Monthly Archives: November 2013

Breakfast of Champions

Every so often, I do something right. Today was one of those days, because I made the choice to get out of the house early so I could start Thanksgiving Day with a meeting. Sipping coffee, I listened to the familiar readings and to the voices of my brothers and sisters of the spirit.

Today, as on every major holiday, twelve-step fellowships are holding marathon meetings. They’re places where those in recovery go to keep their program strong through the holidays: resisting the various temptations, coping with emotions triggered by difficult family relationships, or fighting the loneliness caused by not having family near at this time. Walking into one of these meetings feels like stepping off of a moving walkway into a safe zone.

As December approaches, we enter into the worst month of the year for mental health. Therapists, hospitals, police and rehabs all know it. The strain caused by the discrepancy between what we’re told we should be having and feeling and what we actually are is too great for many. Add the dark, the cold, financial strain and trying to do too much and even those without an addiction or a mental health diagnosis are a mess.

In the rooms of the fellowships, we know how hard it is during the holidays, People are urged to be more proactive than ever about staying strongly linked to the program. So, even though I wasn’t feeling crazy (yet) this morning, I chose to hit the meeting, hoping to get a ounce of prevention.

Now, as I sit down to write after my relatives have left, I’m so glad I did. Not only did it help me stay sane through the occasion, the meeting was the most gratitude-inducing part of my day. Hearing what people are grateful for helps my perspective so much, and that meeting alone helped me take a big step forward in being grateful for my daughter’s new diagnosis instead of clinging to past baggage. Being grateful, in general, for every complication that has come into my life in the past few years, because none of them would even be issues if I were not in recovery.

It’s said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Today, that cup of coffee at the morning meeting was the most important sustenance I had: without that spiritual nourishment, I probably would have felt deprived at needing to abstain from many foods, let alone my other addictive triggers.

For some of us, the holidays are about survival at times. In this next month, I wish for all of us a loving dedication to making the time as nourishing as we can, along with a willingness to seek help from each other before we desperately need it.

Guess What?

I have some new information to process, which is another way of saying I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the stomach. I did a lot to get this information, and on this Thanksgiving eve I am grateful to have it…but it’s going to take some processing.

As I wrote in Seriously?, I’ve been seeking help with finding the right schooling and services for my daughter. Part of that has been getting a detailed assessment done, the first in several years, independently of the district and the doctors who did her earlier ones. We finally got the results yesterday.

Without going into details, let me just say that they’ve come up with a theory about her issues that makes a lot of sense, feels intuitively right, honors her strengths…and means that for the last five-plus years we have been working with a completely wrong diagnosis.

Pop quiz, my friends. What’s going on with me emotionally right now?

A. I’m proud of myself for intervening the way I have, getting her into counseling, and pushing for objective assessment in response to my judgment that there was something else going on. I am aware that things would be much worse if I had not acted with courage in certain ways.

B. I’m blaming myself for taking this long to see what is needed and for all of the imperfections and delays I introduced into the process. I feel overwhelmed about finding the services she needs and am convinced that I have failed her as a mother.

Correct! We are dealing with mostly B at the moment. I’m worried and frightened and guilty about all of the same old stuff. I don’t know how I am going to manage to find the medical services she needs, and I don’t know how I’ll cope with the increased appointments and still handle schooling. I’m enraged at myself for the decisions that have us living where we are, when our old place would have been more convenient and healthier for her.

I’m afraid. And I’m ashamed. And I’m angry that I’ve internalized a view of motherhood and myself that makes it impossible to blame the people who made the wrong diagnosis, or the teachers who urged me to accept it, or the doctors who ignored her physical problems, or the school system that kept ignoring her physical needs and getting her injured: I am always ultimately to blame, because I should have seen something sooner, acted sooner, fought harder, been a different person.

It’s not constructive to blame anyone, and I don’t want to. I know in my head that everyone, including me, did the best they could with the information they had at the time. But I don’t know how to let go of it. Once again I have to struggle out of the guilt and shame that is, ultimately, a manifestation of selfish ego on my part—I can’t stay in it because it will try to make this about me and not about her.

So, I need to process, and this one may take a little time. I need to process in ways that won’t be self-destructive or sabotaging. I have hope that when I have worked through this, I’ll be able to see the positives…after all, if they are right, getting the correct treatment could gradually improve her quality of life, and that’s fantastic. But I’ve got to step up, do my best to live in the present, and trust in my program to help me do what needs to be done.

 

Nothing

My mind can get crowded
with drama and fears
but what frightens me more
is when Nothing appears.

I can work with a challenge;
Act braver, be true
but when Nothing’s going on
I don’t know what to do.

At one spot on the wall
people notice me stare
My eyes can’t look away
because Nothing is there.

Though this party’s a treat
I must hurry away
for I’d better not speak
when I’ve Nothing to say.

I can try to be calm
Rid my mind of its pains
but if I should succeed
sometimes Nothing remains.

If my work’s done today
Prayers said, conscience clear
I can honestly say
I have Nothing to fear.

And I know in the night
when I’m rigid with dread
All this time Mom was right–
Nothing’s under my bed.

So when kindly you ask
why I’m quiet so long
Now you know what it means
when I say Nothing’s wrong.

Wait a Minute…We’re Fish!

First, the fish needs to say
“Something ain’t right about this camel ride…”

(Hafiz, translated by D. Ladinsky)

Self-acceptance. We talk about it, we advocate for it, we want it for ourselves–but we secretly fear that having it, or acting as if we do, would mean we are not trying hard enough. We see the logic of an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, but that logic breaks down when we consider giving ourselves permission to choose ways of living that work well for us, instead of breaking ourselves on the wheel until the choice is made for us.

When my daughter was a toddler, our favorite singer was Laurie Berkner.  Laurie had this self-deprecating grin and contagious laugh that I loved, and she seemed to enjoy her own songs as much as we did. Her song “The Goldfish” talks about some fish that are doing different things in each verse: for example, they go through detailed steps of taking a shower. But then, at some point they stop and say, “Wait a minute…we’re FISH! We don’t take showers! Let’s go swimming!” and off they go into the chorus. The next verse they get into another un-fish-like activity and have the same epiphany.

It was one of our favorite songs to sing with, because we loved shouting that phrase. There was something liberating about it. “WAIT A MINUTE…WE’RE FISH!!” we’d shout with the CD, breaking into giggles afterward. It felt exuberant, unapologetic, life-affirming.

I wish I’d embraced this idea more outside of my kitchen or car. I used to feel such shame when I struggled at a job. I’d sneak off for long restroom breaks that were really just an excuse to be somewhere out of everyone’s sight, get myself together, and go try to act normal until I had to take another one. I think it would have helped me to say to myself “Wait a minute…I’m a fish!” or some metaphysical equivalent. Even if, as many do, I needed to keep the job as long as I could for practical reasons, I might have felt less ashamed and uncomfortable there.

I could have accepted the fact that I was uncomfortable there because it wasn’t my right environment. Have it not be a value judgment but simply a fact: yes, things are going to be hard for me, I am going to feel different, and that’s what it is. I’m a fish in the desert, and it’s not going to come naturally…so I’ll do the best I can, and stop comparing myself to lizards, and try to arrange to go swimming soon.

Ah, but now I hear that voice: that critical voice ripping shreds in my little self-comforting speech. You think everyone else at your job felt comfortable? it says. They all probably hated it as much as you did. They were just as scared, just as ashamed, they probably threw up and had panic attacks in the bathroom too, but they are still there! They didn’t end up in the fucking psych ward. You know why? Because they’re better than you! They tried harder! They’re not lazy and they don’t make excuses! 

There it is. If I cut myself any slack based on my mental illness, that voice is right there saying it’s a cop-out. Imagine how hard it is for someone without a diagnosis to make a life choice that goes contrary to what their critical voice says they should be doing with their life! What courage it takes to choose to obey the call of our hearts or personalities for no other reason than wanting to do so: to be ourselves just because we want to, instead of first having to prove, time after bloody time, that being anyone else doesn’t work.

Hafiz joins Laurie Berkner in advocating an acknowledgment of the fish’s dilemma. The fish in his poem has self-acceptance: it doesn’t gaze at the dry sand and say “something’s not right about me.”  If we accept ourselves this way, then we are faced with the experience of realizing what’s not right around us. We get to look at how far we are from our ocean–and how much we long for it.

 

Halfway There

On a certain day in 2010, I was driving on the freeway and listening to the same song over and over. It was “Livin’ on a Prayer,” by Bon Jovi, and it was my current talisman. The thing, phrase, image I’d latched onto for this day to encourage me to refrain from actively seeking death. That line from the chorus rang in my head:

Oh, we’re halfway there…(shrieking) AH AHHH Living on a prayer…take my hand, and we’ll make it I swear

“Halfway there” was the key. You see, when I was listening to the phrase I started thinking about my age. If I doubled my current age, I got a number that made it likely I’d have expired from natural causes. That meant I was halfway there: halfway, or more, to a natural, non-self-inflicted death.

It may not seem like a very inspirational thought, but I assure you it was the best I could come up with at the time. I had no pleasant thoughts about the future, no feeling that things were going to change for the better. Life had become little but a quest to avoid pain: the pain of withdrawal, the pain of guilt, physical pain. My energies were absorbed by this ultimately futile but recursive project.

The idea that I was halfway to death was comforting because I saw the hell my life with drugs had become, but I was absolutely convinced that life without them would also be unbearable. My brain had lost its ability to self-soothe, or to feel any natural pleasure. I saw the life ahead of me, one way or another, as an endless parade of deprivation, effort and anxiety.

What I had left were some beliefs of mine, old ones and deep. I believed I had an obligation to try as hard as I could not to commit suicide. I didn’t believe it was a sin or anything; I just had a sort of conviction that dying by suicide would affect what happened afterward. Like showing up for a class without having finished the prerequisite. When I couldn’t do anything positive for myself; when my actions and lack of actions screamed passive suicide, I stubbornly held back from doing anything active.

Not that I was kidding myself about the chances of causing my death in a passive manner. I dreaded the thought of dying that way. I longed for an honorable death the way a soldier might long for an honorable discharge, and I had very clear ideas about what kinds of deaths felt honorable to me and what kinds didn’t. Throwing myself on a grenade to save others? Definitely yes. Drug overdose? Definitely no. Plane crash? Yes. Cancer? Depends whether I caused it by treating my body like crap. Car accident? Depends whether drugs or overeating contributed to it. Old age and related issues? Yes.

Anyway, on that day in 2010 it really was comforting and even cheering to think I had passed the halfway mark. To imagine reaching the finish line, dying honorably and being welcomed to the next level, whatever that is. To imagine being greeted with love and maybe even an approving word for completing my time. It was the best I could hope for.

Do you feel that way today? Is endurance your watchword? Is a shred of determination what keeps you here? I’m not going to try to throw rainbows and unicorns in your direction; besides, this site shows that I still have my share of darkness. But my testimony today is that changes did happen: weird ones, uncomfortable ones, ones I thought were impossible. My future, once a stark plain, is a complex landscape shrouded in uncertainty.

No Ray of Light

There are few things as simultaneously exalting and humbling as visiting my old rehab. Last week, I spent two nights there on a retreat, attending classes and groups just as I did when I was a patient. It’s exalting because I get to be aware how much my life has changed since that time. It’s humbling because I get to see how easily I could be back there, counting my clean time in days instead of years. To remember not only with my mind but with every sense, from the murmur of night conversation to the array of dishes for drying to the knots in my lower back after each class (but oh, such a weak echo of the pain I had then!)

One great privilege of being there is the opportunity to talk with the current residents and answer any questions they have about what it’s like trying to work a program of recovery after leaving treatment. People want to know what I did to stay clean this long, and I try to answer them truthfully. I feel self-conscious about this aspect of being there sometimes, worrying that I will come across as being full of myself or bragging. But if by sharing my experience I can help someone be less hesitant about sponsors or steps or other things that will help them, I want to do that.

In the classes and groups, I get to hear how others are resisting recovery or placing conditions on it, just as I used to do. They are there to keep their spouse, or get their job back. They don’t think alcohol should be off the table because their problem is with other drugs, or their problem is only alcohol and they don’t want to hang out with those drug addicts.

In a discussion about relapse prevention, the counselor asked “What is the greatest threat to your sobriety?” All of the answers had to do with external circumstances or other people. My partner, parents, boss, living situation. It’s what the counselor was fishing for, because the class is about looking at the need to set up a support system for recovery and be aware of potential pitfalls. But I thought it was interesting that my silent responses to the question were all about things inside my head, not outside.

What is the biggest threat to my recovery? I am. No one and nothing else. My character defects are the threat. Resentment, self-pity, despair, unwillingness, dishonesty, enviousness…these and my other internal demons are the only thing that can take me out. No ray of light will stream from heaven and command me to use again; no one will pry my mouth open and pour something in.

What a gift it is to believe this about myself. And what a great opportunity for me to look at my addictive behavior with food and ask myself: why I am having trouble applying the same principle? Why am I letting inconvenience, logistical issues, illness, raging hormones or stress convince me to be half-assed? None of those things has power over me if my attitude is right. No ray of light comes through the clouds and lifts the pen out of my hand to keep me from writing down my food. No imps from the underworld sneak into my kitchen and install space warps into my measuring cups. Yes, it’s hard sometimes. It’s really hard. And?

I would never–ever–judge a fellow compulsive eater for slipping, nor is it my intention to judge myself harshly. Love and respect for myself is my goal, not punishment. Love strong enough to push outside the comfort zone and let my Self speak with fierce conviction: Tertia, you sweet, mad, gloriously flawed child, I love you so much that I’ll never stop calling your name. Now quit fucking around and come back to me.

A Word From The Pit

Just a quick word right now. I’m going to have a chunk of time late today in which I hope to write something, but I want to capture this moment. I’m crying, and I feel broken and frightened and ashamed, and I need to admit it before my intellect steps back in.

I’ve gained five pounds in the last month and I am terrified that this will be a trend. In true compulsive eater fashion this fear and stress has caused me to act out with food more, not less. I’ve even had several incidents of true binge eating; the only saving grace being that I binged on food groups within my plan. But I ate enough to make myself sick and in pain.

I was out of town for several days last week, in a place surrounded with a lot of food temptations. I did very well, and then snapped the day after I got back when I found out I had still managed to have my weight go up. The scale, a necessary tool in my quest to maintain my life-saving weight loss, is becoming an object of fear for me.

Oh, my friends, I don’t want to stay in this place. I am a living miracle because I am still clean from drugs today, but intensely addictive behavior hurts my soul no matter what the details of it are. I know what to do; in fact, I’ve been doing it for a couple of days again now, but I’m so afraid that it won’t be enough; that the scale will just keep going up and up no matter what I do and I can’t let that happen. I can’t go back. I’ve changed too much.

I know how to re-center myself in a recovery frame of mind, but I get scared and overwhelmed when I’m surrounded by things I need to do in the world of adult functioning at the same time. How do I admit to my family that I have to focus on this right now; that I might not be able to function as well until I feel more stable in this aspect of my recovery. Who’s going to take up the slack?

I’m reaching, almost physically, for that balance I need; that balance of self-love to remove my shame and tough love to remove any excuses I’m trying to make. For faith in my program and in my spirituality; for enough of it to cast out fear.