Are They All Right?

I can’t stop thinking about people from my past. Wondering if they’re okay, what they are doing, how they are dealing with the pandemic. Whether they live alone or with others, whether they’re working. Do they have enough money, how is their health, how are they coping spiritually?

I can reach out to some, if I get up the nerve. “Hey, it’s me, I know we drifted apart decades ago, but how’s it going?” People would understand even if they think it’s weird. These are weird times, after all.

But in a few cases, I can’t for fear of harming the person by bringing up memories that might disrupt their current life. The most painful case is an ex-partner from my mid-twenties. There’s a lot I would like to say to him and a lot I’d like to apologize for, but I’ve never tried because I don’t want to risk negative consequences for him. But I miss him, almost three decades later.

Thoughts of him normally come and go, but they’re so strong now. I don’t know whether he’s married or has kids, if he has a job, if he is struggling to care for an elderly parent…I know nothing. He could be sick. He could be dead.

Over the years, I’ve often pushed away the thought of hiring a PI or paying a website to get just a few pieces of information without him knowing. Just enough for me to know whether he’s within reach of OK. But it feels unethical.

I know I’m probably not alone. I hope other people are braver than me, and free from reasons to hold back.

Yes, I Play Animal Crossing

I admit it—my daughter and I both find comfort in video games right now. I know a great many people, especially creative ones, who look down on those who play. I know there are valid issues surrounding the effect of both games and other media on the human brain.

That being said, I find video games good for anxiety management. There are times I can’t focus on writing, or wholesome leisure activities like reading poetry. When friends say they’re playing too much during the quarantine, I understand how they feel, but I don’t beat myself up about how long I play.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on the Nintendo Switch console just as the shelter in place was beginning. Because of this, it’s even more popular than it was expected to be. When I can’t sleep, or desperately need something to do with my hands, I’m on my virtual island.

I see it as harm reduction. Sure, gathering pretend resources and building things that aren’t real are not the best thing to do with the times I’m not able to work, but I could be doing worse. I could be relapsing on drugs. I could be overeating and making myself sick. I could be dwelling obsessively on the world’s situation to the point of convincing myself there’s no point in staying clean.

If the worst thing I’m doing is catching fish to sell to a capitalist raccoon, I’ll take it.

What I Deserve

Do I deserve coronavirus?

As the pandemic becomes more real and more obviously not going to go away any time soon, I’ve started to be more afraid of getting sick. I’m lucky enough to be sheltering in place except for trips to the grocery store, and I live in an area where folks are obeying the mask rules. But I have an illogical conviction that I’m going to get sick. Seriously sick.

I know it isn’t illogical to think I’ll be exposed if this goes on long enough. And I’m somewhat vulnerable because of being over fifty and having diabetes. But my odds are still decent for having a less catastrophic illness than my imagination portrays.

When I sat and unpacked this feeling a bit, I realized it comes from the part of me that thinks I deserve to get sick. That I don’t deserve to stay healthy when so many “better” people aren’t.

Survivor’s guilt. I know it. I’ve tasted it often when thinking of my fellow addicts who died, or fellow mental illness sufferers who didn’t make it through a bad episode. Especially when I think about the roles privilege played in my survival—white privilege, education, health insurance, etc. Regardless of how hard I worked, these other presences can’t be ignored.

And there’s no doubt privilege plays into my survival odds in the pandemic as well. Racial and economic inequities are achingly clear. So it makes sense that I’d have these thoughts. But too many of them are dangerous for me because they feed depression and apathy. Self-care is sliding. I’m not going out for walks. Sleep is worse than usual (and usual sucks.)

Writing sucks too. But today I did small revisions on a segment. And I wrote this.

Control, See?

I am desperate for some shred of control over my life, my future, my daughter’s future…control I do not have.

Some can take this desire for control and turn it into concrete action, no matter how small, toward improving the situation.

Sometimes I manage that, especially if I can define writing as a beneficial action. Said definition is of course a matter for ongoing debate. I can also make masks, however inexpertly, or clean, or cook meals for my family.

But as many of us do, I’m also seeking control in other spheres of my life. Spheres not directly related to the big problems; spheres where I can have a feeling of control.

Cue the eating disorder.

I’m hearing it from many sufferers…the stress is driving them to more frequent binges, or to more restrictive behavior if that’s a problem, or both.

I knew I’d never make it through these months staying the same weight. Maintenance is not my strength. I’m either going to gain a lot of weight or lose some. In an effort to choose the latter, I put myself on a stricter regimen a couple of months ago.

It’s helping me avoid binges. I’ve even lost a few pounds. But I’m achingly aware of how I cling to the faint sense of control it gives me. I’m thrilled when I lose a pound; I’m worried and upset when I don’t. In the face of this overwhelming world, my brain dwells on such a trivial thing.

I understand. I know it’s what brains do sometimes. I know I’m not alone. But it’s humbling to watch myself race in a circle, knowing full well why I’m doing it, yet still racing.

Masks

I am sewing masks, the way many people are lately. I don’t sew very well, and I swear like Samuel L. Jackson whenever I stab myself with a pin, which is often.

I am asking myself frequently whether it’s worth the amount of time, frustration and literal blood it takes for me to produce a small fraction of what I see better sewing folks and/or those with more physical and mental stamina are producing.

It has been many years since I approached what I think of as a “normal” level of productivity. Because my disability is mostly invisible (unless you live with me) I struggle with internalized ableism and hold myself to a standard I will never meet.

I know I’m not alone. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others. But sewing’s the least of it…I pour myself into my writing in little chunks, knowing I’ll never be able to put in the kind of hours, or networking time, or number of events others can.

These feelings are normal for me. They don’t get argued away. I just have to make sure my deeper beliefs coexist with them: Yes, what we do matters. Yes, every little bit helps. Write the book. Write the poem. Make the mask.

When Advice Hurts

I’m coping with some health stuff right now. Nothing worrisome in the long term, but I’m on my third antibiotic since early December. I’m frustrated at the decrease in creativity caused by fatigue and discomfort. That’s not all, though.

I had to cancel a writing group meeting last Friday. Instead of saying anything about the infection, I lied and said I had to go out of town.

Why did I lie? Because I was tired.

I didn’t want the lectures I knew I’d be given if some of them knew I was (a) sick and (b) using Western medicine. Lectures I’ve heard from these folks before.

I didn’t want to hear I wouldn’t have these problems if I were vegan. Or if I took the right supplements. Or did homeopathy.

I didn’t want to hear that all my ills are caused by dairy, or not doing yoga, or my childhood vaccines.

I don’t make any medical decision, including using antibiotics, lightly. I use the knowledge I have (including my degrees in biology) to weigh the data and make my choices. But people seem to see me as some sort of compliant, brainwashed sheep if I choose a treatment a doctor recommends.

Many of these people are kind. They don’t realize they’re hurting me. Not just frustrating and infantilizing me, but hurting me. They don’t realize that when they keep repeating advice, this is the message I receive:

Because you’re making some kind of choice that differs with my opinion, everything you are suffering is your fault. You didn’t get sick; you made yourself sick. You deserve no kindness, only judgment.”

Yes, I get that message loud and clear, whether I should or not. And it makes me feel so fucking alone. Because these are the type of people who also belong to the “all psych meds are evil and you can cure your mental health condition with positive thinking and vegetables” school of thought.

Which means I’ll never, ever be able to please them. Because even if there should come a time when meds don’t need to be in my toolbox, I’ll still be standing firmly on the side of their responsible, case-by-case, nonstigmatized use by others.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for the sheep to go take the next dose of her evil antibiotic. Baa.

The Meatball Challenge

Read this whole post, because I need your help with the meatball.

I don’t enjoy the holidays much. There are exceptions (I made it to a party last night and hopefully committed only minor social blunders) but I’m low-key to the point of denial most of the time. Oh, I like getting together with some of my relatives and playing games and having a nice meal, but (just as with Thanksgiving in my country) I don’t like being told that I have to do it on a particular day. Or being bombarded with how much more holiday-related fun other people with more energy and different families seem to be having. Or the endless question “Are you ready for the holidays?”

As if they were a college final exam or something.

At any rate, silly humor helps me when I am stressed, so I turn to the meatball challenge. The way it works is, you take a well-known line from literature or poetry and substitute the word “meatball” at an appropriate place.

“But soft! What light through yonder meatball breaks?”

“O Meatball! My Meatball!”

“Because I could not stop for a meatball, it kindly stopped for me…”

“Quoth the Meatball: Nevermore.”

You get the idea. Why “meatball?” I have no idea. It just works, maybe because it’s so arbitrary and pointless.

Right now I’m trying to do it a bit differently. You see, Christmas carols are one of the few things I enjoy about this time of year. Archaic language, religious references and all, I love that they’re songs a lot of people know. So I’m doing the meatball challenge with holiday song titles. It’s fun, but I’m running out of carols I know. So if anyone can help, please comment a title for me. Maybe even share so I can get more. Thanks in advance.

Joy to the Meatball!

Doing Nothing

My job today is to do nothing. Specifically, my job is to do nothing self-destructive. I hate days like these, where I’m just trying to get back to zero by letting my body and mind recuperate from whatever abuse I inflicted on them recently.

But the days when I’m actually doing the harm are, of course, worse. After nearly a year and a half of grace on my let’s-keep-diabetes-in-remission way of eating, I began to struggle in the spring and have not yet recaptured the blessed place I was in. A week or two of difficult abstinence has tended to be followed by a few days at a time of the hideous and painful rituals of binge eating. Although I haven’t relapsed on drugs, the eating disorder brings plenty of suffering in the form of sickness, shame and secrecy.

Sharing about this is important, because I don’t ever want anyone to get the idea that the work I’ve done on myself has solved anything. It hasn’t. I’ll be dealing with my issues for the rest of my life, just like I’ll be an addict in recovery the rest of my life.

If you think that’s a defeatist attitude, I understand, but I must disagree. Understanding that these things are a part of me and my life, rather than some demon I can exorcise forever if I just get it right, has been vital in acquiring more self-acceptance.

This is only day two back on plan. If and when I rack up a few days and get my mind clearer, I may look at whether to get in touch with my psych team over the general pattern I’m seeing (sleep worse than usual, biting nails until they bleed, anxiety spikes.) It’s the usual dilemma: are my struggles a sign that I need more help with my symptoms, or do I just need tough love and other attitude adjustments?

But today, the goal is nothing. Like the old story of someone who’s deep in a hole crying out to their God, “Please, God, get me out of this pit!” And God replies, “Okay, but I can do it faster if you stop digging!”

I’m not digging today. And that’s going to have to do.

Raw

Don’t you hate it when you bite your nails late at night until they bleed? And tear bits of skin off around the nail beds, exposing raw red flesh? And it hurts, but only for a little bit, and you finally go to sleep. Then you wake up in the morning feeling as if your fingertips have been dipped in acid.

Washing your hands is excruciating. The thought of doing the dishes makes you want to cry. But the dishes don’t care. They sit there waiting. And you don’t live alone, so you can’t just let them pile up. And you think about asking someone else to do them, but you tell yourself you don’t deserve that kind of consideration, because you did this to yourself.

Then you try to put bandaids on all ten fingers so you won’t keep bumping the skinned flesh into things. Then you realize you need to wash your hands.

Then you sit down to work on a poem and can’t stop looking at your stubby, raw, red fingertips moving over the keyboard.

Oh….what’s that you say?

Not everybody does this?

Shit.

Pain 1, Me 0

Chronic pain sucks.

This week I am receiving a reminder of this. I did something to my back 8 days ago; thought it was no big deal at first but it got worse as the week went on. It’s been hurting at the level that used to be going on all the time for me.

I’m spoiled these days; often pain free with occasional flareups. I haven’t had one this bad in four years or more.

So right now I’m being reminded how much pain screws me up–and I’m getting to see how it screws up parts of myself necessary for writing.

One: Pain makes me afraid. I future trip like crazy–what if it doesn’t get better? When can I go back to my regular activities? How am I going to function when sometimes I can barely function without pain? Writing in a state of fear tends to be joyless and stripped of its usual juice.

Two: Pain makes me stupid. Even less sleep than usual, fatigue from stiff muscles; it all leaves me cloudy. Writing is slow and awkward.

Three: Pain triggers bad memories and cravings. Back pain will always be associated with the worst time of my addiction. The physical sensation triggers memories of standing in line, filling out forms, and talking to doctors in order to get more painkillers. Even though I know all that is in the past, my body isn’t sure. Writing is harder because it’s difficult to stay in the present.

Four: Pain ups my level of depression. Understandable. Limited mobility leads to boredom, which makes me more vulnerable to depressive content from my head. Writing is harder because the grayness of depression works against my creativity.

Five, and most dangerous of all: Pain makes me self-absorbed. I regress, as many in chronic pain do, to an ego state where I lose perspective and my pain becomes the center of the universe. Writing is hard because I lose touch with why I write.

I really hope this won’t last much longer. But if it does, I need to remember that the imperfect writing I can do in this state is still approximately ten thousand times better than a blank page. So what if it’s not quite up to my usual standards? That’s what editing is for.

Poetry to the Rescue

Last post, I wrote about being flooded with old memories as a result of nonfiction pieces I am writing. Fortunately, I know one remedy to feeling overwhelmed by a project: Write on something different for a bit. It won’t fix everything, but it helps.

So I took advantage of a little writers’ gathering to focus solely on writing poetry; specifically, the kind of writing that strives to be uninhibited and often leads to brand new drafts of something. Very raw drafts, but a thing exists that did not exist before.

A short project to rest from a long-term project. A project done for simple joy of creativity instead of the more purpose-driven work. And two brand new poems, hurray!

A change, a breath, an infusion of fresh energy. Checking in with the poetry part of myself that has felt a bit neglected for the past month or so.

I don’t know what the difference between a writer and a poet is. Maybe there really is none. But my psyche relates differently to what I think of as my poetry from the way  it does to my prose. Both are vital; neither appreciate neglect.

There’s more work for me to do. I still feel shaky and vulnerable and craving. But I did one positive thing, used one positive coping mechanism. Go me.

The Best Thing I Ever Write

Periodically, I need to remind myself why I am writing. It’s not to get my ego stroked. It’s not for the high I get when performing. It’s not for the thrill of getting published. Those things are all gravy, and it’s easy for me to get drawn in to this exciting subculture and try to do too much. When I do that, it’s easy for me to start judging myself for not having the energy to go to nearly as many events as a lot of poets seem to do.

I am writing because the very best thing I ever write might help someone someday. That’s what started it, and that’s the core to which I return. I want there to come a time, in the dark watches of some wakeful night, when someone picks up something I wrote and it helps them get through until morning.

I will never know what the best thing I ever write is. It might not be what I expect. It might make someone feel less alone, or it might cause them to feel more accepting of some darkness within themselves. It might carry a metaphor that helps someone create their own personal metaphor as a talisman. It might be a piece that I don’t even rate very highly among my body of work.

Returning to this basic idea is even more important as I begin to consider pulling my prose together and morphing it into a longer project. Changes in style and a thousand different ideas about voice and structure try to distract me, but I must not let them.

The Eye Roll

Part of living with bipolar disorder is encountering the Eye Roll from loved ones.

The Eye Roll goes like this: I, currently in an “up” state of mild or moderate hypomania, gush about all of the new things I have decided to do. Classes I have decided to take, new languages I have decided to learn, writing projects I have just decided are awesome and should receive devotion, exercise programs I have decided to start…you get the idea.

These bursts of dedication can happen to anyone; certainly we have all had the experience of starting and abandoning new projects. However, with hypomania they are ALL trying to happen at once. In a single week or less I experience–and babble to my family at length about–all of the above and more.

So the Eye Roll is a normal reaction developed over years, in someone who has watched me start so many new projects only for them to disappear during my next depressive phase (and often, rather than reappear during my next up period, be replaced by my NEW set of great ideas.)

My loved ones want to encourage me in taking actions. They’d rather see me engaged than depressed, so they try not to make the Eye Roll obvious. Nevertheless, it is felt and I have enough self-knowledge to respect it.

The spirit behind it has helped me put some cautions into practice. If an idea or desire recurs over months, during a series of up phases, it may be worth following up. However, if it is brand new, it’s not an idea I should spend significant money on or make any life-altering decisions about.

A little money, well, that might be okay. Buying a new wall calendar to lay out plans, or downloading an app, is no big deal. But it’s NOT the time to buy a treadmill, spend hundreds of dollars on a class, or get a tattoo. I need to wait and see if my wonderful new idea has legs or not.

Useful

How do I maximize my usefulness to others? How do I assess my strengths and weaknesses honestly and make good choices about how hard I should push myself at any given time? How do I repeat this assessment frequently and deal with the self-doubt that tries to make me push myself too hard out of guilt or shame? How do I resist the impulse to apologize constantly for what I am doing and the fact that it’s not enough?

I’ve written on this theme before. I’m sure I will write about it at intervals for the rest of my life. Two years ago I wrote this, in fact:

“I don’t want to live my life as a walking apology, but I also don’t want to become the kind of person who sees no need for regrets about how my condition and/or my shortcomings affect others.

Where is the line; where does a realistic assessment of my condition end and making excuses begin?

Could I be allowed to stop making promises, or even implied promises, that set me up for the inevitable apologies?

There’s no way for anyone else to assess, or even for me to assess reliably, the subjective amount of effort I’m making. So how can I, when unable to perform consistently, express that the thing, principle or person is still important?

Can I ever be good enough, do enough, love enough to have it mean something?”

Looking that up was interesting because it really made my point: This theme recurs. It recurs because the question is always relevant in a world that needs us to do our best. It’s not going to stop recurring, and I need to meet it with honesty and humility whenever it arrives.

Not Enough

How often we get stuck not doing anything because we have been taught that whatever we do will not be enough?

I drag myself to a support group meeting. More frequent attendees ask “Where have you been?” I manage to get to a poetry reading. Other poets ask “Too bad you missed yesterday’s event, are you going to make it to tomorrow’s?” I stumble into tai chi. Classmates say “Haven’t seen you for a while, are you coming to the workshop?”

Now, to some people, all of these things might have a very different connotation. These comments might simply mean that these people like me and want to see more of me. But do you think I interpret it that way? No, I interpret it to mean that I am not doing enough, not being enough, not giving enough to that particular community.

It’s easy for me to think that if I compare myself to people who have thrown themselves deeply into one community and seem to devote themselves to it on a daily basis. If I set a standard like that for myself, a standard that fits neither my health nor my current lifestyle nor my devotion to more than one thing, I will always feel deficient. 

If I have the clarity to question my thinking, I see that my feeling of constant deficiency is not fact. I also see that it cannot be fixed by doing more; that I would still manage to find a way to see myself as deficient because the idea is ingrained deeply enough to defy logic.

For me, and for many, many others who are conditioned the same way and surrounded by a culture that continues to encourage the deep belief, the automatic assumption of deficiency is one of the enemies we battle daily. Like our other demons, it is the enemy of creativity and joy. It wants us silent, bound or dead. What it does not want is for us to get up and do something.

Through the Clouds

I want to believe I’ll be creative for the rest of my life.

I want to believe that if I get very ill I’ll use the time and the change in perspective to write, or at least expand my mind by learning a new language or something. I want to believe that if I die of natural causes at an advanced age, my feeble fingers or quavering voice will still be trying to communicate. I want to believe that my mind is and always will be more powerful than my body.

I want to believe my drive toward thought and clarity can always overcome issues with my body. And there is some truth and merit to the idea; there’s truth in the idea that my mind and soul have a great deal of power. There’s truth in the idea that the battle for clarity is not hopeless and that it’s well worth fighting.

That belief, however, is not always backed up by actual experience. My experience has been that my mind’s activities are linked to the functioning of a physical object known as my brain. This organ, whether I like it or not, is a part of my physical body. It’s affected by every other organ I have. It relies on the contents of my bloodstream for oxygen and nutrients. When my body gets sick, or is affected by hormone fluctuations, or takes a new medicine, my brain gets a different cocktail. There’s a tipping point to these things beyond which it’s very hard to muster enough energy or original thought for any productive act.

The truth is that for someone like me, the state of optimal body and brain function is more like a theoretical norm than an actual one in the sense that there always seems to be something going on. As I age and experience more physical issues and age-related cognitive decline, the clouds may get thicker. This thought scares me quite a bit.

As I often do when I feel fear, I grope for a metaphor. Today it’s astronomy.

Astronomers, as least the old-school or amateur types who must perform their observations from the surface of the Earth, try do their field observations on clear nights. When it is cloudy, they reschedule, because the portable instruments they have may not be powerful enough to get anything useful through the cloud cover.

But what if the climate changed and it was always, or nearly always, overcast? They’d have two choices: give up astronomy or build more powerful instruments (or do all their observations from space, but in this metaphor that seems like a post-death thing and we are looking at this lifetime.)

Even if they began to build better instruments, they’d have to accept that they now get less data for more work. They’d have to decide it was still worth the work and dedication.

I have to accept a similar thing. I have to believe that an effort I make on one of my bad days is still vastly, stupendously superior to doing nothing.

Time’s Up

When you’re an introvert, interacting with others is subject to a clock in your head. At a certain point, a timer gives a gentle chime. “That’s all the time we have,” it says, like a therapist at the end of the fifty minutes.

We can ignore the timer, to a degree, if what we are doing or who we are conversing with is important to us. We pay a price later by having to spend even more recovery time in the social equivalent of the fetal position.

For me, part of my trouble in the past was that I didn’t realize I was an introvert, especially because I can be very interactive at times and don’t fear things like public speaking. I just thought I had bouts of “laziness.” It took me a while to see the pattern of them and understand myself a little better.

I understand now that introversion doesn’t mean what I used to think it meant. It’s not shyness or social awkwardness, although those can sometimes go with it. It has to do with the level of stimulation we can handle and the level of our need to focus within.

Learning to accept myself as an introvert is the same as learning to accept myself as an addict, or a person with mental health issues, or anything else. It’s just what I am, and it has its own advantages and disadvantages. Fairness, or desirability, or how well it fits with my culture and circumstances, is irrelevant.

Different

Thanksgiving Day is over for another year. There’s no big drama in my family during it, but I still tend to find it overwhelming in terms of socializing and food. When I listen to others describe the stress they sometimes feel, the theme of differences stands out.

Sometimes, when interacting in this kind of environment, we become hyperaware of our differences because we feel a pressure to do one of two things with our differences: explain them or minimize them.

Take food, for example. Every year I hear fellow compulsive eaters, or diabetics, or anyone who needs to follow a certain way of eating for their health and well-being, talk about dreading temptation and/or pressure to eat outside their normal plan. They also dread trying to explain or answer questions about why they choose to follow the plan they do, or justify following that plan instead of what someone else recommends.

I’m so used to not eating what others do that I don’t feel too much specific dread about this, but it does highlight my feelings of being set apart from those who can eat “normally.”

Then there are those of us in recovery who cringe at the thought of being around family members who still drink or use other substances. We make judgment calls about what to attend, make survival plans, and generally experience the holiday as a guarded foray through dangerous territory.

Congratulations to all my kindred spirits who have just come through this. May we be kind to ourselves as we use whatever tools we favor to shore up any cracks in our defenses and restore our connection to the way our differences define and evolve us.

The Other Shoe

I’ve been doing something dangerous recently: taking better care of myself.

After a very long downward spiral of diabetes/low thyroid/weight gain/depression feedback loop fun, things have begun to move in the other direction since spring. It began with a desperate, no-holds-barred attempt to bring my blood sugars under control with a change in eating–a change that, surprisingly, worked well. It accelerated when this change, somehow immune to my eating/weight baggage because it was serving the blood glucose meter and not the scale, began to have the side effect of taking off a little weight. It accelerated more when something about what I was doing affected my thyroid and my levels approached normal for the first time in years. My most recent labs are a thing of beauty compared to the values of last year.

So why is this a dangerous thing?

It feels dangerous because a part of my psyche is convinced good things won’t stay. A lot’s been written about the psychology of growing up in a household of substance abuse and/or violence, but you have to be one of us to know the sickening plunge of fear that comes when the unpredictable trouble erupts. Everything seems all right, then the floor drops out from under you and you’re in fight/flight/freeze mode. And because you’re a kid, sometimes the third one is the only available option.

Anyway, that part tends to make itself heard when things are going well. I have an inner conviction that something awful is about to happen, and when something bad does happen it’s taken as a confirmation that I was right.

The more I feel a sense of hope about the improvements in my health, the more convinced I am that some terrible punishment awaits. The resistance I battle every time I write something or do anything else positive is almost palpable. It fuels itself with everything from little symptoms to relatives’ ailments to the news:  “You, or someone you love, or the planet, is going to pay a price for your selfish behavior. It’s only a matter of time.”

Too Little, Too Late

The phrase haunts me. Whenever I find a lump where a lump shouldn’t be, or even have a twinge of pain in an unfamiliar place, the fear comes up. I’m turning into a hypochondriac, and I don’t like it.

It’s not just that I am afraid of dying, although I am. It’s that part of me is still waiting for a judgment from the universe–a judgment saying I’ve had enough second chances. A judgment saying my current efforts are too little, too late.

I recently spent time with a fellow addict who is on dialysis. For three years, she tried to quit smoking in order to get on the list for a kidney transplant and could not do it. She finally succeeded—two months before a heart complication showed up and derailed the whole process. Too little, too late.

My blood sugars are lower than they’ve been in a long time–but with every exam I fear the onset of some complication born during the less controlled times. My weight is improving slowly from the place it reached last year–but with every sore knee or backache I fear that I’ll never dance again.

It all feeds into the roar from the ever-present peanut gallery that observes my efforts at writing: You’re too old! It’s too late! There’s not enough time left to accomplish anything that is worth doing!

Isolation

We use the word as a verb often these days. I’m isolating a lot. She started isolating. He tends to isolate when he gets depressed.

Isolating is different from just being an introvert or enjoying solitude. Isolating is ducking phone calls, declining invitations when we do get them, shunning gatherings or meetings we used to attend.

We do it because of depression, or shame, or pain and fatigue. We do it because we are too tired to face the dreaded question “How are you?”

Then we keep doing it because we feel guilty about having done it for a while. Guilty about the phone calls we ducked and the meetings we skipped. Overwhelmed at the thought of trying to explain why we flaked out on interactions when we don’t really understand how it works ourselves–or, if we do understand it well, we may have also learned that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to explain.

It’s dangerous for us. It can make depression worse. If we are in recovery from an addiction, it increases our chance of relapse. It’s bad for our physical health and narrows our world in a way that can let our negative thoughts and traits begin to dominate.

So how do we stop doing it? How do stop doing it?

One thing that’s really hard for me to accept, even after years of work, is that my mental health issues may always manifest in cycles of mood and ability to interact. For me, the struggle is about harm reduction and trying to reduce the shame and fear that extend a cycle of isolation past its natural life span.

And when I find a foolproof way of doing that, I’ll be sure to let you know.

The Parable of the Cursed Axe

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2015)

So there I was, one warm summer day, sitting at a table in the lounge of the neighborhood counseling center. Beside me lay a stack of paperwork I should have been working on between sessions, and in front of me was my tiny, ancient laptop computer. “How’s it going?” one of my fellow counselors asked, walking in with their own stack of paraphernalia. “Terrible,” I replied. “I’m surrounded by a large band of orcs and I’m wielding a minus-20 cursed axe.”

I got an odd look, can’t imagine why.

The really old version of Nethack I was playing was, at the time, one of my favorite relaxations. One of the simplest of dungeon crawlers, with all rooms, objects and monsters made only of characters available on a common keyboard, it was a game requiring lots of imagination. I was an @ sign, monsters were mostly letters, objects were punctuation, etcetera.

I started playing it in college, and I guess I have a pretty good imagination because I was really into it. The rules, and the random nature of the dungeons, sometimes allowed odd things to happen. For example, there were “stores” where you could buy weapons and potions, but you’d better not steal or the shopkeeper, written to be amazingly strong, would kill you. But, if you had a scroll of teleportation, you could load up with goodies and escape.

Anyway, my situation with the orcs that day was the weirdest one I ever got into. Here’s how it happened (because I am sure you’re dying to know, given that you can sense a metaphor coming afterward.) My character had survived and prospered long enough to have excellent armor, strength and regenerative abilities, but I was only wielding a lowly dagger. So I was pleased when I found an axe, and picked it up.

Now, it’s wise to be cautious of weapons one finds in this game, because some of them are cursed. But I didn’t have a scroll of identify to show me the exact characteristics of this axe, and I was impatient, so I typed in the command to wield the weapon. Descending the stairs to the left dungeon level, I found myself surrounded by the letter O. Orcs. They were all around me, and it was impossible to move. There was nothing to do but fight them.

Now, orcs are not all that strong in this game, which is why they exist in such large groups. So I was surprised when my attacks on the first orc seemed ineffective. Maybe I would be better off with my dagger after all. Trying to switch, I saw the dreaded message “You can’t. It appears to be cursed.” A cursed weapon can’t be dropped, and since only one weapon can be wielded at a time, my dagger or anything else was now unavailable to me.

Checking my inventory, I saw that my cursed axe was rated minus-2, which explained its ineptitude. With no scroll of remove curse handy, I had no choice but to keep hacking away as best I could. Then the letter R appeared. Are you kidding me? A rust monster, now? With every hit, a rust monster makes your weapons or armor less effective. My minus-two axe became minus-three. Minus-five, seven…minus-twenty by the time it stopped. I was now fighting the undiminished pack of orcs with what amounted to a shapeless hunk of rusty iron too heavy to lift. But I could not put it down.

Yes, wielding a cursed weapon sucks. But we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Haven’t we all had a response, or a coping mechanism, that is ineffective at best and destructive at worst, but we just can’t put it down? One that seems to have become intertwined with our psyche so much that we can’t detach it?

Yes, addictive behaviors are one clear example, and my mind certainly goes there as expected. Having begun to use them, some of us can’t put them down even when they put us in an obvious no-win situation. We swing them helplessly at the problems around us, no longer able to pick up or use a healthier method even if we know of one, unable to accept the fact that our old weapon isn’t working any more, hasn’t been working for a while, and isn’t going to start working again.

But addiction isn’t the only fertile ground for this metaphor–none of us are without our cursed weapons, and these weapons sometimes became part of our arsenal when we were very young. If we learned to avoid feelings or situations, avoidance can become our default response and be very difficult to change. If we learned angry confrontation as the go-to reaction to protect ourselves, it becomes our cursed weapon too. If we learned to please people and try to placate them, we find out how such a pattern can deplete our self-esteem and personal development.

As often happens, I’m bashing ineptly at the orc pack of despair and worry that seems to be pressing in on me, unwilling and unready to admit that I am not doing damage to anything but myself. Feeling powerless to stop the pattern, and not being hopeful that a more powerful weapon is available to me right now.

I know my general fears and anxieties are lying to me! I know there’s power I can use. I know! I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I wouldn’t be here without the Thing, whatever it is, and it can help me if I let it.

Whatever you are, help me drop the cursed ax. I’m asking now. Help me lose my fear of the orcs long enough to look at the dungeon floor around me and see that there are scrolls there, including a magic scroll of remove curse. Of grace.

Pain We Obey

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2014)

Even at its worst, the pain from my cracked vertebra was not that bad compared to what some endure. But when it’s your pain, and you have it all the time, it feels consuming. I know what it’s like to plan my days around pain; to decline activities I used to enjoy. Not to be fully present in the moment because I’m counting the minutes until I can lie down and take painkillers. My addiction clouded the issue as time went on, making it more difficult to judge the true level of my pain and causing me to neglect the things that might help it.

I’m glad that many in pain are still able to use painkillers to take the edge off, even though I know the side effects can suck. I’d still be doing it if it worked. I’d still be doing it if my body and brain had not developed ever-increasing levels of physical tolerance and psychological need. Why not? We’re wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s not wrong, it’s human.

When it became clear that I was an addict with a capital A, rather than simply being physically addicted to the meds, I felt so sorry for myself. My black-and-white thinking painted the future as an infinite desert of unrelieved pain and bleak depression. It felt so unfair. I had to change my attitude a lot to have a chance of staying clean, as I mention in Compassion With A Twist.

When I became willing to live, and went to rehab, I was told that for every year I had used opiates it would take about a month clean to figure out my true pain level. I’d used them for eleven years. Didn’t sound like much fun. Rehab, with its constant classes and groups, was very physically challenging for me. I’d sit on pillows, rocking and fidgeting often, feeling as if someone had jammed a screwdriver into the base of my spine. I must have dried ten thousand dishes, because it was the only one of all the chores that I could do without triggering my back too intensely.

Today, I can say with gratitude that it appears the doctors at rehab were right. My pain level is far lower than it was before I got clean. I still have occasional episodes of bad back pain, but I pause and remember that I used to feel that way all of the time. Recovery has also brought me other improvements in health that lower my pain, such as weight loss and the ability to exercise more. That’s only my story about recovery, and I know that not all pain is the same.

Living with chronic pain, like living with mental illness or being in recovery, opens us to trying things that might not have been on our agenda. Spiritual exploration. Meditation. Trying to find and do small things that give pleasure in the moment. Examining our ideas about what we are if we’re not our jobs or our productivity. All of you who make this necessity into a quest for growth inspire me: how amazing it is that we perform, however imperfectly, this mysterious alchemy that turns pain and despair into something beautiful.

“To goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.”
–-Marcel Proust