Since moving into our lush lake community ten years ago, I’ve had to dial down my skittishness toward bugs and other creatures. We share our wooded neighborhood with all kinds of wildlife, and slowly I’ve grown more comfortable with walking through spiderwebs and dodging flying insects that look downright prehistoric.
But lately the snakes have been out and about. First there was a snake in our back yard, and then one in the front yard. One day, I couldn’t walk down the stairs from our deck because a large black snake was slithering its way up the steps!
A week ago, my husband emerged from the basement and informed me that he had seen a snake in the storage room.
It’s one thing to be forced to give a snake a wide berth in the great outdoors, but the thought of one slinking around inside our house made me shiver.
“Well,” I announced, “I guess I’ll never go in that storage room again.”
Throughout the following days, I pondered my predicament. Staying out of that room forever was not a practical solution. We could ask the local wildlife wrangler to remove the snake, but it had already disappeared by the time my husband went back down a few minutes later.
We started jokingly referring to “snakey” and wondering where it might be. This helped bring some levity to the matter. Might it be possible to conquer my fear after all?
I’ve been working on my emotional growth over the last five years, so I have some insight into the challenge of personal change.
Like many humans, I’ve developed stories about myself and the world. These stories started in childhood and center around my insecurities and fears. My brain repeats them as a way to keep me safe from scary things.
I’m too chicken to do that.
I’m jumpy and high-strung.
I’d never try anything like that.
I’m anxious and paranoid.
This is just who I am.
Does leaving such stories intact grant them too much power? Can they be replaced?
I’m not a big fan of the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy. I don’t think the most effective way to change is to tell yourself something that your mind knows is not true.
What’s worked for me with other long-held beliefs, has been a more gradual process of: 1) trying to understand why I adopted a certain story; 2) questioning its ongoing usefulness; and 3) imagining how my thought patterns might evolve.
With the snake, this looks something like:
As a kid, my family life often felt beyond my control, and I transferred that fear to other things that threatened my sense of security, like bugs, snakes, and other creepy crawlers.
Does continuing to subscribe to this mindset serve me now? Not really.
I believe it is possible for me to be careful around potentially dangerous snakes without getting so distressed that it negatively impacts my life.
Thus, when I needed to go down to that storage room yesterday because my husband was otherwise occupied, I did so. I banged on the door before opening it and announced loudly to any snakes that I was entering the room. I kept my eyes peeled, did what I needed to do, and exited quickly and calmly. I even went in there again later in the day.
I think we can rewrite our stories. We can change assumptions about ourselves that feel fundamental to our identity. Now, don’t expect me to go adopting a snake anytime soon. But if I can tame this fear even just a little bit, it will help the next fright seem far less menacing.
About a month ago I was driving around one morning running errands for my book signing that evening. (In case you haven’t heard, I’ve written and self-published a book!)
My heart was racing in anticipation of a gathering centered around me and my memoir. I was anxious about speaking in front of a group, and imposter syndrome was rearing its ugly head.
My brain said to me, “I’ll be so glad when this is all over.”
What the heck?! Why did I want this special moment to be behind me?
Adrenaline was flowing through my bloodstream, but there was no need to allow this physical reaction to steal my joy. I was not in any actual danger, and I needed to send my body this message. I also needed to interrupt the negative script running through my head.
I took a deep breath and talked back to myself: “Lisa, you deserve to enjoy this celebration of your achievement. You worked hard on that book. Savor this day!”
I kept breathing and telling myself that I was going to be okay. This event, even if it didn’t go perfectly (because how could it?), would be a learning experience and a critical step in my progress as an author.
Long before this landmark occasion, I used to dream of fast-forwarding through life. Even fun activities often felt like tasks to be checked off of my never-ending internal To Do list. I fantasized about reaching a point where nothing more was expected of me, and I could relax without anything hanging over my head.
The problem with that attitude is: a) no such moment exists, and b) I was literally wishing away half my life.
Over the past five years, I realized that I was in charge of creating the unburdened moments that I craved. I had to practice doing exactly what I did in the car that morning of my book signing—taking deep breaths to calm my nervous system and replacing my defeatist thoughts with more supportive ones.
Life doesn’t have a skip function. Nor should it! The only way we figure out how to get through a scary or difficult moment is to do just that: get through it. These challenges teach us all kinds of truths about ourselves, others, and the world—truths that are only unlocked by plowing forward.
Since I love a good analogy, here’s a quick one: I take indoor cycling classes, and I am usually the slowest person in the class (I know this because we receive an email at the end of each class with our ranking). I don’t let this bother me because I’m getting exercise and pushing my own personal limits in the process.
Each time I start riding and the instructor tells us what our RPM (revolutions per minute) should be, I’m at the very low end of that range. Like if I was riding a real bike, I would probably fall off! I struggle to get up to speed, and every time I think to myself, “Why am I so dang slow?!”
As the class continues, we are urged to ride faster and faster, and then we slow down briefly to recover, and then we pick up speed again. By the end of class, it’s no longer a battle to ride at that minimum speed that was so hard to achieve at the beginning of class.
I learn this little lesson at every spin class: The hard parts of life make us stronger, and before we know it, what was once intimidating seems so much easier.
That night of the book signing, I managed to relish the moment, and I came out the other end more confident and with a story to share.
Today I am celebrating five years of sobriety. Six years ago, if you had told me I would one day use the words “sobriety” and “celebrating” in the same sentence, I’d have laughed out loud.
But a quiet part deep inside me would have been elated to learn that change was possible. Part of me had been hoping I would eventually find the courage, strength, and determination to give alcohol the boot.
Drinking was a big part of my life from the age of sixteen. I couldn’t imagine going out to dinner, starting the weekend, or marking an important occasion without an adult beverage. Feeling happy? Have a drink (or two). Feeling sad? Have a drink (or two). Stressed out? Have a drink (or two). Kinda bored? Have a drink (or two). And once I had a couple glasses of wine in me, it was likely that many more would follow. I didn’t do this every night. But I did do it often enough. Consistently. For decades.
When I finally decided to quit, it wasn’t a life or death matter. But it was a quality of life issue. For what seemed like ages, I had been running the cost-benefit analysis of drinking in my head, and the trend was not headed in a good direction.
I wanted to write. I wanted to be more active. I wanted to try new and interesting things. But I was most certainly not doing any of this.
So, on May 12, 2017, I decided I had had enough. It was time to give sobriety a try.
At first, I concentrated on resisting the cravings, and I gritted my teeth when everyone else was getting buzzed and I was consumed with FOMO. I paid attention to my triggers and slowly dismantled them one by one. (A completely unexpected trigger still pops up from time to time!)
As the years went on, the journey became less and less about drinking. Removing alcohol from my life was like discovering a door to a whole new wing of my psyche. I uncovered other coping mechanisms that I was using to soften the edges or distract me in the short term—fixations such as TV, social media, and shopping that did not produce positive results in the long term.
Sobriety ended up being about so much more than declining to put a substance in my body. It was and is about emotional growth, building skills that last, and developing hard-earned confidence. At last, I was able to focus more productively on my anxiety, fear of death, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. All the stuff I thought alcohol was offering me—I had to learn how to give those things to myself.
And I kept the promise I made to myself: I committed to my writing. I ended up writing and self-publishing a book about my experience, in which I explored the patterns and stories that had kept me idling in place for so long. I tried all kinds of new things, including meditation, Pilates, aerial yoga, spin class, zip-lining, flotation therapy, paddle boarding, pole dancing, indoor rock climbing, and much more. I still do several of these activities regularly.
Not everything I tried to do was a success. The drum lessons I took at the beginning of my sobriety came to a quick end. My husband and I pursued two small business ideas—I even attended a six-month course related to one of these ideas—neither of which panned out. I started to build an online course in habit-shifting that I thought had real potential, but it was too much to take on at the same time as writing and editing my book. I did end up sharing it on this blog—and who knows, maybe one day I will get back to it.
The gift (there’s another word I didn’t think I would ever use in this context!), the gift of sobriety has been the ongoing process of unearthing who I am. “Coming into your own” is a phrase I never fully appreciated. But now I can tell you that it feels like bursting forth from a long dormancy, like opening up and reaching toward the sky.
Have you ever been the recipient of unsolicited advice? Some of the circumstances that can trigger an influx of helpful suggestions include: having a baby, buying a house or a car, trying to lose weight and/or eat healthier and/or get in shape, making home improvements, suffering a lingering illness or injury, experiencing a legal challenge. People have lots of opinions on what are the right and wrong things to do in such situations.
Some of these people know what they’re talking about, and some do not. The overwhelming majority of them mean well. They really do.
A month ago, I self-published my first book. I’ve been very public about this on social media, so I have effectively invited folks to weigh in on how I should successfully market my book.
As someone who has struggled with self-doubt and anxiety pretty much my entire life, it can be difficult to absorb these recommendations while maintaining a positive frame of mind.
My brain hears a tip that had not occurred to me, and it immediately thinks:
Does this person think I’m in desperate need of help?
Do I appear to be floundering?
Why didn’t I think of that idea?
Does the fact that I’m not already doing it make me look stupid?
Do I have the time to tackle this task?
What if I don’t have the energy or desire to do it?
Ugh, how am I ever going to do everything I need to do?!
I’ve noticed that when my brain goes into this panic mode, I feel obliged to make explanations. I want to assure the advice-giver (and my own ego, if I’m being honest) that I really am being thoughtful about my choices. Inside, my mind is screaming: What about all the things I am doing, aren’t they good enough?!
This natural defensiveness is a sign that we are unsure of ourselves. And that’s ok. Doing something for the first, second, or even third time can be scary. You don’t have a lot of experience, so you’re learning as you go. Making mistakes is a given—it’s one of the most powerful ways of learning.
But it’s critical to remember that we don’t owe anyone anything. We can reject or “park” unsolicited ideas with no explanation. I’m quite certain that most people are fine with throwing out their advice and then moving on with their lives. We do not need to report back to them like they’re our boss. Well, unless you follow their advice and it works magic—you might want to tell them in that case.
When you have a lot on your shoulders, like a new baby or a new book, it’s ok to follow your instincts and to move at your own pace. We don’t all have the same energy or capacity levels. We don’t need to justify our decisions to others.
After that defensiveness subsides, and perhaps our time opens up a bit, we can always revisit that unexpected idea. I’ve found that days or weeks later, an idea that felt impossible at first starts to look like a possibility after all.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me at work over the years. I’ve pooh-poohed an idea in the moment only to warm up it to later. I guess my ego just needed an adjustment period.
We all want to feel competent, capable, and knowledgeable. That’s part of the reason we hand out advice, and its why we sometimes chafe at it. Realizing that we all share this need makes me more accepting of everyone’s good advice.
Learn more about my new book, My Unfurling, on my website or head straight to Amazon and order your copy now.
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.”
You’ve probably heard someone say this. Maybe it’s one of your own favorite expressions. I’ve heard it used in the workplace more than once as rationale for forging ahead with an idea that might otherwise fail to get the green light.
As someone who can catastrophize with the best of them, I am not inclined to follow this advice. My mind is skilled at imagining a million ways for something to go wrong, so waiting to find out if I need to seek forgiveness does not sound appealing to me. At all.
I am currently at the tail end of the process of writing, editing, and self-publishing my first book—a memoir that covers multiple decades of my life. My book includes many stories from my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood that involve friends, family members, and love interests. To protect people’s privacy, I changed the names of everyone portrayed in the book, as well as some locations and identifying details.
All the same, I reached out to a number of people to give them a heads up that they appear in the book. The folks who got the most ink were first on my list. As the editing wore on, I continued to reach out to additional people who play smaller but still pivotal roles in the book.
With a release date of March 31, last week was pretty much my final chance to give these folks advance notice. As I typed out messages to this final round of people and hit send, my stomach was in knots and my heart was thumping. What was I doing?
Was I truly being considerate of these people’s feelings? Or was I following my long-established pattern of people-pleasing? Or…was I creating an anxious situation for myself because I’m a stress addict?
It’s probably all three. And maybe even a few impulses I haven’t uncovered yet.
Growing up, I was taught to be kind and compassionate. I often thought about what life was life for others and what emotions they might be experiencing. I didn’t want anyone to be unhappy or sad. I didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced or unnecessarily challenged. Especially those close to me.
I also absorbed the lesson that being a good girl meant being polite and accommodating. The idea that someone might ever get mad at me was terrifying. What did it mean if someone disliked me? Was it a sign that I was a bad person? Was I going to hell?
Furthermore, from an early age, I developed an attachment to my anxiety. Angst and uncertainty felt like home. A fretful state of mind became so familiar that I started creating added stress for myself.
So, yeah, I think all three of these motivations were at work last week. There I was, at a point when I could start focusing on proudly celebrating the end result that is my book. But I still couldn’t resist tossing in a last-minute test of my fortitude.
Or maybe, just maybe, a part of me knew that something good might arise from doing this difficult thing. Because it did. I reconnected with a friend I haven’t communicated with in decades. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I think even our most confounding instincts can have positive results. Not always, of course. Sometimes when we ask for permission or forgiveness, it doesn’t go well. And in those cases, all we can do is try to be understanding and to learn from the experience. And try to do better next time.
In my last blog post, I proposed that life is like a card game. I used this analogy to separate the things in life that we can’t control from the things that we can.
Briefly: We cannot control when or where or to whom we are born—those are the cards we’re dealt. Society’s laws and conventions are outside of our control as well—these are the rules of the game. With time and collaborative effort any set of rules can be changed, but we are subject to the existing regulations until and unless we can rewrite them. In the meantime, we can make a multitude of changes every day in our own lives—that is the skill and mindset we bring to playing the game.
So, please humor me because I’m about to add another metaphor to the mix…
What if life is also like a lopsided tennis match? (Or pickleball for you picklers.) Each of us is on one side of the net, and the entire world is on the other side, hitting a barrage of balls straight at us from all angles.
These tennis balls represent all the many events and influences we have to contend with starting at a young age:
A mother struggling with mental health issues
An absent or detached father
A learning disability that emerges in childhood
A hurricane damaging our home
A bully at school
A lengthy illness
A parent losing a job
A traumatic car accident
An unexpected death in the family
A violent stranger
An inhumane law or practice
A family member, friend, or neighbor might step in to help with hitting these balls, but most of the time we feel as if we’re on our own.
As a kid, I experienced some of the things listed above. I tried hitting back these balls as best I could. But I was flailing about because I lacked the proper technique. And even if I had developed the appropriate skills early on, a flurry of balls was coming at me fast and furious.
So, as I hit the balls back, the strokes I used were avoidance, distraction, anger, numbing, and procrastination. The mindset I brought to the game often included defensiveness, jealousy, self-pity, and fear.
I believe that our society poorly prepares children for dealing with life’s ups and particularly its downs. We shove our kids out onto the court with a racket and tell them to have at it. Oh, and try not to be a whiner—you’re not the only one playing this exhausting game, you know.
In place of more productive skills, we utilize alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, screens, gambling, lies, stealing, manipulative behavior, and so on. These tactics are like swinging wildly at the torrent of tennis balls. We do make contact with some of them, thereby protecting ourselves from getting hit by every single ball. But swinging wildly is not a long-term solution.
In middle age, I realized that I am responsible for building the skills that can help me play the game of life more effectively. I have since tried meditation, exercise, time spent in nature, journaling, learning, human connection, self-coaching, habit shifting, and more. These types of methods take some getting used to, and they don’t always deliver the immediate bang of buying an expensive pair of shoes. But they are almost always more powerful in the long run.
As I noted before, we players can band together to change the rules to the chaotic and often unjust game known as “the rat race.” (We call it that for a reason.) While reform is in progress, it is up to individuals to acquire the tools and hone the techniques that can sustain us.
As we do this, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has equal access or ability to improve their game. Some people might not be able to afford the same equipment or training as others. And the rules that are in place often favor some players over others.
Remember, we are all that scared, unprepared kid, swinging as best we can at a deluge of tennis balls.
I love a good analogy, and here is a near perfect one: Life is like a card game. Yeah, it sounds trite, but hear me out.
At the beginning, each player is dealt a random hand of cards that impart advantages or disadvantages in the game. The established rules specify how the game proceeds and what the players can and can’t do. In addition to their hand, each player brings their own skill and mindset to the game.
Let’s examine how the interplay of these three components—hand, rules, mindset—relates to real life.
The Hand We Are Dealt
Every human being starts the game of life in a body, geographic location, period in time, and economic class that was not of their choosing. For example, I was born white, female, and able-bodied in the 1960s. My family was lower middle class, but we lived in one of the richest countries in the world. My father was not in the picture, my mother suffered from health issues and depression, and my extended family was, for the most part, supportive. I was a physical late bloomer with a sharp mind that was prone to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Each one of these facts was beyond my control, particularly in childhood.
In my tween years, the shortcomings of my hand became more apparent, and I often wallowed in self-pity that my family didn’t have much money, my father had opted out of our lives, and my small size and big hair were a target of endless teasing. As I grew up, I came to understand that many people had been dealt far more challenges than I had. Slowly, I realized that it made little sense to continue wishing I had lucked into a better first hand. I could not alter my origin story.
Layered on top of this truth was the reality that the cards in my hand were better or worse depending on how they related to the rules.
The Rules of the Game
In a card game, the rules typically dictate how many cards each person is dealt, which cards are most or least valuable, and how a winner is crowned. In real life, the rules of our society tell us how much we pay in taxes, how fast we can drive without getting a ticket, which actions are considered crimes, what is required to buy a car or a house, which substances we are allowed to ingest, and so on. Outside of the law, an endless list of customs, tacit agreements, and prejudices also guide our behavior and our perceptions of people.
We tend to think of these rules as institutional, and sometimes they feel like they’re set in stone. But they are not untouchable. The rules that govern our existence are created and enforced by groups of people—elected officials, judges, business leaders, and other powerful individuals working together. Which means that they can be changed by people working together.
Rules rarely transform overnight and not without a struggle. Modifying or overhauling the system usually takes time, hard work, and a keen strategy. Commitment, collaboration, and vision are all vital. And let’s not forget the importance of access to capital.
In my lifetime, I have witnessed a number of revisions to the rules and social conventions that have historically held back women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. These advancements have been impressive but are far from complete.
While people strive to secure rule changes that will allow entire groups of people to participate more fully in the game of life, individuals may want to explore how they can control their own actions in the present.
If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve probably seen inspirational quotes declaring that the only person you can command is you. These maxims don’t commonly mention that different people have differing abilities, resources, and opportunities available to them depending on the hand of cards they were dealt. Not a single one of us has 100 percent control over what we can do, and some have much less.
But each of us has choices. Even little ones. Read a book or scroll on social media? Take a walk or watch TV? Drink a glass of water or a soda? Let that remark go or argue back? Take a deep breath and move forward or stay in our comfort zone? Okay, that last one might be a tad formidable.
The energy and preparation that we bring to the table counts. The card player learns about the game by reading up and practicing. As adult players in life, we are responsible for our ongoing growth and development. We “win” the game when we figure out what we have power over and then exercise our power as often as possible.
For a large chunk of my adult life, I worked at a nonprofit organization focused on reshaping the rules in our nation in favor of equality for all. The work we did was critical to others and meaningful to me.
I am now at a phase in my life when I am more focused on what I can do as an individual to push past my demons and chase my dreams. And to inspire others to do the same.
We need people leading the way down both paths—rule changing and personal responsibility. Some of us are more suited to one path over the other. One day I would like to find a way to combine the two endeavors, but perhaps I’ve found my best path.
Either way, thanks to the card game metaphor, I can see both paths more clearly.
A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in October 2018. I am reposting it here in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir, which will address this issue at length.
When I decided to stop drinking in May of 2017, I knew I would eventually write publicly about my journey. Even before I made the choice, I started jotting down my thoughts about alcohol—the hold it had on my life, the challenges of drinking moderately, and the reasons why quitting was starting to look like the obvious solution.
Three months into my recovery, I revealed to Facebook friends and my blog’s tiny audience that I had managed to stay sober for the longest period yet in my adult life. I posted again at the five-month mark, at which point a few people suggested that it was time for me to congratulate myself and move on.
I don’t think so.
I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing stories about my life. Nearly two decades of working in communications for a political organization helped me develop a pretty thick skin. I learned that no matter what a person says or how they say it, someone is going to find something in their words to criticize. But that shouldn’t keep us from speaking our truth.
My concern about writing on this topic stems not from a fear of being judged but from a suspicion that I don’t belong in the recovery community. You see, I’m what’s called a “gray area” or “high bottom” drinker. While I believe that I had an alcohol dependency, my habit never escalated to the level typically associated with people who quit drinking.
I was doing well at work, and my personal relationships were intact, but my dreams were stalled. Drinking had made my life repetitive and stagnant. My writing career and love of trying new things had been put on hold. This went on for decades.
Like many gray area drinkers, I tried all the tricks designed to keep alcohol at arm’s length but still within grasp. I counted drinks, tracked how many nights in a row I stayed dry, diluted my wine with seltzer, only drank when I was home or only drank when I was out, and so on. Nothing worked. My mind was more preoccupied than ever with thoughts of alcohol.
When I finally quit, I did so with the knowledge that I didn’t have to hit a disastrous rock bottom to recognize the negative impact alcohol was having on me. As a writer, I am eager to share this news with the world. As a longtime activist, I want to help others make the same realization as soon as possible.
But I worry that by talking about my sobriety, I am claiming ground that belongs to those who have struggled more. The insecure, anxious woman who turned to alcohol for confidence and comfort is panicked at the thought of stepping on anyone’s toes.
Feeling like an outsider was a monster that haunted me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and into my adult years. The beast is clutching at my ankles again, even when I’m feeling my sharpest and bravest.
The only way I know to get past this fear is to march directly through it. So, I am sharing with you what recovery means to a gray area drinker like me.
My drinking habit was like carrying a backpack full of bricks at all times. I could function, but something was always weighing me down. I often felt tired, cranky and frustrated with myself. Hangovers stole hours from me on weekend days when I should have been having fun or getting errands done. And when it had been a couple days since my last drink, I was consumed with thinking about my next one.
Taking off that backpack allowed me to wake up every morning with zero worries about what I’d said or done the night before. By the end of my drinking “career,” I wasn’t going out and doing crazy stuff anymore, but I was still capable of picking fights with my husband, drunk dialing friends and posting nonsense on social media.
Being clearheaded and liberated from the effects of alcohol is truly a gift.
When I was deciding whether to quit entirely or continue trying to moderate my drinking, I worked hard to put aside my emotional attachment to alcohol and appeal to my logical side.
Despite overwhelming evidence that I felt better when I wasn’t drinking, I kept at it. What if I did the same thing at work, employing an ineffective strategy over and over? My boss would have taken me aside long ago and demanded that I try a new tactic.
So, as my own boss, I gave myself a “needs improvement” performance review and chose sobriety as the answer. The results were so successful that I am applying this lens to other aspects of my life. This means examining other deep-rooted practices and asking if they are serving me.
In the quest to live my best life, perspective is everything. Sobriety changed my vantage point.
How many hours, how many nights did I spend drinking? Some of those events included laughing and bonding with dear friends, but many of them were more about getting drunk than anything else. What if I had spent even half of that time writing and taking on new challenges?
Alcohol allowed me to do things that would have been boring or foolish if sober. Some were minor infractions, like waiting at the bar for a table, getting buzzed and skipping dinner to get trashed. Some were more consequential, like barely making it to an early morning doctor’s appointment and then sleeping off a hangover in the back seat of my car.
Now that I’ve removed alcohol from the equation of my life, I find that I value my time far more. And what do we have if we don’t have time? In recovery, I’ve concluded that valuing your time is the highest form of self-respect.
Since girlhood, my brain has been full of obsessive thoughts—fear of death, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of being seen as unworthy of attention or respect. My first therapist put me on Zoloft to help me focus in our sessions. But alcohol was my favorite form of self-medication.
Drinking to slow down my mind was effective but not without serious side effects. Even worse, it was getting me nowhere. I was not learning how to deal with my stress or my penchant for latching onto a sense of dread and letting it flood my body and spirit.
Sobriety didn’t automatically bring peace to my mind. I had to take up meditation and yoga. I had to remember to pay attention to my breath in moments of distress. Taking away alcohol made space for these more productive solutions.
The transformation I am experiencing is slower and less noticeable than guzzling two or three glasses of wine. But one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced that panicky feeling in weeks. I still get lost in worry and self-doubt on occasion, but I have the tools now to acknowledge those thoughts and then carry on.
Sharing these breakthroughs is why I am proud to take my place in the sobriety community.
A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.
Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.
Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.
Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.
Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.
There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.
In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.
When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.
At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.
Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.
I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.
Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.
When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.
Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.
I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.
We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.
When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”
In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.
The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.
I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.
Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.
When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.
The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.
My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.
If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.
And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.
Last week, I picked up my phone one morning and saw a notification from the Ten Percent Happier app reminding me to meditate.
Aaargh! Somehow, I had forgotten to meditate the day before, thus breaking a long streak I had put together. Over the previous few weeks, I had meditated every afternoon or before bed. Each day that I used a guided meditation on the app, a circle was filled in under my profile. What a satisfying feeling, watching those rows of solid red dots multiply. I was approaching a personal-best streak, longer than any run since I first started meditating regularly several years ago.
And then…there was an empty circle glaring at me. At first, my brain wanted to seize on this small blip as an excuse to throw in the towel. What’s the freakin’ point, anyway, right? After berating myself for a few seconds, I stopped to ask a different question: What does a streak even mean?
As someone moderately obsessed with numbers, I find it fun to count how many days or times I complete an action. And as I try to build new habits, daily tracking helps encourage me to stay the course. The knowledge that I was working on a streak led me to meditate on nights when I was tired or cranky and just wanted to go to sleep (or watch late-night TV). If I’m honest, though, numbers can get tied up in my self-worth. A long streak produces evidence of my value as a person.
But the thing with tracking streaks is that they almost always get broken. And then, you can’t let that disappointment in yourself get you derailed.
The streak itself, the number of days, is meaningless. It’s just a number. Okay, maybe a particularly long streak demonstrates that you are dedicated and disciplined. But does a missed day or two say the opposite? Are you suddenly lazy and weak?
As a member of several online recovery groups, I’ve witnessed how hard it can be when weeks or months or years of sobriety are interrupted. Some folks chose to keep counting, tallying up the number of days they didn’t drink that year or in general, without returning to zero. All those sober days did have an impact, after all, and there is no rule that says you have to erase them.
That morning, looking at my phone, I decided that I would not let my broken meditation streak make me feel as if I had failed. The progress I had made in building a stronger meditation habit had not vanished. Meditating more frequently had already made its mark on my ability to handle stress and to live in the moment, which was my goal. Not a row of red circles.
I will still keep an eye on my streaks for motivation purposes. But I promise that I’ll keep my tracking in perspective and remind myself what’s really at stake: my health and well-being.