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”.

 

New Curtains

Not to beat a dead horse, but I am still flabbergasted by the huge difference it has made to delete Facebook from my phone, examine my spending, and gradually purge my house of unwanted items and unnecessary excess. I really can’t get over it. They say that in order to form a habit and change your life, you have to change something you do every day. I never expected that changing such small things would have such a massive impact. This is my fourth blog post in a month. I’m lucky if I clear four posts in a YEAR. These days, I sometimes wake up so inspired that I can barely contain genuine feelings of excitement about the day. It used to take a Red Bull and a cup of coffee before I could move beyond “meh”. I don’t drink coffee anymore. Well… rarely. As a treat. And mostly decaf. I am a tea person now.

I can imagine a critical and/or unhappy-in-life skeptic thinking: “Well, Autumn, you’re obviously going through a phase”. And that’s okay. People said that about my initial sobriety. This isn’t a phase, it’s just another curtain drawing back to reveal the next level of my recovery.

Recovery, as a whole, has been a series of curtains drawing back to reveal life in ever more stark relief. My addiction kept me in a haze. As I gradually recovered, the world not only came into focus but also brightened and intensified in color. It has been a slow process but the exciting part, for me, is that it will continue as long as I’m willing to examine how I can improve.

While I do take the time to talk about what it was like before and how recovery works for me, this “on-going story of recovery from addiction” is just the story of my life. It’s about the evolution that occurs with the appearance of each new curtain: some are pulled aside slowly and others are thrown wide open. I can try to explain what recovery feels like…or I can just show you.

I think I mentioned three different addictions in my introduction: social media, consumerism, and caffeine. It is no coincidence that I feel better; these are all things that have a powerful ability to change the brain. So much can be linked back to addiction. I would even go so far as to argue that addiction could be the achilles heel of our civilization: the scourge of more.

That’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about fighting it.

The irony of addiction is that you chase more but you end up manifesting less. Now that I am no longer chained to my phone, I write more, I bake more (I made a delicious pudding pie, outrageous Valentine’s Day cookies, and sinful macaroni and cheese), and I have more time to dedicate to clearing  space and bettering our home. I discovered that if I throw items relating to tasks I have been procrastinating SMACK in the middle of the living room floor, it offends my OCD sensibilities to the point that I have to attend to them immediately. I read a year’s worth of magazines this way and also sorted through our entire record collection. (We subsequently got $45 of store credit to spend on records to which we will actually listen!)

If you’re struggling with procrastination, throw your shit in the middle of the floor in the most unsightly place you can find. It’s pretty funny how fast you get motivated.

When I moved in with my now-wife, J.L., in 2013, our spare room became a dumping ground. One can’t designate it as a bedroom because it doesn’t have a closet, but it would certainly make an adequate guest area or office. It has been weighing on me for years. Since Christmas, we have been transforming the area into my personal walk-in closet and writing/meditation area. (I say “we” because J.L. has been such a good sport and my muscle-for-hire 😉 ) It’s still a work in progress, but the space is almost clear. I bought a garment rack so I can see my clothes. The items that I don’t wear can no longer be hidden in some dark corner of the master bedroom closet. It is so clear how much I don’t need. I have discovered that there is a pattern to my basic personal style and I am determined to stick to that in the future rather than fall prey to the little jolt I get every time I make a purchase.

I mentioned that I bought a garment rack. I also bought a little turquoise table for a light display, a picture frame, two mason jars, three baskets, and a professional outfit. These items are all for our home/life betterment project. Examining my spending hasn’t meant NO spending at all. It just means that I put more thought into the items I buy rather than shopping for the sake of shopping. I wait three days before I order an item online. I go to the store with a list and I stick to the list. (Most of the time. I’m certainly not perfect!) Consumerism is the hardest habit to break. But I am on track to be one hundred percent debt free by the end of 2018. What temporary shopping high could possibly be more valuable than that?

We have a vision for our life in ten years. They say life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But I think it’s okay – if not necessary – to dream. Our dream is to buy an eco-friendly condo in our favorite beach town and to live amongst the palm trees and tropical flowers. Perhaps J.L. will work at a state park. Since there will be no snow, I can finally drive a classic car or truck. We can park on the causeway and watch the dolphins, pelicans, and herons with our morning tea or coffee.

I can make space for this vision by not only clearing away the financial clutter, but also by lightening our physical possessions. I don’t want to drag a bunch of shit halfway across the country that I either a.) don’t use or b.) don’t care about but keep for sentimental reasons. My house still looks like a mermaid and a storybook gypsy had a baby and it threw-up everywhere: there are sea shells, rocks, dried flowers, jeweled glass bottles, lights, a folk-art unicorn, pin-up girls, and the list goes on…However, every single item I keep makes me smile. If it doesn’t, it goes. Or it will go in the next 5-8 years. Also, as a general rule of thumb, for every new thing that comes through the door, something else gets tossed into the donate pile.

The Minimalists point out that people are not in their possessions. I agree up to a certain point. On the other hand, I view some of my possessions as fragments of my life frozen in time. They bridge the gap between the present moment and a memory. Take, for example, the Bass River Mercantile root beer bottle adorned with a single dried carnation. The bottle is from an anniversary trip to Cape Cod. When I see it, I remember the overcast sky and taking pictures of shells with J.L. I remember getting a massage at the spa that was so relaxing I cried and hugged my masseuse. The carnation? Well, that is from a stranger who sat next to me at WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island. I specifically remember feeling very “anti-people” and I didn’t want to be enveloped by the crush of the crowd. A woman and her companions, one of whom may have been her elderly, disabled father, asked if there was room to sit next to us. Then she asked for help with her camera. English wasn’t her first language and the experience that transpired ended up making me laugh and reminding me that people are mostly lovely and good. The woman found out it was my birthday and she gave me the little red flower. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded that people are good. And that I am a part of a benevolent universal fabric that sends me messages precisely when I need them.

That is why I would lovingly pack-up and carry my silly flowers and rocks; looking at these items is like thumbing through a chronicle of my life’s happiest memories. While I am not interested in creating a museum, I know that my brain is fallible and my life’s narrative is precious. I would not remember these moments otherwise. My choices give me creative license to shape my story. I can either smother myself with objects that hold no meaning or I can curate a narrative that celebrates joy and only joy.

One of my favorite artists, Patti Smith, often considers the value of objects in her books and photographs. In an article on one of Smith’s traveling museum exhibitions, Vince Carducci notes:

The chasm between the dead gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation come in. Her father’s cracked teacup, her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith’s cherished 1964 Mosrite“Ventures”-model electric guitar, an unadorned red marble cross left to her by Mapplethorpe, each thing by its continued presence sustains a relationship that loss has threatened to take away; the objects serve as talismans of a reality that is photographically destined to remain unredeemed.

My goal is to keep my talismans thoughtful, if not few. And maybe, like Patti Smith, I’ll write a book. I’m not quite sure what it will be about but, as the fabric of each new curtain billows and unfurls, I am given plenty of material to choose from.

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.