Normal-Shmormal

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.

HELL no.

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.

New day. New try.

Namaste, y’all.

Love Doesn’t Need That Mess

I sat cross-legged on the floor, near enough to the other kids to look like part of the group. But, while they fidgeted and whispered, my attention remained rapt. Other kids felt mysterious to me; I never really got what they wanted me to say or do. Like maybe other kids had some sort of instruction manual, but mine–even though it should only have taken 4-6 weeks for delivery–was lost forever & now I was just going to wing it.

So far, it wasn’t going particularly well.

But adults: I knew how to be in their presence, knew what the expected responses were. In short: adults were easier. So I paid more attention to them.

So, now I sat dutifully on the tightly woven carpet of a Sunday school classroom, staring up at our teacher. It was just kind of in my nature to be bizarrely well behaved (and also, my mother’d put the fear of God in me about misbehaving in church). But also, even though I was only 7 or so, the kind of church we attended had already started drilling down on the “getting saved” bit.

Fires of hell? No, thank you. I was sure gonna pay attention to how to avoid all that mess.

But now, suddenly, the teacher started talking about dreams and waking up in the middle of the night. My ears pricked forward. Because I couldn’t ever remember a time I didn’t wake up with my heart frozen in terror, my feet pounding the floor to my parents’ bedroom before I even registered my first real, waking thought.

Maybe I’d get some solid advice on how to not be scared. Because adults know things, right? Or at least at that point I thought they did. (Now I know better.) Adults always seemed to have some secret key to universal knowledge that would magically unlock all the answers and make the world make sense. I could not wait to be one of them. An adult with answers. That was my aspirational goal. At 7.

Although I can’t remember this part super clearly, I’m pretty sure the teacher opened this whole conversation with the “Satan is tricky” motif. Fair enough. A universal antagonist.

But in these stories, Satan was always trying to get in. Actively. Not in a dual nature, we all have good-and-evil inside, choose wisely sort of way. Like in a monster who breathes sulfur, who can morph and change and trick you, so you always have to be on guard to fight as a warrior for Christ sort of way.

Let’s just be clear: that’s some scary shit.

But this man is going to tell me how to keep Satan at bay. At least I hope so. Because now I’m really scared.

“If you ever wake up in the middle of the night,” he continues on (and this should sound like a ghost story, but for all the world it doesn’t. It sounds more like practical advice, like how to escape your house in the case of fire), “and you see a loved one who has died standing in your room (here I thought of my great-grandmother, because she was literally the only person I knew who’d died at that point) and that loved one calls to you, do not go to them. It may actually be a demon calling you to them. Satan will try to get at you whatever way he can. He’ll even use the memory of people you love who have died.”

What. the. actual. fuck?!?

For years afterward–years–I was afraid I’d wake up in the middle of the night to see the visage of my great-grandmother bathed in moonlight beckoning me to her. And what if I wasn’t strong enough to resist? What if I was lured to her and spent eternity with the fires of hell raging around me because I’d made a mistake?

That’s a damn big ‘what if’ for a kid to carry around.

Not until I was an adult did I see clearly that fear is simply a way to rule over and control people. Love, real love, has nothing to do with fear. Love doesn’t need that mess. Not at all.

I wish I could go back and tell that 7 year old that the Universe is full of love for her. That she can find all the peace she needs right inside her own heart. And that one day, she’ll have no idea what God is–not at all. And that not-knowing will feel like such a gift, full of possibility and light.

But I’ll settle for telling a little bit of her story. Because that’s healing in its own right, too.

Seriously. Just Let Go.

I’m a well-documented recovering control freak. I love nothing more than a well-worn pattern, a comfortable sense of expectation. Spontaneity? Sure, as long as it’s carefully planned.

Just BEING is something I’ve been trying to perfect for a while now. (See what I did there? Because being is about the moment… and you can’t perfect… You get it. Right?) It is the simplest concept. And I find it unbelievably difficult.

As always, Jane has been instructive in this endeavor. The kid gets so damn far ahead of herself. We’ll be watching a movie together (one of her most favorite things) and she’ll be all: “You know what think we should do next Thursday?”

What the actual hell?!

So we’re constantly reminding her to stay where her feet are. I tease her all the time that she’s terrible at being. But I’m super clear where she gets it from. And I know I need the reminder as much as she does.

My need to plan and to control is fed by a deep fear of letting go.

I thought about having Let Go tattooed on the inside of my forearm. That’s the extent of my suckage at this particular endeavor. I need a constant reminder that I literally cannot avoid.

I do not come from a people who readily embrace the life/death/life cycle in relationships, ideas, identity. One of the boogeymen in my childhood was the idea that some event (shadowy, scary, full of doom) would happen and things would never be the same. They’d be ruined.

It’s taken 44 years, but I’m finally bringing to truly embrace the idea that nothing is ever the same.

Everything is temporary.

This whole concept used to horrify me. It somehow undermines my sense of justice that even things that are “good” and “right” can shift, change, and die deaths that–even thought they might be painful–are the beginning of something new.

Not being able to let go–clutching ideas and identity so tightly they become wrung out, lifeless–seriously impedes my ability to see clearly. It sticks people (myself included) in itty bitty boxes where they either begin to shrivel or begin building a wall so that I can’t see that they’re quietly dismantling the box all together.

Holding on tightly to something that’s ready to die (perceptions, beliefs, relationships) doesn’t stop the death. A tiny death that’s meant to be is going to happen with or without my blessing. But holding on means being cut myself off from the living, thrumming life force that allows great change and growth. That promises possibility instead of decay.

But if I let go, what will be left?

What if letting go allows the Universe to unfurl great magic on my behalf? What it gives people room to wake up to the beauty inside themselves and show me the things they’ve secreted away until they were safe enough to create?

What if letting go allows life to BE?

(You know you were thinking it anyway.)

It’s Funny. And It’s Not.

When quarantine feels a little too weighty for me–when the stark gravity of living in a horror-filmesque world puts me right on the razor’s edge of true terror–I pause and think how much worse it would be if I was still drinking.

And it always makes me laugh.

Because holy mother of pearl, I was an absolute disaster. And my choices were–at best–highly questionable. The idea of trying to navigate a pandemic that calls for near social isolation, or at the very least not getting all up on people and actually wearing a mask on your face (not like dangling from an ear or around your neck), would’ve just been impossible.

Take my exuberance, strip it of all common sense, and there you have it: me, drunk.

You get a hug! And you get a hug! I don’t know you? Nevermind. Let’s hug!

All that’s assuming I ever made it out of the house. But more likely, it’d be circling in a wicked shame funnel over here: Drink too much. Text people ill-advised things I don’t remember. Be hungover. Despair. Rinse. Repeat.

If this sounds like a shitty coping mechanism, it was. And it’s only funny to me because it’s over. As a friend pointed out sometime during my first year of sobriety (which is hard y’all. So hard), I never have to be that person again.

When I see the memes and quips about drinking to deal with your kids (or your pets or your existential angst) during quarantine. I cringe. Because I know people are for real doing that. And when you’re in that place–of despair and addiction and shame–it seems like there’s nothing else to do. Coping, when you’ve been trying to avoid coping this whole time by doing the backstroke in a fish-bowl-sized margarita (one with Swedish Fish, of course), seems truly impossible.

So, no, quarantine doesn’t make me want to drink. When I quit, I scratched drinking off my menu of coping mechanisms (it was the only thing on the menu at the time, so that made things a little tricky). But I do often think about the things that made me want to drink. Because, while the pull toward oblivion via cocktail might not be there, the desire to skirt uncomfortable, troublesome emotion is very real.

But so is my resolution to work through that shit.

The driving emotion in my drinking was shame. On a deep, cellular level, I believed there was something so wrong with me, so broken & ugly, that if anyone ever saw it, they would reject me outright. I carried this feeling with me all. the. time. I could never be comfortable, because as soon as I allowed myself a deep breath, my inner critic (who is loud and fucking obnoxious) would start in on all the ways in which I was truly hideous.

I had a boyfriend and a best friend at the time. I couldn’t let either get close to me. I shook violently when he touched me and threw up when I even thought about being alone with her.

I was 16 years old. I felt totally alone. And crazy. And irredeemable.

Until I drank.

And then all that bullshit faded away. I drank to feel comforted. To feel whole. And to finally be able to connect with other people.

I drank for relief.

Sometimes, now, when I don’t want to get up in the fives to give myself time to do the psychic & spiritual work that keeps me sober, I think about that raw and broken 16 year old.

When I run up against a resentment I don’t want to let go, that I’d prefer to let fester so I can shore up my righteous indignation, I remember her.

It’s hard, remembering her. Just calling her to mind brings that burning shame to the center of my chest. And an intense desire to flee.

She still makes me cry.

But she also reminds me that there’s still work to be done. Hell, there’s always work to be done. And I honor her and her pain–and help her finally heal–by doing the work.

Even when it’s messy.

Especially when it’s messy.

High Horses

I’ve got a long history of martyrdom. Not in the heroic, up-in-flames kind, either. Nope. Just the kind that chooses misery and suffers (mostly) silently for it.

What the hell, right?

It’s a bit murky, even for me. But I think it goes something like this: If I choose to do something that I don’t want to do–that nigh on makes miserable–for the “good” of someone else, well that must be righteous suffering. And I’m like moth to the flame with righteousness (or moral superiority. Same same).

Bluntly: misery makes me feel good about myself.

Kind of.

But not really.

Because I’m still, well, miserable.

Obviously a conundrum.

My penchant for martyrdom isn’t a conscious choice. I don’t wake up and excitedly lay out my martyr outfit for the day. Sometimes it starts with something as simple as not speaking my mind…

I own a small indie bookstore that’s been closed to the public since March 15th. For the past 2 months, I’ve been a one-woman book delivery service. Which, truly, has brought me more happiness than I could’ve imagined. It’s allowed me to form relationships with some of my customers (through email, text, and carefully socially distanced chatting) that might have taken years to create otherwise. And the unmitigated joy that people show over a book left on their front porch… well, it gives me hope for the future of the store but also for the goodness and cohesiveness of Atlantans.

I recently had to put some limits on where I deliver books. Metro Atlanta covers a lot of territory. And it isn’t cost or time effective for me to drive 10 miles to deliver a book that sold for $6.50 (especially since I refuse to use the highway, which I swear is Satan’s playground, so that 10 miles can take at least half an hour to cover). So, I set a 6 mile rule. Free delivery within 6 miles of the store.

I swear, the day after I established said rule, I got an order from just outside the 6 mile radius. Like 6.6 miles. I sighed a little bit. But instead of reaching out, I was going to hop on my little martyr horse and ride out to deliver the books. I didn’t want to. I felt resentful. But I was going to do it anyway. And not because I thought she’d cancel the order if I didn’t deliver them. But because I’d be doing her “good,” even if she didn’t realize it. Even if there was really no need.

Then I saw a note on the order, which clearly indicated that she’d be happy to come fetch the books.

And still I wavered. I could just take them to her, I sighed inwardly. (Foot in the stirrup.) It really wasn’t that big of a deal. (Horse mounted.) I was just taking up the reins when my email dinged.

And there she was again, telling me that she’d be happy to come get the books.

This time, I clearly saw the Universe nudging me toward a more fulfilling (less emotionally, shall we say, trying…) career that was more bookseller, less martyr.

So I agreed. I let her come get the books.

And the world did not end. I did not feel morally inferior because I’d let this chance for (unsubstantiated) righteousness slip away.

I felt relieved. And seen. And respected. Because I’d chosen to be honest about what I wanted and needed.

If you’re thinking “Wait. This is the end of the story? That’s IT?!?”, well then perhaps you’ve not encountered the seductiveness of climbing up on your high horse and riding off to save the day (when it didn’t need saving at all). And that’s okay. We’ve all got our thing.

But, for me, seeing this pattern and choosing something different–that’s huge. And as my high horse grazes in happier pastures, I think we’ll both be better off for the insight.

Wolfy Wisdom: Home

If there is but one force which feeds the root of pain, it is the refusal to learn beyond this moment.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves

I left Florida because I couldn’t live my life on cruise control anymore. Yeah yeah. I know: palm trees and beachy breezes. But, enticing as they are, they’re a poor substitute for really living–which requires guts, grit, and a healthy dose of openness and vulnerability.

Suburban Florida life was never the dream. But, when you’re simply putting one foot in front of the other, even if the path is beautiful, it doesn’t leave a lot of space for dream discovery. And when you don’t have dreams of your own, it’s pretty easy to fall into co-opting someone else’s, just so you have something that you can (erroneously) call your own.

For most of my 20s, my life closely resembled a train wreck. But, once I hit my 30s, bit by bit I began to piece myself, and my life, together: I got sober; Simon & I finally had that baby we’d been trying for; we found the perfect house in a beautiful neighborhood; I started ever-so-slowly writing things and putting them into the world; Simon transitioned and began living into the big, amazing life he was always meant to have.

So far, so good.

All of these things were unfolding in real-time around me. Which didn’t leave a lot of time or energy for deeper dreams. And plus, the scenery (physical & psychic) was a beautiful diversion.

Then, as the endless barrage of a decade of change began to settle, I started to sense it: the uncomfortable emptiness. I had all these beautiful things, a life I’d built piece by piece, against some pretty damn serious odds. And yet.

The ache let me know: something was missing.

If you’d asked me, I could have calmly told you what I thought was missing. But intellectual knowing isn’t the same as soul-knowing. At least for me. Just wrapping my head around something wasn’t enough to compel me into action. But, the soul has a way of finally making itself heard.

My way looked a lot like sobbing in bed in the middle of the night. And I finally had the words: I am living someone else’s dream for my life.

Once you know a truth like that, you can’t unknow it.

People look at me a bit askance when I tell them that the dream–absolutely, without question–is Atlanta, Georgia. Being here. Living here. Making a big, beautiful–sometimes messy, always true & real–life in this city.

But when you are called to something, it’s best not to try to ignore it. Because it is going to keep calling, relentlessly, until you answer.

Atlanta has called me since I was 19 years old. And it’s the call of home, y’all. I belong here like I have never belonged any place else.

It took me 21 years to make my way here. And I am so filled with gratitude to finally, finally be home that the right view of the skyline or the riot of flowers blooming in the spring (that I’m hella allergic to) still make me tear up. And that’s the god’s honest truth.

Taking a chance on this dream–just finally picking up and moving— launched me into this open space full of possibility. Honoring one of my deepest desires gave me the courage to trust myself in ways I hadn’t even fathomed.

I’ve found the space here to learn beyond this moment. To ask hard questions. To wrestle with uncomfortable truths. To take risks. To be vulnerable and open.

It’s a scarier way to live. There no numbing out. And sometimes the lessons are hard. And there’s virtually nowhere to shove the psychic clutter. But the reward is being really alive.

And it’s terrifying, beautiful, raw, and glorious. It’s home.

Whatever I Want. Gosh.

I’ve run into an odd phenomenon. Maybe it’s best illustrated by a quick little graphic:

Huh.

Well then.

To carve out space to read, write, and meditate, I wake up at 5:30 am. So I can get these these things done before the “real” day starts at 8. And, no, I don’t feel guilting doing these things in the hours before the family chaos ensues at 8am. But anything that doesn’t get done before 8 gets bumped from the schedule. Which means I’m constantly picking and choosing from the very things that de-zombify my soul to make room for the more mundane stuff: walking the dog, fielding 101 questions about Caboodles for make-up storage (it’s the 9 year old’s latest obsession), or answering emails/setting up appointments/et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Lately it’s meditation that’s the loser in the time war. Which is stupid as hell. And I know it. Meditation is the long game for me, where I process what I read, feel, experience. And yet. If it doesn’t happen before 8, well I couldn’t possibly take 15 minutes (!!!) after the day starts.

And then there’s yoga. I do yoga with my kid. It’s time she looks forward to every day. But I still feel that tug when I get on the mat to think about all the other things I should be doing that fall into the “accomplish shit & take over the world” category. But, if I took time to meditate, I’d feel guilty I wasn’t spending time with the kid. So, even when I’m accomplishing a (very important!) thing on my list, like spending time with my sweet kid, I still feel like it’s frivolous time if I enjoy it too much? That is BANANAS. And yet.

Running most consistently gets a chunk of my time (even after 8 am), but mainly because–after over a decade together–Simon gently nudges (aka insists) I go for a run so that he doesn’t have to deal with the emotional chaos that I bring to the table if my mind doesn’t have the opportunity to calm the hell down on a run. But, if the schedule gets tight… you guessed it: I’ll skip the run in favor of being able to check a task off at the end of the day.

Reading brings me the most pure, unmitigated joy. And, fortunately for me, reading is required for my chosen work. Hard to sell books if I’m not (relatively) well versed in them. But still, if I spend an hour or so reading the first thing I think when I pop back out of the story is all the things that didn’t get done during that hour.

Simon, on the other hand, has not a single hesitancy to engross himself in projects and activities he gets excited (or fixated. Whatever) on. And, if I’m being real honest, I resent the hell out of him for it.

But he certainly isn’t the one making me feel guilty when I do things I enjoy.

The fact is that I’m the one devaluing them. But where does that voice come from that tells me that the things I want to do–need to do–to feel healthy and whole, aren’t valuable? Why does my day so quickly become a checklist, especially right now? We’re still quarantining. But that pull is still there to do, accomplish. But it’s like it’s someone else’s agenda that I’m focused on.

At the end of the day, I measure my worth by items checked off my to-do list. Like I can bring what I’ve accomplished before the Universe and it will deem me worthy. But what I’m constantly de-valuing are the activities that bring balance, wisdom, compassion, and connectedness to my world. And those are the things I really value.

Maybe it’s time for me to fire my cosmic judge and just do and be in a way that brings me joy, wholeness, and peace.

My guess is that cosmic judges don’t take kindly go being summarily dismissed. We’ll see how it goes…