The Other Shoe

“Picture a red balloon floating away from you”, my mother used to say. She wanted it to ascend with all my anger and resentment. I could picture the helium filled oval but it never carried anything with it. Instead, the rising itself was a taunt. “Fuck the balloon,” I thought, and my knuckles whitened around the string.

When I look back at who I was for the first 23 years of life I see a stranger. We share many of the same qualities but I can say with absolute certainty that I am not the same person. In fact, I was trying my best to be the opposite of “person”; humanity entails feeling and participating and both of those concepts were terrifying. I grasped at any crutch I could find to stabilize myself and mask my terror.

Today I still have a short fuse but my anger pops and fizzles rather than developing into a slow burn. I have learned to let go.

“How do you you let go,” I used to beg. “How?”

The answer is simple for me now. Recovery has taught me to focus on love and only on love.

Everything life has taken (or I have freely given away) has been returned tenfold by the universe. If my eyes should drift back toward things that cause me pain I merely need to readjust my gaze.

This does not mean that I don’t acknowledge my feelings. Avoidance was my old modus operandi. I recognize my emotions, try not to speak before I think (I still need to do a lot of work on this), and seek counsel from others. The difference between now and then is that I don’t stay stuck in the muck and the mire. I move on into a place of love.

Recovery has blessed me with a contentment beyond anything I could have dreamed. I can palpably feel peace wash over me. Sometimes it even spills out of my eyes. These moments aren’t dramatically euphoric. They are simple snapshots from a simple life. Peace is laying on my stomach trying to photograph a plant and looking up to see my future wife smiling at me. It is the joyous giggle of a nine year old chasing ducks and butterflies down the lake shore. It is sharing a devious look with my best friend as we both reach for a second pastry. It is the sound of a stranger playing the saxophone on the sidewalk. It is a recognition – a recognition of the divine in even the tiniest detail.

Don’t get me wrong. Life is not perfect. But my gratitude list is miles and miles longer.

My biggest problem now is how much time I spend looking over my shoulder and waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a common experience for those of us in recovery. I remember marveling at my first few sober birthdays. I wasn’t expecting to live for very long, never mind finding that I could actually thrive and enjoy life. “Please don’t pinch me,” I often think, lest I should wake up from a very pleasant dream.

Sometimes I also feel guilty. Why have I been given this amazing gift while so many still suffer? I have to remind myself that I make a choice to wake up every day and to ask for and accept the gift of recovery. Unfortunately I can’t force anyone else to make that choice for themselves. Recovery doesn’t just happen. It requires action. I can only share my experience and pray that it gives someone else hope.

The other day I was working in a city park and a tiny little girl – maybe two years old – walked up to me and hid herself in the back of my legs. I looked around for her mother and was alarmed to find how nonchalant the parent was as she watched her beautiful child cozy up to a strange woman. The little one followed me around the park and whenever I stopped she would gently press against my side and wait for a comforting pat of acknowledgement.

Despite my concern for the child, I was deeply touched by the experience. There was something about me that made the child feel secure. It epitomizes what I want to be for others.

As for the other shoe – well, I have to ask myself this: Why would grace bring me this far just to abandon me? Every crack loss has created has been filled with love. I choose to look for it and to accept it. Rather than letting my gaze linger over my shoulder I prefer to look at what is in front of me. It is better than even my wildest imaginings.

Mixed Tapes

It’s 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon and, if I pulled a blanket over my head and settled back into the cushions, I would fall fast asleep. I am irritated by this fact. As I look around the room, I see my photography coursework beckoning from the coffee table. I see piles of books and magazines waiting to be started or finished. The things that are a priority to me – learning and creating – do not translate into first place in my every day life.

I was walking away from the office this week and I thought to myself: “I am going to quit photography school”.

I know, I know…not cool.

If my brain were a cassette player this would qualify as shitty mental music from a very old tape. A pre-recovery tape. A tape that says I’m not smart enough, strong enough, or good enough. So why bother?

I am smart enough. I am strong enough. And I am good enough. I’m just wired differently than many of my fellows. And by fellows I mean those crazy talented people who can work forty hours a week, pursue a Masters degree, and participate in three sports…all at once.

There are those people and then there’s me. I am in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru at least once a day just to get through the day. Pulling a comb through my tangled hair is a considerable victory, working 37.5 hours a week for someone else is absolutely painful, and it’s a push to feed myself, nourish my recovery, or run any sort of errand.

It’s not that I don’t have time to do the things I want (although that certainly can be the case!). Balance and time management are just not a part of my repertoire. I am caught between the need to use my natural artistic gifts and the fact that I crave and perhaps even require simplicity at the end of the day. Why? I’m an introvert and people are hard…really hard.

I spend a lot of time beholding the “underbelly” of the city where I live and work – the stuff many people would like to pretend isn’t there. Because that would require – you know – having to do something differently. But I digress. It’s not uncommon for me to step over puddles of piss on tenement stairwells and feel uncertain about whether the origins are animal or human. I watch prostitutes and drug dealers at work with a detachment that has less to do with a lack of compassion and more to do with the fact that these things have lost their shock value. The sunlight hits us all the same as we work; I sit in my car between appointments – sipping iced coffee and flipping through the radio – and they pass tiny packages through car windows or wave to greasy men from stoops. Figuratively speaking, however, the sunlight does not distribute equal warmth. I get to leave. They don’t.

I’m not painting this picture to create a “me v.s. them” dynamic or to spark a dialogue about privilege. It’s more about the weight of bearing witness and being powerless. I have developed a much thicker skin over the span of ten months and yet I am acutely aware that the little foray I have taken into the underbelly is only a fraction of the total descent.

It’s undeniably ugly out there. Writing and photography are my way of combating the ugliness. I would like to do it full time. And, like a good addict, I would like to do it full time now. Yesterday would have been better.

Wow. Does the “I want what I want and I want it NOW” attitude sound familiar to anyone else? Thank goodness I’ve met hundreds of people over the years who have brains that work the exact same way mine does. They have taught me to recognize my cognitive hiccups and to replace the shitty mental music with a new tape.

I’ve talked about receiving daily readings in my e-mail before. The same day I decided I was going to quit photography school the following affirmation was delivered to my inbox:

Today, I take a small step forward on my journey, without judging myself or my rate of progress.

Coincidence? I think not.

It is now after 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. I started this post on Saturday. And that’s okay. Anything of worth in my life has come to fruition one baby step at a time. I am on my way.