When you think of the word compassion what is the first thing that pops into your mind? People may frame it as sympathy, pity, love or empathy. In my experience, if I were to be honest, I defined compassion as sympathy. It was natural for me to feel bad for people; which gave rise to me wanting to take care of people and help them. My perspective has changed over the years.When sympathy is shown to me, it doesn’t personally afford me much comfort but rather it keeps me in a mode of self-pity. I now define compassion more as empathy. When I can be empathic, I can be more connected because I feel with people rather than for people.Sympathy never truly allowed me to be connected; in fact it made me feel disconnected and better than.
Growing up in an alcoholic family, I wanted people to feel bad for me and show me attention because of my difficult circumstances. I thought that was how I was valued and it was the best way to get noticed.I learned to be filled up by others and living life from what others perception of me was.
After many decades, I found that to be empty and unfulfilling. I needed other people so much that I lost me. I became a chronic caretaker and never figured out how to take care of myself. My focus was primarily on others. The impact alcoholism had on me was that I felt alone, different from others, and on the outside.
I isolated from others and did not pursue connection with people.I had a ton of shame and did not want my middle school friends to see what my family life was like so I never invited friends over to my house. We were a single parent family due to the sudden death of my mother. We were different. As I look back over the course of life through middle school, high school and college and into my professional career, I did not have any continuity in my relationships. I kept to myself based primarily out of fear and insecurity.
Prior to finding my own path to recovery, I was tired and burned out. I had lost my true sense of self and was barely holding on. I was running a family member around to work and meetings because she didn’t have a means of transportation and had lost her license and I was the life -saver.I also had my alcoholic father living with me on a temporary basis and I was falling back into old patterns of behavior. I was exhausted and it brought me to a place where life became unmanageable.
It was not until I managed to find my way into recovery, that things started to change. I found people who could relate to me and my circumstances and a new world opened up to me. I found friends who were real and talked about real stuff.I found true and meaningful connection.
Connection and community are important to me. I have to continually find ways to make room for them. We live in a fast paced world and we struggle to fit everything in. The demands of work just seem to be more and more, we have longer commutes, the needs of kids and aging parents have increased, we are involved in parenting groups, play groups, self-help groups and the list goes on.
So how do I balance life?Making time for friends and family has become more important to me in recovery.I had always prided myself of being independent and not needing others. That wasn’t really my truth; it’s just how I survived.
I love having coffee with friends, going for walks, sitting with my Dad and just letting the conversation flow in a natural direction. I love relaxing at home, baking and watching my favorite shows with my wife.
The Seeds of Self-Compassion
If I know one thing it is that you can give what you don’t have. I cannot be a giver of compassion to others if I don’t have any for myself.
Self -compassion was the first step for me. I embarked on a journey of self- appraisal and I realized some truths about how I was conditioned around certain issues. I became willing to put old ideas to the side. By getting quiet, going inward, contemplating, assessing and praying I began to find clarity. In doing this, I took responsibility for my behavior. I did hurt people along the path and I had the opportunity to make corrections.My family was damaged due to the sudden death of my mother, the death of my brother, and my Dad’s alcoholism.We didn’t know how to be vulnerable with one another and share our hearts. Our hearts were broken and hurt people – hurt people.
Brene Brown says it perfectly “ You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness”.I hustled for my worthiness for decades and I came up empty.
Leaning into Empathy
It takes courage to own your story and to begin a new chapter. I did not want to live in regret, resentment or anger any longer.I was tired. Trials and struggles make us relatable and human. Life can be hard, but I can make it a lot harder by trying to go it alone.
When I open my eyes and my heart to other people’s pain, compassion becomes natural. Listening to people’s hearts through their stories soften me.I get to just be and let them be.I believe I am called to meet people where they are at and not have expectations of where I want them to be.There is no longer a need to control others.
Reverend Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and it is the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. He teaches about community, kinship and erasing dividing lines. To quote Reverend Boyle from his book Tattoos on the Heart “Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding and our constant exclusions. Our sphere widens and we find ourselves, quite expectantly, in a new expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love”
Being in recovery and leading with empathy with my family and friends has been a gift that has changed my life in every respect and for that I am grateful. Compassion is sympathy
The day that I got to my sober house is a day I could never forget. I was still very much in early recovery at 7 months clean and sober.There was excitement and some fear for being sober for so long. It was a record for me by about 6 months.The feelings I felt as I sat on that unmade bed, in that mostly empty room are ones that I can still feel when remembering that time. I had never felt so alone, afraid and eager to pick up a drink or drug.
This really baffled me. Here I was, 7 months sober and nothing had changed! Well, not nothing.After all, I was no longer homeless, I was eating three meals a day and I even had a job. The baffling part was that my internal condition hadn’t changed one bit.I was just as afraid, fearful and lost as I was the day I stepped into treatment a few months earlier.
While in active addiction, I spent time imagining the circumstances I needed to be present in order to stop using. I needed a job, an apartment, a nicer boyfriend,more money.And of course I needed my family to love me more. How could someone like me stay clean and sober without these conditions? If only I could arrange all of these external factors, the insides would surely follow (or so i thought).
I sat on my rented mattress and decided I would just keep saving my money and if I still wanted to use when I had enough money for a large supply of drugs I would use then. That night I walked into an AA meeting.Looking back I can’t help but see how my higher power was leading me when I truly couldn’t see clearly.I walked into this meeting for the first time and with no plans on doing this, I found myself a sponsor. Although I knew nothing about this woman or her background, when I heard her speak and I thought maybe, just maybe, she could help me.
I met with my new sponsor every week for a couple months. She read to me from the big book and we talked a lot. Periodically I got instructions to do some praying or writing. I did what I was told even though I was not convinced someone like me could get better.How could someone who was living under a bridge, eating at soup kitchens, stealing from anyone possible, lying about everything and showering on a very rare basis get better? I wasn’t even sure I deserved a good life, after all I had spent years living in survival mode and burned every bridge I had every built.
How could someone like me recover?
I spent the next few months doing everything I was told to do in an effort to prove to everyone that it wasn’t going to work for me. Well, guess what happened?At some point during those months the obsession and desire to drink and drug went completely away.I woke up one day and realized that it had been many days since I had thought about a drink or a drug.
That was all I ever wanted in life: a day of freedom from that burning desire to use. That happened and so much more.I began to have less hate for myself.The shame that I carried around began to dissipate. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in many years.There were still moments of self doubt where something inside of me wondered how could someone like me recover?
I kept moving forward on this journey of the 12 steps because I became afraid to stop. The fear of what would happen if I picked up again was overwhelming at times early on.Relationships with people from my past began to be repaired. Not everyone was lining up to be in my life again, but in most cases I was able to make things right where I had wronged people.It was so powerful and life-changing to watch relationships completely transform. I had no idea how to be the healthy half to any relationship when I got sober.Learning how to be a good daughter, sister, girlfriend etc. was brand new for me.When it came to intimate relationships, I was a jealous, insecure and needy girlfriend. The steps taught me how to not be like that.They taught me how to trust in others and how to have faith.
It’s hard not to go on about the transformative process of the steps forever. I truly believe I would not be alive, let alone sober if I never found them.They gave me the ability to identify my feelings, to feel joy, and to be grateful. I had tried so many other things in previous attempts at recovery.These included new relationships, new apartments, new states of residence, different drugs etc. I could never put any time together no matter what I tried to change.Early recovery was challenging in so many ways, but the 12 steps gave me freedom and peace I never thought possible.
I spent many years going to AA meetings where I never heard about the 12 steps. It was never explained to me that there was a solution.I heard all the classic slogans like, “Suit up, show up and shut up” and “Do 90 in 90” and “Just don’t drink.” If it was as simple as just not drinking I just wouldn’t drink! For me, doing 90 meetings in 90 days wasn’t always attainable with work or school schedules.I would miss one meeting and then beat myself up for not being perfect. It was helpful to find quality meetings.Instead of going to a meeting just to say I went to one, I found a few that were really powerful and full of great recovery.I didn’t show up and shut up.People answered my questions and really wanted to get to know me. For the first time in as long as I could remember I began building meaningful connections with people.
My point here is that everyone’s path to recovery can look different. It is not a one size fits all.What worked for me was going to quality 12 step meetings, finding a sponsor, and making a commitment to get through the steps.
This is the first layer of me creating my authentic path to recovery. Doing the steps and really beginning to change the person I was erased that doubtful voice in my head that always questioned if a person like me could recover.
I was totally confused.I did what they said and yet I still picked up.I still relapsed.What the heck was wrong with me? They told me to get a sponsor. Check.To get a job at a meeting so I became the coffeemaker. Check.To sit up front and listen more than I speak.Just suit up, show up, and shut up.So I did. And yet I still relapsed.
I did not know that there are many paths to recovery from addiction.No one challenged me to find my own authentic path.
How is it that with all of our scientific study, medical-assisted treatment, and a therapist on every corner that we have not figured out how to help people recovery from alcohol and drug addiction find their own authentic path to recovery?
I have learned through excruciating trail and error (relapse) that recovery is not a one size fits all effort.Even though I did exactly what everyone told me to do, I did not stay clean and sober. The discouragement that comes from chronic relapse sucks the hope and joy out of life.It is one of the most vicious cycles to be caught in.
Finding my own authentic path was something I stumbled upon rather than a planned and intentional choice.I happen to attend a yoga class because my back hurt and I was gaining weight.Someone suggested I try yoga for my back.I had no idea that this ancient healing system would seep into my relapse prevention toolbox and become my go to relapse prevention tool.
I realized yoga was having the most positive impact on my sobriety of any other activity. It became clear that there are many paths to recovery from addiction.My job became figuring out my own authentic path to recovery from addiction.Instead of doing what everyone else was telling me to do (their intentions were good!) I looked inward and began to assess what was working for me and what was not.
This does not mean I did only what I wanted to do.There were still times in which I had to dig deep and find the motivation to do the next right thing for my recovery event though I really didn’t want to.
Compliance vs. Engagement
One of the benchmarks of knowing what my authentic path actually is began with recognizing the difference between compliance and engagement. When I would engage in recovery activities to make someone else happy or because I thought I was “supposed to,” I was just complying.My heart was not into it at all.This was not helpful.
When I was engaged, I was curious, listening, and really wanted to be doing that activity.It wasn’t just seat time.I was there to learn, to change.
I gave myself permission to not go to those places and do those activities in which I was merely going because I thought I was supposed to.Instead, I found those activities and places that made me interested, excited, and curious.These were the times when I was all in: physically, mentally, and spiritually.This is when I started a transformation that took root and changed my addiction from a liability to an asset.
In early recovery I started to think about what actually made me interested, engaged and happy in recovery.An AA speaker meeting I was attending was all about war stories and the big suck factor of addiction.I left feeling worse than I went in.No one told me it was ok to not go back.It was clear I had to try a different type of meeting. Once I realized this meeting was not authentic to me, I stopped going and found a different one that was about living in the solution rather than living in the cycle of addiction.
I finally landed in the AA meeting that was to change my life for the better.The people, the steps, the message all spoke to me in a way that gave me conviction that I was in the right place.
I knew that one aspect of my authentic path to recovery was exercise.It was undeniable that I felt better after a cardio workout.My mood was elevated and I had a more positive outlook on life.And I had hope for the future that made each day without a drink or a drug a little better.
Even though I do not always feel like working out, I did it any way.Finding a friend to work out with and a gym where I felt connection helped too.
It was essential, in early recovery, to find at least one person that I could be 100% honest and real with. Someone who I could tell exactly what I was feeling without shame or fear of ridicule.I found that person in the halls of AA.I told her everything I was thinking and everything I was feeling. Even when I did not exactly know what I was feeling or even have the right words to describe what was going on with me, I talked with her. It felt like I was telling on myself and that was sometimes scary.I had never been this vulnerable with anyone.She understood my thinking and that helped me to realize I was ok.
It became clear that my mind was dragging me around and taking me places that I did not want to go.After yoga class one day, I stayed to hear a speaker talk about meditation.That speaker was Jon Kabat-Zinn.
He inspired me so much that I began a meditation practice that day.I have practiced almost every day since.I became a student of learning how to watch my mind and direct it so it could no longer drag me around.
Now I am watching me.I am gently guiding myself to be the woman I always knew I could be and always wanted to be. I watch my thoughts and behaviors.I have learned how to be comfortable being uncomfortable and to be ok with the fact that things often times do not go the way I think they should.
Meditation has become a powerful part of my authentic path to recovery because I have become skillful at training my ruminating mind to focus and stay in the present moment.I saw that the number one thing that was making me unhappy and taking me closer to that next relapse was my own thinking mind. My habit of mind was regretting the past and fearing the future.Meditation has been an enormous help in learning how to stay in the present and let go of the regret and fear.While they still visit, they do not dominate.
Finding my own authentic path in recovery has been a journey that I am so grateful to be on.I have learned, and practice, living happily clean and sober every day.
When it was first suggested to me that I might try mindfulness practices to support my recovery, I was skeptical.A friend told me that my recovery would be improved if I learn to focus my attention and be acutely aware of my inner and outer surroundings.
The only reason I considered trying mindfulness is because my mind was so overwhelmed all the time and I felt this inner state of chaos in my body.It felt like a volcano was rumbling around inside of me getting ready to erupt.
AA meetings were providing me with community and I was no longer isolating.I had even gotten a sponsor and begun to do the 12-step work.None of this seemed to help with my mind being unable to settle.I had no ease in my mind or my body.That uncomfortable edgy feeling was really the only constant I felt.
Not unlike many other aspects of my sobriety, I became willing to try mindfulness practices as a support to my recovery out of sheer desperation.I was willing to try anything to quiet the critical voices that had a megaphone inside my head. Anything to settle the nervous energy that I felt like was on steroids inside of me every waking moment.
Through books, YouTube, various websites, attending a nearby meditation center, and talking to people who actually practice mindfulness, I gained enough confidence to give it a try.The app Insight Timer helped me to set a timer with the chimes of my choosing and the time intervals that were manageable for me. Prana Recovery Centers has a group on Insight Timer that connects mindfulness and recovery.The group posts are very helpful.
I started learning and practicing mindfulness very slowly and learned that I had to persevere. Like with my recovery, when I am struggling, I just stay with it.It is so important to keep trying– everyday.
These are the practices that I find most helpful:
Mindfulness of the Breath
Mindfulness of the breath is a common practice because the breath is accessible.After all, we are all breathing. Training the spotlight of my attention on to my breath is a great way to quiet my mind.
It takes practice and my mind still wonders but that is okay.I just keep bringing my attention back to my breath again and again.It does not matter how many times I have to do this in one practice.
I have been told it is like building a muscle.Every time I redirect my attention back to my breath, I make those neural connections stronger.
I find that the first ten minutes of observing my breath coming in and out my mind wanders a lot.After ten minutes, I can usually find a still quiet place where my mind settles down and is less active.
This skill of being able to direct my attention to my breath has been very helpful in moments when I am very anxious.It takes the edge of enough so I feel like I will get through the difficulty of the moment.
Mindfulness of the Body
I had no idea my body has useful information to tell me.Through mindfulness I have learned how to tune in to my body to gain valuable intel for living clean and sober.
That gut feeling that I am in the wrong place or with the wrong people is now an evident message that I listen to.That clutching of my throat or quickening of my breath are now clues that I pay attention to and act upon.
The practice of mindfulness of the body has taught me to tune in to my body and befriend it as a source of valuable information to help me live happily clean and sober.
This mindfulness practice is a huge support to my recovery.I was so shut down to the helpful language of my body. Being open-minded enough to try this practice and then sticking with it has paid huge dividends for relapse prevention.
I now feel like an integrated person out in the World trying to stay sober and do good rather than just a nervous wreck walking around with an overwhelming feeling of dread.
This mindfulness practice has been an enormous support to my recovery because I have learned to communicate more effectively.What a huge help!
It was suggested to me that I look at my most difficult relationships and become aware of how I communicate.I saw that in these difficult relationships I usually entered a conversation or dialogue with defensiveness.I could see this just was not effective. I felt disconnected from the very people I care the most about.
So I started trying different things.Like remaining silent and listening to the other person or being curious and asking questions.My intention shifted from one of being heard to actually wanting to really hear the other person.Slowly, my defensive nature began to subside.
I started to feel a deeper connection with people.It was subtle at first and then seemed to build on itself.
Learning a new tool for communicating with those I love has been the biggest support to my recovery.I do not always get it right but I always keep trying.
Being bored, wandering mind, and sleepiness all come and visit when I am practicing mindfulness. Anxiety and self-doubt usually make an appearance too.
I am very grateful for the instruction I have received that taught me these fluctuations of the mind and body are totally natural.
The more I practice the less they visit and they don’t stay as long when they do visit.
My only job is to just stick with it.No matter what – the next day, I do another practice.
In this way, mindfulness is a support to my recovery and has proven to be an amazing relapse prevention superpower!
When I was first introduced to the 12 steps as a potential solution to my chronic relapses, I was skeptical of what works.It took me awhile to realize that I had a lot of preconceived notions about the 12 steps.I had a lot of prejudice about 12 step recovery.
Because I was in so much emotional pain and suffering greatly (not to mention what I was putting my loved ones through), I became willing to at least listen.
Suffering can be a great persuader.
I quickly learned that there are elements of 12 step recovery that have saved me from relapse.Some of the 12 step tools are absolutely amazing in helping me overcome barriers to sobriety.
And there are elements that make me want to run the other way.
Two Elements of 12 Step Recovery That Work
Here are two of the elements of 12 step recovery that work. What works
The first element is that 12 step recovery provides a formula in which to appropriately deal with what pisses me off, hurts my feelings, or interferes with the outcomes that I want.
This formula is begun in the 4th step and maintained in steps 10, 11, & 12.
The instructions for understanding and implementing this formula are found in the first 103 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book.I tried reading this on my own and while I found it interesting, I did not change a lick.Once I began to read it with someone else who knew and lived the formula, I began to change. I stayed sober and even began to be happy more often.
Learning to be free from suffering is an awesome relapse prevention tool.Applying the 12 step formula into my life has been so effective that problems do not pile up on me. I am no longer so burdened by life that I have to numb myself by picking up a drink or a drug.
There is a system in place to help transform from me from the chaotic individual I once was to being able to find glimpses of peace and serenity.Essentially, I stopped living in drama and I put up the surrender flag on chaos.
My life immediately got better.
The second element of 12 step recovery that works is by the end of the 12 step process I am now focusing more on you than I am on me.It used to be all about I, me, and mine.I sought only to fill my own needs and find comfort for me.
Now my focus is usually on the greater good.I began to see that I am the happiest when I am seeking happiness for others. Sounds cliché but it is true.
This is not a once and done endeavor.The 12 step recovery process must be practiced regularly.In the beginning it is best to practice the steps daily.And to ask a lot of questions of people who are living it.
Some call these shifts in behavior, perception, and attitude a spiritual experience. That may be true.My lived experience shows that it helps keep me stay clean and sober and to be happy most of the time.
Two Elements of 12 Step Recovery That Are Less Than Desirable
These two aspects of 12 step recovery make me want to give up on the whole damn thing!They are very uncomfortable and are undesirable for me.Yet they go with the gig of 12 step recovery.
The first aspect of 12 step recovery that makes me want to run the other way is people who are rigid to the extreme.They will tell you this is the only way to recover.
You know them when you hear them. They are the “my way or the highway” type that espouse a mentality that feels like a cult.They believe that recovery has to be done one way and one way only.
When I hear these folks my antennae goes up and I want to run out of the room.Then I remind myself that some 12 step people really do believe that this is the only path to recovery.My experience shows me that for some people other things like church, yoga, and therapy work too.For most people,it is likely a combination of things.
The second element of 12 step recovery that makes me uncomfortable is that it is hard to tell who is actually living in the solution of the 12 steps.Sometimes I hear a speaker that says all the right things but whose life is actually in shambles.I once heard a 12 step guy say he was arrested more times in recovery then he was when he was drinking.Yikes!If that is sobriety then no thanks.
The problem is it is really hard to tell at first who is walking the talk.This makes trusting what people say difficult.
The real test of 12 step recovery is my own direct experience.The Buddha taught his students not to rely on his words. He encouraged his followers to examine their own direct experience.That is to take the instructions and actually apply them to day-to-day living and then assess their effectiveness.