Recovery in Turbulent Times

I write about recovery from mental illness. Recovery is difficult business. It takes a lot of hard work on each of our parts. Maintaining stability is not as simple as waking up and taking a pill. There are many moving parts, and all of them have to be kept in balance as best we can at all times.

It doesn’t help when the news is full of chaos. It’s not a simple process to keep my many parts in balance when there is messy stuff happening all around me.

In the midst of turbulence, here’s what it boils down to:

Focus.

I have to focus on my recovery above all else. I have to keep the focus on maintaining my recovery. I cannot get sidetracked by the many competing items all wanting my attention. I must be the center of the work I do daily.

Two things help me maintain my focus on recovery.

First, I maintain my daily routine above all else. I take the medicine prescribed by my doctor at the same time every day. I drink tea and start the day and meditate every morning. After I meditate, I do some stretching exercises to get my body moving. I continue my day doing my regular activities. For me, that means going to work. I eat healthful food. I need good quality nutrition.

Second, I do not watch the news. I limit my news intake to the headlines. There is a large amount of information bombarding me throughout the day. The vast majority of that information is about things that I personally can have no effect on. Dwelling on that type of information will only upset me. It will upset my recovery and tip me into instability.

I am, however, active. I have a few topics that I am passionate about like LGBT rights. I have marched for LGBT equality. I also marched with the women’s march. These are topics that I feel like I can make a difference in. These are topics I choose to be passionate about. I am also very passionate about the rights of individuals with mental illness. On this topic, I regularly write to my elected officials. The important point is that I have chosen my passion. I disengage from most news to maintain my stability.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the turbulence in today’s world, perhaps my way of maintaining my recovery can help you, too. Be focused. Concentrate on your recovery. Do the things that will make your stability stronger, and limit your intake of things that distract from recovery.

We who live with mental illness have one job: our own recovery. That has to be our priority at all times.

Healing the Wound

When I remember my drinking days, the pain is what comes up first. There was tremendous pain. It was pervasive. It seeped into every corner of my being, and it oozed out of me in all my relationships. I was capable of happiness, but it was always fleeting. It was never enduring.

I drank for one simple reason: it gave me relief from the pain. What I did not understand was that the relief was fleeting. The drinking did not do anything to help heal the pain. The wound remained. The drinking was a kind of Band Aid on my wound.

It’s no secret that my wound was my warped perceptions of what it meant to be gay. The ideas inculcated in me about homosexuality were not compatible with living a happy life. I grew up convinced that god hated gay people, and that gays were beyond god’s grace. I also had good reason to fear ostracism from my family if they knew I was gay. Finally, society allowed violence against gay people. Some portions of society even condoned it preaching that gays were beneath contempt and unworthy of safety and fulfilling lives.

I became an alcoholic, because I got relief from my pain when I drank. The pain was so great that I needed a lot of alcohol to relieve it, and I needed it daily.

The day came, however, when the pain became more than the alcohol could cover. That day I faced the fact that alcohol no longer worked. That day I also discovered that quitting drinking was not a simple matter. I am grateful that I found AA. With the help of the 12 Steps and with the love from a sponsor and other members of the program, I found a way to live without alcohol.

Sadly, the pain was still there. The wound went untreated. I lost the Band Aid that alcohol provided. My next course of action was to find a way to heal the real wound. I am grateful that I found therapy as a young adult. I continued it through the years, and it proved invaluable for healing my wound.

Meditation also helped me slowly change my perceptions of what being gay meant. I learned I am not an abomination. I learned god loves me. Most importantly, I learned to love myself.

Gradually, I healed.

And I discovered that when my wound healed, drinking became unnecessary. It’s not even the slightest issue. I go to gay bars these days and feel nothing. I have no compulsion to drink alcohol.

AA gave me the tools to stay away from alcohol, but the AA I was exposed to did not direct me to the tools I needed to heal the wound that caused me to drink. The AA that I was part of treated the drinking as if it was the wound. It taught me that not drinking was enough.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to heal the wound. I had to find the ways to heal outside the rooms of AA.

I doubt I’m alone. I am confident when I say that alcoholics drink because it provides relief from a pain-causing wound. We need to stop drinking because it is a destructive way of treating the wound. It does not heal. It masks only.

We are doing a disservice by telling people that the pain will stop when the drinking stops. This wasn’t the case for me, and I know many people who agree. We need to do our part to help individuals stop drinking, but we also need to actively direct them to the places where they can heal their wounds.

After 18 years of sobriety, I’ve seen countless people return to drinking after a period of sobriety, and I am convinced it’s because they could not find a way to heal their wound. They return to using the only Band Aid they knew that gave them any amount of relief.

It’s not enough to stop drinking if we ignore the reason the drinking started. The drinking is only a Band Aid. It is not the wound.

Again, we need to actively help individuals find a way to heal their wounds.

[I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’m reluctant to share it, but I have experienced my words reaching others who feel the same but are unable to speak for various reasons, so I’ll share.]

Coming From a Place of Self-Love

I’ve had a reason to think about my love for myself the past couple of days. I was challenged in an online forum by another individual who was writing very mean-spirited things directed at me. Remarkably, I was unfazed. It did not register at all.

Suddenly, I realized I have come a long way. The reason I was unfazed is that the other person’s opinion of me truly did not matter. I read her insults, and they passed right through my consciousness without sticking to any particular place.

Two years ago, I would have been very hurt. Last year, I would have been angry. Right now, that person does not matter one iota. I am sitting in my chair actually enjoying my day.

This stranger’s opinion is meaningless, because I do not receive my sense of self-worth from any other human being breathing on the planet. I give my high sense of self-worth to myself, and no one can assail it.

I got here through meditation. Try it.

Being Selfish

One of the oddest things about life is that when we are very small, we have to be taught to share. It is stressed over and over again that we have to share with our playmates. We aren’t allowed to hoard all the toys or take all the food from the lunch counter.

Many of us spend a great many adult years unlearning this lesson. We have to learn a healthy way of being selfish.

I have spoken to many people in various forms of distress. One of my favorite suggestions is to do one nice thing for ourselves every day. These can be very simple. We can give ourselves a full minute of deep breathing. Taking a walk in the sunshine is another good way to be nice to ourselves. If it’s what we want, we could indulge in our favorite food. We get to decide how to be nice to ourselves.

Many of us are taught to always place others before ourselves. This is appropriate in many situations, but it’s not healthy at all times. There are many times we have to place our own needs above our neighbor’s.

It is popular to say that we have to love ourselves before we can love others. I used to disagree with that. I thought I needed to deny myself my own love. I thought I could love others while ignoring my own needs. I now see that I cannot give what I do not have.

Ultimately, doing one nice thing for ourselves each day is meant to lead us to loving ourselves continuously.

When I come from a place of self-love, I can reach out with more love than I ever imagined. I am capable of more compassion than I knew previously. Empathy is more genuine.

It’s possible that being selfish may be the best way to help each other.

New Frontiers

A few days ago, I thought I’d finished with all the transforming I needed in one lifetime. I was done. I was going to live with the imperfections, and I was going to be happy.

That lasted until I got too tired of the discomfort. Pain actually.

This morning in meditation, I opened my belly, and I began to pull out something that hurt. It turned out to be attached to a chain that would not let go of its anchor, so I dove down to find out how deep it went.

It was deep. Very deep.

I got right down to where a little, snarling childlike version of myself was protecting the end of the chain. I thanked the snarling child for doing his job. He protected me for many years by getting me the things that I wanted. I then explained to him that his work was done. I soothed him. He was quite surprised, but he settled down and released the end of the chain.

I picked up the chain, I took the boy’s hand, and we went up to the surface. I gave him to an angel, and I was released from the pain.

It left a void, and I invited light to fill it.

What I have just described is a kind of guided visualization. I use it a great deal, and I get very good benefits from it. I’m able to help myself with very simple techniques. It’s really startling how much pain I’ve been able to release using guided visualization. I recommend meditation to anyone who thinks they can’t help themselves. I’ve been meditating for many years, decades actually. It works, and it does not have to be difficult.

I’m still going to revel in my humanity.

Meditation

I meditate every morning. It is without a doubt the single most important thing I do.

There is a lot of myth and misunderstanding surrounding meditation. I think the first myth is that to meditate correctly, you have to empty your mind. I don’t, but I have achieved remarkable effects with meditation even though I still have a series of thoughts flitting across my consciousness. Another myth is that one must sit cross legged. I sit on a stool. I think the most damaging myth may be that meditation is only for saints. We can all benefit from even short amounts of meditation done regularly.

I began meditating more than thirty years ago. It was never regular. I went for many months meditating daily, and then I took a break. I’m not sure how many years now it’s been a morning habit, but that’s what it has become. It is my morning start.

The first thing I would like to tell all is that meditation does not have to be long. Most mornings, I meditate for only ten or fifteen minutes. In that time, I gain great focus that gives me an unshakably calm center that I carry through the day.

I am going to take you through the steps I use in meditation. You can build your own steps. There are only a few things that are perhaps required. The necessities are first to sit with the back erect but the body is relaxed. Second, breathe evenly. The final necessity is something that comes with a bit of time. It is the ability to allow thoughts their space, observe them, but to remain detached from them. What I’m trying to say is that we give thoughts their space, but we do not invest our selves in those thoughts. Perhaps this third point will become easier to understand as we look at my steps of mediation.

I have a special stool that I use for meditation. My first step is to sit on it. I adjust myself, until I feel comfortable. My feet are firmly on the floor, and my back is erect. My head is erect, too.

I close my eyes. There are some meditation traditions that teach to keep the eyes open. I taught myself how to meditate, and closed came naturally. I’m also coming to this with a mental illness, so I need as little distraction as possible.

I relax. I have been meditating for many decades, so this is almost instantaneous now. If you’re new, you can start with your toes and relax your entire body as you go up to your head. Do it slowly, one area at a time. However, keep your back erect with your head firmly in line with your back. It will sound like a paradox, but it’s possible to do that and remain relaxed.

I breathe evenly. Sometimes, I begin by breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. This is cleansing. Once I’m breathing evenly and it feels right, I take in a long breath counting to eight as I do. I also count to eight on the exhale.

I make a connection. This step works for me. It came naturally to me, but it is not part of any formal meditative tradition. I connect myself to the Earth by imagining a cord of red light from Earth’s center to me. I imagine a cord of white light connecting me to the Universe/Heaven. I am where those two meet.

I clear myself of any attachments I may have made. Again, this works for me. You get to decide what your meditation is going to be like. I imagine that I have layers of energy stuck on me. I make a cut from my head to my feet in these layers of energy, and I ask angels to peel them off. It’s slow, but I feel lighter when it’s done. I’m in the habit of doing this a second time very close to my body. I like to think I’m removing the layers of my own thoughts that I cling to.

Now, I breathe with focus. It is at this time that I really focus on my breathing. I try to concentrate on how the air is entering my nose. I also concentrate on how my belly and my chest may be moving. I continue breathing, and I continue focusing.

Thoughts come. I may remember a conversation I had on the phone, or I may think about a task I have to do that day. Here’s what I’ve learned about thoughts: I cannot turn them off. Here’s another thing I’ve learned: I no longer try to turn them off. I allow them to do their work. I allow them to have their space and time. But I do not attach myself to them.

In our normal waking life, we experience events, and we assign emotions to accompany our experiences. Let’s think of driving in heavy traffic. There are many things to be aware of all at the same time, and there are many emotions that accompany all that awareness. There are the rude drivers around us, and there are the kind ones, too. Our reactions to those other drivers represent our attachments to our own feelings. We remind ourselves we are alive by living in the midst of a continuous stream of emotions.

In meditation, I have learned to allow my thoughts to have their space, but I do not choose to attach an emotion to any given thought. I am detached.

That lesson was not quick, and I must relearn it often. Many times when I meditate, a thought about an experience will arise that I have strong feelings about, and the emotions come.

Here again, I do not try to stop the emotions. I give them their space. I allow them to exist. I do not fight the discomfort. Instead, I pay very close attention to the place where the emotions are living. Is the discomfort about the difficult experience in my belly or my chest or my throat or my head? Is it somewhere outside me?

I picture the difficult discomfort. I give it shape or motion. Sometimes it’s a black sludge in my belly. Sometimes it’s a swirling column of air like a tornado in my torso. Sometimes it’s a heavy cube in my head. I let the discomfort tell me what shape it has. I allow it to come to me.

Now, I call on angels again to come remove the discomfort and fill the space it leaves with light. They do it every time. The discomfort may return, but I can ask for it to be removed each and every time. There is no limit on how many times I can ask for assistance. It is limitless. This helps me feel very light and clear.

After a bout of discomfort, I return to focusing on my breathing. I again focus on how the air enters my nose and my expanding belly and chest and then on the falling belly and chest and the air leaving my nose. There is no limit to how many times my focus wanders and returns. I am not failing when my focus wanders. I am not doing it wrong, if I have to return to my focus a thousand times during ten minutes of sitting.

If you are sitting with your back and head erect and if you are attempting to focus on your breathing, you cannot fail. With just those few necessities, you cannot fail.

I hope these words help.

Here, I go to My Happy Place. You can read about it here. That’s an old entry, and My Happy Place has evolved, but it’s still relevant. It’s important for me to mention that guided visualization is a type of meditation that I used for a very long time especially during periods when my mind simply would not be quiet in any meaningful way. My Happy Place gives me great comfort after all these years. If you want to create your own Happy Place, you get to decide what it looks like.

You are in charge of how you want your recovery to go. Meditation is a vital part of mine. Perhaps it could help you, too.

My Internalized Stigma

I am fully committed to my recovery. I can and do live a full life. I am very grateful to have a good job helping other mental health peers find their own paths to recovery.

This morning, I faced the fact that I still carry internalized stigma against mental illness.

I have been experiencing intense but unfocused anxiety for about 3 days. I left work early Tuesday. Yesterday, I went in and started work, but I left after an hour. This morning, I went in, sat at my desk, and immediately sent two emails requesting sick leave. I need to take care of my mental health.

Yet I felt guilty requesting time to take care of my mental health. I felt guilty for having debilitating anxiety.

I feel nothing when I need to take time off for a cold or worse, but this morning, I felt guilty. Something inside me said I need to be tougher. That’s bullshit.

From now on, I will not say I need to take care of my mental health. I will only say that I need to take care of my health. My mental health is just as vital to care for as my physical health. In my situation, it might even be more important.

I have taken an important step toward regaining good health. I have called my psychologist and asked for an extra appointment, and he is checking to see when he can work me in. He told me he will find the time. Therapy is an important tool I use to maintain my recovery. Getting this appointment is a signal to myself that I will do whatever is necessary to care for my health.

I am worth it.

I will continue to tell the voice that says I should be tough and not take leave to care for my health that it is wrong on every level. I am valuable. I am worth having good health.