Monthly Archives: September 2014

Specializing

I’m always wary of my tendency to think I’m special. I know it’s a human tendency, but it’s important to me to have a working bullshit meter and understand my capacity for self-deluding.

In the absence of accomplishments with a capital A, part of me tends to cling to the impression that I’m special because of what I struggle with. Rather than dwell on the ways I am broken or defective, it tries to tell me that these come with gifts that allow me to do, or see, or be something unusual in a good way.

Two days ago, I was driving to some meetings and savoring the “I’m back” feeling–that little rush I get when I realize that a sharp depressive dip is passing. I was conscious of feeling present in my body again, and everything around me seemed unusually sharp and colorful. It was one of those days when the clouds are so numerous and imposing that the earth seems like an afterthought, and I felt like soaring when I looked at them.

Hello, sky; hello, trees; hello, purple flowers in that yard. It’s good to be able to see you again. Hello again, my God, thank you for these gorgeous clouds and for being able to see them. I was connected with gratitude; reunited with hope. As I’d done many times before, I was emerging from a dark cave and being dazzled by the sun and wind. It didn’t last all that long, but I treasured it as I always do those moments.

Are those moments hypomania, or just the result of contrast? I don’t know. What I do know is that I contain within myself generous amounts of pride, vanity and arrogance that will latch onto anything in an attempt to make me think I’m better than I am. So I tell myself that living with a mental illness makes me special because of what I’ve had to learn from the process, and I tell myself that being an addict in recovery makes me special because of what I have had to learn from that.

I tell myself that perhaps “regular people” don’t see the beauty of the world the way I do sometimes; that they don’t experience the exquisite reunions and spiritual closeness that I get to taste. I tell myself this so that I can be grateful–but also to feed my ego enough to hold my head up among my fellow humans.

Why is this so bad, one might say? Surely it’s understandable that I’d cling to what I can when the alternative is to wallow in uninterrupted self-loathing. It’s what we humans do. We search for meaning and we search for ways to frame our lives as bearable, and when this doesn’t work we either rebel or sink into despair. Well, rebelling didn’t work out for me, and despair isn’t attractive as a permanent residence. So of course I try to convince myself that there are blessings and good qualities attached to the things I am.

Of course I do as T.S. Eliot writes: “Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice.”

But why does it have to be about being special? That’s the part that fills me with caution. That’s the part alerting me to the bullshit within: the shit that says I have to be special in order to be allowed to be here. That I have to be way above par in some ways to make up for being under par in others. The thing in me that’s still convinced it’s not okay to be a human among humans and nothing more.

It’s said that addicts tend to be egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. It’s a pretty common configuration, in my opinion, and not just among addicts. In recovery, I’m trying to learn a more balanced view of myself and others and get away from the ego and insecurity–and the more I work on it, the more I learn how deep the warping goes. I want to stop searching for specialness and concentrate on searching for truth. I want to relate to others without being afraid or ashamed or judgmental–and I am still so far from that.

If You Knew

What are you doing in your metaphorical elevator?

Twice, in the past month, there’s been a scandal strong enough to reach my not-very-connected ears about a prominent person being in big trouble because of getting caught on video doing something awful in an elevator. The first one I knew about involved a CEO kicking a dog; the more recent one is about an athlete beating up his fiancée.

It’s not news that the parameters of privacy have changed, and I’m not sorry these people are facing consequences for their actions. But I feel a weird resonance with the jolt of dismay and shame they must have felt when they realized that they had been observed. Yes, I do, because I can imagine how I’d feel if my most ignoble moments were out there being judged by the world.

None of us are without elevator moments. I don’t care if those moments aren’t objectively so bad as to involve harming a person or animal. We all have moments that fill us with a sick plunge of guilt and terror at the thought of anyone knowing about them. To imagine having a witness…I can hardly breathe, thinking about it.

Forget all the standard stuff; all the petty sins and indelicate bathroom moments and how ridiculous humans look during orgasm. The truly mortifying stuff is individual. I think this idea’s resonating with me right now because I’m emerging (or hope I’m emerging) from a dark place right now, and I acted out badly with food. These binge eating episodes create the biggest shame of any of my acting out: they are some of my strongest elevator moments.

They’re my if-they-knew scenes. If they knew–if you knew, if you really saw–well, in my mind, it seems that would be the end. Never again would you be able to see anything else when you look at me; never again would you be able to hear or read a phrase of mine without its possible beauty being smothered and crushed by the disgusting images you remember.

If you saw my face as it must appear in the depths of such moments (a sight I’ve never seen but shudder to imagine) how could you ever be inspired by anything I write? How could you ever look into my eyes and see anything but the shadow of that betrayal, that perversion of consciousness?

“This issue we’re featuring a poet who writes authentically about…oh, wait, correction just in…a poet who knows how to squeeze any amount of processed bread product into a fist-sized lump for easy hiding.”

It’s no coincidence that Not This Song and its consequences got started while I was on a medical diet and had a temporary vacation from the insanity of my eating disorder. Now that I am, as predicted, struggling with regain and the return of intense symptoms, the shame around them chokes me and I face the challenge of continuing to be authentic in the face of it.

Yes, binge eating and the hellishly altered consciousness involved is my elevator video. No matter how much I try to tell myself that I’m not alone and everyone has some secret shames, it still feels as if the only way I can ever hold my head up is to find some guarantee that it’ll never happen again. To excise it from my psyche like a tumor and disinfect my soul until it is clean enough to share.

In recovery we’re encouraged to share and admit things we’ve been hiding; to free ourselves from the fear we’ve lived with by being honest and finding out that we can survive the experience. I’m finding it hard to share what’s going on lately, both because of shame and because I am ill enough to be suffering a lack of clarity. I went deep enough to reach the stage of continuing to act out as a way of punishing myself for having done so; building up a bank account of physical and mental damage until I could “buy” my release.

Have I paid enough? Am I ready to stop hurting myself? How quickly I would reassure you that your secret shame, whatever it is, doesn’t negate the other things you are. I’d mean it, too.

Metamorph

Most of us have read, and talked, and thought about the things that have stood in the way of discovering and being whatever we really are. Family and cultural expectations, fear, shame, loneliness–it’s natural for us to want to blend in (or at least refrain from standing out) enough to get some feelings of belonging. Some people manage this for most or all of our lives. In doing so, we face a choice on a conscious or subconscious level: do we live with the constant awareness that we are something besides what we are pretending to be, or do we convince ourselves that we are something closer to what began as a pretense?

Years ago, I was deeply affected by a story about someone who made an irrevocable version of the first choice. It was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Perfect Mate” spoilers ahead). I’m going to tell it because it still affects me.

A woman named Kamala is being sent to an arranged marriage with the leader of another planet. The marriage is meant to cement peace between the two worlds, and no other bride will do because she is the first female of her kind to be born in over a century. She is what they call a Metamorph. This is someone with a psychic quality of becoming whatever the male she is with desires, not physically but in personality.

An immature Metamorph responds to and changes for any male she is with. Kamala is in this state at the beginning of the story, but when she forms a full bond with a male her personality will be permanently “set” to respond only to what he wants. She’s expected to do this when she meets her future husband, of course.

There’s only one problem–she spends a lot of time with Captain Picard on the voyage. When “being” his ideal woman (and, of course, causing him a great deal of frustration) she is articulate, thoughtful, independent, loves reading and intellectual pursuits–and she realizes she really likes this version of herself. She also knows that the woman she will become after bonding bears little resemblance to this one.

On the night before her wedding, Kamala makes a choice. She bonds with Captain Picard, a man she knows she cannot have, and marries the man she has a duty to marry. She is still an empath and knows she can play the role, but on the inside she will always be something else.

Her situation was unique, but I still resonated with the idea: how important is it to me to be whatever it is I am? If I had her choice (which I don’t) to become, fully, someone who would be comfortable and natural in my circumstances, would I turn my back on a version of myself I found precious? Have I, unsuccessfully in the end, done that during parts of my life? Would I do it again if I had the ability?

How often did Kamala weep in her future life? Did she regret her choice, or did she think her secret inner life was worth it all? Did she find friends to whom she could show her secret self?

When we grow and change, those around us might stay the same. Or they might be growing, but in different directions. We become alien to them, and there’s a reaction on both sides. There’s a reason that recovery, or any big change, can destabilize marriages and family dynamics. Surveys of couples in which a chronically overweight person lost a lot of weight, for instance, report increased turbulence and insecurity in the marriage even if the weight had been a cause of dissatisfaction and both members had thought the marriage would get better with the change.

I’ve been a Metamorph for most of my life. Whether it was being a quiet kid, a tigress in bed or a compliant employee, I was almost always acting a role even if I didn’t know it. Some of this is inevitable; human communities will always have expectations and some of them are necessary for the survival of the community. If my “true self” were someone who found the deepest fulfillment in harming others, I’d probably be well advised to convince myself I’m another person.

But, for better or worse, me growing up seems to involve getting closer to a version of myself I can like when alone in my head. I find that there are serious consequences to trying to go the other direction–I can see, in concrete terms, how my anxiety and behavior fluctuate based on how authentic I am being. It’s pretty cut and dried for me these days: if I don’t want to go back to the pills, or go back up to 300 pounds, or join our dear ones who took their own lives in a more direct way, I have to face the potential judgment and rejection I fear. I have to live with loneliness, a loneliness my depression tries to tell me will be permanent.

Canary in a Coal Mine

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live your life like a canary in a coal mine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line
—The Police

I blame my daughter’s biology teacher. Turns out his main line of communication about homework and such is Twitter…and, while it’s possible to access his timeline without having an account, this process has pushed me over the edge into doing the unthinkable and getting one.

It always seemed as if it would be a fun thing to do, and I imagine it will be if I can keep it firmly in the realm of fun. The trouble is that I have jumped from “isn’t it amusing to tweet strange remarks and phrases that come into my head” to “oh my God, others’ feeds are amazing clearinghouses of useful links to things and mine is not” in record time.

I’m privileged to see a lot of amazing writing about living with mental illness and with addiction out there, and I know that I could spend my days online and never read all of the good stuff there is. One writer I follow (yes, you, K., and you’re awesome) pretty much gives me a daily digest of great articles to read.

It’s not what I do, though, at least not at the current stage of my life, and I tripped myself up by getting caught in expectations for my new account. Then I started thinking that since I had a Twitter account now, maybe I should give in and get a Facebook page for Not This Song, and how does that work, and would it be a separate page from my writer’s page, which I need to get set up too, and…

…and I’ve now sucked every drop of joy out of my writing. I’ve been struggling for days to pick and execute an idea for a Not This Song post. I’ve been comparing myself to social media moguls and thinking that since I don’t imagine ever being able to (or wanting to) do what they do, maybe I should give up on ever accomplishing anything with my writing.

I’ve thought about these things before; the Twitter thing just brings it up in a new way. For example, I tried to figure out how to put a “follow me on twitter” button here on the website, and haven’t yet succeeded–but the process triggered all of my insecurities. This leaked over into my writing in general–every idea for an article turned into haven’t you said this before or hasn’t someone said it better or isn’t this just silly?

This has to stop, because I can’t afford to lose my pleasure in writing. I’ve lost sight of the reasons for what I do; of Not This Song‘s spirit. Of course I’d like the pieces that work to get to more people, but I cannot place the cart before the horse. The writing, the weirdness, the play’s the thing; all of this other stuff is about finding the best ways to put it on a plate for others to sample.

All this being said, I’m going to keep my Twitter account, but only on condition that I keep it fun. For me, this means that, although I’ll sometimes tweet a link I find, the feed will usually be just my remarks and I won’t try to organize and distribute lots of links. I’ll try to think of it like the name; like that canary singing its message of I’m-still-here.

My username’s @NotThisSong. I’ll get that button up eventually, and if someone wants to look at it they can, but I’ll try not to worry one way or another. And I’ll write my next Not This Song article in the old spirit of simple storytelling. Want to help me? Choose one of these three old titles from my “pending” list: Metamorph, Alchemical Sewing Cabinet, or Damn It, Jim! and I promise to do the winner without second-guessing it any more.

You’re Not…Are You?

“You’re not feeling suicidal…are you?” During the week after the suicide of Robin Williams, the question came to me three times from three people close to me. That’s exactly how it was phrased, too. Something about seeing a well-known person who shared my condition die made it feel more real to them, I suppose; they wanted reassurance that I wasn’t in that kind of danger. Understandable–but what’s the right thing to say to them?

They want to hear that I never think about harming myself. But I can’t tell them that with honesty. The reassurances I can give them feel second-best, and are hard for them to understand. It’s hard to understand that I can be doing “well” and still not live too far from a dark voice that sends thoughts and images without being asked to. It’s hard to accept that there is no support they can give to eliminate that voice completely. No guarantees, no cure, no ticket to the land of my-loved-one-is-now-safe.

My studies in counseling are useful to me in observing the ebb and flow of this aspect of my condition. We were taught about a “continuum” of suicidal ideation and taught to assess someone based on this. We learned the difference between thoughts, intrusive thoughts and images, intentions, general plans and specific plans. We became less fearful of the subject and more accepting–and that’s important, because it’s not good for a client to believe they must keep their mouth shut about their darker thoughts to prevent their counselor from freaking out.

So, when someone anxiously asks whether I have any suicidal thoughts, I can’t tell them no, but I can tell them where on the continuum I’ve been lately. I can give them a lot of good news: I haven’t crossed into the realm of intentions, even vague ones, in a very long time. But they aren’t made happy by this, because they are distressed that I’m still on the continuum at all.

Intrusive thoughts and images. That’s the area of the continuum where I spend the most time, and the “intrusive” part means that they come to me without being actively invited. Their frequency and intensity varies, and is diagnostic. The details are also diagnostic, as are the frequency and intensity of ruminations about death in general.

How can I claim to fight for life, creativity, hope when I coexist with these thoughts? Shouldn’t I be trying to eradicate them? Is it unhealthy for me to admit I have them? Is this dialogue of mine a sick fancy? I don’t know. To me, my thoughts are what they are, and I have enough shame to fight without judging them too.

Years ago, at a psychiatric program, I witnessed a well-meaning but unfortunate clinical choice: a lady was hospitalized due to a suicide attempt, and professed her determination to try again. The counselors tried to engage her at a group level in questioning this choice logically, only to find themselves floundering and trying to keep this woman’s charisma from affecting others. Basically, it turned out that this woman believed wholly in a wonderful, healing afterlife, felt done with her Earth suffering and was anxious to get to the good stuff. A logical debate was completely counterproductive, as was judging her.

When it comes to my own beliefs, I do have some about the undesirability of departing early, but that doesn’t change the fact that suicidal ideation having to do with mental illness is not always logical and cannot be vanquished by logic.

So what, exactly, do I say to family and friends when they want to know? How can I ease their fears without lying, and how do I be at peace with the fact that they might never understand? Should I try to devise a system of describing the contents of my head, or stick to mild/medium/high?

I have, as usual, no concrete answers. Those I love know that I have a commitment to working my ass off to stay here until it’s my fated time to go, but false promises aren’t my thing. Accepting me as I am means accepting the sometimes dark path I walk, and I’m privileged to have a few people in my life who are trying to learn how.

Fatal Recall

This one’s for some of my brothers and sisters in recovery today. Together, we opened our eyes onto a world without the thing we used to think made life bearable. We got up and did stuff, and it was good, or bad, or whatever it was. We lived life–until something triggered us, and for a moment we imagined ourselves somewhere else.

We imagined ourselves in a place of perfect peace. A place we may have visited early in our addiction; a place our addiction wants us to think is still there waiting for us. Having glimpsed this place, we were momentarily seized with longing for it, and this longing coursed through our body. The sudden longing was fed by every source of stress in our lives and every desire we have to get away from it.

It’s known as euphoric recall, friends, and it comes with the territory in recovery. Experiencing it doesn’t mean we have done anything wrong, but it’s usually advised that we try not to let it linger. Notice the thought, acknowledge it, but don’t invite it in for tea. Those who tend to dwell on the difficulty of recovery and see their previous life as easier and more fun. Reply to it with memories of the whole story; play the tape to the end. Of course, if our response to it is strong enough to trigger a craving, it’s harder to do these things.

Craving–especially in early recovery–means something a bit different from its ordinary usage. It refers to an intense, whole-body experience, usually accompanied by extreme anxiety. It can hit us like a truck, and the thoughts that come with it are consuming.

One day, when I was about a year clean, I was watching Jurassic Park. Jeff Goldblum’s character got his leg chewed on by a T-Rex and is lying in the bunker, feverish and semiconscious. “He’s all right for now,” one character tells another. “I gave him a shot of morphine.”

Lucky bastard, I thought. And in a moment, with no more transition, I had gone to the euphoric recall. I could feel the narcotic in my system, removing all cares, relaxing my muscles. I remembered floating in the water of all-is-well, and having a leg nearly torn off seemed a small price to pay. Then the craving slammed into me–my stomach muscles clenched, my breathing stopped and anxiety bloomed across my skin.

It could have been worse that day. I was at home, and there were no painkillers handy–I have so much respect for those whose drug of choice is alcohol and must get through cravings knowing that a drink is quickly and legally available. I’ve had terrible cravings at the house of a relative who I know takes pain meds. She’s wonderful about keeping them secured, but just knowing they are in the same house can be hard for me, especially when I am in the middle of family occasions that are overstimulating.

How do we deal with cravings? I have heard many people talk about this, and there’s no one rule. We pray, we call someone, we try to distract ourselves with something, we pace around–and, if we’ve learned this trick, we look at the clock to give us hope. Why do we do this?

Because the physiological aspect of a craving exhausts its peak intensity after fifteen to thirty minutes.

We might still be tempted, and we might still need to contact our support group or otherwise treat ourselves to an extra dose of recovery. But if we can buy those minutes, the hit-by-a-truck strength of the craving will fade.

For me, it’s been helpful to have a set of regular and rehearsed responses to a euphoric recall or a craving. That way, I don’t have to think as much. Just go into the routine. My first step is to change whatever I’m doing physically–if I’m sitting down, I get up and walk; if I’m walking I start dancing, whatever. Then I try to get something else going through my head; anything will do. Really annoying songs can be good for this. Sing it out loud if you need to. Pick one with a strong rhythm, though; I haven’t had much success with “Muskrat Love.”

Then I go into minute-killing mode. Got a show to watch, a sink of dishes to wash, a dog to feed? Own a drum? A video game? Using my hands in some way helps. As I racked up a little more time clean, and thus amassed a pile of past cravings I survived, that really helped me too. The middle of a craving feels permanent, and history can help me remember it is not.

Euphoric recall, and other things that can trigger cravings, are one of the weapons in our addiction’s arsenal. They’re another string it uses to tug on us, afraid that we’ll go too far away or become too free. Today, don’t let it win. Read this. Read A Note From My Addiction and Hell’s Concierge to remind you how this demon thinks and how it wants us dead. Share it with a friend. Today, together, we fight.

Rhapsody in Orange

I take my sense of belonging where I can get it, and this weekend it was a baseball game. I always feel a sense of triumph when I manage to attend one without decompensating, because I don’t do well with crowds and the physical challenges used to be too much for me.

My love of baseball games has, to be honest, very little connection with actually being a sports fan. Baseball is really the only sport I know much about, and that’s due to marrying into a family of San Franciso Giants fans. I just went with it, and have acquired knowledge and enthusiasm gradually.

But the real draw for me is the tribal quality of being a fan. All my life I’ve felt a strong sense of longing to belong; to be part of something greater than myself. I have always loved the magic of melding energy with a group, whether it was in a choir or at a concert. As an introvert (not to mention the other things I am) I have to navigate this desire carefully. It doesn’t help that my personality type is what one testing scheme describes as a loyal skeptic–someone who takes enormous pleasure in being part of a cause, but always tends to think her way out of it after a while by finding deal-breakers.

It’s what ruins church for me, something that really annoys me because spirituality is so important to me and I would love to share that energy with others. In my life I have belonged to many subcultures, and still count myself as a member of some, such as recovery folk. But I find it hard to submerge myself fully and be a member of the tribe. Even when I’m acting like a member of the tribe, part of me always believes that those around me belong more than I do, not only on the outside but on the inside as well.

A baseball game is an easy, harmless and temporary vacation to the land of being one of the crowd. This weekend, for example, it started when we all got dressed. Orange is the Giants color, and Giants fans have an astonishing dressing-for-games percentage. So my husband got the black T-shirt with the orange lettering, I wore the soft old orange one, and my daughter looked disturbingly attractive in her gray and orange one. (She used to take her Giants stuffed animals with her, but no longer.)

The subway trip into the city is was the next phase of the tribal experience. On the train, you would have to count the number of people not wearing the team colors, and this was not even an especially significant game. My orange T-shirt marked me as “one of us.” All who were wearing the ritual color knew where we were going, and why, and what we wanted to happen when we got there. Sweet unity; sweet lack of controversy!

Why do I feel such satisfaction from it? That orange shirt makes me feel like a first-grader who gets to wear the special hat or clap the erasers. I’m a good girl. I’m doing something that meets with the approval of the tribe for once. Something in me wriggles with pleasure, like a dog who just got a loving pat.

Getting off the train, I made my way up through the levels of the stadium, my familiar disorientation at being in a crowd balanced with this pleasure. Once safe in my seat, enjoying the view, I looked out at the sea of orange with even more pleasure. As the game progressed, I continued to bask in the feeling of normalcy and unambiguity. I didn’t have to think everything out, or weigh different points of view, or empathize with anyone, or try to decide how best to help others understand, or how to accept that someone isn’t going to understand right now, or plan how I am going to do better tomorrow, or fight off the urge to…well, you get the idea.

My job was simple! When the Giants got a hit, I cheered like everyone else. There wasn’t any debate about whether the hit was a good or bad thing. We all wanted the Giants to win, and it was okay to want that. As it turned out, the Giants spanked their opponents 15 to 5, so I had plenty of opportunities to yell.

Yes, it was a nice little vacation, but now I’m back to planet Me.