Hitting Pain: Speed Bumps on the Road to Less

If one is lucky, a New England summer might yawn and stretch lazily into fall.  This year, however, the morning air became abruptly crisp. A smattering of ambitious leaves turned defiantly against the waning sun before the calendar could even declare September’s arrival. Personal growth happens like that, too. Sometimes it languishes, with little to no forward movement, and other times it feels like someone stepped on the accelerator without asking for permission.

My growth game has been languishing until very recently.  Since starting a new job, I’ve fallen into some of my old spending habits: Starbucks whenever the whim strikes, compulsive splurges on superfluous snacks, and etc. I know something is off when I walk into Whole Foods for cereal and quinoa cookies and leave with $75 of vegan junk food. Speaking of veganism, I’ve managed to twist plant based eating into: “This candy is made from plants, so it’s fine”. You know, the old “chocolate salad” logic. If I had used the aforementioned logic on my other issues, it wouldn’t have been long before wine coolers turned into liquor. Or “friendly” coffee with a woman I shouldn’t see turned into a tangled, painful mess. All that being said, I have made strides in the right direction. I don’t cry at dinner anymore. (Seriously, eliminating cheese from our home was ugly business.) Our weekly grocery list no longer contains four pounds of cheese and a carton of heavy cream. That’s noteworthy progress, if I do say so myself. I’m sure my arteries thank me. Also, Starbucks and snack binge(s) aside, I haven’t been blowing cash left and right. I have a Stevie Nicks tattoo to finish and several more tattoos in the queue. In addition, we finally turned our junk room into my walk-in closet and home office. We don’t have room for my addiction to Michael’s holiday decorations. My choices, overall, are more in line with my values.

It’s in my nature to do the “two steps forward and one step back” dance. But, sometimes, life necessitates that I suck it up and tango. I wouldn’t say that life has forced me to tango, but I have been “hitting pain”, as they sometimes refer to it in 12 Step fellowships, and pain is the great facilitator of change. A long time ago, I remember writing about how the word “no” is worthy of its own blog post. However, I haven’t been able to write about it because I am still learning how to use it. In fact, not only am I learning how to speak my truth, I’m still discovering what, exactly, that truth is. It is a complex process and it isn’t always pretty to behold.

In the beginning of August, I had an unsavory experience which forced me to make adjustments to my recovery meeting schedule. As a result, I decided to start attending a women’s meeting. In the past, I was resistant to the idea of gender specific meetings. To be completely honest, the idea of spending time with women feels about as appealing as throwing myself to a family of malnourished tigers. Don’t get me wrong: I love women. Well, one woman in particular. But being around a gaggle of girls has never been my scene. And that’s an understatement. I’m not really sure what that’s about – and why it’s an issue I haven’t been able to resolve in eight years of recovery.

Someone with substantially more recovery wisdom pointed out that maybe I don’t need to be someone who enjoys running with a clique of chicks. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. However, I’m also an introvert. I crave human friendship – and my relationships are important to me – but I like meaningful one on one interaction. Anything else is painfully over or under stimulating (and sometimes both at the same time). It drains my spirit.

I’m going to stick with my women’s meeting; I know for a fact that it’s helping me grow. It’s also my responsibility to pass on the gift that was so freely given to me. However, I need to shut the door on the idea that there is something wrong with the way I operate in the world. The fears of my inner sixth grader aren’t calling the shots anymore. I am a strong, vibrant, nearly-31 year old woman. I don’t need a clique of chicks to have relationships of meaning and value. I am part of a diverse tribe. And, by and large, I enjoy meeting with said tribe members on an individual basis, thank you very much.

Too often, we live our lives based on what we think we “should” do. I know I am certainly guilty. I’ve come to realize that living from that platform is a debilitating form of existential dishonesty. It’s also frickin’ exhausting. My new life’s mission is to live my truth – and a huge part of living my truth is going to be exercising the word “no”.  If other people don’t like it, that’s too damn bad. The response of others is neither my business nor my responsibility. If someone has a problem, that’s their own shit. My only responsibility is to be honest. When I am in the wrong, it’s because I’ve been dishonest. I know my dishonesty has left casualties in its wake and I am working on making sure I don’t repeat the same mistakes.

This is my truth, in all its raw and gritty glory: I do not want to attend a girl’s night out with a group of women. Hell, chicks or dicks, I don’t want to attend any rambunctious night out. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a person on the autism spectrum, but I imagine the kind of sensory overload I experience is not entirely dissimilar to a trip to a noisy store. For the record, when three unrelated people text me at once, I have a meltdown. I’m not built for it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I also will not spend one second of my time tolerating homophobia – or bullying masquerading as politics – for the sake of being polite. I will not put myself in those situations and, if I find myself unwittingly subjected, I will leave immediately. And no, I probably don’t want to take those family photos. I enjoy doing individual, outdoor portraiture for a good cause. Unless you’re an individual who wants outdoor/natural light photos done for a cause, I can’t help you. On the other side of that coin, I reserve the right to take photos for whomever I damn well please. If I decide to make someone exempt from my usual standard, that choice is mine – and mine alone.

Perhaps most importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind. In five years, reading educational material about studio lighting may not bore me to tears. Maybe I’ll want to invite ten women over for a pajama party. Maybe I will actually initiate a group text rather than contemplate throwing my phone down the garbage disposal. And all of that will be okay because I am a constantly evolving human being with unique preferences and a voice that deserves to be heard.

Uncovering these things has made me a little angry – mainly at myself – because I have denied my voice for so long. I have been afraid of offending or inconveniencing others. I have asked: “What will other people think?” I have been a people-pleaser. I should have been asking: “What do I need?” Nobody else is responsible for meeting my needs. And it’s not selfish to meet them myself. In fact, it’s the self-caring, healthy thing to do. Ultimately, the more I deprive myself, the more I end up harming other people, too.

At the end of the day, I am aiming for simplicity. I am striving for less. If you think about it, “less” is the antithesis of addiction, which is the craving for more. And the road to less is paved with the word “no”.

 

The Slippery Slope

Self care is a slippery slope when you spend years neglecting it. Just when you think you’re getting ahead, something new pops up. Truth be told, that “something new” is more realistically a long ignored issue that is now too pressing to sweep under the carpet. It’s easy to shrug and say “Well, that was pointless. Why do I bother?” and sullenly backslide the ten feet you’ve managed to ascend. I haven’t been succumbing to that attitude lately. Somewhere along the way I went from saying that success can only be reached via baby steps to actually believing it. Those of you who have been following since the beginning of 2016 might remember that I chose “faith” as my word for the year. Life had different plans. At every opportunity, the Universe has asked me to exercise patience. Ironically, patience leads to success…and success leads to faith. It’s funny how that works. You have to be careful what you ask for because you just might get it – albeit in a very strange package.

So, no, I have not been back sliding down the slope with two fingers in the air… but my baby steps are tenuous. For example, I can’t even manage to get started on my goal of daily yoga. I have everything I need: a Wii Fit, a DVD, athletic clothes… My excuse was that we had a giant air conditioner in the middle of the living room and I didn’t want to move furniture every day to practice. (Aren’t those of us with addict brains MASTERS of justification?) I guess I must not want it bad enough…which is sad. Yoga and meditation make me feel great. However, I have been to the Doctor three times in less than a month to deal with x,y, and z. For the record, x ,y, and z are not crazy issues. It’s pretty run of the mill stuff that normal people take care of long before it takes a big chunk out of their ass. I’m just the woman who shows up late to the game with one or three missing chunks. Regardless of what it took to get there, dealing with x, y, and z has given me the momentum to move forward and deal with a, b, and c. Again, funny how that works. One step is all it takes to achieve a whole lot of empowerment.

What else has changed? I guess part of it is what still hasn’t changed. (Go me!) I’m still not quitting things or jumping impulsively into them. I’m getting better at minding my temper. (A big part of that has been realizing that the world isn’t bettered by my opinion.) I haven’t quit my job. In fact, I made some self-caring changes to my contract to make the year easier and POOF! my schedule lightened up even further on its own. (Funny how that works!) I haven’t quit my blog, business, or not-for-profit social media campaign. I have to be honest, though: I am putting my business on the back burner until I can reassess what product(s) I will be offering. Why? The short answer is that the market is over saturated with portrait photographers. The era of  profitably for the shoot and burn photographer is ending. If you’re new to photography, trust me, print product is the best way to make a living. The long answer (which I won’t get into fully here), is that business has cheapened my passion. It becomes about what people can take, and take, and take. So I am shifting my focus to things that fill my spiritual bank account.

My not-for-profit social media campaign, Human Too, is the most rewarding thing I have ever done outside of my recovery and marriage. I’m glad I started my business because it gave me the confidence to start Human Too. (There is a reason for everything!) What does working on Human Too entail? Well, I team up with volunteers who sit for portraits and share their firsthand experience with addiction. We try to get at the essence of what it means to be human and to share that with others. It is symbiotic and powerful. We give with no expectation of receiving and yet, somehow, we are blessed beyond measure in return.

Making money pales in comparison to the fulfillment I get from Human Too.

I’ve always had a very hippie-dippie attitude toward money. What I never understood, until now, is that it was never about embracing a fringe mentality. It is the pure and simple fact that I am best able to contribute to society when doing something I find neurologically engaging. I’m sure everyone feels that way to a certain extent but, for me, it is a matter of functioning/thriving v.s. barely functioning/failing. I am not lazy or unmotivated. My brain does not work normally unless it is engaged in very specific ways. Unfortunately, these ways have never coincided with the path to a million dollars. I’ve learned a lot about the way my brain functions over the last 45 days. I’ve also learned that my brain needs a little help to be “normal”…and that’s okay.

Just because I understand myself with a new clarity doesn’t mean that I need to be a slave to my brain’s selective whims. Now that I understand why I am the way I am, I can take measures to function better in situations I would otherwise deem intolerable. Money is, indeed, important and my ever-improving self-care philosophy aims to honor its significance.

As serendipity would have it, I recently stumbled upon an article on the Frugalwoods blog. (Don’t just walk over there and take a gander…run.) The Frugalwoods managed to retire to a beautiful homestead in their early 30s. Now, before you roll your eyes and imagine any semblance of sanity I have left whistling away on the wind, let’s get one thing straight: I am not impulsively jumping on the frugal bandwagon. I do not plan on retiring by 33, I am not going to share a toothbrush to save money, I am not going to start obsessively clipping coupons, and I am not going to make my own toilet paper from trees in the back yard. Extremism is not my friend. All that being said, the Frugalwoods really made me think about the value of things (or lack thereof) and my priorities. My laissez-faire attitude toward spending is not a self-caring approach. I don’t just mean in the addictive sense  – and I’ve definitely used shopping to make myself “feel better” – I mean that every time I piss away money on bullshit I don’t need I am robbing my future self.

I won’t lie. I had a blast at the craft store this week. I’m not even sorry. However, if I hadn’t used a gift card to treat myself to more Halloween decorations, that money would have been better invested in the pursuit of our retirement dream (a forever home in a beach town). Lord knows I don’t need more Halloween decorations. When I am not financially thoughtful, I send a message to my wife that our mutual dreams are not important to me. Why would I buy a $6 latte when I could invest in a day spent hunting for sand dollars?  That’s the only dollar I want to waste my life chasing.

I don’t prescribe to a deprivation ideology, but I definitely think that having a daily $6 latte, a weekly roll of sushi, or a new shirt whenever, tends to rob that experience of its value. It becomes commonplace. The first time I signed a lease by myself, I remember how impactful it was that no one could take my home away from me. (Well, no one but the landlord.) It was a safe place and it was mine. I was so broke I could barely feed myself but I was so happy. I specifically remember my mom giving me a bag of coffee – a luxury I couldn’t otherwise afford – and it tasted so good. Money can’t buy that deep feeling of appreciation.

The Frugalwoods inspired me to start savoring experiences and to get off the “more is better” merry-go-round. I may not shop compulsively at this stage of my recovery, but the pursuit of “more” – which is the popular pursuit in our society – is not healthy  for me and is not beneficial to my marriage. I brought the idea of making some lifestyle changes to my wife and she was very supportive. We are embarking on a “challenge” starting in October. One of the things we agreed to do is to tone down Christmas. In the past, our attitude has been “go big or go home”. Instead of feeling sad about a simpler holiday, I feel more excited than ever. My creativity has been sparked. On Christmas Eve, we are planning to camp out in front of the tree and watch Christmas movies. Creating these traditions together is so special to me. A central part of our marriage has been molding our identity as a family from scratch. I love who we have become as a family and I can’t wait to see how we will continue to evolve.

I think that’s really the key to it all…isn’t it? At some point, self-care stops being an arduous uphill battle and becomes a really cool adventure. Sure, maybe you only make it ten feet before a boulder pops up in your path… but you can take that moment to look around and reflect on the scenery. I guarantee that things will look a little brighter from even the smallest height.

 

 

 

 

 

Dropping the Ball

January. The month of resolutions. What better time to write about alcoholism and addiction?

In relation to my various addictions, resolutions never worked. For example:

I told the most important person in my life that I would only smoke pot when we were together. I meant it when I said it… but as it turned out, I lied.

Every ounce of resistance drained from my body when my friend pulled a real beauty out of his pocket and presented it like an offering. “Who am I really hurting,” I wondered/justified.

And the toxic relationships. Oh, the toxic relationships.

“I’m going to tell her it’s over. I can’t do this anymore”. I meant it when I said it…but as it turned out, I lied.

Every ounce of resistance drained from my body as I propped myself against her door frame and looked into her face. Did I really drive all the way to her house to “stop”? Or did I go there to get a fix – to make the giant abyss inside me cease its insatiable demand for more – if only for a moment? Wasn’t I really hoping that leaving would hurt her? (It would.)

“I can’t stop, I can’t stop, I can’t stop. God, help me, I can’t stop”.

Is this internal dialogue familiar to anyone else?

I had every reason to stop both the substance abuse and the behavioral addiction. I was narrowly avoiding legal trouble. I wasn’t going to class. I wasn’t doing my school work. I couldn’t hold down a job. The “relationships”? Most were abusive. Most were also nonsensical. I am a gay woman who settled not only for men but also for disgusting, morally reprehensible, horrible individuals. When I finally stopped accepting abuse and surrendered to the truth of my identity, I started chasing women who would ultimately abandon me. I knew the outcome but I was determined to change it.

I sacrificed everything for my addictions. I sacrificed an ivy league education. I sacrificed an education at my state university. I sacrificed friendships. I sacrificed my financial security. I sacrificed my body. I sacrificed my heart. I sacrificed my moral values. I gave all of it away.

I know what it’s like to fall to my knees and beg for relief from the compulsion and obsession. I know what it’s like to sleep between two friends to keep myself safe from self destruction. I know what it’s like to look for an inpatient program for behavioral addiction and come up empty handed.

I needed a professional to help me identify my behavioral addiction. I was already clean and sober by the time my behavioral addiction reached a peak and I finally bottomed out. Until then, behavioral – or process addiction – was a vague concept that existed only in the periphery of my awareness. It was only once I recognized that I was a process addict that I could apply the principles of my recovery program to that addiction too.

All of the aforementioned was meant to say that I steer clear of New Year’s resolutions now. I suppose I resolve to wake up each day and choose life but that’s something I can only do one day at a time. Recovery is helping me to learn about discipline. A resolution is a decision. Discipline is a practice. I’m finding that recovery is more than a decision; it requires practice.

In my last post, I talked about how I created rules for myself around posting on Facebook. (1. Is it related to my blog? 2. Is it related to my business? 3. Is it something my grandmother would enjoy reading?) I have continued to practice those guidelines. Although I haven’t practiced them with total perfection, it has made a world of difference. Other people have carried on being nasty and political. However, because I stopped participating in that behavior, I feel better. That seems to be how discipline works. When I show up to my recovery commitments and practice the guidelines of my program, I feel better. I may not always like it…but I feel better. Everyone around me is certainly not engaging in the same practices…but I feel better.

Someone once suggested that instead of making a New Year’s resolution, I choose a word to focus on for the year. It seems to be a rising trend. I have chosen the word “faith” for 2016. I want to work on “trusting the process”, i.e. believing that things will work out exactly as they are meant to be and for my greatest benefit. I could potentially be facing  a lot of fear this year. What will I do when my current employment contract is up? Am I going to decisively leave behind the mental health field or make a part time return? Will my photography business be a success? Past experience has taught me that my worry is wasted. The trick is believing in this track record.

I also choose to focus on what’s going right rather than on what’s derailing. I could beat myself up for letting my sugar and carbohydrate addiction get so out of control that my new pants are already tight. I could go on a long guilt trip for letting my photography school work slide to the point that I may not finish the course on time. Or….I can be grateful that I not only have enough to eat but I have also enjoyed many delectable treats. I can honor my photography course for setting the ball in motion and teaching me the basics. I can accept that I don’t learn well outside of a structured setting because discipline is very challenging for me. I can look for the positive in every situation and use every mistake or failure as a lesson.

We all have huge goals we’d like to achieve or milestones we’d like to reach. I can only speak for myself but I have found that the salt of life is in the tiny moments we experience on our way to these things: the sound of distant church bells, dark chocolate and burlesque music in an hour of solitude, a little hand on one’s face, slow dancing in the kitchen, a smile from a stranger. My primary goal is to be awake for these moments and my secondary aim is to always list them.

 

 

 

 

 

Mixed Tapes

It’s 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon and, if I pulled a blanket over my head and settled back into the cushions, I would fall fast asleep. I am irritated by this fact. As I look around the room, I see my photography coursework beckoning from the coffee table. I see piles of books and magazines waiting to be started or finished. The things that are a priority to me – learning and creating – do not translate into first place in my every day life.

I was walking away from the office this week and I thought to myself: “I am going to quit photography school”.

I know, I know…not cool.

If my brain were a cassette player this would qualify as shitty mental music from a very old tape. A pre-recovery tape. A tape that says I’m not smart enough, strong enough, or good enough. So why bother?

I am smart enough. I am strong enough. And I am good enough. I’m just wired differently than many of my fellows. And by fellows I mean those crazy talented people who can work forty hours a week, pursue a Masters degree, and participate in three sports…all at once.

There are those people and then there’s me. I am in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive thru at least once a day just to get through the day. Pulling a comb through my tangled hair is a considerable victory, working 37.5 hours a week for someone else is absolutely painful, and it’s a push to feed myself, nourish my recovery, or run any sort of errand.

It’s not that I don’t have time to do the things I want (although that certainly can be the case!). Balance and time management are just not a part of my repertoire. I am caught between the need to use my natural artistic gifts and the fact that I crave and perhaps even require simplicity at the end of the day. Why? I’m an introvert and people are hard…really hard.

I spend a lot of time beholding the “underbelly” of the city where I live and work – the stuff many people would like to pretend isn’t there. Because that would require – you know – having to do something differently. But I digress. It’s not uncommon for me to step over puddles of piss on tenement stairwells and feel uncertain about whether the origins are animal or human. I watch prostitutes and drug dealers at work with a detachment that has less to do with a lack of compassion and more to do with the fact that these things have lost their shock value. The sunlight hits us all the same as we work; I sit in my car between appointments – sipping iced coffee and flipping through the radio – and they pass tiny packages through car windows or wave to greasy men from stoops. Figuratively speaking, however, the sunlight does not distribute equal warmth. I get to leave. They don’t.

I’m not painting this picture to create a “me v.s. them” dynamic or to spark a dialogue about privilege. It’s more about the weight of bearing witness and being powerless. I have developed a much thicker skin over the span of ten months and yet I am acutely aware that the little foray I have taken into the underbelly is only a fraction of the total descent.

It’s undeniably ugly out there. Writing and photography are my way of combating the ugliness. I would like to do it full time. And, like a good addict, I would like to do it full time now. Yesterday would have been better.

Wow. Does the “I want what I want and I want it NOW” attitude sound familiar to anyone else? Thank goodness I’ve met hundreds of people over the years who have brains that work the exact same way mine does. They have taught me to recognize my cognitive hiccups and to replace the shitty mental music with a new tape.

I’ve talked about receiving daily readings in my e-mail before. The same day I decided I was going to quit photography school the following affirmation was delivered to my inbox:

Today, I take a small step forward on my journey, without judging myself or my rate of progress.

Coincidence? I think not.

It is now after 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. I started this post on Saturday. And that’s okay. Anything of worth in my life has come to fruition one baby step at a time. I am on my way.

The Thing With Feathers

One of the things you discover in recovery is that life continues to happen whether you’re sober or not. The difference is that you don’t have to make any situation worse by adding alcohol, drugs, or maladaptive compulsive behaviors to the mix. You can go from being a hot (or not-so-hot and possibly smelly) mess to something resembling a person of grace. Lately I feel like I’ve been more of a hot mess than a woman of grace. The only thing I’ve done consistently is say “I’m not giving up. Nothing is worth my recovery”. The beautiful thing about this whole crazy journey is that as long as I maintain that attitude, the woman of grace will eventually follow. I’ve been well acquainted with her in the past. You can crash into her car and she doesn’t even bat a perturbed eyelash. True story.

This woman, who I technically am (but who I am not necessarily in touch with), is also positive and optimistic. In the interest of reconnecting with her, I want to shift gears from the dark side of addiction and focus more on why recovery is worth it.

Here’s why: Recovery gives you back hope and enables you to have dreams. What did I used to dream about? Escaping. Numbness. Death.

I don’t think I was even twenty when I swallowed several bottles of pills, my face so heavy with medication that I could literally smell it, and begged God to take me home.

That was my hope and my dream.

Today I am thankful that I am somehow still alive and I have a new chance at life. I don’t feel that dark weight anymore. I have goals and aspirations and crazy flights of fancy. I continue to be surprised and delighted by the places life takes me.

Some of my aspirations are perfectly reasonable and attainable, like working as a freelance photographer or finding a publisher for a book. And then some of them are a little more far fetched (but not impossible!)… like getting some investors to help me buy an industrial space to convert into a clean and sober live music venue and nightclub. I would hire a mixologist to make beautiful and inventive non-alcoholic drinks and bouncers to keep it a safe space. (Why should sober people be condemned to coffee, Coca-Cola, bad soda water, and limited nightlife choices?)

I would love to get married, buy a house, adopt a fur baby, plant a garden, and travel. Hell, I’m going to do those things, if the powers-that-be aren’t otherwise opposed.

All that’s a pretty far cry from how I used to be, if I do say so myself.

One of the other things you discover in recovery is that life not only continues to happen but it also continues while you’re busy making other plans. And that’s actually a great thing. If you told me I was going to be where I am today, I would have laughed at you. I may never write professionally or own a venue or even buy a house. But if my first four plus years of recovery have set any kind of a precedent, whatever does transpire is going to be cool.

Nothing happens overnight either. I grew up in a boondock town with no traffic lights. I recently moved to a small city. At first the five lane highways, traffic, and feeling of consistently being lost made me want to hyperventilate. Now I’m zooming around like a pro.

Anything I’ve accomplished has been one tiny – and often painful – baby step at a time. At first I felt intensely uncomfortable and then I felt intensely beautiful and whole.

Getting clean, sober, or behavior abstaining might be one of the most uncomfortable things you ever do…and it won’t be the last. But on the other side of that is You. Not an emptiness seeking to be filled but a Whole Person. And if you’re anything like me, you will frequently find yourself in tears of amazement as you send out a Thank You to whatever or whomever is listening.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Emily Dickinson