If Anything Good Can Happen

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

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

Version 2
The River Walk view on our first night

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

IMG_0410
Pride lights adorning a Chicago building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impermanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9547
Guanyin

“Why am I here?” I inquired.

“You are here to help,” she replied.

En-lighten. Illuminate.

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

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

Love > Fear

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.

Not a Tavern but a Temple

Lately the urge to write has been keeping me awake at night. I go through the motions of the daily grind and – when it’s time for sleep – my spirit is restless. “Don’t forget about me,” it nudges.

Looking back at all of my entries over the span of a year and a half, I notice a few running themes. I focus a lot on not allowing the world to get me down. I see myself struggling with deep frustration and anger over societal attitudes toward alcohol; namely that people are dying and nothing changes. (“The world doesn’t care what you think,” I recently heard a woman say. She’s right.) I also notice that I have learned a lot about what it means to “let go” in various realms of life – whether it be a toxic job or a feeling that has worn out its welcome. But there is one thing I don’t talk about a lot: what it was like when I was engaging in compulsive addictive behavior.

What was it like? In a nutshell, it sucked. I don’t really like to spend a lot of time recounting the battle stories. At the end of the day it’s not about the alcohol, the drugs, the credit cards, or the heartbreak. Why not? This is a blog about addiction and alcoholism, right?

Well, this is a blog about my individual journey in recovery. And writing it probably helps me more than it helps anyone else. It allows me to recognize my own patterns and to call myself out on my own shit. But this is also a blog about human relationships. In January of this year an article was published by the Huffington Post which posits that addiction is caused by a paucity of social connection (The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think). Other literature on alcoholism suggests that the active alcoholic is completely incapable of forming a genuine connection with another human being (This is a powerful statement. Want to talk about it? Leave a comment). So I guess this is the story of how I am constantly, imperfectly learning the true meaning of love and connectedness.

Speaking of love, I just got married. Yup. Four days ago!

My wife has the most astounding capacity for love. It is truly unmatched by anything I have ever witnessed. She once anonymously bought breakfast for a forlorn looking old man sitting in a diner. The waitress said that he got cookies every day. She covered those too. She gave up part of her Christmas to bring comfort and companionship to a woman who lost her husband. If I ever accepted the offer, she would carry me over every mud puddle in my path. Not only does she know how I take my coffee, she will go out in a blizzard to get it. When I’m cold, she takes the socks off her feet and puts them on mine. But most significantly, she has seen my fear. She has watched me balk at trust like a wild horse and remained steadfast. She is a calm voice and a gentle hand. And yet I am not tame. I am free.

Freedom doesn’t equate to a lack of commitment. It is a safe space. It is vulnerability.

Our vows said “I offer you my hand, my heart, and my soul, as I know they will be safe with you”. She is the safest place I have ever known.

She read a poem by Roy Croft at our wedding. One particular line echoes in my head:

“I love you because you are helping me to make of the lumber of my life not a tavern but a temple”.

I hope she knows how much she has taught me about love. She adorns the temple of my life with flowers. She is sunlight in its windows. She is the color in the sand of its mandalas.

Be Yours: Love and Recovery

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought it might be fun to write a piece on relationships.

Maybe you read that and groaned. How stereotypical of me, right? And really? Valentine’s Day? It’s commercial nonsense. It makes single people feel resentful and lonely. Shouldn’t we show our love to one another every day of the year?

Bearing all that in mind, those of you who know me in “real life” may also be thinking: “Uhm…Autumn? You’re kind of terrible at relationships”.

And you are absolutely right. If it is Dumb, Dangerous, Dysfunctional, Destructive, or Dependent…I’ve done it. Probably more than once. Possibly one hundred times. That’s a lot of “D’s” on my romance report card. Believe it or not, this track record is exactly what qualifies me to write about relationships.

If you are new to sobriety and/or recovery, I do not suggest getting into a relationship. I can only speak for myself, but it took three years of continuous sobriety just for my head to pop out of my ass. And remember those Titanic seats? It’s so easy to make another person your drug. I still have to work very hard not to do just that. Very, very hard.

I did not love myself when I started my journey in recovery. How can you love someone else if you do not love yourself?

You can’t.

For the first time in my whole life, I am in a healthy relationship. I do not hear that I am “stupid”, “not good enough”, a “bitch”, or a “whore”. I am not being assaulted or abused. I am not being stalked or taking part in stalking. I am not being used or taking part in using. There are no lies or mixed messages. Healthy doesn’t equal perfect – it equals safe.

In order to have a healthy relationship, I had to care about myself. I had to stop allowing toxic and unsafe people to be a part of my life. I also had to decide that I was going to be the kind of person who is safe to be around. I had to be accountable.

It is so easy to blame other people.

Water rises to its own level. The darkness in me naturally gravitates to the same darkness in others. I had to change myself in order to change what I attract. I had to learn to be self aware.

I am still learning what it means to love someone. Ideally, I am looking for the “guardian of my solitude”. Sometimes I am not good at being that guardian in return. It can be more comfortable to return to old habits of control, manipulation, and suffocation. “More,” my disease whispers. “All”. I now know that isn’t love. It is fear.

Maybe some of you out there don’t feel like you’ve ever truly experienced safety or love. If you can love yourself first, I promise it will be more beautiful than you can possibly imagine.

My girlfriend loves me in a way that frequently makes me cry tears of joy, healing, and relief. I can feel it filling the broken places I created or allowed others to create. It overwhelms me and spills out my eyes. Before she loved me, however, I had to fill these same broken places with my own love. And there are some voids that even her strongest love cannot fill and can only be satiated by recovery. It’s important for me to never forget.

Perhaps writing this helps me more than anyone else. The things I love about my girlfriend – the way she holds my hand, the comforting sound of her breath, the profile of her face while she sleeps, the pure joy in her laugh – can easily slip away if I am not diligent about nurturing my own separate being.

In earlier years of recovery, I transformed Valentine’s Day into “Self Kindness Day”. I cooked myself fancy pasta. I bought nice lingerie or made plans to take myself to the symphony. It felt fantastic. This year, a “Self Kindness Day” is my wish for all of you. Be yours. You deserve it.