Boot Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glaser writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Why My Dog is My Spirit Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

Privilege

It has been almost one year since J.L. and I decided to change our eating habits. Looking back on where we started and where we are today is a fascinating exercise.

In April of 2017, I burst through the dietary gate chomping at the bit. “No more added oils or high sodium content,” I declared. “Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Period. Anything else will just not be available in our house”.

I’m smirking as I write because, needless to say, my fervent declaration did not stand. But this is not an altogether bad thing. Today, there is still no meat or dairy in our house.

So, while I may think raw kale and whole wheat pasta is disgusting – and I may enjoy Earth Balance, soy “chick’n tenders,” and homemade vegan cupcakes – we have accomplished what we set out to do: eliminate meat and dairy from our household. If we can accomplish and maintain that change for a year, what can we do in two?

I have learned that there is a difference between a plant based and a vegan diet – and that it’s possible to be a “junk food vegan”. I tried the unpalatable cheese substitutes and the large assortment of mock meats… and I got 90% of it out of my system. However, when I look at our dinner menu this week – as compared to a year ago – it’s completely different. A year ago, I would have needed four pounds of cheese and a carton of heavy cream to prepare for our meals. This week, we’re having roasted cabbage steaks and turnip (a belated nod to St. Paddy’s Day), chipotle tofu burritos, Mediterranean chickpea-veggie wraps, and cajun cauliflower pasta (sans the heavy cream and cheese!) Most of the ingredients will come from the produce department.

I’m not a vegan. I don’t know that I ever will be. That being said, I would like to continue to grow. What’s next for us on this food journey? Well, we’ve drastically reduced our sugar intake, but this year we’d like to push that envelope further. Most of the candy I enjoy isn’t dairy free, so that was easy to give up…I don’t even crave it! However, there are still some surprisingly delectable vegan treats. I guess I’d like to see dessert reserved for holidays. I’d also like to persist in steering away from the meat and dairy substitutes, and the frozen convenience foods. We have our go-to frozen meals – vegan pizza, arrabbiata pasta, and chik’n – but I don’t want to add anything else to that rotation. I tried everything under the sun. Now it’s time to move on and continue to build our growing repertoire of healthy homemade recipes.

When we started this process, I wrote about how even considering these changes denotes an incredible amount of privilege. The subject of privilege is something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately.

I remember a time in my life when I prayed for even a quarter of the things I have today. I can vividly recall crying in a Kmart parking lot because I couldn’t afford a $5 package of underwear. This week, my greatest dilemma was whether or not I wanted to splurge on a reduced-price satellite radio subscription. Since I find today’s mainstream music to be revolting, I decided the subscription was worth it. This is a testament to how far my recovery has taken me, but also a reminder of the advantages I enjoy. While I decide which stations I like best – and delight in the fact that I can listen to 40s jazz, opera, and reggae in the space of ten minutes – many of my fellow humans spend their time wondering where their next meal is going to come from, nevermind if it’s “organic” or healthy. I haven’t forgotten the day when I shared that very same anxiety.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates that people must have some very basic needs met before they can even contemplate the ultimate human aim: self-actualization. The task of self-actualization goes hand-in-hand with societal progress. Unfortunately, many of the people who are primed for Maslow’s uppermost tiers are too busy pursuing “more” to reach their full potential and, therefore, further societal progress. These same people expect those who don’t even have their most basic needs met to improve themselves. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Since my job is to focus on me, regardless of what I perceive other people to be doing wrong, it’s important that I don’t forget how privileged I am to have my basic needs met… and to pursue Maslow’s uppermost tiers: love & belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Some of you already know that I love the Frugalwoods blog – and that it inspired me to make some big changes. I’m certainly not in the same realm – by any stretch of the imagination – but I am debt free and only just starting to invest about 55% of my weekly wages into savings. One of the greatest criticisms of Mrs. Frugalwoods is that she is misleading about her privilege. I find this to be curious. One of my favorite things about her is the way she directly confronts the benefits she has enjoyed in all aspects of life. Moreover, she is doing things differently from her well-appointed position.

For some, the intimation of privilege is an affront. I used to feel that way. How dare you presume to know anything about me? Today, however, I firmly believe that we’re not going to change our broken systems until the defensiveness stops. Recovery requires a willingness to embrace constant self-evaluation – no matter who you are. I had to learn that lesson the hard way (sadly, most people do.) And recovery isn’t just for addicts. It’s for all of mankind. It’s a reclamation of our best and healthiest selves. Acknowledging privilege isn’t akin to accepting an insult. It’s acknowledging where we have been blessed abundantly (and it may not be in every arena!), exercising gratitude, and accepting an invitation to use our stature (whatever that entails) as a launching point for benevolence and mindful living. To me, mindful living means recognizing that some people don’t have their most basic needs met…and evaluating how I might be unwittingly complicit in that. Over the years, I’ve been surprised and dismayed to discover the ways I am participating. By constantly working toward being the best person I can be, I hope to become less and less complicit.

No matter where we fall on the privilege spectrum, our natural reaction as human beings is to become defensive when confronted by someone who lives in a way that challenges our belief systems. We resist looking at ourselves. We dismiss the skills we could apply because some of them don’t apply. We instinctively view the idea of any kind of change – the slightest suggestion of improvement – as a direct attack on our value as a person. We buck the idea that we could possibly share common ground with someone who isn’t exactly the same. This is an ancient kind of wiring…and it has lost its usefulness to our evolution.

Growth is one of the very things that makes us human. Change is the only constant. I have come to believe that the more we resist, the less human we become. Recovery has allowed me to stop running from my humanness – or to at least slow down and consider my pace and direction. I used to see being in recovery as some kind of deficit. It meant there was something “wrong” with me. Now I view recovery as it truly is: a privilege.

P.S. No, Really, I Won’t Be Silent

Talking about sexual misconduct makes people uncomfortable. Within the first twelve hours of publishing my last blog, I got the sense that my story wasn’t going to be any different.

“Why put your life on blast on social media?” Here’s the thing (and I know I repeat this like a broken record): I’m a recovering addict. Social media is one of the many things I can abuse. I’ve made the choice to use it – both personally and professionally – as a tool for positivity. We have a collective decision to make about technology; it can be used for good or it can be used for destruction. When I post something, it generally falls into one of two categories – I’m either preserving precious memories or aiming to help another human being. I’ve even started assessing the way I document memories. I had an interesting discussion with one of my best friends on the subject of pride.

There is always room for improvement but, in general, I feel like I have good boundaries. The content I share only scratches the surface of the breadth of my life. There are definitely things that are none of anyone’s business. There are also things I will only share in a memoir somewhere down the line. The measuring stick I use for disclosure is the question: “Can my experience with this situation benefit someone else?” I shared my experience as a woman who moved from victimhood to empowerment in the hope that it would cultivate strength and solidarity.

One of the greatest gifts of my recovery is that I have grown increasingly comfortable in my own skin. While people’s judgement mystifies me, it doesn’t dissuade me from standing unabashed in my raw truth. I feel sincere sadness for those who think I should be quiet. It says more about their life than it does about mine. It must be hard to be so unhappy that you have to put down someone who is spreading their wings in freedom. This distinct class of judgement denotes fear, envy, and self-loathing. And let’s face it: the perpetuation of silence is a gigantic part of the problem. For centuries, women and men alike have been forced to endure sexual abuse with no way to safely vocalize their pain and suffering. Furthermore, women grow up with the expectation that we will quietly accept our lot in life… even if it is intolerable.

I firmly believe that storytelling is the way to healing. I used to think that making a forceful argument or engaging in a debate could lead to change. I haven’t found that to be accurate. In fact, I have found that it repulses people, burns bridges to understanding, and invites rigidity in opposing stances. I used to go on tirades and rants on Facebook about various things I found to be unjust, especially when people advocated for violence against police officers. My diatribe didn’t change anything and, because I was operating from a place of fear for my law enforcement spouse and friends, it made it look like I didn’t care about my brothers and sisters of color. When I operate from a place of fear, it turns me into a person I don’t particularly like. At the core of my being – in a divine place  untouched by fear and anger – I have unconditional compassion for other beings. My responsibility as a human is to try and live from that place as much as possible.

I do my best not to argue anymore. I share my personal experience instead. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. You have your truth. This is mine. I do not need to feel guilty or ashamed. I am a writer. It’s just who I am. But I’m not meant for fiction or poetry; I’m meant for exploring and reflecting on life from my singular perspective. After my experience this summer, I certainly have a strong perspective on how things could be improved. In conveying my interpretation of events, I tried my best not to wish anyone harm or ill will.

Today I also try to distance myself from those who are domineering and abusive with their opinions. I have been that person- even in the context of this blog – and I don’t want to be anymore. I recognize that I become like the people with whom I surround myself the most. I can have compassion without accepting negative energy in my space.

We are all walking, talking anthologies of our beliefs. I’d posit that it’s impossible to craft a genuine narrative without betraying a worldview. I want my beliefs to look less like an arsenal of weapons and more like an invitation to collaboratively create peace. I am flawed in my practice, but this is the ideal toward which I strive. It benefits me to constantly evaluate what I bring to the table. How can I connect with someone if they bring an invitation and I bring a sword? These days, I find myself asking the opposite question. Most of the time, all I can do is hold space at the table, invitation in hand.

Reading – or listening to – other people’s stories with an open heart has saved my life and shaped the woman I’ve become. I am grateful to each person who has shared their recovery experience and provided a roadmap for me to follow in their footsteps. I am equally grateful to the people who have shared intimate pieces of themselves in order that I might challenge myself and grow. Each human narrative is an archway through which we can enter our unexamined minds and extract previously undiscovered insight. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Several millennia later, the profound value of his wisdom remains unchanged.

 

Figurative Vessels

I’m writing a book. Well, co-writing a book, to be more accurate. We started the process over the summer. I haven’t really talked about it outside my closest circle because I feel like it’s one of those things you should do and then clap for your own damn self. Some people need to talk about their greatest endeavors. Lately, I only need to discuss them insofar as it’s necessary to stay accountable.  Truth be told, it’s probably because this is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. Talking about it makes it “real”. As a (recovering) addict, I am inclined to tiptoe as far away from “real” as reasonably possible. When it’s not real, it’s safe to fail.

One would think that writing a book is a solo project. It’s not. I am growing accustomed to the fact that things, in general, tend to be better when they are the result of collaborative effort. As it happens, I am currently sending the Universe strong mentorship vibes. I need someone to look at the skeleton of our work and show me how to animate it into the best possible version of itself.

At any rate, I’ve been missing this blog and the process of writing just for me. It’s not that I don’t have time – it’s that some of the stories I am poised to tell haven’t played themselves out to completion. Sometimes I’ll start a post and be unable to finish because I simply don’t know the ending. Unfortunately, they are big stories, and not telling them makes me feel a bit like I’m choking. At work, I tell my clients that looking at things in the present is just as important as examining them from the other side. It creates a measuring stick for progress. This situation is a little different. I fully believe that some things happen because we are meant to be instruments of change. In order to be an effective advocate, I need to keep my progress under lock and key for a short time.

It’s funny – when I was active in my addictive behaviors, I could only write about things in metaphor. Today, it pains me to be ambiguous. I think it’s a sign of significant growth that I prefer to be unequivocally raw. I’d rather be in my own skin than hiding beneath a veil of mystery. I can’t wait until the last pages of these stories unfurl and I can share my discoveries with you. In the meantime, I am standing my ground and letting the words take shape.

A ‘voice’ motif keeps popping up this year. My purpose in life seems to be – among other things – helping to give people a voice. The whole premise of the Human Too campaign is to provide a platform for people’s narratives. The book I am co-writing isn’t my story, either. In a roundabout way, the Universe has my best interest at heart. The ego is a particularly complex animal for alcoholics and addicts. By and large, we tend to be egomaniacs with inferiority issues. When I focus more on other people, the world stops revolving around me. I have less time to ask “What do people think of me?” On the other hand, I think it’s important to make sure I don’t let my own story get lost. It’s important to come home to myself. When I go within and reflect on my own narrative, I grow.

The reason I share my reflections so publicly (and help others to do the same) is because I think it’s a matter of life or death for us to vocalize and celebrate our flawed humanity. Many recovery programs are rooted in the power of the shared narrative. But, looking at things from outside the scope of recovery, it’s clear we are losing touch with ourselves and each other. Social media, for example, is about creating some kind of perfectly filtered ideal. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it becomes a shield behind which we can treat our fellows inhumanely. How do we form and maintain genuine connections under these conditions? In either scenario, we are moving further and further away from the very things we should be striving toward.

We don’t, however, have to label technology as good or bad. It’s a neutral thing. We choose its significance. My aim is to be part of a societal shift in significance. For every idyllic vacation photo or sickeningly sweet ode to my wife (can’t stop, won’t stop), there is also evidence of the flawed nature of my life. I set goals and partially or completely fail to meet them.  I quit drinking coffee and now I’m back in the damn Dunkin’s drive thru every day.  I set bottom lines around Facebook and food, and I don’t always stick to them. (Those are my “F” words!) Sometimes, when I’m not at home, I eat cheese. Sometimes, when I see a cute dog video, I post it. I am undisciplined and I struggle to form healthy habits. That’s precisely why I needed help to kick my most dangerous predilections. I still need help. And I will use every resource available to let people know that it is perfectly okay to ask for it.

My other writing ventures notwithstanding, I haven’t been making time for my own blog because I feel like I don’t have anything new to say (or, more accurately, I’m not quite ready to say it). Upon further consideration, I’m realizing that I don’t need to say anything new. In fact, I think it’s good to repeat some of the same things. Repetition has been a cornerstone of my recovery. I can only speak for myself, but my brain is addictively wired. In order to rewire it, I need to hear the same things over and over. I need to hear that it’s okay to ask for help. I need to hear that it’s okay not to be perfect. I need to be reminded of the simple solutions. Otherwise, my old circuitry kicks in and I’m on the crazy bus to trouble town.

I don’t like the crazy bus to trouble town. It smells like stale beer and ashtray, and I can never shake the feeling that I’m careening toward certain doom. Today, I’m grateful to be cruising around on the Carpathia looking for other survivors (yes, I just jumped from a bus analogy to a ship analogy). Regardless of your figurative vessel of choice, it’s going to be okay. We’re all doing this messy thing together. If you don’t like where you’re going, you can change your means of transportation at any time.

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”.