Keep Calm and Shamrock On

Those of you who have been following Not Otherwise Specified since the beginning will remember how angry and triggered I used to feel around St. Patrick’s Day. If you are just tuning in, check out my post In Like A Lion. While I don’t disagree with the general premise of that post – and the glorification of excessive alcohol consumption is something that still has the potential to push me over the edge – I am happy to report that I no longer seethe with resentment with the arrival of March. In fact, I have done so much healing around St. Patrick’s Day that it is celebrated in our household. Yup. So if St. Patrick’s Day makes you want to drive your face through a wall…there is hope for you, too.

I think the most obvious thing that made me hate St. Patrick’s Day is that I felt left out. I’d be willing to bet actual Irish people think our American traditions are a little ridiculous. (Can any of my readers vouch for this theory?) However, ridiculous or not, it’s hard to be surrounded by a cultural norm and not participate. I was at the craft store buying baskets the other day and I saw a sparkly, green and white, shamrock adorned tutu. My teeny, tiny inner child stomped her foot and pouted. She wanted to wear that tutu. But let’s be real… where the hell am I going to wear a shamrock tutu? Today I am able to help my envious inner child play scenarios out. I’d be willing to bet that a handful of twenty-somethings will snatch up those tutus for their party, parade, or pub crawl. They might get super wasted, projectile vomit green beer, and laugh about it with their friends the next day. And for some people, that’s perfectly fine. It is not, on the other hand, fine for me. I did not have the luxury of engaging in that behavior for the majority of my twenties. The “fun” ship had sailed. I was already a passenger on the warship “Self-Destruct”. But I have to honor and treat with compassion the part of myself that is grieving because she missed out on the wild shamrock- tutu- experience.

The other thing that drives me bananas about St. Patrick’s day is the glorification of alcohol consumption. Why would this offend someone who once liked the effects of alcohol? I think the simplest answer is that I am tired of watching people die. I care about the other men and women who are afflicted with this disease… and it is incredibly sad to watch my fellows suffer and fade away. Many people have also lost family members or watched alcohol and drugs destroy their homes. If your loved one was murdered, would you love and exalt the murder weapon? This is the confusing dichotomy that exists within our society.

People hate cancer. They hate gun violence. But they glorify alcohol. It is challenging to keep yourself alive when the substances killing you are widely revered and celebrated.

What about personal responsibility, Autumn? Do you hate cars because people die in car accidents? Well, cars don’t systematically and progressively change brain functioning and cause disease. Drugs and alcohol do. It’s a plain and simple fact, made irrefutable by science.

My God, how I have struggled with this issue. I judged and loathed people who promoted alcohol or drug use. Repulsed by my own unkindness, I tried pounding into my thick skull that it’s none of my business…I can’t change other people. But it wasn’t sinking in.

In order to heal, I had to do two things:

  1. Make sure that I was putting my sobriety before everything else.
  2. Create new traditions.

Before we got married, my wife and I were committed to dealing with all potential obstacles to our future success. We wanted to be one hundred percent sure we were making a decision that was healthy for both of us. This meant that I had to take an honest inventory of my needs…and so did she. In the beginning, I thought I could handle a lot of things that I ultimately couldn’t. I love J.L. more than anything… but I can’t be a good wife unless my sobriety is my number one priority. If I drink again – or tolerate situations which trigger emotional dry drunks – I am no good to anyone. I had to be willing to say: “This is what I need. And I understand if you can’t meet those needs. I don’t want to change or control you. But if my needs aren’t being met, this isn’t going to work”. It was so hard to be true to myself and run the risk of losing the love of my life. And it took a lot of ugliness on my part to get to that honest place. Luckily, J.L. not only forgave my ugliness, but she also felt she could meet my needs. I am so blessed to have found a spouse who is interested in how we can grow together. She is the kindest, most beautiful human being I have ever known and ever expect to know. There is no bigger heart to be found in all the world.

What in tarnation does all this mushy stuff have to do with St. Patrick’s Day and becoming a less angry person? Well, the key is being willing to cultivate a home and a relationship that is SAFE for your sobriety. When safety has been established in your interior world, the exterior world tends to affect you less.

J.L. is my Irish rose. I would be surprised if there is any other heritage in her ancestry. Needless to say, she likes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. From the foundation of safety we established together, I have become increasingly more open to not just recognizing the day, but also enjoying it. I have been adding little bits and bobs to our decoration collection over the past few years. J.L. has also started making a luscious boiled dinner as an annual tradition. I’m practically drooling just thinking about it.

With March fast approaching, I have taken to scouting Pinterest for ideas. I like to send J.L. to work with baked goods or put together cute little treats. I hope that time will allow for that over the next few weeks, but at the very least I plan to wear a green t-shirt and maybe invest in some green and gold nail polish to get all gussied up.

If you’re newly (or old-ly) sober and struggling with how to celebrate such an alcohol-centric holiday, you certainly don’t have to play it as low-key as we do. We just happen to be homebodies. You could invite your sober buds over, serve all green food, wear a shamrock tutu or bowtie, have a bonfire, fill your pool with green glowsticks, watch themed movies, play Cards Against Humanity, giggle until you pee, eat candy with rainbow colors and gold wrappers, and then wake up the next day with a clear head and a sugar bellyache.

That even sounds fun to me…the self-declared Queen of All Introverts. (We’re here, we’re uncomfortable, and we want to go home!)

You could have a serious dinner party, too. Not everyone likes skittles and giggling. (But who ARE you?)

I think the lesson I’ve really learned from St. Patrick’s Day is “to thine own self be true”. I had to learn to put my sobriety above all else and to celebrate in a way that felt comfortable for me. Living a joyful life isn’t about following society’s rulebook; it’s about writing your own. I’m glad I decided to include a little leprechaun mischief and magic in mine.

New Curtains

Not to beat a dead horse, but I am still flabbergasted by the huge difference it has made to delete Facebook from my phone, examine my spending, and gradually purge my house of unwanted items and unnecessary excess. I really can’t get over it. They say that in order to form a habit and change your life, you have to change something you do every day. I never expected that changing such small things would have such a massive impact. This is my fourth blog post in a month. I’m lucky if I clear four posts in a YEAR. These days, I sometimes wake up so inspired that I can barely contain genuine feelings of excitement about the day. It used to take a Red Bull and a cup of coffee before I could move beyond “meh”. I don’t drink coffee anymore. Well… rarely. As a treat. And mostly decaf. I am a tea person now.

I can imagine a critical and/or unhappy-in-life skeptic thinking: “Well, Autumn, you’re obviously going through a phase”. And that’s okay. People said that about my initial sobriety. This isn’t a phase, it’s just another curtain drawing back to reveal the next level of my recovery.

Recovery, as a whole, has been a series of curtains drawing back to reveal life in ever more stark relief. My addiction kept me in a haze. As I gradually recovered, the world not only came into focus but also brightened and intensified in color. It has been a slow process but the exciting part, for me, is that it will continue as long as I’m willing to examine how I can improve.

While I do take the time to talk about what it was like before and how recovery works for me, this “on-going story of recovery from addiction” is just the story of my life. It’s about the evolution that occurs with the appearance of each new curtain: some are pulled aside slowly and others are thrown wide open. I can try to explain what recovery feels like…or I can just show you.

I think I mentioned three different addictions in my introduction: social media, consumerism, and caffeine. It is no coincidence that I feel better; these are all things that have a powerful ability to change the brain. So much can be linked back to addiction. I would even go so far as to argue that addiction could be the achilles heel of our civilization: the scourge of more.

That’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about fighting it.

The irony of addiction is that you chase more but you end up manifesting less. Now that I am no longer chained to my phone, I write more, I bake more (I made a delicious pudding pie, outrageous Valentine’s Day cookies, and sinful macaroni and cheese), and I have more time to dedicate to clearing  space and bettering our home. I discovered that if I throw items relating to tasks I have been procrastinating SMACK in the middle of the living room floor, it offends my OCD sensibilities to the point that I have to attend to them immediately. I read a year’s worth of magazines this way and also sorted through our entire record collection. (We subsequently got $45 of store credit to spend on records to which we will actually listen!)

If you’re struggling with procrastination, throw your shit in the middle of the floor in the most unsightly place you can find. It’s pretty funny how fast you get motivated.

When I moved in with my now-wife, J.L., in 2013, our spare room became a dumping ground. One can’t designate it as a bedroom because it doesn’t have a closet, but it would certainly make an adequate guest area or office. It has been weighing on me for years. Since Christmas, we have been transforming the area into my personal walk-in closet and writing/meditation area. (I say “we” because J.L. has been such a good sport and my muscle-for-hire 😉 ) It’s still a work in progress, but the space is almost clear. I bought a garment rack so I can see my clothes. The items that I don’t wear can no longer be hidden in some dark corner of the master bedroom closet. It is so clear how much I don’t need. I have discovered that there is a pattern to my basic personal style and I am determined to stick to that in the future rather than fall prey to the little jolt I get every time I make a purchase.

I mentioned that I bought a garment rack. I also bought a little turquoise table for a light display, a picture frame, two mason jars, three baskets, and a professional outfit. These items are all for our home/life betterment project. Examining my spending hasn’t meant NO spending at all. It just means that I put more thought into the items I buy rather than shopping for the sake of shopping. I wait three days before I order an item online. I go to the store with a list and I stick to the list. (Most of the time. I’m certainly not perfect!) Consumerism is the hardest habit to break. But I am on track to be one hundred percent debt free by the end of 2018. What temporary shopping high could possibly be more valuable than that?

We have a vision for our life in ten years. They say life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But I think it’s okay – if not necessary – to dream. Our dream is to buy an eco-friendly condo in our favorite beach town and to live amongst the palm trees and tropical flowers. Perhaps J.L. will work at a state park. Since there will be no snow, I can finally drive a classic car or truck. We can park on the causeway and watch the dolphins, pelicans, and herons with our morning tea or coffee.

I can make space for this vision by not only clearing away the financial clutter, but also by lightening our physical possessions. I don’t want to drag a bunch of shit halfway across the country that I either a.) don’t use or b.) don’t care about but keep for sentimental reasons. My house still looks like a mermaid and a storybook gypsy had a baby and it threw-up everywhere: there are sea shells, rocks, dried flowers, jeweled glass bottles, lights, a folk-art unicorn, pin-up girls, and the list goes on…However, every single item I keep makes me smile. If it doesn’t, it goes. Or it will go in the next 5-8 years. Also, as a general rule of thumb, for every new thing that comes through the door, something else gets tossed into the donate pile.

The Minimalists point out that people are not in their possessions. I agree up to a certain point. On the other hand, I view some of my possessions as fragments of my life frozen in time. They bridge the gap between the present moment and a memory. Take, for example, the Bass River Mercantile root beer bottle adorned with a single dried carnation. The bottle is from an anniversary trip to Cape Cod. When I see it, I remember the overcast sky and taking pictures of shells with J.L. I remember getting a massage at the spa that was so relaxing I cried and hugged my masseuse. The carnation? Well, that is from a stranger who sat next to me at WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island. I specifically remember feeling very “anti-people” and I didn’t want to be enveloped by the crush of the crowd. A woman and her companions, one of whom may have been her elderly, disabled father, asked if there was room to sit next to us. Then she asked for help with her camera. English wasn’t her first language and the experience that transpired ended up making me laugh and reminding me that people are mostly lovely and good. The woman found out it was my birthday and she gave me the little red flower. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded that people are good. And that I am a part of a benevolent universal fabric that sends me messages precisely when I need them.

That is why I would lovingly pack-up and carry my silly flowers and rocks; looking at these items is like thumbing through a chronicle of my life’s happiest memories. While I am not interested in creating a museum, I know that my brain is fallible and my life’s narrative is precious. I would not remember these moments otherwise. My choices give me creative license to shape my story. I can either smother myself with objects that hold no meaning or I can curate a narrative that celebrates joy and only joy.

One of my favorite artists, Patti Smith, often considers the value of objects in her books and photographs. In an article on one of Smith’s traveling museum exhibitions, Vince Carducci notes:

The chasm between the dead gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation come in. Her father’s cracked teacup, her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith’s cherished 1964 Mosrite“Ventures”-model electric guitar, an unadorned red marble cross left to her by Mapplethorpe, each thing by its continued presence sustains a relationship that loss has threatened to take away; the objects serve as talismans of a reality that is photographically destined to remain unredeemed.

My goal is to keep my talismans thoughtful, if not few. And maybe, like Patti Smith, I’ll write a book. I’m not quite sure what it will be about but, as the fabric of each new curtain billows and unfurls, I am given plenty of material to choose from.

The Launching Point

I’m listening to Gregory Alan Isakov while I write. “I’m sorta happy most of the time…most of the time,” he sings, his voice betraying a melancholic irony. I would describe my life in recovery that way, except my declaration would contain neither melancholy nor irony. Comparatively speaking, my life before recovery was nothing but an exercise in melancholia. It was a constant yearning for something I could never quite nail down. Today, I don’t spend my time courting this old darkness. I experience countless moments of joy. And when I am not joyful, I try to stay in the realm of contentment and gratitude.

My last post was about the how of recovery. It was about confronting your own denial and self-sabotage. It was about not allowing your ego to kill you. If you’ve managed to bust beyond that, please accept my hearty congratulations; that’s no easy feat. I sure took my sweet time, clutching my maladaptive thinking like a security blanket.  But now you might be wondering: “What is recovery supposed to feel like?”

I hate to burst any bubbles… but in my experience, recovery feels like regular, old LIFE. However, this shouldn’t be a disappointment for a multiplicity of reasons. First of all, recovery gives you a life. Or gives it back to you. It all depends on how you frame it. As far as I’m concerned, that in and of itself is a miracle. I never thought I was going to have any of the “normal” experiences “normal” people had. I was broken and I didn’t fit in the Great Puzzle of All Things. Today I understand that I am a divine being, like all other beings, and I am worthy of my place in the fabric of the universe.

Secondly, if we are seeking growth in recovery, we are given tools that, sadly, a large percentage of the general population hasn’t accessed – addict or not. This means our lives have an amazing depth and richness. Our disease forces us to self-actualize for survival. But self-actualization takes work and change…two words that send addicts and normies alike running for the hills. It’s so very human to try and grasp on to constants and certainties in a world that is, by its very nature, neither constant nor certain.

Thirdly, recovery allows you to experience life without any kind of anesthetic. Why would you WANT to feel pain? Well, for starters, when you feel the pain you can move through it rather than carrying it around on your back like a bag of rocks. But I think the more important question is: How can you numb selective parts of your life without tainting the whole? If your fingers are numb, it impacts your entire sensory experience. Furthermore, you have to be aware of your senses to effectively utilize or expand them. When you are open to all emotions, you are gifted with a new level of awareness…and you are able to experience joy more poignantly than ever before. All in all, recovery means less suffering – because you are able to process pain and let it go – and longer periods of unbridled gratitude and contentment. It is better then any high in the entire world. It is peace.

I caution anyone who is getting clean and sober for the first time – or the second, third, fourth…never stop trying! – to beware of the “pink cloud”.  For some, the first months can feel like a huge pile of suck. But for others, it can feel like a fluffy cloud of wonderful. Eventually, this fluffy cloud will dissipate and real life will send an unprepared cloud dweller crashing back to earth without a parachute. When reality hits, falling off the wagon can look like a mighty fine alternative. I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy recovery – or  that you should spend life looking over your shoulder (unfortunately this is something I need to work on). I’m just saying that it might be a good idea to pack a parachute. I like to think of my parachute as a tool box: Which resources can I utilize when things go wrong? Which skills can I use to prevent relapse and make healthy decisions? However, it’s not just about knowing you have a toolbox. It’s about using the tools inside. That’s where the rubber meets the road and the recovery materializes.

I have faced many challenges since I embarked on this journey. I have survived several abusive and/or toxic relationships and confronted my related behavioral addiction. My estranged father died by suicide. I lost my beloved grandfather. Other family members have also passed. I am still unable to find a paying career path that doesn’t make me feel like I am wasting precious hours of my one and only life.

While the challenges have been inevitable, so have the triumphs. I was willing to get help and get healthy. This willingness was all it took to push the horizons of my existence wider than my illness allowed me to imagine possible. I was able to graduate from college. I made friends who became family. I met and married the love of my life. I took my first airplane ride and have subsequently taken several more. I moved to a new state and built a wonderful new life. I started creative projects that now enable me to experience spiritual fulfillment.

I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg. My gratitude list is much longer than my list of challenges. Part of this is because I try to find a blessing or a lesson in times of trial and tribulation.

Sometimes there are no discernible lessons or blessings in our challenges. But surviving certainly counts for something.

I used to look at some of my friends and envy their lives. I felt like I was standing outside in the cold peering through a window. Inside, it was warm and bright and cozy. They came home, ate dinner with their spouse, and curled up to watch TV. Nothing about that picture of idealized normalcy was particularly glamorous but it was a life that seemed too hard for someone like me. Nevertheless, I craved that glowing light, warm meal, and safe and loving person. But I had to learn to be a safe person and to love myself first. Recovery helped me do that – to be whole on my own. Only then was I able to attract someone who mirrored the things that I valued and also sought.

Everyone’s idea of normalcy is different. The image of the cozy home just happened to be mine. But I’m not standing on the outside looking in anymore. I have that simple life today.

In my experience, recovery isn’t about grand accomplishments – although we can certainly attain them. It’s not about fame, fortune, fancy material possessions, or even finding “the one”. Recovery is about living life on an even keel. It’s when the roller coaster ceases to undulate so severely that you suffer from perpetual whiplash. It’s being content to contribute to society, no matter how humble the contribution. It’s reveling in a bite of delicious food, your best friend’s voice on the phone, or your feet in your lover’s lap. Recovery is quiet and unassuming… and that quiet place becomes a launching point for everything else.








Back to Basics

Asking: “Does this add value?” has changed my life. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. I ask it about everything.  As a result, the hours I once wasted are now spent in a more centered, present, and productive way.

I always maintained that I didn’t have “enough time” to write but, the truth is, I was CHOOSING to fill my time with bullshit. Not just a little bullshit, but inordinate amounts of bullshit.

Having kicked the bullshit to the curb  (I’m sure there will be many more bags to toss out in the future), I find myself writing or thinking about writing a lot more.

It recently occurred to me that some of the things I write about might not be very relatable to someone who is new in recovery or just thinking about getting clean and sober. After 7.5 years, I have what they call “luxury problems”. I don’t watch the minute hand creep around the clock, hoping I can make it through another hour without engaging in my addictive behavior. That’s not to say that I couldn’t easily get back to that place if I’m not diligent… and it’s certainly not a declaration that I am in any way “better than”. I’m just saying that sometimes, when you’re in the trenches, it helps to hear from someone who has been there…and survived. In that spirit, I thought I might spend some time returning to my recovery roots.

Photographing and interviewing addicts/alcoholics for the Human Too campaign has taught me that there is no “right” way to recovery. Sure, there are recovery “purists” who will tell you otherwise, but every journey is different. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to get clean and sober, I think this knowledge can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, you have someone telling you they don’t judge which path you take to find recovery. Whew! What a huge relief! On the other hand, knowing there are many pathways to recovery might be the perfect justification NOT to try a method you don’t particularly like or about which you have developed preconceived judgements.

I was in the same shoes, once. I was fearful and I tried, desperately and unsuccessfully, to cover it up. I was stubborn, arrogant, and judgmental. I knew better than everyone; it didn’t matter if someone had been clean and sober for 50 years…I could figure it out on my own and I sure as hell didn’t need your advice.

So… you might not need my advice…but I know that I personally couldn’t intellectualize my own way out of my problem(s). I needed some help from someone who’d already climbed out of the pit.

No one likes to think of themselves as fearful or arrogant. But a little humility went a long way for me. I’ve heard it said that the favorite response of a newcomer to recovery is: “Yeah, but…” Maybe your counselor suggested you try AA meetings and you said: “Yeah, but…” Or maybe a friend suggested you join a meditation class at your local yoga center and you said: “Yeah, but…”

I challenge you to eradicate “Yeah, but…” from your vocabulary. It could save your life. Try: “I don’t know,” or “I’m scared”. But lose the “yeah, buts…” They will keep you sick and they will kill you.

If you say “I don’t know,” or “I’m scared,” at least you’ve opened the door for someone to help you. “Yeah, but…” slams that door firmly shut and brings the process of change to a screeching and premature halt. “Yeeeeaaaaaah, but,” says: “Sure, that might work for you, but here is a list of all the excuses I have about why it won’t work for me”.

I’ve been there and done that. Heck, “yeah, but…” still sneaks into my vocabulary. Today, however, I recognize it as a concession of terror and arrogance in two powerful little words.

I try not to be pushy but I can’t gloss over the fact that this is a deadly disease. Maybe your drinking/drugging/compulsive behavior won’t kill you today. It might not kill you in fifteen years…or even twenty-five. But you can bet your ass it will kill you. And it will rob you of the joy and peace you could have until it does.

If you’re anything like me, you do things when you’re good and damn ready. But this is an elevator you can exit on any floor. You don’t have to wait for the next (or the first) catastrophe. I tried recovery for the first time when I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years old. I was young but I was already dead inside and I knew I couldn’t go on living that way any longer.

I think people want, on some level, to be told exactly how to get clean/sober/behavior abstaining. The 12 steps are the only thing that work for me. (There’s a saying: “If you want what I have, do what I do”. That’s what I do.) But I can only speak for myself.  12 step meetings aren’t for everyone. If, after a fair shake, you’ve found that’s the case for you, I can share some guidelines for recovery that seem to be universal:

  1. We have an insatiable void inside that needs to be filled with something other than drugs/alcohol/compulsive behaviors. The successfully recovering people I know fill that void with spiritually rewarding practices like yoga, meditation, healthy (not compulsive) exercise, work with animals, art etc. I think the most successful people I know include an element of helping others in whichever spiritually fulfilling activity they choose.
  2.  Isolation is the enemy of recovery. The successful people I know have a clean, sober, and/or behavior abstaining support network. I once shared an article that argued that the true nature of addiction is a lack of connection with others. By this logic, the antidote for addiction is forming genuine relationships. When we are busy pursuing our drug or behavior of choice, we don’t have the time or interest to nurture relationships. We’re too busy focusing on how to fill the void. And alcohol, by its very nature, prevents the development of genuine connection. How can you form a real connection when your brain is altered by a chemical? Is that really you making that connection? Who are you really? Can you even answer that question? How can you be vulnerable with someone else if you don’t even know yourself? What are you passionate about other than your compulsive behavior? Who are you?
  3. Asking: “Who are you?” leads to the final practice I’ve observed successfully recovering individuals undertake, namely, addressing the personal issues driving their addiction. Maybe that means doing step work with a sponsor. Maybe that means seeing a therapist and working through the past. An overwhelming percentage  of alcoholics and addicts have experienced some sort of trauma. Processing and healing from that trauma is essential to maintenance and relapse prevention. The likelihood that you’re going to seek something to numb the pain is pretty high if you’re stuck in the past or seething with resentment. Once you’ve faced the “why” of your addiction, however, you can’t just dust off your hands and be done with it. The people I know who are successfully recovering are committed to a lifetime of learning and growth. They are constantly striving to be better people in the present.

Now that I’ve laid all that out, I need to reiterate my disclaimer. The aforementioned is my own anecdotal experience. If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know I am constantly learning and experiencing my own growing pains. I don’t claim to be an “expert”. These are merely things I’ve done or observed over the last decade. I guess I shouldn’t minimize them because they have worked for myself and others… but I don’t have any right to decide what’s best for your life. I just know that if I were Googling recovery or discreetly tuning in from Facebook because I suspect I might have a problem, I would find it helpful to read about what has worked for someone else. I might even appreciate a little tough love.

I guess my tough-love-spiel would be this: We don’t choose to be addicts. We were either born with the predisposition or the disease gradually developed as our brains changed. However, we CAN choose to get better. And if we don’t choose to get better…we choose to stay sick. I know it might be hard to hear, but you have the ability to unlock your own prison. The only thing standing between you and recovery is you. The key is to reach out your hand again and again and ask for help until it clicks. The key is also to be willing to accept help and listen to suggestion even if it feels super uncomfortable. Is someone trying to hand the key through the bars only to be met with your closed fist? Doing the right thing usually feels horrible…until it doesn’t.

There is a life waiting beyond the confines of this disease that defies imagination. Recovery hasn’t made my dreams come true. Instead, it has taken every notion I have ever had about my life and delivered something infinitely better.

Please. Take the key.

Losing the Mess

Life is invariably messy. But does it have to be? There are so many factors in the world we can’t single-handedly control. Right now, the tension within the United States is palpable, never mind the tension brewing with our neighbors on the same continent and across the ocean. I try to steer away from taking heated public political stances because I personally believe it doesn’t help push our society forward – rather it perpetuates the backward momentum – but it is undeniable that we live in scary times. If you look beyond the inflammatory headlines and simply examine the legislation, available as stark, inarguable, fact, it is impossible not to feel a chill of existential anxiety run down your spine and sit like a rock in your stomach. Who can say how it will all conclude? It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on; we collectively have a lot riding on the less-than-pure-white White House.

If that isn’t enough, we are each fighting our own messy personal battles. For example: I can’t control the fact that my upper G.I. system has recently decided to stage a rebellion in my esophagus. No specialists are immediately available, and the discomfort has resulted in being pulled from medication that helps me stay focused, patient, less impulsive, and less irritable. Just when I thought I was starting to get ahead with my health, my body threw a curve ball.

With the world in such an uncertain state of chaos and the circumstances of our lives often out of our control, how can one possibly be content? How can we attain even a modicum of serenity? Doesn’t the grand scale of all this uncertainty make us VICTIMS of circumstance? I think society would respond with a resounding “hell YES”!   But lately, I have been questioning this programmed “victim” attitude in both the personal and political spectrum.

With my personal circumstances, for example, I could ask: “How am I supposed to function?” One version of the aforementioned question would be rhetorical and soaked in self-pity. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t the first version of the question that I did, indeed, ask. I panicked. I shed some tears. I’m a recovering worrier. It’s what I do. But then I asked the non-rhetorical, pro-active question: “Okay, what can I do to function as best I can until this situation gets resolved?”

I think that victims become victimizers. It’s standard practice for political discourse on social media. It’s identity politics. One group feels victimized by another and retaliates by trying to make the other group feel as miserable as possible. Or, in a more general sense, one individual has a miserable life so he or she does x, y, or z and these behaviors detract from the general benefit of his/her personal relationships and society as a whole.

I recently deleted Facebook from my phone for just this reason. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve taken “vacations” but I’ve never permanently pulled the plug. I log on to manage Human Too and to periodically check my wall, but I don’t read my newsfeed anymore. As a gay woman, I very well could be in the political crosshairs. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel like a victim or let my peers suck me into bullying and general misery. You don’t like gay people? Fine. Are you a gay person who feels shitty about the current state of affairs? Fine. I can acknowledge both as co-existing realities but I am NOT going to wallow in the swamp by spending HOURS of my time scrolling through the murk every day. I can’t do anything to clean the water in the swamp if I’m stuck in it up to my chest. When I’m submerged, the water isn’t getting clean. My soul is just getting dirty.

I am learning that we can control a lot more than we think. There are, of course, things I can’t change and must accept. My addiction is one of those things. But I can control my response to just about everything.

Even though the world is arguably more chaotic than it has ever been in my lifetime and I must face life on life’s terms – unexpected hurdles and all – I am also finding ways to invite in more peace and contentment than ever before. And that, my friends, is the beauty of recovery. Recovery is constant learning and growth. But you don’t have to be in recovery to strive for constant learning and growth. One could posit that a life richly lived is the same by definition.

Discovering the Frugalwoods blog a few months ago jump-started my most recent self-evolution. It taught me to let go of society’s definition of success. (I am, in fact, wildly successful! I have a daily reprieve from a deadly disease. And I have a really kind heart.) It taught me about letting go of yet another addiction: consumerism. It taught me how to change my attitude toward money. I didn’t pick a high-paying field but that doesn’t mean I can’t save for retirement. After a few trial runs with some of the principles that work for our family, we are on our way.

It didn’t stop with the Frugalwoods. The Universe has had many things to show me and my heart has been wide open.

I am currently reading a book called Everything that Remains by The Minimalists. The word minimalism often conjures an extreme picture of stark rooms and empty closets. But it’s not really about that. Because when you get rid of all your stuff you are still left with you. It’s about clearing your life of things that don’t add value…and stopping the pursuit of even more things that don’t add value to fill the bottomless void inside.

You will never walk into my home and find barren shelves and empty walls. But I am engaging in a massive clean-out and a firm assessment of whether or not an item/activity adds value. Keeping Facebook on my phone does not add value. An excess of clothes I don’t wear or coffee mugs I don’t drink from do not add value. Buying shit I do not need does not add value.

I said in my last post that I don’t deal in extremes anymore. This is still true. I intend to keep my antique bottles and my seashells and most of my decorations. We will still celebrate holidays and live a full life. It just means that I don’t need more. I don’t need to buy an Audi in two years when my current vehicle is paid off. We don’t need to go out to eat at least once a week. We don’t need presents stacked from floor to ceiling every Christmas. I don’t need to buy everything I see that glitters appealingly in my direction because I “deserve” it.

Every time an item hits the trash or the donate pile, I feel like I can breathe a little easier. Adopting some of the Frugalwoods and Minimalists’ ideologies has added a whole new element of calm and gratitude to my life. I have realized that what I have is enough. It is beyond enough. I have realized that the “things” I value most are time, freedom, kindness, and travel with my wife. I have realized that I can better utilize my money to support these values and that I can quite literally clear both my physical space and my head space for these values.

Everything that Remains also talks about the difference between passion and excitement. As an addict, this resounded so deeply with me that I sat briefly in stunned reverie. I am historically accustomed to experiencing life in highs and lows: excitement and despair. I can fall back onto this roller coaster if I am not careful. Not dealing in extremes does require constant vigilance. The Minimalists point out that passion is not excitement. Sure, passion can feel exciting at moments, but it is also loving something so much that you’re willing to “drudge through the drudgery”. It is discipline and patience. It is putting in the work to master a skill. To say that I needed to hear that message is a vast understatement.

So, yes, while the world burns and my own life continues to be perfectly imperfect, I have been choosing to cultivate an oasis of peace.

I think that the answers to life’s biggest questions are sometimes so painfully simple that it’s appalling that we don’t all “get” them. But the simplest answers are sometimes the hardest to swallow. Recovery programs are full of infuriatingly simple clichés that prove this very point. It has certainly taken me years to get basic principles…and yet I still need constant reminders. I can’t help but wonder, however, what it would be like if the whole world stopped and asked: “How does this add value…to my life and the lives of others? Is this word or action adding value?” And if we all deprogrammed ourselves from excess, consumerism, and an overstimulating amount of technology, would our relationships be better? Would our waste be reduced and there be enough resources for everyone?

The answer is simple but the execution is hard. I can only do my part. Perhaps in cultivating my own oasis of peace, I can skim a little of the murk from the swamp.

*If you’re interested in a FREE copy of the book Everything That Remains, please visit here.