Dream Catchers and Coins

Let’s talk about something other than the traditional form of the phrase “higher power”.

Let’s instead talk about totems. Items. Tangible, real things that we hold as higher powers. The idea of Step 2 is that a power much greater than ourselves can restore ourselves to sanity. Does that power HAVE to be a religious one? Do we have to look at it in that light? Can it just be SOMETHING that is beyond just “us”?

While I want to write one more post (at least) in this step on this subject, I’m going to specifically talk about items and totems here. Specifically, one that is symbolic to me…and one that is symbolic to my father.

I have horrible night terrors. I wanted to write how “growing up” I had horrible night terrors but that isn’t entirely true. While children are supposed to grow out of night terrors, mine have only increased substantially as I grew older. While they’ve waned significantly over the last few years, they are none-the-less a constant part of my life.

The dreams are always the same, as far back as I can remember. I am frozen. Typically, this is on a bed, although not always. Something, or someone, is coming for me. In some versions, it’s a spider, dangling down on its spindle thread. Sometimes it’s an intruder with a knife. Sometimes it’s someone berating me for failing. Sometimes it’s nothing at all…it’s just a feeling of perpetual suffocation because I cannot move.

The terrors always end in me awakening myself from screaming.

In my room, above my bed, I have a dream catcher. I’ve had multiple throughout the years, the most recent created by Native American artists in a small town in rural Maine. Occasionally I cleanse it, moving a crystal over the strings to drive away the evilness that has gotten trapped in it.

As much as I don’t like to admit it, that dream catcher makes it easier to close my eyes at night. It grounds me. I find in the days immediately after a cleansing, even the month or so after, I sleep through the night. I don’t wake up screaming. And when I do, I can usually fall back asleep by staring at it, the amethyst and jade crystals sewn into the strings almost lulling me to sleep.

The dream catcher is my totem. It has a power over me, a power that rescues me from the things that torment me in my sleep. Now I know, in the logical part of my brain that dominates, that there is very little chance that catcher is more than decoration. I’m not sure that I totally believe that cleansing it is really doing more than giving me peace of mind. But isn’t that peace of mind ENOUGH? Isn’t restoring my ability to sleep ENOUGH? Without it, I am restless. Without it I am almost guaranteed to have a night terror, or a sleepless night, or strange dreams I can’t quite comprehend but I know leave me awake breathless and shook. It keeps me grounded to reality.

I never quite “got” the concept that a power greater than ourselves could be an item until talking to my father. When I first started attending meetings, I always saw higher power as a clear alignment with religion. But one night, he had been sober at that point for about a year, and was rearranging his AA medallions. I had always noticed that they sat in a box by his bed, but that he carried a different medallion with him in his pocket on a daily basis. When I asked to see it he showed me it was the medallion given to him for completing rehab…the first time around, not the third. I was confused as to why he had kept it, let alone why he used it every day. It couldn’t possibly have the meaning his 1 day, 1 month, 6 month, or especially 1 year coin could have. All I could see was a piece of medal from a place that had failed to “fix” him.

When I asked, he answered me with only two words (which was pretty typical for him, even after he stopped drinking).

“It’s Heavy”.

For me, my dream catcher is a totem that brings a lightness to my sleep. It forgives me of my troubles. It lifts away my demons. It frees me.

For him, his coin is a totem that brings weight to his being. In later years, mostly at meetings, I would hear him talk about that coin. How the heft in his pocket reminded him that his alcoholism was never GONE: that he was pushing through it each and every day, even if he was also moving farther and farther away from its grasp. How the weight reminded him of the burden he had put on me and my mother, how his actions had had significant consequences. He said it was a constant reminder every day to thank God that he had finally gotten on his path and to keep the motivations of the program with him. It reminded him of his failures in rehab but also of his accomplishments. It was something he could feel, put his hands on, feel brush against him when he walked. It kept him grounded…the same way my dream catcher kept me grounded.

His totem was a higher power because his experiences were a higher power, and that kept him sane. And maybe, as non-addicts, that’s all the second step might mean to us. It may be as trivially simple as having something in our lives that reminds us to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe it is something that helps us sleep. Gets us going. Forgives us of our troubles. Keeps us from over analyzing, over feeling, or ruminating. Maybe for some of us, restoration doesn’t come from something we cannot see, but instead from something we can.

 

-Joanie

It’s a Balancing Act

So as we move forward through February and applying Step 2 to our every day lives, we have to ask ourselves: how on earth do we balancing our acceptance of a higher power as the ultimate entity in saving us from ourselves, and living our everyday, normal lives?

Now clearly, this post is geared to people like me: the slightly less religious. Those that have yet to find a balance between faith and life. Those that are striving to find some kind of semblance of guidance through their lives. Addicts need it to get back on the path to salvation from the powers that hold them back…but anyone can use guidance as a way to salvage themselves from SOMETHING. Maybe not drugs or alcohol, but SOMETHING.

In my every day, non blog life I am a chemist. This is a seemingly difficult place to live every day if your hope is to accept a higher power as the one “entity” that can guide us to a better life. As a scientist, I am constantly looking to find answers to the questions in life. Hypotheses, no matter how large, CAN be answered. Data is definitive. Questions that lead to questions eventually lead to answers. We seek tangible solutions to our problems, not spiritual ones.

But I’ve come to find, even as I stayed on my scientific path to get my doctorate and a really good job, that the tangible life can be relatively hollow. When bad things happen to good people, and you want to be angry, science tells us that it is all just cells and motion and physics. That the explanations are medical, practical, and focused. But sometimes, bad things really do just HAPPEN to shitty people, and those people guided by faith tend to more easily accept that god’s plan has an end game beyond cells and physics.

In today’s times, the balancing act between faith and whatever other force guides you has become incredibly more treacherous. Our government is required to balance faith and governing, but does it really? Do we really keep them separate? And how CAN we? If we believe that godliness leads us to salvation and sanity, if we truly embrace the second step for how it will cultivate our lives, CAN we keep our government completely divulged of spirituality? Is it best for our well being? Likewise, at what point does the belief in a higher power have to come face to face with the 21st century? At what point does religious belief need to grow WITH the time, instead of standing firmly against it?

Life is all about a balancing act, and for me moving through the second step requires creating a new balance in my life for some sort of faith. I’m not sure that I will ever be a completely spiritual person: the chemist in me still has some struggles with not asking so many questions, or looking for a tangible explanation to life as we know it. I still have a very hard time looking at friends who are gay and not understanding why religion pushes them away. But I’ve started praying at night again. Reaching out to a higher being. Believing in something greater than myself. I keep my scientific side to what it is. I stop asking myself HOW certain things happen, but what instead I can do to ACCEPT that certain things happen. I’ve read up on the teaching of other religions, tried to immerse myself in a world that is loving, forgiving, and virtuous. Our belief in a higher power and its ability to effect our live does not have to live in contrast with a life devoted to what is “real”: instead they can be harmonious. We can love our fellow human for being human. We can accept that we are not all knowing. We can be analytical AND spiritual. The scales do not have to be in opposition.

There is so much in my life I cannot control, and my strong analytical background does not change this. It does not make me have a stronger control. And more than anything, the steps for me have become about loosening my grip on my need for control. I’ve always been a ridiculously controlling person in my own life…and step 2 has been all about relinquishing some of that control. Casting aside blame. Doubt. Fear. Knowing that my life is not completely in my hands…and that’s ok.

Balance isn’t easy. But coexisting IS possible. Opening ourselves up to a higher power IS possible. Being a scientist and a spiritualist IS possible

Losing My Religion

As I mentioned in the introduction to step 2, so many people lose faith at some point along the way. Typically happy, faith-abiding people have something somewhere that throws them completely off their track. But why? What happens in our lives that can take someone off a path they feel so surely in?

I was never a very religious person. I did occasionally go to church as I got older (more to come), I did try to talk to god about the things that plagued me, and I eventually even switched my faith in order to try and connect with something bigger than myself. So for me, losing religion is merely speculative. But I can understand from the perspective that I never really CONNECTED with a higher power. I never found that THING that anchored me to the ground, the way it did so many others.

My cousin, who is 21 now and just a wonderful human being, has been in touched with his spiritual higher power for as long as I can remember. He leads bible study at his college. He goes to church every Sunday before meeting me at football games. He quotes bible passages to describe the things going on in his life, he prays to his higher power for forgiveness and in bad times, he literally bleeds holiness.

He has never lost his religion.

So how does it happen?

I asked my father (who yes, is a very devout man, regardless of everything that has happened) how he fell away from his faith once, when he was still in the thick of falling apart. He waved his hand around his head, pointing to nothing in particular, and said “look at the world now. how could you not”.

It was then that I got it. You see, faith is a deep seeded, unbelievable, BELIEF in something bigger than you, regardless of your religion. It is the belief that their is something guiding you, teaching you, driving you forward. But in the face of death, destruction, endless natural disasters and terrorist attacks: how do we, as humans, rationalize that some force bigger than us has CHOSEN this path? That those terrible things we see every day are not awful punishments, but instead life lessons that are somehow meant to help us while ruining someone else?  I could understand why my father stopped going to church during his darkest times: he couldn’t contemplate how his God had let him go down this path.

I asked my cousin, not long ago,how he maintained his faith. How had he not lost his belief in his higher being? He merely looked at me, and with the calmest of faces, said “Because God has good intentions for me, and I just can’t see them”.

Step 2 is about having this mindset. When we feel, at any dark point in our life, that our higher power has abandoned us, we must remember that we are wrong. We do not understand the world. We do not understand our impact on the greater good. But we DO know that we will feel best when we believe there is something truly bigger than us. That our lives have purpose. That WE have purpose.

Embodying the second step means not losing our faith, but hunkering down in it. Feeling it. Believing it. Knowing that something, somewhere, much bigger than ourselves is the greatest ally.

-Joanie

Are You There God? It’s Me, Joanie

The first time I tried to talk to God I was 15.

I had gone to the movies at the mall with a boy I had a stupendous crush onto see Hitch, one of my favorite Will Smith movies. It was St. Patrick’s Day. In New Jersey, you can find a mall about 10 miles in any direction, and this one was no more than 15 minutes from my house. I waited in the cold for my dad to come pick me up, my mom was out of town and I couldn’t drive yet, and I urged the boy to leave me until he got there. Part independence, mostly embarrassment. I knew my dad was only ever late for one reason.

When my dad got there, I could tell from the way he pulled up he was drunk. We had gone to a parade in my hometown and I had left him there, hoping I could fulfill some teenage dream of a first date without having to worry about being a parent. As he stammered trying to ask me about the movie he tried to drive us back to the highway, slamming his breaks and weaving in and out of the lines of the parking lot. It was late, but not late enough for there to be no one on the roads. As we pulled onto the highway I finally convinced him that it was time to pull over, reminding him that he was “tired”, not “drunk”, which never would have convinced him to give up the wheel. I drove the rest of the way home in silence, barely reaching the brake pedals, and hoping that a cop wouldn’t pull me over for clearly being underage. He passed out in the passenger seat and I left him there.

When I got in my room that night, I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. I said hello, and then bawled my eyes out as I told God how much I didn’t want to have to be a parent anymore. I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to go on dates, be independent, and make mistakes. I wanted to be able to be free; to not have to worry about the condition my dad would show up in. I wanted him to go away.

The first day I talked to God, he didn’t answer.

The next morning I came downstairs to my dad doing yard work, oblivious to the happenings of the night before, with a Budweiser on the counter next to his headphones. It was the fourth empty on the counter.

I wasn’t a religious person. My parents had chosen to not have me baptized, much to the chagrin of my paternal grandmother, who believed it was a sin to even go outside without being blessed. I didn’t go to church or join all of my friends in catechism classes (more on that later). I celebrated Christmas and Easter with presents and jelly beans, and hadn’t been in a church except for a funeral or a wedding.

I spoke to God that evening because I felt like I was out of options. I think a lot of us “non-faithful” do the same: we find him as a last resort. We pray because we feel we have exhausted every other plausible avenue. We reach out because we have hit some sort of rock bottom, whether physical or psychological, and we need answers. We need help.

The “non-faithful”, as I’m calling this time in my life, do not actually expect an answer. We would probably fear it if we did. Our last ditch efforts are also riddled with insecurity and doubt. Why would God help us? Why would God accept us? Why would it be any different than any other day?

Throughout the years, I would occasionally lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling, and start talking to God even though I wasn’t sure I believed he was real, and even though I knew I didn’t expect anything to change come sunrise. I see-sawed between religions (more on that later), so the “God” I was speaking to was not always the Christian one. But I looked up and begged him to fix my life. To create change. To make my family matter. I gave him my hopes, fears, and tears…and got very little in return.

The moral of this story may be hard to see. I am not Joan of Arcadia. I am not a prophet. God never spoke back to me. God never gave me the change I wanted to see. Sure, years later, my father would get sober. I would get to be a self-sustained adult. I would get my freedom. But I didn’t ask God to help me when it finally came to fruition: it happened all on its own.

But, those conversations with God led me to accept the life that had been given to me. You see, no, those talks never made me more faithful. They never solidified God for me. But they gave me an outlet. I was able to allow those conversations to seep into my bones, to cleanse my spirit, to release every pent up emotion I was building inside. You see, I had spent so much time trying to appear “ok”, that it was only in those hushed moments between me and a higher power that I let the guard down. It was during those talks that I was honest with myself, and honest with him. I was free.

I don’t honestly think I’d be where I am now without those moments. I wouldn’t have gotten through. I would have broken down more times than I could count, probably in front of people, maybe somewhere I couldn’t take back. I would have ruined relationships and maybe even my life. I would have drowned in my feelings and insecurities. As things got better, the talks slowed down. I stopped reaching out. I healed on my own.

Maybe he answered after all.

-Joanie

 

Step 2: A Higher Power

Welcome to February and with it, Step 2! We’ve made it through the first step in self-reflection and achievement, now it’s time to move on:

“Step 2: A power greater than ourselves can restore our sanity”

Truth be told, when I first started visiting AA meetings with my father, this was the one step I always hoped the meeting would never focus on. It was the hardest for me to grasp, and one I still have trouble with from time to time. It can take on SO many different meanings in so many ways; I’m hoping to explore many of them this coming month.

But first: why is this step so hard to wrap our brains around? I’m going to focus for just right now on the “power greater” part in the relatively assumed format…more will come later of other ways to interpret Step 2.

There are a few different types of people. Like me, there are those that are general skeptics of the concept of “faith” and a “higher being”: the non-faithful. I was raised by a Catholic father and a Methodist mother in a completely agnostic household, primarily due to a minister demanding my mother donate to a church in accordance with her paycheck instead of out of the goodness of her heart: terrible mistake. I went to a public school surrounded by Lutheran and Episcopal friends who sometimes cared more about the boys in their youth groups than actual learning. I grew up to be a scientist and was always analytical at heart. These ideas made it very hard for me to even believe in the existence of a higher being, let alone one that was powerful enough, or controlling enough, to dictate any facet of my life. I had known very little to suggest that there was an “unknown” out there controlling the universe: I found most things to be explainable by science, logic, or well thought out debate.

Then there are the people who have a great deal of faith, but have somehow lost it. The addicts who have slid so far into their addiction they can’t see a way out, and cannot believe their higher power has allowed them to fall so hard. The skeptic who has seen so much destruction and pain they can’t fathom how a higher power can allow humanity to struggle and lose and hurt so deeply. The devout who has seen their higher power abandon them: either through a loved one or themselves, and has somehow lost the trust. True believers in the concept of a higher power, who have somehow, someway, been taken off the path. Faith that a great power can restore you is hard to have when you’ve moved so off course.

Step 2 is all about finding that connection with some kind of power greater than ourselves: and allowing yourself to accept that it is the only thing that can save you from yourself. I see it in a way as blind faith: a concept I had some real trouble with. So we will work through it together. Remember, the steps build. First, we acknowledged that we were powerless to something in our lives, something potentially unmanageable. Now we are recognizing that we alone can not make ourselves whole again, but that a power greater than ourselves can restore us.

If you have some thoughts on this step, please share them. Who (or what…we’ll get into that) is your power greater than YOU? How do you believe in that power? How do you let yourself submit to restoration? How do you grow in your faith in that power to help define your existence? As always, this month will be filled with some reflection as we move through the steps and my own personal stories of surviving being the child of an alcoholic and how the steps helped me become a more self-aware, realized person.

-Joanie

Hiatus is Over!

All,

Just wanted to stop in and promise I did not forget you!! Step 2 is coming: HAPPY FEBRUARY! I have unluckily come down with some sort of awful sickness, but I am just reaching the end of it and therefore should have NO problem starting step 2 off nice and strong…most likely tomorrow! I’ve already got the blog post written but want to fancy it up a bit.

Hope everyone who reads this has enjoyed the month of January: exploring what we are powerless against, how to combat it, how to recognize it, and how to overcome it.

Cheers and stay healthy!

 

-Joanie