Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Night’s Watch

My kit of spiritual tools is as eclectic as they come. Though I don’t belong to a particular religion, I find inspiration in the writings of many. Since words in general can be so mystical for me, I also have a spiritual relationship to poetry and prose of various kinds. Music is another huge resource. At a time of crisis, I don’t always know which spiritual tool will help me. I may try and discard many until one brings me some strength or calmness.

Ah, here it is.

Ah, here it is.

That’s fine, if I am enough in my right mind to apply logic to this process of trial and error. If I’m not, I have to pull something together from whatever material I have on hand, like a spiritual version of MacGyver. I’ve become pretty good at it, too. I can use just about anything as fodder for a spiritual or psychological metaphor. Give me a roll of duct tape, two crackers and a flowerpot and I’ll craft us an escape device before the next commercial break. Granted, these metaphorical stories might seem odd or contrived to some. It doesn’t matter, as long as they work for me in the moment. I’d like to tell you about one example of me taking some words and using them to fuel a story that inspires me.

Have you ever read the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books by George R.R. Martin? Well, go do so at once, because they’re way too complicated to explain. One kingdom in these books is bordered on the north side by a gigantic wall of ice, and there is a group of men sworn to defend this wall against some very fearsome things that want to get south. This group is called the Night’s Watch. Some men volunteer out of idealism or because they are escaping some trouble. Others are exiled there for committing a crime or displeasing someone powerful.

That went well.

That went well.

Whether they came or were sent, they swear an oath of loyalty and renunciation. The penalty for desertion is death. They live in a run-down old castle at the foot of the ice wall, walking guard patrols on top of the wall in darkness and icy winds. They have only one another for company. It’s lonely, dangerous, boring, depressing and freaking cold.

One day I was in that place of needing to improvise, and I had read some Martin recently. The words of the oath echoed through my head, and I imagined that there was a fellowship made up of people like me. I imagined that we–the addicts, the mentally ill, the broken of all kinds–were joined in a tangible way and that we shared a devotion to our purpose. That we, like the brothers of the Night’s Watch, didn’t choose to join this group but do have a choice about how well we keep our vows. Here are the actual words, from George R.R. Martin’s work, of the oath and my thoughts about how they would apply to our motley crew:

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.” Our darker states can feel like the gathering of night. But we don’t run from the night any more, because we know we have a role to play. If there ever was a carefree “day” for us, we acknowledge that things have changed. There is a new reality we accept, one that incorporates the truth of the night. Our watch begins when we decide to be conscious.

“I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.” Some of us are married, or parents, or even well-off. We don’t have to be celibate or renounce our right to these things. These phrases of the oath mean that we accept our separation from the standard measures of normalcy and success in our culture. We renounce the competition to stand out, and we renounce the quest to blend in.

“I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.” At least, not the kind we may have wanted. Or not the kind our friends get. Or not the kind our parents expected of us. Crowns and glory may come to us in unexpected forms, but we cannot seek them for their own sake. We commit ourselves to a different set of standards and a different way of viewing victory and defeat.

“I shall live and die at my post.” Our commitment to consciousness will always be a necessary part of life. We will not “abandon our post” because we get bored, or discouraged, or think it isn’t fair that we have to be there. How we got here, or how little we deserved it, makes no difference. We will not run away; we will not drug or drink or eat ourselves into unconsciousness. We will not craft an escape with a sharp edge, or neglect ourselves and hope the cold night will do it for us.

“I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls.” Our weapons are unseen, as our foes often are. We look out into the darkness, where most justifiably fear to turn their gaze. It’s not what we might have chosen, but it means we are the first to see certain enemies coming. The enemies we fight are spiritual, not physical, and those in their warm homes may not even be aware of them as we fight. But the entire human realm is threatened by the enemies of consciousness, and our fight matters.

“I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.” Our passionate defiance of our own darkness shall become the fire. The love and faith we create shall become the light. Our voices, clearer and purer for the pain we went through to find them, shall do their part to awaken those whose souls are mired in sleep. We will patrol and guard the borders of consciousness against lies, shame, apathy and despair.

“I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.” In pledging our lives, we find purpose to our lives. In pledging our honor, we realize that we have honor. We know that there are many nights to come; that even during the day we will enjoy the sun without forgetting that night will fall and our presence will be needed. Our choices matter, the fight will continue, and we will be together until the end.

Three for Three: Epilogue

About that telling the truth thing? It’s now requiring me to add an epilogue to what I posted less than an hour ago. Shortly after I hit the “publish” button on my post about celebrating small victories, a brief interaction happened with a family member in which I: a) said the wrong thing and got into a conversation I would have been better off staying out of, and b) realized I had forgotten to do something this person wanted done. Both things were relatively trivial, and the family member in question will probably have forgotten them by tomorrow.

I, on the other hand, had a dizzyingly fast slide down the self-esteem scale. In a moment my entire view of myself shifted. I thought about the many things that I haven’t dealt with and had forgotten while I had some nice times this weekend, and I felt overwhelmed. A flood of judgments washed in, trying to submerge everything positive I had been feeling about myself. That inner demon of mine (see Savage Correction if you don’t know about her) informed me that I have, quite inexcusably, forgotten that I am lazy, incompetent and undisciplined. That the accomplishments I am trying to cherish are pathetic, and everything I wrote earlier tonight is complete bullshit.

I’m writing this now, while it’s fresh and raw, because I want anyone else who experiences this kind of thing to know that you are not alone. I want you to know how fast this can happen and how overwhelming a sudden deluge of negativity feels. I want you to see that all of my great philosophy can vanish in a heartbeat; that I’m not immune to anything. I want you to understand that these feelings I am having are not the truth. They change nothing. In writing to you, I access the fierce anger I would have toward anyone who tried to make one of you feel worthless, and I can use that to defend my soul.

Die in the light of exposure, demon; I see you. I name you. I invoke the power of the truest Self against you.

Three for Three

Did you ever notice that in antidepressant commercials, when they show the inspirational shots of the person feeling better, it’s usually footage of them engaging in very simple, ordinary activities? A family dinner, working in a garden, taking a walk. That used to depress me, because I wanted to believe that following my doctor’s instructions would mean being able to hold a great job or write a best seller. I still had the idea that a good life was indistinguishable from an extraordinary life.

Recovery, and the events that led to me being committed to it, have brought some changes in my attitude. I experience both pleasure and gratitude when I partake of ordinary events. You hear about this often in twelve-step meetings. People express gratitude for waking up with a full memory of the night before, for a fixed address, for being able to spend time with their children. They celebrate things that many people accept as normal.

I'm doing this legally!

I’m doing this legally!

Add in mental health issues and physical pain, and the truth is that there’s almost no part of “ordinary” life I can take for granted. Some days that’s more okay with me than others, but I’m learning to adjust my expectations and savor small victories. For example, this weekend I’m celebrating three out of three successes.

Success #1: Friday, I got through an assessment conference about my daughter. I did an extremely imperfect job of describing her issues to a stranger, but my brain worked and I was articulate during the appointment. They got enough data to order the tests, and I managed not to get defensive, panicky or discouraged by the time it was over.

It could have been worse.

It could have been worse.

Success #2: Friday night, I went to a baseball game with my husband. The San Francisco Giants were playing, and we got tickets a month ago. Any ticketed-in-advance occasion is tricky for me because I can’t know what condition I will be in when the date arrives. A baseball game has other challenges as well, leading to a list of mini-victories in this case. I got through the two stages of public transportation well. Thanks to the weight loss I had no difficulty climbing the ramp that previously made me gasp. Although my head whirled in the stadium crowds, I settled down once I was in my seat. The journey and the game caused me a minimum of physical pain, whereas in the past I would have been counting the minutes until we got home, so I could take a handful of painkillers and lie down.

I really felt like the person in one of those commercials as I sat there in my orange Giants shirt; just one of the fans for a couple of hours. I clapped and yelled and swore and I had a moment of normalcy. Even the vendors constantly hawking food I couldn’t touch didn’t bother me too much, until the woman in front of me came back with a tub of hot caramel corn and inspired another mini-victory: successfully resisting the impulse to grab it from her and shovel handfuls of it into my mouth.

A critical hit distracted me. Too bad it wasn't ours.

A critical hit distracted me. Too bad it wasn’t ours.

Success #3: Saturday morning, I got together with an old friend and went for a walk. I conquered my agoraphobia enough to drive there, and we walked and talked for a long time just like two regular people! Again, it was like one of the commercials. I’m trying to reach out more after years of isolation, so a successful social interaction is very precious to me.

Speaking of the mundane, I’m feeling as if today’s post has a lot of that quality! I am very aware of my ego and inner critic trying to tell me that I need to write about something more dramatic today; that I should use one of the colorful entries on my future titles list. But this site is supposed to tell the truth, and this is my truth today.

Comment and tell me a victory you’ve had lately! Also, if you wish, tell me which of these three titles you want to see first: The Night’s Watch, The Wristband, or Antigone Speaks. Thanks again for reading!

Grief-Stricken Fleas

When my daughter was about three and a half (yes, the “Never Give a Duck a Scarf” era again) our bedtime reading one night was a book called “Look Out for the Big Bad Fish!” It was the story of a little tadpole who is impatient with the length of time it takes to move on into being a frog. He acts out by disobeying his mother during a succession of days, swimming farther each day down toward the forbidden section of the creek where the Big Bad Fish lives.

After numerous warnings from creatures he meets, one day he encounters the Big Bad Fish. Just as the fish is about to eat him, the tadpole miraculously jumps away…his legs have been growing little by little and now he is a frog. A happy ending, except perhaps for Darwin. At least I thought so, until I noticed my daughter looking up at me with a troubled expression. I asked her what was the matter. She fixed her big, serious eyes on me and said, “But the Big Bad Fish didn’t get any lunch.”

Empathy outside the box. I thought it was the cutest thing ever, and chalked it up to preschool-age philosophical musings. But it didn’t go away as she got older. My latest reminder of it came this spring, when we were going over a unit of medieval European history. It wasn’t a good time for Europe, and after giving the Inquisition a good going over she was ready to call it a day. Eager to finish the chapter we were in, I insisted on covering the Black Death as well.

The book only spent a few pages on it, mostly basics. Fleas on rats as transmission vectors, percentage of deaths, changes brought on by the lowered population. My daughter pronounced the 14th century the most depressing century ever. “Seriously, Mom? The Inquisition and the bubonic plague? Did anything good happen at all?” “Well,” I said, “there were some good effects of the plague. Serfs and peasants were treated better, because labor was in shorter supply.” She huffed in response. “Tell that to the poor grief-stricken fleas!”

“What?” I floundered. “The fleas, Mom. The ones that carried the plague on the rats. Think about how terrible they must have felt!” “THAT’S what you’re focusing on?” I came back. “What about all the people who died?” She sighed patiently. “Of course I feel sorry for them too. But they have plenty of sympathy, because everyone feels for them. The fleas are alone and guilty and nobody cares about them. Somebody needs to.”

Did I mention that she’s thirteen now? So this isn’t going away. Part of it was brought with her from wherever we obtain our unique spark, but if I am honest with myself I realize that she may get some of it from me. I’ve always been inclined to empathize with the “underdog” in the empathy ranking. It’s hard for me to explain that this doesn’t take away any of my feeling for those everyone else is championing. It’s a paradoxical feeling, and an uncomfortable one.

As a counselor it was sometimes my job to work with the “underdog.” The guy who hit his girlfriend and is going to anger management group; the mom in trouble with Child Protective Services. Situations where the “choosing sides” seems automatic and obvious. I was good at my job because I could do this strange mental twist that, while not thinking the behavior acceptable, let me feel for the suffering being played out in it. In that sense, it’s a good quality for me.

It’s also responsible for a few of my dirty secrets. For example, the recent “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman brought understandable outrage to many. My dirty secret is that beside my grief and outrage on Trayvon Martin’s behalf, there exists a corner of my psyche that feels something for Zimmerman. That feels some compassion for the scars his soul will bear, even unconsciously, and how what happened will affect his karmic path. This part of me has no wish to save him from the consequences of his actions. It’s not about that. But it does exist.

Another secret is one I’ve carried for almost twelve years now: my reaction to 9/11 had these paradoxical qualities too. I felt ashamed of my thoughts. How could I admit to anyone that I thought about the pilots? That, even before any information was released, I wondered what kind of lives had prepared them to kill and die? That I imagined them waking up in some kind of afterlife that didn’t match what they were taught would await them, and what betrayal and guilt and despair they might feel as they gained clarity?

I don’t know where my daughter’s unique type of empathy will take her. I don’t always know where mine will take me. In the past I have misused it at times when hurt by someone; it was easier to overempathize than to face my own anger and my fear of confrontation. Today I have a more honest relationship with my anger, but the tendency to identify with the unlikely remains. Maybe I can learn to use it to help others again, knowing that someone who feels themselves irretrievably condemned by all is unlikely to change. Or maybe I’ll start a flea survivors’ guilt therapy group.

Reunion With Words

I sometimes over-intellectualize. When people call me on it, they use my speech and my love of words as an example. I see their point, but I wish I could explain that my relationship to words is not just about the intellect! Words are so much more than a mental construct or a means of description for me. They are spiritual. They are ritual. They have saved my life more times than I can count; one phrase and one moment and one sheathed blade at a time.

During the worst and most suicidal times of my life, words had the power to reach me when nothing else did. Not through logic or even eloquence, but because of their mystical charge. Phrases that had become sacred to me would echo through my thoughts. Even when my depression was so profound that everything else lost its psychic juice, the words remained. I don’t know why. I know I have much to learn about being embodied and exploring the non-verbal, and I hope to do some of that learning. Words, however, will continue to hold their place of honor in my psyche as long as I have the capacity to understand them.

Words were my earliest love. I spent most of my childhood alone, and words were the soundtrack, the Greek chorus and the invisible partner in my adventures. Certain words and phrases seemed fraught with significance. When I got some experience writing stories and essays for school in my teens, I tasted a new degree of pleasure in running my own words through my head and having a few of them take on that mystical quality. I cried over Cyrano de Bergerac and shivered over Heart of Darkness. By high school, I was convinced that writers were magical beings.

Even so, I never thought in terms of becoming one myself–I was on track to a math and science concentration, having decided that academic success in this field was my best ticket to getting away from my background and having a chance for a different life. Despite urging from my English teacher, I never seriously considered majoring in English or writing. When I look back, I wonder if I felt on a deep level that I wasn’t allowed to pursue something that flowed so naturally and was so pleasurable. I had to do something hard.

I still had letters...

I still had letters…

So I broke up with my first love. We drifted apart, and I obsessed over new loves that became former loves in the course of time. Then I started to fall in love with things that shared some of my first love’s qualities: teaching, counseling, other roles that allowed me to be expressive with words again.

Yes, writing is “the one that got away.” During these last few years, it’s come into my consciousness more and more. When I thought I was going to die soon, one of my greatest regrets was not having written more. It wasn’t about having something published, it was just the thought of leaving nothing behind me. No papers for my daughter or my friends to go through; no record of an entire other life that had been lived inside my head. The drugs had my mind and my imagination, and it was too late.

Or so I thought. Lately I’ve not only been living without drugs but without food as well. Eliminating both of them as coping mechanisms seems to have been the final blow to whatever represses my creativity. When I can’t use my accustomed ways of damping down the energy that flows through me, I have to do something with it. When people suggested that my experience as a dual diagnosis person in recovery might be useful to some, it helped push me over the edge into starting Not This Song.

I hope Not This Song will be of service, but I have to admit that the writing is for me first. I’m writing letters from the present to the future; from one version of myself to another, from hope to despair. I’m writing because I have finally admitted that I need to write whether I think it’s worth anything or not. I’m writing because I am fucking sick of carrying whatever creative thing is inside me; sick of arguing with it and beating it back down and trying to manipulate it away with fear and insecurity.

If I stop fighting it, there comes forth a fierce desire to create. That fierceness doesn’t care what comes out or how it will be judged. I just want to rip something real out of myself, throw the wet, pulpy mass of it on top of the Oxford English Dictionary and watch what happens. I want to see many, many new creatures born before I die. I want to learn to smile indulgently at the raw and amorphous messes that wriggle away, and wait patiently for those moments when I catch my breath at the sight of dark and luminous wings.

Cloud Cover

Two nights ago I felt as if I’d lost half of my IQ. It happens; it’s one manifestation of a “dip.” It feels as if the unbalanced chemicals in my brain have swirled together and clogged all of the passages. In some ways, it’s more bearable than the intense anxiety on the other side of the coin, but it’s frustrating. I’m even physically uncoordinated when it happens; I get vertigo and my speech is a little clumsy. I knew it would most likely pass within two or three days, so I tried to be patient.

I dragged myself to a meeting of my 12-step fellowship the next morning anyway; after all, it’s said that the times we least want to go to a meeting are the times it’s most important to go. I’d like to say that the meeting was great and I left feeling much better, but that would be a lie. There was nothing wrong with the meeting; I just brought my cloudy self with me.

Social interaction is labored at best when I feel this way. Sometimes, I feel really self-conscious at these meetings in particular because I worry that my fuzziness might be taken as a sign that I’m under the influence of something. It’s silly, I know–enough people know about my condition, and it’s none of my business what the others think. At any rate, it’s something of an ordeal to be there. For example, I’m greeted by someone with, “Hey, how’s it going?” and this is what happens in the pause between the question and my reply:

Okay, this is where I’m supposed to say “Fine, how’re you,” right? Unless she really wants to know. She’s pretty perceptive and she’ll know I’m bullshitting if I just say fine, right? But does she really want to know? Is she one of the people who will get it if I just say I’m in kind of a dip today? Or should I say something innocuous that will explain my demeanor, something about being tired or getting over a bug? But I’m a lousy liar when I’m like this. If I tell her I’m feeling down she’ll want to know why and I don’t have a reason to give her. Oh, SHIT, now a couple of seconds have gone by and she’s looking at me funny because I’m taking too long to answer. My processing speed must be really lowered. Now I’ve got to come up with something that explains this…

And that’s where the “deer in headlights” look on my face comes from. Suppose the next person I meet asks me how my week was:

Just say fine. JUST SAY FINE, you fool. Haven’t you learned your lesson by now? But I hate lying, I just hate it. Besides, the first part of the week was decent, it’s just the last two days that were bad. So do I give an average, mean or median value of how good the week was? Does it matter, JUST SAY SOMETHING! Now you’ve done it again…

When my brain is in better shape I’m perfectly aware that in this context, questions like these are polite social noises and can be taken and returned as such. My clouded or dip state is not capable of such subtleties, however.   Then I see someone I know I should greet, so I make the effort, but it feels as if I am mouthing lines from a strange script. Here’s what the conversation probably sounds like to an objective listener:

Me: Hi, Jessica! **hug** Good to see you. How are you?

Jessica: Hi there. Hey, are you coming to lunch with us after the meeting?

Me: Sorry, I can’t. I promised my mom we would drive up and visit her this afternoon.

Now, HERE’S what the conversation feels like to me:

Me: Glork, Jessica! **boing** Meeble zorp kee. Nuppi wik?

Jessica: *****sound of white noise*******coming to lunch?*****

Me: Sorry, I can’t. I promised the aliens I’d help impregnate hapless tourists with their tentacled offspring.

It’s a miracle that I have any friends at all. The frustrating thing is that if you catch me at the right time, I’m great to talk to! I can be smart, funny, compassionate, a good listener, and other nice things to have around. But then some days you get this instead.

Medications and Judgments

There’s an issue I keep hearing about when I read and listen to the stories of dual diagnosis folks in recovery. An issue I haven’t written about yet because it feels so important and I keep waiting to be at my best to tackle it. Since I can feel my perfectionism rearing its pristine head, I am going to fight it by opening the subject anyway. Therefore, please assume that this post is not comprehensive and that this subject will most likely be revisited and expanded in the future.

Here goes.

I want to talk about the misunderstandings and judgments that go on between several groups of people on the issue of psychiatric medications in recovery. My opinions and feelings associated with it come from education, personal experience and the experiences of people I care about. They are my personal opinions and not those of any group; they are also not professional advice. That being said:

I wish to hell people would stop saying that anyone who takes psych meds isn’t clean or sober or fully working a program of recovery.

In recent years, the climate in the recovery community has become somewhat more accepting about the issue, but there is still far to go. There’s also a major lack of awareness about different classes of psych meds and the fact that some types have the potential to be addictive and some do not. There still tends to be a general perception that if you take any type of pill that affects your brain, you are doing it to get out of dealing with reality and with your emotions.

There exists a 12-step fellowship called Dual Recovery Anonymous, devoted to dual diagnosis people. I’m really glad about that, but there are so many of us that I want us to be able to thrive in every fellowship and use all of the support that’s out there. Depending on what study you’re reading, somewhere between 20 and 50 percent–possibly more–of substance abuse patients have co-occurring mental health issues. If you look only at chronic relapsers, who have sought treatment multiple times and can’t seem to put more than a short span together, the percentage probably goes up. Forget the perfectionism and the cleaner-than-thou debates; what is the potential benefit to society if this population becomes more able to make recovery stick?

I’ve been told to stop taking my meds before. Five or six years ago, during one of my short-lived stretches of recovery, I wanted to be accepted so badly that I took the advice. It didn’t turn out well. I was luckier than some…I “only” ended up using drugs again. Some people end up in the psych ward or jail. Or the morgue.

If you’re a person in recovery…please, please, think carefully before you give advice on this issue. Before you make blanket statements about what constitutes recovery and what doesn’t. Before you get up and brag about how your Higher Power or your positive attitude or your dedication to the Steps has removed your need for a “crutch.” Even if your desire is to spread a message of hope and possibility, realize you are telling your own story only.

Jump off tall things. Works for me!

Jump off tall things. Works for me!

Yes, brain chemistry changes with more time away from substances, and treatment needs can change or even diminish in recovery. Yes, attitude and lifestyle make a positive impact as well. But improvement may not be to the point of no longer needing any treatment. Mental illness has a complex array of causes and symptoms, on a wide spectrum of severity, and none of us is qualified to judge the contents of someone else’s head. Understand that someone with a mental illness has been on the receiving end of so much stigma and shame that your words have a lot of power. Celebrate your blessings and triumphs, but do it in a spirit of gratitude and not superiority.

If you’re a sponsor or a close recovery friend of a dual diagnosis person, ask them to tell you about exactly what they take and what it’s for. Understand that in many cases, the time to worry is if they neglect their meds, and that taking their meds consistently is an important part of their recovery. Ask them if their doctor knows they are in recovery, and encourage them to tell if they have not. Help them apply the Steps and their other spiritual tools to the challenges and feelings that come with managing their condition.

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If you’re a medical professional who is helping a person in recovery manage their mental health issues, treat them with respect and don’t make them regret telling you the truth. Have a real dialogue with them about their former behaviors. Educate them about their meds and help them understand that antidepressants and bipolar meds are long-acting and will not make them high. Educate them about the dangers of the addictive types of meds such as tranquilizers. Help them avoid these if possible, and help them be accountable if these are absolutely required.

It’s not an easy situation for anyone, but I hear so much pain and frustration around it that I think the only way to go is up. Lastly, if you, like me, are a dual diagnosis person in recovery: don’t run away from the recovery community because of judgment you encounter. Don’t do it. We need you. I need you. Here’s what you do instead: you work with professionals with whom you are totally honest about your history. Having arrived at an appropriate plan, you take your meds as prescribed; you keep all your appointments and you stay accountable to a sponsor (who, sometimes after much effort, you found and educated.) You show up to your fellowship; you work the Steps and do service and stay clean/sober/whatever. You rack up some years and then you start sponsoring others like you!