I’ve heard the saying, “It’s a selfish program.” What does that mean exactly? Well I interpret that statement to mean, you must take care of yourself before you can help anyone else. Actually it’s one of the kindest decisions we can make, to care for ourselves, – since ultimately the we way treat ourselves affects how we treat everyone else as well. Taking the time to care for our bodies, minds and spirits has a ripple effect into all of our relationships, family, work, friends, and so on.
How do we find the time to care for ourselves in sobriety though? There’s so much to do! (And that’s an understatement!) There was a long time when I was unavailable, unreliable and leaving emotional and physical wreckage in my wake. I have a lot to fix! This pretty much sums it up: “The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil. We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough. He is like the farmer who came up out of the cyclone cellar to find his home ruined. To his wife, he remarked, ‘Don’t see anything the matter here, Ma. Ain’t it grand the wind stopped blown’?’” (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 82).
Now I don’t want to be like the farmer, blind to the mess I have made. In sobriety I realize there is quite a bit of action to do in order to restore the important relationships that I almost lost. As I proceeded through a fact-finding and fact-facing process, I learned to clean up the past and start to rebuild the trust and reliance of those that I loved. As I began this “long period of reconstruction” I tried to be and do whatever I could for people, in an effort to make up for the past. Often times that meant I said “yes” to whatever I was asked to do. I was also trying to be of service to others in the program, as others had helped me in early sobriety too. I remember in early sobriety how people answered my calls, gave me rides to meetings, bought me a coffee, and genuinely cared about me (I was a perfect stranger to them.) Now I felt it was my duty to pass that on, to help others in the same way that I had received help.
I found myself saying yes when others asked for help and it felt great! Then I kept saying yes, and was flying from work, to pick someone up, to a meeting, then to drop them off. I started to feel exhausted, stressed, and constantly “on.” The biggest problem was actually the attachment that I realized I had when I gave to others. I had an attachment to their outcome. For example, if I was giving someone a ride to meetings and talking with them regularly, I expected them to stay sober and be grateful for what I was doing for them. This kind of attachment to an outcome is unhealthy and can sour relationships very quickly. How could I help others, whether it be people in AA, friends or family, without feeling resentment if they did not act the way I wanted them to?
It all comes down to this: “It is not the matter of giving that is in question, but how and when to give. This often makes the difference between failure and success.” (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 98)
I could only offer help, but I could not keep anyone sober or happy. More importantly, I was not acting out of compassion or understanding when people did not act the way I want them to. I was not accepting what was out of my control.
It was time to look inward. How do I care for myself? This was a question my current sponsor asked me when we first met. I remember how I told her that I really loved to take baths and they were very calming. She nodded her head and smiled. What else? I had a hard time thinking of anything else I did for myself, as an act of self-care. She asked me to spend some time with myself and my higher power and explore ways to really care for and love myself.
So this journey has been going on for six years now. I learned by going through the steps that this transformation begins with our spirit. I looked at my practice with Step 11. What was my relationship and routine with prayer and meditation? Did I do it? Yes. Did I see prayer and meditation as a gift to myself, or just something to check off my list? With my awareness growing, I realized that often my morning prayer was a rote practice and my meditation was either being skipped or I would do a minimum of 5 minutes and rush into the rest of the day. I set an intention to develop a relationship with stillness and quiet. This did not come naturally to me. I am wired for movement and like the feeling of being productive. Learning to sit enabled me to feel the present moment, let the thoughts whirl and the fears buzz, and just be in the moment. Practicing sitting allowed me to see when thinking occurred without judgment. I listened to guided meditation, I saw in quiet with no guidance. I began to read Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates. This book became my inspiration either before or after morning meditation. I practiced my morning practice. I began to really value that time with God and coffee.
As I recovered spiritually, I also began to straighten out mentally, emotionally, and physically. When emotions came up like anger, resentment, embarrassment, entitlement, loneliness, guilt; I felt my feelings instead of denying them and causing more shame and dishonesty. I practiced identify the root cause of my emotions, felt them for a time, and returned to a compass point of love, compassion, and tolerance. This is a great example of self-care because I feel free today since I am not bottling up my emotions or sitting in my dirty diaper of self-pity. What a gift it is to learn how to deal with everyday emotions!
Physically I began to prioritize my own nutrition and exercise. When I was running to and fro trying to meet only the needs of everyone else, I had forgotten that I could be much more useful when I was running on something more substantial than coffee and sugar. I have really noticed how exercise and nutrition affect my spirit and mind. I am a seeker of instant gratification, so it can be hard to see healthy eating and consistent exercise as self-care, but both of them are! If I practice good, stable habits in life for a enough time to actually become habits then I realize this way of life is a blessing. I have this built-in-forgetter that is always telling me to find the easier, softer way. So when I put healthy food in my body and spend time outdoors biking or going for walks and I feel comfortable in my skin I start to feel great. My mind usually then says, “Okay, that’s enough healthy good stuff for now, you’ve earned yourself some chocolate!” I have to laugh at my own thinking and not go to extremes because the reality is a little chocolate is a great thing. Often us alcoholics and addicts are inclined to have more than a little of anything we like though! (Ain’t it the truth???) So I bring it back to the question: what would be a gift to my body, the home of my spirit? This question helps me to make a healthier choice that affects the well-being of my body, mind and spirit.
Let’s revisit the concept of helping others while also caring for myself. My ability to help others effectively has increased exponentially since I have made self-care a priority. I suffer from much less resentment, fear and exhaustion. I have much healthier relationships with my family, friends, and sponsees. I certainly don’t do life perfectly and would never claim to. I continue to make mistakes and learn from them. I have stretches of balance and times of imbalance. I often need reminders and I take suggestions with an open heart. Being able to give back to others, what was so freely given to me is hands down the greatest gift of my life.
“Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends- this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, pg. 89)