Love and Wonder

I loved technology when I was a kid. In middle school, I entertained myself for hours by teaching myself HTML code and photo manipulation. While the internet ultimately played an integral part in my addiction, it was also a creative outlet and a tool for inspiring positive change. I started my social media campaign, Human Too, in that same spirit of positivity and I feel incredibly blessed to have creative license in my career as a web content manager. However, the drawback of working with social media platforms is that you actually have to use them.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some element of futility in trying to harness social media for benevolent purposes. The part of me that teeters on the edge of needing a tinfoil hat -but I don’t think is too far off the mark – cynically believes that technology is not only a drug contributing to the achilles’ heel of civilization, but also a means by which the masses can be easily manipulated. That’s some serious 1984 or House of Cards shit, but it’s tough to refute. The difference between me and other cynics is that I still think it’s possible to live a contented and meaningful life in spite of the disillusionment.

When you turn on your TV set or scroll through your newsfeed, it seems as though the world has collectively gone mad. And maybe that’s not far from the truth. The world doesn’t make sense. There is an element of absurdity to the whole concept of human existence. But when you unplug and stop to consider the realm directly outside your window, the picture is likely to stand in stark juxtaposition. Maybe you hear the traffic or the crickets. Maybe you watch your neighbor get the mail or water the garden. Maybe the breeze blows. Maybe someone on the street coughs or waves or speaks indistinctly. And maybe, in that moment, everything is okay. So which version of reality is the most accurate?

If you choose to invest yourself solely in the digital narrative, it’s easy to view the world as an angry, hostile place. And sure, people are angry…but mostly we’re afraid. I can only speak for myself, but my buttons are most easily pushed in terms of my identity as a gay person, a woman, and a police wife. “How will you hurt me? What will you take from me?” These are the questions behind my own personal brand of rage. My fears are immediate and acute and frequently supersede my consideration of my global brothers and sisters. We are all self-preservationists in our anger. We are driven by and united by fear.

All of that is not to say that self-preservation is bad. The instinct to survive is what makes us human. Fear is human. It is merely an observation that we share a common ground.

In a climate saturated with the threat of nuclear war and simmering racial tension, it’s only natural to feel like our existential terror is somehow unique. But millions of people have experienced or are currently experiencing the heaviness of wartime. Millions of people have experienced plagues, famine, natural disaster, genocide, and the collapse of civilization. Millions of people have held their lover and wondered what kind of earth their children were destined to inherit. We have been fearing the end since the beginning. It’s part of the package deal when you occupy this planet.

I used to get very upset by the idea that there is no life after death. I don’t know what I believe anymore, but I think it’s highly likely you simply cease to have consciousness. I believe our energy leaves an imprint on a place. I also believe in the fabric of the Universe – a divine thread connecting all living things – but beyond that, I cannot say for certain.  The only reason the uncertainty bothers me now is because I can’t bear the idea of not seeing my wife. I guess if we don’t have consciousness, we don’t know the difference.

These are heavy thoughts. Perhaps you’re thinking: “What’s the point?” And here’s where the cynics and I diverge. The point is that you are conscious in this moment. The point is that you have the ability to love and to be filled with wonder. Our purpose, in my view, is to love and wonder.

Early in my college career, I spent about five minutes as a philosophy major. Looking back on my notes, I found a page that declared “the meaning of life is awe”. If you can maintain your sense of awe, you have unlocked the secret of living. It’s hard to say how that bit of insight came to me, but I have subscribed to the ideology ever since.

Addiction numbs our consciousness. Our drugs of choice block us from feeling love and wonder. We die prematurely.

There’s a reason Buddhists strive to be “awake”. There’s a reason yoga and meditation advocate for the present moment. The “now” is all we have. It is the only time in which we are able to love and be loved. It is the only time we have to consider the profound and miraculous beauty of our delicate existence. The precariousness of our position is what makes it breathtaking.

I don’t think anything needs to “come next” for this flawed and absurd life to be more than enough. We don’t need to do anything for life to have meaning…we need to simply be. I have often sat by the ocean and reflected sadly on the idea that the dead no longer have the capability to inhale the intoxicating air. It is a gift to experience the wonders of this wild earth. I think the real question is whether we receive it or we reject it.

The activity of appreciating the morning light is not just for poets and painters – it’s for humans. If all I do with the rest of my days is exuberantly behold the sunset and love as much as I can, I have achieved the “it” for which mankind toils. If all I do is celebrate wildflowers, a good meal, clinging rain drops, a shy smile, cool summer grass, and all the other remarkable minutiae…it is enough.

I am sober. I am awake. My being vibrates in the truth of the moment.

The cards are stacked and it’s hard to say how the deck will scatter. I don’t know if anything I do will ultimately make a difference. But I know that my being has purpose. I want my voice to be a whisper in the din: “Wake up”. Don’t die without living. Don’t live without meaning.

Fear

“I don’t know what my body needs right now,” I just said out loud, as I pushed my laptop away and reached for my steaming hot cup of tea. There’s a part of me that wants to write, but there’s also a part of me that just wants to finish season two of the Golden Girls…or even stare off into space. The part of me that wants to write won out. (It usually does.) The last couple of weeks have been intense and – through the overwhelm – the reigning emotion has been fear.

Fear might be “the big word” to talk about when it comes to addicts and alcoholics. I have never once met an addict or alcoholic who has not conceded to being a fear-driven creature. People say: “I felt like a square peg in a round hole”. Others describe it as a feeling of “not being okay”, “not belonging in the world”, or “being the only one missing the guidebook to life”. When we drink, use drugs, or engage in our compulsive behaviors, our sense of existential unease magically disappears. We suddenly “fit in”. We can be confident and interesting and appealing. We feel like “ourselves”.

Ugh. What a lie this disease spins for us. I had NO idea who I was and I didn’t want to know, either. Figuring that out would be way too fucking scary. I would have to leave the safety of my sick little comfort zone. God forbid I discover I was “just like my father”. Come to find out, I am like my father in that we share a disease. That’s where the similarities end. Today, I have healed enough to say that perhaps we would have had more in common if he had been able to get well. As it advances, addiction shrouds anything beautiful in ugliness. Unfortunately, my father died before he could break free from the shroud, but his suicide showed me where a fear-based life leads. Today, I understand that his children may be his only opportunity to show the world the light that existed underneath the illness.

I felt as if he was with me when I wrote that. “Hi Dad,” I said. “I’m still mad at you but that’s okay. I see you”. Obviously, I don’t literally see him. When I think of him in memory, I actually feel nauseated. It’s because I don’t see a man, I see the embodiment of total sickness. It’s repulsive and it is the very thing I do not want to become. When I think of him as a spirit, however, the disease is gone. He is whole again. I can honor that wholeness of spirit. In fact, that wholeness of spirit is what I strive for today, except I am able to do so here, amongst the living.

One of the first pieces of advice I was given in recovery was to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I avoided fear like the plague for my entire life. I’m a lot better at feeling it now, but I’m still far from fearless. Take the past couple of weeks for example: First of all, I had an endoscopy. It wasn’t the procedure that freaked me out – although having a camera shoved down your throat isn’t a good time – but the idea of the unknown. I do NOT like the unknown. I also do NOT like feeling out of control. I like it when I get answers on MY timetable…not the timetable of medical professionals. Why do I struggle so hard against the things I can’t control? Well, sometimes I still feel like an undeserving piece of shit, waiting for life to punish me for merely existing. You see, I was just hired for my dream job, so why wouldn’t life laugh in my face and then drop the other shoe?

Wait. I was just hired for my dream job? Yup. That brings me to example number two: I was just hired for my dream job!(!!!) Out of the blue, I received a message from a local recovery center. They were familiar with my work on Human Too and they were interested in how I could bring my photography, writing, and social media skills to the table. It is everything I have ever wanted…but because I don’t have an advanced degree, it’s something I thought I could never have. So while I felt an overwhelming sense of joy, my silly, silly brain automatically conceived all the possible ways I could be an inadequate pile of manure. Ridiculous, right? Furthermore, I have to work my current job until the middle of June. So my silly, silly brain automatically freaked out about how to handle both positions at once.

Long story short, I survived my endoscopy. While I’m still not sure what’s wrong, I am comforted by the fact that it looks great in ye olde esophagus. I am historically predisposed toward muscle spasming and tension, so if the test results reveal nothing else, it could just be another delightful way my body internalizes stress. I also gratefully accepted my dream job… and I love it. It is not work…it is my mission.

I know this position is going to push me to grow. I feel like I have already evolved so much this year and I am amazed that my growth game is continuing to expand in such a profound way. I guess I am ready. As for the sheer volume of things on my plate – including the need to organize foot surgery for this summer – I am surviving by keeping my focus in the day. I’m not going to reach the finish line any faster by worrying about tomorrow. I will get there by doing what I need to do for today and then doing that on repeat. I’d rather be a speedy hare but, gosh darn it, I am a tortoise.

My list of fears is swiftly declining. I obviously have the big ones: Losing my wife, violence enacted on my person or loved ones, cancer, spiders, fire, drowning trapped in my car (or drowning, period), ladybugs (okay, so that’s not a typical fear), bats, the mere existence of President Trump (sorry, couldn’t resist), salmonella, cruise ships, a world without Stevie Nicks (oh, my broken heart), and etc. But the list of “things I’m afraid of that other people are good at” has dwindled down to a handful. I’m afraid of flying alone (being out of control, getting lost), driving in Boston (being out of control, getting lost, claustro-fucking-phobic traffic), subways and city buses (I still don’t know where the eff I’m going, I get motion sick, not to mention other people’s germs), and attending events with large groups of people (I am too introverted for that shit; small talk makes me want to poke out my own eye with a stick). Ironically, if I have a PURPOSE for being at an event, i.e. speaking or hosting a table, I could care less. If I have to be there just to “be social”, I’d rather eat a grasshopper. It’s too overstimulating. I like one-on-one interactions or small groups, followed by a week of solitude. 😉

If I need to overcome these fears to improve my quality of life, the Universe will gift me with the opportunity. There is no quicker way to gain confidence than to do what scares you. Recovery has provided one opportunity after another. Clearly I don’t like feeling lost and out of control, so these teachers will appear when I’m ready to learn from them. Also, just because I have these fears, doesn’t mean I can’t live a full life despite them. I can hire a car, get a direct flight, or ask a friend for support or companionship. I think one of the biggest mistakes we make – whether we’re in recovery or not – is pretending that we can do everything ourselves. I didn’t get well on my own. I received help and guidance from literally hundreds of people. I can’t take credit for any of my success, either. There have been strange angels all along my path who have opened doors I couldn’t possibly unlock myself.

Fear has no power over you when you view yourself as a member of a benevolent tribe.

After my endoscopy, I was sitting in an Olive Garden parking lot while my sweetie ran inside to pick me up some fettuccine alfredo. (The nurse told me to drink a smoothie. Ha! To be fair, I asked the Docs permission. 😉 ) The sky was melting into an ephemeral pink and purple painting. Relief washed over me. I felt like the Universe was laughing with me instead of at me. “See, Autumn,” it said. “Everything is going to be okay. It always was. You are my beloved child. I have work for you to do”.

“Okay,” I agreed. “I just need to eat first”.

The Launching Point

I’m listening to Gregory Alan Isakov while I write. “I’m sorta happy most of the time…most of the time,” he sings, his voice betraying a melancholic irony. I would describe my life in recovery that way, except my declaration would contain neither melancholy nor irony. Comparatively speaking, my life before recovery was nothing but an exercise in melancholia. It was a constant yearning for something I could never quite nail down. Today, I don’t spend my time courting this old darkness. I experience countless moments of joy. And when I am not joyful, I try to stay in the realm of contentment and gratitude.

My last post was about the how of recovery. It was about confronting your own denial and self-sabotage. It was about not allowing your ego to kill you. If you’ve managed to bust beyond that, please accept my hearty congratulations; that’s no easy feat. I sure took my sweet time, clutching my maladaptive thinking like a security blanket.  But now you might be wondering: “What is recovery supposed to feel like?”

I hate to burst any bubbles… but in my experience, recovery feels like regular, old LIFE. However, this shouldn’t be a disappointment for a multiplicity of reasons. First of all, recovery gives you a life. Or gives it back to you. It all depends on how you frame it. As far as I’m concerned, that in and of itself is a miracle. I never thought I was going to have any of the “normal” experiences “normal” people had. I was broken and I didn’t fit in the Great Puzzle of All Things. Today I understand that I am a divine being, like all other beings, and I am worthy of my place in the fabric of the universe.

Secondly, if we are seeking growth in recovery, we are given tools that, sadly, a large percentage of the general population hasn’t accessed – addict or not. This means our lives have an amazing depth and richness. Our disease forces us to self-actualize for survival. But self-actualization takes work and change…two words that send addicts and normies alike running for the hills. It’s so very human to try and grasp on to constants and certainties in a world that is, by its very nature, neither constant nor certain.

Thirdly, recovery allows you to experience life without any kind of anesthetic. Why would you WANT to feel pain? Well, for starters, when you feel the pain you can move through it rather than carrying it around on your back like a bag of rocks. But I think the more important question is: How can you numb selective parts of your life without tainting the whole? If your fingers are numb, it impacts your entire sensory experience. Furthermore, you have to be aware of your senses to effectively utilize or expand them. When you are open to all emotions, you are gifted with a new level of awareness…and you are able to experience joy more poignantly than ever before. All in all, recovery means less suffering – because you are able to process pain and let it go – and longer periods of unbridled gratitude and contentment. It is better then any high in the entire world. It is peace.

I caution anyone who is getting clean and sober for the first time – or the second, third, fourth…never stop trying! – to beware of the “pink cloud”.  For some, the first months can feel like a huge pile of suck. But for others, it can feel like a fluffy cloud of wonderful. Eventually, this fluffy cloud will dissipate and real life will send an unprepared cloud dweller crashing back to earth without a parachute. When reality hits, falling off the wagon can look like a mighty fine alternative. I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy recovery – or  that you should spend life looking over your shoulder (unfortunately this is something I need to work on). I’m just saying that it might be a good idea to pack a parachute. I like to think of my parachute as a tool box: Which resources can I utilize when things go wrong? Which skills can I use to prevent relapse and make healthy decisions? However, it’s not just about knowing you have a toolbox. It’s about using the tools inside. That’s where the rubber meets the road and the recovery materializes.

I have faced many challenges since I embarked on this journey. I have survived several abusive and/or toxic relationships and confronted my related behavioral addiction. My estranged father died by suicide. I lost my beloved grandfather. Other family members have also passed. I am still unable to find a paying career path that doesn’t make me feel like I am wasting precious hours of my one and only life.

While the challenges have been inevitable, so have the triumphs. I was willing to get help and get healthy. This willingness was all it took to push the horizons of my existence wider than my illness allowed me to imagine possible. I was able to graduate from college. I made friends who became family. I met and married the love of my life. I took my first airplane ride and have subsequently taken several more. I moved to a new state and built a wonderful new life. I started creative projects that now enable me to experience spiritual fulfillment.

I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg. My gratitude list is much longer than my list of challenges. Part of this is because I try to find a blessing or a lesson in times of trial and tribulation.

Sometimes there are no discernible lessons or blessings in our challenges. But surviving certainly counts for something.

I used to look at some of my friends and envy their lives. I felt like I was standing outside in the cold peering through a window. Inside, it was warm and bright and cozy. They came home, ate dinner with their spouse, and curled up to watch TV. Nothing about that picture of idealized normalcy was particularly glamorous but it was a life that seemed too hard for someone like me. Nevertheless, I craved that glowing light, warm meal, and safe and loving person. But I had to learn to be a safe person and to love myself first. Recovery helped me do that – to be whole on my own. Only then was I able to attract someone who mirrored the things that I valued and also sought.

Everyone’s idea of normalcy is different. The image of the cozy home just happened to be mine. But I’m not standing on the outside looking in anymore. I have that simple life today.

In my experience, recovery isn’t about grand accomplishments – although we can certainly attain them. It’s not about fame, fortune, fancy material possessions, or even finding “the one”. Recovery is about living life on an even keel. It’s when the roller coaster ceases to undulate so severely that you suffer from perpetual whiplash. It’s being content to contribute to society, no matter how humble the contribution. It’s reveling in a bite of delicious food, your best friend’s voice on the phone, or your feet in your lover’s lap. Recovery is quiet and unassuming… and that quiet place becomes a launching point for everything else.