Burning

I am rediscovering my rage toward addiction.

I anthropomorphize the general phenomenon of addiction; many of us do. Especially as we struggle with abstaining, it can be helpful. You want to resent something? Resent that. You need somewhere to direct your rage, your hatred, your frustration? Hate the thing that wants you dead; that wants us dead. Hate the thing that wants to eat your soul and replace it with its eternal craving.

It’s not that we deny our responsibility for our situation or our duty to keep fighting. But in the midst of the humility we need to seek and find, sometimes we need to rebel. So yes, I welcome the rage and the rebellion sometimes.

I recently spent time in the hospital with an addict who has been on dialysis for years and has now just had open heart surgery. Still on methadone, she has the accompanying high tolerance for pain meds. I listened to her repeated begging for more medication as the pain resisted treatment. I watched her be in the power of nurses–some kind, some not–who questioned the validity of every request.

I watched her frail body curling in on itself, like a leaf curling and withering in a flame. I could almost see addiction as the fire in which she burned.

And I hated that fire.

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.

I’d Rather Kill An Antelope

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2013)

For a long time, I tried to pass for normal. By normal I mean my idea of what my normal should be, which many would call overachieving. I was gifted with some abilities and I had certain expectations about how they should be used. When I failed, or had a breakdown, or acted out with food or drugs to drown my symptoms or stifle the disconnect I felt from myself, I told myself that I would straighten out my problems and then I’d be able to succeed.

Eventually, over a period of years, I came to know and even to accept that there were some things about me that meant I needed to change my expectations. Part of it was accepting my mental health issues; part of it was just understanding my personality better. I tried to set new goals more tailored to my real self.

I’ll do or think just about anything to have a shot at feeling good about myself. On a very deep level, I believe I have to do or be something in particular to have earned a spot in this universe, and I try to convince myself that this is indeed happening. So, when I began to accept my differences, I tried to convince myself that those differences made me special. When I felt envy toward other mothers with clean houses and more organized lives, I dealt with my feelings of shame by embracing a sort of eccentric genius identity; someone above or beyond such mundane concerns. When I felt envy toward my former classmates who had great careers, I told myself that their lives must not be as psychically or spiritually rich as mine.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that I have something to offer because of and not just despite my differences. But it’s not right for me to use that idea to gloss over my responsibility to try to learn to cope with “normal” life as well as I can. It’s also not right for me to use this “weird equals special” idea to cover up the very real pain I have about the things I will always struggle with.

The truth is that there’s a part of me that will always long to be a relatively normal, functional person. The psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz, one of Jung’s early students, wrote that in ancient tribes the boys who ended up being shamans were usually unsuited to be hunters. Many of them would have rather been a hunter; would rather have been the hero who brought down the biggest antelope at the hunt. The young man who stood proudly at the initiation rite, being welcomed into the ranks of adults and feeling the satisfaction of having provided a meal for the hungry. The guy who married the prettiest girl in the tribe, had eight children and became a respected elder. They’d rather have been that guy than the guy living in the isolated cave, playing with bones and having his entrails metaphysically scattered by jackals.

Even if I join the writers and poets and the other shamans of our time, there will always be a part of me that is sad not to be a hunter. That envies my husband’s ability to function at a corporate job without having to take anxiety attack restroom breaks every hour; that cringes in shame when I read about friends who are working for social justice. I am learning to function better, and I have hopes about being able to help and serve others better, especially the dual diagnosis community. But I feel like a shaman on a hunt: I might learn to hit a squirrel with my slingshot, but the antelopes are for the real hunters.

I know that being the shaman had many compensations, and I’ve tasted some of the wonders and beauties that may enter my life more and more. I might become a good shaman. I might serve the minds and souls of others. I even hope to become a voice that will help bridge the gaps in understanding between groups of people. But it’s important to admit that I wish I could also be a hunter; that I cry when I think about the problems in the world and all the work that needs to be done. My people are hungry; the shaman cries: they don’t care where my soul is traveling tonight. They just want to eat, and neither my passion nor my tears can feed them.

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

Oak Tree Debate

Have you ever written a story specifically to help you with a poem? I have a poem that’s been incubating for a couple of months now. Like many, it started from an image and a thought, but it will not coalesce into a phrase that serves as a “hook” for the poem I want. So, as I talked about recently, I’ll write about this as prose and see if that begins to help the process.

The time: May, 2011. The place: a residential drug rehab center in Northern California.

The center was set in a lovely area, surrounded with picturesque roads (and, ironically enough, wineries.) The buildings of the center housed about forty addicts in various stages of detox and early recovery.

Once you were deemed past the worst early detox symptoms, you were allowed to leave the house and walk about the grounds. There was an open area, away from the main compound, with a single bench. The bench faced the largest oak tree I had ever seen in person. It was the only tree in the field, and seemed sentient when you looked at it long enough.

People were encouraged to spend time there, thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t need encouragement; it was a pleasure to get away from people for a little while.

So that’s the image: a huge oak tree, spreading its old and complex branch systems against the sky. The pattern of branches seen against morning sky, and midday sky, and evening sky.

Some people might have used the place for meditation, and some for prayer. I sucked at meditation, and while I had nothing against prayer I couldn’t concentrate on that either. My mind was occupied, more often than not, with what I later came to call the Oak Tree Debate.

The subject of the debate was simple: Did I want to live? And, even if I did, did I deserve to live?

The oak tree, it seemed to me, was my judge. It was the embodiment of all that was natural and true, while my drug-tainted, mentally ill and self-destructive presence felt like the embodiment of all that was not.

Even the bench I sat on felt soaked with pain and toxicity. I thought about all the addicts who had sat there for decades before me. Ashamed, grieving, belligerent or hopeless. I thought about how many came back to the bench more than once, having relapsed after weeks or months or years. I thought about what the oak tree might think of them, and of me.

The trouble with presenting a case to my arboreal judge was twofold: I was not competent to be the best advocate for myself at the time, and I did not speak the oak’s language. My case was inconsistent at best, and even if the oak did render a verdict I could not be certain of what it was.

In the end, I had to go from that place without a clear conclusion to the debate. It has continued, off and on, through years of recovery and treatment for my mental health issues. Perhaps it will never end–but when I can, I choose to imagine a verdict that tells me to keep going.