Monthly Archives: July 2015

Bonus Levels

What are your life’s bonus levels?

I am not even close to unlocking the bonus levels on one of the mindless tablet games I play when I can’t sleep. (These are reward levels that can’t be accessed unless all of the regular levels are completed to a certain standard.)

Rewards are great. We all give ourselves rewards, or promise them to ourselves for achieving a goal.

The problem happens when we screw up the classification of rewards. I do this all of the time. One common method, of course, is to take a self-destructive act and have that masquerade as a reward. But that’s not what I am thinking of today.

Today, I’m looking at how much stuff ends up in the bonus levels when it should be part of the regular game. Stuff you wouldn’t expect to find there.

Did you know that unless my diet is going well, I am not allowed to move my body more than absolutely necessary?
Or use moisturizer?
Or apply vitamin E oil to my raw and inflamed cuticles and nail beds?

The prerequisite doesn’t have to be the diet, although that’s a common one these last months. It could be an undone task, or a worrisome situation with developments pending, or a relationship that’s feeling uncomfortable. Until I solve it, or make progress that meets some vague cutoff, I am not allowed to:

Sing, even in the shower or over dishes.
Enjoy writing (I may force some of it to happen, but it’s not fun)
Wear nice clothes
Reach out to friends

My bonus levels get more crowded if my depression or anxiety worsens. They begin to include things like washing my hair, doing laundry, taking vitamins (see Vitamin Diplomacy) or even drinking water.

I kid you not. There’s something in me that thinks I need to earn a fucking glass of water. I have the good fortune to live in a part of the world where water comes out of a tap, and I prevent myself from drinking more of it than absolutely necessary. Right now, as I type this, my lips are dry.

It’s a very different phenomenon from the apathy or paralysis that keeps me from doing things when depressed. When Bonus Levels Syndrome happens I know I could, I could do this thing that improves my well-being and mood. I could do it, and I choose not to.

Are you like me? If you experience this sometimes, I have a question for you. Just a little thing I’ve been wanting to know–

Where the FUCK did we learn to believe we’re worthless?

What taught us that life is a battle we have to fight not only alone, but without eating the rations in our packs? What locked us into a vicious circle of denying ourselves the nourishments or pleasures that would give us strength?

Some of us might have a specific answer that comes to mind. For others, it may have been a broader and more subtle process. For me, there’s already been some learning about it, and I focus on going forward–but sometimes I feel so angry.

It’s easier for my anger to flow honestly when I think about you, of course. The image of you, whoever you are, denying yourself water or a healing balm for your skin or the joy of music makes me mad. It isn’t right. It doesn’t make sense.

You deserve better. So maybe I do too.

The Turtle Cried

Magic works undercover. Important moments aren’t always recognized as they are happening. They don’t look important, or feel important, or have any obvious effect right away.

It was eight o’clock on a Monday morning in May of 2011. For me, it was the morning of day 4 in rehab and day 6 with no painkillers.

At this particular facility, we were supposed to strip our beds every Monday morning and change the sheets. I was able to get the sheets off, but while leaning over and struggling with getting the new fitted sheet on I triggered my lower back pretty badly. My default pain level spiked, and I rolled onto my back gasping. Then I started to cry, scaring my roommate a bit until I caught my breath. I laid still for ten minutes or so, then I managed to get up and she helped me get the sheet on.

I cried because my back hurt a lot; because the screwdriver that always seemed to be jammed into my lower left spine had been brutally twisted.

I cried because I knew this meant I faced another long day of fidgeting in chairs during classes and group.

I cried because I felt humiliated at being sprawled sideways on a bed not my own, ungainly as a turtle on its back, weeping.

I cried because I missed my family; because I would have given anything to hear their voices asking if I was all right or to have our dog jump up on the bed and sniff at me quizzically.

I cried because I didn’t want to be 45 and in rehab.

So what made this moment magical? Why do I remember it well? It certainly wasn’t the first, or last, time I cried in treatment. It was only one of many times I had to experience intense feelings.

I realize now that it feels magical to me because it marked one of the first signs that this recovery thing might really be different for me this time.

The moment was a moment in which I was not making any excuses. Not rationalizing anything. Not trying to find a way out, or blame someone else, or making a plan for it to get better. I was expressing distress in the moment, but I wasn’t trying to escape the moment. Nor was I trying to escape the day ahead, or the realities that had led me here. I wasn’t telling myself that it wasn’t that bad.

For the addict I am, and especially for the addict I was then, that is truly a phenomenon worth remembering.

My whole life was about escaping my thoughts, my pain, my feelings, and my responsibilities. I could and did rationalize constantly to make what I was doing seem like logic, or not that bad, or at least the lesser of evils. The real or perceived ordeal of my days led to a nightly ritual of retreat; a ritual enacted during the day whenever possible as time went on.

I’m not immune to this mindset now, by any means. I struggle with it every day, with varying degrees of success. I fall into it more when my stress level is high, so it’s up a lot lately.

Today I remember that unmade bed, that muscle spasm, and those tears because I need that simplicity. I need it badly, and I broke through into some of it yesterday. I broke through, perhaps more so than I have in many months, and even as I write this I feel near tears with a sensation of relief and gratitude.

What brought me here? Several things, possibly; perhaps I’ll write more about them later. It was no effort of mine. I’ve been trying to fight the good fight; I’ve made lots of efforts, but I did not climb some mountain or solve some puzzle. I didn’t “figure out” how to return to that magic circle.

The turtle cried, and the circle appeared around me.


“I come to thee for charitable license,
That we may wander o’er this bloody field
To book our dead and then to bury them…”
–Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 7

It is not the first battle, or the first defeat. It will not be the last. The psyche is an arena that seldom knows complete peace.

Are you like me? Do you stand on the muddy field after the cease-fire, looking aghast at the damage? Have you stood this way hundreds of times, heartbroken at yet another failure to keep destruction contained?

Maybe it was a full-scale war, months or years long, ending in severe consequences for your life in the outside world. Maybe it was a smaller skirmish, one that no one else even saw, only days long–but a day can last a very long time on these unreal fields.

Perhaps your attack against yourself was swift and unsophisticated, or perhaps you gutted yourself with sharp swords and exquisite accuracy.

It does not matter, at this moment. You try to tell yourself it could have been worse, or lasted longer, but right now you don’t care. The point is it happened, it happened again, it fucking happened again.

You scream with frustration and grief. You fall to your knees and pound your fists into the muddy ground. It isn’t fair, you shriek; why does war erupt again and again, why can’t you just stop it?

The sky does not care what you shout at it. The odd bird chirps, loud against the comparative silence that hangs in the air between your cries now that the clash of weapons has stopped.

Eventually you get tired. God, you’re so tired, and the rage isn’t helping anyway, and you fall silent. And when you are quiet, you begin to hear the voices of the wounded.

It’s time to lay it all aside. They are still alive, and they need you. Crawl through the mud to clasp a bloody hand. Lift an unconscious body to a stretcher. Give water. Do the next thing that needs to be done; respond to the next cry.

“I’m sorry,” rasps one fighter as you wash away blood. “Forgive me,” whispers another as you close a wound. They all weep, talking about how they should have tried harder, trained harder, fought harder. They push feebly at your hands, saying their wounds are not so bad. Surely others need you more (I deserve it, I deserve it rings in the background of their speech and your heart replies no, it was my fault, I am the one…)

Some just turn their face away and say “Leave me alone.”

You don’t blame them. What do they have to look forward to, after all? Being carried to the healers, days or weeks or months of recuperation, maybe a few pleasures or times of companionship followed inevitably by another trip to this bloody war zone? Of course the next battle calls to them more strongly than any joy they might find before then. It will take time for courage and hope to rise.

You want to tell them the war is over; that this was the last battle they will have to endure. You want to tell these loyal aspects of your Self that their courage and perseverance are now to be rewarded. You want to tell them it’s time to beat their swords into ploughshares and sing only the songs of peace.

You want to let them rest all winter. You want to lead them, in the spring, to the greening field and let them build a temple to harmony and wholeness.

But you can’t.

Or perhaps you can; just don’t lie to them and claim they’ll never have to defend it. You can’t deny that the enemy is still there, still part of you, and will attack again.

You can make that temple beautiful. You may manage a longer interval before the next conflict. You may reduce the casualties. You may learn to be a better medic. But the war is not over, and never will be.