Monthly Archives: November 2015

Still In Recovery?

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a special women’s recovery event. Part of me didn’t want to show up–what else is new? I always want to wait until I can present the best version of myself. I want to wait until some magical moment of good health and behavior arrives and appear then, proclaiming “Look, I’m here, this is me! None of those other things are me!”

But I’d been invited, specifically, by a friend who knew I had no money for a ticket and offered me a place at her table anyway. It meant a lot to me, and I was determined not to flake out. So I showed up as I am, carrying the extra weight from my latest bout of self-destruction and the extra weepiness from my latest bout of depression. I did a load of laundry, and washed my hair. I couldn’t wear my jeans comfortably, but at least the yoga pants I did wear were clean.

Hearing women chat about their lives and the people they know, I felt the usual welcome shifts in perspective. My own problems felt a bit less overwhelming as I listened to those of others, and I had the usual–yet somehow always surprising–revelations about how little these women care about my own standards for myself.

Yes, I’d been struggling with food and money and depression. I wasn’t the only one. Others had been struggling with relationships, or battling cigarettes, or had new and serious health problems. There was just one battle we were all still winning at the moment: being drug addicts who were not using drugs.

On my keychain, I carry the medallion I got on my four-year anniversary of getting clean from drugs. If I stay the course, I’ll get a five-year one next May. Lately, it’s been harder and harder to take any joy in these things because I am so aware of the insanity I’m experiencing around food.

I’m well aware that in a different fellowship I’d just be considered in relapse, period. Periodically failing with the food would mean I’m no longer clean and shouldn’t be counting any anniversaries. I don’t choose to go by these rules for a few reasons, the most important one being that it’s nearly killed me in the past by creating a “might as well” attitude and encouraging me to use drugs again. Now, I choose to keep my anniversary, despite the eating-related insanity I have experienced off and on in the last four years. I choose to believe that staying off of drugs matters enough to be acknowledged.

That being said, it’s important for me to admit to myself when I’m in relapse mode. Insane behavior with food is diagnostic for me, and it’s not very compatible with the values of recovery. If I’m binge eating to punish myself or drown my anxiety, I’m probably not using a lot of spiritual tools at the moment. So even as I hold on to my accomplishment of staying clean, I need the humility of admitting that my life is in relapse mode lately. That I need help, need to put my program first more often, need to admit I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s said that abstinence does not equal recovery. I, like any addict, can be free of my best-known demon but making myself insane with another behavior. Looking around that room at the tables of women, I knew that each of us fell somewhere in the gray zone between living in our disease and living fully in recovery.

Am I still in recovery? Are you? Where is the line?

I can’t tell you the answer, but I can tell you about the moment I let go of the question for the rest of the day.

“Have you seen ******** lately?” a woman asked.
“She went out,” another woman answered sadly.

Out. It’s what we call it when a person disappears. Stops answering their phone. Eventually, maybe, someone hears something. Friends might try to track them down, but there’s often not much that can be done until the time is right. We wait, and pray we will see them again.

I felt the usual wave of sadness, the woman’s face vivid in my mind. I looked around the room and wished she were here with us instead of where she was.

The Last Phoenix

Indonesia burns. Deliberately set fires rage out of control, igniting the soggy layers of peat on the forest floor and adding poison to the already dangerous ash and debris. It burns every year, and now it’s having the worst fires in nearly twenty years.

It’s not a new problem, and I’m not the one to go into detail about the multi-decade growth of it. Humans have been building it for decades. Other humans–outnumbered, outfunded–have been fighting it along with other environmental crises around the world. Look up Indonesia fires 2015 if you want to know just how bad things are, how many species are threatened with extinction in the short term, and how humans are suffering.

I have never thought of myself as an environmentalist. I’m old enough to have grown up in a culture with environmentalism not yet admitted to the mainstream–to my shame, I gave it little thought as I tried to navigate college and career. It was one of the many causes I cared about but avoided out of laziness, self-absorption, paralysis or fear of controversy. About a decade ago, when I was getting my counseling degree, I met a man who was studying ecology. Very few people had the emotional fortitude to be around him for long, because he had a conversational habit difficult to take. He’d get into a conversation about classes, or someone’s relationship, or daily minutiae of some kind…then, at some point, he’d pin you with a fierce stare and demand, “Are you aware that the planet is dying?”

No matter what you were talking about, suddenly you’d be left feeling like the worst person in the world. He also ran meditation session about sinking into the planet’s pain; feeling and integrating the death of species and land and sea. I don’t think I could ever do what he does, but I understand him a little better now. I’m still a selfish person, and a sick one, but part of me has become a little more present; enough to want to bear witness.

The rest of me still doesn’t want to. Maybe, if I were a better person, I could maintain the daily and hourly knowledge of our planet’s irreversible transformations. Knowing me, I’d then try to maintain the same level of constant awareness about the agonies of poverty and racism and mental illness and every other horrible thing going on. I’d have trouble picking one cause and sticking with it.

None of that is an excuse. I own my sins; my inadequacies. I own, and have written about, the shame I feel when my best efforts are only good enough to keep me clean and out of the psych ward.

At any rate, Indonesia burns in my mind–off and on, the glow of it strobing slowly as if from a lighthouse. I drink a cup of coffee–then randomly think of fire. I worry about money for a while, then picture haze-filled skies. I worry about my daughter’s health, then imagine the coughing of children across the Pacific.

Does it help to bear witness more than I used to do, when there’s little action I can take? I believe consciousness matters, so I suppose it does. Maybe I can contribute, in an infinitesimal way, to a larger level of awareness. I am, sometimes, the voice of the weak…but even the voice of the weak might influence the strong, or influence enough weak to band together.

So I will tell you the only truth of mine I have to offer today. I will tell you that I woke early this morning from a dream of fire. And in the fire, soaring above the fleeing and dying tigers and orangutans and other last representatives of their kind, I saw the last phoenix. It was not afraid, for it had burned many times and been reborn. Brighter red and gold against the flames, it flew fearlessly into the destruction, and only when its wings were half burned away did its usual death-and-rebirth shriek turn into one of fear and true annihilation. The phoenix did not understand about tipping points; it only knew that something was terribly wrong. I watched it vanish into the blaze. Then I awoke, and drank my coffee, and wrote some words to the tune of the last phoenix’s last song.