September

I always hated my birth month. September signified a new school year – the arrival of which I despised more and more as the years passed. I was expected to sit still and think thoughts that were no longer my own. My teachers reported that I was easily distracted by windows or daydreams. They compared me to a butterfly… darting from one flower to the next. They wanted to pin my wings inside a glass case.

When I didn’t understand the math problem or possess the necessary patience for hours of bland nightly reading, I felt stupid, angry, and worthless. I wanted to read a book that didn’t traumatize me with religious teachings beyond my developmental capacity to process. I wanted to mix mud and decaying plant matter into secret recipes of my own imagining. I wanted to climb trees and survey the world from behind a lush screen of pine. At those heights, I felt momentarily safe from all who wished to enslave my mind and crush my spirit. My only agenda was freedom. My only obligation was to execute my own self-directed curiosity.

September was physically uncomfortable, too. The mornings were bracingly chilly but, by the time afternoon recess passed, the classrooms reeked of sweating children. At days end, an open lunch box smelled slightly sour; hints of warm milk and stale peanut butter and jelly.

Not much has changed in thirty two years. I may no longer wish to live in a treehouse or a boxcar (and even that is only a half truth), but I am still resisting the glass case. I am still heeding the call of wild meadows, tangled with blooms of freedom and self-directed curiosity. I still dread the coming of September. I  press each passing wildflower between gossamer pages and run my fingers longingly over the stationary. I know my ministrations won’t bestow the weight of permanence upon page nor plant, and yet I devoutly honor the ritual.

Dr. Gabor Maté – a man who possesses one of the most beautiful minds on our planet – describes this phenomenon as counterwill. I have spent most of my adult life hating this mysterious characteristic. “You need to fix it,” became my internalized mantra, born of years of external pressure. Much to my surprise, there is nothing to fix. The work is to accept my natural wildness and refrain from self-punishment. It is only from the safety of this space that authentic growth can occur.

Everything I know about healing is counterintuitive. The less I resist my own resistance, the more liberated I become.

September was somehow different this year. I never noticed it before, but everything looked so gold. The landscape was sun drenched and harvest-colored. Some website on color symbolism says that gold is “associated with higher ideals, wisdom, understanding and enlightenment. It inspires knowledge, spirituality and a deep understanding of the self and the soul”.

Maybe it’s not that September changed. After all, it was still cold in the morning and sweltering in the afternoon. School commenced as usual, congesting the highways with extra commuter traffic.

Maybe I have changed. Maybe I put down my sword and discarded layers of heavy armor. Maybe I grew weary of waging a war that had already been won.

Maybe the only thing left to do was surrender, propelled by easterly winds and the promise of foreign flowers.

The equator is middle ground. A halfway point between two extremes. Balance.

Maybe I am finally ready to drift in that direction.

Just Around the Riverbend

There’s a #cleanchallenge happening on social media this week. Participants post a photo – or photos – of how they looked in active addiction and how they look in recovery. The transformations are astounding. Not one to miss an opportunity to celebrate or advocate recovery, I uploaded my own before and after shots. It was odd to visually return to that part of my life. I don’t know that person. I remember the darkness – and I can see it in her eyes – but I don’t live in it anymore.

 

The thing that struck me most is that none of my before photos were taken when I was actively under the influence. By the time at least one was taken, I had already been exposed to a recovery program and subsequently relapsed. The misery on my face was one hundred and ten percent related to my behavioral addiction.

I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I am primarily a behavioral addict with secondary substance use issues. It took me years to unravel this mystery. “What’s wrong with me,” I wondered. “Why is nothing helping me?” Abstaining from mind altering chemicals was essential to my success. It took two or three years without drugs or alcohol to become stable (or unstable?) enough to confront my other compulsions.

The paucity of awareness around behavioral addiction is killing people. The only reason I’m alive is because I stumbled into awareness by dumb luck. I guess I have to give myself some credit; I was willing to seek help. I have to give the Universe some credit, too. There was obviously a plan for me other than unbearable pain and suicide.

If you don’t know anything about addiction – behavioral addiction in particular – I highly recommend Dr. Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Dr. Maté is my intellectual crush. If we implemented even half of his advice, we could avoid numbers like the staggering 72,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2017. Just to put that into perspective, over 58,000 members of the U.S. military died in the Vietnam war. So, last year alone, more Americans died of overdose than were killed in action in the Vietnam war. And yet nothing changes. How is that even possible? Moreover, why is it happening?

Dr. Maté writes:

“We despise, ostracize, and punish the addict because we don’t wish to see how much we resemble him. In his dark mirror our own features are unmistakable. We shudder at the recognition…Like the hard-core addict’s pursuit of drugs, much of our economic and cultural life caters to people’s craving to escape mental and emotional distress. In an apt phrase, Lewis Latham derides ‘consumer markets selling promises of instant relief from the pain of thought, loneliness, doubt, experience, envy, and old age.’”

I could brood over the need for cultural accountability for days but the topic on my mind at the moment is the mind-body connection. The more I learn about brain development and neuroscience, the more I am convinced that the key to many diseases lies in the brain. This has become important to me lately as I try to get to the bottom of why I’ve been sick. I have been sick – on and off – for most of my life. Now I partially understand why.

The first thing that was important for me to learn is that our brain development plays a much more significant role in our lives and so-called disease processes than we acknowledge. If an infant spends the first year of its life in a dark room, it won’t develop the necessary wiring for sight. This is true of our reward and attachment wiring as well. If we are not raised in ideal conditions (and, let’s face it, most of us aren’t), we often develop maladaptive wiring systems that help us self-soothe. We carry this maladaptive brain wiring into adulthood. (Hell, I would argue – and Dr. Maté might agree – that we’ve created an entire culture based on maladaptive brain wiring.) On top of that, we may not be able to naturally produce the brain chemicals/hormones necessary for emotional regulation. (Alternately, we may have too much of a certain kind of hormone). All of this is a recipe for disaster, i.e. a society of anxious, stressed adults whose only line of defense is to self-soothe via unhealthy means.

Let’s play this out through a concrete example: When Alice – a non-existent person I’m making up – was three months old, her mother died suddenly. Her father and grandparents did the best they could, but they were a stoic and emotionally unavailable family. Alice grew up to be a very anxious child. She felt insecure and compensated by becoming overly dependent on her peers. When social acceptance became problematic for Alice, she started eating sugary junk food to bury her feelings of loneliness, fear, and grief.  Alice went on to do the best she could to hack it as a functioning adult. At the age of thirty, however, she began experiencing blurry vision and other strange symptoms. Alice’s physician diagnosed her with diabetes and emphasized the importance of diet in symptom management. Alice despaired at the idea of giving up the only reliable source of comfort in her life.

There we have it: Lack of attachment —> altered brain development —> environmental stressors —> maladaptive coping behavior —> physical disease. In this case, one could argue that not only does Alice have a physical illness, she also has a behavioral addiction – and the two are inextricably linked.

This is obviously an oversimplified example – and it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone -but it’s one illustration of how brain development and environment can impact behavior and lead to disease. These links can be made to countless other ailments, including heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

I’m not sure to whom I should attribute this quote, but it’s right on the mark: “Your wound is not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility”.

I definitely have some less-than-ideal brain wiring, and it has been helpful to understand that my anxiety isn’t occurring in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line, my growing brain didn’t get its needs met, and it compensated by creating the complex neurological system that defines me. There’s a reason I am the way I am – and there’s a reason everyone else is the way they are. However, now that I understand why I get anxious and sick, it’s my responsibility to find the best way to prevent and manage the symptoms – to rewire my system if you will.

I’m afraid that’s something I haven’t done very well as it pertains to my physical health. My body always comes last. Sure, I’ll go to a recovery meeting in search of some mental serenity…but see the Doctor? Hell no!

All of that is about to change. I am waving the white flag of surrender. I am tired of the pain and tired of saying “maybe someday” to all of the things that require physical healing. I want to hike a mountain and finish a 5k. I want to eat at a restaurant and not be forced to desperately crush Pepto Bismol tablets in the bathroom to survive the Uber ride back to the hotel. I’m tired of drowning under the weight of my healthcare to-do list, which only grows longer the more I ignore it. I started checking items off the list once before (in fact, I dedicated a whole post to it), and now it’s time to finish.

My tattoo artist is kind of a guru. We talk about many things during our sessions, but one of the things he asked me was: “What were you doing when you were symptom free that you’re not doing now?” WHAM. We talked about how every new level of growth requires a different version of yourself. I’m not going to continue healing while treading the same stagnant water… and, let me tell you, I LOVE treading water. Easy street (or stream, in this analogy) is my jam, y’all.

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New ink

When I look at the women in those before and after photos – both me, but somehow still two distinctive people – I am inspired. If the recovery journey has transformed me this profoundly, further healing must be possible.

I won’t go into detail about all the steps I’ve taken since my tattoo appointment – I do have some sense of personal decorum after all – but the ball is definitely rolling. It’s going to hurt… but the only way through the pain is to feel it.

I’ll depart with one final thought. My wife likes to laughingly remind me that I am a cheeseball – a sentiment with which I don’t disagree. I more than just love quotes and clichés; I think the things that make us roll our eyes the most are usually the same things that save us. I recently read something that said: “As you begin to love yourself, you will find that pain and suffering are only warning signs that you are living against your own truth”.

I’ve spent nine years discovering my truth. As much as this most recent pain has been challenging me – and as much as I’d like to stay in my little pool of worn out water – I feel a childlike excitement as I approach the next bend in the stream.

If Anything Good Can Happen

I can’t remember the last time I woke up and consciously decided I was going to spend the day doing whatever I want. That may sound silly to those of you who know I recently returned from a trip to Chicago (more on that momentarily), but traveling has an agenda: to feast with all your senses. As the stereotypical Virgo, I feel a compulsory need to have a goal for the day. The same could be said for my writing. On this day, I am devoted to mental repose. The morning breeze feels good… a mug of peppermint tea feels good… listening to music feels good. These are the only things to which I want to devote consideration. However, when I allow myself these indulgences, I inevitably find myself longing to write.

One of my bucket list items is to become a travel blogger, so I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Chicago. In a nutshell, Chicago devastated me. That’s what the best things in life do; they break your heart with their magnificence. I think the experience was more shattering because – for some reason – I had very low expectations. Maybe it was because Chicago is not a coastal city. Or maybe it was because of the negative press. The Uber ride from the airport wasn’t particularly compelling, either. But as soon as I descended the stairs onto the River Walk, I was a goner. I doubt the architecture of any other U.S. city could move me so profoundly. Chicago is a marvel. It is the embodiment of the phoenix risen. The only thing I would change is the ‘Trump’ logo on the side of his namesake tower. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The sign mars the vista with its cheap arrogance. Ah, well. I digress.

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The River Walk view on our first night

We arrived in Chicago at the tail end of Pride month, and I felt welcomed and comforted by the display of support all over the city. Rainbow colors adorned buildings and buses alike. However, we weren’t there for Pride, although our cause for celebration was strongly related; J.L. and I were celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary. And Chicago – a box we wanted to check off our destination list – became so much more than a check mark to me.

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Pride lights adorning a Chicago building

Sometimes when I fall in love with a place, I am vulnerable to brief moments of self-loathing. I start thinking about how I “robbed myself” when I was college-aged; how I should have gone to the University of Chicago; how I was capable of so much more academically and professionally. The stark reality is that, at the time I was applying to and starting college, I was barely capable of keeping myself alive. I had never been on an airplane. I had no conception of my own identity, let alone my geographical preferences.

Thankfully, I am married to the most beautiful human being to ever walk the face of the planet. She reminds me why my life needed to follow a certain course. On the morning of our wedding anniversary, she walked miles to find me a vegan donut. When she accidentally bought a non-vegan donut, she insisted on going back out to find one. It was at least ninety degrees in the city, and yet she tromped cheerfully down the humid sidewalks in a grand demonstration of unselfish love. What can I say?  The woman loves exercise (and me).

Despite its transcendent beauty, Chicago would be devoid of the same meaning without my wife.

J.L. and I are often complimented on our relationship, which is not something I will ever take for granted. We are either told a.) we are sooo cute together or b.) our love is enviable. The former makes me nod in not-so-humble agreement. The latter makes me sad. When someone says, “I want what you have,” my heart aches for omnipotence so I can distribute love like Halloween candy. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so hard for people to love each other but, when I catch myself in the wondering, I know I’m asking a question I can already answer:

Humans are increasingly disinterested in self-evaluation and self-growth. (Or maybe it has been this way for millennia? Certainly a topic worth considering another day.) I am thoroughly convinced that working on yourself is key to relationship satisfaction and longevity. In today’s instant gratification culture, so-called “intimacy” is just another thing you can order from a mobile app and have delivered to your door in thirty minutes or less. Genuine intimacy, in sharp contrast, requires honest communication and committing (and recommitting!) to demonstrate appreciation for your partner.  If we examine these “Prime delivery” expectations (i.e. a full blown relationship with zero effort)  – coupled with the pressure we feel to make our lives look a certain way by a certain age – it’s no wonder we are collectively so unhappy. We settle for less and simultaneously suffer from a plague-like societal unwillingness to work for more. We place gargantuan pressure on our partners to make us happy. This is one of the greatest travesties of all time. How dare we place the burden of our happiness on someone else? We are the sole proprietors of our own wellbeing. That’s not to say it isn’t impactful when someone treats us poorly. However, we can’t change other people. So if someone treats us like shit, it is our responsibility to make a decision regarding whether we will or will not tolerate it. When we accept intolerable circumstances, it is a direct reflection of how little we think of ourselves.

“Whoa, Ego Queen,” you might say, “Slow your roll. You’ve been married for three years. How does that make you an expert?” Well, I’m not an expert, but I have been guilty of using people as a substitute for my own self-cultivated peace and contentment. As a result, I have learned some gut wrenching lessons; namely, substituting other people for self-growth is not love –  it’s addiction and codependency. Believe me, my sense of self-worth was forming a slow trickle from the gutter to the sewer. When I started treating myself like I was worthy and deserving, I attracted a partner who shared similar values. Getting to that point was like climbing out of a dark well; the bottom of the well was comprised of abuse, and sickness, and settling. That’s what I thought I deserved. I didn’t realize I was holding the ladder the whole time.

If you’re reading this and you’re unhappy, maybe that’s not what the bottom of your well looks like. Maybe it’s mediocrity. Maybe it’s self-imposed isolation. Either way, climbing out isn’t going to feel good. It feels like loss. But you have to say ‘goodbye’ to that life if you want to say ‘hello’ to a new one. It’s also not enough to say ‘goodbye’ and wash your hands of it. I had to ask “Why do I feel deserving of less than I’m worth?” and “How can I create my own peace and contentment rather than relying on someone else?” Then I had to take action. If I had continued to harbor the same negative feelings about myself, I would have attracted someone who was operating on the same level. Furthermore, as I climbed the rungs of the ladder, I had to say several more goodbyes. One day, without quite realizing it, I was ready to feel the sun on my face. I was ready to climb out of the well and share the life I created with another person, versus silently demanding she pick up the broken pieces.

It didn’t stop there, either. No, sir, it certainly did not. I have to keep working on myself so I don’t stagnate and regress. I have to confront my (numerous) less than savory characteristics in order to be the best possible partner. I have to nurture my own growth and interests. If my marriage wasn’t in the picture, would I still like my life? I’m happy to report that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. I love my job, my friends, my recovery, and my various hobbies and projects. When I have more than one source of joy and satisfaction, it takes the pressure off J.L. to be the be-all and end-all of my existence. She’s pretty great – so the temptation is hard to resist.  

One of my major weaknesses is that I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when I’m working hard and doing everything right. It’s that old feeling of unworthiness trying to regain a foothold; how is it possible for me to get wrinkly with an amazing spouse? To fill volumes and volumes of memory books? Chicago was a breathtaking reminder not to underestimate life’s potential – and to delight in unexpected joy. Twelve years ago, I couldn’t conceive of any of this, and yet, here I am.

The Universe speaks to me through license plates and bumper stickers. In fact, my last blog made reference to one such sticker. It never fails. On my way home from work this week, I received another reassuring message courtesy of a fellow commuter. It said: “If anything good can happen, it will”. I pulled dangerously close to the grimy bumper and leaned, squinting, over my steering wheel. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How can I not believe in miracles?

Impermanence

“Write,” I tell my clients. I sing the merits of the writing process: rewiring the brain, getting uncomfortable, finding a voice, purging toxicity, cultivating awareness, discovering patterns, sitting with self, developing connection…

And then I go home and swallow the words that rise in the midnight darkness because they are ill-timed and inconvenient (yet that is the only time I make for them).

I’d rather not be a hypocrite – even if I’m the only one aware of my hypocrisy.

Lately, I’ve been acting like a lighthouse with legs. I’ve been dashing madly around my island – raving about the waves – when my job is to stay with my light. There is no real aid in rescuing, only in illuminating. I can’t illuminate when I’m unglued from my foundation, my lamp cooling in the dusk like an afterthought.

In the interest of practicing what I preach – “Write! Illuminate! Make yourself a priority!” – here are the words I tried to blanket in sleep:

There comes a time when Mortality darkens your doorstep with the sole purpose of decking you in the face. You’ve acknowledged Mortality, of course; you know it’s there. But prior to the uninvited appearance on your doorstep, your interactions have always been limited to polite nods – like passing a stranger on the street. You accept the stranger’s existence, but you don’t make prolonged eye contact.

When Mortality stops to blacken both your eyes, gazing brazenly into the core of your being, you have to decide what to do with the intimacy of the encounter.

Most humans –  active addicts, especially – would rather close their eyes and pretend the exchange never happened. Distraught by the implications of what they’ve seen, they choose blindness. They choose clinging and craving. They construct elaborate castles out of sand, feigning permanence and certainty.

Somewhere along the line, without quite comprehending the magnitude of my decision, I stopped choosing blindness and opened my eyes. I wasn’t looking for impermanence, but it was waiting on the other side of my lashes.

Having spent most of my life running from pain, its arrival is still a shock, like falling through a frozen lake into icy water. A drowning man’s knee jerk response is to resist, expending precious energy in the wild flailing of limbs. A return to the ice – if there is to be one – requires surrender.

We will likely fall through the ice many times in our lives.

In “A Buddhist Perspective on Grieving,” Roshi Joan Halifax writes:

The river of grief might pulse deep inside us, hidden from our view, but its presence informs our lives at every turn. It can drive us into the numbing habits of escape from suffering or bring us face to face with our own humanity…

When we move through the terrible transformation of the elements of loss and grief, we may discover the truth of the impermanence of everything in our life, and of course, of this very life itself. This is one of the most profound discoveries to be made as we engage in Buddhist practice. In this way, grief and sorrow may teach us gratitude for what we have been given, even the gift of suffering. From her we learn to swim in the stream of universal sorrow. And in that stream, we may even find joy.

We all suffer. We all swim in the stream of universal sorrow. We are all afraid. The sound of ice cracking sends terror down our collective spine. This is our humanity. When we deny our suffering, we deny our humanity. When we make ourselves numb to the stream of sorrow, we disavow the truth of our existence.

Addiction, by its very nature, is making that which is human progressively inhuman. The avoidance of suffering is the avoidance of life itself. The paradox is that in order to love, we must open ourselves to suffering. Everything changes. Everything. 

My wife and I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. During our visit, I snapped a photo of the sculpture Guanyin and the associated display. It said:

Buddhists believe that, although life is characterized by suffering, every being has the potential to achieve enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. A bodhisattva (“enlightened being”) has reached the state of Buddhahood but remains on Earth to help all beings attain enlightenment.

I don’t pretend to have reached Buddhahood by any means, but I do know that the recovery process has delivered me to a state of wakefulness. Sometimes it hurts to be awake, because it means I have embraced the full range of the human experience. Sometimes it’s lonely, because I want to be numb like so many of my  peers. But reading the museum plaque comforted me, as if I’d had a conversation with the Goddess of Mercy herself:

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Guanyin

“Why am I here?” I inquired.

“You are here to help,” she replied.

En-lighten. Illuminate.

Suffering magnifies the radiance of everything else. Grief emphasizes the value of everything that is not grief; driving in the rain, a tired mother’s tongue-in-cheek admonishment, the color green, warm skin, cool sheets, the smell of coffee, a sincere thank-you, a paper grocery bag, every atom of beautiful minutiae

On my way home from work, I thought about how I would write this. I thought about how we all fear suffering. I thought about what it means to be sober and what it means to live in the truth of humanity, and how the two are pretty much one in the same. And when the back window of the vehicle in front of me came into focus, I saw a sticker:

Love > Fear

Selfishness

When I woke up this morning, there was a coating of snow and ice on both the ground and my vehicle. It took me nearly thirty minutes to scrape off enough ice to complete my admittedly wasteful and compulsive drive-thru coffee ritual. I couldn’t get the ice off the hood of the car while safely parked in the driveway and, thinking it would still be solidly frozen for a three minute jaunt down the street, watched in alarm as it peeled off and smashed on the roadway. In my Monday morning misery, I had acted out one of my own greatest pet peeves.

Sitting down – coffee in hand – to begin my home-office work day, I felt the hot release of tears stream down my face. My seasonal affective depression reared its ugly head, trampling on my motivation.

Living in New England was never my ultimate goal. When I was younger, I dreamed of moving to San Francisco – a temperate climate where I thought I would be “safe”. Now I dream of beach town life, where there is never a shortage of vitamin D for my winter weary brain. But I have to be wary of this “grass is greener” syndrome. Just yesterday I wrote about how I don’t want to spend my life chasing the next thing; true contentment exists only in the now.

The two things that help me shake the “grass is greener” syndrome are playing out the tape and making a gratitude list. Let’s get real, even if I did live in Florida, I wouldn’t spend every waking hour on the beach. I’d be working and dealing with the same stuff I am responsible for in my much colder northern life.

At the end of the day, I am selfish. I want complete and utter freedom over my own brain. But that’s not how it works. I need to utilize my capabilities to contribute to this planet. Furthermore, my own brain is not a place I need to be hanging out 24/7. After all, my addictive wiring is what got me in trouble in the first place. I need to spend time giving to others and earning my place in society.

On our last day in Florida, a young couple pulled up to the condo next to our rental and proceeded to move in. I seethed with resentment. As an older person, I should be in a position to move to a waterfront Florida condo. How dare they?

The real questions I needed to ask myself were “How dare you? What gives you the right to be so entitled? What gives you the right to presume to know anything about them? What gives you the right to think you deserve anything?”

This is a prime example of how dangerous it is for me to think I know best rather than trusting the timing of the Universe. If I think about it from an objective perspective, I know for a FACT that living in that condo would not be a good choice for me. I would go bananas living next to a weekly vacation rental property. I hate noise. I am also an ironically private person. A condo complex with shared walls and wide open patios is not an ideal set-up for a painfully introverted writer. It would be character-building… to put it nicely.

Walking the beach on our last afternoon, I recited a mantra as I sloshed through the water and perused the shallows for shells: “Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me. Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me. Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me.”

When I wrote about privilege, I talked about how I used to pray for a fraction of the things I have today. Moreover, I know there are many people who would love a week long vacation or a loving marriage, not to mention the luxury of working from home. Who am I to forget these things? It’s NOT okay… and a sign that I need to do some work on myself in the form of cultivating gratitude.

Luckily, I am plugged into my higher power – a power I choose to call “the Universe”. Even when I’m choosing to wallow in a swamp of selfishness, I’m still tapped in and willing to listen. That day on the beach, a woman walked by with a 12 Step triangle on her t-shirt. The shirt said: “Acceptance is the key”. I was flabbergasted.

Acceptance is the key! I need to spend less time obsessing over what I can’t change. The timing of my life has always worked out in my best interest.

It wasn’t just the woman with the t-shirt. That morning, Rhiannon came on the radio as soon as we started the car. Rhiannon comes on randomly whenever I need a sign. For example, it played when I pulled into the courthouse to face a dangerous man I had no desire to ever see again. It played when I was nervous about a photo shoot. It plays every time I need a little faith. The music that empowers me played for the rest of our trip. Stevie sang in the store. She sang on the highway. She sang in the airport. I haven’t heard her on the radio as much in the last six months as I did in the space of two days.

I am exactly where I need to be at this moment in my life. Most of the time, I can’t understand that until I see it in hindsight – and that’s unfortunate. It also doesn’t matter how many things I check off my bucket list. Those experiences will enrich my life but they will bring me neither serenity nor contentment. The only thing that can fill the gaping, insatiable void is connection. There is nothing else that can pull me out of the most dangerous neighborhood in my head. Believe me, I tried seeking out every other alternative. The only way I can quiet my mental malady is by connecting to the divine in others – and striving to channel that divinity for the benefit of those who are also in need of connection. The paradox of my freedom is that it doesn’t exist when I get my own way; it exists when I open myself to the flow of what is. 

I will strive not to forget the strange angel who passed me on the beach: Acceptance is the key.

 

 

Vulnerability

I’m not going to lie. One of my favorite things about vacation was not being completely saturated in recovery. Don’t get me wrong – my recovery is a priority. I wouldn’t have nice vacations or a nice life without it. But I eat, sleep, breathe recovery 24/7: I work in recovery, volunteer in recovery, and socialize in recovery. I even “think” in recovery – not in the cult-y sense – but in the sense that a helpful cliche is always right on the tip of my tongue.

The other week I ran a group about the masks we wear, i.e. the “tough guy”, the “class clown”, the “June Cleaver”, or the “people pleaser”. I think one of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is that recovery itself has become a type of mask. It’s like a stomach-turning competition to see who can be the “most spiritual”. People parade around with an air of manufactured genuinity and, yet, there isn’t a single shred of authenticity in sight. It leaves me feeling disillusioned and slightly disconnected.

When other people gross me out, I have to take a look at myself. First of all, as human beings, we wear masks because we are afraid people will really see us. So, by that logic, I should have compassion for people hiding behind masks. It’s not like I haven’t worn them before. I could probably take a moment to dismount my royally bitchy throne of self-righteousness. Second of all, as much as I try to “keep it real” (yes, even on social media), I’m sure people have perceptions about my life that may not be accurate. Therefore my perceptions may not be accurate. When I have one finger pointed at someone else, there are three pointing right back at me. (There’s one of those cliches!) Finally, it is my responsibility to connect with “my kind of people” – the people who share similar values and aren’t perfectly fucking zen 100% of the time. The truth is, I like to be alone. If I need to plug in to my (fantastic!) tribe, it’s my responsibility to cultivate the connection.

One of the things I’ve learned about life – an article of wisdom that is increasingly defining who I am – is that the external doesn’t make humans happy. I’m not rich, but I have a great marriage, my dream job, and (almost) everything I want (still wouldn’t mind the classic car/truck and the dog). And yes, I derive great joy and satisfaction from those things, but they are not responsible for my happiness. It always irritates people when you say “happiness is an inside job”. And so they chase the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, until one day they wake up and realize they spent their whole lives chasing. I am determined to step out of the race to nothingness. My little family has goals we are working toward, but I am not going to anesthetize myself with bullshit until we reach them. And sometimes the present moment hurts. It hurts to come back from vacation to a cold, gray, troubled city. It hurts when the squirrel in my brain steps back onto the wheel and starts spinning. I have an idyllic life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. Sometimes I need a break. Sometimes the only decision I should be making is where to set up my beach towel.

I recently read a quote that said “the meaning of life is to be alive”. It’s so simple. It’s not to find the “one” and pop out 2.5 children. It’s not to drive a luxury vehicle emblazoned with a status symbol. It’s not to fill a storage unit with bullshit. It’s not to turn piousness into a competition. Yet that is what we spend our lives chasing – the gauge we use to measure our success. My heart aches for all those who are measuring themselves against that empty standard and coming up short. You are perfect just the way you are, whether you have those things or not.

I’ve said this before, but I am so grateful I am slowly learning not to place so much emphasis on how things look on the outside. There was a period in my life when “things” were hard to come by. I wanted those material commodities; I thought they would make me happy. I also wanted to project an image. I wanted to “look successful”… and also “tough”.

Someone at work approached me one day and said: “You have a very gentle spirit”.

“Thank you,” I responded wistfully, “but some people think I should be more aggressive”.

“No,” he said. “That’s not who you are”.

It was one of the most validating things anyone has ever said to me. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness. It’s the one thing I should be pursuing.

It helps me immensely to witness other people being vulnerable. There have been times when I think it has even saved my life. I’d like to think that I’m pretty candid, but if it would help to witness some of my imperfections, I am only too happy to share within reason (gotta have some healthy boundaries, right?): While traveling, I struggle with tummy troubles and binge eating. I have terrible skin and a myriad of other minor to moderate health issues. I am chronically anxious. When I complete a task, I spend twice as long as the average person – either because I can’t focus or I need it to be perfect. Math makes me cry. So does attempting exercise poses. I have no eye-hand coordination. Due to being traumatized by various instructors/peers, I don’t like doing things I’m not good at in front of others (see math, exercise). One of my biggest fears is getting lost. I go through periods of extreme germaphobia and hypochondria (my wife once had to disinfect every doorknob in the house and my steering wheel). I have trouble saying no to things I don’t want to do.

In short, I am perfectly imperfect. I am growing. Some of these things will always be a part of me, and others will diminish as I continue to change.

You are perfectly imperfect, too. Let’s take off our masks together. Let’s step off the consumer carousel – the maddening merry-go-round that spins us into a frenzy of buying our way out of “not good enough”. We are all good enough. Let’s talk about our joys and our sorrows. Let’s hold each other accountable when we rejoin the race (goodness knows I sometimes find myself running a few miles).

I want to see your faces.

Privilege

It has been almost one year since J.L. and I decided to change our eating habits. Looking back on where we started and where we are today is a fascinating exercise.

In April of 2017, I burst through the dietary gate chomping at the bit. “No more added oils or high sodium content,” I declared. “Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Period. Anything else will just not be available in our house”.

I’m smirking as I write because, needless to say, my fervent declaration did not stand. But this is not an altogether bad thing. Today, there is still no meat or dairy in our house.

So, while I may think raw kale and whole wheat pasta is disgusting – and I may enjoy Earth Balance, soy “chick’n tenders,” and homemade vegan cupcakes – we have accomplished what we set out to do: eliminate meat and dairy from our household. If we can accomplish and maintain that change for a year, what can we do in two?

I have learned that there is a difference between a plant based and a vegan diet – and that it’s possible to be a “junk food vegan”. I tried the unpalatable cheese substitutes and the large assortment of mock meats… and I got 90% of it out of my system. However, when I look at our dinner menu this week – as compared to a year ago – it’s completely different. A year ago, I would have needed four pounds of cheese and a carton of heavy cream to prepare for our meals. This week, we’re having roasted cabbage steaks and turnip (a belated nod to St. Paddy’s Day), chipotle tofu burritos, Mediterranean chickpea-veggie wraps, and cajun cauliflower pasta (sans the heavy cream and cheese!) Most of the ingredients will come from the produce department.

I’m not a vegan. I don’t know that I ever will be. That being said, I would like to continue to grow. What’s next for us on this food journey? Well, we’ve drastically reduced our sugar intake, but this year we’d like to push that envelope further. Most of the candy I enjoy isn’t dairy free, so that was easy to give up…I don’t even crave it! However, there are still some surprisingly delectable vegan treats. I guess I’d like to see dessert reserved for holidays. I’d also like to persist in steering away from the meat and dairy substitutes, and the frozen convenience foods. We have our go-to frozen meals – vegan pizza, arrabbiata pasta, and chik’n – but I don’t want to add anything else to that rotation. I tried everything under the sun. Now it’s time to move on and continue to build our growing repertoire of healthy homemade recipes.

When we started this process, I wrote about how even considering these changes denotes an incredible amount of privilege. The subject of privilege is something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately.

I remember a time in my life when I prayed for even a quarter of the things I have today. I can vividly recall crying in a Kmart parking lot because I couldn’t afford a $5 package of underwear. This week, my greatest dilemma was whether or not I wanted to splurge on a reduced-price satellite radio subscription. Since I find today’s mainstream music to be revolting, I decided the subscription was worth it. This is a testament to how far my recovery has taken me, but also a reminder of the advantages I enjoy. While I decide which stations I like best – and delight in the fact that I can listen to 40s jazz, opera, and reggae in the space of ten minutes – many of my fellow humans spend their time wondering where their next meal is going to come from, nevermind if it’s “organic” or healthy. I haven’t forgotten the day when I shared that very same anxiety.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates that people must have some very basic needs met before they can even contemplate the ultimate human aim: self-actualization. The task of self-actualization goes hand-in-hand with societal progress. Unfortunately, many of the people who are primed for Maslow’s uppermost tiers are too busy pursuing “more” to reach their full potential and, therefore, further societal progress. These same people expect those who don’t even have their most basic needs met to improve themselves. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Since my job is to focus on me, regardless of what I perceive other people to be doing wrong, it’s important that I don’t forget how privileged I am to have my basic needs met… and to pursue Maslow’s uppermost tiers: love & belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Some of you already know that I love the Frugalwoods blog – and that it inspired me to make some big changes. I’m certainly not in the same realm – by any stretch of the imagination – but I am debt free and only just starting to invest about 55% of my weekly wages into savings. One of the greatest criticisms of Mrs. Frugalwoods is that she is misleading about her privilege. I find this to be curious. One of my favorite things about her is the way she directly confronts the benefits she has enjoyed in all aspects of life. Moreover, she is doing things differently from her well-appointed position.

For some, the intimation of privilege is an affront. I used to feel that way. How dare you presume to know anything about me? Today, however, I firmly believe that we’re not going to change our broken systems until the defensiveness stops. Recovery requires a willingness to embrace constant self-evaluation – no matter who you are. I had to learn that lesson the hard way (sadly, most people do.) And recovery isn’t just for addicts. It’s for all of mankind. It’s a reclamation of our best and healthiest selves. Acknowledging privilege isn’t akin to accepting an insult. It’s acknowledging where we have been blessed abundantly (and it may not be in every arena!), exercising gratitude, and accepting an invitation to use our stature (whatever that entails) as a launching point for benevolence and mindful living. To me, mindful living means recognizing that some people don’t have their most basic needs met…and evaluating how I might be unwittingly complicit in that. Over the years, I’ve been surprised and dismayed to discover the ways I am participating. By constantly working toward being the best person I can be, I hope to become less and less complicit.

No matter where we fall on the privilege spectrum, our natural reaction as human beings is to become defensive when confronted by someone who lives in a way that challenges our belief systems. We resist looking at ourselves. We dismiss the skills we could apply because some of them don’t apply. We instinctively view the idea of any kind of change – the slightest suggestion of improvement – as a direct attack on our value as a person. We buck the idea that we could possibly share common ground with someone who isn’t exactly the same. This is an ancient kind of wiring…and it has lost its usefulness to our evolution.

Growth is one of the very things that makes us human. Change is the only constant. I have come to believe that the more we resist, the less human we become. Recovery has allowed me to stop running from my humanness – or to at least slow down and consider my pace and direction. I used to see being in recovery as some kind of deficit. It meant there was something “wrong” with me. Now I view recovery as it truly is: a privilege.