Passing for Normal

I felt normal today because I got to drink coffee from my favorite place, something I haven’t done since February. There were tables very far apart, so I sat drinking and feeling a breeze on the lower part of my face. Such a normal thing that I’ve missed a lot. It made me think of other times I’ve felt normal, or—more likely—just felt as if I looked normal.

I remember passing for thin. Around 2013, I was at the tail end of a very low-calorie diet that took my weight down close to “ideal.” I took a ballroom dance class but never lost the feeling of being an imposter. The body I had, even as it moved while held in someone’s arms, felt like an illusion tricking them.

I remember passing for normal as a mom, mostly when my daughter was little and I’d sit in the park exchanging innocuous facts with other mothers while laughing at toddler antics. Although I was far, far from okay on the inside, the outside looked wholesome.

I remember passing for a normal person at a ball game. The SF Giants were in the playoffs and I was in the stands with my spouse and daughter. I wore an old orange Giants T-shirt of his. I was in orange, just like everyone else. I felt happy to be part of the crowd.

And oh, God, I remember passing for normal at jobs, back when I could. Wearing an ID badge, nodding at meetings, writing up notes. Helping others. Looking competent and adult between my secret anxiety-attack bathroom breaks.

Chapter of the Week

Every Friday, I get to hang out with a few other writers and read the latest chapter of my book to them. The hanging out is done online right now because of the pandemic, but it’s still enough for me to make sure I at least revise a chapter for the week.

I’m at a stage where I’m going through the book chronologically and doing tweaks and consolidations. It’s the first time my group is hearing the chapters in order, because the first round of chapter segments were created and shared in haphazard fashion. Sometimes they skipped decades forward or backward.

Going in order is harder. It’s scary to be marching forward, one chapter a week, knowing that at some point I’ll reach the end of pre-written stuff for revision and have to write a few missing chapters at the end. Then an introduction. And then it will be a fucking manuscript.

And I’m doing this during the pandemic, with the future so uncertain, and my critical voice shouting that no one’s going to want to read anything about any other subject besides this for the next indefinite number of years.

Calla Lilies

(Reposted from my archive, Not This Song)

My daughter brought me calla lilies on Mother’s Day.

It was 2011, and instead of carrying them into my room or proudly displaying them on the breakfast table she held onto them tightly during a long car ride.

She and her father signed in and had the bouquet inspected, then waited while I was notified that my visitors were there. Only then did she get to give them to me. Only then did she get to be hugged, and hear how beautiful they were, and see me read the little poem she wrote on the homemade card shaped like a butterfly.

That is Mother’s Day in rehab, and I can never see calla lilies without thinking about that day. I wasn’t the only one getting cards and flowers, and I wasn’t the only one to gaze at them with a mixture of emotions too tangled to articulate.

Mother’s Day is hailed by therapists as one of the most stressful days of the year for a reason–none of us is without feelings on the subject of the mother we had and/or the mother we are. Told by commercials and companies how we should feel about our mothers and children, we writhe in discomfort with our more complicated internal landscape.

Complicated it may be, but it’s a pretty fair bet that being institutionalized isn’t in any of our personal “what kind of mother I want to be” manifestos. It kind of kicks things up a notch in terms of regret.

After that day’s visit was over, I looked at the smooth whiteness of the lilies beside my bed with a kind of doubled vision, seeming to see bouquets like it in many other places. I knew that many children wouldn’t get to deliver one at all due to the rules of the rehab, or hospital, or prison their mother was currently inhabiting.

I’m happy to be at home on Mother’s Day this year. Didn’t get any lilies. Don’t want any. But she can give me flowers, or a hug, or a thorough trouncing in video games, any time she wants to, because I am here.

Mothers who can’t be at home today, I remember you. I know better than to judge your love for your children based solely on where you are. Don’t give up.

Children, fathers, grandparents and all who visit, I remember you. Thank you for your love and effort.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Holding On

So what’s the pandemic like through the eyes of a mental patient and recovering addict?

Well, there’s a lot of pressure to keep myself together, of course. Strong voices telling me this is NOT the time to have an episode or need a meds adjustment. And certainly not the time for a relapse on drugs.

It’s scary, because while not doing drugs is something I can control to a degree by practicing recovery techniques, the mental health thing is under less control. I can take my meds religiously. I can try to eat well and get a little exercise and do things that connect me to what I value. I can do all this, and it still might not be enough because neurochemical shit happens sometimes.

Meanwhile, all the “normal” people around me are experiencing levels of anxiety they aren’t used to. They need me to be functional so I don’t drain their energy away from managing their own stress.

“One day at a time,” is more real than it’s been for a while. I try to make plans…what part of mask sewing I’m going to work on today, what I’m going to eat for lunch, whether I’ll go for a walk. And while I do that I’m acutely aware of the degree of privilege I have compared to some of my fellow sufferers.

I have loved ones in my house. I have access to the medicines I need. For now, my family isn’t in danger of losing our home or not having enough food. I’m lucky.

Do you hear that, brain? We’re lucky. Now show your gratitude by refraining from any shenanigans until further notice.

Things I’m Not Doing

Right now, a drug addict paces in the ER, so desperate for a fix that COVID-19 holds no terror for them.

Right now, some sick person is waiting too long for an ambulance because two paramedics are running up to an addict’s apartment to Narcan them for the third time this month.

Right now, an addict is spamming one of their doctors’ overloaded phone lines with demands for prescriptions.

That addict could be me.

It’s been more than eight years since I got clean. Since I experienced the magic mix of luck, grace, privilege, and yes, hard work too, that helped me (so far) beat the odds.

If I were still deep in my addiction right now, I could do any of the things I’m thinking about. It would feel like a matter of survival to get the drugs I needed, and the threat of deadly illness to myself and others would feel very far away.

Someone who routinely takes a handful of pills they know might kill them isn’t exactly dialed in to any logic of self-preservation, let alone consideration of others.

I’m not doing anything great in the pandemic so far. I don’t work in an essential business like health care or food acquisition. I’m one of the many whose most useful contribution is to stay the fuck home and take really good care of myself to minimize the chances of getting sick, or having to go the ER for any other reason.

But at least I’m doing that instead of being an active liability. And if all I’ve accomplished in the past eight years is just developing the ability to be less of an asshole at a time like this, I’ll take it.

The Sin of Happiness

I have a secret. A dirty, dirty secret. One that’s been embarrassing me more than my drug addiction, or mental illness, or other general faults and vulnerabilities.

I’m happy.

Writing that makes me immediately feel the need to write that I’m also sad, frustrated, angry, worried, afraid, et cætera. As is normal for the times we are living in. And those things are true.

But, at certain moments, I’m happy. And when I am—here’s the REALLY embarrassing part—I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

The last five years have brought a flowering of creativity and the growth of a completely illogical degree of self-acceptance. Never total, never unchallenged, but there.

As the world goes to shit around me, I’m having fleeting experiences of joy and wholeness. My superego tries to tell me I’m shallow and self-absorbed for feeling these things. My heart is not listening.

Meeting a Reader

I had another “first” last week; the first of many new experiences for someone who’s never written a book before.

I was at a sort of cheesy group mindfulness class. Most of us had been referred there because we suffered from depression, addiction or other conditions, and didn’t get to see a one-on-one therapist very often on our health plan.

So, one woman in the class talked about not thinking the techniques we’re learning would work for her. I’ll paraphrase what she said:

“Okay, so maybe this homework will help with my depressive thoughts and feelings. But what if I have depression and addiction? What if I have depression and addiction and trauma to deal with? I’m supposed to just let it all in? It’s too much. I could never address it all at once. But if I stop working on any of them they sneak in and sabotage me.”

Her voice was edged with both resentment and resignation. Resentment because she was already feeling dismissed and expecting to be patted on the head and told to go play like a good girl. Resignation because even as she spoke, she didn’t think speaking up was going to do any good.

I wanted to let her know she was not alone. I wanted her to know someone understood what it’s like to deal with multiple conditions. Understood the “it’s too much” feeling, understood what it was like to feel different no matter what therapy you’re trying. What it’s like to throw yourself into treating one thing and work your ass off only to be tripped up by one of the others, until you’re where she is: a place of “it’s too much.” And I wanted to tell her there is life and growth coexisting with that place.

I said some things. I named the different conditions I live with. But what I really wanted to say to her would have taken a long, long time.

What I really wanted was to give her my book. Have her take it home, curl up and read it cover to cover and know she wasn’t the only one to feel some of what she felt.

The contents of my book are what I wanted to say to her. And that makes me feel that, no matter how hard the writing and editing is, I am on the right track.

The Devil’s Playground

There’s an old saying that “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This can be especially true for addicts. Not only addicts, of course, but anyone to whom the inside of their skull is a potentially dangerous place.

Today I have the house to myself for eight hours. I’m not used to being alone here for more than a couple of hours at a time, because between my spouse and our 19-year-old there’s usually someone around. But my daughter just got a job (yay!) so she’s at work (weird!) and I’m here by myself until it’s time to go pick her up.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to do. I could work on one of several writing projects I have going. I wouldn’t even have to write; I have storyboarding and planning I need to do. I could unpack more stuff. I could put away the laundry sitting in the dryer. I could take a walk, or do ten minutes of my neglected Tai Chi. I need to take a shower. If I feel the need to be completely unproductive, I could watch a show or read a book or play a video game.

Or, I could eat things that harm me. I could sit and stare at the wall, building darker and darker scenarios in my head, with no one here to ask me if I’m okay. I could call up someone toxic in my life and have a conversation I’ll regret. Anxiety has been especially troublesome for me lately, either paralyzing me or goading me into unwise action.

So for the moment, I decided to do this. And now that I’m done, I’ll have to decide what to do next.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Something New

Six years of essays, three years of poetry…and now adding something completely different.

My essays have always been personal, but in response to some feedback from fellow writers that saw a few of them I’ve been experimenting with longer pieces of more intimate and detailed memoir. These would ultimately form part of my pet long-term nonfiction book project.

I’ve gotten very good response on them so far, but it is a new kind of writing for me with a new quality of emotional experience. I need to be careful not to get overwhelmed.

I also don’t want to neglect my poetry (haven’t so far) or posting here on this site (which I definitely have.)

I have this idea that I’ll challenge myself to post every day for the coming month of October–but, knowing me, there’s a certain probability of that being bullshit. I want to post a lot, though, because there are interesting things happening with my creative life and its interaction with my health and sanity.

The Things I Must Not Write

Some poems, and stories, and essays of mine are not ready to be written because they concern other people too directly. It’s a pity, because I’m sure they would be rich, and dark, and searingly honest. I know some people write memoirs and let the chips fall where they may, but for me it would feel wrong to write really raw stuff specifically about people who are still alive.

Part of my decision is based on fear, I know. The fears many of us have about confronting sources of our deep and sometimes illogical terrors. I’m all about trying to face my fears more often, but I also know my own limits and know that pushing certain things would harm people who don’t have the capacity to deal with it.

I’ve sometimes been advised to write pieces and simply not share them with anyone–don’t read them, don’t submit them, don’t self-publish them. Occasionally I do write some things for a recovery activity or when working with some kind of counselor. In general, though, I feel frustrated at the idea of writing things I am supposed to keep secret.

It doesn’t make sense. Journaling is so highly recommended for creative types; why can’t I get on board with private writing? Is it that I have a hard time giving myself permission to create without some small chance of it enriching others? Or is it just ego?

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.

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.

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.

The Conversation

I’ve been having the same conversation for a week.

The topic doesn’t matter. The other person involved doesn’t matter. None of it matters as I write this, because the distinguishing features of this kind of conversation have nothing to do with the actual words.

It’s the one you replay in your head, over and over again, long after the actual dialogue is over.

It’s the one whose sentences you rephrase, over and over again, trying to imagine what you could have said that might have let you be heard.

It’s the one you try to put out of your mind because thinking about it makes your stomach clench and your teeth grind and your chest hurt.

It’s the one that only seeps (mostly) out of your skin with time, fading into mist around you until the next time it coalesces and burns once again.

It’s the one that will never, never, never, never, never,

NEVER

be resolved by any effort you can make.

It’s the black hole. It’s the dry well. It’s absolute zero.

Intellectually, I know this. Even my training as a counselor can’t help me communicate over a large enough gulf between realities. My trouble is that when I get emotional, I forget the truth and get drawn in to the idea that it could be different.

I obsess. I rephrase. I fear. I fall into the psyche of that scared child who thinks it’s possible to change what’s going on around her if she is good enough. My reaction is fueled by my general bipolar symptoms, my usual level of insomnia gets augmented, and I exist in a state of limbic overdrive until I can survive long enough for time to settle things down.

Then, when I can, I do something like writing this. I remind myself that I am not alone. My reality is not dissolving; I still have my voice and my beliefs. The conversation will not claim my life today.

Dishes Lie

(Reposted from my old site Not This Song, 2015)

Don’t trust the dishes.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of being able to wash dishes. For years, it was a task shuffled off to my spouse; even more so than other mundane tasks because the specific posture and movements dishes require triggered my lower back pain intensely. Today, he can come home and have anywhere from a 75% to 95% chance of finding the sink and counter clear. Maybe not clean, but at least clear of objects.

The presence of clean dishes can, like laundry or a walked dog, be diagnostic. It can mean that I’m doing well enough physically and mentally to take positive actions. It makes sense that someone who loves me is pleased to see it.

But sometimes dishes tell gleaming, ceramic lies.

Sometimes clean dishes don’t mean anything at all, and the effort that produced them has nothing to do with how I am doing. Sometimes they’re the one task I do that day, not as a small accomplishment but as a ritual of guilt. Sometimes doing the dishes was just a postcard to a distant land where what I do means anything.

So, if your loved one is living with significant depression, don’t believe their foamy sales pitch. Don’t let the dishes convince you that things aren’t that bad. Understand that those duplicitous cups and plates don’t mean that your loved one washed their hair lately, or took their medicine, or had a day free of harming themselves.

And it’s not just dishes that can be lying bastards. Anything can. I used to meet weekly with a woman living in the most crushing, despairing gray mental landscape imaginable. The only time she left her cluttered and neglected home was for appointments related to her physical and mental health issues, but when she arrived to see me she was nicely dressed, clean and made up. Once a week, she’d dragged herself through a misleading shower, put on false-tongued cosmetics and walked into the world for a short outing before reverting to what was real for her.

People can love us, but they can’t save us. So I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s job to read our minds–I just want us, those who suffer both directly and indirectly from these scourges of the mind–to know that there’s often more going on than meets the eye.

You don’t have to have a diagnosis for this to be true, of course. Your boss who seems so full of himself cried like a baby in his therapist’s office earlier today. The guy who sold you a car spent last night compulsively masturbating to Internet porn, missing his wife who left him over his addiction. The prom queen’s bulimic, the football captain was molested; pretty much everyone has a disconnect between how they seem and how they are really doing.

I try to be pretty honest about how I’m doing–at least to the degree that I am able to be honest with myself. Even so, it’s just not possible to brief my loved ones in depth constantly; they’d be unable to function in their own lives if I did. When a family member asks how I am, the answer they get is never the whole story, and when I say goodnight in the evening there are always unread chapters.

Yes, I and others do sometimes make cries for help. But we do the opposite too. We try to look better, just a little, because we hate being a burden. Because we’re sick of trying to describe how we feel, and we imagine that the people we love are just as sick of hearing about it. We try to tough it out, and we try to do something, anything, to inject a little normalcy into the lives of those around us.

We do the dishes. And that’s a good thing, to do something. It’s better than staring at the wall.

But dishes lie.

Item One: Not on Fire

This is taken from a 2013 post on my old site Not This Song–and yes, thinking about those affected by the Northern California wildfires is what reminded me of it.

We hear plenty about the importance of practicing gratitude. There’s a big emphasis on it in most spiritual traditions, and addiction recovery philosophy reflects this. It’s not uncommon for a mentor or friend to suggest making a “gratitude list” at regular intervals or whenever troubled. And don’t try to tell them there isn’t anything to put on it, because that won’t fly. If you lost your right arm today, they’ll tell you to be grateful you still have your left one.

Some people start with the basics if they’re having trouble coming up with things: their senses, the food they ate today, being in recovery. Others use methods such as the alphabet list. That one can be fun, especially when you have to give details: A, I’m grateful for apples because they crunch so nicely. B, I’m grateful for bunnies because they are so soft. It can get ridiculous, but hey, at least you’re thinking of something else for a few minutes! My favorite phrase I’ve heard when I find it hard to begin, though, is “Start with the fact that you’re not on fire and work down from there.”

I have to admit that I still feel a little defensive squirming sometimes when a person is recommending any type of gratitude practice to me. A part of me takes it to mean that they think I’m being ungrateful and spoiled; that they are judging me. It’s something I am working on, because it’s really not fair to others when I take what is usually a kind gesture and mentally translate it to them saying “Suck it up, whiner!”

Defensiveness aside, gratitude has come to mean a great deal to me. Where I used to think of it as a sort of Pollyanna self-improvement thing, I now see it as a vital part of my recovery as well as a vital part of living with my mental illness. I don’t practice gratitude to become a better person, or to live more fully. Those are bonuses. I practice gratitude these days because I have no fucking choice if I want to live. 

For me, gratitude is the opposite of self-pity; it’s my best weapon against self-pity and what goes with it. Self-pity and all of the excuses it created nearly killed me, and it can still kill me as surely as a bullet if I let it run unchecked. I’ve written before about the magic of learning to feel true and tender compassion for myself in a way that still honors the need to avoid dangerous self-pity. This process clears enough room in my spirit for gratitude and its close cousin, acceptance.

Gratitude flows more organically for me lately, although I’m sure I could benefit from making lists frequently. It tends to be accessed as a natural result of playing Whack-a-mole with my self-pity whenever it tries to crop up. I have to find other things to dwell on, different things to talk about with others, and in doing so I become someone who notices and acknowledges good things more often.

Philosophers call this idea the via negativa: defining something by saying what it is not. We don’t always know where we want to go in life, or what the best path to take is. Sometimes the best we can do is have a clear vision of what we don’t want. This vision can be one of the gifts of addiction or our other demons. The vision can take us to new attitudes, goals and ways of living that we could not have imagined for ourselves, because we never had the tools or experiences to do so.

This is why I’m willing to do certain things, even if they feel awkward or silly.  Why I’ll continue to work the different aspects of my program and try to get better at practicing all of the spiritual principles involved. I don’t know exactly where they will take me; I just know what they’ll help me avoid. Today, that truly is enough.

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.

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.

Strolling With Sewage

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

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with my personal God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked my God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.

Who Was That Masked Poet?

I am a part-time Mystery Woman.

Last week, I drove up to the Napa area to attend another poetry reading and open mic. The two poems I read were well received, and it was more useful practice for me. While I listened, read and talked to poets afterward, I experienced a feeling that’s becoming quite familiar: Mystery Woman syndrome.

You see, some of my readers also read my other site, Not This Song, on which I write about living with mental health issues and living in recovery from substance abuse. These two things are a huge part of my life: I try not to let them define me, but who I am is shaped in large part by the nature of the disorders and the nature of the physical, mental and spiritual treatments I apply.

I feel like a mystery woman at these poetry events because nobody there knows anything about me. They have no idea about the mental health issues I have, or that I’m an addict. They don’t know about my past, or my family. Aside from whatever assumptions people make based on my appearance, my poetry speaks for itself.

As I spend more time in the poetry community, this might change, and I have mixed feelings about that. I’m not ashamed of being what I am (in fact, I expect these parts of me to provide much rich material) but I am prone to social insecurity and don’t look forward to extra challenges in that area.

(Don’t) Leave Me Alone

I’ve had a months-long dry spell when it comes to creating brand-new poems. I’ve done revisions, and explored my role as a poet, but my file of rough notes isn’t yielding any new drafts. Life circumstances have been a large part of this; I have few large chunks of alone time and much stress making it hard to concentrate.

It would be easy for me to blame only this for my lack of drafts, but I can’t. The truth is, I haven’t been using the private time I do have in a productive way. Poor self-care and outright self-sabotaging behavior (An addict being self-destructive?…Oh, the shock of it!) makes some of my solitude not only unproductive but actually detrimental.

I’m one of those writers who likes to works in cafes and libraries…by myself but not really alone. Even that hasn’t done much for me lately; I haven’t settled down to work instead of dwelling or acting on my negative feelings. I don’t seem to be able to make the switch from my other roles and focus on poetry: Okay, Lori, for the next two hours you are a poet. That’s all. You’re not doing mental dances about your marriage, daughter’s health and schooling, recovery choices, money, or worries about the future. You get to be a poet, and you get the privilege of making any feelings you’re having into precious raw material…or using the power of your imagination to concentrate on the other material of your choice.

Today, may the presence of grace turn my alone time into a poet’s blessing instead of an addict’s curse.