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