“I get by with a little help from my friends.” — Lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Last weekend I attended a recovery enrichment workshop at Edgewood College presented by Fred Holmquist of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Dan Anderson Renewal Center. The experience was a powerful reminder of the role recovery circles have played in my life. Over the years I’ve sat in many circles in outpatient treatment, aftercare, 12-step meetings, and retreats. Yet this is simply one sphere of my life where circles of friends and peers have empowered me.
The circle is both an image and metaphor of completeness and equality. There is both protection and democracy within its confines as people face each other without visual hierarchy. This facilitates intimacy.
Intimacy has been described in many ways; one of my favorites is intimacy means “into-me-see.” A circle enables that interaction because we make eye contact with each other as we share. We are open to each other physically as well as emotionally. Fred Holmquist defined intimacy as “the superlative of inner.”
A circle is a container, a vessel of protection and safety whose boundary helps encourage sharing and confidentiality.
As humans and social beings, we have always lived in families, clans, and tribes. We began sitting in circles around fires for protection, shelter from the elements, and to share rituals. We told stories, conveyed oral histories, reinforced social contracts, spiritual practices, and beliefs. We recreate that experience today in backyard fire circles or campfires away from home. In many cultures there are ritualized practices designed to invite new members to a group and reinforce existing bonds.
Following is a brief journey of the role circles have played in my life and how they’ve healed and empowered me.
There’s something special about growing up in a small house with a large family. We would naturally gather in circles, whether at the kitchen table, which was circular or oblong with every chair filled, or we’d convene in the living room, where everyone sat in a circle for the exception in front of the television, which for boomer families like mine became another family member, always on, and often part of the shared activity. Today the family is so large with spouses, significant others and children, we sit in front of a silent television. We make enough conversation and noise without it.
In warm weather we sit on the deck outside around a table with extra folding chairs, defaulting to a circle. We are an auditory family and besides sharing meals together, we often competitively talk to take the stage and seek attention. We are a family of storytellers, so there are very few moments of silence. Over the years our stories and traditions reinforce our bond. When new members join our circle, we share our catalog of family stories and misadventures.
I was a child who loved school. I didn’t always feel like I fit in and in an effort to have people like me, I would often perform as the class clown, or participate as the smart student, first to raise my hand with an answer. For that reason, teachers frequently liked me and appreciated my enthusiasm and engagement. Not all of my fellow students felt the same way.
Trips to the library as an elementary student meant that we would sit in a circle with the librarian who read to us. Even the students who were normally quiet would become animated. We could look at the librarian read and turn the pages, and just as important, we could see the brightened faces of our fellow students light up with delight as it reinforced our shared experience.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to spend a week or two in the summer at day camp, and later as a Girl Scout at Camp Singing Hills. Camping by its very nature nurtured the camaraderie of community. We’d sit in circles as we sang camp songs, learned a craft together making lanyards and “sit-upons,” cooked our lunch or dinner over the fire pit, and later, after dark, told ghost stories as we giggled, tickled and terrorized our campmates.
I must admit to not being a successful university student. I was distractible. Attending the university in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin in 1968, the learning environment became a competition between classrooms and the streets. A social movement was in full force as we engaged in political discussions and protested in support of civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and challenged the criminalization of marijuana. I spent as much time in the student union around a table playing cards and discussing politics as I did in the lecture hall, or I sat in circles outside “rapping” about the next march or planning the next action. Read more about this time in First Taste of Freedom.
After college and in response to the growing drug culture which my new husband and I wished to escape and described as “psychedelic rock-a-rock-a bullshit,” we found blue-collar, manufacturing jobs in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I worked at Jockey Menswear International, a textile plant, which predominately employed women at low wages while the union was represented by and protected the jobs and pay of the minority of men. My consciousness began to be raised again.
Meanwhile I had become infatuated with one of my coworkers, Gloria, as in G-L-O-R-I-A. We had a standing once-a-week date while my husband Frank played duplicate bridge. We were falling in love with each other, yet we each had reasons not to act on it. It was such an irresistible force for me that I convinced Frank to move to Madison, Wisconsin so I could return to school and resume my college education. In reality I was escaping my desires.
It was the mid 1970s and the second wave of feminism. Once again I dropped out of school and found a way of living that suited my needs. I had a day job working with my hands as a screenprinter, and evenings participated in Feminist Consciousness-Raising (CR) groups sponsored by NOW (The National Organization for Women) and later became a group facilitator, then a trainer, established a statewide NOW CR organization with other Madison leaders, and held retreat training weekends at a camp near Wisconsin Dells on the Wisconsin River. Later I travelled around the country replicating programs in other cities and became a member of NOW’s National CR Task Force.
The fundamental design of a CR group was facilitated peer support, women sitting in circles, responding to a weekly topic, and sharing stories about their lives. “The personal is political” was the rallying cry and women who once considered themselves only in relation to others as someone’s daughter, wife, or mother, began seeing themselves as autonomous and empowered. The circles we sat in raised our awareness as it reinforced the common experience we shared as women in our culture, sounded a call-to-action and showed us a path to equality. I returned to the streets again.
As often happens, change can have a ripple effect in many areas of one’s life. It certainly did for me. The attraction I had previously held for Gloria was not unique to her. I began questioning my sexuality and preference. Though I still loved my husband, I became intimately involved with women. Frank and I “opened our marriage.” This was a period pre-AIDs and open marriage was a social experiment, however it soon developed stress in our marriage, I separated from Frank, and we later divorced. I “came out” as a lesbian.
I did not possess healthy coping skills. All the changes I was making challenged me and having a family genetic predisposition to addiction, I soon began abusing alcohol as I engaged in what I would describe as my “lesbian adolescence.” Gratefully, the recovery movement was at its peak with the establishment of the Betty Ford Center, a growing acceptance of 12-step programs, and the treatment of alcoholism as a disease and not a moral failure.
Soon I was sitting in circles again. First in my alcohol outpatient recovery program, followed by aftercare, then ACOA (Adult-Children of Alcoholics) women’s group, then countless, life-saving 12-step groups in AA, Al-Anon, ACOA, and Codependents Anonymous.
These circles were populated by others like me who relied on our shared experience and the tools of the program to stay sober. We came from different walks of life but in those circles we were peers and equals. Those circles saved my life.
Like others, though I’ve had to face challenges in my life, some due to my own choices, others outside of my control, I’m grateful and feel like I’m living a charmed life with perfect timing. I’m lucky. A gift of recovery for me was creating a spiritual practice of meditation and self-examination. The Serenity Prayer is fundamental as a guidepost for daily living.
After getting sober I became a member of a circle of friends — lesbian women in recovery. We created a peer support group which met once-a-month for 15 years. We retreated twice a year at our member and friend Elthea’s Northwood’s cottage in Eagle River, Wisconsin on Perch Lake. Of course, we’d sit in circles outside around a campfire or inside around the fireplace where we would share our stories, our challenges, and receive support and love from each other. When two of our members died, we were unable to sustain the group. It was a sad loss, first of our friends and then the gifts of the healing powers of our circle.
Four years ago, I joined a new group, two friends and I created PAL, an acronym of the first letter of our first names. We’d meet once-a-month, alternating in each other’s homes, and like circles from the past, we’d share stories of our lives, the challenges we faced, and we’d receive the love and support to carry on. As often happens in life, things change, and this past summer was our final meeting. We remain connected as friends but like other circles from the past, I mourn its loss.
A few months ago, I joined a new group, another circle of lesbian friends. This time it’s a book and discussion group with the focus on death and dying.
Though we’re reading books about death and dying, we’re doing more talking about life and living. Once again we sit in circles, share our stories, and become empowered and supported.
As this year winds down and a new year approaches, another circle of friends and I plan a winter retreat in a cabin north of Madison in January. Two of us have birthdays in January, so there will be some degree of celebration, and more importantly, we’ll sit together around a fireplace in a circle, share meals and stories, talk about the challenges we each face, and support each other with love and affection.
The power of circles — the healing power of peers and friends.
UPDATE 11/2017: Since this essay was written a couple of milestones occurred. First, I never made it to the January winter retreat with my circle of women friends. On the Thursday I was to leave for the cabin, I learned that my mother, who had been hospitalized earlier in the week, had a heart event on the day she was to be released. After giving her CPR they intubated her. My bag was already packed. I returned home to Racine. My mother died that Saturday. A month ago, Jane Rowe, a beloved friend from our Death & Dying Group, died unexpectedly. In between my mother’s death, and Jane’s death a year ago, I attended another enrichment workshop by Fred Holmquist of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. The many circles in my life continue to enrich it, including the creative circles of my writing groups and independent filmmakers. This Saturday once again, I’m joining a community of friends and attending an annual enrichment workshop by Fred Holmquist to learn how to “practice these principles in all our affairs.” Grateful.