Monthly Archives: November 2014

I’m Not Like You

The last time I was in rehab, I had a very nice roommate. A woman slightly younger than me, who was friendly and obviously relieved that I wasn’t too scary looking. Alcohol was her thing, and it was her first time in treatment. We chatted and got to know each other, and I felt comfortable with her, which for me is saying a lot.

Almost every night, downstairs in the main room, meetings of the most populous recovery fellowship were held, open to the community as well. But on Thursday, things were different. On this night only, there was a meeting of a different group; one that talked about drugs as well as alcohol. When my roommate looked at the day’s schedule, she asked if everyone had to go to the meeting. “I imagine so,” I replied, “since we have a mixed population and everyone’s had to go to all of the other meetings.”

“But there might be a lot of drug addicts there,” she said nervously.

Oh, honey. Who do you think you’ve been sleeping next to for the past five days?

She knew pills were my thing, but she hadn’t made the connection. In her mind, a drug addict still meant a toothless thug roaming the streets. In her mind, an alcoholic and a drug addict were two very different creatures.

I encounter it all the time. I call it the “I’m Not Like You” phenomenon. It existed in that rehab facility, as it does everywhere else. And it doesn’t have to be about what type of addict we are; it can be about background, age or anything else.

I’m not like you. I’m just an alcoholic. You drug addicts are way worse.

I’m not like you. You’ve never been on the streets or in jail. You’ve had an easy life. You have no idea what I’ve been through.

I’m not like you. I’m a successful professional. I just have a problem, which I will solve and get back to success.

I’m not like you. I just took those pills because my doctor gave them to me. I would never do the things you’ve done.

I’m not like you. You have no idea what it’s like to live with mental illness.

I’m not like you. You’re old and out of touch. You don’t have to cope with any of the problems I have.

I’m not like you. You’re young and don’t have the responsibilities I have.

I don’t belong with you.
I don’t belong here.

Yes, it’s a form of denial, but it goes deeper. You see the denial form of it in detox or early in recovery. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance about listening to someone rhapsodize about their successful life and lack of serious problem when their hands are still shaking. But even if someone has found themselves to be in need of recovery, and accepted this about themselves, these judgments go on.

We argue about which recovery groups are better than others. We judge each other, and get defensive when we feel judged. We feel superior, and when we feel inferior we fight this by finding things to criticize.

In other words, we act like the microcosm of humanity that we are.

Sometimes it frustrates me, until I remember the last thing I just wrote. It is the human condition, and while I can work toward unity I can’t make it happen. But I want to. I would love it if all those in recovery would embrace the fact that Death comes one to a customer no matter who we are; that we are nothing more or less than fellow addicts no matter what our specific poison was.

I’d love it it if we never forgot what the real enemy is.

Wanting to work toward unity is another reason for me to work on myself. Strengthen my recovery, fight my social phobia, lay my ghosts to rest and become someone who is a little less afraid to reach out to someone I might be tempted to think is different from me.

It’s a Hard Egg

Okay, that’s not really how the song goes. The song is actually “It’s a Heartache” by Bonnie Tyler. But, as people do, I misinterpreted the lyrics decades ago and my version of them is still what I hear when the song plays.

It’s one of what I call the “Poor Me” genre of songs. In fact, on the same tape from my childhood was another song called “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” by Linda Ronstadt (I heard that one as Poor, Poor Pimple Me, but that’s another story.)

A time-honored genre…after all, how many climactic opera arias discuss the character’s contentment and happy thoughts about the future? How many blues songs rhapsodize about how the singer’s wife is faithful and his dog is doing fine?

In music, a little “he/she/the world done me wrong” is fine. But in my brain, it’s a deadly weapon. Self-pity and resentment are potentially as lethal as a bullet, and that metaphorical gun is pointed at my temple lately.

I feel sorry for myself because I’m choosing (not being forced) to abstain from food and drugs, and it’s very hard right now. I feel sorry for myself because of my family’s money problems and the challenge of keeping up with home/campus schooling for my daughter. I feel sorry for myself because the holidays are coming and they bring me shame and stress instead of fun.

Poor me. Poor, poor pimple me.

At a time like this I try to engage gratitude to combat the self-pity. I think I’m trying too hard, though–I’m using gratitude like a cudgel, attempting to whack my mind into a better path with it. I’m lecturing myself about all I have to be grateful for instead of letting the grace flow and wash away my resentful thoughts.

I don’t need to conquer self-pity to be a better person; that’s just frosting. I’ve said it before, but I can’t say it enough: I have to move away from self-pity and toward grace if I want to keep breathing. It’s that simple. A bad attitude will kill me. Dead.

With that said, let’s go back to the hard egg. Besides being an amusing misheard lyric, it’s actually a kind of cool metaphor. Instead of a heartache, we have a hard egg. Maybe I didn’t want a hard egg. Maybe I wanted my egg over easy. But that’s not what I got. The egg I got is hard.

If I’m in a self-pitying mood, I could sit there in the restaurant and complain to the server that they got it wrong. I could demand a replacement egg, and throw a tantrum when I hear that it’s the last egg they have.

Maybe I’d realize I’m being immature. So I could sit there and stare at the egg, telling myself that I should be grateful to have an egg at all. I’d lecture myself about all the people who don’t have any eggs, and work on convincing myself that the egg will taste just fine, and even if it tastes bad I shouldn’t complain.

I think that’s the stage I am in now.

But what do I do, there in that restaurant booth, if I really have gratitude and acceptance? If I’ve resolved my resistance, if my gratitude flows instead of being cudgeled along?

That’s right. I eat the fucking egg.

I shut up and eat the damn thing. And save myself time, energy and stress. I eat it, eat this egg that will never exist again, and I take in that precious, irreplaceable protein and vitamins.

In the end, participating in this messy life of mine will be a lot less stressful than agonizing about it. Being willing to live, fully, in my present situation will let me see and appreciate what’s good in it.

Well. Glad we got that figured out. Now I just have to deal with the whole easier-said-than-done business…with congealed yolk to guide my spirit.

The Library

Another day, another existential episode in the library.

I’m so lucky to be able to go to the library several times a week! I know many people with traditional jobs would love to have this opportunity. Now that my daughter is taking a couple of classes, I have a two-hour window of time perfect for some quiet writing or reading–and on Wednesday through Friday, my local library is open. The other two days I haunt a coffee shop.

But the library is challenging. It’s a microcosm of my life. It distills one of my common issues into concrete objects: choices.

Here are thousands of books on hundreds of subjects, most of which I know little about. Here, in the poetry section alone, are hundreds of unread poets, waiting to speak to me and reminding me how little I have heard.

How do I pick one? And how do I sit down and pay attention to it, and forget all of the others calling me? How do I silence my skittering mind; how do I zoom in and get the shot in a reasonable frame?

This gets intensified when I’m not eating. For a couple of weeks now (thankfully) I’ve been on my strictest regimen, necessary to begin repairing the recent damage. Lack of food triggers both hypomania and general sensitivity for me–whether you call it psychic sense or something else, I just relate to the aether differently. My dreams are more vivid and crowded, and in a silent environment like the library my mind ranges into more distant and strange places.

There’s a reason mystics fast.
There’s a reason (in addition to the basic fact of being an addict) that I use excess food to ground me; to keep me from feeling like a balloon whose string has been released.

I’m trying to sit with this feeling, as well as name it by writing about it. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone; that so many before me have felt these frightening things. They must have, to write and think the things they did.

Training and practice of mindfulness techniques can be helpful, and it’s something I am interested in pursuing when time and strength permit. I already use some basic ones, such as “narrating” every detail of a mundane task I’m performing or taking time to note textures and sounds around me.

But the ability to focus on a task without forcing myself is rare for me. And I think I know one reason for it: being completely present in an activity requires giving myself permission NOT to be doing all of the other possible ones. It requires quelling the anxiety associated with all of them.

I even notice it when we’re doing the homeschooling: if I get us doing history, we’re not doing math, etc. It’s crazy! How exactly would I combine the four subjects into one lesson? And if I did manage it, I’d probably feel guilty that we aren’t doing her physical therapy.

All of this is relevant both to recovery and to living with mental illness, because grounding ourselves is so important. Boredom, or simply unstructured time, is one of our deadliest enemies. There’s a reason some people do really well in treatment or hospital and then flounder and sink on the outside–we don’t handle choices well. We drift, we can’t focus, and we become frightened. We don’t know how to be content and present with whatever we are doing.

In a program of one kind or another, we know what to do because someone is telling us. Get up. Be in this room at this time. Draw this. Write about this. Do this chore. Even if we resent it, even if we complain, part of us is eating it up.

Veterans sometimes have similar issues; they struggle with self-regulation after years of living with an imposed structure. Anyone at all can struggle with this while unemployed–and those with mental health issues, who can’t hold a traditional job but need the structure one might provide, have a hard time of it.

The two most common outcomes of this kind of disorientation are acting out and paralysis. For me, the paralysis can be the result of desperately trying to keep from acting out–I remain pinned in one spot, doing something mindless to distract myself, to keep from doing something worse. All of the positive or useful things, whose possibility has created such anxiety, are temporarily smothered under the distress of feeling paralyzed. If I act out instead, of course, the possibilities are smothered beneath remorse and the need to repair damage.

Small victories, like writing here and now, are something I need to savor. I could have dived into a book I’ve read many times, or played games on my phone while surrounded by this atmosphere of thought and learning. But I chose to be with this feeling instead. That will probably change as the day continues, but it’s worth something.

Me, the Message?

Tonight, I’m beginning a new hospital volunteer gig as co-facilitator of a meeting at a detox unit once a month. I’ve been a patient on the unit (twice) and I’m glad of be of a little help, but I’m sure going up there will bring back memories. I’ve been on the hospital campus many times for meetings and events, but the detox is a secure area and you need a reason to be there.

Recovery types talk about carrying the message to the addict who still suffers. Some people also point out “We don’t just carry the message, we ARE the message.” Meaning that our existence, our beating hearts, our feet walking the earth free for one more day, are a testimonial as powerful as anything that comes out of our mouths.

I am the message when I go to a place like this, whether I feel “up to” being it or not. At times like this, when I’ve been struggling with my symptoms and with compulsive behavior, I feel self-conscious about any hint of holding myself up as an example of recovery. But, no matter how humble I am feeling, my physical presence in that room makes me part of the message. My face, the way I carry myself, my tone of voice…in a place like this, many people are feeling too sick or drugged to care yet, but there are some who want to know whether there might be hope this time.

No matter how messed up I am, I do have hope to offer the person who is convinced life without their drugs of choice is either impossible or unbearable. That hope is transmitted by the space of time and experience between tonight and when the patient trying to stay awake and calm through the nightly meeting was me.

Because it was, and I must not forget that, no matter how frustrated or depressed I become. I sat in the chair where the nurses took our vital signs every four hours. I lined up at the window to get medications. I ate from plastic trays brought up to the unit, until I was strong enough to go down to the cafeteria with the more senior patients. Then I climbed the two short flights of stairs back up to the unit one step at a time, gripping the handrail tightly–and still had to stop and rest, dizzy and weak.

In the lounge, I attempted games of cards with fellow patients, only to strew the cards over the table and floor with an ill-timed twitch of my shaking hands. I haunted the nurses’ station at night, unable to sleep but not wanting to be alone. I talked with my daughter on the phone, hearing about her math test–and breaking, inside, when I heard that she wouldn’t let anyone but me read her Harry Potter at night.

I will never stop being grateful to the people who work at this place, and others like it. Their job is often thankless, to say the least, and the repeat business they get has to be depressing. But, unlike many, they try to treat the patients with respect and a matter-of-fact attitude. They don’t project an aura of “you deserve your suffering,” but they don’t give in to manipulation either. The most experienced and wise ones can best be described as a force of nature; an attitude of “it is what it is.”

Yes, I am grateful. But I never want to go back. I may need to go to psych treatment again at some points in my life, but detox is different because I have the ability to make a choice that will keep me from being a patient here. Recovery gives me that choice, and I’m the message when I display evidence of having made that choice today.

I’m looking forward to climbing briskly up those steps and walking through those doors, wearing jeans and a denim jacket (so different from hospital gowns or the loose clothing of the first days.) Nobody will take my blood pressure or inquire after my bodily functions, and when the meeting is over I’ll go home. That’s the message; that’s what I am. A screwed-up human in recovery, who can visit a detox ward and not need to stay.

Ash Eliot

I also bought a teddy bear last weekend. It was a gesture of over-the-top nurturing to go along with the other extra care involved in my Discount Psych Ward. My social phobia and anxiety have made recovery group meetings and such more of an ordeal lately, and I thought having something to hold onto during the meetings might help a little. So we went to Build-a-Bear and I chose the softest one they had.

On Sunday, I took him to one of my regular meetings with me. I got some odd looks, but that was fine. I also got many smiles and a few requests to hold him. The willingness to be childlike, or even foolish, in recovery is important enough to me to have written about it before, and this was just another example.

But my new friend did more than comfort me during a meeting. He also made me think more deeply about poetry, what it means to me, how I feel about wanting to write it, and my spirituality.

How, exactly, did a little teddy bear manage this? Well, I’m sure you are dying to know.

Someone asked me what the bear’s name was. I told her I named him Ash Eliot: Eliot because my favorite poet is T.S. Eliot and Ash because my favorite poem by him is called Ash Wednesday.

“Well,” she said, “I was never into any of that intellectual stuff.” Or something like that. I didn’t know what to say. I felt awkward and ashamed, as if I’d somehow insulted her or acted superior about having some knowledge of literature. I felt other. The meeting started, and I tried to put my feeling of awkwardness and hurt behind me. But I didn’t want to let it go like that; I wanted to be understood.

Yes, and I’d also like a pony. We all want to be understood, but that doesn’t mean it is going to happen. St. Francis was right to advise praying to understand instead; it avoids any temptation to make our lives contingent on someone else’s ability to see.

But if I could, I’d like to communicate more about how my love of poetry has nothing to do with intellectualism. I’d like to be more “out of the closet” about it, and be accepted for this among my peers of all interests. In this fantasy world, everyone would realize that it’s simply one of my roads to spirituality, as necessary as water, as vital as warmth. I’d feel free to talk about poetry in a meeting that same way someone else might talk about Jesus if that’s his or her particular road to the divine.

Ash Eliot–and that fact that I chose that name in the first place, that a poet was the loving companion spirit I wanted with me–made me think about all of this. Today, in the library, I sought comfort from a book by the poet Mary Oliver, and found words of understanding there. She writes that poetry “…carries one from this green and mortal world…lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise.” She writes: “Poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost.”

Sounds spiritual to me. If poetry is one’s thing, then it is spiritual. Why should I question it? And why should I be ashamed? It’s just another part of me, and being honest about it is just another part of presenting myself as I am. Let it be one of my distinguishing traits, even if it is awkward sometimes. That’s the one who is dual diagnosis. That’s the one who brings a teddy bear to meetings. That’s the one who is really into poetry and writing and stuff.

If it makes me other, then I need to trust in the idea that there will be friends out there for me that are okay with, or even attracted to, this flavor of other. For this flavor, this mixed seasoning of the meat that is my self, is the only kind of nourishment that will never fail me.

Discount Psych Ward

I’m not afraid of going to a psych ward for help. I’ve been there before, and I know it’s thoroughly undramatic compared with the way it’s portrayed in the media. The downside to going there is the same for me as the downside to going anywhere else: it’s expensive, and I wouldn’t be around to help my family. Especially my daughter.

It’s the money first, really, since stays in the ward tend to be pretty short these days. You need to be an immediate danger to yourself or others to go in for any length of time. I could qualify, if I shared some of my inner landscape with admissions people–but I know myself, and I know I don’t really qualify. Not yet.

I’m in the gray area–messed up enough to be potentially at risk but not messed up enough to be in immediate danger. The gray area’s an uncomfortable place to be, and a hard place to explain to those around me. But the gray area’s also a place of opportunity–if I take it seriously, and get others to do the same, I have a chance to stay out of the hospital.

I call my attempts the Discount Psych Ward. And I’m not trying to make
Iight of treatment–if you have to go, you have to! But for me, arranging a DPW can sometimes work long enough to get me through the worst part of an episode.

I knew I needed one when I saw my therapist last week. I talked with him about some of what I’d been doing or thinking, and one thing I confessed to him was how much I’ve been thinking of cutting myself. I have a weird thing about cutting–you see, I’ve never actually done it. I just think about it. But not being able to stop hurting myself with food has me so frustrated that I’ve been wondering if cutting could be a viable, noncaloric way of acting out.

So I told him about how I’d been contemplating what sites on my body would be best, and whether razor blades are the best or should I try to get a scalpel, and do drugstores even sell plain razor blades any more. And because he knows me well, he didn’t freak out (very much.) He just wanted to know if I’ve been in touch with the psychiatrist lately and what my plan was for taking care of myself in the short term. So we agreed that I’d carry out this DPW scheme I’ve used a few times before.

The DPW requires the help of my family, and that’s the tough part. Each member of my family has a tough and stressful life lately, and asking them to put all that aside and focus on me feels so selfish. I have to keep remembering that it’s in their best interests as well to keep me out of the hospital.

So I asked my husband to stay home all weekend, and I explained to my daughter about what was going on. I’m always worried about asking things of her–during my psychology education I heard the term “parentified child” so often I hated the idea that my conditions affected her. But there are times, especially now that she is a teenager, when honesty is the best policy.

The rules: my food needed to be controlled, because the inconsistent/destructive behaviors I’ve been doing were definitely making my symptoms worse. All attempts to return to healthy status quo had failed within a couple of days lately, so being in the DPW was also meant to help me through the difficult first few days of that. Other than not eating anything off my plan and not doing anything harmful to myself, I was to have no responsibilities. I was to spend little or no time alone, even during the times when I would normally retreat to my room to be anxious by myself.

It went pretty well. We played a lot of video games. I hyperventilated a lot. My daughter did her schoolwork without much help or drama, a much appreciated contribution. I prowled through the house, hungry, and complained at great length about how hungry I was. I did not try to be mature. When my husband and I were alone, I talked more frankly than usual about my dark thoughts.

He went back to work on Monday, but I can tell that both of them are still making an effort to check in with me and not stress me out too much. I’m doing better than last week, and still sticking to the food plan. I’m grateful to have a family to help me combat my isolation, and I’m aware that not everyone like me has this. I would be foolish–and ungrateful–if I let my pride keep me from using it.

I don’t know how the coming days or weeks will go. I may end up needing a higher level of care, a level I haven’t needed since before Not This Song began. I hope not, but if it does happen it won’t be a failure, nor will it negate everything good I have written and experienced.

Strolling With Sewage

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.