Grief

It’s funny how these posts tend to pour out of me in bursts. Once I give myself permission to write, the floodgates open. This part of me is like a faucet I keep clamped tightly shut, knowing the water will consume me. Once I start, it’s hard to focus on anything else – to participate in the stream of life in a way the capitalist machine would deem “productive”. I struggle with that concept even when the faucet is secured in place.

I told myself I wasn’t ready to write about my grandmother. “It’s too new,” I cautioned, like a helicopter parent aloft in her own spinning anxiety. I haven’t had a chance to organize my thoughts and feelings in the orderly fashion with which I typically approach life. Truth be told, I don’t know what I feel. I thought I knew what grief was supposed to look like and I was wrong.

The first night without her was gut wrenching. I had the first legitimate craving for a drink I’d had in years. I begged my wife, the dog, the darkness – whomever or whatever was listening – to knock me out. When her house hit the real estate market, I felt an almost-equal sense of devastation. I do not consider the town where I attended high school “home”. It’s a place that will always be synonymous with suffering. My grandmother’s, on the other hand, was a place where I felt grounded. The tidal mud pulled me out of suffering and into the stream of life. It bubbles, quite literally, with activity. When I was almost three years sober, I stood in that tidal mud and sent a plea out to the Universe: “I need something now or I’m done. I’m going to drink, I’m going to use, and I’m going to do whatever feels good. This isn’t worth it”. Not thirty seconds later, my new sponsor called my phone and told me there was another way to live.

Sadly, my grandmother’s became a place synonymous with a different kind of suffering: her own. Now that she’s gone, I feel relieved. For several months before she died, I experienced terror inducing heart palpitations. Sometimes hundreds a day. My empathic heart was literally broken. When she passed, the palpitations slowed and ceased.

If I am honest, most of the death I have experienced has been accompanied by a sense of relief. When my biological father died by suicide, I was relieved. He suffered more than I have ever seen a human suffer – at least in the mental sense. I still have not, as yet, met anyone as lost and sick. And once he was no longer hurting, he could no longer hurt me. Today I understand that hurt people hurt people. I think, wherever he is now, he understands that, too. He may not have found the answers he was searching for when he was alive, but his death validated my choice to continue pursuing recovery.

I know for a fact that there are people reading this and wondering, “why the hell does she reveal all this?” Humans are inclined toward judgment. I don’t let it stop me. Also, if you think this is too much, you should hear the things I don’t say. Friends, my boundaries are FIRE. (I love throwing in lingo I learn from barely twenty-somethings.) That being said, the reason I am so forthright is because I meet people on a weekly basis who wonder, “Am I supposed to feel like this?” And what I’ve learned is there is no guidebook for this shit. Believe me – and this is something I say a lot – I spent the better part of my life searching for the instruction manual to human existence. I loved my philosophy courses. And I’m still prone to search for an adultier adult. Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing, and my poor inner child screams, “No! This is chaos! This is scary! I need order! I need predictability!” And my stomach aches and my heart pounds, and the Universe laughs and laughs at my incorrigibility.

So, my grandmother died – my beautiful, beautiful grandmother – and, as it turns out, there is no “right” way to be. Most of the time, I’m okay. But then there are moments when I find myself crying at dinner and not really understanding why. And if you asked me to go to certain parts of Maine, I would vehemently decline. Photos of the coast make me sick, nevermind the rocky landscape itself. That is pain I am not ready to touch. I am not ready to fully immerse myself in that feeling of rootless-ness. At first I berated myself for being avoidant – like an active addict without drugs – but, with a little help, I’ve come to understand that this a gradual process: Our brains have built-in mechanisms to keep us safe. I am not selfish for honoring my process.

There was a period when I worried that my grandmother was out in the ether feeling hurt that I’m not “sad enough” or not “grieving right”. After I spoke those words out loud to another person – who assured me I was being absurd – I turned on my car and it was 11:11. I’ve seen 11:11 multiple times a week since my grandmother died. Sometimes twice a day. I see it on the Roku screen when I shut down Netflix. I see it when I walk by the stove. I see it when I open my phone. I’ve seen it in the company of witnesses who can attest that I’m not sitting by the clock, watching the minute hand creep forward. It startles me. And it might seem silly to some, but to me it seems like a sign.

At the exact moment my grandmother died, a beautiful red bird burst in front of our windshield. “My angels are with me today,” I remarked to my wife. Five minutes later, my mother called with the news.

If that image doesn’t sum up life, I don’t know what does.

A violent pop of color. A brief rustle of wings on the currents of time. There and gone.

Self-Forgiveness

This is an update – of sorts – because I haven’t done any blogging for myself since June. I know I repeat this triviality more than you might care to read, but I’m a Virgo and I like (need?) a rough plan when I start a piece of writing. However, having spent the early morning drinking coffee and catching up on blog subscriptions/Tricycle magazine articles, I decided to go rogue and put my thoughts down with no plan whatsoever. Watch out kids, I’m wildin’. (Whatever that means.)

Does this mean I might actually be learning to relax? Ha! What a lovely thought. In all seriousness, I have been doing a lot of work on myself. These are not small victories by any means. You are dealing with a woman who has to make a conscious effort not to match her food to her plate. Just take the first plate you grab, is an almost-daily mantra. Yesterday, for example, I endured butternut squash pasta on an orange plate. Oh, the horror of two similar shades commingling together! Sure, I could buy white dinnerware and save myself the trouble. But I like my Fiestaware and I refuse to live a life devoid of color.

There are times when I simply cannot abide the spicy black bean soup in the orange bowl. There are times when it needs to be in the blue bowl. And it’s in those moments I need to forgive myself the most. I can control the blue bowl. I can’t control that my grandmother died in July. I can’t wrap a good night’s sleep in a box and gift it to my tired wife. I can’t divert the week’s latest nonsense to some mystical drama llama who exists solely to unburden me of responsibility. When I dig out that blue bowl, it means I am suffering in the Buddhist sense of the word. It means I am resisting the fact that absolutely nothing about our human experience is certain, and it’s causing me pain. And the only way out of that resistance is to acknowledge why I’m doing what I’m doing and greet myself with compassion.

If I were to look at myself objectively – as I might in a clinical setting with a stranger – I would certainly not respond with, “Wow, you are a piece of shit. Why can’t you be normal? It’s just a bowl. Use it. It’s just food. Eat it”. Never – in all my years of working with wounded people – have I found that approach to fast-track healing. That is the voice of a critical, abusive parent. So, if my inner two year old is feeling scared – and she wants the blue bowl – she can have it. Then we can talk about why she needs it. We can examine if there are other ways to get those needs met that don’t include obsessing over which vegetables match her plate.

I have been forgiving myself a lot lately. Over the past five years, I’ve set a number of bottom lines around so-called unproductive behaviors. This summer, I’ve steamrolled over all of them.

For instance, I bought more holiday decorations because my apartment is bigger now and, well, I can. And why not? My choices are in line with my minimalist values because these items bring me joy. Today, I believe I deserve joy.

I’ve also transitioned from a (mostly) plant based to pescatarian diet. If that mutinous diversion from my value system isn’t shocking enough, I also buy many meals from my favorite cafe. Consequently, I’ve put on a little weight. My cold weather jeans pinch my mid-section, and my bikini belly is more Buddha than Bali.

All of the aforementioned is okay. I was tired of subsisting on salad, processed fake meat, and pasta with red sauce. I am also tired of berating myself for not being a cook. (I bake like a mofo. Baking has rules. Baking is safe.) And I am so thankful for that cafe. Some weeks they provide the only nutritious food I eat. Long-term, I’d like to come into balance rather than live in extremes. Can I learn to cook a few simple, healthy things? That process is an on-going struggle – and a messy one at that. The other week, for example, I managed to bastardize a bag of frozen ravioli. That takes skill let me tell you.

Today, I’m allowed to be messy. I am a human being. I am no longer answering to that nasty inner voice telling me I’m not enough.

I am not advocating we all sit around and co-sign our own bullshit. I am merely acknowledging that I am doing the very best I can in this moment. I have to trust that when I learn how to do better (or have healed enough to do better), I will. Historically, that has always been true. In order to accomplish that, however, I need to love the woman I am today. She is not going to grow in soil embittered by self-loathing.

 

200 Things That Make Me Happy

 

Although clinical work isn’t my primary professional responsibility, I love to keep a toe dipped in the water, so I co-facilitate an intensive outpatient group twice a week. It keeps me connected and inspired. A few times a year, we take a break from facilitating our normal therapeutic rotation and offer a structured gratitude group. Rather than asking my clients to write a rote list of things for which they’re grateful, I reframe the concept of gratitude. I ask them to write a list entitled “100 Things That Make Me Happy”. A huge part of recovery, for me, is noticing and savoring the little things.

There’s an old saying that goes, “we teach what we need to learn”. It’s been a shit year – and I’ve spent a lot of time processing the lessons. There’s nothing wrong with that. But none of my recovery mentors have ever said, “it’s more important to make a gratitude list when things are going great”. In fact, the opposite is true.

In early recovery, writing this list is hard. Your brain is healing. You’re just starting the process of cognitive restructuring. Consequently, your thoughts tend toward the negative. You may not even know yourself – your likes and dislikes – and what makes you happy. This is completely normal. But it’s important to start somewhere.

Even though I’ve had a little practice, it’s easy to forget the significance of this activity. Since I didn’t slow down until the 130-150 mark, I decided to challenge myself and push to 200. I stress this to my clients: it’s not a competition. It’s an awakening of the spirit.

I’d love to see your list! Share in the comments!

200 Things That Make Me Happy – A Gratitude List

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Courtesy of https://www.alifeinprogress.ca/
  1. my wife, J.L.
  2. my dog, Cedric
  3. my Subaru
  4. dry shampoo
  5. Pressed Cafe (5a. iced mocha lattes, 5b. beet salads, 5c. white chocolate cookies, 5d. spicy Greek burritos, 5e. grilled tofu 5f. pesto mac & cheese)
  6. overalls
  7. the baby curls at the back of J.L.’s neck
  8. J.L.’s hugs
  9. Trader Joe’s
  10. apple pie
  11. most pie, really
  12. my porch
  13. porches in general
  14. knowing there’s a good show waiting on Netflix
  15. Kissing Cedric’s paws and lips
  16. when Cedric’s paws smell like sweet grass
  17. sweatpants
  18. when Chipotle makes my burrito bowl just right
  19. the sound of peepers
  20. Stevie Nicks
  21. tattoos
  22. airports
  23. tokyo milk honey & the moon candle
  24. farmers’ markets
  25. fresh Maine seafood
  26. antique stores
  27. book stores
  28. botanical gardens
  29. regular gardens
  30. greenhouses
  31. fuzzy blankets
  32. finding a rare seashell
  33. soft serve
  34. FoMu vegan shakes
  35. Olive Garden
  36. french fries for dinner (with honey mustard or sweet & sour dipping sauce)
  37. Mike’s Pastries
  38. aquariums
  39. street art
  40. Christmas stockings
  41. string lights
  42. northern lights dark rum & oak candle
  43. campfires/fire pits
  44. Annie’s cheddar flavor vegan mac ‘n cheese
  45. independent film
  46. Cedric’s puppy noises
  47. kettle cooked chips
  48. my Sudanese prayer beads
  49. dog memes
  50. art museums
  51. Augusten Burroughs
  52. Patti Smith
  53. a hot shower after a long day
  54. that feeling when J.L. and I are driving away from the city toward adventure
  55. when wise old people tell good stories or say profound things
  56. TV shows starring, written or produced by Ricky Gervais
  57. Nadia Bolz-Weber
  58. pin-up girls
  59. Converse
  60. the smell of the Atlantic ocean
  61. Waterfire
  62. vintage markets
  63. street festivals
  64. when J.L. laughs really hard
  65. Burying my face in Cedric’s chest
  66. Cedric’s ear hairs
  67. Cedric’s eyelashes
  68. the smell of Whole Foods
  69. When Whole Foods’ hot bar serves perfect tofu
  70. Whole Foods’ bakery
  71. Massabesic Audubon on a summer evening
  72. Rhye
  73. the smell of rain on hot pavement
  74. Florida palm trees
  75. the Gulf of Mexico
  76. hummus wraps from Hot Rize or St. Augustine’s Crave
  77. Kookaburra Honey Badger iced latte with honey
  78. listening to jazz with the window open during a rainstorm
  79. Chicago
  80. Lexie’s black bean burgers and fries
  81. fresh flowers
  82. dried flowers
  83. mason jars
  84. glass bottles
  85. a good salad – especially with local, recently harvested produce
  86. Shiny Brite Christmas ornaments
  87. Bambolina wood fired pizza
  88. Michael’s the craft store
  89. antique car shows
  90. the cello or violin
  91. slow dancing in the kitchen with J.L.
  92. chocolate croissants
  93. hoodies
  94. the smell of patchouli on other people
  95. Disney/Pixar movies
  96. empty beaches
  97. giant pool floats
  98. J.L.’s love notes
  99. warm items from the dryer
  100. clean sheets
  101. strawberry shortcake
  102. fireworks
  103. Cedric’s whiskers on my face
  104. Cedric’s eyes
  105. good hair days
  106. root beer floats
  107. kayaking
  108. spanish moss
  109. jigsaw puzzles
  110. National Parks
  111. J.L.’s cooking
  112. planning our future
  113. Mucha
  114. The Golden Girls
  115. muscle shirts
  116. Cirque du Soleil
  117. the sound of Cedric crunching
  118. cool bird sightings
  119. the lupines and daisies on the side of the highway
  120. all wildflowers
  121. how happy Cedric is to see me when I come home
  122. when Cedric wipes his eyes with his paws
  123. Cedric’s elbows
  124. discovering a new song on YouTube
  125. drinking tea or eating lunch with my dearest friends – especially outside!
  126. when the cupboards are stocked with snacks
  127. ripped jeans
  128. J.L.’s smile
  129. beard Snapchat filters
  130. bowties for dogs
  131. dogs wearing sweaters
  132. sea salt on my skin
  133. mocktails that don’t suck
  134. built-in bookshelves
  135. decluttering/minimizing
  136. collecting stickers from our travels
  137. Dwight Schrute
  138. getting through the day without any anxiety symptoms
  139. Bombas or Smartwool socks
  140. documentaries
  141. papasan chairs with fuzzy cushions
  142. cattails
  143. fields of sunflowers
  144. the sound of cicadas
  145. butterfly sightings
  146. holding J.L.’s hand
  147. when J.L. sings to me in the car
  148. decorating for holidays
  149. taking nature pictures
  150. alpacas
  151. neon signs
  152. Chihuly
  153. the smell of fresh Christmas tree
  154. lemurs
  155. watching Elf on Thanksgiving night
  156. craft soda – especially blueberry pop
  157. when a Prince song comes on the radio – especially Purple Rain
  158. tofu spring rolls
  159. old school Missy Elliott
  160. Wentworth
  161. laughing with my coworkers
  162. driving at dusk with the windows down and the music loud
  163. random acts of kindness
  164. finding secret places that tourism hasn’t ruined
  165. chopsticks
  166. foggy/misty fields
  167. the smell of sea in fog
  168. honey from our friend’s homestead
  169. fresh baked bread
  170. the golden hour
  171. comfortable sleeping weather
  172. mastering a new trick in Lightroom or Photoshop
  173. colorful nail polish
  174. vinyl records
  175. recognizing the divine in a stranger
  176. the way light filters through blinds
  177. hidden object games
  178. patterns or symmetry in nature
  179. the first sip of coffee
  180. moody skies
  181. Yam I Am burrito from 86 This!
  182. my last name
  183. when Cedric spoons me
  184. when Cedric holds my hand with his paw
  185. the way J.L. makes me feel unconditionally loved and secure
  186.  when J.L. is safe at home
  187. hats
  188. foxes
  189. restored/refinished/bespoke furniture
  190. sustainable living
  191. One Strange Rock
  192. Gabor Maté
  193. a relaxing massage
  194. Demented Santa (a Christmas landmark in our city)
  195. Sally Mann’s southern landscapes
  196. jellyfish
  197. family dinner nights
  198. walking barefoot
  199. my wedding ring
  200. the beauty of J.L.’s heart

 

Dark Night of the Soul

My sobriety date is July 14th, 2009.  God willing, in just over a month, I’ll have made it to the ten year mark. It’s no secret that this year has been one of the hardest of my recovery thus far. Pretty much everything I’ve written since last Fall has alluded to my dark night of the soul. It’s become a running joke in our household: “Guess we’ll just chalk it up to 2018-2019”. The reason I continue to write about it is because I want to be a voice of authenticity. In the recovery world, you read a lot of positive quotes and saccharine soberlogues. I’m guilty of sharing from these categories. What I read about less, however, is reality. Recovery isn’t a happily-ever-after affair. It’s unadulterated experience. It’s being more awake than most have the desire to be. Yes, recovery is the miracle of life – but when you live you hurt.

I want to read fewer commercialized yoga studio clichés and more truth. I guess that means taking Gandhi’s advice and “being the change”.

Although I believe in metaphysical principles like the Law of Attraction, I think there is a limit to their merit. Yes, if you fixate on how much your day sucks, you will attract more bullet points to support your argument. Yes, if you habitually complain, you will attract more things to complain about. However, no matter how positive you are, pain has its place. The question is – are you willing to learn?

I’ve stopped fighting my dark night of the soul. I’ve surrendered to the boughs of the inky forest. The darkness is a womb.

Marianne Williamson uses a building analogy to describe the rebirth process. She writes about how you can’t always renovate the rooms in your house. Sometimes you have to tear the whole thing down.

I hadn’t really penciled a demolition into my 2018-2019 calendar year. But that is recovery.

Over the last eight months, I’ve discovered that I don’t need a demolition so much as I need a stack of eviction notices. If you told me a year ago that I was subletting my identity for free, I’d tell you that you were crazy. In my mind, I had the whole authenticity thing in the bag. I wrote an entire post dedicated to the subject. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t in the people pleasing business anymore. Little did I know, squatters were still overrunning the place and I had only managed to repossess a few closets. And yes, they were lovely, wild closets – Narnia-esque cupboards filled with shells and feathers, fireflies and baby animals. But they reached capacity, as cupboards do, and the suffocation became a sickness.

It’s one thing to recognize sickness and another thing to do something about it. That’s where pain comes in. Pain runs a twisted delivery service; it dispenses the gift of desperation and transforms anyone who dares to unpack the contents of the box. Without pain would I really be willing to change? Would I really be willing to ask for help?  Truthfully? No. It’s easier to doze off under the pretense of wakefulness.

Most of us say, “someday I’m going to [insert lofty accomplishment here]”. This sentence prevents me from ever being enough. It gives the squatters too much room to weigh in on the paint color.

What strikes me is that in 20,000 years, it’s unlikely anyone is going to know Shakespeare’s name. Or Mozart. Or Kim Kardashian. Or Mark Zuckerburg. (Definitely not Kim Kardashian). It will be impressive if the human species even survives. The real question is – did Shakespeare enjoy his food? Did he notice the sky? Did he love his dog? Did he smile with every ounce of his being? Did he see and experience everything he could? Did he use his gifts to connect with others? Did he know himself?

Part of recovery, for me, is giving up “the chase”. And it’s fucking hard. I’ve been publicly wrestling with it since I started this blog – and privately wrestling with it for my entire life. Just when I think I’ve abandoned all pursuits, I realize sweat is pouring down my chest and I’m still wearing my running shoes.

It’s so easy to forget that our lives mean something without “someday” or that “really big thing”. We don’t have to strive toward “enough”. We already are. In a purely scientific sense, our existence serves the purpose of perpetuating life on earth. If you leave someone to decompose in a field, they become part of the system that sustains all living things. If you consider the majesty of our planet, there is no loftier aim.

I don’t know if I will ever achieve all those big “somedays”. Most of them were never for me anyway. Someday the dust of my bones will become ocean silt. The simplicity of that is beautiful. And when I unpacked my box of pain, I learned simplicity was what I was trying to get back to all along.

A newborn has no memory of the womb. At the end of my life, I imagine it won’t be the night I’ll remember, but everything juxtaposed against it: I’ll remember J.L. slipping my wedding band on after a minor medical procedure, and how startlingly tender it felt for her to make my ring a priority when I was weak and unattractive. I’ll remember the warm smell of my dog’s velvet ears, my favorite coffee shop, and teaching myself to cook something new. I’ll remember the songs that defined me; the piano and cello. I’ll remember the cool, tall grass and the heady flowers. I will be grateful I was willing to unpack – to change the sheets in the guest bedroom – to make room for more of the simple things – the things that matter.

 

 

Boot Camp

I chose “quiet” as my word for 2019. I didn’t understand the irony of my choice in January.

This year has been the opposite of quiet as it’s traditionally understood. I already talked about some of the upheaval we’ve experienced, but life has added several more layers to a cake I’d like to return to the bakery. I don’t need to get into specifics but let’s just say I don’t dare ask, “what else?” Experience has demonstrated that I will invariably find out. These days, I try to laugh, throw up my hands, and say, “okay, we’ll play your way”. Sometimes my laughter borders on hysteria.

On Thursdays, my dear friend and coworker, Jen, often drives us to a local eatery to pick up lunch for our afternoon meeting. Sometimes she also listens to me rail against the onslaught of lessons the Universe has deemed necessary to assign. “It’s like boot camp,” she sagely observed, “sometimes the Universe has to tear you down to build you back up”.

“I thought I went through boot camp when I first got into recovery,” I whined. “I don’t want to do it again”. But Jen was right. These lessons – unpleasant or not – are all part of the spectrum of human experience. Walking through them with an open heart is the only way to move forward.

I don’t know why I was naive enough to think that once I got through early recovery it was going to be smooth sailing. I guess I felt like I had “paid my dues”. But so many people have paid a much higher price in pain currency. There’s no debt ceiling. Life is not fair…it just is.

Jen went on to tell the story of the Tibetan saint, Milarepa. Rather than try to recount the story from memory, I am excerpting it from a fabulous article by Aura Glaser, which appears in Tricycle magazine:

One day Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, “I have got to get rid of them!” He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma. If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness, the nature of impermanence. After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there. They simply stare at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving.

At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.

The tale of Milarepa revealed that I’d spent months in full on demon opposition mode. Resist! Resist! Resist! My one woman protest rivalled Occupy Wall Street. If my imaginary tent had a sign, it would say: Welcome to Occupy Cave – No Demons Welcome. But Jen’s words helped me lower my angry little fist. “Gag on this, demon,” I taunted. We had a giggle as the dialogue went further sideways.  As it turns out, “offering yourself completely” is a little easier said than done.

Not long after Jen bestowed her words of wisdom, I heard someone else say, “recovery is about making yourself visible”. I had to scrape myself off the floor. (I also have to eat crow for claiming I don’t hear new things very often. Maybe I just haven’t been listening.) These words resonated because I still love to hide – even after almost ten years. I’m the stereotypical alcoholic writer – without the bourbon and chain smoking. While I’ve been working on making myself visible in a very literal sense – like, for example, hanging out with our new (awesome) downstairs neighbors – this lesson also applies to hiding from my so-called dark side. Active addiction, in its most naked form, is the avoidance of pain. So recovery isn’t just about connecting with others, it’s also about connecting with our “shadow” selves – otherwise known as our humanity.

Glaser writes:

When we don’t acknowledge all of who we are, those unacknowledged parts will land in what Jung called the “shadow”… This is one way of seeing Milarepa’s encounter with the demons. He was encountering his shadow—all that he had suppressed and rejected in himself…We come upon our greediness, jealousy, or impatience, and the next impulse is to go to war… We don’t realize that all the while we’re strengthening the thing we’re fighting against. It’s like trying to push a beach ball into the water. Holding it down requires a huge amount of energy, and inevitably it pops back up with equal force, taking an unpredictable direction. But if you give the beach ball space and let it be, it will float effortlessly along the surface.

2019 has looked something like this: I shove each new beach ball under the water. It shoots up and smacks me in the face. I push it back down. It flies above the surface and lands 100 yards away. I swim after it – water splashing and limbs flailing – and it bobs just out of reach. I splutter and gag on the water… and it continues along undisturbed. Who is really causing all the commotion?

The infuriating answer is that it’s not the beach ball.

Glaser talks about being “willing to be with our experience, whatever it is, without judgment, without trying to fix it or get rid of it. And somehow this willingness, this gentle allowing, starts to calm things down..We discover that the journey is a dynamic process, full of alternating successes and failures. And we discover that failures are not dead ends. Every time we’re up against the wall, we’re also standing at a threshold. The invitation to open to our experience—whatever it is from moment to moment—is always there, no matter how many times we need to rediscover it”.

My definition of quiet has changed. It’s returning to center – the nucleus of existence – despite the noise. It’s the giant flamingo float in a pool of beach balls. It’s the eye of the storm. It’s the vantage point from which I can greet storm and sphere alike and acknowledge the purpose of our proximity.

Why My Dog is My Spirit Guide

Life has been hard since we adopted our dog. Nothing happened the way I imagined. Obviously, I had a Pinterest-perfect vision in my head – to include “baby” announcement photos for the purpose of surprising our friends and family when they discovered the “baby” was a puppy. Well, maybe not surprise. Anyone who knows me well is aware that I would rather poke out my own eye than bring a child into the world. I have pretty strong (and unpopular) views on reproduction and overpopulation. But I digress. Don’t get your undergarments in a twist. I probably like your children. They’re cute.

Anyway, my puppy announcement photos didn’t happen. Instead, we were compelled to move from our home of six years into an apartment complex – smack in the middle of the holiday season. Consequently, I had to resign from a Board of Directors position because my membership was contingent on my address. I was hoping the “luxury” complex we chose would ease the loss… but it has turned out to be far from luxurious. One can only compare the experience to moving back into a college dormitory – a dormitory from which the resident assistant is conspicuously absent every weekend. I don’t know why I was shocked that people can live so inconsiderately – or how a nice property can be so poorly managed – and yet here I am. To add insult to injury, in the midst of our lives turning upside down, my wife received a well deserved promotion and was reallocated to the night-shift. The promotion? Fantastic! Night-shift? Not so much.

Long story short, everything changed in the space of two months. Some of it was good, some of it wasn’t. Unfortunately, change of any kind cripples me. I prefer it in much smaller doses. At the very least, I like more time to plan. Naturally, my body said “nope” to all of it, and my health declined like a plastic sled on a hill of ice. It’s terrifying to not know why your body isn’t working correctly or when you will finally get answers.

Is this a blog or a bitch-fest, Autumn? Well, this is a no-holds-barred account of how recovery doesn’t promise that – just because you stop drinking, drugging, or other behavior-ing – life is going to be all that and a bag of fucking chips. Even after ten years, my brain doesn’t like this unpalatable piece of news. It just wants things to feel good. All. The. Time. Recovery – i.e. real life – doesn’t feel good all the time. If I sound angry – it’s because I am. In real life, people get angry. I try not to let anyone see my anger because – God forbid – they find out I’m not perfect. Guess what? I’m not. Thankfully, I have reached a point in my journey where I am more interested in being genuine than I am perfect. And I am worn out by these past months. I am tired of my body betraying me. I am disgusted that my neighbors and fellow humans are so self-centered they can’t consider how their behavior and choices impact others. Some days, I’d like to lose my shit and take it out on the first person who looks at me the wrong way. But I don’t. Why? Because my expectations of people/life are the roots of my discontent – and only I can change those. It’s just that I don’t always have the strength or desire to work on myself. Odds are the people who piss me off don’t have the strength or desire either. We are all, ironically, on the same boat.

Enter my sweet, one-year-old, three-legged dog, Cedric: He is the most handsome – and the most infuriating – creature on the planet. And he’s teaching me to grow up. I can’t stay in bed and hide. He needs me. I mean really needs me. My dog has more neuroses than I do – and that’s saying something. It requires a lot of effort on my part not to match my food with my dinner plate. For instance, green food on a red plate is highly unsatisfactory – unless it’s Christmas. Green food on a green plate is also unacceptable. Too much green. At any rate, he’s the clingy, anxious, canine version of me. Even so, he’s also the manifestation of the Divine. He teaches me what I need to know – with or without my permission. I spend less time asking, “Why is this happening to me?” and more time asking, “What is this teaching me?”

If my imperfect, three-legged, neurotic, crazy-making dog is a manifestation of God, I guess anyone can be – even me.

Like a good addict, I thought having a dog was going to fill the void. Instead, it brought parts of myself to my own attention. These moments don’t occur while frolicking in fields of flowers and fuzzy caterpillars; they occur when I’m standing in pouring rain and sub-zero wind holding a bag of dog shit. These are holy moments precisely because I am uncomfortable. I am opposing my disease – a disease which is always seeking the chemical reward in any given relationship or situation. I’m not trying to say that love, in its purest form, means tolerating awfulness – it took me a long time to stop doing that – it just means that it isn’t always comfortable.

In the beginning, most moments felt uncomfortable. When the temperatures were (slightly) more seasonable, we took Cedric on late night walks to burn off some energy. If we were lucky, we’d all get six hours of sleep. Even though we were together, those walks made me feel like an outsider. I could see television screens flickering in warm living rooms and smell the often overpowering fragrance of dryer sheets and fabric softener. I felt like everyone around me had a concrete sense of home and direction. I wondered if the homeless felt this sense of isolation – but substantially magnified – as they trudged through the dark. I grieved for them. My life was barely recognizable but at least I had a roof over my head and my wife and dog by my side. When I looked at Cedric, I felt deeply disappointed in myself. There he was – not even one – missing a leg and moving to yet another home – and I was struggling to navigate a few curveballs. He had been thrown down the stairs by a soulless cretin and I could barely muster an ounce of grace. I didn’t feel worthy of being his mom, but I was inspired by the way he barreled onward, his sweet, cinnamon-colored ears flopping determinedly with every hop.

I still don’t feel worthy of Cedric. He is better than me in every way. Sometimes, when I look at him, fat tears roll down my cheeks. He forces me to be in the present moment. At least once a week, he tries to bury my phone. He tells me – not so subtly – about the things that are really important. He loves me unconditionally when I don’t get the message. He is teaching me to love in ways I was never capable of loving before; how to be patient and understanding, and how to put another being’s needs before my own. I thought I knew how to be and do all those things, but I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Life still doesn’t feel settled… but my precious dog anchors me. No matter what’s happening, he is there. And I mean right there. I may not be able to predict anything about my day,  but I can predict he will need to be fed and walked and snuggled. He will need me. The funny thing is – even though he depends on me for survival – I need him more. If I watch carefully, he will always show me the way forward.

 

 

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.