Monthly Archives: January 2014

Probably Nothing

I’ve never been good with things that are pending. In recovery, and the more functional life that comes with it, there are usually many things in process, and they aren’t going to be resolved by one day or one action. Instead of the single-minded drive of an active addict, my mind contains a hundred worries, a hundred dreams, and a hundred tasks that need to be rated in importance and broken down into smaller steps. The learning curve can be exhausting, and it’s one reason it is so important for me to recenter myself with meetings or other times focused specifically on recovery.

Last week, I was diagnosed with a Probably Nothing. You know, when the doctor says. “It’s probably nothing, but…” and they send you to someone else to Take a Look. Like many who have been in similar situations, I’m supposed to go on with my normal life until the specialist appointment. Only a week to go now.

Logic dictates that I not spend too much energy on this until I know more. Yeah, my brain is all about logic. The truth is, a situation like this wakes up that negative, critical, doomsaying voice I recently featured in Intervention. “Aha, told you so,” it tries to say. “Told you there was no point in trying to change. Everything you’ve been doing is pointless; you were wrong to hope and this is the proof.”

“Do you think being in a phase of change makes you immune to the random cruelty of the universe?” it goes on. “Remember the woman who spent nine years becoming a Jungian analyst and was diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks after graduation? In three months she was dead; all her work wasted. That’s what happens.”

It’s good that I am fairly quick to identify that voice these days. Naming and describing it helps to remove some of its power, and I can talk back to it: Oh,  you again. Yeah, yeah, heard it before. And by the way, even if the worst happens, it was all worth it, because how I die matters, and how that woman spent the last years of her life matters too, so fuck off.

But there’s a new flavor added to the anxiety I feel. It’s not as if it’s the first time I have been faced with a potential, or actual, medical problem. So what is different about this time? Since I’ll need to live with this feeling for a while yet, I’ve been trying to get familiar with it.

Does the thought of serious illness scare me more now because I have more to lose? Do I fear the regret of having to leave this level just as I begin to experience it more fully? Or is it just that I’m more conscious and aware of my feelings and fears?

Both of these are probably at play, but there is something else. I think it has to do with the fact that, possibly for the first time in my life, I am actually taking care of myself physically. Not perfectly, but I am not engaging in any self-destructive behavior or any forms of dangerous self-neglect. I’m not pouring toxic drugs into my system. I’m not a heart attack or stroke or organ failure waiting to happen because of sky-high cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugars. I’m not ignoring the important medications I need to take.

Why would this make me more worried? It’s paradoxical, but I think I get it. In the past, if something was wrong, it tended to be at least partly my fault. Or, at the very least, there was something I was supposed to be doing to make it better that I wasn’t doing. So, in a weird way, I had control. Now I don’t–if this Probably Nothing isn’t, then it is truly not in my control. It’s not a punishment or a consequence of my neglect; it just falls into the category of Shit Happens, and it’s happened to me because it can happen to anyone.

That makes me feel vulnerable. Guess it’s lesson #8,323 in my remedial, accelerated curriculum on being a human.

What time is recess again?

Berries in a Cup

Can I talk to you for a minute? Yes, you there. The girl holding the white coffee mug. I’ve been watching you walk along this sidewalk for the last two hours. You’re picking the red berries from the bushes that line the road and dropping them into that white china cup. When the cup gets full, you dump them out and start over.

I want to say there are better things you could be doing with this afternoon.

Happy birthday, by the way. I know you turned ten two days ago, and I know your presents are unopened. The cake you’ll never taste is drying out on the kitchen counter. But you’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about how striking the berries’ redness looks against the white.

I understand that the sidewalk’s a more comfortable place than the house right now. The tension and grief make it hard for you to breathe, and the more time you spend in there the farther away you go. The family is ironing out its new set of rules, especially the ones about never mentioning your brother again and the ones about not being allowed to do anything to upset your mother. But you’re not thinking about that. Though it’s June, you’re thinking about how pretty the red berries would look in the snow.

I want to tell you to disobey those rules. I want to tell you to go into that house and let them know you exist. Numbness seems like your best bet right now, but damn it, kid, it’s not going to lead you to a good place. Feel something! Wake up! Drop that stupid cup and express yourself some other way!

I’m not trying to be mean, I swear. But you have no idea how this talent for dissociation you’re honing can get out of control. You’ve been working on it for years, but this is going to tip you over the edge. You’re already forgetting how to even feel more than vague distress, let alone express it, and it will take you decades to touch it again. You’re becoming invisible. In three years berries and books won’t be enough, and you’ll add binge eating to the mix. Your life will be defined by that for decades, until it’s no longer enough and you add drugs.

That’s why I want to knock that cup out of your hand.

Repeat after me. By some miracle, hear my voice and repeat after me: He is dead. He was only two years old and he’s dead. He was the person who made me smile and he’s dead. He died in a stupid, unnecessary car accident on my birthday and he’s never coming back. He made our family less unhappy for a little while and now it is disintegrating. I’m allowed to feel something about this.

Let that be your mantra. Keep repeating it. Keep repeating it through the upcoming divorce, the attempted reconciliations, the multiple moves and the homelessness. Through your sisters’ acting out, the fights, the departures, and the lonely days and nights when it’s just you and your mother left.

Everything could be different if you don’t stay invisible! The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so squeak. Shriek. Demand some help. Demand to be heard. Get mad, get sad; sulk like a normal goddamn teenager instead of spending the next eight years trying to be good. Don’t become someone who will smile, be silent, work or fuck for the privilege of avoiding intense feelings or confrontation.

When I look at your blank eyes, I feel all the rage that you can’t. Because I know that in a few years the blankness won’t be obvious any more, but it’ll still be there within. The default response to any stressor: switch off by any means necessary. And now I’m trying to unlearn it. So help me out here, and get some practice at a different path now. Please.

You can’t hear me. The sunset is approaching, and soon you will have to go into the house. You’ll slip quietly into the room you share with your sisters and hope they won’t come in until later. But you’re not thinking about that now. You’re thinking about which birds eat the red berries, and whether they will flock to the piles of discards you leave by the sidewalk.

Expecto Patronum

As I’ve written about before on Not This Song, the already complicated job of being a parent is made more complicated when the parent lives with a mental illness. I’m not the only one who thinks so: there’s a relatively new site called Crazy Good Parent that does a great job of mixing facts, humor, empathy and realism when talking about these issues. This month I contributed this piece to a series on communicating with your children about these tricky topics. Check it (and the rest of the site) out!


Rosetta Poem

I’m stuck tonight. Many potential articles are on my list of titles but none of them will come to me, and I think it’s because I am “overdue” to write a poem: like a woman in week 41 of pregnancy, I’m uncomfortable and irritated with my condition. As I wrote in Poet Mode, my bad poetry fills a slightly different space in my soul, and it’s become very important to my recovery and my ability to stay connected to myself.

There’s been very little chance to get away alone this week. I can carry off prose by putting on earphones and ignoring what’s around me for a while, but poet mode requires a different space. A cafe is all right as long as nobody there knows me; so is a library, but I can’t seem to engage poet mode properly when my family is around. I’ve also found my high pain level distracting.

If I even had a half-formed poem in my head, it wouldn’t be so bad…that’s a   different kind of frustration. But I don’t; I just know I need one. I find myself brainstorming about potential subjects for poetry, scanning the “universal” topics to see if I get a flash of response I can narrow down:

…love hate indifference despair depression apathy wrath
grief loneliness
breaking up breaking down dying
resurrecting dying again failure
battles ambushes glorious last stands
beauty power transformation
sex good sex bad sex weird sex no sex
growing up getting old time timelessness
confusion frustration truth gods demons journeys memories…

it’s all real but nothing jumps out and says “Me! Me! I’m the general theme of your next poem!”

Crap. That technique has worked for me before when I truly had a blank canvas, and this means that there really is a specific poem stuck in there, a specific image or feeling that is waiting. I can sense it now. What does it want?

Something in my psyche is really digging in its heels…until this damn poem, whatever it’s about, comes out I apparently won’t be writing anything else, prose or poetry. How do “real” poets deal with this issue? Is it just a matter of writing frequently, or always having fragments of multiple poems around so that “poem pending” becomes the natural state of things?

In general, I don’t like to write about not being able to write…I feel as if it’s been done before, often. But I suppose there’s a reason it’s been done a lot: it’s a central part of the creative experience, which is a central part of the human experience. So who am I to be so arrogant? Am I so special that everything I share about is supposed to be somehow unique?

Integrative recovery is about growing in multiple directions…not upward, but outward like the arms of a starfish. Reaching into human realms we’ve been cut off from for so long, or never had the chance to experience at all. Human realms, so I need to get over myself. My writer’s block is just as relevant to my message about life in recovery as anything else is, because it’s my truth at the moment.

By the way…I know what the poem is about now. It was my ego, my perfectionism, that was standing in the way of realizing it. The poem’s an old idea I have had on hold for years, because it is very special to me and I don’t think I can do justice to it. Now I see that it is time to set aside that insecurity, put on my black turtleneck and beret, and get to work.


I have a new and weird relationship in my life. Twice a week, I slip away to meet a younger guy who likes to hurt me. He praises me when I can take a lot, and he encourages me to try harder when I resist. When I come home, I’m aware of my body in a whole new way…and I keep going back, even though I ache from our previous meeting.

Physical therapy is not easy.

When I began this treatment for my shoulder problems, I didn’t realize it was going to hurt so much. My previous attempts at physical therapy, for my lower back problems, had involved more passive techniques. But I had a very different attitude back then, and if I’m honest with myself I see that there are many things they wanted to have me do or do with me that I simply refused. I would not consent to endure any discomfort, even though it might bring healing, and I wanted immediate relief. And, quite frankly, a part of me probably just wanted to get more painkillers and go home.

What I and this gentleman are doing now is aimed at improving my range of motion and building strength in new places…constructive action. I’m truly interested in treating the underlying problem, and I am willing to endure discomfort in order to do it. Even as I ache, I feel gratitude for these signs of the changes recovery has made in my outlook.

During the sessions, he tells me to let him know when the pain is too much.  Like someone engaging in consensual pain play who has a “safeword,” I have the ability to stop something when I judge that I must. It creates a dilemma for me, though: I don’t always trust my perception of pain.

Painkillers were my drug of choice when practicing my addiction. This meant that I habitually overestimated my pain level, even to myself, in order to get more of them. This habit sank into the levels of my consciousness, aided by the destructive effects of opiates on the body’s natural ability to process pain, until my pain threshold was pathetically low and I responded to any degree of pain with overwhelming anxiety.

My personal experience of recovery involved becoming willing to be in pain if that was what it took to stay clean, and I’m grateful to say that my average pain level has declined over time. Today, because I am so aware of my previous habits, I think I might have a tendency to underestimate pain in a situation like this, or try to take intense pain because I think it’s the mature thing to do.

So when do I call out my safeword as he digs into scar tissue or rotates my arm through agonizing arcs? How do I know when my pain at home is bad enough to justify skipping an exercise? It’s that balance thing again. No real answer, but it helps to be aware of the question.

This feels too much in my head as I read it…I don’t want to leave it like that.  I want to admit that I feel scared. And vulnerable. And I worry that it won’t improve. Though I may have a safeword with him, I don’t have one against the constant aching or the sudden jolts of pain that answer movements. I’m powerless, and I don’t get to take a pill or push a button for quick relief from distress.

When I feel vulnerable, I want to distract myself from the feeling. But after I’m done running through the potential distractions and saying either “won’t do that” or “did that, didn’t work” to each one, I have no choice but to relax into the sensation. Soften. Yield. Be human, damaged, imperfect and in pain. After a while, if I soften into it, I am not afraid any more.

It’s Complicated

Not This Song has become a very eclectic place. I write about twelve-step recovery and about living with mental illness, and I write about living with the combination of these circumstances. But I also muse about spirituality in general, personal memories, parenting, science fiction and metaphors from all of these areas. Even some of my “bad” poetry finds its way onto the site. One could argue for splitting off some of this content into other blogs, but I don’t want to do that.

The varied nature of this site’s content pleases me, and I’m at peace (most of the time) with the fact that the site can’t be quickly or easily described any more than my goals for it can. This, after all, reflects the nature of integrative recovery in general and my recovery in particular: it’s complicated. It’s complicated because we are, and because life is, and because I write what speaks to me on a given day.

Making some of that complication visible and traceable is one of the greatest gifts of beginning to write. When I look back and see a series of essays, their different tone, mood, and especially subject matter sometimes seem as if they must have been written months rather than days apart. But they’re all current; they are all true for me, and by embracing their spectrum I honor my own multifaceted nature. I also get to see that words reflecting pain and darkness get bracketed by different ones: that the dark times pass, or at least change form into shapes I can work with.

There will always be recurring themes in my writing here; topics I can’t imagine running dry about.

I’ll keep writing about my recovery from drug addiction and eating disorders: what it’s like to live without my substances of choice, and the things I do to make that life something I want. The obstacles, doubts, and setbacks I encounter and what I do to get through them. What all this teaches me about being human.

I’ll keep writing about living with a mental illness and the things I do to try to make that life something I want. The attempts to learn acceptance, self-care, and adaptability.

I’ll keep writing about the deeply human experience of being a mother and what witnessing my child’s journey teaches me about love, acceptance, and powerlessness.

I’ll keep crafting metaphors out of stories, characters, objects, daily experiences and air molecules. I’ll keep writing bad poetry to share some of my less intellectual side and illustrate how important it is to learn to play.

I’ll keep writing about gratitude, and my attempts to live in it more often. How it feels to have my creativity flow, or my passionate nature stir, or my good qualities shine through. What inspires me and what I think about when I need a reason to keep going.

It’s only been six months, and about a hundred posts…but it’s long enough for me to know that doing this has not been one of those “fizzle” projects we have all had. I don’t know its destiny any more than I know my own, but that is all right for now. Not This Song will continue…and evolve. So will I.

I Remember the Shire

Ash swirls through the air. Rocks rain down around him, and lava creeps toward the jutting rock that is to be his final resting place. Blood seeps from the open wound where his finger used to be, and the sound of his best friend’s weeping drifts faintly through the noise of the mountain ripping itself apart beneath them.

Frodo is blissfully happy. Lying back against the unforgiving stone, he exhales a sigh of contentment, and a little smile plays across his lips as he breathes:
“I remember the Shire.” 

He tells Sam he can see it now, as he could not see it when the now-destroyed Ring was possessing his mind. Once more, he is capable of imagining the color green and the taste of fruit. Minutes from death, he basks in the reunion with this capacity: the reunion with his inner self. He is free, and the fear of death is but a pale abstraction next to this overwhelming truth.

Tell me I’m not the only one who always has tears in my eyes at this moment.

I can’t help it. It’s too sweet; and too true. That feeling of reunion with oneself; that feeling of inner authenticity so strong that the external world drops away. I’ve had flashes of it, and those brief flashes keep me going because I want more.

If you’re anything like me, you spend much of your life either acting on or battling fear, insecurity, shame, envy, or a thousand other things that make it harder to accept and love yourself completely. Whatever the external circumstances that cause you difficulty in your life, their effects are often outgunned by the pain created in that more complex kingdom within your psyche.

By the same token, a change in that inner kingdom can remove a lot of power from the external one. We’ve all known people who were improbably serene in the face of a situation we think is worse than our own: how can this be? I think these people are in closer contact with their inner selves: they “remember the Shire” and it means so much to them that fear and regret fade away.

They say that a spiritual void lies at the core of addiction and many other troubles common to the human condition. I’ve attempted to fill the hole in my spirit with many things, and after years of seeking I have met something that fits the hole like a key fits the lock. Only for moments, still, but what moments. I have felt what Frodo felt on that rock: a sense of wholeness, of consummation, of recognition so powerful that it casts out all fear and uncertainly.

I remember. Oh, God, I remember.

Do you?