Getting Lost

“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you? […] That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.” –Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Some time ago, within this past year, I was asked to lead an A.A. meeting. I’ve led several before, and after, but at the time I was deep in reading this book by Rebecca Solnit, and wanted to focus on something more immediate and personal with the meeting than whatever reference to The Big Book I could muster. I used A.A. literature as a platform, but jumped off at some point in making reference to this quotation, using it to relate to where I was at at the time.

I wasn’t “lost” in the sense that I was losing myself to addiction, and wasn’t sure about how to proceed in recovery, but I was lost in that I had never been to where I was before. I was in new territory, exploring ground which was completely foreign to me. I was in the unknown place of being healthy, productive, and stable, and not being sure of what to do with any of that. Lost in recovery.

Several people came up to me after the meeting, consoling me as if I had just told them I was suicidal. I guess I didn’t do a good enough job in explaining what it was I was trying to communicate.

There’s a different feeling to that quote today, though, as what sits with me is a recognition of how much now calls to go back to the safety of the harbor, rather than once again push off into the sea of the unknown. It calls to me, that “safety,” the allure of the known entity, no matter how little I actually want that sort of “stillness” in my life. It’s a safety I can do without. But how do “you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” You let go. Damn, there’s a lot of resistance to that some days.

Imperfection in Recovery

“Never in our lives, long before we had a drink, were we able to settle for status quo. Nothing that was normal ever merited our attention for more than a split second. If it wasn’t better than normal, we didn’t like it. And that’s before we ever had a drink. So, we had better jolly well grasp and develop, because a happy sobriety will turn into a drunk unless we develop.” —Chuck C., A New Pair of Glasses
I know that voice. The one that says it’s never enough. Only, it’s not a voice — it’s a hum. It’s a feeling. It’s a reverberation that rings heavier with each echo. It is words, it is tension, it is desire. And there’s a gravity to it. But that gravity’s conditional: It gains strength only when leaned in to.

I can lean in — believing the status quo isn’t worth settling for, the moment is flawed, the results aren’t coming fast enough, the potential for change is limited — and by feeding that voice of what it wants, that gravity gains in force. That feeling becomes an obsession. The options for escape become limited. The discomfort, if I can call it that, becomes something that needs to be turned off by something outside of myself.

Or I can lean out — believing the current state of affairs isn’t that bad, the results are coming as fast as they can, the potential for change is evolving — and by starving that voice of what it wants, that gravity loses force. That feeling of obsession drifts. The options for escape become vast. The discomfort, if you can call it that, becomes absorbed by something greater than myself.

It used to be that if the voice got too loud and the moment got too heavy, the best way to turn it off was to drink. To drink heavily. To drink when I woke up, and continue drinking until I was no longer awake. Because drinking to a point of oblivion made me feel better than normal in both times of success and times of failure alike. It made me feel above average even while life was anything but. But that doesn’t happen now. And that hasn’t happened for a long time. And it all began when a friend helped me lean out when I couldn’t do so by myself. Then, with the help of more friends, I was able to lean harder. I didn’t think leaning out like this was possible, or that I’d even ever want to. But here we are.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still know what that voice sounds like. I know, because that voice continues to exist within me. The voice that says nothing is ever enough. That’s the insidious nature of this thing: It always seems like it’s gone forever… until it isn’t.

Sometimes I lean in. When I do, it isn’t for long, because a puzzling side effect of knowing better seems to be doing better. And recovery is teaching me the knowing better part. It’s teaching me to take positive action when I need to inspire positive thoughts, and rely on others when I feel like I should go it alone. And in doing so, the occasions which prompt me to feel like I can do nothing else but lean in seem to come at far more infrequent intervals than they used to. But they still happen. Because I’m not perfect. I’m human. And my recovery is a human recovery. The wonderful thing is, I’m starting to learn that means it’s enough.

Courage and Self-Kindness

“Knowledge is important, but only if we’re being kind and gentle with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.” —BrenĂ© Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
While an undertaking the likes of making a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” brings with it a tremendous potential for self-knowledge, participating in such a thorough appraisal also tends to encourage an influx of guilt and self-loathing. And if reflecting on past misconducts is proven to produce any consistent feeling in those who venture such a path, that feeling is shame.

This isn’t specific to a single step, but so much of working through A.A.’s framework has to deal with developing a sense of forgiveness of oneself. If I could have truly absorbed the ways of kindness and self-love by reading about them on my own, those lessons would have sunken in years ago. But such is the case that it took working with another person to begin the process of learning how to be gentle and kind to myself.

Working with a sponsor in this way helped me put a lifetime of resentments and fears aside long enough to see that underneath them all was a person who was just trying to do their best. The principle behind Step Four is recognized as courage for numerous reasons, but one that sticks out to me deals with the courage it takes to open your heart to self-forgiveness. That takes courage because once the seal on self-kindness has been cracked, it’s hard not to start seeing the world through a similar lens. And for anyone who has gotten used to the cold and lonely spiral of addiction, letting go of self-hatred can be truly terrifying.

Resisting Gravity

“Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful. […] What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well.” —Alcoholics Anonymous
It seems like such a laughable concept, resisting gravity. But how many time a day do I try to do just that? The laws of the universe aren’t as malleable as my place in it, yet from time to time I tend to get that confused.

How Life Should Be

“Egocentricity is having a better idea about how this moment should be. […] Ego talks in terms of ‘This is right… This is wrong… I have to do this… A person must…” — phrases like that. When we are listening to egocentricity we have the feeling that we know beyond doubt how we should be operating and how life should be.” —Cheri Huber, That Which You Are Seeking is Causing You to Seek
A therapist once told me that if we start ‘should’-ing everywhere, eventually we’ll should all over ourselves.

Every single day at some point in time should returns, steadfast with its reminder of the way things aren’t. The thing is, how life should be will never compare to how life is because should is a trap. And as long as the voice of should is fed, now will never compare to what could be, friends will never be friendly enough, work will always be too much work, and I will never hold a candle to what “living up to my potential” might look like. But should doesn’t exist anywhere but in the mind. Whatever this is though, right here and now, actually does. And that’s OK, even though should would never agree to as much. Should is a feeling of scarcity, self-doubt, and fear. Should measures the value of life relative only to my place in it. Should isn’t aspirational and should certainly isn’t certainly constructive. Should is only a saboteur.

Restoration vs. Renovation

I heard someone comment on an interesting distinction last night, noting the difference between a renovation and a restoration. The latter is a reclamation of a past state, a return to its former self, and a way to make new again, while a renovation is really just the process of fixing something up. In a renovation, we're probably not going to outfit the project with top of the line materials, or ensure that the work is always done with precision and care — the goal is to simply get things looking better. With a restoration though, we're going deep. We're stripping away years of build-up and refining the foundation, rejuvenating it, and bringing what once was back to life.

In looking back, for a very long time I've gone about healing by way of renovation. Where things were broken, surface-level repairs were made in my life that afforded the appearance of improvement. The goal was to look passable to the outside world. The aim now is a deeper transformation, a reinstatement of self. A thorough restoration. Recovery.

Addiction Creates Suffering

"Suffering is the stress created by craving for more. Suffering is never having enough to feel satisfied. [...] Suffering is the thought that I cannot be happy until I get... Suffering is the anguish and misery of being addicted." —Noah Levine, Refuge Recovery
With each return to addictive behavior there's an implicit denial of self acceptance, which boils down to some type of self-rejection. It's hard to think that the habits that lead us to those places weren't always there. Things didn't always work like this, and we didn't always flail, reaching for something external to satisfy some underlying internal feeling of incompleteness. In part, that's what recovery is: A reclamation of what once was — that feeling of being whole which has been drowned out by a constant craving for more.

Numb the Good, Numb the Bad, Numb the Ugly

"We don't want to feel the hurt anymore. And so we numb it. And we numb it with everything you can imagine. But what happens when you numb the hurt and you numb the grief, is you numb the joy and you numb the light. You cannot selectively numb affect." —BrenĂ© Brown, Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice
One of the best parts of an addiction-riddled mind and body sobering up is that, in their return to health — their recovery, their ability to feel feelings is restored. One of the scariest and most painful parts of an addiction-riddled mind and body sobering comes in the reality of what it feels like to actually feel those feelings.

The Elephant and Being

"Becoming becomes a denial of being." —Bruce Lee
A few weeks back on a trip to New York, I was explaining my elephant tattoo to a new friend. It's not always easy to articulate ideas that have rattled around in your head for a long time, and admittedly I probably did a poor job at explaining the aim of it. For clarity's sake, the idea here is based off a passage from Leo Babauta's The Power of Less,
“Choosing the essential is the key to simplifying — you have to choose the essential before you simplify, or you’re just cutting things out without ensuring that you’re keeping important things. 
How do you know what’s essential? That’s the key question. Once you know that, the rest is easy. 
Once you know what’s essential, you can reduce your projects, your tasks, your stream of incoming information, your commitments, your clutter. You just have to eliminate everything that’s not essential. 
It’s like the old joke: how do you carve a statue of an elephant? Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. Well, first you have to know what an elephant looks like.”
Several years ago when I first read that, it coincided with a time in my life where I was ripe for leaving things behind. I had moved on from my job, said goodbye to friends, and was heading back to Canada to start fresh in a return to my hometown. What I was really doing, though, was bailing on my work, abandoning friends, and fleeing a city with the hope that old habits wouldn't migrate with me to new surroundings. Either way, I was "cutting things out" in the name of essentialism, while entirely missing the point of what that's all about.

In explaining the story of how this translates to a tattoo, I might have focused too much on the idea that there was some sense of further action required (more chipping away yet to be accomplished) before that sense who I was could really be felt. Rightly so, the new friend challenged it and asked why I couldn't just be? Why was there such a drive to eliminate and refine in an attempt to discover what's already present?

I remember the feeling in that moment. Something clenched up in me because I felt like I was wrong: Why hadn't I thought of that in the eight years I've been considering getting this tattoo?!?! I felt embarrassed and tried to back-peddle to an explanation of what I meant, but no one cared as much as I did and discussion rightly moved forward.
"The problem with the Western approach is that it attempts to explain life, as opposed to revealing how to experience it. [...] If the goal of dancing were to reach a certain spot on the floor, then obviously the fastest dancer would be the best. The point of dancing is the dance itself. And so it is with life." —The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee
Maybe what's impacted me most, since then, about that feeling is the realization of how true that idea is: I really don't spend enough time be-ing.

To me, the elephant has come to represent the process of becoming. The most difficult part in explaining that to someone who hasn't struggled with addiction, though, is communicating just how strong the desire is to shed its heavy burden. To change, really. The elephant signifies growth, both the nurturing and development of what I truly want out of life, as well as the stripping away or elimination of that which isn't. But in all of that constant "doing," what might be most essential of all here is being present and aware while the shape of that statue continues to find its form.

Believed to Be Seen

Believed to Be Seen is a writing project I published in February of 2013, when I was twenty-nine. At that time, I surmised its aim to be that of documenting “my evolving experience with the American addiction treatment industry, and how I finally found my way out of its maze.” The obvious angst of that statement might speak to where I was at in my own recovery at the time: I was frustrated; I was searching for an identity; I was rejecting my past; and I was rejecting “the system.” In essence, I used it as a means of researching my way sober.

When writing of my experience, at that time, the extent of my exposure with Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps was reading The Big Book and reaching the "second step" before parting ways with my short lived “sponsor.” I still hold many of the positions explained in Believed to Be Seen (I still struggle with the “disease concept of alcoholism,” self-admission of being an “alcoholic,” and a relationship with a “higher power,” just to name a few) but have now “worked” the steps all the way through. This time I did so with a new sponsor, who has since become like a brother to me. I've also paid that service forward by walking someone else through the Twelve Steps as they were taught to me. I recognized, and wrote of, the value of working with others to get sober at the time of writing the book, but still neglected to take advantage of that, myself. In doing so I missed out on some of the potential for real connection which lies at the heart of A.A.’s “Program.”

Certainly, after its release, I became confused about what the unforeseen consequences might be related to sharing “my story” online in that way. I was fearful about whether it would show up on an employer’s background check, or what others might think of me if it showed up in a Google search for my name. So I deleted it and removed it (where I could) from the online outlets where it'd been published. Around that same time, though largely unrelated to that decision, came a move to drink again. I was sober for nearly two years at that point in time and what followed was a year of mayhem which nearly led to my end.

In hindsight, my intention behind the book feels flawed. I used it as a means of defending why it was I thought I didn’t need anyone’s help getting sober rather than what it could have been: An outreached hand extended to others who also need help. I regret that decision, but recognize that's what I needed to do at the time to get where I'm at. And in this space I hope there's value in sharing it now. I wrote my way into sobriety only follow that up by nearly drinking myself to death. Looking back, I feel like that happened because I tried to recover on my own. I couldn’t. I still can't. And if anyone who reads this is struggling with that same challenge, please reach out.

Prologue: Letting Go
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity
Chapter Five: All or Nothing
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A.
Chapter Seven: Adaptation
Chapter Eight: Clarity