Hello, My Name is Human (and so is yours)

(with a nod to this great song by Highly Suspect)

November, 1998: It was a beautiful morning in Buena Vista Park, in the Upper Haight district of San Francisco. The sun was shining, the air clean and crisp… a perfect time and place for a father and his daughter to walk through the park, enjoying the great outside. As they ambled along the path, the young girl saw someone lying in the grass on (and under) some cardboard, appearing to be asleep. The girl, curious, asked why the person was sleeping there. The father responded, “Because they’re a loser and need to get a job. Either that or they just need more coffee. Maybe we should bring them some!” and started laughing. The girl laughed a little, too, and they continued to walk.

I was the person feigning sleep on that cardboard in the park, and I heard every word.

It’s interesting what people say when they think the person in question can’t hear them. Already in a place of deep shame, depression, humiliation, and a strong desire to just not be alive anymore, that overheard conversation served to verify what I’d suspected about myself for years, and it helped carve a larger space in which I could nestle and roost in those feels. I’d been attempting to survive on the streets for a month, but I’d been addicted for the 3-4 years leading up to it, and if there’s one thing an addict knows, it’s the feeling of being unworthy and less-than. Sub-human, even.

Shame.

Brené Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher, and if you haven’t read any of her books, I highly and strongly recommend you do. Read all of them, and start at the beginning (The Gifts of Imperfection is my favorite). But if you only choose one, I’d say to pick up her latest, “Braving the Wilderness.” I say this without having finished reading it yet (I’m working on it!), but in there, she offers up four paths to true belonging; to being bravely and wonderfully ourselves. She makes it clear that we cannot experience true connection or full acceptance and belonging until we show our genuine selves to the world.

I bring this up because one of paths begins with, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” It reminds me of the father and his daughter as they walked through the park that day. The father had a choice in that moment: to be kind, to lean in, to empathize and to share some real insight with his daughter about the world, about humanity. To encourage connection. Instead, he chose the other path: derision, sarcasm, and judgement.

I genuinely believe these choices are what lie on either side of fear. If we find that we’re afraid or unsure of the unknown – like addiction, or mental illness, or homelessness – it can be easy to let that fear take us to a place of judgement. To “otherizing” that person in order to grant ourselves some semblance of feeling control over our own destiny. “That would NEVER happen to me.” Right? But from that fear and uncertainty, we have another option: to move in, as Dr. Brown recommends. To understand, to empathize, and to ask how we can help. This helps drive connection with those who are suffering, and who may simply be in desperate need of a kind and loving heart to shine bright enough to light their way to the other side of the struggle.

And I find myself thinking about all this after watching a video of a woman from Kentucky who is faced with no choice but to stop her dialysis because she can’t afford to get there and back 3x a week, and is dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for her healthcare – which is currently under near constant threat by our administration. You should watch the video, and then tell me you don’t feel something in the depths of your stomach, heart, and throat for this woman who you’ve never met, and likely never will.

I guess the question is, do you feel empathy and compassion, or do you feel disgust and derision?

In case you’re wondering, I fall firmly in the empathy & compassion camp. I don’t know how you can watch it and not see the pain in her eyes and the desperation (but also, the resignation) in her voice. There is no doubt in my mind that this country has the power and resources to take care of every single person in it, comfortably and compassionately and comprehensively, without it negatively impacting anyone else or causing a lack of resources in other ways. We just have to prioritize that, instead of buckling down in fear of losing what little we have. The powers that be have convinced us there is scarcity, and they do this because it continues to line their pockets as we all move further in the other direction of struggle.

I think it all starts with getting back to in-person connections. The internet enables us to stay connected, but there is something significantly lacking in those interactions: the humanity of each other. We all need to start holding hands more, talking in person more, listening more, letting our guard down more and getting real and vulnerable and brave more.

I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the common connection we all share, just by being alive. There’s room for all of us.

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Battle of the body and the brain (aka facts vs. feelings), Part 1

Do you ever have days (or weeks or months or years) where you feel completely at odds with your own body? Or your own brain? Maybe both at the same time which is always a joy and a pleasure?

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I can know – with every fiber of my being – that certain foods make me feel terrible… and yet, as soon as it crosses my mind that I want one of those foods, it’s like I’m powerless to resist and all that sense flies out the window. Cheez-Its, mac & cheese, cookies, pizza (this is the hardest one to admit and accept), popcorn, anything with sugar in it, anything made of bread… you get the idea. The ONLY time I feel good physically (and mentally) is when I eat lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and the occasional dairy or brown rice. Everything else gives me heartburn, gas, indigestion, foggy brain, lethargy, body aches, weight gain & bloating… it sucks. A lot. If I eat too much sugar or too much salt, my heart pounds out of my chest and my brain goes on overdrive.

And yet, KNOWING this does little to prevent me from shoving any and all of it directly in my pie hole, when given the opportunity. Why is that?

You know how, in flight, fight, or freeze mode, your rational brain (and a lot of other brain & body functions) shut down because YOU IN DANGER GIRL, and it’s not until that FFF reaction is gone that your brain & body resume normal function? Like, your rational brain ceases to function in order to conserve the energy you might need if you find you’re going to have to haul ass away from whatever threat is there – whether real or perceived.

I’m wondering if there’s a similar thing that happens when a craving pops up. Cravings are fleeting, of course, and the feeling of one is a whole lot different than fear for your life – mild anxiety because you’re panicking at wanting the THING, depending on what that thing is – but until the craving passes, your rational brain can’t play the tape out to the end and remind you of what happens every time (EVERY time) you eat pizza.

And that leads me to think about other situations in life, where you can absolutely KNOW WITH EVERY ATOM IN YOUR BODY that, say, a person is bad or wrong for you, but you’re still drawn to them and subject yourself to prolonged agony by continuing to spend time with them while everything else falls apart around you. Or you can know that getting laid off from a job was nothing personal, purely business, and yet you can’t help but be hurt, angry, and take it personally. Or, you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a cigarette is going to taste like you’ve licked a dirty ashtray and make your lungs burn, but you just can’t help picking one up because IT’S THERE, and it was your social crutch for so long you’d rather suffer a little than have to go without.

There are so many things… but ultimately, I think it comes down to what you know vs. what you feel. There’s a difference between facts and feelings. And sometimes, I think you just have to let the feelings float on through – acknowledge them, call them out, say, “I see you” – before you can return to your sane, rational state of being.

Maybe it’s just me, though. I mean… when I’m driven by a feeling or a craving or a reaction, I’m really not my best self, most of the time. Certainly if the feeling is one of love or joy, then ideally the outcome of whatever behavior it inspired would be a good thing. Since I’m referring more to the URGE TO ACT when you’re overcome with anxiety or hurt or anger or fear, or the urge to make the feelings go away, or you’re beating yourself up for feeling the way you do, then it’s the negative outcomes I’m thinking of. I’ve never had a good outcome when driven by fear, anger, hurt, anxiety, or insecurity. But when I’ve allowed those feelings to show up and opted out of acting on them, I’ve found better alternatives on the other side of the feelings. Usually, fact-based alternatives. Goodness knows, my brain can make up some crazy shit when I’m anxious, and when I think about taking action – mostly in the hopes of assuaging the anxiety or fixing what I think is broken – it’s never a healthy response. I just don’t think it’s possible, at least for me, to engage in a healthy way when I’m in the throes of an unhealthy brain/body behavior.

I’m finding lately that I keep sinking into poor eating habits, and it’s… vexing. Especially because as soon as I go there with it, I STAY there with it, and it makes me feel worse (physically and mentally and emotionally), which prompts me to beat myself up and lose any momentum I may have had with eating well and/or exercising. Vicious cycle. Over the weekends, I tend to start moving in a better direction because I have no outside influence, but as soon as I go back to work – where there’s candy and baked goods and a convenience store and a Starbucks on the same block – all hell breaks loose and I’m back to eating junk, which usually prompts me to just give up and order fast food for dinner. With C traveling as much as he does, it’s been hard to get in a routine that isn’t disrupted one way or the other; I don’t seem to have much in the way of discipline OR will power, and the only way I am successful is when I am consistent, and don’t allow myself to stray from the path. At all. I know there’s all that “moderation” talk out there, and allowing for treats and normal meals and whatever else, but it’s like a portal to the devil for me, and THE DEVIL WANTS CAKE.

Anyway. I’m splitting this into two pieces because it could get real long, real fast, but there’s a whole lot more I’ve got to say on the matter of bodies and brains betraying us, facts vs. feelings, etc. Nothing more about food/exercise, though; this took a turn I wasn’t quite expecting, but it’s certainly one of the many things I’ve got on the brain. I think I just needed to get this out there and get the ball rolling.

Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Every year about this time, I reflect on where I was – WHO I was – in November of 1998. For those of you just tuning in: I was an IV drug user, addicted to heroin, cocaine, and anything else I could find… and for a brief time, I was homeless on the streets of San Francisco.

I’ve told the story of Thanksgiving, when I sat in the rain in Golden Gate Park, eating food prepared for the homeless by a Latinx family who spoke little to no English, who wanted simply to feed everyone they could. I’ve talked about knowing my sister, her (future) husband, and their/our friends were having dinner together just miles away in Oakland; knowing I was invited, and also knowing I was too full of shame to attend. Thankfully, it wasn’t much longer after Thanksgiving that I finally had enough, finally hit the low emotional point where I was ready to accept the consistent, gentle, and loving offers to help from my family… finally willing to admit I deserved to live, and that somewhere deep down, I still wanted to.

I’ve told the story about being in the throes of addiction, spending time in a relationship with another junkie who made it clear he was in love with someone else, but who continued to spend his time with me unless/until she opened the door for him to come back, even temporarily. He lived with me when I was still able to keep a roof over my head; ours was a partnership of desperation and despair. I remember once writing the words, “please help me” on a piece of paper and sticking it in a book, hoping the message would somehow float out into the universe.

I find it fitting that I would look for a solution in a book, considering it’s where I’ve found so many of them, before and since.

But it’s that apartment I keep thinking about. I’d taken it over from my sister when she moved across the bay to live with her dude; I thought if I did that, I’d stop spending money on drugs, and instead use it to afford a home in a great neighborhood. But good intentions and wishes can never overpower a demon or disease; in this case, I was suffering from both, and my only hope was a wholesale revolution of self, which wouldn’t come until much later.

I lost that apartment when I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and when my family discovered the extent of my drug use. I was taken to treatment, where I lasted all of about 4-5 days. That’s when reality hit. When the bad feelings started to crop up. And I don’t just mean the dope sickness, which in and of itself is panic-inducing and enough to make anyone run to the hills in search of something – anything – to not have to feel it anymore. Instead, it was the thoughts and the feelings and everything else I’d been working to numb and avoid… THAT was what had me climbing the walls, unable to focus on anything else but my misery and the one thing I knew would fix it, even while exacerbating it everywhere else. When you get to that point, repercussions don’t matter. How you’re affecting other people doesn’t matter. The possibility of overdose and death really don’t matter… in fact, the possibility of death seems almost a sweet reprieve, even when you’re absolutely not seeking it out with intention.

So, after those 4-5 days in treatment, I walked out. I knew I had money waiting for me in a bank account, certainly enough to get high for a week or two, and then I’d figure it out. I didn’t know what “figure it out” meant, nor did I care; you live in the moment when you’re in that frame of mind. It’s mindfulness of the worst and most desperate kind.

It’s funny, though. I wouldn’t “spare change” people… I wouldn’t steal from stores to eat or sell things for drug money… I wouldn’t prostitute myself… so, I had limits in how I was willing to survive on the streets. And those limits rendered me essentially useless. I ate out of a few garbage cans here and there, but mostly I just didn’t eat. I didn’t bathe for a month that I can remember. I smoked other peoples’ cigarette butts out of public ashtrays. I slept in parks. I terrorized my family, manipulating and lying to them to get them to send money so I could eat, but mostly so I could keep buying drugs.

Eventually, I met up with a guy named Mark. I’d met Mark through my ex several months prior; he became something of a guide for me during my short time on the streets, helping me survive a little longer. He was the closest thing to a friend I had out there, and I’m grateful for the protection he offered when I needed it. It was a rare thing, to find someone in a similar situation and to actually be able to trust them. At least for a little while, anyway; I guess at some point, it might eventually get back to “everyone for themselves.” out of necessity, but I wasn’t out there long enough for that to happen.

On what turned out to be my last night on the streets, I’d joined up with Mark to buy drugs and to find somewhere safe and dry for the night. It was dark, with a light rain falling; we trudged through the streets of the Upper Haight, and finally came to a place where Mark said he knew we could crash for the night.

It was my old apartment building.

But we weren’t going IN the building… we were going UNDER it.

He’d found a crawlspace, accessible from the street; we proceeded to crawl, wriggle, and otherwise navigate our way to a spot just big enough for a few people to stretch out. We were lying on the earth, building belly as our sky. I remember, even then, finding bittersweet and sour humor – is it irony? – in the fact that what was once my home, meant to envelop me, was now a big, dark, looming beast essentially landing on top of me.

Like the house on the wicked witch… only this was all self-inflicted.

In a way, it was a poetic end, right? The house done killed the witch, alright… but the house was, in fact, still a home. It was a beacon of what was possible, what was out there if I fought for it and let people help me get there. And the witch was my addiction; it didn’t fully die for a few years after that, reappearing as a spectre or yet another death rattle in other kinds of behaviors and actions and thoughts and things that just needed time to work themselves out. Like cutting off a chicken’s head… the body is still gonna do its thing for a bit.

Getting sober is a lot like that. You can take away the substances, and that’s cool, but then you’ve got a holy shit pile of thought patterns and behaviors and survival skills and defense mechanisms and dysfunctional programming to undo. Addiction doesn’t just HAPPEN… and neither does recovery.

I’m not sober anymore, and haven’t been for 12 or 13 years, I guess. I took the absolutely necessary time of being sober, did the work as best I could, kept and employed the tools I learned in AA… and now, I have wine with dinner, or the occasional cocktail out on the town, and there’s no fear of me returning to where I was. Not everyone is like that, and I think it’s a huge mistake to assume anyone else could “do sobriety” like me and have it work out exactly the same. We are the sum of our own experiences, and it doesn’t mean I’m better or worse – just different in what works for me. I still go to therapy regularly, all these years later; I’m hyper-vigilant when it comes to self-introspection, evaluation, and assessment. I constantly take personal inventory, because it’s how I’m wired. And I think that, more than anything, is what keeps me alive and thriving.

Here’s to another year of reflection and gratitude. The further away it gets, the more surreal it all seems; but I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for everything I’ve been through. And you know… I like who I am, so I’ll take it.

What you are in the dark.

“Character is what you are in the dark.” – Dwight L. Moody

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” – John Moody

“Character is what you do when no one’s looking. Or when you think nobody’s looking. Or, when you KNOW someone is looking but pretend like you don’t and you change your tone or behavior to gain favor. Oh, hell. Character is WHO YOU ARE ALL THE TIME. Except maybe in your sleep, but I’d imagine jerks are still jerks when they dream. Do jerks even have dreams? Aside from making other people miserable, that is? Anyway. Where was I again? Oh yeah… character.” – Me

I’ve been giving a whole lot of thought to this. Where is the line between “a person is not what they do” and “a person is absolutely the things they say and do?” I realize the latter appears to be the better answer, but think about a person who lies, either to get what they want or to get away with something. A kid who breaks a window, or steals something. Are they a liar, or a person who told a lie? Are they a thief, or a person who stole something? Do we brand someone for life, based on a thing they’ve done?

All signs point to “yes.” At least, in some circumstances. But as tempting as it may be to get into a discussion on race and dehumanization of certain marginalized populations, sweeping generalizations made based on a person’s skin or gender identity or sexual preference… that’s not what this is about. Not today, anyway. 🙂

So, in an ideal world, you have a person who does a thing… and you show them why what they’ve done or what they’re doing is wrong or hurtful, they (hopefully) learn from it, and it doesn’t become part of who they are. Those external behaviors – lying, cheating, stealing, etc. – are encouraged out of them, they’re not branded for life as a _____, and all is well.

But what about when you should know better? What if you’re given the opportunity to change a damaging behavior, but you continue to say/do what you’re doing in spite of all the reasons presented to you why it’s not a good thing? Let’s say a person is known for manipulation. Or lies. Or, hell – let’s go with BOTH. They kind of go hand in hand anyway, right? So, this person is known to tell lies and to manipulate – or attempt to manipulate – other people, situations, etc., all to their advantage. At what point does the person lose her/his autonomy as a person who maybe does bad things but is still worthy of respect and decency and all the other things, and instead becomes a LIAR and MANIPULATOR, effectively changing their identity from that of a human to that of their behaviors? At what point do the behaviors reflect their character, as opposed to being a one-off thing?

To me, if a person is known for lying or manipulating, even if it’s only part of the time and even if the lies don’t affect me personally, it is what they do to get along in life, which means it’s WHO THEY ARE. I don’t care if you save it for other people, I don’t care if it’s only when you’re trying to get what you want and it doesn’t affect me… you tell lies and you manipulate, which means you cannot be trusted. Why would you afford that person common courtesy and decency? Isn’t that like rewarding bad behavior? “Well, it has nothing to do with me, so I can afford to be nice to them and not call it out when I know they’re doing this terrible thing. I mean, they do a good job over here with this one thing, so the fact that they do this terrible thing over there? I can overlook it.”

The majority of situations aren’t necessarily so cut and dried, I know. I am working on affording a bit more room for “being human” while still refusing to suffer fools and jerks and toxicity. I guess my question is… where is the line between affording someone grace and kindness and professional respect or common decency, acknowledging their humanity first/their “faults” second, and determining someone to be unworthy of your time, attention, decency, etc.? And at what point does a person go from being someone who lies, to a LIAR? Is it all just semantics? Is it the frequency with which they do these things? The severity of the offense? Or does it just depend on who you ask and where they’re willing to draw the interpretational line for themselves?

It seems pretty clear that if you lie, then you are a liar. If you cheat, then you are a cheater. If you steal, then you are a thief. But what if a person lies to save his/her life? What if a person steals to feed their family? Can we refrain from making judgements against a person’s character based on the intent behind the behavior? I mean, some people are just Grade-A buttholes, and there’s no reason to try and understand why they do what they do.

Or is there? Does trying to understand motive help US, the people on the receiving end of the behavior, let go of some of the judgement and the frustration and anger and whatever else we feel after witnessing or being on the receiving end? Let’s say you work with someone known to lie and manipulate. You see this person getting ahead professionally, wreaking havoc all the while… does trying to understand their behavior help temper the indignation you might feel as you bear witness?

This all brings to mind two things. One, the Four Agreements: specifically, “don’t take anything personally.” In this case, taking a person’s behavior personally may very well inform whether or not you can/will afford them the space to be human, and fallible, and imperfect. But even if I don’t take someone’s actions/behaviors personally, I still get to decide whether or not I’m okay with it, right? And from that, determine whether or not the behavior is the character, which seems like a much more permanent designation, doesn’t it?

Side note: I think that’s where I’m getting stuck with all this. The difference between saying a person lies vs. calling them a liar seems to leave room for forgiveness and redemption. Or, it makes room for overlooking what they do. But if it’s WHO THEY ARE… how can you overlook it?

Anyway. The other thing brought to mind is getting to see/hear Brene Brown speak about her new book the other night. (I love her.) One of the main points – and mind you, I haven’t read it yet but I can’t wait! – is how it’s difficult to hate people close up. That you can easily detach and separate and dehumanize by inserting distance, by being online and not having to look a person in the eye… and the antidote to that is to get close, lean in, effect contact, etc. I’ve got a lot more to say about that in another post, but suffice to say… she’s right. When you allow yourself to get close to a person who does bad things, they are no longer just that one behavior. Not if there’s another part to them that’s good, which in most cases is true.

(I happen to know a few people who are garbage to the core, but I still believe that’s the exception, not the rule.)

So… yeah. Next post will dive deeper into that dehumanization piece, and lifetime labels, and some other stuff, too, but for now, I guess I’ll just leave this here to think about some more.

Deciding what matters, and then choosing it.

Anyone who knows me hopefully also knows that I will fight to the death when it comes to body- or appearance-shaming as a means of character assassination. So, like, judging a person based on what they do? Totally fine. Open season. But judging a person based on how they look? Totally NOT OKAY. Especially equating being overweight to a character flaw or moral judgement. It’s lazy, it’s flawed logic, and it’s unkind… for starters. It’s not even necessary. Chances are, if you’re feeling the need to slam a person using physical traits,  there’s likely something else you could be using instead (example: Chris Christie is a turd, and there’s a whole host of reasons why, but NONE of them have to do with how he looks). A person’s appearance has nothing to do with who they are as human beings, and is not a reflection of character, mind, or heart. It IS, however, a reflection on us as a society, that we use those things to condemn other people.

So, it’s interesting for me to note that I have been beating myself THE HELL UP for not losing weight before the wedding. Like, suddenly I am a failure, a horrible human being, I’m going to hate seeing photos for years to come because it will remind me I suck, and everyone who has ever wished me harm will revel in seeing me be overweight on the most important day of my life… every time I look in the mirror, every time I’m putting on clothes, I’m these saying mean things to myself, I’m flailing on the inside wondering what I can do to lose weight and get in shape in 6… make that 5… and now 4 weeks.

But this post isn’t so much about that, because here’s what I know: C loves me for who I am, not how I look; in 4 weeks, we will be married to each other, just as in love (if not more so) and happy together as we are right now. We’ll be surrounded by loved ones, eating wonderful food and drinking delicious cocktails, and we’ll get to share this most important event with each other and our friends and family. None of that has anything to do with my physical appearance, and EVERYTHING to do with my mind, my spirit, and my heart.

I recognize that a lot of this self-deprecation comes from external programming. Growing up surrounded by messages that enforce the focus on appearance as a measure of worth, it’s hard to overcome that sort of thing, and just as I said about other people judging – that it’s easy, it’s lazy, and it’s unkind – that’s the default setting for my own brain directed toward myself when I’m looking for something to stress about, some sort of outlet for the pent-up stress and frustration I’ve got going on.

I am stressed OUT. About a lot of things. And apparently the first easy target is me, and how I look, because hey… I’m right here, right? So instead of dealing with stress in a healthy way, it just shows up as my own worst critic.

But this isn’t really about that, either. I mean, it’s good insight, and I’m glad to have it, because it’s keeping me from losing my mind and bursting into tears as I head to my next dress fitting.

What I want to know is… how do priorities form? How do you decide what’s important to you? Is it something you’re born with, or do you learn these things because of the world around you? How do some people decide that fitness is important to them, while others decide they’re just not interested?

And, more specifically, how can you be totally overcome with thoughts of, “Oh goodness, I’m getting married in 6 weeks (or a year or three months or whatever), and I would really love to lose about 5 lbs and get my arms in shape before the wedding!” and then not do anything about it? Like, how can you say and feel with every ounce of your being that this is a priority and it’s important to you, but then not actually do anything about it? And not only that, but do things that are diametrically opposed? Eating ice cream and pizza and drinking wine and doing all the things that you enjoy but you know fly directly in the face of what you’ve stated is your desired end result?

How do make a decision on what’s really important, say it out loud over and over, and then actually flip the switch so you’re working toward that goal? Or is it just that my brain is so determined to have an easy enemy that it’s intentionally sabotaging whatever efforts I might have made? Is it that I have so much other stuff going on that I only have so many spoons of discipline, and they’re all used up before I can get around to the food and exercise regimen I know would get me where I want to be?

And in the face of all of this… how do I just be okay with the apparent reality that losing weight and getting in shape just wasn’t really a priority after all? And then be okay with the outcome?

Perfection, expectations, and the sometimes-messy business of being human.

“Prerequisites bankrupt the entire meaning of worthiness.”

The other day, a dear friend reached out via email and, among other things, shared a podcast (with Brené Brown) that reminded her of me. If you know me, then you know I love me some Brené Brown. Her research and writing changed the trajectory of my life some years back, changed how I thought about things, how I worked on things within myself… it was a big ol’ necessary and welcome shift. But it’s been a minute since I took the time to either revisit her older books or to dive into her new ones; I’d been assuming there wasn’t much new for me to learn.

The quote above is what stopped me in my tracks and brought a whole lot of things into the light that have been lurking in the recesses for a while. So, on the eve of my 45th birthday, I figured it was once again time to dig deep. (And yes, I’m procrastinating on homework. It’s how I do my best thinking.)

Brené was talking about how we have prerequisites for our worthiness. “If I lost 10 lbs., THEN I’d be worthy.” “If I only made more money or had nicer things, THEN I’d be deserving of love and belonging.” That sort of thing. Just like expectations equal premeditated resentments, prerequisites bankrupt the entire meaning of worthiness. The truth is, we’re all worthy, right now, as we are. If we don’t believe that, then we’ll never be enough. Coming at life from a place of scarcity – not thin or fit ENOUGH, not pretty ENOUGH, not wealthy or smart or funny or interesting ENOUGH – will always set you at the back of the line, and you will never, ever catch up.

It makes me think about how there are people who derive their sense of self worth from external sources, vs. those who feel how they feel about themselves based on internal sources. So, like, there are people who only feel good about themselves when they achieve something, get something, DO something… external accomplishments drive their sense of self worth, which means they have to keep achieving, doing, getting, in order to maintain that sense of worthiness. On the other hand, we’ve got folks who feel good about themselves based on who they ARE. How they think, feel, and engage with the world.

(Here is a nod to another post I’ve got in the works, separating people from their behaviors. It’s… beefy.)

The latter is a much more static sense of worth, but I think it’s also just as prone to faulty thought lines. It ties into the difference between guilt and shame, also a Brené revelation. Guilt = I did something bad; shame = I AM bad. Guilt is a healthy feeling because you can learn from it; it’s there to show you what you’re okay with and what you’re not; what’s right and wrong for you. It’s how we learn not to do things that don’t feel good, whether because we already know it’s wrong, or because we see how it impacts those around us.

Shame, on the other hand… that’s where we are bad people, not good people who’ve done a bad thing or two. We’re failures, we’re not worthy, and no amount of a change in behavior or making of amends will change our inherent lack of worth.

So, my friend reached out to me because she’s in a place in life where she’s struggling a little with her own sense of worth, and she wanted to hear my thoughts on it all because she sees me as someone with boundaries, someone who is vulnerable and strong all at once, someone who has a strong sense of her own worth.

What she’s getting, in the form of this post, is the admission that I’ve been unwittingly stuck in a stress-induced shame spiral for months, it seems. Certainly the last few weeks, but it was building up a lot longer before that. And it took her reaching out for me to be willing and able to CALL it out, so I’m eternally grateful for that.

Between working full time, being in school full time, taking on a SpeechCraft class (an offshoot of Toastmasters) to confront speaking in public as one of my bigger fears, and planning a wedding, not to mention contending with some disappointing, albeit minor, health issues and stressing about money and blending families and managing the house while C travels and all kinds of other stuff… I’ve got a LOT going on. It’s not all bad, not by any stretch, but it is a lot. Bordering on more than I can reasonably handle

Because of this full plate, I’ve been slowly chipping away at my own sense of self. Which is amazing, when I think about it, because I’m doing a LOT to better myself as a human. Funny, then, that I have been struggling so much with stuff. Like, I somehow lost my material for the Toastmasters class. I don’t lose things. Ever. A few months ago, a pair of my gym pants went missing, and I guarantee you I will obsess over that for-EVER. Not because they were great pants, but because I. DON’T. LOSE. THINGS. My belongings were the only constant in my life, growing up, and after living alone for so long, my stuff became my companion through all my moves, all my life changes… you get the idea.

So, when this folder came up missing, I lost it. I’m still freaking out about it. I have an idea of what likely happened to it, but without confirmation, I feel like my world is out of control, that I’m not responsible or reliable, and can’t count on myself for ANYTHING. I cried about it, several times, including on the phone with C while he’s a thousand miles away and can’t do anything to help.

I also cried during my first wedding dress fitting this past Sunday, because I haven’t lost the weight I wanted to lose, and because if I don’t lose the 15-20 extra pounds, then what’s the point of having a pretty dress because I’m going to look terrible and hate our wedding photos for all of eternity and I’m a failure because I had all this time to do the work and I didn’t do it.

I have been beating myself up over not having a job making twice the money I’m making right now; over not losing weight and getting in shape, which is apparently a moral failing on my part; over not being able to afford a new car; over not making more money so C doesn’t have to travel as much; over not being a better friend, family member, and partner; over not being the perfect student…

I’m exhausted with myself. And I see now, these were all just prerequisites for worthiness that I was inflicting on myself.

Because of the transitory nature of my upbringing – all the moves, the changes, the family dynamic shifts – I think that my need to control things was born of a need to feel some semblance of stability, security, and safety. It’s the place from where my perfectionism stems; my sometimes overwhelming need or desire to control perceptions, outcomes, and whatever else I can get my hands on. Not because I think I’m better than everyone else and am the only one who can do things right; instead, it’s because I’m the only one I can, will, and should answer to.

So I’ve been struggling with feeling like I’m not enough. Not thin enough, successful enough, strong enough, smart enough, pretty enough, young enough… and I’ve been finding ways to reaffirm that messaging. Not intentionally, mind you; it’s just the way my brain seems to work. It’s really easy to find ways to sabotage your sense of self-worth, especially if you let yourself get overwhelmed with stressors and other things that take your defenses down. If you’re not inherently secure, then it’s work. Necessary, important, and worthwhile work… but work, nonetheless.

I am incredibly fortunate to have people in my life who remind me when I forget. Carter loves me unconditionally and wholeheartedly; he reminds me to try and do the same. But it’s unfair to put the onus on anyone else, to ask THEM to do MY emotional labor. I’ve got work to do. It’s always there, ever-present, and some days it’s easy. Some days I can see my value and know I’m worth fighting for. But some days, the demons rear their ugly-ass heads and try to tell me different.

Noelle the wonder-therapist says that one of the best ways to combat anxiety – which, for me, presents itself as perfectionism and the need to control things – is to just call it out for what it is. Recognize it, acknowledge it, and move along. It certainly helps to take the sting out, seeing it all for what it really is. And THAT is why the baring of the soul is so damned important. Shining a light on things instead of trying to hide them… that’s how you heal. Shining the light, and doing the work.

Happy birthday to me, then. My gift to myself is the freedom to do what I can, and to have that be ENOUGH. ❤

Driving it home.

One of my co-workers died of an overdose this past week.

I’m finding that I don’t really know the “right” way or the best way or the most respectful or honoring or correct way to talk about this, or if I should even talk about it at all. But as is often the case in death, we evaluate how we, the living, are impacted. In working for an agency that provides addiction recovery services for women, and in being a woman who battled my own addictions years ago, who spent a lot of time in the rooms with a lot of other fellow battlers, a lot of my own personal connections were made with her loss. A lot of tender spots were troubled.

She was a former client who’d gone through one of our programs and then came to work with/for us. I remember meeting with her on her first day of work, and there were times over her tenure that I helped her with various IT-related things. The last time I saw her was in the lobby of our building; she noticed my back tattoo and came over to pull my shirt back and take a look. She loved it, and said so, and it was a sweet moment quickly interrupted by the usual chaos of the reception desk.

We had an all-staff meeting to talk about her loss, to open up the discussion to everyone struggling, honoring the different ways we all grieve. Grace was asked for and given. It was absolutely the best way to address something like this, considering our line of work, our relationships with her and each other, and knowing how many would be impacted. Having counselors on staff who could address the important parts, and calling in a therapist from our EAP to be available for anyone in need, helped.

But the most touching and important part was when someone relayed a story of the last time she’d seen her. She (the storyteller, who I’ll call G) was at a desk, head down, doing some work. Our co-worker called G’s name, and G acknowledged it without looking up. She called G’s name again, this time prompting her to look up and see tears running down our co-worker’s face. She was struggling, and sad, and asked G for a hug. G took the time to remind her of how loved and important she is, how much she matters to so many people. Our co-worker said something to the effect of, “I wish I could believe it.”

I remember saying, thinking, and feeling that exact same thing the day I walked out of treatment the first time. I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t done yet, that I wasn’t worthy of sobriety, that I wasn’t ready and wasn’t loved and wasn’t meant for anything other than the drugs that were waiting for me on the other side. After a few days with nothing in my system, I was panicking at everything I was thinking and feeling, but at the same time, it was like nothing could penetrate the walls I’d erected. Some of the staff and clients tried to talk me out of leaving, telling me they loved me and wanted me to stay. I remember crying tears of resolution and defeat as I said, “I hear what you’re saying – I just can’t FEEL it.”

I am fortunate to have survived after going back out; not everyone does.

When I learned of her passing this week, I was immediately transported back to the time when I was sober, going to meetings, working the steps, trudging the road to happy destiny with so many other strugglers and survivors. I remember learning that someone from my home group had relapsed; he went out drinking, passed out outside, and he froze to death. I thought of my friend Paul who I met in the 3/4 house I lived in for 15 months after treatment. He was close to a cherished ex back then, and I’d been grateful to reconnect; I was supposed to visit him in NY about five years ago, but when I went to reach out on Facebook to talk about plans, I learned that he’d died two nights earlier. And then all of our conversations prior to that made a lot more sense; the struggle I’d detected underneath the bravado and humor he’d done his best to maintain.

Somewhere along the way, I got used to learning of people dying from their addictions, and I think that’s what hit me the hardest of all. I don’t want to get used to this. I don’t want to be numbed to the fact that this shit is hard, and scary, and real. It may just be one of my own defense mechanisms, to protect me from re-living just how close I’m sure I came to meeting my own demise. And when I think about that time in my life and compare it to the beautiful life I have now… well, I breathe an enormous, anxious, guilty sigh of relief that I’ve managed to overcome.

Not everyone gets there.

Addiction is different for everyone who goes through it. What gets you there, what keeps you there, and what gets you out of it – if you get out of it alive or at all – is unique to every single person who experiences it. I’ve been asked what I think it is that got me through it; I can attribute some of it to having a solid, loving family; some of it to doing all the hard work I’ve done (and continue to do) emotionally and spiritually; some of it to the people I met and loved along the way who showed me how to live; and some of it to pure, dumb-ass luck.

But because it’s unique, there’s no one cause, no one simple fix. And it is horribly unfair, unrealistic, and simplistic to make sweeping generalizations about addiction, or the people who live it. I am able to drink wine these days without fear of falling back into using heroin or cocaine or methamphetamines, but that doesn’t mean I get to rest on my laurels with the emotional work I’m doing, and it doesn’t mean I’m “cured” or that anyone else could or would have my same experience. And because of that, I will absolutely spend my life correcting those faulty assumptions people make about addiction, because those assumptions can be damaging – even deadly.

All of this to say… I could have been her. And to me, the heartbreaking part is she could have been me. It took a really long time, and a lot of devoted, loving friends, family, and now, Carter, to hold presence and remind me how loved and lovable I am. It took years of undoing all the self-loathing and insecurity and fears I’d amassed. There are still moments where I can’t feel it, can’t believe it, and need to be reminded, but those moments are few and far between, and I have the confidence, wisdom, and trust that they’ll pass. They always do. And I think that’s the golden spot we all strive to reach; not perfect confidence that never waivers, but unearthing and amplifying that little voice that tells you to just hold on until the hard parts pass.