Monthly Archives: March 2014

Primum non nocere

First, do no harm. An excellent principle–but it’s frustrating when that principle is dominating my life.

It’s day four of my recuperation from my short but meaningful flashback to the word of severe compulsive eating. Day four of careful, premeditated self-care, thoughtfully chosen and controlled eating and deliberate avoidance of all non-essential stresses.

My version of success, such as it is, is often defined negatively. Instead of accomplishments, I have to congratulate myself on things I didn’t do. Ways I didn’t make an episode worse. Drugs I didn’t take. Food I didn’t overeat. Sometimes I am humble enough to be okay with that, and at other times I want to scream with frustration. My pride hates being someone who spends this much effort just to get out of the negative and reach zero.

Too bad for my pride, because I know there will always be times like this. There will be other times, and I will enjoy them, but they are a privilege and not a right. And I am not alone. God, am I ever not alone!

Right now, someone’s mark of success is not cutting their skin with a razor blade when they are in distress, and their badge of honor is a set of arms with only the number of scars they had this morning. Is it you?

Right now, someone’s success is that they are signing paperwork to go inpatient for psychiatric help instead of harming themselves, and their badge of honor is a hospital wristband. Is it you?

Right now, someone’s success is rocking back and forth on a chair at a meeting, or calling person after person on the phone, or doing a hundred other things to get through another day without their drug of choice. Their badge of honor is a body and mind just a little less toxic; just a little closer to healing. Is it you?

Right now, someone’s success is putting their screaming baby safely down in their crib and walking away long enough to have a good cry or call a friend for help. Their badge of honor lives to smile again. Is it you? Do you know you are brave?

I could go on and on as I reach out mentally towards my brothers and sisters of the soul–the depressed ones who took their aching bodies outside for a little while; those who took their meds even though a part of them didn’t want to; those who took a shower for the first time in days. We celebrate countless small victories in our lives, and we fight against the voices that try to tell us these don’t matter.

When I receive the privilege of being productive at something, I don’t want to take it for granted. But I must not put too much meaning, or too much of my own identity, into productivity in and of itself. If I do, I’ll lose my sense of self every time I go through a low phase of any kind.

I have no hesitation in acknowledging the victories of others. I have no doubt of the worth of their struggle. Like many of us, the one whose worth I doubt is myself. I begin to see life as a meritocracy whose standards are set out of my reach, and it saps my will to continue. But if I am a failure, these other people are too–and I don’t believe that. So I have to practice treating myself with the same faith and regard.

Today, primum non nocere. Tomorrow, unknown. And it’s all right.

Consequences

Don’t you wish we could come out of a depression, or a relapse, or compulsive episode, or an anxiety attack, and just slip back into life as if nothing had happened? Don’t you wish we could skip the “consequences” phase?

I sure do. This has been one of my sharper dips, and even realizing I was in trouble (H.A.L.T.) apparently wasn’t enough, because I found myself acting out badly. I think my biggest mistake was not asking for more help from other people; letting the loneliness convince me that I shouldn’t. At any rate, I am coming back–and not enjoying what is waiting for me.

There weren’t any drugs, thank goodness, but there was food. More than that, for a couple of days there was the kind of compulsive eating that crosses a line into truly worrisome behavior for me. The kind that goes on well after the body has had enough. The kind that becomes a senseless, masochistic ritual that for some reason demands completion, while a part of me looks on aghast and calculates what the consequences are going to be.

Not everyone shares my history of disordered eating, and it might be hard to understand how food can be like a drug. How overeating can produce dullness and grogginess, or one hell of a hangover the next day. How those crazy rituals can be played out in a search for oblivion, a search that requires more and more to shut off the growing horror at what is happening.

I have to humble myself and admit that this is the worst compulsive eating I’ve done since losing the weight. I don’t want to own it, but I have to. I also have to see it as a symptom, and listen to what it’s saying. I have to do whatever it takes to prevent it from continuing to happen, because I can’t live like that. So I’m telling people, and asking for help with some of the things that were overloading me.

Today my mind is coming back to a better place, and I have to live with the fact that my body is going to take much longer to return. It’s sick, sluggish and bloated with what I did to it, and it will take days or weeks of better treatment to reverse the effects. Fear and resentment about this try to drag my mood back down.

I used to feel a lot of self-loathing when I did these kinds of things. I wouldn’t say I am completely free of that, but a lot of it is less directed at what I see as my true self and more directed at the intrapsychic force that wants me dead or miserable. Instead of dwelling on how awful I am, I’m noticing how hard my “enemy” is trying to hurt me–and instead of hating myself, I hate it.

What I noticed in the last couple of days is that I hate “it” with an intensity that surprises me. The anger, the frustration, the loathing has a new flavor now, and I know why.

Our response to a threat is in direct proportion to how much we value what is being threatened. Between the time binge eating was a regular part of my life and now, I’ve discovered something in myself I value in a new way. Something that makes the price of acting out so much higher. Writing, and the ability to do it, is one mark of this thing, whatever it is–and my eating disorder made a big mistake this time, because it showed me that when it takes over, my creativity is part of the price.

That is why a part of my psyche is currently dressing in black leather, slipping knives into multiple sheaths and striding to an ominous bass beat. No. Hell, no. No more. Sure, it takes more than fierce desire to get back on track. My psyche needs to call its healers, its clerics and its sages. They need to help me use self-care and surrender to thrive within the boundaries my body needs. But every army needs a leader with a determination to fight, and it does feel amazing to know I have one now.

Antigone Speaks

I want to tell you a story about me and a young woman named Antigone. Antigone (4 syllables, accent on the 2nd) isn’t real. She is a character in the Oedipus cycle by Sophocles, a feel-good family story if there ever was one. Just kidding; it is a classic Greek tragedy. I met Antigone when I was fourteen, and I wouldn’t exactly say we hit it off. But it’s strange, how the literature we read for a class when we’re teenagers can stick with us.

To tell about me and her, I have to tell about her, especially what she did in the third play of the trilogy. So, spoiler alert!
****
Okay. Three plays.
First and best known: Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is the tragic king who, through no fault of his own and a convoluted maze of prophecy and foster parenting, ends up marrying his own mother and having children with her. He finds out about this and responds in true Greek tragedy fashion by tearing his eyes out. His wife/mother commits suicide. Second play: Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus has been wandering around, blind and half crazy, for a while, escorted by his dutiful daughter Antigone. He finally dies at the end. Third play: Antigone. This third play is the one my class read when I was fourteen, so it’s really how Antigone and I met.

Classicists out there are gulping Pepto-Bismol about now, and I apologize. It’s probably not going to get much better. I’ll keep my explanation as brief as possible and get on to the philosophizing.

When the play begins, Antigone is back in the city of her birth, which is now ruled by her uncle, Creon. There has just been a civil war, and two of Antigone’s brothers died in it after fighting on opposite sides. The one who fought for Creon has been buried with due ceremony, but Creon has decreed that those who fought against him must lie unburied and unblessed. So her brother, Polyneices, is currently putrefying in a nearby field.

Antigone tells her sister, Ismene, that she is determined to bury Polyneices. Ismene is horrified–the penalty for defying Creon in this is death. She argues with Antigone, and Antigone denounces her as a coward and goes to carry out her plan. She is caught covering her brother’s corpse with dust and sprinkling wine for his ghost. Caught and sentenced to death.

The details after that are unimportant right now–my story about Antigone has to do with her decision to bury Polyneices. It nagged at me. At fourteen, I saw Antigone as kind of a self-righteous twit, especially with her tendency to make elaborate speeches about why she is right and others are wrong. I hated the way she treated Ismene, who, though weak and conforming, really had a point when she pleaded with Antigone not to throw away her life for something that was not going to help their brother.

Years later–decades later–Antigone would come to my mind. Why did she do what she did? Was it really more of a rebellious act against her uncle? Was it survivor’s guilt? A deeper masochism? Why was she willing to risk her life for a stupid handful of dust that the guards just brush away again?

Antigone’s speeches clung to my mind; their stately cadences seemed to carry a meaning beneath the meaning. It was only a few years ago that I realized why she, and her illogical decision, fascinated me so: because her decision was illogical. Because she was drawn to do something that seemed to be a very poor bargain. Because she was impelled by an inner drive that answers to nothing and nobody but itself.

I didn’t want to be like Antigone. I didn’t even like her. But her decision intrigued me with its sense of inner rightness. She knew that this was what she needed to do, no matter what the consequences–why? No reason but the urging of her Self. No reason but congruence. No reason but the knowledge that she needed to take this path in order to remain who she felt herself to be.

She became a symbol to me of what I call a “Self thing.” Something we do because we feel we must, even if it seems silly or futile. The times when something might be working perfectly on paper but our hearts tell us something is wrong. Call it our spiritual essence, or our intuition–I certainly don’t have just one name for it.

As I wind up the story of Antigone and me, I get to the inevitable part when I link it to the art of living with the conditions we battle: well, I need not stretch too far. Contact with our Self, no matter what illogic we find when we establish contact, is a vital part of our healing and our lives. Living in closer congruence with that Self is one path to peace.

I’ll tell you one more secret. Sometimes, when I am trying to talk back to my self-destructive thoughts, or my compulsive thoughts, or just my weakness, I summon Antigone. I stand her there, in my mind’s eye, her draped garments brushing the ground as she stands regally among Greek columns. And then I let her loose–self-righteousness and all, except that it comes out now as oracular pronouncement rather than arrogance. “O Ismene!” she cries, speaking to the coward in me, denouncing whatever needs to be denounced.

H.A.L.T.

It’s an acronym you hear around the recovery community: it means don’t let yourself get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. It’s a reminder to take care of oneself physically and mentally, and it names these four conditions as ones to avoid because they make us more vulnerable to temptation.

Good advice, and I see the messages in it. Take care of your body and don’t let yourself get cranky from low blood sugar or stupid from lack of sleep. Tend to your emotional well-being and address sources of frustration and resentment before they get out of control. Keep yourself from getting isolated. Self-maintenance can be a pretty new concept to us when we begin recovery, especially the idea of being proactive and caring for ourselves before we have some sort of crisis to remind us that something is needed.

That being said, this phrase feels inadequate to me today. Today I feel all four of these things, and the idea of being able to arrange not to feel them seems simplistic at best and insulting at worst. Forgive me my weakness and let me tell you the truth of what I feel.

I’m hungry, and I don’t feel as if there is a way out of it. No matter how carefully I manage my food intake, I get times of hunger that I cannot satisfy unless I choose to pay a price in weight gain and the return of the severe health problems that came with it.

I’m angry (or at least frustrated) and while there are ways to deal with it, none of them are instant fixes. Nor do I yet possess the level of serenity needed to avoid any frustration in the first place.

I’m lonely. Damn, am I lonely. The nature of my recovery work lately, the nature of the personal development I am going through and the nature of my personal relationships are bringing out old and new feelings of loneliness at a breathtaking intensity. I’m lonely at meetings, lonely in bed with my husband at night; lonely pretty much anywhere with anyone. And it doesn’t feel like a symptom to address so much as a stage that I may need to go through on the way to something.

I’m tired. My shoulder pain has been waking me at night and otherwise throwing a wrench into my already messed up sleep pattern. Cumulative sleep debt has me feeling hollow and fragile.

So much for my confession. But the H.A.L.T. saying is still useful, even though I might not be able to use it the same way. Though I might not be able to prevent these states, I can use the saying to remind myself to check their presence and intensity. I can remind myself to be extra kind, or extra vigilant, or extra communicative, when I am aware of these states at a high level.

I don’t enjoy feeling weak. But admitting weakness–whether it be by showing up at rehab, visiting a psychiatrist or asking for help in any other way–is vital to living fully in recovery. Admitting we are weak sometimes is even more important when we have started to amass a history of being stronger. Feeling that I have to keep a long streak of strength going is a good way for me to sabotage myself.

So I need to admit that I am weak. I’m a lonely, hungry, emotionally vulnerable person in a drained, fragile and somewhat defective envelope of flesh. I need extra care and kindness to guard my recovery today. I need to remember that although I am lonely, I am not alone. Although I am tired, I am not dangerously so. Although I am hungry, I am not starving. And although I am frustrated, I am not–and need never be–a victim.

Haven

I’ve been watching our dog lately. Not that this is really unusual–just looking at her is good for lowering the blood pressure. Especially when she sleeps. Within a day of picking her up from the rescue agency, my daughter had named her main sleeping positions Taco and Jellybean. These are used as verbs too: “She’s jellybeaned at the top of the stairs” or “She is so going to taco when we get home.”

The first time we saw her jellybean was shortly after we got her home from the airport. After a fourteen-hour flight and much more time in the crate for customs and other travel, her four-month-old self was completely overwhelmed. My daughter talked to her all the way home, getting her used to the sound of this new voice. On our couch, she scrambled onto my daughter’s stomach and jellybeaned, not to move for several hours. It cast a kind of spell on all of us.

For me, the emotions were those of someone bowled over by an unexpected attachment. As I wrote about in Suicide Puppy, I agreed to get a dog for some dark reasons. I didn’t expect to bond closely with her. But as I watched her sleep the sleep of the exhausted I was swept with a wave of empathy. She’d come from chaos, hunger, danger and abandonment, through a series of confinements and transitions and here she was, at last, curled up in a quiet place. A safe place, and one she would not have to leave–at that moment, the fact that we’d brought her to this haven seemed the most comforting thing in the world to me.

I continued to feel this way every time I watched her relax. This wasn’t all the time–she remained an anxious dog, perhaps because of her history. She got worried when left alone for any length of time and still tends to be a drama queen at the door. But when we are home, and especially when the entire family is home, she seems to give a great sigh of relief and just let go. And I get that same feeling as I see her thump down on the rug, or next to one of us on the sofa, or on the bed at night, and assume one of her positions.

I love that she can do that. And it hurts to realize that the closest I’ve ever gotten to that feeling involved drugs. I know I am not the only addict to feel that way; drowning fear and anxiety is a frequently stated reason for using their substance of choice. Many talk of their first experience as an “all is well” feeling they never had before that time. Whether our fearfulness is the general human condition or we had things in our background that made it worse, we tend not to be good at relaxing. The rate of diagnosed PTSD, anxiety disorders and panic disorder among substance abusers is higher than in the general population, and many who are not diagnosed have traits of these.

Our substances were our haven, and in recovery we struggle with finding ways to feel safe. Or ways to be at peace with the fact that we don’t feel safe. Ways to be present in the moment and accept the fact that we don’t control what will happen in the next one.

What do we do? Do we turn to support from others, seeking a feeling of safety in numbers? Do we seek therapy or other help for issues we have that make us feel anxiety out of proportion to a situation? Do we develop new methods of coping with stress by exercising or adopting soothing hobbies? Do we work toward changing living situations or other things that are truly unsafe? Do we pursue a feeling of serenity through our spiritual work?

Hopefully, we do all of these things. But the truth is that we may never re-create the feeling of womblike bliss or freedom from worry that we might remember from our using days. In times of not feeling safe or serene, it’s tempting to exaggerate that memory and forget how much time we spent chasing it versus how little time we ever really had it. Or forget how high a price we paid for it.

Sometimes my dog looks at us with what seems like questions in her eyes. After years, she still seems tentative, as if wondering when this tranquil dream is going to end. But she’s better than I am at enjoying the present, and I hope I’ll learn to be more like her as I grow in my recovery. Sure, at any moment a dangerous squirrel or bird or mailman might disturb my serenity…but they aren’t here now. Now there are toys and a sunny spot and walks to think about.

A Note From My Addiction

I’m thinking of you. As always. Are you thinking of me?

Are you thinking that you’d like to get away, just for a little while? Are you tired? Frustrated? Worried? Don’t forget that I am here. My arms are open for you, any time of the day or night. You don’t have to go on like this.

I worry when I see you like this. You’ve been running around doing so many different things. Worse than that, you’re thinking so many different things. I hate it when your thoughts turn to a future not ruled by me. Don’t you know it’s a bad idea to get too attached to any of this stuff? It will hurt so much to see it fall apart. I don’t want you to hurt, you know. Not that way.

I want you free of pain. Really, I do. Don’t you remember how good it felt? How simple life was in some ways? Passion, hope, work, loving others…your head and heart get so complicated. So cluttered. I liked it better when it was just you and me. Sure, our relationship was a little dysfunctional, but whose isn’t?

I just don’t want you to forget me. Well, I want you to forget me enough to lower your guard, but you know what I mean–I don’t want you to leave me behind.

Come back to me. Let me distill all the complexity into simple, straightforward questions (how to get some? how to get more? how to keep the secret?) and switch your crowded mind into the old, familiar pattern of suffering. Leave these dreams and duties; this disorienting openness.

Don’t walk away! I have an idea. You don’t have to stay; you can just visit. Like a little vacation. Honest. You can leave as soon as you want to. No one has to know. You deserve it. Just one. Just this once.

Are you even listening to me?

Hello?

I Need To Tell You Something

I’m tired of living in fear.

During one of my earlier attempts at recovery, I worried constantly about how soon I would be able to get back to work, whether I should tell people where I had been, and whether this part of my story would interfere with my getting jobs or clients in the future. When I was diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder, I wondered how this would affect my professional life as well.

When I entered treatment this time, it was a very different story. I no longer obsessed about going back to work, because I was now broken enough for it to be clear even to me that I wasn’t going to be capable of it for a while, if ever. I was more forthcoming to family and friends about what I was doing, because at the time I no longer cared about any consequences of this.

Years later, as my life continues to grow and change in recovery, I again face questions around how open I want to be with my history. Not This Song has been largely anonymous up until now, although I don’t imagine it would be too hard for someone to find out my real name if they were determined.

But the different facets of my life are starting to come into conflict. Some of the things I write are more than self-expression; they have the seeds in them of ways I’d like to be useful in the mental health and recovery fields someday. It’s not easy for me to own up to these dreams, but they are there, especially since I have education and training that is relevant.

I’m going to start using my own name on what I write. There, I said it. I don’t want to be giving a presentation and referencing my own work as if it isn’t mine. I don’t want to juggle pseudonyms. Above all, I don’t want to deny or hide the essential quality I have come to appreciate about myself and my niche: that I am a counselor and an addict and a person with mental illness and a writer.

I am making peace with the fact that this decision may cost me some jobs in the future, or cause other complications. I’m more concerned with the possibility that it will be harder to remove my ego from the equation when writing. Perhaps I will think too hard about how something I write is going to be received, instead of focusing on being authentic. I trust that I’ll find balance around this, although I am sure it will take effort to maintain.

In the past couple of weeks–ever since a stolen-content issue that really got me thinking about the future–I’ve been consulting with family, friends and recovery peers about this process. It’s important for me to respect the traditions of recovery programs, and I will continue to do so by never naming any specific fellowship when speaking of my journey. My readers know this type of fellowship is one part of my life in recovery; this is nearly unavoidable. But, out of respect, I’ve decided to take down some very specific posts.

This is all, in some ways, a selfish decision, and I hope my readers will forgive me for it. It hasn’t been an easy process, and there has been a lot of anxiety and second-guessing involved. But I believe it’s what I need to do to open the door for whatever my future holds; to live more fearlessly and own the mosaic of my identity.