Raising the Stakes

When my drug addiction was at its worst, the stakes were life or death.

Many years later, the stakes are still life or death.

But it’s different too. Back then, in the state of despair I was in, losing my life felt like a numb inevitability. My major regrets about the idea had to do with how it would hurt the people I loved.

Now, I feel as if there’s a lot more to lose. Through a process that has taken years, I’ve come to value the things I do have to give. I feel at least somewhat useful to my family and even my community. I have things I value so highly, and so sharply, that the thought of losing them makes the idea of dying before my time suck. Especially my writing.

I’ve been clean for more than seven years now, but I recently had a couple of brief bouts with overeating after being relatively sane around food for the past 2 years. Each only lasted a day or two, thank goodness, but it was enough to remind me of the insanity it brings. One thing I really noticed was how frustrated I felt not to be able to write or even think effectively about writing. The obsession, the fear of gaining weight, the shame…they were all there, but there was also the sharp awareness of a wall the binge eating had put between me and my creative self.

I have a richer life now; a more precious life to be destroyed if I make the choice to use drugs again.

Flooded

How do we know when we’re writing too much?

It’s tempting to think they’re’s no such thing as too much. Maybe that’s true for some people, especially if the things they write cover a variety of styles and subject matter.

But this week, I’m conscious that I may be writing too much of a project too quickly. My nonfiction project contains many memoir-style pieces for the purposes of outreach, and I am working on some that cover a very dark time in my life.

My task is to convey, at different times, an authentic tone of what it’s like to be a practicing addict, to take doses of drugs you know might kill you and not care as long as you get high, to be deep in clinical depression or overwhelming anxiety, to be suicidal, to be convinced that suicide is the best thing you can do for those you love, to know that you have lost and drugs have won, to plan your own disappearance and death, to know that you deserve nothing better…

My task is to write it so well that an addict or a mental illness sufferer will identify strongly, while someone not familiar with the feelings will have a window opened to a bit of understanding.

Strong feedback I’m getting tells me I am at least partially succeeding in this. But there’s a cost: I’m writing it authentically enough to affect myself as well.

Floods of old emotions, ones that are always there but more in the background, wash over me. Old grief, guilt, and shame come up often. The otherworldly loneliness of that time echoes.

Too much of this is dangerous to my current mental health. I’m noticing hits to my self-care and changes in how I relate to my family.

These things need to be written…but I need to pace myself.

Seeing Strength

I spend a lot of time making sure I am aware of my weaknesses and limitations. Not (most of the time) in a self-critical or self-defeating way, but out of the necessity for managing my conditions responsibly. No one is helped if I take on too much and end up unable to do anything. So, through the years since the last time I needed hospitalization, I have worked hard on this.

Last weekend, though, I got reminded that it’s okay for me to take a moment to see strength. For the first time in nearly ten years, I attended my local Unitarian Universalist church. I used to sing in the choir there, and met some wonderful people…and, eventually, slunk away because of my insecurity and my worsening mental health issues. Already near-suicidal, I came away from every sermon more ashamed and more depressed, the calls to action and social justice reminding me how little I was doing for the world as I struggled just to stay here in it. 

I had considered trying again for a while, and on Sunday I got to see that things have, indeed, changed in the last ten years. The old tapes did play, often, but they did not rule me. I felt plenty of social insecurity, but not enough to make me flee. As I sat and listened to the sermons, I realized that the process in my head was different. Alongside the old tapes, a different track played…ideas for poems, ideas for other ways I might be able to help, a consciousness that, even though I am not doing as much as I might wish, I am doing something.

I came away more at peace with what I am and what I do these days. More at peace with the fact that my battlefield is the psyche, that my focus is on helping others like me escape from prisons inside their skulls–so that, one day, they can be more present in the world and help fight the battles that need fighting.

My Book is a Bastard

So what are these projects that have been sucking up my writing spoons? Well, as far as poetry is concerned, I am trying to put together a chapbook for a feature I am doing in November. It will be the first time I offer written poems for people to take home. It’s just a low end thing, but I have to go through the horror of figuring out which poems to put in it.

The other one, the really new one, is my nonfiction book. I have always had a vague idea of using the essays I’ve written for the last five years as raw material for something, but recently I’ve hammered out much more of a plan and begun writing pieces that are targeted specifically for that.

This book is a bastard. A hybrid. A mutant.

Why?

Because it doesn’t fit into an easy category, like memoir or inspiration or self-help. I don’t want it to be just another “here’s the story of some shit that I survived” memoir–but there will be memoir pieces in it designed to help a reader identify or get a perspective on eating disorders, addiction and mental illness. It’s not a “here’s what to do to change your life for the better” book–but it will contain some ideas of things that might be worth trying, or tips on finding your own ways. It’s not a psychology book–but part of what makes it a bit different will be the experience of going through some of this stuff as a person who already had a clinical background, and where knowledge is and isn’t helpful. It’s not a “spiritual inspiration” book–but will certainly contain some metaphysical thoughts on why not to give up.

From a marketing perspective, some might say I’d be well advised to change it to fit a category, because bastards are hard to market. But I don’t think I can do that; I need the outreach element to be there. We’ll see. It’s all so embryonic that the most important thing to do at this point is to keep writing.

The Trap Door

An old dating show had prospects standing on a trap door above a dunk tank while being asked questions. At any moment, the contestant asking could push a button and splash! It was all over and the next person would move to stand on the trap door.

I often feel as if I’m in that situation. The feeling grows stronger when I meet and interact with new people, especially if I have a strong desire for those new people to like me and want to see me again. Everyone can have the “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me” feelings, but mine tend to center on a few specific things.

For example, yesterday I spent the day with a group of writers at a workshop (an awesome experience, and I am so grateful I was invited despite my lack of funds.) The social part also went well, but I did have one instance of the “trap door” feeling. It happened during lunch when the topic of psych meds came up briefly and several people expressed the common attitude of all psych meds being bullshit and/or evil.

The gears rumbled to life in my head and I began to project. So, if and when they know that I’m someone who chooses to take medication, they will have contempt for me. They’ll decide I am weak, or lazy, or unwilling to face difficult times, or just a compliant sheep controlled by Big Pharma. They’ll write me off. And if they would write me off for this, how quickly will they write me off once they know I am a drug addict in recovery? Should I speak up and tell all of these things about myself as early as possible so they can go ahead and write me off instead of wasting their time?

I felt the trap door opening under my feet. I felt the familiar brick settling onto my chest. I felt the familiar loneliness that tells me “You don’t belong. Don’t get fooled into thinking you could.” 

These moments are part of life for me, and I try not to let them control my actions. I try not to let them trigger defensive counterjudgments or mentally put people into boxes, but it’s hard sometimes. I’m aware that when I do that I am judging people in the same way I don’t want them to judge me.

Poetry…Because Drugs Didn’t Work Out

I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.

It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.

Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.

Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.

The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.

Reminders

No matter how well I am doing, I must not forget what I am. No matter how much I am enjoying being a poet, or how invested I am in being a mother, I must not forget the conditions that have the ability to destroy it all if I don’t deal with them as responsibly as I can.

I live with a mental illness, and I’m an addict in recovery. These things become less and less obvious to people as I rack up more years clean and have the good fortune to stay out of the hospital for years as well. But serious mental health crisis always has the potential to happen–and, of course, relapsing back into my addiction would bring all my progress crashing down on myself and my loved ones.

Many of the people I meet these days don’t know about my past. Sometimes I am nervous about if, or when, or how to talk about it. I don’t know to what degree I will encounter stigma. Sometimes I expect, on some level, to be “written off” as a new acquaintance gets to know me. Not that I can’t be written off for many other things about myself, or just for general social awkwardness.

At any rate, my learning and growth have to be balanced with continued maintenance. New adventures have to be undertaken with an honest knowledge of my limitations. Even when I can “pass” for normal, I have to remember and accept that I am not.