From iheartintelligence.com, an amazing list which I shared with my loved one this morning. We’ll celebrate 10 years together next week, and this….even after all the struggles, therapies, meds, ups and downs of those years….has possibly given us a foundation of understanding we’ve been missing. There is a huge difference is how we process things. I kept saying to him this morning, “I get that you know our differences, but you will never understand what it’s like to have gone through….blah, blah, blah.” He was getting frustrated by that language. Of course he understands, he kept offering. Eventually it came down to making the distinction between understanding my history versus understand how my mind processes life. THAT, he will never understand, but this list given to him after our talk this morning, shed light in a whole new way. Powerful stuff.
We all have our stuff, our baggage, our beliefs, our insights, our history, our hopes and…..drum roll….our path. I’ve always known about my path, have always sought to find my secure footing on it, and have often strayed, lost faith my path ever existed, and subsequently succumbed to filling my life with distractions, often negative and dangerous ones, in the hope they would fool me into thinking I was happy and living a meaningful, purposeful life. Those distractions were, and continue to be, a part of my path, part of who I am. In those distractions, I have built identity, forged meaning. Both of those verbs, ‘build’ and ‘forge’ are creative actions.
Just like various treatments, medications, therapies, books, people, experiences that helped me bushwack a path to individuation, a path I am making very public, this is MY path. So when I write things with which you have issues, please understand that those issues are what make you and I different. I am not better or worse for those differences. You are not better or worse for those issues. If you feel a need to defend your beliefs because you think I am attacking those beliefs, I apologize. My path as a teacher, counselor and coach and through my recent creative online writing is to offer as many opportunities and perspectives around recovery (all recovery, not just addiction) as possible–these are the things that have built my identity. Forged my meaning. A creative process.
I have a graduate degree in teaching English, my partner is one of the most educated (Harvard/Oxford) people I know who has dedicated his life to teaching English, language. My first partner, a brilliant award winning poet, has dedicated his life to using language and to forging meaning. I understand the power of language, and it is something I will always hone in on. Language is life. Andrew Solomon, one of the most respected writers of our time, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for this 2001 book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, in the following TED Talk says everything I will spend the rest of my life trying to say and does so in 20 minutes. It is one of the most profoundly moving talks I have ever experienced. Language is life. It is wrought with personal, group, cultural, spiritual, positive and negative meanings. If we do not challenge language, challenge and then forge meaning, we will have no personal identity outside the realm of group consciousness and group identity. And that sometimes means challenging the lexicon of our belief systems.
Solomon ends with the concept I wrote on the back of my business card and stuck in my wallet after I watched the video the first time: “Forge Meaning, Build Identity.”
That’s all I am trying to do. If I can help someone out along their path via what I write or post, then that is great. But what I am offering is creative: some based on fact (as scientific as the fact that mixing blue and red will make purple), some based on creative preference (as in, singing more so than painting soothes my soul), some based on what works better for me (as in, I am a much better watercolorist than I am an oil painter.) I have chosen the word “creative” to use across my websites because while you may come across things that do not resonate with you (I don’t like that song, that painting, that poem, that rendering), I’m not looking for you to try to challenge my creative process or my recovery/re(DIS)covery process.
Facebook used to be a place of forging meaning and building identity for me. I realized recently that unless I learn to make Facebook work for me once again, FACEBOOK will be forging my meaning and building my identity. I must make the necessary changes to make sure I retain control, power of choice, and positivity. Thus I will only be posting my encompassart.com and inrediscovery.com posts on my Facebook page, ENCOMPASS ART, not my personal page. My personal page will be that, personal expression for my own joy. Yy other page will be for expressing myself creatively in the process I call Re(dis)covery. If you want to follow the stuff I’ve been posting, “like” my Encompass Art page. Otherwise, on this journey our paths might not cross as often has they have been recently.
Family and friends, do not get wrapped up in your own emotions regarding my websites. Just as if you were watching a movie or reading a book that is too disturbing, too close to home, too anything which makes you uncomfortable, change the channel or put the book down. Do not try to tell me my setting in this story should be here instead of there, my watercolors are over-worked and muddy, the song is too high for my vocal range, I’d sound better if I found someone to accompany me while singing, that shirt makes me look fat. You wouldn’t do that would you? Then use that same filter when it comes to making comments. I am not looking for sympathy, disagreement, judgement, constructive criticism, and on and on. This is a creative offering, not a discussion. If I want that, I’ll ask for it. Until then, respect my creative journey.
Time to get creative. Part of the creative process is the ability to go with the flow, to recognize where your energy is taking you, and to know when it’s time to stop and take a break. For me, especially as I see my online journal and website as a creative process, it’s understanding that if I don’t start asking for help, using the help of others, and allowing for revision, I’ll end up packing it all up in a moment of frustration and seeming failure.
Yes, I know what I want this to be about…I want it to be a creative process, creative thoughts, creative ideas, suggestions, tools, etc. But it IS the middle of our busy season at work, my partner is home for the summer, and I promised myself I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. So there’s nothing wrong with finding some tool elsewhere to share with you. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours:
CLIMB A MOUNTAIN from
If I’ve committed to finishing a book, I find it hard to give it less than 3 stars. It’s either a book I am going to finish because I want to (3 stars), need to (4 stars), or because it’s helped alter my perspective on life (5 stars). I wrote a blog yesterday that included a mention of Amherst for a rather small incidental character and something that happens to her which affected me profoundly. Then I finished the book later that day and experienced a moment of synchronicity which threw me for a loop, helped alter my perspective, and helped me heal a little. I want to give it 5 stars because of the affect it had on me, but that affect was strictly personal, not a big enough part of why this book exists or of its plot. If you happened to read my blog yesterday and found something to which you could relate in it, then this book might surprise you in how deeply its light can reach into your darker recesses.
Say what you will about the up and down seasons of GLEE, but I remember watching previews of the show months before it was to first air and thinking to myself: THIS IS GOING TO CHANGE THINGS. I only just caught up with the show’s finale several months after it aired; I haven’t been a GLEE junkie, have gotten distracted by my own life, too disturbed by the GLEE lives (on and off camera), but in the end, I can’t do anything other than hold it up as something that has marked society, changed it for the good, and helped a hell of a lot of people. I wish I could say my years in high school glee club were like the show. In a way they were; I was out and proud by 10th grade in 1984 challenging bullies while searching for identity. Of course then there are all the other issues and people to which I cannot help but relate. A year after rehab my parents were visiting while I was doing a run of The Normal Heart in the role of Felix, boyfriend to the lead who becomes infected and succumbs to AIDS by the end of play. Heavy stuff during a busy high season of tourism and trying to stay sober. The man, the actor, Cory, who everyone thought had it all lost everything in an overdose. It wasn’t the first time I wished my drug of choice had been heroin because I would have been taken by an overdose years ago. Amphetamines don’t carry the same risk of overdose although I certainly learned to raise risk levels to points of absurdity; clearly something or someone wanted me alive. But I’m off track. All I really want to do right now is to introduce a series in which I’ll be replaying clips from songs used in moments of shining light. GLEEful light, GLEEful life. And they aren’t always the easiest things to watch or to experience.
Abused by her boyfriend, lost, protecting the abuser, Coach is brought this gift (the original just as brilliant in it’s own way, kudos to Florence + The Machine.)
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.
There are triggers and then there are roadblocks. I personally don’t know which are more damaging to me seeing that my triggers often become paralyzing moments indecision. Or worse. Naturally a trigger is something that sparks another action. Obviously in the world of addiction recovery, the word, ‘trigger,’ almost always has a negative connotation; a trigger often leads an addict down the wrong path.
A roadblock–an impenetrable thing standing in the way. In the world of coaching, self-help, and life-affirmation, a roadblock is often something negative that is then turned on it’s axis into something to be surmounted, something that can be overcome. Watch any Tony Robbins video of him helping someone with a life-altering roadblock in the way, and within minutes, whether you believe it contrived or not, the person has not only identified the roadblock, they’ve blown it to smithereens and are continuing on their journey.
What happens when your triggers are the roadblocks themselves? If you are someone like me with a well-developed sense of self-righteousness, my “I’ll show you” super-hero-powers can blow away almost all roadblocks in my way. My “I’ll show you” tied to my grandiosity tied to a sometimes over-zealous belief in a synchronistic, “The Secret” way of life can perform miracles or at least feats often seen by others as mind boggling. I’m not saying this is healthy. It’s not. It’s what can get me into trouble.
I may see a roadblock, feel that drive and power squeezing up from my solar plexis which finds its way into a stubbornly clenched jaw, and then I trip over a trigger. A familiar place. A person. A smell that triggers a memory. I can quickly crash into a heap of self-destructive behaviors, the road block long ago surmounted, opportunity sitting there in front of me waiting to be taken, but I am suddenly too focused on hurting myself to take another step.
My triggers are dangerous. My triggers are many. My triggers spark actions that involve blood, cuts, deprivation, purging, and on and on. It’s an old traditional exercise, but today I again write out my triggers so that I can honor their power and learn that the power I have to overcome roadblocks is the same power than can successfully deal with a trigger. Easier said than done, but like anything worth doing, it’s worth practicing and doing again and again.
The days of upsizing whether to add an additional 500 calories of McDonald’s fries, to extended a warranty designed to make you feel good while destroying your budget, to remove that natural sand dune because you need a better view: gone. You may not realize it, and that’s fine. Everyone at their own pace. I simply feel bad and have always felt badly for those who don’t understand the blessings of downsizing. Of simplifying. Of saving, of stretching out a bottle of lotion by cutting it open and realizing there is another week’s worth of moisturizer waiting to be used. My mother taught my sister and I well. We scrape, pinch, do-it-ourselves, and only buy bargains. All a form of downsizing. Fact is, I need all the feel good moments I can get, and if that means wearing a $5 pair of no-name shorts that make my ass look just as good as a $150 pair, then I’m on it.
Great blog from Power of Positivity: 5 Life Changing Things That Happen When You Downsize
I read a blog this morning written by a parent of an addict. It was a good read (I raised an addict – what could I have done differently?), and hard to read as an addict, one who spent many years racked by guilt from the pain I have inflicted on others including my parents. I will never raise children, so I don’t know and will never know the level of guilt a parent feels when a child succumbs to an addiction. Or an abusive relationship. Or the myriad other life issues facing a person in today’s society.
What I do know is that while a parents’ choices in life may or may not have an effect on their children, each subsequent generation is raised in unfamiliar territory. A parent isn’t raising a child in the same time/place/era/society in which he or she was raised. Context and experience are important factors in raising anything (from crops to kittens let alone children); it is utterly unfair to take on the responsibility of something as complex as addiction in a child who is living and growing in a totally different world than the parent.
When I spoke to my mother for the first time from that Canadian rehab on New Year’s Day, I stopped her immediately when she fell into an all too familiar bent: ‘I’m such a bad mother.’ I told her she was never again allowed to say that to me. It was hard enough taking the steps I needed to take towards recovery while carrying that horrendous guilt. Having to carry her guilt was too much. It was always too much. And even that, the guilt I was made to feel because my mother felt badly about how she raised me, had its part in my behavior choices.
I say to all parents: you feel badly? Apologize and move on. Admit you didn’t make the best choices and then let it go. After that apology, it’s all up to us, the ones facing the issue head on. Do what you need to do to get over your own issues revolving around how you raised your children: go see a therapist, talk to someone, go to Al-anon. Just know that we as addicts feel badly enough already. Some of us may never show that or admit it, but all of us feel like shit deep down inside for having hurt the people we love. Yes, you may have had a part in how we turned out including all the fantastic pieces of who we are. Reality is: we all have a dark side. It just so happens that as time moves on, that dark side is more visible in society partly because of social media. We talk about it and are not ashamed of it. And because of that, we are helping the next generation. Perhaps my parents’ generation’s rose-colored glasses played a part; the silence, the hush. We don’t live in that time anymore, and that is a positive thing.
So drop the guilt, heal yourself however you can, and move forward. We are trying to do the same.
Artist? Musician? Writer? Explorer? Teacher? Giver?
Join me, Melissa, and others as we build something beautiful. A place to share creativity, the creative process, our stories, our hearts, our potential. If you’ve ever felt that you are in the process of re(dis)covering who you are through creative eyes, please read my open letter to YOU, and think about joining In Re(dis)covery and Encompass Art. Your helping hand, your vision, and your strength can shift this world on its axis one person at a time.
If you’ve been in rehab, you’ve probably been asked (required) to write letters one of which is usually to your drug of choice. Venting, getting it all out, committing thoughts to paper, emotions in ink, has its obvious therapeutic value. I’m not a therapist; don’t ask me what the value is. I am someone who has written letters to my drug of choice, to people who have hurt me, and to people I’ve hurt. I’ve kept some of those letters, sent others, and burned some in the hope that in each process I would somehow heal or exorcise, set boundaries, ask forgiveness, or move on.
Writing letters is great. But it can be a one-sided venture. All our relationships, with people, things, drugs, illnesses, or traumas are made up of multiple parties, each with voice and motivation, with history and backstory. Each has a response to our letters whether or not we want to acknowledge the existence of the other side let alone allow that other side to respond, whether we allow ourselves to listen and to hear that other side and their response. Thinking I could step out of rehab having written a letter to a former drug dealer or to my father or to my drug of choice and with the hope that I had somehow dealt with those relationships was naïve and probably a little misguided. The act of writing those letters, instead of being an end result, instead of them marking the culmination of days in treatment program or the end of a step, could instead have been introduced as a tool which needs material with which it can effectively build something. A hammer does nothing but destruction unless hitting a nail in order to create. A letter does nothing without a response. We can feel good about purging, getting rid of build up energy, but we never really get rid of energy. Science proves energy just changes form.
Why a one-sided letter? Wouldn’t a conversation be better? Not a real one…yet. How about a dialogue? How about a back and forth? How about writing something and then letting the other party reply—because that’s what’s going to happen in the real world. You’re not just going to happily drop off a letter and walk away. You are going to get a response and you should be ready for it. As people in recovery, we have to train ourselves towards healing, towards healthy living and away from injury, loss and pain. If we are not prepared for the response our new healthy behaviors are going to get from the rest of the world, we will be in dangerous waters. It’s why I relapsed within a week of leaving a 90-day treatment program. Within a month of my second rehab? We don’t allow enough time to practice being in the world, the real world, within the safely of our treatment programs.
We need to invest time in playing out what the other people in our relationships are going to say back to us when we step back into the real world with newly formed patterns of behavior. This is where the idea of creative dramatics can come into play. Where role-playing, by yourself, with your relationships, can better prepare you to deal with the realities facing you on your journey. I needed to learn how to be the other person, think like the other person, investigate their motivations and then to subsequently reply to the new healthy me in a way that fits with what might actually happen in real life. Do we really expect our using friends to simply step back and let us turn over a new leaf? Do we really expect cancer cells to wave the white flag? All of the things from which we are trying to recover have a life of their own, and like anything in life, survival it’s natural objective. We need to anticipate the response, hear it, and practice our reply to it. Our traumas are not going to let us go so easily; that ingrained pattern of self-hatred, that fear of men, that moment you want to take back from childhood isn’t going to go away. The voice in your head that has spent 40 years telling you you are worthless isn’t going to suddenly offer you flowers in apology for the torment. The voice is going to be there until you learn how to talk to it. Until you learn to anticipate it’s next sentence, until you learn to see right through its vitriol and realize its source isn’t the nugget of kryptonite against which you thought you were powerless for all that time.
Exercise: Role-play with Yourself
- Start with something easy. Who was the last person with whom you got angry? Anger is no less threatening to our natural state than anything else from which we have to recover. Who was it? What was it? What led up to the moment of anger?
Using 5 different post-it notes or small scraps of paper, write out five different sentences you could say to this person, place, thing that created this anger in you remembering you are trying to move towards healing.
- Cross over and give your person, place, thing a voice. Write out 5 different things (one on per post-it or scrap of paper) they could say in response to having you directly address your anger with them. It doesn’t matter what you’ve said; the other person/thing has it’s own perspective, may not hear you, may not want to listen, etc.
- Fold up the post-its in two piles, your pile and their pile.
- Pick one from yours, read it, then pick one from theirs and respond.
- Write out at least 5 more back and forth exchanges built off of this start as though you were writing a script for a play.
This is nothing profound. It’s simply practice preparing you for what could be a completely unexpected response from the other side. That response could be the difference between taking a step forward or two steps back.
Johann Hari has been getting a lot of attention recently, a lot of traction out of a premise he hopes will help the world understand addiction a little better, namely:
This attention long overdue, desperately needed, and essential to the world of recovery. It makes sense, is founded on a bit of research, and is likely welcome to so many who have struggled with conventional treatment programs. He’s also a journalist, so he knows how to write, how to offer evidence, to logically explain his premise. Whether he’s hit a bull’s eye or not isn’t really the issue; if he’s hit on THE truth or a partial truth, the continued discourse and need to look beyond what we currently have in place to help those suffering is the only way we can hope to help that one person who hasn’t been served by that current, somewhat sparse, menu of treatments.
Personally, I believe what he is saying makes sense in a very over simplified way. The evidence and research he offers regarding rats and Vietnam have been used to support his point, but it wouldn’t take much to throw a wrench in his argument. If it was all so simple, AA and other 12-step programs would have a 100% success rate because they are founded on community and connection. Problem is, current data shows the success rate is about 10%. Of course just writing that could spark the ire of 12-step supporters (and I again have to say I consider myself ‘in the program’ precisely because I get that connection from the rooms.)
I think the most important thing in watching and keeping an open mind here is that he’s onto something. Something, not everything. It just happens to be a small piece of the puzzle. I am still more convinced that addiction is multifaceted, having different pieces which if you are unfortunate enough to have all of them makes treatment very difficult. If I went back to Pleasure Unwoven, that documentary on addiction which points out 5 different levels of addiction
I could easily go through the various forms of treatment program and explain how each level either ‘fits’ into a specific treatment or not.
For example: someone who has suffered trauma as a child is not going to be saved by the 12-step program. Period. Those who think that are doing severe damage to those people who have trauma and who come into the program as their sole treatment plan. Without professional therapeutic help, trauma simply gets locked away to emerge later.
Another example: there are some people who don’t believe in psycho-pharmacology as a legitimate form of treatment. Perhaps psych-meds are over prescribed by too many general practitioners who don’t hold an expertise in the field. I personally have spent decades fighting an issue with my brain chemistry which until recently wasn’t successfully dealt with until I saw a professional psychiatrist. Because I self-medicated heavily on an over-the-counter cold medicine (DXM) for 15 years, monthly for a week at a time, nearly 1/4 of those 15 years I spent tripping….yeah, like LSD tripping. I learned how to curb my behavior to mask being high, and successful taught my brain that it no longer needed to create happy chemicals. Just like in the researched effects of long-term ecstasy use, there can be irreparable damage. ‘Connection’ isn’t going to cut it for me. Considering the early age at which kids are starting to use heavy drugs, there will be significant damage done to brain chemistry. All the connection in the world, all the meetings in the world are not going to fix that sort of neurological damage.
I happen to have all 5 levels listed above making me a quintuple threat. Treating all five of these levels is the best form of treatment so a one-size-fit-all philosophy, approach, program, belief is likely to fall short.
Again, the more information out there the better. What I am so happy about is that these sorts of articles are being offered via social media—making that connection which tells us we are not alone and it’s actually okay to step away from the pack and to create our own program of recovery. That’s what I am calling, “Re(DIS)covery!”
I was born in 1967. I am currently 47 years old. At least that’s what my birth certificate claims.
Clearly I can turn anything into an addiction or an unhealthy pattern of behavior. Ask my family who, after I left a second stint at rehab, asked if my need to ‘go all out’ when biking was yet another form of taking a healthy behavior and intensifying it to a point of compulsion. My tendency toward perfectionism adds to the mix and creates a behavioral formula often leaving me on an exercise endorphin rush one day and a flat-out exhaustion the next. During long periods of sobriety, I have always sought out the comfort of exercise, tapping into a primal need to expend energy, to sweat, to feel my heart pumping to levels of rush intensity. Beside the natural endorphins exercise releases, when I am engaged in cardiovascular activity (I am making the distinction here between weight training/interval training and a steady period of cardio that consistently challenges the heart over an extended period of time) my synapses make new connections, my lymph clears out the crap, my mind goes into a meditative state, and, apparently, I get younger.
If you are not a fitness freak, I get how hard it is to start exercising. If you don’t have all the underlying reasons (often called ‘baggage’) to exercise, starting to do so can be as daunting and difficult as starting a program of recovery. I might even go so far as to say it is actually harder. In a recovery program, we take action because on one hand we have no choice (we try to recover or stay forever stuck in the same place) and on the other hand our desire to exorcise the pain of our life forces us into action. Then there are the people telling us we need to change or else, that loving ultimatum offered to rescue us from the fight between ‘good and evil.’ Somehow with exercise, even though we know the benefits, we watch how healthy and happy other people are, we covet their bodies, their sexual energy, their high spirits, we don’t have the same need to engage in that healthy behavioral way. There isn’t a meeting which encourages daily exercise (as in a daily reprieve), there is no public counting days to a healthier life, there is no family member whose innocent question (How are you doing?) is actually loaded with specific need to know (are you still sober, or rather, did you get your cardio today?) There is very little accountability. The person next to you, unless you’re at the gym, is just as likely as you to have skipped any form of exercise the day before.
Sweeping generalization, I know, but if I went to my regular meeting and gave out a survey of the 60+ people who attend with questions regarding their cardiovascular activity for the week including knowing what their maximum heart rate is, for how long did they raise their resting heart beat when engaged in physical activity, or simply, how many days did they get their heart beat above it’s resting state, I am confident 75% wouldn’t even fill out the survey. They would avoid the survey like they avoid exercise because somehow adding something to one’s life is even harder than taking something away. And the benefits could actually be as great if not greater. (I’m hearing some groans.)
In a recent New York Times article about Fitness Age describing the researched benefits of being an older competitive athlete, the outcome was clear: you can change your age, your fitness age. I dare say that while recovery from an addiction is the act of saving one’s life, being in recovery does not decrease your fitness age. It conceivably stops the damage already done, perhaps helps the body to heal, and saves one from the hell into which they have descended. But this isn’t always the case. Removing the drug to which one is addicted may save a life; but too many stop right there. That’s it. Life is based on counting how many days the drug has remained out of one’s life. And yet, if the research is true, we could be doing so much more. And most of us don’t.
I am a man who has lived with HIV for ten years now. 5 years ago I received an AIDS diagnosis because I was doing all sorts of things to hurt myself in my addiction. I’ve injected the worst forms of drugs, bath-salts, the purest forms of research chemicals you can find on the planet, used dirty syringes in the hopes of contracting something deadly (little did I know that when I contracted HIV it was no longer a death sentence). When I stopped, my body restored it’s order; I am a relatively healthy person when I allow my body to be in a natural state. I’m 47 years old. But I exercise.
My fitness age: 26.
How is that possible? The calculator measures resting heart beat against maximum heart beat with amount of cardio to body fat index. And that’s that. It’s really quite simple and is nothing new. The reality of exercise is that it not only keeps you healthy, it can reduce your fitness age. Personally, I’m not in recovery to live a life based solely on my not doing an unhealthy behavior. Living a life trying to hold something at bay is exhausting. Just look at the faces of those around you in recovery. But living a life holding something at bay while adding something that actually changes your age, your spirit, your energy, your cellular make up, you outlook, your looks is something I want to do. I see so much potential in people, so much more than they likely see in themselves. That could be the chronic human condition. We have to try to rediscovery our potential which includes adding behaviors which can alter our physical, mental, and emotional being. Nothing, not even abstinence from your drug of choice, can do that as dramatically as cardiovascular exercise.
This summer I promised I wouldn’t commit to any theater projects. I need a chance at a summer without the additional stress of line-learning and production development. I live in a season town, so while every year our enclave goes from its charming 3000 off-season population to upwards of 40, 50 , to 80K visitors in a 3 mile long, 1/4 mile wide stretch, I’m never quite prepared for the transition from low to high, slow to busy, quiet to crowded. The past two summers I had the opportunity to do two amazing productions. The Normal Heart and Venus in Fur. Intense emotional and demanding roles. All the time I spent during those two summers getting reading for the productions is now my own. I am not filling it. I am leaving it to simply exist.
Just like any dis-ease, the disease of being busy can be chronic. This society breeds multitasking and places value in the competition for “Who is the Busiest” Award. While I believe it’s probably harder for families with children, I think we’re all under an unfair pressure to fill every waking second with activity. Gone are the days of porch sitting, watching clouds roll by while we lay on our backs in the tall grass, visiting neighbors simply because we enjoy their company and not because we need something from them. So my project this summer was to see if I could manage not to start showing the symptoms of the disease of business. Don’t get me wrong, I can pack a lot into a day. Being woken by the cats at 5am and having a whole stretch of day until I start working at 2pm means I have a lot of my time on my hands. There are the regular things which fill the time: eating, exercising, cleaning. I read about a book a week. But there are a lot of minutes where I feel myself falling into the need to be busy. I always have project or two going; my websites are definitely taking a lot more time than I thought.
There are all these little signs, those symptoms of discomfort which come not from being too busy but from having time on my hands. Old voices pop into my head, “DO SOMETHING!” “Don’t be Lazy,” “You don’t deserve this much free time.” Those are the voices which will take me right back to my old patterns, right back into the disease of busyness. Before I know it, I’ll start a few paintings thinking I could sell them over the summer, I’ll sit at the piano and make plans for that musical I have in my head, there’s the collection of short stories in draft form just sitting here, there’s my play that I haven’t sent out, there’s a bookcase to be built (when all else fails, I build bookcases.) All these things become tasks to accomplish rather than being acts of creation inspired by authenticity. Too often they are inspired by the fact I haven’t gotten enough attention recently on Facebook.
I’m not really saying anything very profound here other to say that I am experimenting this summer. Can I get through it, work my regular job, doing my regular activities without getting infected by the busyness bug? So far so good, but I did check to see if I have any pine boards laying around in my basement yesterday.
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.