Monthly Archives: December 2013

Open My Mouth

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be speaking at a large meeting of my twelve-step fellowship. I am not usually nervous about doing this–well, maybe just a little–but this meeting is special to me for a couple of reasons. This meeting always has a lot of newcomers, and it’s an honor to be one of the first speakers they hear. It’s also the largest meeting I attend, and the speakers usually have more years clean than I do. I probably got asked because it was hard to find a “big-name” speaker for this particular Sunday. Which is fine, but I do have a desire to do well.

Now, I know that there’s no “wrong” way to share my message at a meeting. It’s not about performing or being riveting; as long as whatever comes out is true it is fine. That being said, I confess that I have my own preferences about speakers, and they influence how I like to share. I like to use the basic guideline of “what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now,” and I like to keep an eye on time so that I don’t find myself running out just as I am getting to the second or third part. People know how much it sucks to live in active addiction–it’s good to share enough of my past story to help them know they are not alone, but then they need to know what the transition into recovery was like and why it might be worthwhile to give recovery a passionate try.

Like many, I have the habit of saying a quick little prayer that my higher power will help me say whatever it wants me to say that day. As I do that today, I think what I am asking for the most is not to censor myself. Because I do censor myself sometimes. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I am saying them. I’m calm when I might be passionate, or I make too many qualifying statements around something when I’d prefer to pronounce it with conviction.

When I get past that; when I stop intellectualizing and being mealy-mouthed and worrying about offending anyone–I can speak passionately. Dynamically. Authentically. I can affect people. I can make them remember something I said. I can bring out that dropped-jaw, holy-fuck expression someone gets when you’ve just wrapped your words around a bit of their soul. I can…that’s my truth, even though it feels immodest and vain to write it. And if that’s true, how does it serve anyone for me to pull myself back?

The Steps talk a lot about humility, and I am learning more about what it means. Humility requires me to be exactly what I am, no more and no less, and value myself as any other human being, no more and no less. That means using my talents whole-heartedly can be an act of humility. So, in that spirit, I ask help for tomorrow.

Open my heart, and then open my mouth. Silence my fear and my insecurity. Make me raw, and real, and unadorned. Tear me open like a bag of chips and scatter crumbs of me around that room. If it’s your will, make me look like a fool to forty-nine of my listeners in order to help the fiftieth. Help me tell the truth. Help me BE the truth.

Who and What Art Thou?

Today I’m a disciple of Peter Pan. Why? Well, since you asked:

As I enter the aftermath of the holidays, I feel disoriented. It’s not uncommon for me to hold together well in the face of a predicted struggle, only to drift apart when the challenge has been met. I marshaled my strength and resources to hold my self-care precious through these days, and I did a good job. But now–relatives gone, temptation-loaded meals served, overstimulating rooms quiet–I still feel the need to pull wisps of myself back together from the void.

It’s time to remember who I am.

Not that this is at all strange: I forget my truest Self thousands of times a day, because I am human. Progress is about improving the ratio between remembering and forgetting. When I have been around certain people or had a lot of stimulation, that ratio can get a little skewed even if I have worked very hard at maintaining it. Playing a role, even an innocuous one, for any length of time creates a need to re-establish an inner equilibrium.

So I need to revisit the parts of me that are inviolate, mysterious and sacred: the parts that not everyone can see. The parts that are beyond my old family roles and dynamics. The parts that are indestructible and exist outside hierarchies of perceived merit. In doing this, I get closer to knowing who I am. At the very least, I get an awareness that what I am may be very different from what I was taught to believe.

But remembering who I am is also about remembering that something about what I am cannot–need not–be known or expressed in any concrete sense. Many years ago, when I first read Peter Pan, I got shivers at this passage where Pan is fighting Captain Hook. Hook calls out to Pan:

“Pan, who and what art thou?” he cried huskily.
“I’m youth, I’m joy,” Peter answered at a venture. “I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”
This, of course, was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.

I didn’t have the faintest idea of what that really meant, but I loved it. It spoke to my little over-intellectualized heart about the magic of simply being. When I fled to my computer today to center myself with writing, and thought of it as trying to remember who I am, that passage leapt into my head and would not leave.

Why is it speaking so strongly to me today? I think it’s because I need the additional mystery to increase my psyche’s resistance to the projections of others. Getting back in touch with my spiritual side and creative side helps reassure me that there is more to me than my past, but if I need something extra, I can also remember that I do share an important quality with Peter Pan: at the core I’m a mystery and I don’t know who, or what, I am.

And if I don’t know…they certainly don’t.

Nativity

Christmas–the day I’ve been in denial about–is approaching fast, and I am feeling scattered. Some of my handmade gifts are not coming together, which is a polite way of saying I have apparently been laboring under the delusion that I can sew. I’m also feeling self-conscious about there being few gifts for people in general. Most of all, I’m having a hard time putting aside my worries–about my daughter, my husband, money, health, the future…in order to concentrate on the fun aspects of the holiday.

Christians talk about the need for remembering the true spirit of Christmas in this season. When they say this, they are usually referring to the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth and its associated values of hope and redemption. Although I am not a Christian, it was the primary religion in the area where I was born, and I grew up knowing the basic story: Joseph and Mary, angels, shepherds, Bethlehem, no room at the inn, manger, wise men, etc. 

Since I find inspiration in many spiritually oriented sources, on this particular holiday it’s helping me to think about this story. But the way I am thinking about it is a little weird: I see that Jesus being born is a symbol of new hope and change, but that’s not what is speaking to me today. 

Today, the Christmas story is about dealing with the unexpected. It’s about being lost on the way to something new, and learning to live with it. It’s about how it feels when things don’t go as planned, and yet, if one opens to the experience, something wonderful happens.

It’s about Joseph, thinking how complicated his life has become since his fiancée turned up pregnant and the townsfolk began to talk. It’s about Mary in labor in a dirty stable, her hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, thinking she can’t do this any more; this isn’t how the birth was supposed to go. It’s about one of the wise men, who’s thinking about how long he’s been on this quest and how his friends at home probably think he’s an idiot. And it’s about Jesus, who, like any newborn baby, is bombarded with light and sound and unfamiliar sensation and has no idea what to make of it all.

It’s about thresholds and wilderness journeys and liminal states of all kinds. It’s about the fact that new things are new, by definition, and we’re not going to understand the way they come about. That iconic scene of everyone gathered round the manger after the birth is about acceptance of the mystery: being present in the untidy, unexpected moment. How the purity of presence, of attention, practiced by all there transforms that moment into wholeness.

I wish all Christians a joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, and I wish all of us a week of love, good self-care, and presence in the moment.

Rite of Passage

My daughter’s been going through a tough time lately. I really understand how she feels, because I’ve been through it myself. But there’s really no way to make it easier for her–this is just one of those rites of passage we all have to face.

Yes, my daughter’s facing the loss of her first Doctor.

This Christmas, on Doctor Who, Matt Smith will be replaced by a new actor in the iconic role. At least she knows it’s coming–when I lost my first Doctor, I knew nothing about it; I only knew that my beloved character had been replaced with a face and voice that seemed completely wrong.

They say you never forget your first Doctor. For similar reasons, they say your second Doctor is the one it’s hardest to warm up to. That was true for me, and I fear it will be true for her too. I’m sure Peter Capaldi, the upcoming incarnation of the Doctor, will be great, but it’s going to be a challenge for her to accept him.

Matt Smith was the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, and Peter Capaldi is much older. Matt Smith brought a childlike humor to the character, while it’s speculated that Capaldi’s Doctor will be drier and darker. There’s no doubt it will be an interesting transition.

It’s just a TV show, you might be thinking. Well, the thing is, my daughter’s like me in more ways than one. She finds comfort, symbolism, and coping mechanisms in the books, films and characters that are important to her, and Doctor Who is one of her favorites. Every February, we attend a national convention, and she looks forward to it all year. For several years, I had to check her closet for Weeping Angels at night.

Regeneration–the process by which one Doctor gives way to the next–is sort of death and sort of not death. Something carries over, but not everything, and the new version has to get to know himself all over again. As a new teen, I think my daughter identifies with the concept. I wonder if, as she gets to know the new Doctor, she might identify with some of his darkness and compare it to the darkness she has to deal with on a new level now. We can hope.

Wrap Them Up

“You have forty-five minutes until afternoon group. Find the gifts with the right ages on them and wrap them up.”

The large living room of the women’s recovery house was trying really hard to look like a cheerful place that day. One of the counselors had put some Christmas carols on the boom box, and a few decorations had been pinned to the walls. But nothing could remove the gray smoke of regret that hung over the room, unacknowledged but present in every corner.

It was 2008, and I was sitting on an old couch with one baby in each arm and two more in rocking seats nearby on the floor. With my feet, I’d give their seats a prod now and then in the hopes that the rocking would help keep them asleep. I wanted to let their moms have free hands for as long as possible, so they could get some presents wrapped.

Wrapping the presents with their own hands was the only personal input they were going to get into their older children’s holidays this year. The gifts themselves had just been delivered, courtesy of Toys for Tots, and they lay in a pile in the middle of the floor beside a few rolls of wrapping paper, two pairs of scissors, and two rolls of Scotch tape.

These women weren’t going to see their kids on Christmas; the children would be spending it with relatives or with foster families. If not for the donated toys they would have nothing to give their kids at all; as it was, they had a random toy selected for the approximate age and gender. So they wrapped them up, and wrote messages on them, and the living room was chaotic with crumpled paper and displaced frustrations as they argued about who was due the scissors or tape next.

As I sat with the babies, I had one of my many moments of feeling like an impostor. I wasn’t a resident–at the time, I’d never been to rehab–but I already knew enough about my developing addiction to realize that I wasn’t really different from these women. These women, so universally demonized by society for apparently choosing their addictive behavior over their children, were like me and I was like them. I was only luckier. So far.

I’m glad I had at least that much self-honesty at the time; of course, I would later identify far more closely when it was my turn to write my daughter letters from rehab. Various fortunate circumstances in my life gave me more options for treatment and a better environment when I got out, but good fortune is all it was. Many women I met got started on drugs at a very young age, and were trying to do parenting and recovery in an atmosphere of poverty, abuse and violence.

That night, at home, I thought about the expressions on the women’s faces as they looked at what they were “giving” their kids. Grateful as I was for the existence of the donations, it seemed so sad that they couldn’t express any individuality in what they sent. My job involved running a group there that discussed parenting issues, and I wondered whether I could get away with having them do a project making special cards or something. Then I had an idea.

After getting permission from my supervisor, I called my mother-in-law, who makes beads and often has some extras lying around. She was happy to help, so at the group I brought out many kinds of beads, wire, earring posts…everything needed to make inexpensive jewelry. I even managed some masculine-looking letter beads to make name bracelets for boys.

In general, I’m not much of an organizer. But I was glad that, for once, I took some initiative and made this happen. It pleased me to see them choosing colors they thought their kids would like; it didn’t by any means negate the pain of where they were but it was one choice they got to make. And if by chance they used extra time at the end to make a pair of earrings for themselves or a friend…well, I’ll never tell.

Years later, I’m approaching these holidays feeling sad that I don’t have money to give my daughter nice gifts. May I never forget that being able to give her anything I picked out is a privilege that recovery brings…and one that relapse can take away.

Facing the Music

No matter how much I try to hide, there comes a time when I need to come out and face the music.
No, really. It’s actually music. You see, I’ve been invited to a party.

Not just any party. A party full of strangers, who may or may not have anything in common with me and probably wouldn’t talk about it in that setting if they did. A party at which I am expected to behave in a relatively ordinary and unthreatening fashion. A party at which, from arrival to exit, I must keep a strict rein even on my facial expressions, let alone anything that comes out of my mouth.

It’s a company holiday party, and my husband has asked that I attend with him. I have no compelling reason to refuse: even though I will hate it, I know I’m capable of getting through it, and it’s a chance to be supportive for  him.

So it’s time to look for that social balance that is so elusive for me. To be authentic, but not too authentic. Articulate, but not too articulate. Curious and interested in others, but not to the point of asking what I really want to know. (So, what’s your favorite coping mechanism for existential despair?)

Yes, small talk is my greatest obstacle. I have to work really hard to have a conversation beyond hi-nice-to-meet-you without getting into dangerous ground. It’s easier for me when some kind of common ground is understood to exist:

Choir practice: “Beautiful piece, huh? Boy, that B natural is tricky.”
12-step meeting: “Great speaker today! Are you going to the convention?”
Various specialty events: “Wow, that’s a lovely sword/costume/set of restraints you have there. Tell me more about it.”

But I know nothing about these people except a few snippets about what they do for a living (something with software) and that it’s in my husband’s best interest not to have his insane wife be the next topic of company gossip. I worry that I’ll slip and get into conversations like this:

Coworker: Hi, I’m Bob.
Me: Hi, it’s nice to meet you.
Coworker: So, what do you do?
Me: (deer in headlights expression)

That’s actually not so bad. I might be written off as shy and socially awkward of that’s the worst conversation I have. Or it could go like this:

Coworker: So, what do you do?
Me: Well, I used to work in biotech, and then I worked in counseling until my drug addiction and bipolar disorder got too severe. Now I sort of homeschool my daughter who’s just had her first psychiatric diagnosis, and I write a lot about the weird things I do to stay away from drugs and resist my suicidal impulses.
Coworker: (deer in headlights expression)

Now, realistically, I don’t think it’s probable that I will forget myself to that degree. But it’s what will be going through my head. The true conversation is more likely to be somewhere in the middle: I’ll mention my previous career and the fact that I homeschool without going into details about why. Then I’ll turn the conversation to some safe topic like books or games.

It’ll be okay. Really. I wouldn’t have been invited if he didn’t think I am quite capable of making a good impression. I should be proud that the wife he has today is one that he wants his colleagues to meet. And I am. Years ago, even if he wanted to ask me, he wouldn’t have bothered because he knew I wouldn’t go. So tonight’s a gift for both of us, and I am grateful for it–I’m going to try to walk into that party with gratitude, not fear or shame.

That being said, wish me luck.

Can You Ever Trust Us?

We, the addicted ones in your lives–parents, lovers, children, friends–we know how hard it is to feel trust for us. By the time we enter recovery, we’ve done many things that make it unwise to trust us without caution. We’ve probably lied, stolen, broken promises and spun webs of partial truths to feed either our addiction or our denial. Often, you gave us the benefit of the doubt and we took advantage of it.

Sometimes we’re really eager for you to start trusting us again after we get clean and sober. We’re sincerely sorry for the things we’ve done, and we really want you to understand that we have changed (for real this time) and it’s going to be better now. The hope and enthusiasm we might be feeling about our program make us want to charge out there and fix everything, right away.

Some of us learn the hard way that patience is wise at this point, and not simply because the chances of relapse are high in the early months of recovery. We learn that showering you with rosy promises and apologies is one of the worst things we can do right now. We learn that, painful as it is, we just need to keep our heads down and work our program without trying to control the timetable of your feelings.

Perhaps our pride gets hurt by the lack of trust coming our way as we rack up more precious months or even years. “Don’t they see how hard I’m working?” we might grouse to ourselves in a not-so-spiritual moment. “How much I’ve changed? What more do they want from me?” But if we follow the advice given to us by those in long-term recovery, we tolerate these feelings and keep working. We practice patience some more, and as we grow spiritually we come to understand that nobody owes us trust. Or respect, or a loan, or a place to live, or a relationship, for that matter.

These things are gifts. When, or if, you choose to give any of them to the addicted one in your life is for you to choose. To choose free from fear or pressure or manipulation. If we try to manipulate you–for example, by implying that our recovery might be in danger if we don’t get what we “need” from you–you don’t have to give in. Make your choices as well as you can, hopefully without bitterness but with strength and care for yourselves. Know that our recovery is our responsibility, no matter what.

No, really, no matter what. If we are truly committed to our recovery, our behavior will continue to show it whether we are happy about your current behavior or not.

Perhaps all has been going well, and you are considering letting us back into a higher level of your confidence in some way. You worry and wonder about whether you are making the right decision: how can you be sure we won’t relapse? Dare you risk being hurt again? How much time in recovery is enough to make trust safe? A year? Two? Five? How can you know?

If we are humble and truthful, we will acknowledge to you that there is no absolute guarantee against relapse, only the hope and faith that if we continue to do what has been working we will continue to reap the benefits. Perhaps we’ll join with you in crafting conditions for our new association, or agreeing to an action plan in case of relapse.

We wish we had the power to make things easier for you. If we could reach in and rip this monster called addiction out of our bodies and minds and souls, we’d do it, no matter how much it hurt. It would be worth the pain to be able to look into your eyes and swear, with confidence, that we will never, ever hurt you again.

But we can’t.
We have a condition that can be arrested, but not cured.
We have a condition that requires regular treatment.
We have a condition that has killed millions and destroyed the lives of hundreds of millions.

Long-term recovery can bring us, and you, the gifts that come with a life free from active addiction. Your trust can grow, and the mending of past hurts might even help build a deeper and richer relationship. But there will always be a tiny corner of your mind that watches us. That evaluates anything not ringing true. That is alert for signs of trouble.

And that, unfortunately, is as it should be.