I was in the middle of what I thought was a soulful, honest share when a voice bellowed from the back of the room. I turned to see a crusty old guy, holding an unlit cigar, who looked impatient for me to either finish baring my soul or move on to a different subject. “It’s time for you to give up hope for a better past,” he said, before he adjusted the Buffalo Bills cap on his head.
I was at a meeting in my Upstate New York hometown, where I had gone to “show up,” no matter how reluctantly, for Thanksgiving weekend. Showing up was a big part of sobriety after all, wasn’t it? I hadn’t yet learned that, as there are with many program truisms, there are exceptions. Because I had gotten so wacky in what I perceived to be a familial pressure cooker, I had run to a meeting, unloaded more than necessary about how and why I was so uncomfortable.
When that old timer cut me off, my internal shame-o-meter shot up to ten out of ten. Had I sounded whiny rather than honest? Was I living in the problem rather than the solution? Thinking of myself when I could have gotten out of myself by being of service? Probably, yes, on all three counts.
But jolting as his comment was, it cemented an important truth: Hope focuses squarely forward; it doesn’t look back.
Hope focuses squarely forward; it doesn’t look backNot long after I returned home from that trip, I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that landed me in bed and kept me there for going on two years. With my history of addiction, I knew what it was like to wake up after too many nights of too much Dewar’s®, too many little white pills, and/or too many greasy pizza boxes strewn over my duvet…followed by that horrible dawn of despair. Oh, no! I did it again! I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again. I hoped I wouldn’t do it again. But despite my good intentions, as an active addict, I lacked the power to stop.
But when I was diagnosed with that chronic but not life-threatening condition, I felt desperate in a different way. I needed to do what I was taught early in recovery: I needed to hope—and, of course, pray—that, for each twenty-four hours, I would continue to be granted the gift of sobriety while taking the necessary actions to deal with this new albatross around my neck. I researched where I could find the best help. I changed my diet. I changed to more gentle forms of exercise. And, on the days I could make it out of bed, I went to church.
One day, at the end of Mass, a woman approached. She heard from the priest that I was ill. She was organizing a pilgrimage to a healing site in France. Did I want to go? At first, I balked. Having just needed to stop working, I didn’t want to spend the money. “We’ll pay.” What, this stranger was willing to spend a few thousand dollars to help me? It couldn’t be true. The next excuse I came up with was that I needed to ask my doctors. “Just let me know,” she said as she handed me a business card. Her name, it said, was Hope.
When I sheepishly asked my doctors—both Jewish—I expected each to say the trip would be folly, and too demanding physically. Instead, they each said that not only I should go, but that I must.
When I landed back in the States after what was a spiritually enriching experience, I wasn’t cured. But I knew, as we know in the rooms, that I was not alone. And that, above all, I needed to continue to do whatever I could to get well. I needed to continue to hope.
How Hope Helps Us Heal
Recent scientific research is shedding light on the role hope plays in helping us to heal physically. Chinese scientists, for example, have discovered that hope activates a part of the brain—the medial orbitofrontal cortex—that protects against anxiety. Terry Small, a Canadian learning specialist also known as The Brain Guy, wrote in his recent Brain Bulletin #47, that, when the brain experiences hope, it releases neurochemicals called endorphins and enkephalins. By mimicking the effects of morphine, these chemicals block pain and boost physical healing.
As a result, we now know that hope plays more than an imagined response in our bodies. But what exactly is hope, anyway? And how, if at all, does it differ from wishing? Two experts who devoted good parts of their lives to answering these questions are Shane J. Lopez, PhD (now deceased) and Jerome Groopman, MD, an oncologist.
Dr. Lopez, the author of Making Hope Happen—Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others, on a program called Soaring Words, says that people confuse the terms wishing and hoping. Both, he says, are about the future, but “Wishing is very passive and hope is very active.” He further explains that a person making a wish might say she’d love to have a certain outcome, but she’s not invested in the process. On the other hand, a person who hopes, is more inclined to not only say “I want this to happen” but goes further by asking “What can I do to make this happen?”
On National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, Groopman explained that, while optimists may believe that everything’s going to turn out just fine, those who hope don’t suffer illusions. Instead, they see problems through clear eyes, in a realistic way. Then they see a possible path to a better future and take actions they feel will help them arrive in a better future. And while hope changes brain chemistry, that doesn’t mean it always results in a positive medical outcome.
Lopez further concluded that hopeful people have the responsibility of giving hope away. “Hope,” he said, “is contagious.” How do we spread it? “By sharing our own stories,” Lopez stated.
After studying their research, and trying to align their conclusions with recovery, my inner recoveree started squawking: What about the spiritual component of hope? Just the title of Lopez’s book—Making Hope Happen—unsettled me. One of the first things a person in recovery learns is how trying to make things happen, trying to control outcomes, needs to be surrendered and that every action needs an addendum: If it be Your will. Thy will, not mine, be done. Having been in recovery for a few decades, I was having difficulty believing that anyone—expert or not—could even begin to write about hope without ascribing a spiritual context.
But before I let my fingers fly across the keyboard, unleashing my judgments and supposedly superior observations, I remembered that (sometimes) annoying program about restraint of pen and tongue. Though I would have preferred to let my angry energy fill up the page, and, since I’ve learned to not “go it alone” in spiritual matters, I called my friend and spiritual advisor, Richard P. Jackson, in Connecticut. How, I asked, could a person presume to know what the proper outcome to hope for is without praying or meditating in order to discern the right course of action? How is it I’ve spent several decades developing spirituality, improving conscious contact with my higher power, undoing my innate inclination to “make things happen” if, in the end, hope is simply a matter of seeing a clear goal and moving toward it?
Richard, of course, laughed. “Not everyone’s an alcoholic,” he said. “Not everyone needs to consciously connect to a spiritual source before taking action.”
“Because some people are already connected. They don’t have to think about how to get “there” because they’re always ‘there.’”
Another reminder that addicts don’t always think and behave like earthlings. “I guess I’ll keep coming then.”
Admittedly, I pretended I understood what Richard meant. But I still wanted to know (selfishly) what about me? And other people in recovery? Without acknowledging that we, when acting without belief that hope or any other “gift” results from connection with a Higher Power, aren’t we falling back into thinking we’re the ones with the power? And, as a result, aren’t we taking back our will? And, therefore, moving toward a drink or drug or family-sized package of Oreos? Doesn’t that suggest that our invocation of a Higher Power’s grace is unnecessary?
I needed to talk with people in recovery. So, I called Sally, a friend with long-term recovery in Boca Raton, Florida. What did she think of my reactions? Better yet, what was her experience of hope in her years working the twelve steps?
By way of background, Sally is a devout, practicing Catholic who has enjoyed a close relationship with her Higher Power, whom she calls God, since early childhood. But despite her parochial education and her consistent church attendance, she admits that it wasn’t until years of addiction landed her in recovery rooms, and she worked her way up the steps to Step Eleven, that she learned meditation was a requirement for long-term recovery. Tentatively, she started to meditate. At first, five minutes a day. Gradually, as she practiced daily, she began to experience her higher power, God, in a new way. “All I did was sit still. No easy feat for me. I asked to be heard and I learned to listen. When I started to hear answers to my questions and life problems, I understood hope for the first time. So, for me, it’s only because of the steps that I learned what hope is. And, as for trying to access hope without talking to God? No, I can’t imagine what that would be like, or what good it would do.”
For me, it’s only because of the steps that I learned what hope isNext, I contacted a social worker with long-term recovery in coastal Connecticut to see what she had to say from a professional perspective. She relayed a recent experience with a new client who had come to her weeks earlier. The man, with over twenty years of recovery found himself in dire financial straits when the pandemic forced him to close his café in a Connecticut beach town. At her suggestion, he wrote out a collection of aspirations for how he might resolve his money situation. He wrote, for example, that he wanted to “…reopen his business, on a smaller scale, within six months.” In order to do that he planned to ask a family member for a personal loan at a reasonable rate of interest and look for a small storefront he could open as a carryout only coffee shop until he made a certain amount of money to fund the café’s reopening.” In the meantime, he “would not engage in negative thoughts or actions.” And how, in order to do that he would first “…Connect with God’s grace.”
In other words, he did see a clear-eyed path forward. He did create an action plan. But, his hope, his dream, was predicated on his knowledge that it was only by God’s grace that he would be offered, and be able to receive, the grace that would—hopefully—manifest his dreams.
Ahh. After speaking to those two in long term recovery, I felt I was back on solid footing. But when I then spoke to a friend and former Gulf Coast, Florida addiction counselor, things got dicey again. “No,” she said. “I can’t speak on hope. I don’t really believe in it.”
What? Shouldn’t she, of all people, be quoting the Big Book or the Twelve and Twelve on the role hope plays in recovery? Before I could ask her that question, she pointed me to a quote from Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, now deceased, known for his practical but sometimes nontraditional teachings. In a seminar called Aware in 1987, de Mello said this to his audience on the subject of hope, “You want to hope for something better than what you have right now, don’t you? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be hoping. But then you forget that you have it all right now anyway, and you don’t know it. Why not concentrate of the now instead of hoping for better times in the future? Why not understand the now instead of forgetting it and hoping for the future? Isn’t the future another trap?”
Aha! Now I saw what my friend meant when she said she didn’t believe in hope, because it takes us out of the present, depriving us of the opportunity to live fully in the moment. That I could certainly understand, now that I’ve had a pretty considerable amount of time in recovery, and now that I’m (most days) out of the excruciating pain I was in when my chronic illness was at its worst. Yes, I can live in the moment, grateful for each sober 24 hours, each sober breath, even for the opportunities I have when significant challenges want to try to block out the sunlight of the spirit.
But I also know that, when active alcoholism had its hands around my neck, trying to choke the life out of me, or when depression or my immune disorder were at their worst, if I hadn’t had the comfort of hope, the connection to my Higher Power that allowed me to believe in the possibility of less pain, or a day without a drink or a drug, I wouldn’t be here now to write this story. And if a newcomer called me this afternoon, desperate to know if her life could get better, you can be sure I would offer her not just my experience and strength, but an outsized dose of hope as well. I may not be able to her a better past, but I can certainly give her hope that, if she learns to put down the drink or the drug or any other addictive substance or behavior, one day at a time, her life will get better as she begins to heal.
Madeleine P. happily lives and writes in South Florida.
Last Updated on January 12, 2021