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We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
— E. M. FORSTER

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Jan P. Learning to stay

My day begins the same way most every day. I wake in gratitude, go outside, and take a deep breath. Usually I stand quietly for a few moments, I stretch, and then slowly I begin to move. They say that doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results is a form of insanity. I find doing the same thing over and over again, with a mindful presence, has become a practice that restored me to sanity. The regular practice of Tai Chi and qigong is a vehicle, a moving meditation, and an education that has taken me from being a lost, ignorant drunk to a participating member of society. This practice is an imperative part of my sobriety and my story, helping me discover a life worth living.

I grew up in a small town in the mountains of New Mexico. I had two brothers and I was the youngest. My parents were both schoolteachers and were consumed with their own lives and left the raising of their children to chance. I say that because I really only remember a few times where I had any actual guidance from either parent.

One of my first clear childhood memories is my first drink. I was 13 years old and I drank enough to black out. I woke the next morning in my room and in my bed, with two black eyes and a missing belt. I have no memory of the night.

School was a challenge. I struggled to understand what was being taught. Nothing made sense, and no one seemed to notice. Often I would go home during recess, and skipped classes altogether. I hung out at my house and watched TV.

In high school I drank whenever I had the opportunity. I was part of the party crowd. We'd ditch class and head into the mountains to camp and drink. I felt popular and well liked, but I never had a real boyfriend. Still, after a few drinks I would usually "go with" a boy. I have vague and blurry memories of being in the backseats of cars or on the ground by some campfire. I know I did things that I did not want or plan to do. Being drunk though, I never said no. I experimented with marijuana, LSD, cocaine and other drugs, but I preferred alcohol.

Deep down I was afraid of overdosing with drugs; it never dawned on me that every time I blacked out, I overdosed.

Once I had one drink, I had another, and wouldn't, couldn't stop until I passed out or blacked out. I tried not to guzzle drinks and would try to slow down by filling baby bottles with booze, so I could "nurse" my intake. This was one of the first of many games I played on myself to control my problem. I've never had a typical "social" drink.

I think because I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other and with schoolteachers for parents, I was protected or shielded by neighbors, teachers and the community in a way that was of no help. My parents divorced when I was 5 and then again when I was 12. No one spoke about it.

When my dad left my mom, he married a woman who hated his children and asked him to start a new life. He did. Later he told me, he had to leave my mother because she was unaffectionate and cold. I asked him why he left his children with such a woman. It had never dawned on him to do otherwise.

My mother was a reluctant single parent of three, with a full-time job. It wasn't until after her death in 2003 that I learned of her mental illness. Growing up, I didn't notice, I thought my life was normal.

In my senior year, my mother remarried and moved to Colorado with her new husband. I lived with my father and his wife my last year of school. I had been drinking and drugging for several years, but that year, I picked up the pace. One night I faintly remember friends dumping me from a car on to our front lawn. I woke up in my bed. When I saw my father at breakfast, he mentioned I'd put on some weight. I assumed he had to carry me from the lawn to my bed — I don't know. Nothing more was ever said. Another time, I remember falling down in the kitchen once when I was on acid, and all he said was, "Looks like Jan is flying around the room again." Even when the vice-principal at the school caught me smoking pot in the school parking lot, nothing was said. I guess I got away with it all.

The day I graduated high school, I left without plans for what I'd do next. I got in a car with some friends and we drove. We ran out of money in Ohio and when my friends decided to go back to New Mexico, I stuck my thumb out, and jumped into a truck with a couple of hippies. We went north, drove across parts of Canada, and came down through Maine to a small town in Massachusetts. I got out there.

I started drinking and partying at the beach with local kids. One boy invited me to his house for dinner. I couldn't believe that his entire family sat around a table together to eat. It was the first time I felt apart of a family. Eating together and sharing in conversation was just incredible to me. I fell in love with that boy and longed to be part of his family. I was happy there, but I didn't stop drinking.

And then I kept moving — a lot.

One night I left Massachusetts and moved to Florida. I became the first female telephone installer in the state of Florida, driving a Ma Bell truck and climbing telephone poles in Miami. I told people my name was Ruth Morgan. I don't know why.

Six months later, I left and moved to Colorado. I got into a small school in Glenwood Springs and took a graphic communications program. That worked out well for me. There were only five people in the program and instead of us all attending classes together, the instructor mentored each of us one day a week. Saturday through Thursday, I skied and drank. On Fridays, I went to school. I was taught how to run a printing press. I loved the one-on-one attention I received in the course. I was teachable! If you showed me how to do something, I could get it. It was the part about writing papers and reading textbooks that, like in high school, sent me into a frenzy. Everything seemed like a jumble, so I'd put it aside and either have another drink or go skiing.

I graduated from that College's two-year program in one year with a certificate of graphic communications. I was hired at the local newspaper and became the first female pressman in the state of Colorado. Unfortunately, I believed my boss was a genius, and therefore I accepted the verbal and physical abuse he tossed my way. One night, I was raped by a co-worker in my own home. The next day I left town.

I drove across the U.S. getting odd jobs in Indiana, Wyoming, and Missouri; then at the drop of a hat, I'd leave. The rape had left me pregnant, and I became one of the first to benefit from Roe vs. Wade in Oklahoma. I never told anyone. I got a job at a newspaper in the pressroom in Kansas. Again, I was the only woman in the back shop and the first woman in the state to become a journeyman, cameraman and pressman, — and man, man, man... and man, I drank with the men.

I married, moved to Virginia, Oklahoma and back to Kansas. One day I left that marriage and moved back to New Mexico. I worked as a graphic illustrator until I was fired for passing out drunk at my drawing board in the afternoons. I left and moved to back to Colorado.

By the early '80s, I had lived in 17 states, changed my name three times and continued to drink and leave, drink and leave. I found it easier to move than to apologize, talk, or stay.

Then I met Ken. We went out to dinner one night, spent the weekend together, and I moved in with him. I liked this guy, and did not want to screw things up with him.

So I hid my drinking from him. I drank at home, alone and in secret. When Ken would go to work in the mornings, I would swear to myself that I wouldn't drink. But I did. I prayed for sobriety and stayed drunk. I really tried to stop drinking, but it was too hard and before I knew it, I would be drunk when he came home from work.

I wanted to stay with Ken, but... one day, I was watering houseplants and accidentally poured water down the back of his TV set. I was so disappointed with myself, because I felt sure that, with this mishap, I had ruined the best relationship I ever had. I made ready to leave. When Ken came home from his work, I was waiting by my packed car — I wanted to say goodbye. I thought that was the least I could do and I thought it was very grown up of me — usually I would just leave.

I'm not sure who was more surprised by what happened next. I'd been sure Ken would fly into a rage and I could be long gone before the first blow would land. (He never once had given me any reason to think this way — never — but that is the way my messed-up mind thought.) Instead he asked why I was leaving; he was so sincere. I confessed to breaking his TV and he simply said, "Get it fixed." Get it fixed, don't just leave! It was the first time I realized that you could make a mistake, and make it right. Amazing! He wanted me to stay and I could just fix the stupid TV. Wow! I stayed.

That was a moment of clarity. I knew if I were to stay, I would need to stay sober.

I phoned AA. I asked for help. I asked Ken to take me to the meeting, but he said it was my problem and therefore I would have to be the one to get there. I walked into my first meeting on August 20, 1984. On that first day, I was told I would never have to feel the way I felt again if I didn't want to.

I heard the words "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path." I was told to not drink, to read the Big Book, and to go to meetings. My heart fell because I knew I would never make it — I could not do what was asked of me. Maybe I could get to meetings, but I didn't know how to not drink, and worse —my biggest secret ever — I was 28 years old, the daughter of schoolteachers and I couldn't read. But, I was tired of running, tired of leaving, and tired of being tired. I was at the turning point. I turned to the lady next to me and told her my fears and my secrets.

Polly D., big-haired and perfumed, hugged me and said, "Oh baby," as she opened the Big Book. "Look, we'll focus on the black part of the book, those are the words." She said, "Don't drink and call me, don't drink and go to a meeting, don't drink and I'll hold your hand. Together, we will learn to live sober. Put your seat belt on." And I did.

I learned I was teachable. I learned to read. I learned to live.
I learned to stay.

During my first year of sobriety, I enrolled in a Tai Chi class. In AA, they suggested I find a higher power. I have never believed in a god and yet I trust the people in AA. So I did what they suggested, I asked for help to stay sober and I whispered thank you at the end of the day. My concept of a higher power changes as I change. I've come to understand that a higher power is whatever works at the time. What works best for me is a daily mindful practice. I continue to study martial arts and have learned to soothe myself with gentle movement. Today I make my living teaching internal arts seminars and private lessons. I created a daily qigong program for clients being treated for drug and alcohol abuse at a local treatment center.

I also make quilts, baskets, and glass beads. I read and write as a practice everyday as well. My words have been published in magazines and I've been featured in documentary films — not as a loser, but as a teacher.

I've stayed with Ken and I've stayed sober. We have a simple and good life on a small island near Vancouver. We have an orange cat and a goofy dog. My life is good — I am still here.

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