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


The wilderness.

In the Bible, the wilderness means barrenness, solitude, deprivation, danger. We aren’t talking about a recreational hike. This is a trek through the desolate void.

Even though the wilderness seems like a place to be avoided at all cost, so many of the pivotal characters in the Bible ended up there. Moses? Totally wandered through the wilderness. Joseph? Yep, tossed into a pit in the wilderness sans his coat of many colors. Jesus? Check.

If we look at the wilderness as a metaphor for an emotional landscape, even heroes of faith get overtaken by loneliness, fear and desperation. But Moses, Joseph, Jesus… they all emerged from the wilderness. The wilderness wasn’t the final destination. But it was a part of the terrain—an essential part of their journey.

Sometimes, we can get really pulled into the idea that we should never suffer. We attempt to curry favor with God, hoping that God’s good graces will provide an exemption to the universal suffering clause. But how could we experience the vast beauty in life without being subject to suffering? It’s part of the package.

I caused the most suffering in my own life by trying to avoid suffering. I couldn’t stand in my wilderness moments, my moments of isolation and pain, so I numbed them with alcohol. I couldn’t bear to look at the destruction I was causing in my own life, so I used alcohol to blur the jagged edges. I couldn’t hold my ground under the staggering anxiety my drinking perpetuated, so I drank more to escape it. And in my wilderness, I lost track of God. I couldn’t feel His presence at all. I felt alone, abandoned and worthless. I wanted to die rather than live in the destruction, the desolation, the land barren of love, meaning, or hope.

But, God doesn’t play favorites. What He does for a giant of faith like Moses, He will also do for me. And while I didn’t get to stand on a mountain and look over into a land flowing with milk & honey… turns out I didn’t need milk or honey right then anyway. What I needed was hope. And in the darkest moment, God sent me one single, solitary ray of hope. And I followed that ray slowly, sometimes haltingly, back into the light.

God never left me alone. My experience, my choices, my suffering made God feel absent. But He was there all along. I am grateful that I didn’t give up in the midst of my wilderness, that I didn’t lay down and die. Because hope led me to recovery, to love, and to peace. And now I know, despite the wilderness, God remains my constant companion.

ETA: I encountered the wilderness concept (and some good Bible-teaching stuff) in The Rev. Danny Bennett’s sermon at 11 Magnolia (Hyde Park UMC) this past Sunday. 

Sorry Not Sorry

The most common response upon learning that I am an alcoholic: “I am sorry.”

On a level, I get that. A lot of social activities seem to revolve around drinking. Happy hour. Cocktail parties. Wine & cheese parties. Even book clubs often throw back a few bottles of wine. And people (even normal people who drink in moderation) really like their booze. It seems like a radical move to give it up. And maybe boring. People seem to think my life must be hella boring. (Spoiler: It’s not)

Some of my old friends, who knew me in high school and college before my drinking really escalated, hate the idea that I had to suffer. They wish they could have been there for me, could have helped. I love their impulse to ease the pain of an old friend. But for many years, I was self-destructing and even the tremendous amount of love heaped on my by family & friends did nothing to slow my unraveling. The shitty thing about addicts is that they have to WANT help to recover. I did not want help.

But here’s my deal after over 6 years in recovery: I am not sorry I am an alcoholic. I am not sorry for the hard work I had to put into my recovery. I am not sorry that my addiction taught me about being fully present, human and fallible.

I AM sorry that for so many of my drinking years I was a self-centered asshat. I am sorry my drunk driving endangered so many innocent people. I am sorry that I used sex as a drug or wielded it as a weapon. I am sorry for the pain, torment, and worry that I inflicted on my family and my best friend. I had no right to behave the way I did. And yet, I did behave that way… over & over again.

But, even still, I am grateful that I am an alcoholic. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t chosen to get sober, chosen to work hard to recover, chosen to live into a life of spiritual practice and honesty. I am grateful that when I look at the world, I see people who are worthy of love, who need help and kindness. I am grateful that, in the process of getting sober, I really got God. Or at least as much as a fallible person with no understanding of the infinite can get God. But still, we are working with progress not perfection here.

Today, I have a sense of peace I never dreamed possible. I enjoy my life without being plagued by fear and anxiety. I can navigate change with a certain (small) level of grace. And I have hope.

So, please don’t be sorry I am an alcoholic. Because it is only in recovery that I learned to really live.

A Control Freak Gets Sober: A Short Case Study

I walked in, freshly pressed in a white shirt, crisp jeans and my beloved cowboy boots. My hair, pulled up in a clip, projected a no-nonsense image. Or, at least, I hoped it did. I wanted to be at the top of my game for this meeting. I pulled back one of the folding chairs, smiled at the people already seated at the table. And then it began: “Good evening. This is the regular meeting of Sobrenity. I am _______, and I am an alcoholic.”

This is how a control freak like me manages the unknown of attending her first AA meeting, at which they will most likely strongly suggest that she admit she is wildly out of control.

My futile attempts to control the AA meeting “situation” began earlier that day: I ran out to the bookstore to procure my copy of Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book) before the meeting. I wanted (no, needed) to be prepared for this next phase of my journey. I believe I even read the first chapter or so. Like I was going to a book club meeting. “Control what you can” was my motto. Obviously, that was going well.

Turns out, I didn’t need the book at the meeting. It was an open-discussion meeting, which meant anyone could attend, alcoholic or not. Cool. Then I could fly under the radar. They did a moment of silence for the sick & suffering alcoholic (that’s me!), followed by the Serenity Prayer. Which I had heard a million times before but couldn’t remember for the life of me. They were all chanting as if they were part of some secret society. Wait.. yeah. They kind of were.

Next came something about experience, strength and hope. It’s all a blur. And I didn’t have any experience, strength or hope for MYSELF at the moment, much less some to share. Then they got to the line that told me I was okay there, at least for the time being: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Check! This is where I belonged.

Someone read, “How It Works,” which, cleverly, describes how the program of Alcoholics Anonymous works. Three tidbits from “How It Works” stuck with me:

1) Rarely have we seen a person fail who has throughly followed our path.
I am not really into failure even now, and certainly was against failure as an active alcoholic who had something to prove. So, good… no failing here.

2) We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable. You’d think for a control freak that admitting that she was powerless over alcohol would be wrenching. But I already knew I was powerless (I often have to come to things on my own. Thank GOD, I had come to this realization before someone mentioned it to me, and I had to spend the next several months of my life trying to prove them wrong). I’d done the whole deal where I said I’d only have 2 beers, then I’d wake up in my bed with no recollection of having gotten there. And, if my life was unmanageable, then it wasn’t really my fault, right? How could I be faulted for something that, by its very nature, I couldn’t manage? Time to invite a Higher Power to clean up my mess (btw: this is NOT how things work. Everyone is required to clean up his or her own mess. Think of the HP as a power source; you still have to vacuum)

3) We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. As for not being a saint, I am a good little Christian girl who happens to be a lesbian. In the church I grew up in, that not only knocked me out of the saint category, it landed me right in the going-straight-to-hell-in-a-handbasket category. So growing along spiritual lines without much outside help was something I did for years (albeit clumsily and sometimes drunkenly). Now I had a church that I totally dug (who of course knew nothing about my problematic drinking–or that I had once served communion drunk), and I had these AA folks to instruct me on spiritual growth. I’d probably BE a saint in a few months with all this help (I totally did NOT get humility yet, obviously).

With the finer points of “How It Works” swirling about in my brain, I sat patiently as people shared their experience, strength and hope. But, honestly, I couldn’t connect their stories to my life. I spent so much time hiding what was really going on with me that I couldn’t open myself up enough to see the similarities. I wondered when I would feel connected. I wanted to be the valedictorian of AA and to do that I needed to be accepted by the group, connected, respected (spoiler: I never felt connected to AA. Perhaps because this was my approach. Holy ego.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt deflated. I didn’t feel changed. I wanted to be able to sit down with someone and talk it out. Not talk about the program or how I was going to work through the steps. I wanted to talk my addiction through until I was better. Right then.

Instead, I went home and took out my Big Book. I tried to start reading the text, but I got bored, overwhelmed, twitchy. So I flipped back to the stories in the back of the book and started reading. They broke past all my defenses, and I saw myself in each of them. I also saw hope. I read until I couldn’t focus anymore. And the next day I read more. It seems so natural now that those stories saved my life. Stories have power. And those stories carried me through my first days, pointing out my character defects (ahem… control freak) in a way that didn’t make me bristle and run for the hills. I share my story because I owe my sobriety to people who were willing to share theirs.

I Am The Problem.

At the core of my drinking problem existed one single, troubling fact: I hated myself. I constantly analyzed myself and found myself lacking. I never felt accepted or included, even when the evidence pointed to the contrary. I was anxious and depressed. Desperate to be somewhere else, to be someone else.

If this seems sad to me now (and it does), in high school I viewed it as downright tragic. I craved attention, but I was sketchy and uncomfortable once I got it. I sabotaged every relationship I had—I was either self-centered and thoughtless or clingy and needy. If I didn’t manage to screw something up with my insecurity and striving for acceptance, my subconscious would destroy it for me with panic attacks and anxiety so bad that it made me puke. I was a victim of myself. Which made me hate myself even more.

I pulled a geographic when I went to college—and it helped tremendously. I liked college me. I heard myself laugh unselfconsciously for the first time, and it startled me. But I warmed to happiness and commenced living a real life, with real feelings and a shocking lack of despair. If I had gone to therapy at this point, I probably could have skipped the whole alcoholic, downward spiral bit. If I had dealt with all the baggage, instead of just cramming it in an ill-fitting closet and hoping for the best, I may have been okay. But instead, I used my college girlfriend as my therapist, my anti-depressant, my religion. And when I chased her away with shitty decisions and cruel behavior, shit got real. I started remembering that I believed myself unworthy and unloveable. This time, I chased those demons with booze. And, surprisingly (probably only to me), they multiplied like Gremlins in water. Down I went, slowly at first and then in a tailspin lasting for 2 or 3 years, depending on who you ask and what they remember. I remember everything and nothing. I drank to quiet my roiling discontent, my abject fear. I drank to escape myself.

My story doesn’t come with a crystal clear salvation moment. Somewhere in the mess I had made of my life, I decided I wanted to live. A good start. By the time I made my way to my first AA meeting 6 years later, I knew I wanted more than survival—I wanted a life. I did a lot of work, with the 12-steps and with a good therapist, to move past my self-hatred into acceptance. Acceptance of me, of the world around me, of life. I excavated all the pain I had clung to for years, and I let it go (most of it, anyway).

Sometimes people ask me if it’s hard not to drink. No. The rampant alcohol abuse was just a symptom of my sick and desperate thinking. It became my signature, my fuck you to a world I thought brought me pain. Recovery revealed my part in creating my own pain, my jockeying to view myself as a victim. Recovery brought me face to face with myself—and this time I met myself with acceptance and forgiveness.