Monthly Archives: September 2013

What I Need

It’s often said that the times we really don’t feel like going to a twelve-step meeting are the times when it’s most important to go. This tends to be true for me. I wish I could say that when this happens, and I find the willingness to drag myself there anyway, I always leave spiritually refreshed and happy that I went. But that wouldn’t be the truth.

Sometimes it is. I see someone I’ve been missing, or the speaker is really on fire that day, and I know fate threw something good my way as a result of me being there. Other times, the meeting’s just okay, and I find it hard to sit through, and I leave with only the modest satisfaction of having done some small thing to show my commitment to recovery that day.

There’s a third type of result for me, and that’s what happened at last night’s meeting. This outcome of bringing my reluctant self to a meeting is that, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, I don’t get what I want but I get what I need.

This is moving week for me, and I’m very stressed. I’m dealing with baggage around the concept of home, and I’m juggling my tasks of self-maintenance–which I cannot afford to let slip too much–with the need to get things done on a deadline. So when I carved out the time to go to this meeting on the general principle that I’m an addict and I don’t want to let too much time lapse between meetings, I wanted to get something for my trouble and time. I had an agenda.

Refresh me, I was asking the meeting and my God. Give me strength and confidence to help me this week. Excite me about my recovery and my future. Get me in touch with gratitude. Fix my crappy attitude and loosen the strangling hold my character defects seem to have on me lately. Calm me and help me stop being afraid.

When I got to the meeting, the first thing I saw was a high ratio of unknown faces. It was the night that the population of a local treatment center gets brought to the meeting. The speaker was great, but I had just heard her four days ago, and the second half of the meeting was dominated by the newcomers, who, quite understandably, tend to be chaotic and need patient listening. So it turned out to be a meeting I sat through quietly, not feeling connected.

And this, apparently, was what I needed, because the longer I sat there, not distracting myself with a task or my iPad, the sadder I felt. As tears started to come up, I got in touch with the last thing I wanted to face. I got in touch with how lonely I feel. Underneath all of my worries and fears and resentments, I found a pool of loneliness that made me ache.

Moving is pushing many buttons for me, but I didn’t know loneliness was such a major one. It makes sense, though, now that I am open to seeing it. Going through old stuff deluges me with reminders of friends unseen and things undone. Worrying about moving day reminds me of how socially crippled I still am: that there are people who would probably help me but I haven’t asked because I am so fucking afraid and I still feel different all of the time. Donating my old too-large clothes reminds me of how much depends on my ability to keep my weight off and not screw up in general, and I feel lonely because part of me still has trouble believing that I don’t have to do all this alone.

Enough of analyzing it. It’s hard to stay real in this moment, but I want Not This Song to be a place of truth. Everything I write–the passionate stuff, the symbolism, the humor and satire, the intellectual stuff, the geeky playfulness–I want it all to be diverse bits of my truth forming the weirdest mosaic ever. So today’s piece of truth is that among all of the other incarnations of myself is someone who wants to feel comfortable with other people and is afraid it will never, ever happen. That she’ll be lonely in a crowd forever.

Tomorrow a different fragment of my truth will probably step to the front of the line, but today I give you the truth of these tears. There’s one on my keyboard at this moment; let me put aside my pride and offer it to you. Mix it with the next one you shed and see if it turns pretty colors, or hang it up like a crystal to remind you that tears won’t destroy us.

Home on the Deranged

We don’t know why people make such a big deal about moving. It really is a simple, logical, step-by-step process. Just transport all items from location A to location B, except for those items you need to get rid of, which need to be transported to locations C, D or E. Then arrange the items in location B as efficiently as possible. Then go back and clean location A thoroughly, even though you know that your chance of getting any of your security deposit back is virtually zero due to your four-legged machine of destruction.

Transporting stuff is nothing to get worked up over! So you’ve got disabilities and can’t lift much…that’s what moving companies are for. Oh? No money to hire help? Get over that social phobia and get some friends to carry stuff. And get that dog somewhere safe for the process! And there’s no need to stress over cleaning; just take your time and don’t hurt yourself. You’ve got a whole day between the move and the inspection.

Don’t forget to shut down your cable, trash, phone, and electric service at the old place and start them up at the new one. In each case we’re talking about a simple phone call and some information to keep track of. Making phone calls is nothing to be afraid of, so ignore that racing heart and those sweaty palms and get on with it!

Moving need not disrupt your whole life. Don’t let it be an excuse to neglect doctors’s appointments, schooling, your child’s various appointments, your writing, twelve-step meetings, sticking to your food plan, and exercise. Be sure to get plenty of sleep every night so that you can tackle the next day’s tasks with a clear mind.

Okay…never mind that last one. Guess it was a bit over the top.

The moving process will go much more smoothly if you discipline your mind as well as your body. This is no time for any mental health shenanigans, so on no account should you indulge in a bipolar episode, a bout of dysthymia or a stress-induced anxiety attack. Take your meds properly, but after that, it’s up to you not to let your family down by being less than useful at this critical time. So suck it up; mind over matter. Believe me, those pesky mental disorders will be cowed into submission by the sheer force of your will.

When you are moved in to your new place, you may continue to be aware of many fears that have emerged during the course of finding and preparing to move into your new home. These are all perfectly normal reactions to change, and as a mother it’s quite appropriate that you consider all potential problems and take rational action to keep your family safe and happy. You may be dealing with any of the following:

Lasciviherusophobia: Fear that your new landlord is a fan of the droit du seigneur

Malificauriophobia: Fear that every little sound you can hear from your new bedroom signifies the entrance of a serial killer downstairs

Canisnutabilisophobia: Fear that your neurotic dog will fail to adjust well to the move and become even higher maintenance

Climacobuccaruptophobia: Fear that taking a lease on a two-story house will invite fate to engineer a serious injury to your daughter’s knee and make life a logistical nightmare

Lacrimaseraphophobia: Fear that the tiny statue of a lady on the birdbath is really a Weeping Angel

Catellavirgohostiasaccolaphobia: Fear that your new neighbors belong to an obscure cult that sacrifices puppies and teenage girls

and don’t forget the most important one:

Infelicifamiliaculpaphobia: Fear that your family will be miserable there for some unspecified reason and it will be YOUR FAULT.

The best way to take your mind off of these fears is constructive action. Awake at 4 a.m. again? Brush up on your French, clean that stubborn grout in the bathtub, or plan tomorrow’s physics lesson! Surely waking up the dog won’t have any negative consequences. Continue to discipline your thoughts and actions, follow the advice in this guide, and the stress of moving will soon be but a happy memory. Best of luck to you in your new home!

Sincerely yours,

The Commission of People Who Do Everything Better Than You

Meditation and Frog Breeding

My therapist is a Tibetan Buddhist, and I know he practices meditation and martial arts. These and other things lead me to view him as a very spiritual person. Even though I know relatively little about the rest of his life, I am amused by my tendency to project about what it must be like. Once, when he was going to be away on vacation, I joked with him about my projections…how I realized that my mind was assuming he spent all of his vacations in some ultra-enlightened pursuit. How I was making assumptions about everything from what he ate (an enlightened diet rich in sprouts) to how he had fun (enlightened activities only).

“This time,” I told him as I finished laughing at myself, “I’m going to play with my projections.” “How?” he smiled back. “Whenever I think of you while you’re gone,” I replied, “I’m going to try to imagine you at a monster truck rally.” He laughed out loud, and I went on, crafting visions of him chugging beers and yelling at drivers.

Most of my readers know nothing about me except what they’ve read. While I don’t think I’ve presented myself as being excessively enlightened, I just want to make sure nobody has any illusions in that direction. So I’m going to tell you what I’m doing in the middle of those dark nights, those hours between when my family goes to sleep and when I do…those hours I talk about in MacBeth Shall Sleep No More. Those hours you might think I’m devoting to philosophy and soul-searching, or even writing.

I’m breeding frogs.

Not even real frogs that might have some value in the world, but virtual frogs. It’s not the only thing I do, but I spend more time on it than I like to talk about. While the phantasy du jour and future tripping runs through my mind; while I process whatever has happened and go over what needs to be done, or while I am just spinning if it’s a bad night…my fingers are busy creating an amphibian army.

The app is called Pocket Frogs. You navigate frogs through a virtual pond to find mates, raise the eggs to make more frogs, and race them to win still more. They come in a very wide range of colors and interesting patterns, and have basic genetic rules in place. You get access to new species as you go up in levels. My daughter enjoyed the game at first, but got bored a long time ago. I forged ahead, reaching higher and higher levels, and then the horror happened: no more new frogs after a certain level.

For some reason, using that app was calming for me…it required just enough engagement to distract me from panic, but not so much as to overload my 3 a.m. brain. So there was only one thing to do…systematically begin to acquire every possible frog genetic pattern. There are so many that I’m not even a quarter of the way there, so I should be okay for a while.

As someone who prizes consciousness and presence, it’s not easy for me to admit how much time I spend at things that could be classified as the mental equivalent of nose-picking. I also know that staring at a computer screen is the worst thing for an insomniac to be doing as far as encouraging sleep. It’s important for me to own up to the unhealthy aspects of what I do.

That being said, I have to ask what would happen if I told myself that things like this were no longer an option…if I decided that my recovery required giving up mindless activities. I think I would be willing, but I’m not convinced it would end well. A loving and realistic assessment tells me that I am not yet in a place where I can face those dark and anxious hours without a crutch. At this point, I’m thinking that it will be a series of small steps when the time is right.

I suppose one way of softening my judgment about breeding frogs is to see it as a rather unorthodox meditation technique…after all, that is what kind of happens to me while I do it. Thoughts flow differently, and I realize things about my feelings I wasn’t aware of before. Frog breeding meditation just doesn’t sound enlightened, though, and pixelated frogs just don’t look as spiritual as candles or beads.

Pain We Obey

Yesterday I got a new follower who deals with a quite high level of chronic pain and illness, and uses a lot of meditation and other mindfulness techniques to improve her ability to enjoy life as well as possible. I felt a lot of empathy reading posts on her blog, such as What Acceptance Really Means to Me, and I fell into some sense memories of times my average pain level was much higher than it is now.

Even at its worst, the pain from my cracked vertebra was not that bad compared to what some endure. But when it’s your pain, and you have it all the time, it feels consuming. I know what it’s like to plan my days around pain; to decline activities I used to enjoy. Not to be fully present in the moment because I’m counting the minutes until I can lie down and take painkillers. My addiction clouded the issue as time went on, making it more difficult to judge the true level of my pain and causing me to neglect the things that might help it.

I’m glad that many in pain are still able to use painkillers to take the edge off, even though I know the side effects can suck. I’d still be doing it if it worked. I’d still be doing it if my body and brain had not developed ever-increasing levels of physical tolerance and psychological need. Why not? We’re wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s not wrong, it’s human.

When it became clear that I was an addict with a capital A, rather than simply being physically addicted to the meds, I felt so sorry for myself. My black-and-white thinking painted the future as an infinite desert of unrelieved pain and bleak depression. It felt so unfair. I had to change my attitude a lot to have a chance of staying clean, as I mention in Compassion With A Twist.

When I became willing to live, and went to rehab, I was told that for every year I had used opiates it would take about a month clean to figure out my true pain level. I’d used them for eleven years. Didn’t sound like much fun. Rehab, with its constant classes and groups, was very physically challenging for me. I’d sit on pillows, rocking and fidgeting often, feeling as if someone had jammed a screwdriver into the base of my spine. I must have dried ten thousand dishes, because it was the only one of all the chores that I could do without triggering my back too intensely.

Today, I can say with gratitude that it appears the doctors at rehab were right. My pain level is far lower than it was before I got clean. I still have occasional episodes of bad back pain, but I pause and remember that I used to feel that way all of the time. Recovery has also brought me other improvements in health that lower my pain, such as weight loss and the ability to exercise more. That’s only my story about recovery, and I know that not all pain is the same.

Living with chronic pain, like living with mental illness or being in recovery, opens us to trying things that might not have been on our agenda. Spiritual exploration. Meditation. Trying to find and do small things that give pleasure in the moment. Examining our ideas about what we are if we’re not our jobs or our productivity. All of you who make this necessity into a quest for growth inspire me: how amazing it is that we perform, however imperfectly, this mysterious alchemy that turns pain and despair into something beautiful.

“To goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.”
–Marcel Proust


One-Note Solo

Bad Poet got me thinking about how I find it hard to give myself permission to do things that I think I don’t do well. To be fair, my attitude has been fed quite a bit by the culture I live in.

When I was in second grade, the school had a choir, but the teacher chose which students were allowed to sing in it. So if you didn’t have a natural ability to carry a tune at age 7, having never had any practice or instruction, you were pretty much told that singing was not for you.

When I was nine, I had one season on a girls’ softball team. Now, it’s quite true that I sucked at softball. I was afraid of the ball; I was uncoordinated, and–something we didn’t know then–I couldn’t see worth a damn. This interfered with batting and catching. So softball wasn’t for me at that time…fine. But was it really necessary for the adults to shake their heads and conclude that I was never going to be athletic? It quite literally took decades for me to realize that, with my adult body, I’m not completely lacking in physical gifts.

When I was twelve, I got an F in art. Seriously? Who gives a kid an F in art? I don’t have a problem admitting that my clay dragon sculpture looked more like a dragon turd. I have a problem with being labeled “bad at art” and living in a culture where that meant I wasn’t supposed to do art any more.

I know, my story’s not unique. What matters is what I do about it now. Starting to write is a big part of this: I’m defying the messages that tell me writing is restricted to an elite class, or that it’s only worth doing if it will be well received. The bad poetry thing is another example. I also have aspirations toward becoming a bad artist someday.

There’s one area where I really made progress as an adult, and that’s singing. Thanks to the urging of a friend, I joined a choir with him in freshman year of college. It turned into many years of singing with various amateur groups. I finally got the experience of being new at something, doing it just well enough to get by at first, and gaining in ability and confidence as I got more practice. That concept we call…what was it…learning?

The best choir director I ever knew once said to us: “Don’t sing tentatively. I’d rather have you all slam into an entrance in the wrong place than do the entrance half-assed.” He meant it, too.

One day we were doing a full orchestra rehearsal, and the soprano entrance was a fortissimo (very loud) high G. When you’re a soprano, there’s one thing you learn about hitting those high notes: whatever the volume, full commitment is necessary. If you sing it any other way it will come out flat. The only way to sing it right is to be willing to risk singing it wrong.

It was probably one of the nicest G’s I’ve ever sung. It rang clear and bright, with a crisp start and plenty of feeling behind it.
Too bad it was one measure early.
I blushed bright red as the conductor prepared to start us all again, but I was able to join in the good-natured laughter and smile sheepishly when the director complimented me on my one-note solo.

Thanks, Maestro, for meaning what you said. That errant note made thousands of great notes possible.

Bad Poet

I want to be a bad poet.
I want good poets to shake their heads indulgently at the rawness,
the lack of craft,
the lack of depth
in my work.

I want to be a drama queen with words and images;
smile sheepishly
when I read a poem a week later.
I want to publish things impulsively
like this.

I want to sit in cafes feeling sensual with artsy paper
getting ink on my fingers
while I scrawl the “perfect” phrase
and oh,
I want that phrase to be so, so imperfect.

What glorious liberation, to be a bad poet!
What freedom to shout, what license to play!
What security to know I am bad,
and never waste

one more moment

fearing that I might be.

Gazpacho Soup

Do you have a day in your life that you wish you could do over? Do you wonder if everything would have turned out better if you had made a different choice at one specific time?

Do you have a Gazpacho Soup Day?

Yes, I cannot tell a lie. This is indeed going to be another one of my weird metaphors. And another science fiction reference. Who knows it already? Say it with me…“gazpacho sooooouuuuup…”

Gazpacho soup. The unlikely last words of Arnold J. Rimmer, dead and holographically resurrected crewman of the mining ship Red Dwarf, from the British sci-fi comedy series of the same name. These are the words he utters, knowing they will be his last, as he perishes in an explosion. Why? And what the hell does this have to do with me or with life?

I could do a whole character study on Rimmer, but to be brief, he is a man consumed with insecurity and desire to advance himself. He simmers with resentment about being a lowly crewman. Years ago, he was invited to dine at the captain’s table, most likely because each crew member gets to do this once. Rimmer decides that this is his big chance, and tries hard to impress everyone. Gazpacho, a spicy tomato-based soup served chilled, is brought to the table. Rimmer, desperate to look assertive and worldly, pompously sends his back to be heated up.

When he realizes his mistake, he is beyond mortified. For the remaining years of his life, he sees his faux pas as the pivotal moment that determined his future…if only he had known gazpacho was meant to be served cold, he’d be an admiral by now! He blames his dissatisfaction on a bowl of soup, ignoring the thousands of choices he’s made since then or anything else about himself.

I think we all have ideas like this, although they often center on a choice that seems less trivial than sending back soup. If only we’d majored in something different. If only we’d taken that job in 1993. If only we hadn’t bought that house. If only we’d said “I think we should see other people,” instead of “I love you too.”

Some of my recent anxiety made me think about this. I’m so damn sensitive  to missed opportunities and what-ifs! It’s as if I have some secret record of my ideal life, a life I “should” be having, along with a record of every mistake or wrong choice I made that took me away from it. It’s something that is so habitual I accept it without questioning, and I don’t respect how destructive it really is. But it is destructive on so many levels, and I can’t afford to harbor that kind of shit any more. Gazpacho Soup Syndrome will kill me if I let it.

It can kill me by keeping me from being present in the moment. It can kill me by feeding self-pity and sucking away gratitude. It can kill me by making me forget that I have new choices at any given moment, starting now. It can kill me by encouraging shame and making me see myself as nothing but a flawed and incomplete version of what I should be.

Perhaps you think that “kill” is a strong word. Everybody’s a little neurotic, or insecure, or has regrets, right? Of course we do. The reason I use this word is a personal one, and only you know whether it applies to you too. I say it that way because I’ve been suicidal and know I could be again. I say it because I nearly died as a result of addictive behavior and have such a death waiting for me if I relapse.

So I don’t work on myself and my attitudes for self-improvement, but for survival. Addiction and mental illness have given me the “gift” of a growth-oriented life, guided and compelled by a clear alternative. It’s a double-edged gift, to say the least, but I am grateful for it. That’s why I ponder things like Rimmer’s gazpacho soup, or any of a thousand other metaphors for what happens to us and where I need to grow. Because I need so many reminders, I fashion them out of what I know. I use the things that engage my imagination and playfulness, because they work.

So when you’re feeling the sting of a missed opportunity, or a regret about a past choice, let yourself feel some honest pain and disappointment if you need to. But when you’ve done that, if it’s still hanging on…try turning it red and spicy and putting it into a bowl. Then join me in trying not to be like Arnold Rimmer.