In case y’all are keeping tabs on my progression through the pandemic phases, we’ve now reached the “I-Want-to-Create-Full-Blown-Chaos” stage.
Perhaps y’all are unfamiliar with that stage. It’s the one where you up and quit your job or buy a new house/boat/car or get a puppy or cut bangs. You know, something that adds flair and drama and conflict. Because what you’re really looking for is a way to feel ALIVE.
And now that I’ve been in quarantine lock-down for some ungodly amount of days, I find myself feeling that itch.
But I own a bookstore I love. And Simon gives me side-eye if I even look at Zillow (We’ve moved 4 times in the last 8 years. He’s right. I need to give it a rest). He’s also (wisely) categorically said no to a puppy, a goat, and a micro pig. We’re done having kids. Bangs look like shit on me.
And yet, I still crave it. That rush of chaos. The tingle. The thrill of it all.
This is the season, it turns out, where I have to learn to sit with the desire to create chaos. To feel those feelings. And just let them be.
In all times before this, when chaos has come knocking, I have run right toward it. In big ways and small ways. Damaging ways & innocuous ways. This is the first time I’ve been healthy enough to see this desire to shake things up for what it is. And to choose my response to it.
It’s the choice that matters.
To me, anyway.
From the time I was about 16 years old, I’ve beaten myself up with the idea that if I was just spiritual enough (in whatever form I happened to be practicing at the moment), I wouldn’t feel intense temptation, or wrestle with the desire to do completely selfish things, or struggle with feelings I’d prefer not to have.
But I’ve begun to understand that what matters is not that I’m somehow transcendent enough to avoid these feelings, itches, chaos-loving desires altogether. What matters is that I choose to not cause harm. To not leave a wake of unnecessary destruction. To not be the Goddess of Chaos just because.
Sometimes the right choice just comes easily. But there isn’t much triumph in that. The triumph is in the struggle. It’s in the choice.
Alcoholics tend to like chaos–sometimes even in recovery. But I’m learning I can say no, the same way I can say no to a drink.
I get to choose.
And y’all can all rest assured that there are absolutely no quarantine bangs happening over here.
Yesterday, a woman with two wiener dogs made me cry.
This is notable primarily because I rarely cry out in the wild because someone did something to upset me. Not anymore, at least.
Here’s what happened: I was trying to deliver a book to a customer that lives in an apartment on the second floor of a huge, gorgeous house. There’s no interior access to this apartment–just a steep, narrow flight of metal stairs on the outside of the building. It had been raining, so everything outside was wet. No real overhang to speak of. And y’all know I wasn’t going to let that book get wet.
So, I’m looking around for an common interior space. Or at least a space that’s covered. But I’m not really finding anything that looks viable. I see an open garage space that is dry, but I don’t know the protocol for leaving packages or even if these tenants are on friendly terms with each other. I don’t want to leave a package in the wrong space and start some turf war.
Wiener dog lady is looking at me from inside her house. I don’t know she has wiener dogs yet, but I do know she looks vexed. At me, I suppose. But I’m really focused on this book, so I’m not paying much attention.
As soon as I exit screen right to examine the porch on the front of the house for viability, she walks out with her two yapping dogs. One immediately escapes the leash. She’s yelling for the dog, and I’m scurrying stealthily away. I have no desire for my ankle to be chomped on.
Not today, Satan.
I’m also growing increasingly frustrated–at myself primarily. Why can’t I decide where to drop this book?!
Fed up with my own indecisiveness, and realizing that this lady has re-leashed both dogs and they’re happily sniffing things in the yard, I decide I’m going to ask her about a shared common space.
I approach her with a “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
She looks at me like I’m something stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “I guess,” she says.
I promise you, I don’t remember when I met this kind of distain from another human.
“Is there a…” I start. Her dogs, seemingly noticing me for the very first time, immediately start yapping again.
“I can’t HEAR you,” she says.
And I know I’ve been summarily dismissed.
I head back to my car without another word. Before I even get to the car, I’m crying.
I’m just going to break my own narrative here and tell you that I know people suffer much greater indignities than this daily. That, really, this wasn’t a big deal. That the fact that I was so stung by her dismissal is a sign of my own privilege.
I also know that I cried for the next 15 minutes. That I was so swamped by shame, and hurt, and self pity (oh my good lord, so much self pity) that I could hardly breathe.
I just kept thinking, “You never know what people are going through. You should be nicer.” But I wasn’t thinking I should be nicer, or more compassionate, or have broader perspective. I was thinking that woman should be nicer. She should think about what I was going through. She should think about how hard I’m trying right now.
It has been years since I felt that particular way: so overcome with feelings of being misunderstood, so in the throes of self-pity because people are mean to me, so self-centered that I could barely function.
That, right there, that feeling is why I used to drink. This oppressive cycle of self that I couldn’t seem to escape was how I lived my entire life. I was always upset because people didn’t understand me. I always was the victim. And I felt perpetually sorry for myself.
The reasons I ended up in that shame-cycle of self-centeredness yesterday are myriad. And crying it out was the only way I was going to escape. The release was cathartic.
But what stuck with me the most was realizing, even as I was swamped down in that moment, that if I felt this all the time, I would certainly drink. I could hardly stand feeling that way for a few minutes. I needed to escape. I need emphatically to not feel that way.
And I used to live in that space of pain, shame, and self-pity all the damn time.
15 minutes of that yesterday launched a full-scale internal gratitude campaign about my sobriety. I’m grateful that I’ve spent the past decade or so cultivating a world-view that (tries to) decenter my self. That my spiritual practice is about compassion. And that I realize that self-pity and self-compassion are most certainly not the same.
Today, I’m left with these 2 things:
the thought that perhaps I should cry a little more freely when I’m frustrated or overwhelmed, so as not to give all the power over to random ladies with wiener dogs, and
a tremendous tenderness toward what other people are reckoning with: those who are still sick and suffering, folks navigating their own shame-storms, people with emotional & logistical challenges big and small… and yes, even ladies with wiener dogs having a bad day.
When I signed up for AA*, it was with the understanding that they were going to fix me. Although I’d mostly pulled my shit together from the outside, on the inside I was a mess. I felt suffocated by shame, terrified of actually experiencing real emotion, and mostly just broken. Oh, and I was completely devoid of effective coping mechanisms.
Drinking was my coping mechanism, and it landed me in meetings with an oddball bunch of folks who drank bad coffee.
I liked those oddballs though, because they didn’t find my obsession with alcohol or my inability to stop drinking once I’d started strange in the slightest. And they told me I never again had to be the person I’d been when I was drinking.
That felt like being born again.
Part of what they laid out for me was that I never had to pick up a drink again, as long as I followed the 12-steps. And continued going to meetings. Like, forever.
A couple competing things were going on for me during the first 2 years of sobriety: I never felt really at-home in AA (which made me feel like a complete loser, because folks are always saying how they never felt at home anywhere until they walked in the rooms of AA. Huh. I didn’t feel at home there, either. So what was wrong with me?), and I had a couple sponsor relationships that were pretty damaging (which is tough because your sponsor is supposed to walk you through the 12-steps, and you have to trust them in order for that to be a possibility). Oh, and I was hella stubborn… as I’ve always been.
So, after 2 years I quit AA. Cold-turkey. No sponsor. No meetings.
But here’s the thing: I’ve always been a spiritually-oriented person, so I stayed committed to spiritual practice. I’ve also been in and out of therapy since I got sober. And I talk about recovery a lot.
I never neglected my recovery. I wasn’t “white knuckling it.” I was working to stay sober by constantly examining the patterns in my life, exploring my lack of coping mechanisms and trying to implement ones that wouldn’t blow up my life, and taking a hard look at the need for escape that made me want to drink in the first place.
But even after 11 years, I don’t consider myself “recovered.” Because, although I’ve never picked up a drink or drug again, I’ve got these addict behaviors that can creep out from time to time. I think of them as relapse light. They can be incredibly destructive. And they’re insidious.
When I was about 5 years sober, I had been a stay-at-home mom for 3 years. For me, staying at home was one of the most beautiful, mind-numbing, joyful, isolating experiences of my life. It was so beautiful and so horrible at the same time that my mind almost melts when I think about it even now.
I am grateful for the time I got with our daughter. And I wouldn’t trade it. But it was excruciatingly hard.
I think we’ve already covered the idea that my coping mechanisms can be iffy. During the hard and seemingly interminable toddler years, I did not pick up a drink. But what I did do was lose myself in an incredibly emotionally entangling toxic friendship. This friendship was obsessive escapism–and it fed this minor messiah complex I’ve nursed since I was a kid.
Instead of dealing with my shit, I was escaping. And getting unentangled from that relationship was emotionally messy, logistically awkward, and shame-inducing.
It also showed me I had more work to do in my recovery.
I don’t think it’s inevitable that relapse is part of recovery. If I’d ever believed it was, I don’t think I would’ve put in the work to get sober. But building a recovery that is joyful and full of growth and exploration means looking at the other ways that relapse light can happen–and addressing those openly and without shame when they arise.
And just acknowledging the way that old behaviors have caused chaos in my life makes me more compassionate towards folks for whom relapse with drugs or alcohol is part of the journey.
AA did fix me. Or, maybe more accurately, AA helped me face the idea that I was powerless over alcohol. And that’s a fact for me.
But I do find power in taking control of my own recovery, in finding what works, and in creating real coping mechanisms that allow me to move through the world with more grace and ease.
And god knows I surely needed more grace and ease. Don’t we all?
*You don’t really have to sign up. But you do have to show up.
Folks used to say AA would completely ruin drinking for you.
But here’s a truth you have to understand before that statement can make one iota of sense to you: addiction is based on lies.
In active addiction, you lie to yourself. To other people. To the Universe. And the lie that keeps coming up, the one that can be most destructive, is that maybe you aren’t an alcoholic at all.
Maybe you can drink like a normal person this time.
And so, if the lie sneaks up on you masquerading as truth, you could find yourself at a bar, ready to relive the glory days (pro tip: puking does not a glory day make)–which likely translates into getting blackout drunk.
Except, the whole time you’re inching toward oblivion (or hurtling, depending on if you are Bud Light or Everclear), the AA slogans that drive you nuts, the quips that old-timers offer up in meetings, seemingly random passages from the Big Book will pop into your head.
And AA will have ruined drinking for you. Because you know. You know there’s hope, that people really do recover, that you can have life. And that you don’t have to slowly die like this.
And once you know, you can’t unknow.
In early sobriety, I counted on this idea that AA would ruin drinking for me. In fact, if I started to “romance the drink” (it’s really supposed to be romanticize. but there was a woman who always said “romance” in the meetings–I swear she managed to work the phrase into every meeting she went to–and I always giggled at the idea of sitting across from a Bud Light bottle at a fancy restaurant, leaning in over candlelight. You know, romancing) I’d always come around to the idea that the whole damn thing would be ruined for me anyway, so why even bother?
Lately, I’m finding a parallel between drinking and toxic thinking. Well, in the ruination of both destructive habits at least.
Drinking was ruined by AA. Toxic thinking has suffered a similar fate from a one-two punch of Buddhist lovingkindness and a more critical examination of my own self-talk.
Yesterday, I was walking through the neighborhood cooling off after my run. I came up on a house that had a lot going on in the backyard. I immediately started passing judgment on who those people were that lived in the house. Not on the state of their yard. On their character.
What the hell, right?!?
My inner voice had some feels about that: Oh my God. Why are you so horrible? Who even thinks those kind of things?!? What is WRONG with you?
But then, like some sort of weird voiceover, the lovingkindness/invisible therapist voice was all: What an interesting response to a cluttered yard. Let’s examine that a bit… what do you think bothers you so much about what’s going on here?
Even though I still don’t have a deep grasp of what bothered me so much about a few old cars in a backyard (although I can guess & it’s not pretty), that toxic self-talk, the one full of recrimination and blame meant to cause shame, got gone immediately. Like I could actually feel it receding.
So, as bananas as the whole experience of having two competing voices battling for my attention in my own damn head was, I can tell you that shutting down that super-critical asshole voice in my head that is always trying to convince me I’m a shitty person felt like a pretty big triumph.
I have a feeling that banishing toxic thought is a lot like recovery–it’s a daily maintenance kind of situation. But I’m kind of digging this forward momentum.
Once, years ago, I found myself driving though a rural part of Florida. I was headed to work in the late afternoon, teaching writing to folks who thought writing had nothing to do with what they wanted to do with their lives.
It’s real bleak to share the thing that brings you joy with folks who couldn’t give a single shit about it.
But, there I was, driving along, watching the flat land stretch out to the horizon. I think there were cows. In my mind now, at least, there were cows. Rural Florida is, indeed, the South. It bears no resemblance to its coastal, sometimes more urbane, cousin. And driving though it requires some good, twangy country music.
At least, for me it does.
I’ve loved country music since high school. It’s storytelling at its finest. And it fills me with big, big joy. Or brings me to tears. But it never fails to make me emote, to feel. Country music feels like being alive to me. It’s that good.
It was also the background to a helluva lot of my drinking.
So, I’m driving through rural Florida, feeling real countrified and a drinking song comes on. Since music is soul-memory, immediately that song triggered the most definitive craving for a drink I remember having in sobriety.
And, because sometimes when things are going to hell in a handbasket, life throws in one more thing & shit gets even more real, I was at that moment, driving by a bar with a neon Bud Light sign shining like a beacon. (Yes, I drank a lot of cheap beer. Let’s not dwell on that life choice right now.)
It took my breath away, this longing for a drink. Or was it longing for the part of me I had to let go in order to keep living?
But what drove me to tears was feeling completely stripped bare. Defenseless. Vulnerable. Because, I realized right there in rural Florida with country music floating through the air & that damn neon sign beckoning, when I quit drinking, I relinquished my ability to hide.
Alcohol had been my shield from feeling anything too deeply. It’s a terrific numbing agent. And now it was gone.
I was going to have to feel things I’d been sheltering myself from for years. There was no place to hide anymore.
The terror I felt in that moment, faced with actually living my own life, was staggering. I wanted to bolt. Physically, I ached to run & hide.
But there was nothing to do except keep moving forward.
I turned off the country music. Mid-song, which is like sacrilege. And I kept driving.
It’s such a small event, really: the music, the bar, the willingness to keep driving. But it marked the beginning of my choice to get sober–to cut the bullshit, do the work, get real, and live my life.
Sobriety is an ongoing process. And it’s rarely dull. I’m constantly presented with opportunity for growth. Which really just means that I have to handle shit as it arises–the squirrelly, the scary, the just plain old too much. Because, without the alcohol, there really is no place for me to hide when things get … intense.
But that’s okay. It becomes okay. Because there’s healing and there’s big, big life out there.
And when I feel too out of synch with myself, with my emotions, I find that a little country music gets me right back where I need to be.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to think things to death.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo. Or because I’m a 1 on the Enneagram.
But most likely, it’s because thinking is not doing.
Doing has consequences–real, tangible things that are set in motion by my actions. Thinking… well, I’m not going to make any grand impact–on the outside world or my inner landscape–with just my mind. I’m not all wizardy-powerful like that.
An added benefit to thinking things to death: no one knows exactly what goes on in my mind but me. So there can be all kinds of fancy footwork in my head that allows me to never actually be wrong.
The trade off for never being wrong, though, was that nothing ever really touched my spirit. There was no trial-by-fire burning down of the psyche –so that something new and more beautiful could arise. There was just the constant building of what I thought were castles, but turned out to be hastily cobbled together shacks that wouldn’t withstand even the slightest tempestuous gust.
I spent a lot of time, for instance, intellectualizing spirituality. Now, there are lots of folks who talk about spirituality and religion of all varieties with an academic bent. I love that–the marriage of the mind and the spirit. But I was sacrificing my spirit–messily, bloodily, tragically–to keep my spirituality in my mind, where it couldn’t touch me and wouldn’t change me.
This is an odd tact for someone who’s been on a spiritual quest since fourth grade. In those 35 years or so, I’ve been a Christian (saved, resaved, was I saved enough?), an agnostic, a (super evangelical everyone is going to hell if they haven’t accepted Jesus as their savior RIGHT NOW) Christian, a very pissed off anti-Christian agnostic, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, a self-loathing Christian, a Buddhist again, a putting-up-with-too-much-bullshit-from-the-church Christian, and finally a Buddhist.
I mean, that’s a hell of a lot of questing.
And I used to be super-embarrassed about all this jumping about. But now, I’m kind of proud of it. Because each move (especially from self-loathing Christian to my current spiritual iteration) has been a result of getting really honest and addressing difficult truths. Not intellectual truths. Spiritual ones. Which have always been a bit more tricky for me.
When I got sober (at 33), I had to take a serious look at the God I’d constructed. And I had to ask myself, with life or death seriousness, if that was a God I could rely on, trust, open myself to.
Uh, no. Because that God was fiery. And brimstoney. And He may or may not smite me for the tiniest infraction. And He was probably going to take away the things that I loved most (because maybe, just maybe, I would love them more than I loved Him) just for sport.
So, I read a lotofBrennan Manning, and I reimagined a God who loved me more than I could begin to fathom. A God who wanted good things for me, who would guide me through the insanity and pain that could break out in every day life (but who would never smite me with any of those things). I reimagined God as refuge and love.
This reimagining could only get me so far, though. Because I never prayed. Thinking not doing, you see. I read. I imagined. But I did not commune. This beautiful (and I think true) version of God carried me through some incredibly painful times. But God remained “out there.”
I needed something inside my soul that was going to bring about the kind of sustained spiritual awakening that I’d heard folks talk about in AA. And to get that, I need to move beyond intellectualized, over-analyzed Christianity to a point where I could get real and invite into my innermost self something that could bring me to a point of wisdom, peace, enlightenment.
I had to get honest about the fact that the damage the church had caused me made picking up a Bible impossible. Approaching God from a Christian perspective was riddled with judgement and pain, and I couldn’t draw close to that God because my soul hid under self-protective numbness every time I tried.
And so, I stopped.
I stopped trying to make a belief system that had caused me untold agony work for me.
But this isn’t really about walking away. Not for me, at least (although some folks get real caught up in that). It’s more about what I’m walking toward.
I’m making my way toward a still pond with no ripples. A peace and knowing, a goodness, that has always lived inside of me. (That is inside of you, too). But that I can’t intellectualize. I have to practice stillness to access it, to unearth the compassion that’s part of my nature. Part of my being.
A woman who carries a secret is an exhausted woman.
Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés
I gave up being exhausted in late 2008. For 33 years, I’d been collecting secrets (big and utterly minuscule) and stacking them precariously in various corners of my soul. Which meant I couldn’t round a corner without being smacked with a wall of shame.
And shame is soul-death, pure and simple.
Shame is also a liar.
Shame told me to keep these secrets because I was so vile that I’d be alone and reviled if they ever spilled out into the light. That I was unlovable, so I had to cling to anyone who told me otherwise. Because if they only knew about the secrets…well. They’d surely retract their love, affection, esteem. They’d go. Then it would just be me and the shame. And that felt–feels even now when I think about it–utterly unbearable.
Good news: this was all 100% bullshit.
Sometimes people remark on my willingness to be vulnerable and to share things that feel brave to them. Which is so kind. But, truly, this is my medicine. I don’t have secrets anymore. I can’t. They almost killed me.
But to be clear: I didn’t heal by trotting every secret out into the world, to be poked and prodded by everyone and their housecat.
But I did tell every secret–every single one–to one person.
I got sober through a 12-step program. And Step 5 goes like this: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
So, just to clarify for those of you who aren’t familiar, in Step 4 you take a “searching and fearless” personal inventory of yourself. That means owning all the things you’ve done that you wish you hadn’t. Facing all your resentments and fears. Squaring up with your part in the shitshow that you’ve spent your entire life trying to pin on someone or something else.
Then you lay all that out for one other human being. You lay all your secrets bare.
It sounds horrifying, right?
Or maybe it sounds freeing, depending on exactly where currently travail in your emotional landscape.
But horrifying or freeing–it is necessary.
Because those secrets lose their power the moment that they’re brought into the light. When you bring your most wounded self, the parts that flinch when anyone draws near them, to a person who has also been deeply wounded but who has begun to heal–they know how to create space for your secrets, to bear them with you for those sacred moments. And then to help you release them.
When we start thinking about embracing vulnerability over shame, we’re already moving in the right direction. But we have to choose wisely. Because sharing secrets indiscriminately with the world at large–or even with another person who proves untrustworthy in their response–can re-injure delicate scar tissue, can send us even deeper into shame.
Your secrets are killing you. They are depleting your soul’s energy. They are exhausting you.
Find your person. Someone sacredly trustworthy. A spiritual adviser. A therapist. Tell them the secrets that make you wake up in a cold sweat at night. Tell them the things that you are certain make you unloveable.
Give up being exhausted.
And then, just keep telling the truth. To yourself. To the people who hold your sacred trust. To the world.
He was drunk. And he fell asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru.
This is a story I should be hearing in an AA meeting in a church basement drinking chronically bad coffee. Not reading in the paper. Because he shouldn’t be dead.
Every black person gunned down, or choked to death, or any of the myriad of ways black people can die in this country just from being black feels personal to me. (If it doesn’t feel personal to you, it’s because systemic racism has done its job convincing you that black people are complicit their own abuse and destruction in this country. Don’t worry. Your condition is reparable. Pick up A People’s History of the United States and start reading.)
But Rayshard Brooks. This case forces me stare right into the face of my own white priviledge.
He died for doing something I’ve done too may times to count: he drove drunk. Am I proud of that? Hell no. But was I murdered by police for it? No. I wasn’t.
Here’s what happened to me instead:
I was driving the wrong way down a one way street in Tallahassee, Florida. I was actively operating my vehicle. Rayshard Brooks was asleep in his.
I got pulled over. I was obviously drunk. I’d been driving with one eye closed so I could see the road more clearly (again, not something I’m proud of–but it’s factual). And, again, careening the wrong way on a one way street. Clear indication that maybe shit has gone real wrong.
Rayshard Brooks wasn’t currently a danger to anyone when the police approached him. He was inconvenient to Wendy’s customers.
When the cop approached me, I had zero concern for my own safety and a wanton disregard for other people’s lives. I was so entitled and such a drunk shit that I wasn’t even worried I would go to jail. The cop was annoyed with me.
Annoyed. Not lethal.
I told him that I knew one of his fellow officers, and his demeanor changed immediately. He wasn’t even annoyed anymore. He was concerned for my safety. He told me to go straight home.
I’m visibly drunk. I get pulled over. I am entitled, completely unremorseful, and am throwing around the names of other cops simply to avoid the DUI that would’ve been a more than fair consequence for actively putting people’s lives a risk.
And he told me to be safe and sent me on my way. He didn’t even follow me home.
So you know what I did?
I went through a fast food drive through for a late night snack on my way home. Just like Rayshard Brooks.
No one was concerned about Rayshard Brooks getting home safely. Clearly.
Drunk driving kills innocent people. It’s an offense I take incredibly seriously now, on this side of sobriety. I also know that drunk people are irrational, belligerent, and can change moods on a dime. Does Rayshard Brooks grabbing the officer’s taser mean he was violent? Nope. Should it have gotten him killed? I know that’s not even a real question.
This is precisely why we need to defund the police. They shouldn’t even have been there. Rayshard Brooks wasn’t an active threat to anyone. He was sleeping it off in his car. Which is pretty much all you can do with drunk folks anyway. But who else were Wendy’s employees supposed to call? If we defunded the police and shifted money around so that trained professionals could address drunk and disorderly conduct and substance abuse without lethal force–with an eye on getting people the help they need–well, Rayshard Brooks surely wouldn’t be dead.
White folks acting like they don’t understand what defund the police means–I don’t believe you. You understand damn well. But you also know you are extremely unlikely to be murdered by police while driving drunk, or after a routine traffic stop, or sleeping in your own bed. You are comfortable with the status quo because it is unlikely to kill you.
It is unconscionable to risk more black lives for the comfort and sense of security of folks living out their white privilege. Defunding the police is imperative. Rayshard Brooks has every bit as much right to be alive as I do.
I woke up on Monday so anxious that my arms were numb.
When I relayed this information to Simon later, he thought I was pretty nonchalant about what he was convinced may have been a fatal malady.
But this is not my first rodeo.
I know precisely how my anxiety manifests. And the cold, lack of feeling in my hands… yep. That’s just anxiety, showing up for the party.
In the hell-in-a-handbasket environs of late, it’s not super surprising my anxiety reared its head. COVID-19 has made me reckon with the hard truth that I’m a bit of a hypochondriac (read: I’m always 85% sure I’m dying of something). I’ve managed my pandemic anxiety relatively well by simply being cautious. We’ve been social distancing since March 15th. Which is a fucking long time. I have a whole variety of masks to choose from, because I wear one any time I’m close to other humans. Hell, I go grocery shopping at 7am just to avoid other people.
But when we went to the LGBTQ+ March for Black Lives on Sunday, suddenly I was around a shit ton of people. And, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but some people really struggle with this mask thing. Like, for instance, wearing it over their mouths but below their nose.
Or–and this is my favorite–the folks who take off their masks to sneeze.
What the fuck, y’all? The mask says on. If we don’t all do it right, nobody is safe.
So, yeah, a large march both fed my soul & made me feel like I was actively participating in the Black Lives Matter movement—and scared the shit out of me. Cue the internal certainty I’m about to meet my ultimate demise because folks can’t wear a mask right.
And then, just for fun, my anxiety will grab on to every single thing I think I haven’t done right in, oh my entire life, and have a field day with it. And soon, I am petrified that I am in the midst of financial ruin (we’re not), that I’m going to lose the bookstore because I’m an idiot (I’m not), that my mistakes make me unredeemable and unworthy and just horrible (no, nope, nah).
The culmination? Waking up sweating, pinned to the bed in a panic, unable to feel my fingers.
Anxiety has been woven throughout my story since I was 8 years old. What does anxiety look like in an 8 year old? Begging to be able to order my own food at a restaurant (I wanted steak tips). Being met with sighs, insistence that I’d never be able to eat it all myself, that my mom and I should share food just like we had my entire life, that we’d be wasting money… and then getting my food and being seized with terror.
And not being able to eat a damn bite.
Fast forward to my second year of sobriety.
I’m 35 years old. Teaching First Year Writing at the University of South Florida–a job I adore. We’re trying to get pregnant. And every single day I’m seized with such anxiety I can barely breathe.
Not feeling my fingers was the least of my problems.
I often had to step out, mid-class (I was the teacher), just to breathe and talk myself into finishing the class. And I taught 4 or 5 classes–so this was a daily struggle. One class in particular stoked my anxiety to the point that I completely disassociated from my body. I’d feel myself receding, and suddenly it felt like someone else was talking, going through the motions, laughing with students.
I was gone.
I thought about quitting. Of course I did. It was emotionally wrenching just to make it through a day. But I also knew anxiety was a monster that wanted to take what was mine. And teaching was mine. I would not relenquish it. Period.
And so I fought through. With help from a good therapist. And Simon, who always nodded kindly when I explained my abject terror at… life. No matter how my anxiety manifested, he never got impatient. For several years, he knew where every single public restroom was in greater Tampa Bay. Because that was the only way I could manage to leave the house–if I knew I could find a public restroom in a flash.
Anxiety is weird.
But Simon never made me feel weird. To him, I was just a regular person dealing with this intense thing. I always felt like he saw my anxiety as separate from me. And, so, with his help, the therapist’s unwavering, gentle pushing at me to let go of all the bullshit I was holding on to, and little victories every day that I didn’t give in to my anxiety…
Well, it went away.
I know. That’s anticlimactic. As a storyteller, I want to give you this one big moment where I slayed the fire-breathing anxiety dragon.
But that’s not how it worked for me.
It was more like I wouldn’t play anxiety’s stupid, made-up games anymore, so it took it’s toys and went home in a huff.
Occasionally, it still rings the doorbell to see if I can come out and play. This time, though, it snuck in really quietly, so it could yell BOO! and try to frighten me out of going to the march.
But anxiety is just a bully. And the only way over is through.
So, I used my words to tell Simon I felt anxious. We went to the march anyway. I used my words to tell Simon I woke up so afraid I couldn’t feel my fingers. I got out of bed anyway. I did the things I always do: I had coffee, read, wrote. I left the house and delivered books… just life stuff.
And at some point, I took a deep breath and realized my anxiety was gone.
I know that, in part, its stay was short this time because I didn’t hold on to it, probe it, feed it, or give in to it. I just acknowledged it and let that shit go.
Meeting with a new therapist is a bit like going on a first date–exciting, full of potential but hella unnerving. I’ve always been hell-bent on impressing my therapists with my great insight and wisdom. Which can make for an awkward therapist first-date.
Typically, I wait until I’m dangling on the precipice of a dramatic, jagged emotional abyss before I make a therapy appointment. I always think–against all odds–I can get all bootstrappy and handle it (whatever it is) on my own.
This particular time, just over a decade ago, it was infertility, crippling anxiety, and the sheer terror of navigating the full human range of emotions totally sober. So, you know, at least I was bringing a lot of material to work with.
I like to be prepared.
But even then, with all pressure and pain making it difficult to even breathe, I spent the first therapy session trying to convince the new therapist that I was completely normal.
How do I know about my unconscious master-plan to convince her of my expert level normalcy? Because she told me. Gently. She was a soft-talker. A careful question asker. I thought her overly-conciliatory tone and her constant encouraging affirmations were going to drive me bananas. Instead, they gave me a soft place to land.
She saved me from myself.
And she started by unravelling this whole “normal” bit.
From the time I was 8 years old, I’d been convinced that I was a complete weirdo freak. And that no one would love me if they really knew me. And, also, that I was completely irredeemable.
This made for a super-fun inner voice. The life of the party, really.
But this woman patiently listened and pulled at threads that seemed like they were attached to a different psychic sweater entirely, and yet… by the end… that restricting, suffocating sweater of “normalcy” lay destroyed at my feet.
It was like magic. But it wasn’t. It was hard work that her unwavering kindness and belief that I deserved better–even when I didn’t agree with her–made possible.
She pops into my mind sometimes when I’m doing yoga.
It’s okay if that seems weird. I’m not really caught up on the normal thing anymore.
And it always happens when I’m doing a heart-opening pose.
Yoga has been part of my path on and off since the darkest days of my active alcoholism. It was my toe-hold for the long, winding journey of pulling myself out of that hell. Those first yoga poses I learned allowed me to reconnect spirit to body, after a 6 month blackout (those 6 months really are totally lost to me, except for fragments here and there. And those fragments, honestly, I’d rather forget).
What finally pushed me into making that first, awkward therapy appointment with Dr. Soft-Talker was a heart-opening pose. I was doing yoga alone in a room, eyes glued to a video (I hadn’t quite tamped down my perfectionistic tendencies at that point. Progress not perfection, y’all). The soothing, rhythmic voice moved me into a pose that pushed my chest forward. Show the world your heart, he suggested from the screen of my laptop.
I physically couldn’t do it. I could not push my chest forward. I could not show anyone anything. Because there was so much ugliness, so much I hated inside. The fear was absolutely breath-snatching.
I sat down and cried at the sheer hopelessness of it all.
I found myself in the therapist’s office just a little while later. Being awkward. Totally avoid showing her my heart at all costs. She found it anyway. She was pretty damn good at her job.
And now, when I do heart-opening poses, which are some of my favorites, I can feel the love (for myself, humanity, the universe) open me to all the magic and beauty and tenderness in the world. And I feel such deep gratitude to this woman who believed that normal was bullshit and that I deserved more.
It’s been a process. Just like getting sober, healing and living a big, beautiful authentic life is a journey. Sometimes I’m good at it. Sometimes not so much. But I hang on to the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I build on them. And I keep trying.