Monday, July 26, 2010

Report from Hawaii

Now I've had a chance to dig out from under the backlog and the frontlog that piled up while I was in Hawaii, I'm going to take a few minutes and jot down a report and some memories, and post some photos.

The main purpose of this trip was to try to get LifeRing started in Hawaii. To do that we needed someone or someones in Hawaii to come up with the airfare and hotel. Would you believe it took almost two years to get that done?

The principal engineers were Lorraine Robinson, head of a women's prisoner re-entry program; Eddie Merseneaux, head of a North Shore recovery program; and Bernie Strand, representing Access to Recovery (ATR), a federally funded granting and training council.  In this team, Lorraine was the sparkplug, Eddie was the engine, and Bernie was the fuel pump -- she found and moved the money.  Here's me with Lorraine, photo above.  Lorraine's program is called Ka Hale Ho‘ala Hou No Na Wahine-- Hawaiian for The Home of Reawakening for Women. More about that later.

My main job was to do an all-day workshop explaining LifeRing to treatment professionals.  Even though this had been talked about for many months, the authorization for the money didn't get cleared until three weeks before the date of the workshop.  I was a bit concerned that there might not be much of a crowd, with so little time to prepare.  But Lorraine and Eddie and Bernie each turned out their staffs and their contacts, and Eddie's email blast hit just about every addiction and mental health professional on the island -- an impressive list. It also helped that the island of Oahu is not all that big, and almost everybody knows almost everybody.  Result: the conference room was full up with 50 people, all but one being staff at one or another treatment agency.  

Some very senior people attended, including the counselor who heads all substance abuse training in the State of Hawaii; at least one psychiatrist medical director; and a lot of younger staff as well.  Here's a photo of me with Eddie.

We met in a kind of unusual location: the conference room of Hilo Hattie's, probably the leading vendor of all things Hawaiian in Honolulu.  You wandered to the conference room through aisles and aisles loaded with Aloha shirts and every other conceivable item of Hawaiian merchandise, and soft hula music wafted in the background.  That was lovely and very relaxing, but there was a downside.  The conference room walls didn't reach to the ceiling; they were just partitions.  Moreover, there was another conference room directly to one side, where another program was going on.  And after lunch, a hula class began on the other side. But the price of the room was right!  Luckily, I have a robust set of vocal cords, so that even after the microphone gave out, which it did, I was able to reach the back rows without too much trouble.

I started the program by asking people to identify themselves and say why they were here, and I was struck by how closely these folks followed the consensus of other treatment professionals I had met at conferences such as NAADAC, CAADAC, and APA (search this blog for those acronyms for details).  That is, they all had clients who were willing to do recovery, but the 12-step approach was not their cup of tea.  They were looking for additional tools, choices, to offer their clients. OK, that's why I was there. Hilo Hattie's provided a nice big flatscreen TV on which to run my PowerPoint, and I presented a somewhat modified and expanded version of the 200-slide workshop I had given previously to two different CAADAC audiences in Oakland and in Sacramento.  You can download the original version from here.

At lunch, we had a prominent guest speaker, Gary Hooser (right), the outgoing majority leader of the Hawaii state senate and candidate for Hawaii lieutenant governor. I had the privilege of being introduced to Gary before his talk, and gave him a LifeRing lapel pin, which he wore during his talk. He spoke mostly about political realities in general, but also disclosed that his father was an alcoholic and his brother was a drug addict, so he knew something about the topic of our concern.  I've met a number of politicians in my time but I thought Gary was rather special in his frankness, directness, and courage.

After lunch, I started off by showing the 1 min 37 second Flash animation of how LifeRing works (here).  I'd not had the chance to test this with a live audience before.  It was fun to switch back and forth between the screen and audience faces to gauge the reaction. Somebody important once said that the measure of a good idea was whether you could explain it in 30 seconds as well as in 3 days, and I like to think that the LifeRing idea is passing that test, at least on the short side.  On the long side, both Eddie and some other listeners felt at the end of the day's presentation that there had been enough material presented for three days, and encouraged me to prepare a longer workshop. I have to agree; I barely scratched the surface of the Recovery by Choice workbook, for example, and never touched on some of the issues in the later chapters of Empowering Your Sober Self. There were some great questions asked. BernieStrand asked a brilliant one, namely whether it made sense to talk about building a Personal Recovery Program with a person on day one of their recovery, in view of the presence of cognitive distortions, etc.  I could have spent an hour on that one alone.  Here's a photo of Bernie and me, to the right.  A longer workshop format would leave time for more audience participation, breakouts, demonstrations, one-on-ones, and the like.  So, that's for the future.

After the day's workshop, Lorraine took me to her program for a short visit, and I got a chance to meet three of the residents.  Lorraine's program is a six-month residential program that helps women who have been released from state prison on parole to try to reintegrate into the community.  I got a lucky break there.  One of the women, M., told the story of her job interview earlier in the day, when she was turned down because of her felony rap.  She said that on the bus ride afterward, her mind was a battleground between part of her that wanted to say "f*ck it" and get drunk and go back to prison, and the other part that boosted her courage and urged her to hang in (she did).

The next day, Lorraine invited me to give a short talk to her program residents, and then lead them in a LifeRing meeting.  We met on plastic patio chairs under a canvas awning in the parking lot that forms the internal courtyard of the program.  I had given a few LifeRing talks to parolees, but never to an all-women group, and I mentally listed about 10 different ways that I could screw it up. I chose to use M.'s story about her mental battle after the job interview as the boat on which to sail into my talk about the A and the S and about empowering your sober self.  That was a happy approach, and after I had finished my introduction, I started the round of "How Was Your Week?" to my left and sat back to watch. The residents took to the format like ducks to water. It took just a tiny nudge to start the crosstalk, and I was treated to a phenomenally excellent LifeRing meeting, with the women giving each other support all across the circle.  The sun set and we had a few showers as the meeting went on. We spent two hours going around, and I worried that fatigue and short tempers would set in, but no need.  The engaged body language and the animated facial expressions of the women sustained the session until we were all the way around the circle.  We then broke for refreshments, prepared by the residents, and I got excellent one-on-one feedback from several of the women, who contrasted the LifeRing approach positively with other kinds of meetings they had attended.

An evaluation survey filled out by the residents the next day gave LifeRing very high marks; I'm going to post that separately.  There was strong support for having the LifeRing meeting at this facility once a week.  One of the guests at this meeting was a counselor from a related program, who volunteered to be the convenor.  Plans were laid to transition the meeting to an outside location, where nonresidents of Lorraine's program could join in.

That was the end of my LifeRing business in Hawaii, but I had planned to stay for the weekend and do some R&R. After all, it's Hawaii. My new friends were exemplary in their Aloha spirit, driving me literally all around the island to see the beautiful beaches and other sights.  I also got to eat poi, the traditional Hawaiian dish, which tasted like lightly grape flavored ice cream (not at all like library paste, as I'd been warned).  Hawaiians are legendary for hospitality, and my friends were shining embodiments of that legend.  I took a ton of pictures (like these plumerias), which I will post somewhere when I get the time, and I have a head full of wonderful memories.

Well, working to get LifeRing started in Hawaii was a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.  LOL.

P.S.  I just heard from Rachaell at the Service Center that a Hawaii agency has ordered more than 100 LifeRing books.  That's a good sign.  Lots of people told me they wanted to help LifeRing get started in Hawaii, but one never knows how serious it is until they cut the check.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Denver (Finale)

Sunday morning opened without a cloud in the brilliant blue sky.  The Unitarian church being busy with services, our LifeRing group convened in a community center next to Cheesman Park, as we did in 2007.  Immediately the contrast with three years ago was obvious.  In 2007, the whole body met around a modest conference table.  This time we needed a conference room with a head table and classroom seating.  This session, known formally as the Delegates' Assembly, is composed of LifeRing participants who have been selected as delegates by their meetings.  The basic rule is that each meeting (face-to-face or online) gets to select one delegate, who has one vote in the Assembly.

Tim S. from Tucson acted as Secretary to the session, and his Minutes will give a comprehensive report.  I'll just give a short synopsis.  The group approved the Minutes of last year's Delegates' Assembly.  We then heard the Treasurer's report, by LifeRing CFO Robert Stump.  This led to discussion of how LifeRing handles money; the report was approved unanimously.  LifeRing Office Administrator Rachaell C., the only person doing LifeRing work who is paid (as a contractor on part-time hours), then presented information about the role of the LifeRing Service Center in Oakland.  I then presented the Annual Report, which, after discussion, was also approved unanimously.  I then yielded the chair to Craig Whalley, a leading member of the Expansion Committee, who presented the Expansion Committee proposals.  These proposals had been worked out over the course of six months with input from a wide variety of stakeholders.  They were then published and publicized widely (we even had a YouTube video) for comment.  In view of the deliberate and transparent process that had preceded them, these wide-ranging proposals aroused no deep controversy at the meeting.  The labels of some of the newly created leadership positions were amended, and then the whole package was adopted without abstention or dissent, giving rise to a burst of applause from the group.  As it happened, I was the only person present who had also attended the LifeRing founding Congress in 2001.  This session had the same enthusiastic and energized atmosphere.

After a short humorous side-show, of which more below, we went on to the elections for the Board of Directors.  There were three vacancies, and three candidates, so this was not a complicated affair.  Craig Whalley, a former member of the Board of Directors, was elected back to the board.  Joe M. of San Francisco and Tom J. of Denver joined the Board for the first time.  Tim's minutes will give more details.  After an expression of thanks to the Congress organizers, the group adjourned for a short break.  Then the newly elected Board of Directors met for the very important business of filling the newly created leadership slots with people.  Thanks to Steve S. for this portrait of the new board.

Since this was my last appearance as CEO of LifeRing, I was the subject of repeated honorifics.  At the Saturday session, the Board presented me with a full-size functional life ring fitted with brass plaques containing words of thanks (photo above, thanks to Steve S). At the dinner, I was awarded a nautical clock with a lifering motif and more messages of appreciation (photo right, by Steve S).  At the Assembly, LifeRing participant Shauna W., a classmate of mine at Boalt Hall School of Law, Class of '86, had me and the group in stitches with a roast embroidering on some of my radical activities of the 1960s and 1970s, including a fantastic post by somebody on a forum somewhere in 2001 claiming that I had disappeared into the jungles of Brazil with a guerrilla army.  I squirmed and loved it.

While the newly elected Board met to do the heavy lifting of dividing up the workload, I seized my new freedom and went for a long walk in the park and a visit to Denver's top-notch Botanical Garden (photo of prize-winning roses, above).  I got a bit of a tan and returned to the meeting site just in time to help Kathleen G., the hard-working main organizer of the event, turn off the lights and close the doors.  I learned that Craig Whalley (photo, right) had been elected Executive Director of LifeRing (the CEO position has been retired) and that most of the other new positions have also been filled.  Craig is a wonderful person, whom I have known for many years, and he has my full support.  Pouring my energies into LifeRing as founder and CEO for the past thirteen years has been a wonderful and rewarding experience for me.  I'm proud as heck that the network has now grown both in size and in talent to the point where I can hand over the leadership to others.

I'll still be working on the new website for a while, and I've got some unfinished LifeRing writing projects in my hopper, and of course I'll still be attending (and probably convening) a meeting or two, and blogging, and a bit of traveling and speaking as author.  But first, a break. Did I mention that the World Cup is starting at the end of this week?  What perfect timing.

Website Redesign Underway

A brand-new LifeRing website is under construction.  You'll see a new, cleaner, and more attractive design, with  up-to-date web functionality, based on an up-to-the minute web platform, WordPress 3.0.  All of the core content of the current website will be preserved as pages on the new site; some of it as-is, some with reformatting or other edits.  Some of the content will be reshaped into blog posts, retrievable through categories and tags.  Some of the content will drop away.  

What content will drop away? It's largely up to you.  Content will drop away if (a) the pages get a low number of hits and especially if (b) no one maintains and updates the content.  Among the top candidates for obsolescence are:
  • The Gallery
  • The Humor Page
  • Keepers
  • Lawyer's LifeRing
  • Music
  • Recreation
  • Science
Selected content from some of these pages will become blog posts.  But the pages themselves will disappear, unless someone steps forward and pledges to maintain them. 

Stay tuned for further updates.  The new website is scheduled for unveiling by the end of this month.  I will stay on as webmaster until about the middle of August to make sure that the new site is running smoothly and in good condition to hand over to my successor.  -- Marty N.  

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Denver (2)

Bill Staudenmeier is a soft-spoken man.  You could see yourself in a room with him, one on one, pouring out your troubles, and having him ask questions, ever so softly, that cut right to the heart of your issue.  In the  crowded auditorium of the second floor of the Unitarian Church in Denver, Bill had to raise his voice to be heard. His topic: mindfulness.  Bill had us sit with our feet square on the floor, back straight, shoulders relaxed, eyes either closed or in soft focus (easy for me, just had to take off the glasses), and become aware of our body, limb by limb, our breath, our vision.  What I got is that mindfulness is an exercise, or a set of exercises, where we become quiet and, well, mindful of our bodies.  This helps relax us, dissipates stress, gives the speeding mind a rest.  And there's more.  It's not only an exercise, it's a  mental tool that you can take with you and use in a great variety of situations.  For example, when you're in the presence of "your" drug, and you're experiencing a craving, the mindless thing to do is grab the drug and put it in your body.  The mindful thing is to say, "Ah, I'm in the presence of this drug and I'm being triggered and I'm experiencing a craving.  How boring! Well, soon this feeling will be over and there'll be something else more interesting to draw my attention."  Mindfulness generates a calm inner observer that gives us distance and cool in the presence of emotional barking dogs.  And there's more.  Mindfulness is not only a meditation exercise and a tool for self-government, it's a philosophy for being in the world.  If we are mindful of ourselves and of our relationship with other beings and things, we are likely to be more truthful, more kind, and more fair in our behavior.  And that's a good thing.  Many people in LifeRing are interested in broader life guidance and philosophy issues -- what does it all mean? -- and Bill Staudenmeier's introductory exposition pointed toward an entirely secular, soft-spoken, and spiritually enlightened body of thought.  In keeping with his motto of speaking kindly, Bill also said some kind things about my book, Empowering Your Sober Self, for which I am grateful. Bill's talk got a special lift at times from the huge round stained glass window that formed his background.  This being a Unitarian church, the window's motifs consisted of flowers, jewels, feathers, and other non-religious designs; nevertheless, as Bill spoke in his calm, thoughtful manner, occasionally it seemed as if a halo had materialized approvingly around his head.  See photo, above.

Candice Shelby, the next speaker, comes from several generations of drunks, which did not prevent her from becoming a professor of philosophy, which she is.  Her interest in addiction was piqued by the dawning awareness that philosophers, by and large, didn't know the first thing about it.  Candice spoke in an edgy, animated tone, with endearing wisecracks and asides that let you know she knew some things about addiction from personal experience.  She made well-deserved fun of rationalist theories of addiction (theories that deny that addiction is real and see addictive behavior as a rational choice).  Her battle with the philosophers ultimately led her to look for answers in the neurobiology of the brain.  She spent a couple of years  acquiring the equivalent of a second Phd, as she put it, in the subject.  She took us onto a tour of the human brain: neurons, axons, neocortex, limbic system, amygdala, dopamine, and all that. She showed that some of the addicted persons' response to triggers, and some relapse mechanisms, are not conscious and not within the rational framework; that emotions are faster and more powerful than rational thinking, and that people sometimes truthfully do not have a clue why they did what they did. All in all, if I were a rationalist, Adam-Smithian philosopher, I might have felt crushed by the onslaught of neuropsychological research findings that Candice marshaled. I have read a number of neurobiological explanations of addiction, particularly those trotted out to clients in treatment programs to prepare the clients for step one, and Candice's was definitely one of the best informed, better than that of some medical doctors, and far more lively and witty.  But it had some of the same limitations.  The standard program lecture on neurobiology of addiction typically builds up the power of addiction to such an extent that it becomes quite incomprehensible how and why many people are nevertheless able to shake off their addiction and get free.  What is the neurobiological basis of recovery?  Candice's talk, perhaps because her time was up before she could finish her prepared text, left this issue unexplored.  It would be interesting in a future LifeRing event to hear her lively analytical mind present the results of her study of the brain's inherent powers of recovery.  

After lunch -- on our own in an area of Denver with quite a few choices of restaurants -- we reconvened in the cooler downstairs room of the church, and heard a short presentation by Anne Hatcher with ideas toward building a LifeRing Partners group.  Hatcher, a veteran counselor and teacher with a formidable list of credentials and affiliations, is a plain-spoken, empathetic person.  Among the points of her talk that stuck with me was that the people in a relationship with an addicted person often find themselves adapting to the addicted person.  This, of course, tends to reinforce the addiction, requiring further adaptations, and so on in a vicious spiral.  The conduct that Anne has seen work is for the partners to put their own priorities first, and force the addicted person either to adapt to that, or be left alone.  Anne would like to see a LifeRing Partners group come into being.  She left us with some handouts that I will be posting shortly.  

Next came a convenor workshop, led by Dru B. of Union City CA, where Dru convenes a highly successful Friday evening meeting at the Kaiser Chemical Dependency Recovery Program.  The meeting is remarkable in that it has had a consistently good attendance, averaging about 25 in the past year, despite the fact that it commences hours after the treatment program's schedule is over and everyone has gone home.  It's also remarkable in that it is a success story in a time slot where most other meetings have not done well.  Dru runs a standard format, How Was Your Week?, and has created an atmosphere where there is lots of cross talk with people engaging one another.  The workshop session also featured presentations by Mona H. of Connecticut, focused on meetings by conference telephone; by Lynn C. of Sacramento, describing recent developments in the LifeRing chat rooms, and by Lloyd E., describing the workbook study format he has been developing in his study group at the Kaiser CDRP in Oakland. He too has developed additional material for posting.

The afternoon closed with a brief presentation of the Expansion Committee Report by Craig W., Kathleen G., Lauretta M., and Carola Z., leading members of the working body that was formed at last year's Congress to engineer the transition of LifeRing from its founder to a new generation of leaders.  As the Expansion Committee proposals had been thoroughly ventilated and publicized for months both by mail and by electronic media, there was very little discussion at this session.  Except for the fact that this was not a Congress session but just a workshop, it would have been adopted by consensus voice vote then and there.  

Dinner that evening not only satisfied the belly, it demonstrated the growth of LifeRing in Denver.  At our last annual meeting in Denver three years ago, everyone fit around a single table.  This time it took four tables to hold the group, more than the restaurant could accommodate in its separate dining room, so we ate in the main room.  It was also delightful and reassuring to see that the average age around the tables was probably  ten or 15, maybe 20, years younger than at the last occasion.

I had the pleasure during the dinner to award the annual LifeRing Pioneer certificates.  The award goes to LifeRing participants, usually convenors, who push the envelope in a good way, for example, by starting a new meeting, or a new online venue, or performing some other service that helps the organization move forward.  The number of awardees was at an all-time high.  The certificates this year took their graphic theme from the plaque mounted on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft.  A few small modifications enhanced NASA's original design for our purposes; see image.

(To be continued)

No Snow in Denver

Is there still snow on the ground in Denver?  I wondered when getting ready to pack my suitcase for the trip to the LifeRing Congress.  A quick check online showed not only the absence of snow, but the presence of a heat wave.  So I packed shorts.  When I got into Denver, it turned out that the predicted 85 degrees was on the low side.  A sign outside a bank in downtown Denver at about 3 in the afternoon said 90, and Jim R.'s car said the temperature on the asphalt was 102.  Denver was in full bloom, with roses and bearded iris and other flowers making a spectacular show on the streets near the Congress venue, see photo.

The Denver LifeRing regulars have their act together.  Kathleen Gargan and Tom J. had a LifeRing banner up outside the Unitarian Church at 14th and Lafayette by midafternoon Friday.  Tom, who broke his right arm when he fell off a chair trying to hang the banner at last year's Congress in Berkeley, stayed on solid ground for the banner hanging exercise this time.  (See photo.)  Despite Kathleen's vintage Volvo shutting down with vapor lock on the way back from the airport after picking up Mona H., who was coming in from New York, everything was in place for the evening's reception.  I got to meet Phil S., a Denver regular with whom I'd only corresponded via email, as well as Bonnie and Jim and Lokken and Kirk and Anna and other Denver LifeRing participants.  It was clear that Denver LifeRing has grown significantly.  I also had the privilege of chatting for a while with Anne Hatcher, a veteran addictions counselor and teacher in Denver, and we discovered that we shared a common friend in Bill White, the author of Slaying the Dragon, the excellent history book.
Michael Walsh and Adam H. drove in from Victoria BC, an amazing scenic trek through the Northwest.  Jim R. and Karen I. as well as Dru B. drove in from Oakland.  Mary S. came in from Albuquerque, and showed off her spectacular custom-made sobriety bracelet with a gold life ring (see photo).  Andy R. got in his car at 2 pm Friday in Wichita and drove in one shift to Denver, arriving around 10 pm.  Others flew in airplanes.  By the next morning, when the Expo program began, the upstairs auditorium of the Unitarian church, with its gorgeous stained glass window, was just about full.

(To be continued).