Monthly Archives: June 2013

Spiritual Chips and Dip

I want to write something inspirational today, because my pride and vanity want everything I post to be eloquent and insightful. But if I truly wish this site to help make others feel less alone, I need to put those aside and write honestly even when I’m not at my best. So, the truth is that writing is slow and difficult today because I’m about 70% of the way through a dip.

The reason I say 70% is that I managed to wash my hair this morning. But I’m still irritable, fuzzy-headed, disoriented, more sleepless than usual, and full of anxious energy that I cannot seem to apply to anything constructive. Thinking too hard about anything gives me that sensation of a brick sitting on my chest and a band tightening around my throat. It started two days ago, hard and fast. So fast that it took me hours to figure out what was going on; I thought the world was just really messed up until I realized that it was me.

The culprit.

The culprit.

It was a few years ago that I started to use the word “dip” to describe times like these. It seemed like a non-threatening term to use for my family and friends, a term that conveyed a sense of things being both trivial and temporary. The temporary part is true. The trivial part is not. But I’m tired of trying to describe how it feels to stare at the wall in horror for no reason, or have a panic attack about a matter I was able to discuss logically yesterday. It’s easier to let them see it as sort of an extreme PMS.

What I call a dip can have qualities of depression, mania or often both. A dip is not as bad as an episode. Episodes last longer, get more severe and require intervention to help them resolve. A dip generally lasts less than a week and will resolve itself if I don’t do anything to make it worse. That’s a BIG if, though. Getting through one without making it worse is a challenge, because all of my impulses are telling me to do things that will make it anything from a little worse to the beginning of episode city:

Always waiting in the wings.

Always waiting in the wings.

Impulse #1: Obtain narcotic pills and eat handfuls of them like Pez. Obviously not a good idea, but during a dip the cravings really have teeth. Would send my life on a possibly one-way trip to hell.

Impulse #2: Consume everything edible in our kitchen and then start working my way through the local restaurants. Would make me very ill, screw up my metabolism and start a cycle that practically says “Severe depressive episode welcome here.”

Impulse #3: Take to my bed and huddle under blankets with books and my Ipad, alternately snarling or weeping at anyone who asks me to get up or think. Would prolong dip and create steadily increasing levels of stress as life stacks up outside the bedroom door.

Impulse #4: Get in my car and drive. Don’t look back. Better coolness factor, but same liabilities as #3.

Impulse #5: Treat my spouse to a dip-fueled tirade concerning every issue I’ve ever had with our relationship. Survivable, but would make me lose credibility when I want to have a real conversation about anything.

Impulse #6: All of the above.

That's one way of putting it.

That’s one way of putting it.

How to resist these impulses? In most battles, my mind is my weapon. But when my mind is the problem, I have to find other weapons. Ones that don’t operate logically; ones I would never give a thought to if my usual ones worked. Whether you call them spiritual tools, totems, access to the Self or a hundred other terms, I’m brought closer to them by what I go through.

This is the part where I say that I’m actually grateful to have the challenges I do, because they cause me to grow spiritually. There are times when this is the truth, especially in the last couple of years. But if you have ever felt the way I feel today–even now that I’m starting to come out of it–then you know that I am not grateful today. I still just want out; I want not to feel like this anymore. And I hate that I don’t know how many days I’ll have before it comes back. And I hate that even on the “good” days my mind is often not a nice place to be.

Like this, but dark. With spiders.

Like this, but dark. With spiders.

Well, to quote a previous post…this changes nothing. I still have to do my best, and nobody ever told me it would be easy. That’s one reason I need all of you. Thanks for listening.

Never Give a Duck a Scarf

As a parent, I try to catch little opportunities to discuss deep matters with my child. You can’t just launch into a discussion about sex or death or right and wrong–they sense an agenda and get uncomfortable, changing the subject as fast as possible. Or there are the eye rolls, the one-syllable answers, and all the other dreaded signs that you have been placed into the annoying mom/mistress of the obvious/blithering idiot category until further notice. So you learn to be crafty and use a “la la, nothing to see here,” kind of approach.

For example, I don't dress like this.

For example, I don’t dress like this.

Sometimes this yields great results. One day when my daughter was about three and a half, we watched a kids’ show that ended with a moral message about how stealing is bad.  As we cuddled on the couch afterward, I listened to her opinion of the show and we talked about rules and why they are a good thing most of the time. “Not stealing sounds like a good rule to follow,” I said, and made my move. “Can you think of any other rules for living that are really important?”

While she pondered, I predicted that she would come up with something about kindness, or sharing, or not hitting your preschool classmates over the head with the heaviest toy you can find. After about twenty seconds, she made a decision. Turning to look into my eyes, she gravely pronounced, “Never give a duck a scarf.”

Sorry, man.

Sorry, man.

For some reason, my instincts told me not to ask why. I get these weird instincts with her, and I’ve learned to follow them. So I just nodded acknowledgement and we continued to other topics, and I never did find out why it’s important to keep certain accessories away from certain waterfowl. But the phrase has stuck in my head for these many years.

I think what I love about it is that it’s HER rule…conceived by her, by her own logic, for her own reasons. From early childhood, we’re influenced by so many rules that we never had a hand in creating. Some are clearly stated, like the laws of our communities. Some are cultural in nature, like definitions of beauty or standards of success. And some–often among the most damaging–come from those closest to us.

To seek recovery and healing from self-destructive behavior, or to find peace in a life that doesn’t fit what we were taught to want, means that we have to defy some of the old rules and create new ones that work. For me, part of that has been figuring out what those old rules are, especially the ones I got in my early years, and learning to hear their voice in my head. The more I can put them into words, the more separate from myself they become.  I can engage them.

One at a time, please.

One at a time, please.

I even give them titles. “Trust no one.” “Keep your head down.” “Anger means someone will be harmed.” “Never be happy, that’s asking for trouble.” “It’s your job to keep the peace.” “Romantic relationships are doomed to end in a nightmare, but you have to have one going on at all times.”  “Imperfection is failure.”  “You must earn the right to exist.” Do you have any of these? What are yours, and how much do they still control you?

The other part of the journey has been learning to create rules of my own. My recovery work gets me closer to my values, dreams and hopes just as it helps me deal with pain and regret. So, what matters to me? What are MY rules for this life, and can I love myself enough to set them and try to live by them? Can I be like my Zen-master child and create them according to the unique logic of my mind and heart?

I’m certainly going to try. It might even be fun.

Compassion With A Twist

How unfair does life have to be before we are justified in acting out? How much pain constitutes a valid reason for us to use our substance of choice, or harm ourselves, or just run away? Where is the line? As an addict, I was usually very interested in finding out where this line was. My self-pity was on high alert looking for it; waiting to glimpse a tragic scenario that would form the perfect frame for my breakdown.

If it’s unfair enough, I can do it without guilt, right? Any consequences will be adjusted to allow for the fact that I was driven to it…right? Having a mental health diagnosis provided excellent material for rationalization, because I could try to argue that the presumably slower suicide of drugs was a better choice than a quick and definite bid for death. I didn’t want to admit that there was always a third path.

Being in recovery is messing up this thought process, because I see people surviving any and every kind of unfairness without leaving their path of recovery. Whatever horrible thing leaps into your head when you think of what would make you smash it all to pieces, I’ve listened to someone who went through it and didn’t do that.

“But they’re not me,” you might be thinking, the way I used to. “They’re not _______.  They don’t have _______ to deal with.” The truth is, maybe they are not. Maybe the challenges they undoubtedly have that you don’t know about really aren’t as intense as yours. Maybe it really IS harder for you than it is for them. And you know what? That’s not fair. It’s not even close to fair, and it isn’t going to be. So what now? Do we protest the injustice of this all the way to the morgue, or do we seek our own tough, unfair recovery?

I know what my choice is today. I’ve had a lot of help recently from a new sensation I have when I hurt or am overwhelmed with feelings. I feel the presence of a tender compassion within myself, at least that’s the best description I can give it. It listens to all my anger, fear, rebellion and despair without judging; without ever letting me even suspect I am being judged. I guess it comes from learning to love myself a little more, or to be more open to love from some spiritual source.

I’m so glad I have that now, and I think we can all use more of it. But lately I’m most grateful for a message that comes with it: almost an afterthought, but important, like that last line a character tosses out when leaving a room. Quiet, but resonant, almost seductive and implacable like a dominant lover, it whispers: “You know, this changes nothing.”

That mixture of tenderness and immovability is what gets me. My feelings are held with love and understanding, and it changes nothing. I still have to stay clean today. I still have to do a lot of things I don’t want to do. Whatever this thing inside or outside of myself is, I have no doubt that it will love me without end even if I do act out. But that love changes nothing when it comes to the consequences.

This paradox applies to all of us. How do we treat ourselves with kindness and respect, no matter what–no, REALLY, no matter what–and also take an appropriate amount of responsibility for our actions and inaction? How do we learn to correct our behavior without getting stuck in shame or perfectionism or rebellion? When trying to help someone else, how do we find that middle ground between enabling their behavior and judging them too harshly? What makes the difference between beating ourselves up and holding ourselves accountable?

Our quest to find this balance will never end. I’m glad we don’t have to go on it alone.

The Extra Items On Our To-Do List

Is anxiety the first thing you are aware of when you wake up in the morning? It’s that way for me sometimes, but it used to be that way every day. Almost before my eyes opened, my heart started to pound and I got that feeling of a brick sitting on my chest. My mind began skittering around trying to remember and organize what I needed to do that day. The thoughts varied, but they always coalesced into one question: “How can I get out of this?”

“This” didn’t have to be anything big for me to feel like that. There were many times that “this” was one simple (to most) task such as getting my daughter to school. I hate to remember the many mornings I acted pathetic enough to get my husband to take her instead (after all, all he had on his schedule was a commute into the city for his full-time job providing our single income.) Assuming I chose to take on my Herculean task, I would come home and get back into bed until it was time to pick her up at 2:30. By noon or so my anxiety would begin to rise again.

Verily I say unto you, your doom is nigh and you must LEAVE THE HOUSE!

Verily I say unto you, your doom is nigh and you must LEAVE THE HOUSE!

One of my greatest gifts from recovery is the moderating of my anxiety level. As I racked up some time away from substances, my limbic system gradually simmered down to a much more manageable level. Ironic, since anxiety was one thing I thought I was using the drugs to treat. There are still bad days or even bad groups of days, but that old level isn’t the norm anymore.

My daily life still fluctuates quite a bit; where I am on the mood spectrum can affect my choices and my capabilities. How severe my sleep problems are affects the day as well. I’m asking for trouble if I compare my daily accomplishments with those of the “normal” folks I know, because in order to find some peace I need to learn to be okay with the fact that it’s a pointless comparison. I want to spend the rest of my life learning and growing and becoming able to contribute more to the world, but it can’t be done in the hope of measuring up to others.

Let's face it, some days Rex here is modeling my biggest triumph.

Let’s face it, some days Rex here is modeling my biggest triumph.

When I’m feeling inadequate, I try to encourage myself with a reminder that my to-do list does, after all, have two extra items on it every single day. No matter what, no matter if I’m sick or depressed or anxious or someone has just hurt my feelings like hell. The first two items on my list are always:

#1: Don’t kill myself.
#2: Don’t use drugs.

Do you have either of these on your list every day? Of course, for #2 you can substitute whatever is your personal poison, be it alcohol, food, gambling, calling that abusive ex or anything else. If you have them, I know how you feel, and I hope that you do what I do and remind yourself that you’ve accomplished something when you end a day with those checked off. I also hold the hope that you slowly get more and more days when your brain and soul can handle a longer list, one that gives you a richer life. Just don’t ever forget the first two items.

Everything Must Go

In 12-step recovery, a common saying tells us, “You only have to change one thing, and that’s everything.” I’m starting to understand what that means. Beginning to write this blog is the latest in a cascade of changes that have made the last 2 years quite an experience, so I want to take this post to get you up to speed on a few of them.

First change–most important change–is that I got off of my drugs and actually bought into the whole recovery concept this time. I had flirted with recovery a couple of times in the past, but there was always some good reason for deciding that the whole recovery culture was not for me, and I was an expert in self-pity when it came to living clean.

I felt sorry for myself because my sleep pattern still sucked, and I was still in physical pain a lot, and I still had issues with food, and most of all because I was still living with mental illness. My drugs of choice were painkillers and sleeping pills, and I tried to convince myself that someday I could use them in moderation. I felt I was owed happiness and good health in return for sacrificing the drugs, and I resented not getting it. I worked a recovery program in a half-assed way, and I did and thought many things that were reserving a place for relapse.

In retrospect, it’s apparent to me that I needed to be taught lessons about the progressive nature of my addiction, the uselessness of my intellect and the need to get over my pride and work the program like any other addict. I was taught those lessons, and a little over two years ago I hit a bottom, did the rehab thing, and “drank the Kool-Aid” as one friend put it.

So recovery’s been a big part of my life since then. I’ve also moved, sold a house, faced financial realities I had been hiding from for years, started homeschooling my daughter, and lost over 100 pounds. That last thing creates more changes because it brings new activities into my life, which I try to balance with the introspective work of the long-term character overhaul involved in a passionate recovery program.

I’m sure all of this stuff will be written about in more detail in the storytelling I plan to do here. Today I’m simply saying that there have been changes. Changes I didn’t think were possible. Changes that I’m still afraid won’t last. Changes that make me feel young, uncertain, disoriented, hopeful and humble. Changes that are asking me to grow up a little more, and then a little more.

Talking to Seagulls

Since I made the decision to start this site, stories have been creating titles for themselves and jumping onto a list, waiting to be put into words and posted. The thought of picking one story, just one, to be my first non-introductory post is uncomfortable for someone like me. Second-guessing myself tends to be barely a warmup when I make decisions.

That being said, I have chosen one, and it was inspired by what is happening today. Today I had the privilege of going on a trip to the beach with my daughter. Yes, I engaged in a mundane, family-oriented, pleasant activity that many people see as a very normal thing. I do not, because for me it is anything but mundane. I don’t take things like this for granted. For example, being near the ocean today reminded me of a very different day near the ocean, and this is the story I will tell.

It was one of those days. THOSE days. There was a thick gray veil between me and the world, and my thoughts moved sluggishly but malevolently beneath a matching oil slick on the surface of my mind. I was on a medication merry-go-round, with well-meaning professionals trying to find the right chemical to help stabilize my brain chemistry. Every new attempt brought a set of nasty side effects, and I was urged to be patient for at least eight weeks to see if the medicine would have a therapeutic effect. When the side effects altered my mood enough to be dangerous, the doctor would add something else to the mix to try to combat this. At this point I felt the way my poor dolls must have felt when I cut their hair as a child: it turned out a little uneven, so I would cut more to fix that, then more when it was still uneven. I can still see their traumatized little doll faces under a few uneven hanks or hair clinging to their holey little doll scalps.

And I can still hear the screaming.

And I can still hear the screaming.

When my family suggested a drive to the beach, I didn’t want to go. After all, I had planned to spend some quality time in the fetal position. But I knew from experience that being outdoors was good for my mental state, and I was lured by the tactile pleasures to be found at the beach. I knew I could sit and run my hands through cool, wet sand, again and again, reducing the gray whirl in my head.

So that’s what I did, after my husband and daughter parked me in a congenial spot and wandered closer to the surf. I’m sure it was a relief for them to know I was peacefully occupied, because being on an outing with me in this state is like carrying a balloon: the balloon isn’t really contributing to the conversation or the activities, but you have to hold on to the string all the time or it will drift away. As I raked through the cool sand, the breeze seemed to wake me up and I began to feel more anxious. A seagull alighted on a nearby mound of sand and I talked earnestly to it, talked about how I was feeling and how frustrating it was to be in my head. The seagull was a good therapist, I suppose, but a little old school for my tastes. I like a little more feedback, or at least some attention to the relationship.

I needed more. So when the family came back I told them I wanted to go for a walk alone. I was too tired and weak to go far, but I found a rock to sit on and watch the waves. It hurt so much to see so much beauty around me and yet not see it, to feel so many sensations and yet not feel them. I decided I should try to pray. I believed in Something, but I always felt stupid trying to talk to it. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt as awkward as usual. I thought maybe my God would send me some kind of sign, that an eagle would swoop across my vision or a rainbow would flash from the spray of a wave at a dramatic moment. I was ready to take something like that as a sign that I should hold on; a sign that there was a plan and things would get better. Nothing happened.

I felt my energy draining away again, and I was about to get up and make my way back toward the car when an impulse made me take one more deep, deep breath of salt air. Looking one more time at the rocks and waves, I said one last sentence to my God–the God who doesn’t fit any one religion, the God I was not at all convinced could help me with anything. I said “Well, I won’t give up if you won’t.”

Feel free to roll your eyes at this point in my story, because I did see something then. Not a bird or a rainbow from above the water, but a wet, brown head popping into view from below it. A sea lion, so close I could count his whiskers. I’d never been so close to one before. He or she swam toward me, rolled in the water a couple of times and was gone below the surface again.

It may have waved at me.

It may have waved at me.

This is the part where I tell you that this was the turning point for me; that I was never that low again, that the little sea lion was a messenger of hope and meaning that has never left me. But none of that would be true, my friends, and if you share some common ground with me your life probably doesn’t work that way either. Things did get better for me, but not right away. And later they got worse again. And worse still. And then better. You get the idea.

It was a moment, that’s what it was. A lovely, funny moment like a cherry in a bowl of gruel. It’s stuck with me because it was the first time I prayed in a way that portrayed me and my God as a team. It’s stuck with me because I love the ocean and I feel so much gratitude for a day like today when I can really see it. I drove us to the beach today, and I walked several miles along the shore. Nobody had to hold my string. I can’t expect that it will always be this way, but I can appreciate the moments. We all can.

Introduction to Not This Song

Not This Song is about many things, but in the end it is meant to be a site for those of us who struggle to hang on for one more day. Those of us who need to use humor, creativity, spiritual experiments and sometimes sheer stubbornness to refrain from doing something stupid and irreversible. New friends, I’m not talking about actions like screwing up a relationship. I’m talking about the kind of ill-advised actions that end with jail, a locked ward or an artistic camera shot of blood spreading slowly across a floor.

Melodramatic? It may seem so, but I want those of my readers who fight this kind of darkness to know that they are not alone. If you have never felt suicidal, or if you don’t deal with addiction, or if anything you see here does not match your experience, know that you are still always welcome here! Because the kind of stories I want to tell apply not only to addiction, or depression, or dual diagnosis, but to that more global and inevitable affliction known as being human.

The idea for Not This Song began when people told me they wished I would write about being a dual diagnosis person in recovery. For the uninitiated, this psychiatric term refers to someone who has a mental health diagnosis as well as a substance abuse problem. The mental health issues create special challenges in treating the addiction, while the addiction creates challenges in managing the mental illness.

I am a recovering drug addict who practices 12-step recovery, and I will sometimes write about that. I manage my mental health as well as I can, with the aid of professionals who know I am an addict, and I will sometimes write about that. I cope with my emotions in relatively new and untried ways, and I will sometimes write about that. I search for meaning, pleasure and spiritual significance in very odd places, and I will sometimes write about that.

I’m glad you are here, and I hope to tell you many stories.