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.

IMG_0887
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.

Version 2
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.

IMG_0410
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?

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).