to end up volleying mean comments back and forth, but I didn’t want to just roll over either.  Holy cow!  That sounds like I might have actually been thinking about setting some boundaries.  Another new thing!

I was still in fear though.  Not engaging was uncomfortable.  After all, I knew those dance steps.  I didn’t know how to do these new ones.  Have you ever seen someone learning a new dance?  When they’re a couple of steps behind the instructor, confusion and concentration easily visible on their face?  That’s how I felt.  Out of my element.  Fumbling and clumsy.

The tools that the program has taught me were clearly helping me to think and not just react.  But where was I to find the courage to behave a different way than what was comfortable?  I know the outcome of my old way of doing things, and that seemed easier even though I also knew how it would turn out, and that wasn’t a pretty picture.  And then it hit me.  I don’t have to be in charge of this.  I don’t run the show, because when I do, I screw things up.  God runs the show for me now.  I know it, I believe it, I have faith in it.  So, if I have faith in God’s will for me – and that keeps me sober, gives me hope and feeds my soul – couldn’t it also give me the courage to step outside my comfort zone and behave differently?

Yes!  It could.  And it did.

It was my faith in God and the gospel that allowed me to answer questions and express myself without malice, and without feeling guilt or shame.  It gave me the strength to set a boundary and cut off the conversation when it was no longer accomplishing anything, even though I was still being baited.  I reacted with grace, and because of that, I don’t owe anyone an amends.  If you ask me, this bad situation couldn’t have ended better.  There was no resolution really, but I have no reason to feel badly about it, and that is a step in the right direction.  For that, I thank God.

I know that I will hear from my family member again, there is more to be done.  But I know that when she steps out on the floor, she better watch out….I’ve got some new moves.

Follow the rules, or change your thinking?

This morning, on our way home from a meeting, my husband and I were talking about a woman that we know in the program.  She has been sober for a long time, over 30 years, I think, so she is obviously doing something right.  But to hear her in meetings, you would think she was a newcomer.  A very angry, contrary, newcomer.  Whenever she shares, her words are full of anger, and she almost always points out just how different she is from all of the rest of us.  If someone shares about things they used to lie about in the past, she has to comment that she’s always been honest.  If someone mentions that they have found peace and serenity in sobriety, she has to comment that she finds sobriety as shitty as any other way of life.  But she stays sober.  I have been told, over and over again, to look for the similarities, not the differences when I am in the rooms.  And that has really served me well.  I feel at home with other alcoholics, because I think that, even though our stories may be different, deep down we are all the same.  We’re addicts.  We are all reaching for the same things:  sobriety, happiness, a new way to live.

As our conversation went on, my husband said something that really made me think.  He said that some people in the program need to be told what to do to stay sober, and some people need to be told how to think to stay sober.  When I really thought about that, I found it to be true.  When I have heard AA members tell their stories, there are some that say that their sponsor gave them very specific instructions on what to do and when to do it.  As long as they followed those instructions, they stayed sober.  It was essentially a behavioral thing.  They needed someone to make their decisions for them and when they did, they had a favorable outcome.  I think that the angry woman we were talking about fits into this category.  She did what she was told and she has stayed sober….for a really long time.


On the other hand, I have heard other members say that even when they “thoroughly followed” the path that their sponsors and other oldtimers laid down for them, they still couldn’t get sober until they learned to think differently.  They had to have a heart change in the way that they thought about themselves, their lives, and the world around them.  Until that happened, even following all of the instructions, they couldn’t stay sober.  I definitely think that I am a part of this group.  Being told what to do really didn’t do much for me.  My first sponsor (who, incidentally, was a lot like my mother. Ugh.) gave me a lot of instruction – call everyday, go to a meeting everyday, avoid triggers, read the big book, talk to other women in the program, be honest, work the steps, the list goes on.  Those are all really good things to do, and when I get to the point where I have sponsees myself, I will ask them to do the same.  But just doing all of those things didn’t keep me sober.  I had to be trained to think differently.  I had to learn to shut down the thoughts in my head that I was so used to listening to.  The ones that told me I was a horrible person, that I would never be well, that I was destined to die drunk.  Then I had to learn to replace them with the truth – I am not a horrible person, I can be well, and I don’t have to keep drinking.  Really telling myself the truth, thinking differently, is what is keeping me sober today.  And both my current sponsor and my husband played significant parts in helping me change the way I thought.


So, which way is right?  Neither, and both, I guess.  I can’t imagine maintaining sobriety without having a real heart change (maybe that’s my sprirtual awakening?).  But I have seen sobriety work for people that have just followed the rules too.  Whatever works for us is the right thing to seek out, and when we find it, we can have sobriety, happiness and a new way to live.