Pedestals

It’s our first full day in the new apartment and I was in a terrible mood all morning – mainly because I didn’t sleep. It’s funny that my last post was about “leaning in” to adjustment and I’m crashing and burning before I can even get my optimistic little rocket ship off the ground. The landlord – who lives on the floor above us – definitely oversold the “quiet” part of our new home. It seems as though there may be as many as four people staying upstairs at any given time (maybe more???) – and some of them seem to enjoy building boats (or something) at one o’clock in the morning.

If renting has taught me anything, it’s that no matter where you go – there you are. My idea of coexisting with others is that they – frankly – act in a way that suggests they don’t exist. Admitting this in print gives me pause. It’s true. It’s mean. It’s also sad.

I spend a lot of time teaching the value of connection and community as it relates to recovery. Some studies seem to suggest that the further we get from our tribal and/or communal roots, the sicker we get. To be fair, other studies demonstrate that sleep disruption and deprivation destroy your mental health. I’m at a loss as to how to reconcile the two: “Hello, it’s your new neighbor, Autumn. I’ve baked you a cake. Also, can you please shut the fuck up?”

The “here I am” part of all this is that several of my own neuroses are at play. Let’s count. 1.) I’m catastrophizing; i.e. if they were building boats last night then they are obviously going to build boats every night. 2.) My rage is disproportionate to the situation.  I wasn’t allowed – or didn’t know how – to have boundaries for most of my life. So now, when someone disturbs my peace, I turn into the Hulk. Trust me, it isn’t that scary. I mostly just angry cry. Unless, of course, I’ve been stuffing that shit down for awhile. Then it might get a little scary.

Yesterday afternoon I said, “I can’t believe this apartment is ours! I don’t know if I want to move to Florida anymore. They don’t have old New England style spaces there”. In a matter of hours, I was already back to a “grass is greener” mindset. My addict brain is incredible: “This will never be good enough,” it whispers. “You need something else”.

I might be able to find peace and quiet in Florida but, on the other hand, a snake might crawl out of my toilet.

I’m not going to discard every lesson I’ve learned through this process. When we buy property, it probably should be disconnected from other people’s living spaces. (Or on the highest floor.) What I do need to discard is my “other people ruin everything” attitude.

Ugh.

If I were three years old, I would be stomping my foot. The clinician in me says, “well, silly goose, you do have an inner child. And she is stomping her foot”. Now I’m rolling my eyes, which really doesn’t help me look like less of a mad woman. Thank goodness Cedric the Magnificent doesn’t care.

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Cedric, not caring. Not one bit.

When I was pursuing my degrees in substance use counseling and social and human services, one of my instructors accused me of being a black and white thinker. I was aghast. How dare she call me – a socially progressive female lesbian – a black and white thinker? Was I not the quintessence of openmindedness? At the time, I dismissed her evaluation. Black and white? Psshht. How about I’m right and you’re wrong? How’s that for black and white?

She was right.

I have a nasty habit of putting people on pedestals. You’re either on a pedestal or off. You’re either all good or all bad. (Oh, hello there! It’s another one of those pesky thought distortions: all or nothing thinking.) Unfortunately for me, that’s not how humanity works. We’re like Sherwin-Williams paint cards in shades of gray.

Whenever I’ve lived in a town or city for a few years, I find myself starting to feel disillusioned. People’s true colors start to “shine through”. Eventually everyone (unknowingly) topples off their pedestal and I sit around thinking, “Ick! Humanity! Someone get the rubbing alcohol!”

Here’s the ugly, ugly, ugly part. I am repelled by other people’s humanity because I am actually terrified of my own. I am a perfectionist. What disgusts me about others is what I fear holding space for in myself. I imprison myself on the tallest of tall pedestals and get pissed when I teeter off like a drunken toddler in zero gravity. Not to be defeated, I clamber back on – determined to do “better” this time.

Maybe…just maybe…being a little more forgiving of others means being more forgiving of myself.

Good grief. I hate it when I’m right. I feel attacked.

As a perfectionist, I always try to wrap up on an optimistic note. That way I can tell myself I’ve Martha-Stewarted the shit out of my blog. Oh my. What a pretty little bow. But I’m not doing that this time.

I don’t know if I can be a more loving person today. I sure am gonna need some help.

See? That’s certainly not the most alluring bow I’ve ever chosen. However, it might be the bow I need; the one that gives my humanity a little room to breathe.

Adjustment

I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I am in recovery – or that I attend recovery meetings. I don’t put my recovery program on blast but I reserve the right to live and speak my truth. I cannot, however, take credit for that truth. All the knowledge I have acquired came from other people. I’ve been doing this recovery thing for almost a decade now; it’s rare I hear something new. But I keep going to meetings because my brain needs regular rewiring. I need to be reminded of the same things over and over…lest I conveniently forget. Over the weekend I heard someone say something that blew my freakin’ mind. Not only had I never heard it before, but it was so painfully simple I was horrified I hadn’t thought of it myself. Are you ready?

Our goal isn’t just to accept life on life’s terms but also to adjust to life on life’s terms.

LOL. Wut? This might not be a life changing revelation for most of you, but I almost rocked out of my chair nodding in recognition. Acceptance has always been a challenge for me (and most of my fellow brothers and sisters in recovery). Why? Because acceptance means we’re not in control. When I’m not in control, things feel uncomfortable. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I don’t like uncomfortable. For years, I’ve been learning how to practice acceptance. But it never occurred to me to take acceptance one step further and adjust.

Sure, I’ve unwittingly adjusted to many things – but what, I wondered, would it be like if I adjusted to events in my life with intention?

Here’s why this is so important: I can accept life on life’s terms but I don’t have to like it. So I can accept, grumble, and generally choose to be a miserable cow, OR I can take it one step further. Adjustment, to me, signifies actively taking a situation I find to be less than ideal and thriving anyway.

I have to be honest. I have not been adjusting to life very well. In my last post, I talked about how we moved to a new apartment back in November. Well, now we’re moving again. In four more days, I will be sleeping in another new home. Beyond that, I have failed to adjust to my wife’s transition to the night shift. I’ve accepted it. I’ve even done my best to keep my grumbling to a minimum. But it has changed our lives in ways I never could have anticipated. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss our old life. But that life is gone. The home is gone, the schedule is gone, that stage of our lives is gone.

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So in love with our new space. The built-ins! The floors! The columns! The painted tin ceilings! Everything happened for a reason.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that law enforcement and military spouses are pretty tight lipped. We carry our load without fanfare. Some drink to cope. Others have affairs. Still others buy designer bags and luxury cars. If everything looks great on the outside, we can tell ourselves we’ve made it.

That’s not who I want to be. First of all, I don’t like bullshit. I just don’t. I don’t want to perpetuate it or be around it. Anyone who tells you this is a cakewalk is lying. The reason we have brain disorders like addiction is because we don’t effin’ talk about things that matter. Like our (gasp!) fears and our (ugh!) feelings. So there’s that. But secondly, I don’t want my happiness to be contingent on one person. It’s not healthy or fair. My wife deserves better than that. She has plenty of her own stuff to worry about. Contentment should be derived from multiple sources.

Sure, this transition is hard, but that doesn’t mean I have to write off this entire period of our lives as a loss – something to be accepted and endured. It can also be a time of growth and creativity.

I’ve been living in reluctant acceptance for months now. I was planning on hanging out there and maybe even playing the victim. But when that individual talked about adjustment, a light bulb came on in my brain. It was akin to being forced to look in the mirror.  I have choices. Why is it so easy to forget where I have power?

What does adjustment look like? I’m not completely sure. I imagine it’s going to be messy – if not a little ugly. But I have some ideas. A good start will be making our new space into a home. I’d also like to be the mom I’ve always wanted to my dog. Not the exhausted, stressed out catastrophe I’ve been for months. My little boy deserves better, too. Another thing I’ve had to accept is that my sweet baby has some health issues – and I am terrified those health issues could impact the longevity of his life. So I want to make every day a good day.

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Me and my best bud. He makes my heart burst.

I miss the friends I haven’t seen since this craziness started. And there are children in my life for whom I want to be present. There are scrapbooks and photo books I’ve neglected, and memoirs to finish reading. Hell, if I got really motivated I could start my own. If I’m being truthful, though, I should keep it simple. I tend to overcomplicate things with my schemes and expectations. It would be worth celebrating just to get back into a routine or take the car in for its six month service.

I typically don’t compose a post in one sitting, so I took a break to go over to the new place and unpack some boxes. As we drove, I reflected on how change and loss can be so grievous that accepting – let alone adjusting – can seem impossible. We’re lucky that is not the case for us. It’s funny – when you fall prey to self pity, you can always write yourself back to a place of gratitude.

I’m not sure whether it’s the writing or the extra daylight – or maybe the promise of Spring and a beautiful new home – but I feel like I’m finally turning a corner. It’s been one hell of a Winter.

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.

 

 

September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I am finally ready to drift in that direction.

Just Around the Riverbend

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

 

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

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

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

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

Dr. Maté writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New ink

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

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

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

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

If Anything Good Can Happen

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

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

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The River Walk view on our first night

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

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Pride lights adorning a Chicago building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impermanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guanyin

“Why am I here?” I inquired.

“You are here to help,” she replied.

En-lighten. Illuminate.

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

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

Love > Fear