Fear Is A Bastard

I go to church, in part, to be reminded not to be an apathetic jerk. Sure, the singing and praising God is nice and all, but my default mode falls toward the self-centered mark. I need a little Jesus in my week to pull me back toward a love of humanity, to get me out of my head, to give me (divine) perspective.

I leave each Sunday’s service with a little to-go nugget of knowledge. Sometimes, I walk around relatively clueless about why a certain thought keeps popping into my head when I am trying to do important things, like convince my kid that shoes are, in fact, a necessity in the grocery store. Other times, I know damn well what I am supposed to be changing, pondering, doing—but that doesn’t make the doing any easier. Because, let’s face it, we aren’t often called (by God, by the Universe, by our Higher Self… whatever) to easy tasks.

Just in case you didn’t make it to your spiritual refuge this weekend, I will share the insights offered up at my church. Because I’m a giver.

Fear causes us to live small lives, to squander what we’ve been given. Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. Fear is what causes us to run up to the edge of the diving board and stop short, toes curled around the edge of the board, feeling the pull toward the water but hesitating nonetheless. Fear causes us to turn around slowly and make our way back the way we came, onto the safety of dry ground. Fear pushes us away from joyful bounding into cool water, keeps us from knowing the thrill of a successful leap. Fear is a bastard that robs us of joy, that shuts out love, that keeps us small and contained.

I am a mess when I let fear pick at my wounds until they bleed. Fear shuts me down, sends my brain into a cycle of doom that just won’t quit. Fear drove me to seek solace in an ice cold beer, a shot of whisky, anything to keep me from facing my own vulnerability. I drank because I feared rejection, love, connection and distance.

Fear wore out its welcome after a while. So, I took back the reigns of my life and got sober. I followed my path toward recovery. And that first year, I made real progress. And then, sometime during year two, the anxiety that I’d kept at bay with alcohol for all those years came crashing down around me. The roar of my own fear was deafening. My fear quickly robbed me of my ability to go outside the house without crippling anxiety (which, oddly, always manifested itself in a need to pee. No joke. We couldn’t be out for more than 15 minutes before we’d have to find a bathroom. Which made me feel much less anxiety ridden—for about the next 15 minutes).

Everybody gets scared. There’s no shame in that. But allowing fear to control our decisions, our actions, allowing fear to box us in, to murder our dreams, to suffocate love… that simply can’t be tolerated.

So we move forward… in faith and in love.

God expects us to live with big love, love that will take risks to change the world. 12-step programs encourage newcomers to choose a conception of God that works for them, that they understand. I am down with that. The God I grew up with was pretty angry most of the time. He looked for reasons to smite people, to take away what they held most dear as punishment for misbehavior or simply to exercise His Godly Will. Scary and not particularly trustworthy.

I understand God really differently now. God believes the best in us, because we were created in His image. The image of God resides in ME. In YOU. And God is love. Vibrant, crazy, radical love. That kind of love holds no space for fear. That love spurs us to do the impossible, to dream big, to take risks so that LOVE CAN WIN. And it can. But we have to do the work. We have to turn our backs on fear. We have to choose love.

Sometimes choosing love looks really big, like fostering a child or doggedly fighting inequality. But sometimes choosing love is marked by small yet significant acts. At the peak of my anxiety, I chose love instead of fear each time I fought back my anxiety and left the house (always with a mental map of the closest bathroom). I sent fear scurrying a little further into the shadows each time I said yes to a request to teach, to serve, to give of myself—even though fear and panic gripped me (and I made about 25 trips to the closest bathroom) until the actual moment I started engaging with others. And then love took over, relegated fear to a corner and took center stage. Love gave me faith that fear wouldn’t always hold such sway in my world. Love kept me going, reminded me that fear could not stop me—unless I let it.

Love is greater than fear. In our lives. In the world around us. Love beckons us to take that flying leap off of the diving board, to soar through the air, to taste the deliciousness of the moment. Love calls us back to life—strong, vibrant and soulful.

Mess is Underrated

I write vignettes: tiny little glimpses into my world, in which everything resolves neatly in the end. Which makes my life seem put together, wrapped up, tidy. But, really, there is a lot of mess before the lesson is learned, before the big picture becomes clear.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mess. And how often I live in the mess, muddling through, wondering how long I’ll have to slog along before I can see my way into the clear again.

Mess gets a bad rap, though. When I give my 4 year old a piece of watermelon, she can consume the whole thing almost mess-free, managing each drip as it occurs, bending over a plate to avoid getting errant pink juice on her clothes. But, on my stellar mommy days, I just take the kid outside and let her go after that watermelon like it’s her job. I’ve had to hose her off after an encounter with a watermelon, but damn if she didn’t love every moment, every bite.

Mess isn’t inherently bad, it seems. In fact, when I try to tidy up my mind too quickly, I miss the joy that can ultimately be derived from the mess. I get so busy trying to make everything neat again, to get my feelings tucked into nice little boxes, that I miss being able to take inventory of everything that’s there, choosing what to keep and what to discard. I don’t get to find my own resolution if I avoid the mess entirely.

Simon’s transition is messy for me. It brings BIG feelings to the forefront. Often the feelings seem to conflict—and contradiction makes me crazy. But I’ve discovered that I can feel multiple things at once. That doesn’t make them less true.

Here’s a quick (and, I’m sure, incomplete) list of what I feel at this given moment:

1) I am proud of him.

2) I struggle mightily against loss of my lesbian identity.

3) I admire his strength.

4) I am angry that I didn’t get to choose this.

5) I am happy; Simon and I laugh a lot.

6) I feel entitled to ask for something big—a psychic balancing of the ledgers.

7) I regret all the time that he wasn’t who he really wanted to be.

8) I am excited to see who he’ll become.

9) I love him with a vibrant, expanding love that sometimes feels like it might crack my heart.

10) I resent that more people don’t ask me how I am.

11) I am grateful that I finally understand his need to transition.

12) I am amused; after all, I live with someone who acts like a teenaged boy.

13) I feel lucky that I was chosen for this journey—that Simon invited me to accompany him.

14) I feel fiercely protective of him, of our family.

15) I feel completely normal.

I find this mess strewn all over the interior of my psyche. It bleeds into my spiritual life, impacts the way I interact with the world around me. Truly, it screws with me sometimes. My instinct is to corner the mess, box it up and shove it under a bed somewhere. That’s how I used to clean my room when I was a kid. My mom kept insisting that shoving things into a box/drawer/under the bed wasn’t cleaning. And eventually, I’d have to drag that same damn mess out again to sort it, to purge it, and/or keep it. Eventually I’d have to deal with it. Something tells me that psychic mess is no different.

So, I am letting the mess just be. I am observing it without getting attached to it. I feel how I feel. There’s no need to get all judgey or label-y. I know the mess will eventually begin to sort itself in an organic way. Some feelings will fade, some will morph into others, and some will have to be dealt with.

But right now, I am just going to let the mess be. I am going to pour myself another cup of coffee and appreciate this wildly chaotic psychic moment.

Smooth Transitions

In the very first, raw days of being sober, Amy and I clung to each other for support. Since the day we met, at a local lesbian bar, we’d been co-conspirators—very drunk co-conspirators. Now, the same two people who’d spent the past five years egging each other into hitting up happy hour every day were attempting to do sober together. Instead of the bar after work, we loitered in Starbucks trying to kill some of the vacant hours between work and bedtime. We biked to meetings together, learned to do normal things like eating dinner. And we’d turn over these puzzling ideas about powerlessness and God and a spiritual solution to staying sober in long, highly caffeinated conversations on our back porch. We did sober like we did everything else: together.

And then it happened. Someone said to me, nonchalantly, over coffee: “You know, you have to focus on your sobriety, even if Amy doesn’t stay sober. You’ll have to do whatever it takes to protect your recovery.” I felt a lightning bolt of fear tear through me. In that moment, I understood powerlessness. I’d easily admitted I was powerless over my own drinking. I mean, I hadn’t shown up at AA for the weak coffee. But to admit there were other things in life that I could not control, to admit that I had no power over whether or not Amy stayed sober, shook me to the very core. I loved her. But, in the face of addiction, love isn’t enough to save someone else. They have to be about the business of saving themselves.

I wrestled with my powerlessness, in the grip of a constant, cold fear. My overwhelming instinct was to cling to her. But what if my clinging pulled her under? Was the weight of my love and fear too much? I felt like I was suffocating.

Fortunately, Step 1, with all its jive about powerlessness, is followed by other steps that showed me what the hell to do with this newfound understanding of my lack of control. For instance, Step 3 focuses on turning our will and our lives over to the care of God. The problem was that the God I grew up with was a little bit smitey. If you loved someone more than you loved Him, well, He’d probably zap that person, and then you wouldn’t have them at all. The God of my childhood was constantly trying to teach people lessons that involved great suffering. So, I wasn’t really thrilled about handing over my will. I mean, He’d probably just mess everything up.

Here I was, just a month or so into being sober, grappling with two concepts: 1) powerlessness and 2) surrendering my will and life to God. Pretty much, I thought this recovery thing sucked.

At the same time, I remained (resentfully) open to suggestion. People talk about “pitiful, incomprehensible demoralization” driving them into recovery. I was there. My self-loathing took at tremendous amount of energy. I was tired.

So, I gave up.

I relinquished control. I trusted my Higher Power with my recovery, with Amy’s recovery. I handed over all the things I held most dear. Who was I kidding, anyway? I was a shitty manager of my own affairs. Time to bring in a Divine Management Company.

And then, the most amazing thing happened: nothing fell apart. In fact, we both seemed to make great strides in excavating the truths about our drinking from the wreckage of our pasts. Once I let go, we could move forward. Both of us. Independently and together.

The lessons I’ve learned in recovery aren’t a one-time deal; they color every aspect of my life. They guide me through tough times. When things get uncertain, I go back to the two concepts I struggled with most: I am powerless, and I need to turn my will over to God. These ideas still frighten the shit out of me. But recovery has taught me that I don’t have to surrender to fear anymore.

Four years into recovery, when Amy confessed to me that she might be transgender, I said no. That just wasn’t going to work for me. I had the nice life I’d worked hard for. And I was a lesbian. Lesbians aren’t married to men. So, no. She needed figure something else out, because my life was going to go the way I’d planned it, damn it.

She took my directive to heart. We muddled through the next two years, not unhappily—mostly. Sure, there were plenty of times I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. But I still had my family the way I’d envisioned it. I still had control. Except that I could see her slowly spiraling deeper into depression. Which I skillfully ignored, blamed on other things, railed against. I did this, claiming my power and control, until I just couldn’t anymore. When the misery became so great that Amy started to disconnect from her favorite being in the universe, our four year old daughter, I steeled myself and asked her to make an appointment with a therapist.

She came home after therapy and settled into her We-Need-To-Talk spot. She had a cautiously expectant look on her face. Like an adult carefully explaining something to a kid who’s hell bent on getting her own way, she told me—again—that she is transgender.

In that moment, I saw it: I was powerless.

I couldn’t control that her mind, her heart and her spirit were male. She couldn’t, either. I found myself in the exact same position I’d been in 6 years before, when we got sober: I could surrender my will, or I could destroy what I had by forcing my own agenda on a situation that was rapidly crumbling despite my best efforts.

“What’s your name?” I asked. “You have to pick a guy’s name. What’s yours?”

“Simon. I think Simon is my name.”

“I think it’s perfect for you.” And I wasn’t lying. It was perfect. He was perfect, just as he was.

Here’s what I’ve found about God in the past 6 years: He’s sneaky. Once you let Him in, He has a way of quietly shifting your perspective. He rearranges your heart so there’s more room for compassion, for love, for acceptance. I know this firsthand because when Simon spoke his own truth about being transgender, this time I felt it: a flood of acceptance. There was no reason to fight anymore. It was okay. We were okay.

God has a tremendous sense of timing. He seems to know exactly what I need to make things work. He works around my ego, my control issues to bring me to the most beautiful places in my life. Places I never could have gotten if I’d been navigating. Everything that Amy and I faced together in recovery, everything that God guided me through as I worked my way toward healing, all came together in this one pivotal moment—and it saved my family.


 Photo Credit: Flickr/garryknight