Monthly Archives: May 2014

Bring Me Thy Failure

Accepting ourselves, exactly as we are, is a theme that recurs in my writing–and when I figure out how to do it consistently, I’ll be sure to let you know. In a life that involves so many highs, lows, and struggles to repair the damage caused by the latest ones, I must cling to my spiritual beliefs about the worth of the human soul, the value of consciousness, and the meaning of our fight. I must cling to ideas that go against those of the success-obsessed culture I am living in.

I don’t belong to one religion, but I need regular doses of the spiritual thoughts expressed in the literature of various teachings. I don’t agree with everything Jesus is quoted as saying in the Christian writings–but some phrases speak to me with a powerful and tender voice. I’m not Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, but I’ve read writings of these traditions. In each, I have found passages that comfort, inspire and support me. I’ve found words that give me that shivery ripple of sensation–that yes, yes, this is right, this is truth to me.

Humility and acknowledgement of our imperfection shows up as a common thread in most traditions. Some language is more conducive to self-blame than others, but there tends to be encouragement to see and admit that we–no matter our striving, hard work, or even obsessively virtuous behavior–are imperfect, have fallen and will fall short of perfection, and thus have a need for grace, change and evolution.

Entering recovery from my addiction is only one of several things in life that have required this admission from me, and I need guidance and grace to make the admission while retaining a sense of self-love. In To Turn Will Be Our Delight I wrote about some of the feelings that come up when I must revisit this awareness.

As I work on minimizing the destructive power of my current bipolar episode and healing the damage I have already done to myself, I need comforting words on this theme. The specific ones that are on my mind come from a Hindu writing called the Bhagavad Gita today. Why? Because they make me feel that my version of God welcomes me as is.

In one section (Chapter XII) of the piece, the god Krishna urges his followers to cling to him with their spirits, keeping their mind and soul devoted to him: “Renouncing self in Me, full of Me, fixed to serve only the highest, night and day musing on Me…” But what’s so wonderful is that Krishna immediately seems to note that this isn’t realistic for humans and says to simply worship him steadfastly if their thoughts can’t sustain such heights. Then he goes further, saying “And, if thou canst not worship steadfastly, work for Me, toil in works pleasing to Me!”

This alone is really cool, reassuring us that our efforts to do good matter, but then Krishna goes still further and gives me my “shiver” words. This god says: “But if in this thy faint heart fails, bring Me thy failure!”

The phrase hit me like a brick the first time I read it, ten years ago. Now, if I focus on it, it spurs an entire speech from my personal idea of God. Words I need desperately.

Love, bring me thy failure too. Hide nothing from me. Give it to me, all of it, every iota of what you are and what you have done, every ounce of longing and hurt. Every low impulse, failed task and dark thought; I desire them as much as your luminous dreams and deeds. I want to read and reread every word of the story of you.

Although I don’t write too often about the specifics of my spiritual frame, it is vitally important to my process and to everything else I write. The need for grace, the noticing of grace, and being thankful for grace are tools I can’t do without in my attempt to live a rich and creative life. My friends, I hope you too have a belief in something that loves you and wants to give you grace. I hope that if you don’t, you will seek it someday. Don’t let anything that truly turns you off in one set of principles drive you away from the general quest for your own scheme of meaning and love.

Today I want to lay my imperfections on the altar created by my experience of divinity: an altar that wants not blood, not painful atonement, but only the one thing I am always equipped to give: my authentic self.

Commencing Countdown

Ground control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…

And in the background a soft, implacable voice is chanting ten…nine…eight…

Lovely old tune. “Space Oddity” as done by David Bowie. It’s what is going through my head today. Well, that and the desire to eat anything that wanders in my direction. As I expected, and have warned my loved ones, my manic-flavored symptoms are stirring. As soon as I stopped squashing them with overdoses of food, the process began.

It’s been less than thirty-six hours. The good parts of it are being able to draw a full breath again, not being sick to my stomach and not spending my day in a haze. Being able to access some of my creativity–I even have a poem incubating.

Oh, if only it were going to stop here. I’m not trying to do a self-fulfilling prophecy here, and I know how attitude can shape mood. I am just hoping that by expecting it and naming it I will be less frightened during what happens to me. When I feel unreal, or my mind begins to work a certain way, it helps me to realize that, whatever else is going on, there is also a biochemical process at work. It helps me not to believe everything I think…and that’s a vital skill to have during one of these phases.

If recent experience is a guide, things will get more interesting in one or two days. That’s the point at which I have been starting to overeat again, and if I don’t do it this time I will experience the symptoms undulled. Chances are sleep will be seriously impacted, as will my anxiety level. The racing thoughts will pick up speed until my head feels like a blender, and I will want to talk, and talk, and talk…leaping from one subject to another, crackling with energy, crazily articulate.

As I was struggling with abstaining yesterday, I realized that the hypomanic/manic side of my condition is something I tend to hide a lot from the people I know. Although I’m very out there about having the condition, I closet myself away during the above phases. I don’t want my friends to see me like that. As I was talking with a recovery friend yesterday, I realized she has never seen me in that state, and that I tend to refrain from even calling people when manic symptoms are up.

Perhaps I need to question this. If I am going to keep from self-medicating, there will inevitably be times, like now, when I have to tolerate the symptoms for a while until the appointment comes or until the meds adjustment kicks in. Why should I attempt to tolerate them all alone? Do I trust my friends so little that I think they would reject me if I let them see this part of myself?

Well…yes. I am operating on a belief system that tells me that I should not let my friends see anything but my best behavior, and if I must share anything else it should be the depressive side. Not this. Not the lashing tentacles of thought that wave randomly about. Not the woman who makes passionate, evangelical speeches about whatever comes into her head, whether it’s a deep spiritual concept or a lizard she saw in the yard. Not the skittering, jerkily firing limbic system and restlessness. Not the random breaking into song, or the unfiltered jokes and puns…not since Detox Diva have I ever really been manic-y in front of witnesses, and they were sort of a captive audience.

It’s hard for me to admit that I lack that feeling of trust. That I don’t feel as if I have people who would be willing to put up with me when I’m off the hook–not dangerous, not mean, but definitely out there. People who would humor me, and ground me, and just be there with me, because they love me.  Just the idea of being able to truly let that part of myself out, and stop trying to hold it back for fear of burdening or annoying my spouse or daughter, fills me with a wistful longing.

It isn’t my friends’ fault; they’ve never been given the chance or the choice to be there for me. And I’ll never know until I learn to share more of myself. No matter how conscientiously I work to manage my symptoms, my condition and all of its aspects are part of who I am. If I try to confine my human interactions to the times my energetic state falls within a narrow middle range, I will live a very lonely life.


Has it really been less than a week since I wrote? How is it possible for the season not to have changed? Is there really no mark at all on the world to commemorate these days? I find it both reassuring and disorienting. Surely, it seems to me, there would be some kind of blight on the natural world to reflect the destruction within me.

On Not This Song, I try to describe the bad times as well as the good so that people will know they are not alone. I don’t want to describe this time, and I don’t want to talk about how active a part I have been playing in my own pain. How implacable I have been, how relentless, in my determination to harm and humiliate myself. How divorced from my own values I can become in my quest to hide from the things I feel unable to handle.

In Oh, Sweetheart, I managed to put some words to the beginning of this recent cycle–the break, the decompensation, the turning to food as a way of grounding and distracting myself. Right now I’m appreciating that I was able to do that much; able to send a bit of love and acknowledgment to that person instead of condemning her. I want to say that it made the difference; that loving and acknowledging myself helped me stop the process I had begun. It did not.

Food was my tool, and I know others struggle with it as well. This was worse than any binge eating I have described here before…a days-long, focused administration of amounts and types of food that affect me like Thorazine, leaving me dizzy, semiconscious, nauseated and basically too ill and disgusted to address any of the issues in my life. Pleasure or solace in eating were nonexistent; most of the time I had no desire for what I was eating.

I am an addict, and I know that extends to this issue. I choose to celebrate anniversaries of my time free from drugs, and not start my count over when I have trouble with food, but I know this is a choice. That being said, I know that this latest incident is also very connected to my bipolar disorder, which I finally admit has been on an upward trend all this spring. I’ve had many heartfelt–and unsuccessful–attempts to clean up my eating and keep it clean, and they last for two to four days. What undoes me at this time are not the symptoms I know and expect from sugar and carb detox, but the hypomanic symptoms that begin to rise whenever I don’t damp them down with food.

I adjusted my meds slightly a couple of months ago, when I had a sharp depressive episode. It’s time for me to admit that I need more than a slight change. It may be time to bring out the heavier guns in terms of meds that help the manic aspect, or add back meds that used to be part of the picture. There are several non-addictive options that have been used in the past.

For this I need to actually meet with my psychiatrist; a phone call is not enough. So I called his receptionist and was given an appointment for June 18, more than three weeks from now. Really? I’m not exactly booking a manicure here. I know there are clinics I can go to if I get into urgent crisis, but my doc is the one who knows me and can compare my present and past. So I need to try to cope without harming myself until then. I need to embrace the spirit of A Trip to Town when necessary, and do whatever it takes to stay away from the food that will hurt me.

I’ve stopped for now, and alerted my family to expect a rise in my manic symptoms if I manage to stay stopped for more than a few days. How I wish I could write more inspirational things today. How I wish I could carry a stronger message of hope and show that it’s possible to live free of this kind of crap. Because it is, it really is. Maybe not forever, but for periods of time that are well worth fighting for. I have not doubted for a moment that grace exists and that I will know it again.

Oh, Sweetheart

What were you thinking? You don’t do well with crowds even when the psych issues are not aggravated. But here you are, in the middle of these ten thousand fairgoers, and you need to keep it together.

Observe your surroundings. Look at the people in the crowd one by one; see them as individuals and know that the throng is not a gigantic entity that will overpower your psyche. Notice their faces, their hair, their clothes…see who’s got a fretful toddler and who forgot the sunscreen this morning. They’ve each got a story like yours, and you are one of them. Really.

Breathe in the human scent, allow the drone of the human hive to resonate through you. Welcome the sound, don’t fear it; relax into a more primitive level of consciousness. Let the strings that tie you to your thinking come loose from their moorings…there…and another. Drift.

Drifting now. Drifting down. Panicked thinking gone, but self going with it…tribeswoman, cavewoman, lower primate…flatworm? Too far, too far down; gaze not tracking, thought almost impossible. Pull up. Pull back. Look around and have a thought about something. Focus on something. Anything. Start making up a story about the first thing you see…but you can’t, you’re not capable of original thought yet. So remember. Drape yourself in every talisman you have, recite poems and list characters and name objects and keep doing it until you are coming back to an idea of yourself as separate.

Look around. Look at them while you remember who you are…what are you? Oh, God, they have no idea, do they? You aren’t one of them, you don’t have any idea how to be one of them, and now you’ve gone too far in the other direction…if you peel off your skin now they would see your true alien form, but they don’t because you are pretending, always pretending. You try to speak their language and interpret the code of gestures but you know you are other.

You want to go home so badly. Wherever that is. Anxiety builds until you want to scream, shriek obscene words, collar strangers and demand they help, and you can’t; you must not…something has to give. That’s when you start to dance with food. The welcome and despised heaviness in your belly gives you a focal point, gives shape to the next hours and days.

You know what to do now. You have a familiar pattern to follow. You’ll plan, or sneak, or regret, or rebel. You can be angry at yourself for your failure instead of thinking about how terrified you are. You can focus on trying to repair the new damage you have caused instead of looking at the other stressors in your life.

How far will you need to go? How sick will you choose to make yourself this time, and how many times will you reach tentatively toward consciousness only to pull back in terror, heart slamming, throat visegripped?

Oh, sweetheart, come back soon.

Bipolar Cuddle Time

I try to write holistically about living with my combination of conditions, but like a mother with several children, it’s good to give them some individual attention once in a while. I am a dually (triply, if you count the eating disorder) diagnosed person. One of these diagnoses is something that would affect and shape my life even if I had never practiced any self-destructive behavior: I am bipolar. Bipolar II with cyclothymic features, if we are being technical.

What does my diagnosis mean to me? I’m not the only one to wonder…it’s a recurring theme I see when I read the writings of others who have been diagnosed with some form of bipolar disorder. They wonder whether it defines them, or how it will change the way they see themselves, or how others will interpret it.

Is my condition something I have, like diabetes? Or is it something I am? My own experience and intuition lean toward the second…whatever it is, I would not be the same person without it. Even with the more overt symptoms being appropriately treated, I just don’t think my brain works the way a non-bipolar brain does.

Is my condition part of what fuels my creativity? Links between mental illness and creativity have been suggested, and many examples exist, but it’s not a requirement for being a creative or artistic person. Populations of writers, poets and artists have a far higher incidence of bipolar disorder than the general population, but the cause and effect are unclear…such people may have, like me, gravitated toward such work out of need. In other words, we might not be that unusually talented but rather more desperately motivated to express what talent we have.

Getting my current diagnosis, in 2009, didn’t improve my life much right away, because I wasn’t in recovery yet. But in the last few years, it’s been of enormous benefit to have a diagnostic label that fits me better. I know that diagnostic labels are prone to misuse, overuse and stigma, but…it helped me. It gave me a lens to look through that made more sense of the previous decades of my life. It explained why the attempts at treating me for depression in the past had been ineffective or worse (many SSRI’s, for instance, can make bipolar symptoms worse in some patients, and I am one of them.)

It’s given me a language for the cycles that go on in me, and made them less frightening. It’s helped me seek treatment that works more effectively. It’s helped me give a name to the Indy 500 of racing thoughts in my head. It’s helped me be kinder to myself and even appreciate what I have accomplished a little more.

Because the popular perception of bipolar disorder has tended to equate it with severe cases of Bipolar I, often with extreme mania and psychotic features (think Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys), people tend to view my diagnosis with a skeptical eye. Bipolar II is kind of trendy at the moment, which makes it worse. Sometimes I’m afraid people will see me as someone who “rides the bandwagon” in order to get more sympathy or be more excused from the chores of ordinary life. As someone who did make a lot of excuses when in my addiction, I’m sensitive to that.

Clinically, I’ve come to agree that my current diagnosis is as accurate as possible right now. Emotionally, I feel more peaceful about this condition being a permanent part of my life. Spiritually, I believe that this, like anything else about me, has the potential to be a path for growth. There’s no denying that it can be frustrating, frightening and baffling, not only to me but to those in my life. As such, learning to live with it as gracefully as possible can teach me humility, patience, creativity, courage, and more humility.

Calla Lilies

My daughter brought me calla lilies on Mother’s Day.

It was three years ago, and instead of carrying them into my room or proudly displaying them on the breakfast table she held onto them tightly during a long car ride.

She and her father signed in and had the bouquet inspected, then waited while I was notified that my visitors were there. Only then did she get to give them to me. Only then did she get to be hugged, and hear how beautiful they were, and see me read the little poem she wrote on the homemade card shaped like a butterfly.

That is Mother’s Day in rehab, and I can never see calla lilies without thinking about that day. I wasn’t the only one getting cards and flowers, and I wasn’t the only one to gaze at them with a mixture of emotions too tangled to articulate.

Mother’s Day is hailed by therapists as one of the most stressful days of the year for a reason–none of us is without feelings on the subject of the mother we had and/or the mother we are. Told by commercials and companies how we should feel about our mothers and children, we writhe in discomfort with our more complicated internal landscape.

Complicated it may be, but it’s a pretty fair bet that being institutionalized isn’t in any of our personal “what kind of mother I want to be” manifestos. It kind of kicks things up a notch in terms of regret.

After that day’s visit was over, I looked at the smooth whiteness of the lilies on my nightstand with a kind of doubled vision, seeming to see bouquets like it in many other places. I knew that many children wouldn’t get to deliver one at all due to the rules of the rehab, or hospital, or prison their mother was currently inhabiting.

I’m happy to be at home on Mother’s Day this year. Didn’t get any lilies. Don’t want any. But she can give me flowers, or a hug, or a thorough trouncing in Mario Kart, any time she wants to, because I am here.

Mothers who can’t be at home today, I remember you. I know better than to judge your love for your children based solely on where you are. Don’t give up.

Children, fathers, grandparents and all who visit, I remember you. Thank you for your love and effort.

Happy Mother’s Day.

The Five Elements

Balance is essential in recovery, but often hard to find. Sometimes balance means doing things we don’t want to do, or easing up on something we’re spending too much time doing, or experiencing uncomfortable feelings. It helps me, at times, to think of important elements in my recovery as analogous to the five Elements spoken of in many traditions: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. We can’t do without any of them, and what they have to give us is as beautiful and varied as the universe they compose. Here are some of my personal thoughts about the Elements.


Sometimes daily life flows, and I don’t resent the many chores that make up a day. But on other days, everything feels forced and repetitive. It feels as if I’m stuck in the mud. Well, maybe I am, but I need to remember that what I really feel stuck in is Earth.

Earth is the element I most often resist in recovery, and it’s the one I often need the most. Earth in this context is discipline; routine, chores. It’s going to the meetings even when I don’t feel like it and it’s doing that bloody writing even when it feels stupid. It’s taking my vitamins and going to the doctor and brushing my teeth and all the crap that I’ve never been good at doing consistently. When I was in rehab, my Earth was the institution’s schedule and all of the rules I chose to obey even though some seemed foolish or arbitrary.

Earth is also mindfulness. There’s a reason certain calming techniques are referred to as “grounding.” When I seek tactile sensation to help with an anxiety attack, I am seeking Earth. I honor Earth when I make a point of getting some physical activity or doing something with my hands; when I get anchored in my body and stay there for more than a minute at a time. I bring Earth in when I give thought to what and how I eat, or when I take time to eat slowly and without distractions.

As a dually diagnosed person, it’s even more important that Earth become a regular part of my program. I need the grounding to balance out the extra variations that my mental health issues create, and I need the discipline to manage my mental health responsibly.

It’s not surprising that as an addict I resist Earth-related changes, nor is it surprising that so many of the suggestions given to us in early recovery are related to this. We’ve been used to living like pinballs, ricocheting wildly from mood to changing mood, craving to withdrawal, crisis to crisis. Being in Earth feels alien, uncomfortable, and eventually boring. “Is this all there is?” we say, tired or overwhelmed by daily responsibilities that we see others apparently taking in stride.

Many of us also haven’t had the chance to experience the parts of Earth that are meant to feel good. We don’t know what it is to feel secure, to till a garden all season and enjoy the harvest. We only remember feeling trapped or confined. We’re like a cleanliness-obsessed person in a mud bath, squirming around and thinking we just have to get out and wash all of this clinging stuff away. We’re desperate to feel free and unencumbered.

So what do we do? What do I do when I feel this way? There’s no easy way to explain the process of yielding to Earth. I use prayer, I use the principles of the steps, I use a little tough compassion and I dig into my discomfort until I feel something inside me relax. Until I stop thinking up excuses or dwelling on issues of fairness. It can take minutes, or days, or weeks, depending on what is making me feel smothered.

Then, and only then–when I am capable of looking at it honestly–do I look at the other side of the issue and ask the question: am I too much in Earth at the moment? Do I have a genuine need for something to balance it? Maybe it’s time to pay attention to a different element that may be lacking. Recovery’s all about balance, and recovery’s not meant to be a life sentence of drudgery and deprivation.


My love of this element has led me astray many times. Ever since I was a child, Air was where I always wanted to be: floating, drifting, disconnected from whatever might try to drag me down. Spinning happy daydreams and fantasies. Living safe and free in my castle in the clouds. Using the wings of my mind to soar from one plan to the next, creating new paths and trails to a way of living that would surely work this time–and if it didn’t, well, I’d just take off again.

As a child in situations I did not choose, this was an adaptive response at times. As an adult, this extreme need for Air almost caused my death, because I needed to do more and more drastic things to get Airborne. In recovery, I need to learn wholesome ways to experience Air. I need to learn to balance it with the other elements.

We all need Air in recovery: without it, the heaviness of our responsibilities and our emotions would surely pull us down. We need fun. We need spontaneity. We need happy thoughts and whimsical dreams of things that we may be able to achieve in the future, and we need to have times of feeling light and free. Many people who started addictive behavior at a young age never really had the chance to learn how to have fun without it, so we have to open our minds to doing things that may make us feel silly or awkward.

People in recovery sometimes talk about the “pink cloud.” It’s an expression for when a person in early recovery has a happy or even euphoric period. They’re in love with recovery, things in their life seem to be falling into place, they feel better physically than they have in ages and the future looks really bright. For many, this early stage gives way to a stage of deeper and more difficult emotional processing as recovery continues.

Not everyone has a “pink cloud,” nor do I think that if you have one you must dread a correspondingly worse time to come. Maybe a stage like this is just a massive influx of Air, coming at a time when the person may have been Air-deprived for some time. I never had a stage like this, perhaps because my addictive behavior involved so much of it.

So how do I get the right amount of Air, and the right kind? I’m not going to lie–I’ll never stop missing the complete, “all is well” floaty euphoria that my addictive mind tries to associate with using drugs. If I allow myself to remember only that, I’m at risk for relapse. I must remind myself that there’s no way to capture that again; that using anything would only lead to an endless chase down into the dark. (Make no mistake. It would. If you’re like me, if you just had a romantic thought about your substance of choice, take a moment right now and play that little tape to the end. I’ll join you. There, that’s better.)

The kinds of Air that will help me grow in my recovery and my humanity are harder to get. I can’t just float away at will, needing nothing but my (augmented) brain. Scary as it is, I have to learn how to have fun with other people more. I have to develop my creativity and try new activities. Daydreams need to be enjoyed in moderation, or harnessed into action that will incorporate a mix of elements. Even healthful Air has to be watched closely for imbalance, especially when my bipolar issues are at play.

The little girl in me will always long to fly. The more I can learn to love and care for her, the more I can grant her wishes in ways that won’t harm her or sabotage the adult I am becoming.


Fire warms. Fire brings life. But Fire can also be destructive and deadly. I was so afraid of the dangerous power of Fire that I never learned how to use its good and necessary qualities when I was younger. Like many who grew up around violent or hostile situations, I grew to believe that someone getting angry meant someone else was about to get hurt. So I feared anger, and I tried to stay out of things as much as I could. As an adult, I feared it so much that I was seldom even conscious of anger in myself–it was automatically turned inward, manifesting as depression or anxiety.

Fire is much more than anger, but anger is the aspect of Fire we with addiction struggle with the most. Some are like me, and others took an opposite path, becoming adults who have trouble controlling their angry impulses. It’s really two sides of the same coin–either we’re smothering the flame because we don’t know how to use it well, or we’re flinging it around wildly for the same reason.

In recovery, we are encouraged to look at and let go of our resentments. We’re warned that resentment will sabotage our recovery and growth, and we might think this means we have to learn never to get angry. This is not true. Resentment is anger that has been misfiled–not fully felt, not dealt with, not mixed with the other elements. It’s another way of reacting to Fire in a way that harms ourselves. As such, it’s something we can do without.

But we can’t do without the ability to feel anger. Anger, in its purest and cleanest form, is a survival trait and a catalyst for needed changes. It’s that voice that tells us this is not right. It’s the tool we use to jar ourselves out of apathy and fear and DO something about what’s making us unhappy. It’s Gandalf at the bridge shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

Working our program teaches us to examine our reactions and our motivations. We learn, gradually, to understand what parts of our reactions are genuine and appropriate anger and what parts are coming from fear, wounded pride or a hundred other sources. Our spiritual work helps us acquire the courage to deal with the real anger by taking useful action.

As we begin to channel this aspect of Fire more constructively, we clear space in ourselves for other aspects of it to come forth. The spark of creativity is awakened, sometimes in completely new ways. We become able to feel passionate about our goals and to harness that passion into work. We find our voice with others and speak honestly about our needs. Fire gives us conviction. If we connect with Fire, it burns away all of the BS and self-doubt we collect, leaving our purified truth behind.

I’m not going to lie. Fire is still tricky for me to hold, and I have a long way to go before the changes I’m talking about are a consistent part of me. When I’m angry–and actually aware of it–I feel a whole new set of sensations in my body and a new set of reactions in my mind, and it’s hard for me to know what to do with them. Even when I feel that I’ve processed it and acted appropriately, it’s hard for me to get back to feeling calm and grounded afterwards. The energy of Fire is still zinging through me and I’m not experienced at channeling it, so I feel out of control even if I’m not acting that way. Eventually, it all comes back to balance. I’m not meant to dwell in Fire all of the time, and when I feel zingy or shaky it might be time to bring in some of the other elements. The important thing is that I don’t do this out of fear or out of a desire to escape the truth.


Whatever Water is to us in recovery, it’s deep. It’s mysterious and even frightening at times. Like the ocean, it has hidden treasures and hidden perils, and it’s an endless frontier. Like actual water, Water moves us in different ways: emotions crashing over us like waves, our rhythms and moods rising and falling like tides, even old emotional patterns wearing us down like the relentless dripping of a faucet.

Like many of us, I never learned how to “swim” in Water when I was growing up. I didn’t have the chance to watch people coping with Water in a healthy way: grieving losses, expressing needs, looking at their internal cues to see what they’re feeling. From where I was standing, Water only seemed to cause trouble. So I learned to fear it because it made you vulnerable, it was most likely polluted, and who knew what predators lurked under the surface?

When I think about Water in recovery, I think about tears. They are not the only kind of Water, but they’re something we have to deal with differently in recovery. I don’t just mean that we have to cry, though we do. I mean that, if we do the work of recovery on more than a surface level, we are led to form a new relationship with sadness.

I think the culture I grew up in doesn’t do tears very well. I was taught that strong emotions or tears make other people uncomfortable, and that the best way to be accepted was to suppress them and return to a “normal” manner as fast as possible. It’s worse for men, in my opinion; at least as a female I could theoretically cry without being shamed for diverging from a gender role. Still, I can remember very few times I cried without fighting the tears, times that I let my sadness wash over me instead of damming it up until it had no choice but to spill into other channels.

I’ve seen people sob through meeting after meeting when they’re going through certain stages of recovery or just life. I’ve seen people dry-eyed but with that spent, quiet look that tells of recent and frequent weeping. I’ve listened to people with many years of recovery tell of their wrenching emotional experiences and I’ve even thought sarcastically “Well, here’s a sales pitch! I stay around and work the Steps and I get to be in intense emotional pain too? Sign me up!”

Of course I felt this way, because I had not yet experienced much of the cleansing and healing power of Water. I didn’t know that actually crying is a lot less painful than trying not to cry, and I didn’t know that expressing real, undiverted grief leaves me feeling better when I’m done. How could I know? The nonverbal part of me held a belief that negative emotions must be not only repressed but kept out of my consciousness as much as possible, lest they consume me forever. I didn’t know that emotions come and go.

The other thing I didn’t know about being present with Water is that feeling sadness until it’s done for the moment leaves me able to feel other things. That it makes me more able to feel all emotions and transition from one to another more cleanly. It makes me feel closer to other people, and it makes me more capable of love. There’s no greater gift I can give someone I care about than my honest emotion, because with it I give my trust and my willingness to risk being hurt, rejected or judged. So I seek safe places to experience Water and work with my fears until it flows more naturally. Tears can come freely; tears need not be held back by fear or vanity or the need to control.

When we learn to fear Water less, we are given access to who we are in a new way. No longer do we need to hold ourselves rigid. Now we can change shape, adapt, develop and heal.


Each one of the first four Elements is precious in specific ways, and each one is clearly dangerous when it gets out of proportion or is used wrongly. I have this image of myself as a chef adding tiny bits of ingredients to a sauce; tasting and titrating until the mix suits my sensitive palate.

The problem with this visual is that for most of my life, my idea of cooking has been finding the can opener and the plastic spoon for the Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli. How can I navigate my recovery, manage my mental and physical health, raise my child, and attempt to have relationships while constantly performing this delicate task on a mix that is always changing?

I have to have help for that, and that’s where Spirit comes in. Something that knows more than my conscious mind knows, something that has power I don’t understand. There are so many ways to conceptualize Spirit, and a real exploration of them is beyond the scope of today’s work. I certainly haven’t figured out one right way to think about it. Spirit is by its nature mysterious; I know I’m on the right track when I realize that my words are totally inadequate. But since I’ve been talking about the Elements in relation to recovery, let me focus on the role Spirit and spirituality play in recovery-focused groups.

When we seek help for addictive behavior that we’ve lost the power to control, we’d probably find it pretty odd if someone responded by saying “Congratulations! You’ve just become a spiritual seeker! How does it feel?” We didn’t come here for enlightenment, we just want to stop hurting. But whichever path to change we follow, we often end up seeking a source of Spirit to help us. Seeking it again and again, seeking it in new ways if the old ones stop working.

People who consider working certain programs of recovery are sometimes turned off by the references to a power greater than ourselves, or the outright references to God, in some literature. It’s a large source of controversy and misunderstanding, and for many people seeking recovery it starts out as–and sometimes remains–a deal-breaker. “Aha, here’s the catch,” we say. “These people offer hope, they tell me I can be free of this obsession, that I don’t have to die…IF I do this religious stuff. Sure, they say my higher power can be whatever I want it to, but I’m no fool…it says G-O-D right there on those posters.”

I imagine that if the program had been invented today, the ideas would have been expressed in much more general and inclusive language. Many in recovery choose to overlook any terms that feel awkward because it’s working well for them to share the language of such a path with people who want and need change for the same reasons.

Whatever path a person seeking recovery chooses, why is Spirit necessary? Why this need for humility, for self-examination, for change? Why can’t we just do what makes sense? Why can’t education and group support give us all we need to keep from destructive behavior? I don’t know, but when it comes to my own survival I’m tired of beating my head against the wall. If Spirit is what it’s going to take, bring it on. My obsession is illogical; perhaps an illogical solution is what I need.

The work I do on myself in my program is designed to lower the barriers between myself and whatever Spirit is. When I let Spirit in, it can help me balance the other Elements intuitively. It creates a matrix within which they can float, bobbing into and out of view. I can take care of responsibilities with the right provision for rest and fun, or make transitions between anger and sadness quickly yet with respectful attention to both. If I feel connected to Spirit, I’m not afraid of anything else I feel. I don’t have that fear that the scattered parts of me will fly in all directions and never come together again.

To be in touch with all five Elements is to be a person growing toward wholeness in recovery: giving attention to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves. Balancing work, play, and rest. Growing toward a new type of adulthood while honoring the needs and dreams of our younger selves.