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Full circle: My journey gloriously continues to unfold

December 11, 2017
by Thomas M. Greaney, MEd, LADC, CCDP, SAP
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Tom Greaney

As I stood sobbing uncontrollably in the lavatory of my Southwest Airlines flight en route to Denver on Nov. 10, the strength of the tears stung my eyes and punctuated my fears. The experience laid bare the grief I often re-visit, first unconsciously and then more mindfully during the year-end holidays. But it also bestowed on me an early Christmas present: a new opportunity to celebrate the growth and emotional sobriety I cherish. And as has been my experience in 60 rotations around the sun, there was a glorious and graceful release in this latest outpouring.

Then my master emotion of fear kicked in, setting up a mental arm-wrestling match. First came the judgmental mind’s query: “Why can’t you stop crying?” That was met with my kind voice: “Why would you want to?”

Lovingly cradling my face in my hands, as my therapist/mentor David Eaton had encouraged me to do as a way to “embrace” my tears, I looked in the mirror. Encountering my reflection, I alternately connected with the pain of my childhood sexual trauma and the challenges of yesterday. My tear-soaked cheeks had a sheen about them, reminding me of the classic holiday poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (attributed by most to Clement C. Moore). “The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow, gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below. When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,” but the sense of me on the ceiling gazing upon myself as I looked at myself in the mirror.

What prompted my response, and why am I still crying as I type these words? First and foremost, it’s a matter of grace, and my gratitude for it. It’s also a recognition of the difficulty I often experience with the personal and societal trappings of the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Also known as the “Bermuda Triangle” for persons in early or sustained recovery, this is a roughly 40-day period when people are at risk of relapse and never being seen again.

I realized, while having a conversation with fellow air traveler Miriam, that I had come full circle in my 25-year journey toward individuation (becoming the person I was meant to be but was walled off from becoming because of my alcohol use disorder). “Yes!” My soul breathed and sighed in triumphant exultation. As was my experience soon after I first got sober on Dec. 28, 1991, my whole being felt alive and fully present to myself, my thoughts and my feelings.

In the early 1990s, I did enough travel while working for a Fortune 50 insurance company to attain “silver” travel status. I made a remarkable discovery then, and smiled with pride now—I wanted to talk about more than the weather and the Yankees game the night before. Life, my life, took on greater meaning and importance. Innocent bystanders on trains and planes, in cabs, and on line at the grocery store and the bank became the unsuspecting participants and “collateral beneficiaries.”

My newfound need to connect with other human beings, instead of connecting with and checking out of life via a bottle, created enthusiasm and motivation.

Love and loss

It was my second outpouring of emotion while winging my way to a four-day vacation with my daughter, Laura, in Longmont, Colo. I first tapped into my “emotional arousal template” during the flight when I read an antique postcard in my collection from the early 1900s. The quill pen writing on the face of the otherwise non-descript pheasant-adorned postcard began in the upper lefthand corner. “Mother Karen is sick…” This was ironic verbiage for me, as my sweetheart Karen was least like my mother. Thoughts of my love of nine years, Karen, who died of lung cancer on Sept. 15, 2011, immediately filled my brain and were expressed in a slow-building torrent of tears.

I was flooded with the euphoric recall of my love for her and the ache and longing to still have her steadfast by my side on this blessed journey. Experiencing her painfully slow, 18-month journey of death after diagnosis, I now walk my journey with an abiding faith. I pair my meditation and prayer with ever-increasing expressions of kindness to myself and to others I encounter.

Eventually, I offered Miriam a Christmas-themed antique postcard, and we reveled in trying to decipher the handwritten sentiments of Iva E. to her “Dear Friend Belle.”

As I fumbled trying to re-click my seatbelt, another touchstone of Karen’s presence and generosity caught my attention: my well-worn black leather jacket, now with a slice in the back. This Fonzie-type relic remains a treasure. I recalled for Miriam how after Karen passed, I discovered a New York Yankees jacket she had bought me and hid in her walk-in closet—a space I had rarely stepped into, except after she died. Then there was the small, three-inch placard that seemed literally to leap out of the kitchen cabinet after I opened it to investigate what delicious recipes Karen had catalogued but not yet prepared for us. The words in white letters against a black background loudly exclaimed in capital letters, “I LOVE YOU.” I had to pause to compose myself in order to recount for Miriam the third treasure that I know Karen wanted me to discover. I told Miriam of the lapel pin-sized angel I happened to unearth when cleaning out my beloved’s work desk at the home we shared for nearly nine years.

There was a time when my emotions were too overwhelming for my inner child, Tommy, and me, adult Tom, to experience. But this joyous encounter with Miriam seemed to validate all of the difficult issues and hard work my Higher Power had gently convinced me to confront. I basked in the loving embrace of change.

A meaningful sharing

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It is wondrously synchronistic that this article was put up online the morning of my 60th birthday! Bring on this decade, one that will be characterized by kindness to my self and others, of creativity, grace and appreciation! Happy holidays!

I read your article today, and received tremendous validation for my history of recognizing the challenge of the period of Thanksgiving through New Years' Day, and now I can name it-"The Bermuda Triangle"--BRILLIANT !! I am currently 26 years sober, but still get consumed at times by such confused emotions during "the most wonderful time of the year." At approximately nine years of recovery, working as a substance abuse counselor, I was coming into work one day, and a very empathic co-worker simply asked "How are you today?" and the dam burst. I was off work for 3 days, and sought out a therapist, who worked with me through the easing of the holidays. One other incident, when walking through a glassware store, I started to have a panic attack, at seeing all the holiday glassware and the type of beer glass my father used. This was processed as a mixed bag of how I used to blot out the holidays in an oblivion of my favorite top shelf selections, and the upheaval of the moment caused me to think momentarily that my wife might have to take me to the local Emergency Center. Your references to your ongoing self-discovery are so encouraging, as I was also reminded of a plane flight where my wife and I were not seated together, but I was fortunate to be next to a gentleman who recognized my triangle/recovery ring, and we chatted about the program, and his being a Royal Canadian Mountie!
Thank you so much for your courage, your expressions of life, its challenges, and your continued overcoming through your Higher Power--a wonderful renewal for this "most wonderful time of the year!!!" Glen Witt MSW, LICDC-CS

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