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.

 

 

Florida: Vacation Vignettes

May 5th: Gypsy Landing

One of my bucket list items is to become a travel blogger. When we vacation, I normally post daily Facebook updates chronicling our trip. I don’t feel up to it this time. It’s a testament to how tired I am. The desire to write is there, but I need a quieter way to reflect.

At the moment, thunder is rumbling in the distance and I’m drinking a melting iced mocha on our jungle-like patio (Starbucks only gives you cardboard straws here, which makes me much more enthused about their exorbitant prices). We’re staying in a bungalow that can only be described as ramshackle meets updated; the owner calls it “Gypsy Landing”. There are lizards and snakes in the garden and I am unbothered by their presence. I like watching them scurry and slither.

Gypsy Landing Ornamentation

We chose this town as part of our continuing real estate exploration process. Gulfport is known as the Florida destination for artists and hippies – which is right up my alley. So far, the town motto “keep Gulfport weird” seems to mean inebriated and tangled with greenery, but my first impression could be off base. That’s not to say I don’t like it. Yesterday, for example, I would’ve happily bought two pieces of locally painted/refinished furniture if the store had been able to ship them home. It was probably for the best that they couldn’t; we are trying to pack as little as possible when we move south. After we relocate, I will come back to furnish our home. Although I will be leaving sans coffee bar and funky side table, I was inspired to add a new item to my bucket list: learn to refinish furniture. Growing up, my grandparents ran an antique shop out of their coastal Maine barn. If I could manage a little custom furniture shop in Florida, I would be overjoyed. This stuff runs in my blood.

Another goal I have is to be a one car family (or a one regular car/one vintage car family). I have this romantic vision of walking to work from our own bungalow. Laugh at me if you will, but I choose to keep an open mind about the future. These dreams certainly won’t manifest if I get caught up in the reasons why they’re unrealistic – and the idea of driving doesn’t do much for me. The strip malls and terrible drivers are part of what I hate about Florida. It makes me laugh that there are so many things I find repulsive and yet I am bewitched. Despite having Scandinavian ancestry, I feel more attractive unshowered and covered in sand in Florida than I do freshly groomed in New Hampshire. The humidity wraps me in its arms, gently curls my hair, and pulls the toxins from my pores. I’ve heard people describe heroin as a warm hug. That’s how I feel about the sweet, heavy tropical air.

May 7th: Keep Gulfport Weird

This morning we went to a farmer and artisan’s market in town and I fell in love. We bought fresh sourdough bread from a German baker and light, spongey rum cake from a woman with striking eyes. She said, “God is good and blesses us all”. I am normally wary of these messages as an openly gay traveler in the South, but I felt like she meant it and was inclined to agree. We could smell the sugar from her cake long after it was devoured. We also picked our official souvenir: elephant wind chimes from a woman who travels to Nepal twice a year. Everyone at the market greeted us with a cheerful “good morning!”

Bread from the market with a spicy sauce

The simple pleasantness of the marketplace gave me a lot to think about on our afternoon drive south to further explore the region. I was enchanted by Anna Maria Island, but a quick real estate search revealed it to be way out of our budget. As we passed through Longboat Key – a route characterized by mansions, luxury condominiums and golf courses – there was a continued shift in the socioeconomic and racial landscape that left me feeling a little sad. Suddenly I understood the phrase, “keep Gulfport weird”. I was relieved to return to the greater St. Petersburg area – to the rainbow flags, wild gardens, and spectrum of skin colors.

I can’t judge a place based solely on one afternoon drive, but I know that I don’t want the gate and the golf course.

Instead, I dream of a bungalow and a stone patio (so snakes can’t make their home underneath) and dinners outside in the evening. I dream of a little yard, a lime tree, and a plastic swimming pool for Cedric. I dream of grilling vegetables from the market. I dream of stone Buddhas and seashells in the garden.

Even if we were billionaires, I wouldn’t want the gate or the golf course. I’d buy the Don Cesar Hotel on St. Pete’s Beach and make it my palace. It’s one of my favorite buildings in the world.

The Don Cesar

May 9th: Temple of the Divine

St. Petersburg is home to Haslam’s Books – a gigantic new & used bookstore that has been in operation since 1933. Despite our minimalism, we are suckers for a good bookstore. We have a few rare and collectible pieces in our own tiny library. Amazon Kindle is great… but nothing compares to the smell and feel of a real book. We decided to spend the morning checking Haslam’s out. I loved the lettering on the side of the building and the resident cat. Unsurprisingly, I was immediately on the hunt for anything Florida related. I didn’t find any must-have antiques, but I did pick up a gritty memoir-style collection of essays based in the sunshine state and a Pulitzer Prize winning history of the Gulf. Some might wonder why I’m so obsessed with Florida. Simply put, I am driven to connect with “real Florida” and “old Florida”. This place was once an untarnished paradise. Every time we visit, I get a little taste. As for “real Florida” – well, we do intend to live here. I am a writer and a social-worker-of-sorts. I want to bear witness to the humanity of the place. In my experience, the quickest route to the human essence of any region is through storytelling.

Haslam’s Books, St. Petersburg

When people come to Florida, they often intend to fulfill their basest desires. But I think there is something more primitive at play than the desire for escape – something beyond the bars, strip clubs, strip malls, and theme parks: the human need to connect with nature. When you peel back the ugliness with which it has been suffocated, Florida is a staggeringly beautiful temple of the divine.

Tonight I stood in the Gulf and watched a manatee peak its face above the water. It was no more than fifteen feet from me. Another manatee swam nearby. At least two dolphins fished behind the manatees. Approaching storm clouds turned the water an otherworldly turquoise and a light rain pelted my back. I didn’t care that the waves splashed my legs and soaked my shorts. At sunset, the Gulf is warmer than bathwater. Conch shells rolled around my feet and I grabbed them in fist fulls. A fisherman, seeing the unadulterated joy on my face, nodded and smiled. As the manatee and I coexisted for a few blissful minutes, tears welled in my eyes.

Where else can you experience that kind of connection? What could be more spiritual than the converging grace and power of sky and sea?

Pure joy post manatee/dolphin sightings
Fuzzy evidence of our dolphin encounter

May 10th: The Monk

Today was the last full day of our trip. Ironically, a monk made an appearance on our final evening walk. The Buddhists teach that attachment – or craving and clinging – lead to pain and suffering. These teachings play a huge role in the Buddhist approach to recovery. While the monk disappeared into the dusk, the wisdom he symbolized didn’t. As darkness shrouded the shells and silhouetted the sea birds, the tide pulled the sand from under my feet and my balance became unstable. I thought of transience and resisted.

J.L. finally tried to coax me out of the water. “Let’s go see our pup,” she said. Still, I lingered. Walking back to the car, I swallowed my tears.

Thank God for our dog – my North Star. There are heavy things waiting for me. But so is he.

I actually tapped out on this vacation – which rarely happens. I think living out of a suitcase was just another reminder of the unsettledness of the past six months. The feeling passed, however, and I am reluctant to leave.

The thing about recovery is that the clinging doesn’t stop and the craving doesn’t go away, but I don’t permanently live there. It comes and goes like the sand under my feet.

I hate to concede but perhaps it is a good time to say “see you soon”. Despite frequently reapplying sunscreen, I somehow burned to a crisp. As a tattooed person, this is a cardinal sin. Sometimes I shake my head at the lobster red bodies on the beach. Clearly I am also still working on the Buddhist concept of loving kindness. I see you, Karma.

And I’ll see you soon, Florida.

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.

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).