I do belong to my life….

I don’t ever remember feeling like I belonged.  To my family, to the 7am AA meeting, to the agency staff, to this theatrical production, to that group of friends.  To the porn world.  To the teaching profession.  To my disease.  To my addictions.  To my trauma.  After working through several therapists I finally sought out a specialist, a Harvard psychiatric nurse, who helped me onto the path of recognizing the hand I had been dealt was wrought with trauma.  Yet I continued to talk about my story as though it were just that, a story.  I never felt like I even belonged to my own story.  In my detachment from my life, from my story, came that uncanny ability to compartmentalize, to act like I belonged when necessary, to prove a point or for survival, but to also quickly tear away one mask in exchange for another when a situation, relationship, scenario required it.  How I could strut and fret my hours on the stage, the stage being every waking minute of my life. The first proscenium my bedroom where I was likely sent when in trouble but to which I ultimately sought refuge from a bully of a father and life I could not longer control with childish charm.  When the adventure of living in South Africa ended and Buffalo and parental marriage problems fell on us in blizzard proportions, I started living other lives because I could no longer bear to live my own.

Why does this matter all these decades later?  Because even after an additional psychiatrist and various treatments and psych-meds were added to my entourage of therapies, I still feel the same as that little kid.  I don’t want to live the life I am living.  Sometimes the only life I want to live is the one I am reading about in a book.  That’s where I have gotten to closest to belonging.  In books. The Hardy Boys created an adventure out of 3 years in South Africa.  At 6 I started and didn’t stop reading until we returned to the States; somehow the brothers lost their appeal when I was no longer exploring caves with my mother, finding scorpions under rocks or hunting pregnant Pit Vipers whose babies ended up in a jar offering to my  3rd grade science teacher (unappreciated).  Then came the grocery store horror books, Stephen King, The Amityville Horror, anything that proved there was a way of living and dying more gruesome than the one I felt I was experiencing.  Then came classics, Richard Bach, the Joseph Campbell collection, Jung, and eventually a game I played when going into book stores:  the next book I needed to read was already calling my name.  I just needed to find it.  My life became bearable because of books.  Those of you who know me might question how this could be:  I’m a happy sorta guy; give good energy, care deeply about people, am a go-getter, dream-maker, goal setter, etc. etc.  I learned how to become those things in the books I read, and not being willing to come to terms with my true self, I’ve worn these masks all my life.

So I have  minor propensity towards being depressed.  See?  I’m already rewriting a story I am hoping will be closer to truth than it’s been.  I’m an addict and I’ve got some serious depression going on.  But luckily I have begun to find a balance somewhere between hanging from the nearest tree limb and knowing I can conquer the world, fulfill my destiny, and forever be happy. It’s a daily struggle to belong to my life.  There are so many patterns of behavior ingrained in my head that I am often at a loss as to how I end up where I end up at the end of the day.  When these patterns start to emerge, I typically try to pick up a book and just forget who I am.  It works for a little while.  Sometimes longer than a little while.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the line I have connected reading books to wanting to write books, wanting to give others the peace I find within pages, to offer an escape from their own lives into the comfort of a life not their own.  And wanting to do something desperately which one cannot find the strength, perseverance or determination to do, pretty much sums up this torturous life journey towards grandiosity that inevitably spills me onto the macadam scrapped, bruised, and bleeding.  A cycle of depression, balance, optimism, grandiosity, back to hopelessness.

I need to learn how to live my life.  When I turned the page of a seemingly innocuous novel I am reading, Amherst by William Nichloson, about the love affair between Emily Dickinson’s married brother and another married woman and about the 21 century writer desirous of capturing the story in a screenplay, I stumbled upon a minor character who, in her suicidal depressive state, is talked into walking through her death by an older mentor.  He tells her to describe it, to walk through it, and then to talk about all the issues and traumas of her life and what has happened to them now that she is dead.  A simple exercise.  With simple intention.  To prove that we can die anytime we want to, symbolically, and in doing so, we can eliminate all those haunting issues.  If they can disappear with one’s last breathe, why can’t they disappear with a breath that far precedes the last?

Before anyone gets up in arms, let me reassure you there have been years of therapists, professional medical doctors, medications, programs and therapies in my process.  I have worked through, starting at a very early age of introspection, why I am the way I am.  And I have been stuck in this life the entire time.  Haunted by my patterns, by issues, my every cell of memory.  This isn’t a “born-again” experience, an attempt to recreate myself in the image of someone else.  I want all the pieces of me, I want to BE ME and all the wonderful/fucked up things that means.  I want to live this life.  Somehow on p. 131 of the book I am reading I have been given a gift, a tool, a suggestion I’ve never heard before.  There are plenty of people who have suicidal ideations.  I am not the only one.  I happen to find a deep spiritual meaning in death, and don’t suggest anyone with thoughts of suicide to “play through” an act of self-destruction.  But what I am going to do is try this myself:  I might set aside some time to do a meditation (because that is what this is) using creative imagery (creative recovery, right?) to help me eliminate that which I no longer want to carry.  I have been defined by those moments, but I know longer want those moments to rule my life and prevent me from living my life.  I want to belong to my life; there is no longer room both that which is killing me and that which is begging for life.  Will it work?  I don’t know.  I’m going to give it a try.  And in the meantime, I’ll continue to live, heal, grow, and perhaps hide, in these pages before me.

The Fireworks of a New Perspective: Reading and Recovery

A Facebook friend posted the following article yesterday, These Stereotypes Are A Far Greater Threat To Veterans Than Any Fireworks, regarding the use of fireworks as a celebratory practice and the effect those fireworks could actually have on our veterans, the very people we often attempt to celebrate on national holidays like the 4th of July.  The interesting thing is, I didn’t give it a very thorough read and walked away believing it said one thing when in fact it said the very opposite.  This read comes after having finished a book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a recent finalist for the National Book Award, and having been dumbfounded by its intense portrayal of our country’s cluelessness when it comes to understanding our veterans.

You know that concept of a paradigm shift?  Of a sudden earthquake-size refocusing of your perspective which throws you off keel and then back onto a steady, more knowledgeable and sympathetic footing?  I’m using ‘sympathetic,’ not ’empathetic,’ here because it’s the precise difference between those two words and perhaps the over use of both which seem to be the issue in both the book above and in the article.  And perhaps in the whole realm of recovery.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about war.  I went directly from “Billy Lynn” to the recent winner of the Booker Man Prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, at times an utterly disturbing journey into a Japanese POW camp with its accompany horrors, horrors we only got a small taste of in the movie version of Unbroken.  With a generation of veterans who fought in WWII getting smaller and smaller, the visualizations (the root of empathy and sympathy) we will make out of the actual events of World War II will become more and more stylized, Hollywood-ized, and we, as an audience will become further and further disconnected to the reality of the actual experience.  Through the news media coverage of live warfare and because of Hollywood movies and TV shows, many of us think we understand war.  We think we know what it was like or is like, and then presume to empathize with our fellow citizens who have actually fought in or are fighting in wars.  The problems is:  it’s a BIG PRESUMPTION.   We know nothing.  Nothing.  So what we think is empathy, often displayed in flag-waving, firework-shooting, support, is often just a masquerade that makes us feel good because we imagine what it must be like or have been like, to be in a war.

What we’re feeling, unless we’ve actually been there, is sympathy.  You likely know the difference between empathy and sympathy.  Here’s a great chart differentiation and description of the difference below:

Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.

Ok, so what does reading about war, criticizing non-veteran’s desire to honor veterans, noting the difference between empathy and sympathy have to do with reading and recovery?  One of the biggest reasons I often find more recovery growth coming out of reading than I do out of meetings is because often, as is true with our obsession to “comment”on EVERYTHING we read from Facebook posts to blog posts to news articles, and to collect ‘comments’ and ‘likes’ as a gauge of our worth,  is that as soon as we comment, often we stop thinking.  We draw a line in the sand.  We agree or disagree.  We ‘relate’ or sympathize.  In the rooms we listen, hug people after they share, offer nuggets of program wisdom in an attempt to reassure the sharer or storyteller he or she is not alone, perhaps hand a suggestion or two over, welcome the newcomer, say, “we’re all just bozos on the bus,” “I’ve been there,” “I know what you’re feeling,” and on and on. In the rooms, a “conspiracy of experience” exists which is, if one is looking to feel better through a shared experience, exactly what you’ll get.

There is nothing wrong with any of that except the notion that a person’s personal experience, her personal journey, her life is a unique and utterly un-sharable experience that cannot create empathy in another person unless the other person truly has experienced exactly the same life.  It might create sympathy, and it is in that sympathy we wish to swim.  Sharing in a public realm with an expectation of timely reaction from others provide something:  a reaction.  We are a society of reactors.  We react.  We don’t process or allow ourselves time to process and instead jump into the sympathy pool hoping to splash around with the others swimming in that same pool.

Reading on the other hand is an utterly solitary moment of individuation, it is the basis for the creation of empathy for yourself. Yes, we react to a book, and then we live with that reaction.  We might write review or share a  reading experience with another, but we are not in this attempt to empathize with the actual writer.  We don’t attempt to disprove the writer’s experience by tracking down the writer through their publishing house (well, maybe you do), by logging onto a blog and blasting them for their perspective (well, maybe you do), or publicly reacting to a passage read from a book like we do in the rooms (planning the whole time before your share what you are going to share.)

Being forced to sit with ones reaction is the process of evolution. It’s a process of empathizing with yourself as you connect to who you are through the words of others. It’s a process of rediscovery.  Finding out who you are without allowing your automatic gut reaction to get the best of you, without severing the thought process with your emotional reaction, without drawing that line in the sand, without coating someone else’s experience with program platitudes, without arguing a point in a comment section because you’re uncomfortable with how an experience made you feel, is allowing growth and healing to occur at exponential levels.  It’s creating empathy for your own life experience.

I am having a hard time finishing “The Narrow Road….” because I am reading thoughts that are my own. I’m in shock over what the words are helping me rediscover about myself. About who I am. I’m looking in a mirror I never expected to find in a book about World War II.  And I sure as hell have not been to war.  I am not empathizing or even sympathizing with the POW experience–I am changing as I read because the words are forcing me to think, and think, and think some more about who I am. About the choices I have made, the lies I have told, the relationships I have had. I can’t stop the process by writing a comment, or writing this blog, or comforting the nearest veteran because my reaction will not receive it’s own reaction.  It’s why there is no comment section on this website.  I cannot react and subsequently in that process of reacting, comfort myself into a false sense of security and identity via other people’s reactions to my reactions.  My reaction just is.  I am creating identity in this process.  By not reacting externally with the expectation of a response, I am rediscovering myself internally.

I offer this not to further disparage programs or meetings, but to simply say that for me they cannot be the end all, be all of recovery.  They are beautiful, but they are, a conspiracy of experience.  The conspiracy is in sharing a language handed down by others;  words have meaning, intention, and can help or harm.  Each of us carry our lives into every word that exists in order to help us create identity.  Words like “rigorous honesty” and “character defect” are loaded with personal baggage and can do more harm than good if the language in this conspiracy of experience is touted as “The Word,” repeated as “The Word,” and offered as “The Word.”

Personally speaking, I must use my own language of experience to process my life, and in that process I will lead to discovery, to rediscovery.  It’s an individual process, just like the act of reading a book, that cannot be done solely relying on the help of others.  If I am not reading, I am not evolving.  If I am not reading, I am not recovering.  If I am not reading, I am not rediscovering.  Pow!  Fireworks.