Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Parable of the Cursed Axe

So there I was, one warm summer day, sitting at a table in the lounge of the neighborhood counseling center. Beside me lay a stack of paperwork I should have been working on between sessions, and in front of me was my tiny, ancient laptop computer. “How’s it going?” one of my fellow counselors asked, walking in with their own stack of paraphernalia. “Terrible,” I replied. “I’m surrounded by a large band of orcs and I’m wielding a minus-20 cursed axe.”

I got an odd look, can’t imagine why.

The really old version of Nethack I was playing was, at the time, one of my favorite relaxations. One of the simplest of dungeon crawlers, with all rooms, objects and monsters made only of characters available on a common keyboard, it was a game requiring lots of imagination. I was an @ sign, monsters were mostly letters, objects were punctuation, etcetera. Like this:

I started playing it in college, and I guess I have a pretty good imagination because I was really into it. The rules, and the random nature of the dungeons, sometimes allowed odd things to happen. For example, there were “stores” where you could buy weapons and potions, but you’d better not steal or the shopkeeper, written to be amazingly strong, would kill you. But, if you had a scroll of teleportation, you could load up with goodies and escape.

Anyway, my situation with the orcs that day was the weirdest one I ever got into. Here’s how it happened (because I am sure you’re dying to know, given that you can sense a metaphor coming afterward.) My character had survived and prospered long enough to have excellent armor, strength and regenerative abilities, but I was only wielding a lowly dagger. So I was pleased when I found an axe, and picked it up.

Now, it’s wise to be cautious of weapons one finds in this game, because some of them are cursed. But I didn’t have a scroll of identify to show me the exact characteristics of this axe, and I was impatient, so I typed in the command to wield the weapon. Descending the stairs to the left dungeon level, I found myself surrounded by the letter O. Orcs. They were all around me, and it was impossible to move. There was nothing to do but fight them.

Now, orcs are not all that strong in this game, which is why they exist in such large groups. So I was surprised when my attacks on the first orc seemed ineffective. Maybe I would be better off with my dagger after all. Trying to switch, I saw the dreaded message “You can’t. It appears to be cursed.” A cursed weapon can’t be dropped, and since only one weapon can be wielded at a time, my dagger or anything else was now unavailable to me.

Checking my inventory, I saw that my cursed axe was rated minus-2, which explained its ineptitude. With no scroll of remove curse handy, I had no choice but to keep hacking away as best I could. Then the letter R appeared. Are you kidding me? A rust monster, now? With every hit, a rust monster makes your weapons or armor less effective. My minus-two axe became minus-three. Minus-five, seven…minus-twenty by the time it stopped. I was now fighting the undiminished pack of orcs with what amounted to a shapeless hunk of rusty iron too heavy to lift. But I could not put it down.

Yes, wielding a cursed weapon sucks. But we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Haven’t we all had a response, or a coping mechanism, that is ineffective at best and destructive at worst, but we just can’t put it down? One that seems to have become intertwined with our psyche so much that we can’t detach it?

Yes, addictive behaviors are one clear example, and my mind certainly goes there as expected. Having begun to use them, some of us can’t put them down even when they put us in an obvious no-win situation. We swing them helplessly at the problems around us, no longer able to pick up or use a healthier method even if we know of one, unable to accept the fact that our old weapon isn’t working any more, hasn’t been working for a while, and isn’t going to start working again.

But addiction isn’t the only fertile ground for this metaphor–none of us are without our cursed weapons, and these weapons sometimes became part of our arsenal when we were very young. If we learned to avoid feelings or situations, avoidance can become our default response and be very difficult to change. If we learned angry confrontation as the go-to reaction to protect ourselves, it becomes our cursed weapon too. If we learned to please people and try to placate them, we find out how such a pattern can deplete our self-esteem and personal development.

Lately, one of my biggest addiction-type cursed weapons is food, rooted in my deeper childhood weapon of avoidance. I’m bashing ineptly at the orc pack of despair and worry that seems to be pressing in on me, unwilling and unready to admit that I am not doing damage to anything but myself. Feeling powerless to stop the pattern, and not being hopeful that a more powerful weapon is available to me right now.

I’m terrified of this going on. I’m terrified that my weight gain will continue, wrecking my health and interfering with the message of hope I would like to go on carrying. But underneath the terror, I know my general fears and anxieties are lying to me! I know there’s power I can use. I know! I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I wouldn’t be here without the Thing, whatever it is, and it can help me if I let it.

Whatever you are, help me drop the cursed ax. I’m asking now. Help me lose my fear of the orcs long enough to look at the dungeon floor around me and see that there are scrolls there, including a magic scroll of remove curse. Of grace.

Hell’s Concierge

It’s so easy to get caught up in life and forget that I’m an addict. When other troubles are acting up, or someone I love is hurting, I can slip away from the vigilance needed.

It’s also easy, and deadly, to get caught up in results–to fall into dissatisfaction when life is getting harder and not easier. It’s easy for me to flirt with despair when my mental health symptoms rob my life in recovery of health and joy. It’s easy to feel that I’m on a trip to a city that’s not living up to my hopes, having spent too much and not having a good enough time. To feel lonely and bored in my metaphorical hotel room.

That’s when it’s tempting to pick up that handy phone and press the button for the concierge. The gentleman or lady who can get things, recommend activities, obtain tickets or otherwise do things to meet my whims if I am willing to pay. The concierge can get me tickets to the hottest show in town, and a shiny limousine to take me there. And when I have been entertained, my polite driver will ferry me to the most decadent restaurant in town. In the sumptuously appointed lobby, the maitre’d will greet me obsequiously and ask, “Do you have a reservation?”

Do I have a reservation? Do you?

Fellow recovery types probably know where I am going with this. Reservations are conditions we might place on our recovery, and the term is used not just to convey doubt but to imply that we are “reserving” a place in our lives for relapse. We might have a list of “ifs” that describe our conditions for staying in recovery, the conditions we think we need to make it worthwhile:

If my spouse lets me move back home.
If my job takes me back or I get a better one.
If I feel good physically.
If nobody in my support group ever acts like a jerk.
If my family forgives me.
If my life gets better and stays that way.

We also might have a list of “ifs” that describe specific situations we think, on some level, will make relapse okay or necessary. Loss of a loved one, being ill or dying, or even reaching a certain age are common ones.

Professionals who work with addicts encourage us to think about reservations because they know how dangerous they are. They’ve sat with countless repeat clients and heard countless accounts of how the relapse began. Not always, but often, the subtext they hear has to do with disappointment. Disappointment with recovery, a feeling that the contract has not been met, followed by habits and changes that open up the way to an insidious thought that using might be a good idea.

Every so often I try to picture myself sitting in the client’s chair in one of these offices, trying to explain to them how I relapsed. I’ve had the experience before, and I know I could have it again. What would I say? What would be different? What explanation could I give that, no matter how articulate and touching, wouldn’t come down to “Life without my drugs was really hard and it wasn’t fair?”

Make no mistake, distinguished concierge–those tickets are tempting. I can imagine holding them in my hand, seeing the elegant printing and feeling the promise they represent. In order to resist them, I’ve even resorted to mental imagery and watched them catch fire in my hand, a fire that spreads and burns up my arm to engulf my body. Or I’ve watched them turn gray and slimy, melting over the skin of my fingers and filling me with revulsion.

Make no mistake, distinguished maitre’d–your establishment’s dishes seem elegant and delicious. I can imagine their tastes and textures, or the contentment indulging in them would seem to bring. In order to resist them, I’ve even resorted to mental imagery and placed little cards on your tables with names such as “Rehab,” “Jail,” “Psych Ward,” and “Morgue.” I’ve imagined the arms of your pretty chairs wrapping around the horrified diner, breaking bones and choking off last desperate gasps.

I know the concierge and others will always be there, ready to alleviate my boredom or loneliness. Just like in A Note From My Addiction: all I have to do is ask, and they’ll be glad to help. They’re just doing their jobs, after all.

Dishes Lie

Don’t trust the dishes.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of being able to wash dishes. For years, it was a task shuffled off to my spouse; even more so than other mundane tasks because the specific posture and movements dishes require triggered my lower back pain intensely. Today, he can come home and have anywhere from a 50% to 95% chance of finding the sink and counter clear. Maybe not clean, but at least clear of objects.

The presence of clean dishes can, like laundry or a walked dog, be diagnostic. It can mean that I’m doing well enough physically and mentally to take positive actions. It makes sense that someone who loves me is pleased to see it.

But sometimes dishes tell gleaming, ceramic lies.

Sometimes clean dishes don’t mean anything at all, and the effort that produced them has nothing to do with how I am doing. Sometimes they’re the one task I do that day, not as a small accomplishment but as a ritual of guilt. Sometimes doing the dishes was just a postcard to a distant land where what I do means anything.

So, if your loved one is living with significant depression, don’t believe their foamy sales pitch. Don’t let the dishes convince you that things aren’t that bad. Understand that those duplicitous cups and plates don’t mean that your loved one washed their hair lately, or took their medicine, or had a day free of harming themselves.

And it’s not just dishes that can be lying bastards. Anything can. I used to meet weekly with a woman living in the most crushing, despairing gray mental landscape imaginable. The only time she left her cluttered and neglected home was for appointments related to her physical and mental health issues, but when she arrived to see me she was nicely dressed, clean and made up. Once a week, she’d dragged herself through a misleading shower, put on false-tongued cosmetics and walked into the world for a short outing before reverting to what was real for her.

People can love us, but they can’t save us. So I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s job to read our minds–I just want us, those who suffer both directly and indirectly from these scourges of the mind–to know that there’s often more going on than meets the eye.

You don’t have to have a diagnosis for this to be true, of course. Your boss who seems so full of himself cried like a baby in his therapist’s office earlier today. The guy who sold you a car spent last night compulsively masturbating to Internet porn, missing his wife who left him over his addiction. The prom queen’s bulimic, the football captain was molested; pretty much everyone has a disconnect between how they seem and how they are really doing.

I try to be pretty honest about how I’m doing–at least to the degree that I am able to be honest with myself. Even so, it’s just not possible to brief my loved ones in depth constantly; they’d be unable to function in their own lives if I did. When a family member asks how I am, the answer they get is never the whole story, and when I say goodnight in the evening there are always unread chapters.

Yes, I and others do sometimes make cries for help. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that my recent writing partially serves that purpose. But we do the opposite too. We try to look better, just a little, because we hate being a burden. Because we’re sick of trying to describe how we feel, and we imagine that the people we love are just as sick of hearing about it. We try to tough it out, and we try to do something, anything, to inject a little normalcy into the lives of those around us.

We do the dishes. And that’s a good thing, to do something. It’s better than staring at the wall.

But dishes lie.

Guilting the Lily

When is it okay to be happy?
When is it allowed to put aside every regret, every unpaid bill, and every worry about a loved one and enjoy a moment?
When is it all right to have a good day even when my partner, child, mother, or another close to me is miserable?

Call it codependency, call it oversensitivity, call it enmeshment or any other psychological term–by any name, it’s operating for me and I need to be aware of it. I’m acting on a core belief that it is not okay for me to be feeling good in the presence of a loved one who is not.

The level of depression I’m dealing with lately makes it quite vital that I find moments of pleasure and joy where I can. I’ve often written about the importance of this for all of us, and the importance of being willing to think and act outside of the box to do so. But as soon as I become aware that a family member has a headache, or is dealing with hyperanxiety, or had a rotten commute, I stop practicing what I preach.

I feel guilty if I want to play music while I do the dishes. I feel guilty when I take time to sit down and write. I feel guilty when I savor the relatively new sensation of climbing stairs with ease, and then remember that someone I love can’t do that so well.

Intellectually, I know that taking good care of myself will let me be more effective in helping others. Intellectually, I know that joining someone in the emotional pit won’t help them get out. I know it’s better to visit on the edge, offering them support and company if they want it, but still experiencing the air and sun. But my deeper complexes are responding to very old programming, and when these situations happen I feel the energy just drain out of me. It happens so fast I don’t have a chance to question it; the energy has gone and I am stuck with trying to get it back.

On some level, I seem to believe that the best way to show that I care about someone is to refrain from displaying any state that is in contrast–to refrain from being energetic if someone is tired, or from being happy if someone feels down. Do I think they would feel insulted, or feel that I don’t care? Do I think I need permission from a committee to feel good?

My spouse and I have some worries right now; the kind that aren’t quickly resolvable and are a constant presence. I realize that I’ve been operating on this idea that if, at any time, I act happy or joyful, it means I am not taking our situation seriously. That I’m being childish and irresponsible. It pushes many of my emotional buttons about having a disability and about being unable to contribute to our finances for several years.

These kind of thought paths are more dangerous for me than I might assume at first. When I get this feeling of guilt/energy drain, it triggers a kind of cascade: every worry I have kind of falls on my head. What about this? What about that? You haven’t thought about this problem in several days. How could you be so self-centered? Oh, God, remember this problem? You are so screwed.

There’s a set of techniques called cognitive-behavioral therapy that specialize in naming and questioning the inaccurate beliefs we operate on. They’re not a cure-all, but they are useful for some things. My main issue with them has usually been that they take discipline and consistent work to have their best effect. (One basic source to learn more is the book Feeling Good by David Burns.)

What I have done today in writing this is name some core beliefs. There are several techniques I might use to start questioning these, and I need to have the humility to try some of them. One of my favorites is called the downward-arrow technique, or the “What Would That Mean”? It works with if-then statements, like this:

If I act happy around my family when they’re not, they’ll think I don’t care enough.
What would that mean?
They will think I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever.
What would that mean?
That would mean I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever. (aha! I’ve identified a part of me that assumes that a judgment like this made by them must be true.)
Anyway, suppose I am a “bad” mother/wife/whatever. What would that mean? That I’m a bad person.
What would that mean?
Umm…well, that I’m bad. That I shouldn’t be the way I am. That I deserve bad things, not good things.

And it could go on and on. It always ends up at a very fundamental place of feeling unworthy, or catastrophic thinking. “If I don’t get an A on the test” ends up at “Life is not worth living.” Then we can look at that deep belief and ask where it came from and how it’s influencing us.

This kind of thought questioning doesn’t fix us. If it did, I’d be good to go by now. But, as I said, it can be useful for me to do when I see myself responding this way. I need to question the voice that tell me to censor, drain or stifle myself. Especially when I’m already depressed. A black hole gets bigger when it consumes nearby material–why throw anything its way when I don’t have to?

The questions about whether I, or any of us, deserve joy while coexisting with others in this world who suffer are bigger than today’s topic. The questions strike at our deepest feelings of despair and shame, and I know I am not the only one who wrestles with them. But right now, I think it’s best to table the question of worthiness and continue my campaign for survival.

DefCon Zero

When I’m seriously depressed, I get advice from the people who care about me. Some of these are professionals, and some are not. All of them have good intentions. The worse my depression is, the more likely they are to be a little uncertain as to the best way to help.

I can be very defensive when it comes to input about my condition–as I and others have written, living with a mental health condition involves dealing with stigma, assumptions and intrusive opinions sometimes. This produces a cumulative effect of defensiveness if I don’t process it well. Add the tendency toward defensiveness many addicts have, and I end up with a porcupine wrapped around my head.

A good friend in recovery bought me lunch last week, and I opened up to her about my worsening condition. She was very supportive, and also gave me some feedback about things she saw in my story. My internal reactions–and some of my external ones–were defensive. I wanted to reply no, you don’t understand to just about everything. When I managed to work through that I got a lot out of some of the feedback, including a couple of very important insights.

It made me think about the spectrum of defensiveness I display; a spectrum I am sure others have experienced too. Defensiveness, like any other trait and behavior, can be diagnostic. For example, in addiction treatment, many relapse prevention education materials name increased defensiveness as a warning sign that one’s recovery may be in danger.

For me, defensive thinking falls into three basic categories. The first one is what I think of as a “healthy” level. In this state, I can evaluate advice or feedback calmly and with an open mind. I’m able to say honestly: “I’ll think about that,” or “Maybe you’re right,” or “That sounds like something I should try.” If it’s something I have tried before or if I truly feel the advice is wrong for me, I’m able to handle that appropriately too. Depending on the person, I might talk about why that is or I might decide the best thing is to change the subject at the first opportunity. If I’m hearing things that reflect a lack of understanding, I don’t take it personally.

The second category is when I am feeling prickly, insecure, and irritable about the fact that the world has opinions. I have trouble telling the difference between advice and criticism. Any suggestions are heard as negative judgments or commentary on how I must not be doing enough. Or suggestions are heard as invalidating the depth and nature of what I am experiencing.

That reaction can have its roots in a very real, very valid frustration. It is maddening, sometimes, to try to explain clinical depression to someone who thinks it means feeling down. The best description I’ve ever heard of it was crafted by the writer Allie Brosh in her article called “Adventures in Depression, Part II.” In this humorous and also heartwrenching account, she captures the feeling of disconnect one can have when dealing with those who seem, while we are in the throes of an episode, to be living on another planet and speaking a different language.

(Aside: Allie Brosh is funny and amazing and one of us. Read her website. You know I never promote things, so, seriously. HyperboleandaHalf.com.)

Anyway, this level of defensiveness has its dangers because when it gets out of control, I get rebellious. Like a disgruntled teenager, I begin to feel that since nobody is ever going to understand how hard I’m trying, I might as well do what I want. So it’s important for me to rein it back if I can. I need to be willing to ask myself: is this suggestion I’ve just been given truly off-target, or is just something I think I can’t do? If I don’t think I can do it, is that true–or is the truth that I don’t want to do it? What am I afraid of, or what don’t I want to give up?

The third category of defensiveness is the most dangerous one. Dangerous, insidious and life-sapping. It’s the one where I shut down. Instead of reacting, I absorb everything like a sponge and funnel it straight to the Department of Self-Loathing Generation: Yes, you’re undoubtedly right, and that’s something I should be doing. That’s something I should be feeling. I am sure that, if I were not so pathetic and lazy, I would go out and follow your advice right now. Oh, you’ve just made another helpful suggestion. Your suggestion makes perfect sense. That fact that I’m not following it is further evidence that I don’t deserve anyone’s compassion.

This state usually goes with a pretty worrisome level of depression–a level in which nearly all outside input gets transformed into fuel for this internal anti-fire. Right now I’m slipping in and out of this place, and it worries me. That’s my truth today.

You, whoever you are, who are thinking this way today–your shame fueled by the concerns of others–I don’t agree with what you are thinking about yourself right now. I don’t agree that you’re pathetic, or lazy, or beyond help. In fact I disagree quite strongly. Strongly enough to see the illogic of having such beliefs about my own self.

Thinking About Freedom

We are all inherently biased. The old saying of “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is quite true, and in the absence of special thought and effort we act according to that bias. Thus, when I contemplate this holiday that celebrates freedom in my country, my bias leads me to think more of internal freedom than external–freedom from fear, freedom from shame, freedom from active addiction.

Last year on the Fourth of July, I wrote Can We Ever Be Free? and speculated on the origins and implications of the word addiction. This year, after another year of recovery and a year of writing more than I have in the decades before, my thoughts are centering around what it’s like to have our creativity set free.

This, after all, is what working recovery truly promises–not happiness, not a smooth life, not money or approval, but only human life itself, leading to human death. Our life, our death, the life cycle of the person we are when not ruled by addiction and the qualities that feed it. And I believe that we are all creative.

We can’t help it. If we know ourselves–who we were, who we are, what we want, where we want to go–we can’t help creating some kind of response to that condition of knowing. A response to the feelings it generates. A response to whatever authentic pain we have. A response to our experience of the world around us when that experience is no longer dulled. A response to the mysterious energy we contain.

Freedom comes with a price, as all freedom does. In my country’s Declaration of Independence, the writer spoke of pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” We do this too, when we bargain for freedom from our internal chains. We are ready to give up our lives–the lives we knew before, even the lives we think we want in the future. We bow to the unknown and stand ready to accept a life that might be quite different. We are ready to give up our fortunes–give up the idea that any external riches are worth not being ourselves. We pledge our sacred honor, an honor we may be just beginning to discover, and place some principles higher than our own desires.

In return we get truth, creativity, authenticity, and many other things that carry the potential for incredible joy and wholeness. But they are so, so hard to hold sometimes that we become consciously or subconsciously willing to lay this freedom down. When we discover truth, it usually wants something from us. (Like in my poem Alpha.)

My friends, I wish you freedom on this day–and I wish you a degree of progress toward it that you can hold. I wish you the grace to win just a little bit more, and the courage not to give it back, and faithful friends who share your journey.

To Be Loved By Me

When my daughter was three or four, she learned about death. She was a fortunate child–she learned about it when her goldfish died, and when we found a dead squirrel in the street. Things like that. I explained about what death was on a physical level, and shared my own beliefs as best I could.

I told her that when we die, our spirits leave our bodies, and those bodies are not us anymore. I told her that what happens to our spirits after death is a great mystery, and people have had many different ideas about it. I told her that I, personally, believe that our spirits do go to some destination after leaving this plane, but I don’t know exactly what it is like.

She chose to cope with this new existential knowledge by acting out skits involving death over and over. She’d be a little wolf or other wild animal and portray the entire life cycle, and I would have to be the third-person narrator or loved one. I’d have to welcome her when she was born and watch her grow, and eventually she’d say “And now pretend that it came my time to die,” and she’d curl up on the floor and close her eyes, and she’d say “Now pretend I’m dead,” and I’d have to say goodbye. “I’m sad and I’ll miss her being here, but I hope her spirit has fun on the next level.” Then she’d start over.

It wasn’t always easy, but it’s not as if pretending she was dead was a new thing for me. I don’t know how common this is for parents, but since she was born she’s met her end in countless ways inside my head. My imagination creates catastrophe as its default activity, running a loop of fear and paranoia just under the surface of my consciousness, breaking through at the edge of sleep or any other time my defenses get low. I wrote about this more fully in Phantasy.

To be loved by me is to die. Over and over, quickly or slowly, death upon death in a sheaf of universes created by this mind of mine. To be important to me is to be cruel, abandoning, deceitful or mocking in an eternal and multiplying series of imaginary dramas. To be a presence in my life is to be present in dangerous scenarios and epics spanning space and time, their only commonality being that I am somehow central.

How easy it would be to condemn my mind and imagination for this darkness and this inward focus. But I must not, for the same reasons I must not condemn anything else about myself–I can’t afford to. I have a commitment to life, and staying on the side of life means not allowing shame to push me too far toward the enemy.

I try to remember that being loved by me also means being seen with a gaze that looks beyond the obvious and an imagination that accesses beauty and depth in people. To be important to me is to be endowed with mystical, archetypal qualities and never ordinary. To be present in my life is to join me in exciting adventures, and to be my comrade in arms in a sheath of positive or transcendent experiences too.

As usual, I write this so that any who share some of these experiences know they are not alone. How many other people think the way I think, willingly or not? How many find it hard to let intimacy into their lives because of a constantly running broadcast of calamity within? Does anyone else have a mental landscape like mine? The more I study myself and my past, the more observing ego I have about this level of consciousness and what it’s up to. I learn more of the story of myself; not bad, not good; just a story.