Saturday, June 27, 2009

Accept Acceptance

One of the first things you hear at AA meetings is: "identify, don't compare". In the context of recovery, this means to listen to other people's stories and struggles with an open heart and an open mind. In early recovery, when your brain is still trying to wrap itself around the fact that you are an alcoholic, or an addict, it is easy to look for a way out, a trapdoor -- anything to avoid the reality that your life will never be the same. If you are listening to someone tell their story of arrests, or jail time, and this has never happened to you, it is tempting to think "well, that hasn't happened to me, I can't be as bad as her". Your unhealthy brain is looking to accumulate evidence that you aren't really an alcoholic, that you aren't that bad.

You would like to think those things can't happen to you... and if you think it long and hard enough, those things won't happen to you. But, as you also hear in meetings "your best thinking got you here". The trick is to get outside yourself, get over yourself. To stop all the thinking and get out of your own way. In order to succeed, you have to let go. You have to trust in others, trust in a power greater than yourself, and gain acceptance that the world spins madly on no matter how much you wish you could control it.

This sounds simple, and it is. Simple, but not easy. I didn't think I was a controlling person, a perfectionist, until I came into recovery. Then I started to hear, over and over until I wanted to scream, how we don't have control over people, places or things. That we need to accept life on life's terms, and live in the moment. What?

Let's face it, in today's world we are constantly bombarded with messages that are quite the contrary. Television commercials telling us we need a nicer car, a bigger house, a special medicine that will cure our ailments. Advertisements and billboards plastered with perfect looking people living perfect looking lives are designed to make us feel inadequate. That whatever life we're living now could be vastly improved by whatever they are selling. Just glancing through any magazine shows me my face needs more moisturizing, I'm wearing last season's colors, my house needs a makeover, I don't have a waistline like a hornet and my body parts need a virtual cocktail of medications to function properly. Everywhere I look the message is this: that I can find contentedness if only I have this, or that. More money. A better job. A nicer house. A faster car. A more practical car.

It is exhausting. I would buy the product of any company that said in their advertising "you totally don't need this - its really cool and flashy and it will make your neighbors jealous, if that is important to you, but it can't make you happy, it can only make your friends think you are happy". In this day and age, we have taken the notion of 'keeping up with the Joneses" to a whole new level. Through every medium the message is one of instant gratification. More, and now.

These messages are prominent in the world of parents, too. Kids are over scheduled, overbooked and overstressed. Moms feel constant pressure to enroll their kids in every activity they can find ... because Little Susie is taking Swahili lessons somehow our own daughter will be inadequate if she doesn't take them, too. We are not passing down a message of acceptance to our children. Whether we are aware of it or not, too often we are telling them they need to keep up, to do more, to have more, to be more involved. The unspoken message is that they aren't good enough the way they are. We are constantly comparing, and not identifying enough.

We compare to make ourselves feel better - if someone comes on hard times it is human nature to feel that flash of relief that it isn't happening to you. We compare to make ourselves feel worse - if someone has more than we do, if life seems too easy for them, we feel that tug of resentment that we don't have what they have. And we drive ourselves mad trying to keep up. To be Normal. When we say Normal, what we really mean is Accepted. Accepted by other people, fitting in.

So how on earth, when you're caught up in this maelstrom, do you let go. How do you look around your life, your circumstances, and accept them all just the way they are? What recovery teaches is that true acceptance comes from within. How hokey does that sound? In this cynical age - very. Recovery helps you navigate the 'if-onlys'. I could be happy if only my kid were doing better in school. If only we had a three bedroom house. If only I were thinner. If only I had more time to get things done. If only I could get that granite counter top, if only so-and-so were nicer to me.

You can wait a whole lifetime for the if-onlys to come true. We are so accustomed to thinking we need more that we forget to look around at all we do have. I have a friend in recovery who lives in his truck on purpose. He has everything he needs there, and he can go anywhere he wants. He is the the most serene person I know. He gets a big chuckle out of people who feel sorry for him. He doesn't compare himself to them, not for a second. He finds it amusing when people compare themselves to him. "I think I make people feel like they have a lot going for them," he says. "It gives me pleasure to make people feel good, so it all works out."

Life on life's terms. Just the way it is, here and now. It can't be improved on, because it just is.


  1. Well said Ellie. Simple, but not easy says it all.

    I am a bit of a serial comparer mostly when it comes to parenting issues (and I hate that about myself). I look for reassurance that someone out there must be having a tougher time than me. And anyone that has an easier time must has perfect, well-mannered and reasonable children. The kind you see on TV.

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  3. Ellie--

    Thank you for all you are sharing on this blog of yours. I came here from Damomma's blog, and I am not a frequent commenter, but I have to share my gratitude with you. My mom is an alcoholic in recovery, and hearing your perspective on the AA experience has been enlightening for me. This entry about the if-onlys spoke to me in so many ways, and I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate your willingness to share your struggle and your wisdom. It is helping me understand my mom so much better. Thanks again.