Silence

Monday

August 6th, 2018

I’m two days into my social media fast, and one thing is abundantly clear: I have no idea how to be quiet.

I spent the first two hours of my day in bed watching Hulu. As I finally made coffee and breakfast (at lunch time), I put in my earbuds and listened to music as loud as I could. While I ate, I listened to a podcast and texted a friend.

I love a good Hulu drama. I love hiphop and cheesy ballads. And I love podcasts and texting. But the whole reason I decided to cut myself off from my mindless and compulsive use of social media for an extended period of time is because I need some silence. The world itself is loud, and here I am creating so much noise of my own, almost without realizing it.  So to be struggling this much only two days into the month seemed a little extra pathetic, so I decided to try something new as the podcast ended and I closed out of the app.

My large cat Oscar was curled up all warm and heavy on my lap. My second cup of coffee sat unfinished next to me on the table. I can stay here, I told myself. I took a deep breath and set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes of stillness, of silence. I could probably do this.

I tried to quiet my mind, to turn the thought part of my brain off. I didn’t need sentences to experience sensory observations. I tried to just be exactly where I was without judgment or commentary. I noticed the sway of my window blinds in the corner of my eye and the soft tap of them bumping together, caught in the steady flow of air from the vent in the far wall of my apartment. I closed my eyes and felt my pulse steady and pronounced in my neck from the caffeine. Oscar twitched softly in his sleep,  opening his eyes suddenly at the sound of a particularly loud bird near the window. His eyes closed again, and I focused on the rise and fall of my belly with each breath.  Being still is hard.

I had my feet propped on a wooden dining room chair, and they began to look slightly blue due to lack of circulation. My little experiment was starting to seem like an eternity. I checked the timer on my phone. Three and a half minutes remaining. I felt myself starting to panic slightly. Just for a moment, I let my mind drift back to my church camp days.

Once a day during camp, we were encouraged to take our devotionals and Bibles off to a quiet place to study and pray. All across the grounds, students and adults sat down under big trees, lay belly down on porches near the lake, or stretched out on top bunks in cabins. Some of us had eyes closed, heads bowed. Others, like me, took a more open-eyed anxious approach. I remember spending most of that time wondering if I was doing it all right. That feeling came rushing back to me now. If I had nothing to report afterwards, was it really worth it? You don’t have to share any of this, a voice within me seemed to say. Just wait.

I began to accept that the remaining time would pass without any huge revelations. The timer startled me back to my dining room table, and I sat for a few more moments in silence. I laughed softly to myself, feeling crazy because I didn’t know what to do next. And then, just for a moment, I felt like I was about to cry.

In the absence of my go to distractions like music, lengthy facebook status updates, or snap chat videos, I was overcome with my unfamiliarity with true peace and stillness. Two years living alone, and I’d never let myself truly know it. I was overwhelmed by my disconnect from others, my inability to pray for more than a few seconds, and all the traumas I thought I’d processed, but maybe had only watched through the distorted lens of my own writing and social media posts.

In the days to come, I plan to continue this new practice of stillness without expectation. Just to see where it takes me. Maybe there’s no quick way to get everything back together. In fact, I’m sure there’s not. But I think learning to be alone, to shut my mind off long enough to actually feel a true feeling or experience an actual experience is probably a good foundation for all the other work I have before me.

“Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always in every way. The Lord be with you all.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16

 

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Trying On Courage: A Father’s Day Reflection

My mind is abuzz with many intersecting topics on this Father’s Day because as many of you know and have witnessed through the last several years, my relationship with my dad has been pretty complicated. I write this with so much compassion and tenderness for the many people I know who are without a father today. I pray that I write this with grace and humility in a way that brings hope to any of you dealing with the pain of absence, abuse, addiction, or grief. I believe healing happens in many ways. This has just been my particular experience of healing.

As I grew up, I generally felt no emotional connection to my dad. We rarely hugged or talked one on one. The exception was when he would share his hobbies with me. He spent many hours each week in a factory, so in his down time he enjoyed being outside hunting or training his dogs. He would take me to shoot skeet at the gun range with him or run our bird dogs. I still remember the whoosh of the pheasants breaking free from the brush where the dogs had pointed. Then the pop of his shot gun. The crack as he twisted the birds’ neck and stuffed them into the pocket of his bright orange safety vest. We walked spread out, our boots crunching to their own rhythms. We would drive home in his pickup truck, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking about faith or the confusing parts of life. There was a quiet distance between us, but I liked trying to know him more, even if it was scary sometimes.

From my father I also learned about the spectrum of human emotion. I saw him laugh and cry, yell and whisper, but most of the time he had a darkness around him. Even as a child, long before my own therapy sessions and knowledge of mental health, I saw a man who was deeply lonely, angry, restless. It ate him alive. He is one of the smartest people I know, gifted and in many ways self-taught, as he never finished his college education. But he always seemed to feel trapped in a job he hated, constantly worried about providing for his kids and wife, yet never really making that interpersonal connection them. It’s no wonder to me now that he drank, even that he was drinking long before I ever realized it. He carried that secret with him, hating himself, still alone and afraid. I used to be angry that he was an alcoholic, but now it just makes me sad he went through it by himself.

He had divorced and remarried before ever getting any help for his addiction. His wife forced him to go to rehab to save his life. She told him to dump out all his bottles, but he told me he dumped them down his throat instead. (Recovery humor is weird, guys.)  He said getting sober was actual hell. His addiction was so severe that getting sober meant facing DTs under medical supervision before he could even go to inpatient rehab. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, the guilt that descended on him more and more as his mind returned and he had to face the person he had been. He wanted to be better, but as I had to learn for myself, getting your life back together after living in addiction is very disorienting. And even the best efforts can still end with failure–something a lot of people don’t understand.

My dad had just gotten out of rehab for the second time when he came to pick up me up the day I got kicked out of my own rehab program for snorting pills. My mom was too angry to deal with me at the time, but he was calmer than I’d ever seen him. For the first time in my life, I truly understood him in a different way. I had messed up in rehab, but I’d still spent a lot of time facing my troubled relationship with him, as well as admitting how similar we were. The anger, the fear, the loneliness, just wanting to be numb. We understood each other through the lens of recovery in a deep way. I felt myself beginning to forgive him long before I was ready to forgive myself.

We went to AA meetings together for awhile before I got lost in my addictions again. He knew but didn’t judge. The truth is I had judged him so harshly for his drinking, yet even two years out of rehab I wasn’t ready to really be sober myself yet. I was too scared. I don’t know for sure if he relapsed after that second rehab stay, but even if he did, I celebrate his courage for not stopping there. The courage to self-identify as an alcoholic after years of denying and hiding. The courage to keep trying. That matters to me far more than the number of days he went without a drink.

I also celebrate my own courage today. The courage to keep the lines of communication open with him, to let him hug me and give his input on my medical school plans, even if we don’t see eye to eye, because I know that by giving him a chance, I’m offering him a different quality of life. I celebrate my courage to forgive the things he said and did when he was drinking in the same way I forgive myself for the person I was when I was ruled by my own addictive behaviors. We still often don’t connect in the ways I wish we would, but he’s in my life now, and I want him there. Today we continue to walk our own paths in the brush, but this time in the grace of second and third and fourth chances. This time we walk in the grit it takes to look in the mirror and see both our goodness  and our ugliness, to own it, and then to carry on anyway.

Unglued

The automatic door swung open just in time for my body to slip through. I tugged at my coat zipper, jerking it all the way up to my chin, then balled my hands into fists and shoved them in my pockets. My breath came in shaky, shallow bursts. And right there on the sidewalk outside Meijer, I wept.

To anyone passing by, I might have looked like I’d gotten a call about a death in the family. Or maybe that someone had stolen my wallet at gun point. But the truth? The truth was that I didn’t really know why I was so upset.

I’ve had several similar “episodes” in the last few months, and they’re almost always at work. They’re almost always when I’m with people. Anything seems to trigger them: a snippy customer, a manager disagreeing with me, an innocent text from my mother that I’ve read too much into. When I’m cashiering, I look down at screaming toddlers begging for a Snicker bar and see myself. Coming unglued, having a meltdown, losing my shit—whatever phrase works best. That’s what I do. That’s how I am.

When the feelings pass, I’m physically exhausted. I sit in my car watching the window defrost or pace from the couch to the kitchen to my bed to the door. I try to pick up the pieces of myself, grasping at ideas and emotions and memories like the stray items of clothing scattered around my apartment. I put away my phone and close the blinds, journaling or soaking in a hot bath or binging on cookies as I go over everything all over again. I pick at my skin and my eyebrows. I turn the music up loud in my ears and dance. I crawl on hands and knees through my apartment picking up loose change. I masturbate. I wander into the grocery store in the middle of the night, sweaty and head pounding, looking for something sugary. I text a friend. What the fuck is wrong with me? And then it’s over. The light around me changes and it’s a new day and I’m sipping coffee and I’m hoping for the best and I’m clocking into another day of work. And so the cycle goes. When I fall out of routine, I fall apart.

When I was in rehab, my days were organized around much different patterns. (And I fucking miss those patterns). I was always with others, awake and talking and thinking and writing from 6 am until nearly 11pm, seven days a week for three weeks. With the exception of a single hour of individual counseling each week, every single emotion had to be addressed and processed publically. Our secrets keep up sick. The staff taught us to communicate. And not in the ways we were used to. Instead of storming in and out of conversations or lighting up or pouring a drink, we had to learn to say what we meant, even if we said it imperfectly. In group therapy sessions, when someone asked how we were doing, we were forbidden to use general words. Ok, fine, I’m good. Bullshit.  Our daily and weekly chore rotation taught us to depend on each other. If the shower drains were clogged with hair, somebody had to answer for it. If somebody left their personal items in personal space, we all suffered the consequences.

Maybe some of this stuff sounds pretty basic. Like many of my peers, I grew up in a home with lots of rules and expectations. I was supposed to make my bed and take my laundry in every day. None of this stuff was new knowledge after two years of heavy drinking. But it also kind of was. Active addiction disrupts some of our most basic instincts. Cleanliness, promptness, and awareness of others aren’t mind-blowing concepts for healthy people, but they were to me. I had to relearn the simple ritual of sitting at a table three meals a day. I had to relearn to shower and wear clean clothes. And I had to relearn to laugh and cry sober. Apparently I’m still learning most of that stuff.

Six days out of the week, my kitchen sink is full of dishes, the litter boxes reek, my bed isn’t made, and most of my clothes are dirty. I’m also usually consumed by some form of moodiness or frustration. But the good news is that I sleep 8 hours most nights and shower most mornings. I take a multivitamin and drink at least one glass of milk every day. I’m not spending $50 dollars or more each week on weed. I’m not lying or cheating. I’m mostly just cleaning and reading, petting my cats or watching movies. I spend less time reliving hard moments from my past and more time imagining what the future will be like. And that doesn’t mean things are easy or that I’m doing especially well. I have less than a dollar in my bank account and there’s way too much cat hair on my work uniform. But the way I see it, anytime I’m in the present moment at least trying to deal with my feelings or thoughts is a moment I’m actually living. And I guess that’s a pretty cool thing. We’re all a little rough around the edges. And we’re all a little unglued.

Just For Today: An Update

My life doesn’t look much different from the outside. I still wear an ugly red polo at the same old job. I still don’t have very much (or any) in my savings account, and even after spending three months in Lithuania, my reading and writing skills are still in the English language.

But on the inside, my interior is even more complicated. I’ve been through a lot of change in a really short time. Many people don’t know that I was actually sent home early from Lithuania because of my drinking. And then I went to rehab for 21 days before I was sent home for abusing a prescription medication. Then, shortly after getting home, I spent another evening with wine before I showed up to an AA meeting the next day to pick up my fourth startover chip in 2 months. Now, according to an app on my iPhone, I’ve been sober from alcohol and other drugs for 7 days. I switched cigarettes for vaping and AA fresh brew for the moscato I loved so much. I take Wellbutrin instead of Vyvanse and a sleeping medication instead of abusing Bendadryl or taking one too many Melatonin tablets before bedtime. Some people call this sobriety. I call it really fucking hard.

Much to everyone’s confusion and disappointment, I have not graduated from IWU; I haven’t even finished all my classes from the fall semester of my senior year. I’ve spent many a late night with a pen in hand scribbling out the questions I would ask of God about how I got to where I am. Why can’t I finish anything? Why do I isolate myself over and over again? The answer is simple: I’m a flawed human being with a lot of hurts. But I’m also capable of healing and growth. And even though it’s been ugly and imperfect, that’s what the setbacks and outright failures of the last year have been about. Before I was really ready to recognize that I was a person with an illness and in need of help, I could not start getting better.

In rehab, we used the word insanity to describe our illness and our thought patterns. I was insane when I got in my car to drive after I had a bottle of wine. I was insane when I got angry with the treatment facility when they told me I couldn’t use my vyvanse anymore. I was insane when I romanticized my own pain as I stood dark and cold on the coast of the Baltic Sea. I was insane to think I was too good to ask for help.

Rehab also taught me that if I keep trying, if I take things one day at a time, the mental obsession over drinking and using I once had will be lifted. Who or what exactly does that lifting is really outside the scope of my understanding, but I know there’s gotta be some power greater than me at work in this world and in my life. Most of the time, I find that at the tables of AA meetings. The group is smarter, more loving, and more prepared than I am on my own. Admitting that has taken courage and humility—two things I haven’t had much of for quite some time now. The first step is showing up. The second is drinking the coffee and admitting when it sucks–when all of it sucks.

In the rooms of AA, posters say things like Easy does it! and First things first! At first I was furious. These sayings are terribly cliché and just plain obnoxious. Like who the fuck do these people think they are using kindergarten phrases at me when I have the culture shock and the anxiety that naturally accompanies the early days of sobriety? But the truth is that “these people” have ruined their lives far worse than I did mine, and they learned the hard way that all they had was today to do the most good they could. I should have asked myself who the fuck I thought I was to try to quit drinking on my own.

I’ve come to find freedom in the 24 hours I have. I find freedom, crazy as it sounds, in the idea of taking simple steps in the right direction. Staying sober is only the beginning. My journey out of wreckage and into a group of like-minded people is about finding myself and my will to live again. I’m not afraid of being ordinary anymore. I’m much more afraid of being a lonely drunk.

Here’s to to today.

“We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  Step 2, Alcoholics Anonymous

The time of my life…and depression

When I told people I was going to study abroad in Lithuania, the reaction was always the same:

“You are going to have so much fun!”

or

“That’s a once in a lifetime experience—soak it up!”

or

“You’re going to learn so much.”

 

And all of those people were right. This is so much fun. This is an experience I probably won’t ever have again. And I have learned so much.

But what those people don’t know (and what I hadn’t expected), was to be so far from home and all of my problems, and still somehow be more depressed, anxious, and lost than I’ve ever been.

This is part of the story no one wants to hear. The pictures I post on facebook are happy. The jokes I tell in class are (sometimes) funny. But, as I’ve told some of my closest friends, inside I feel hollow and empty, like heavy cotton balls have replaced my heart and my brain.

The problem with depression is we can’t always explain it. I could sit down and tell you every sad thing that’s ever happened to me, but that’s not the depression. The depression is the part that makes me numb—the part that makes me drink alone or stand in a freezing cold smoke hut in the middle of the night, trying to feel something, anything. One day last week I got in my bed and tried to make myself cry, but nothing. Depression is nothing.

Or sometimes I feel the sadness getting closer and I get so scared that I run. Like yesterday, when I got out of bed without brushing my teeth or changing my clothes and just got on a bus. And when I missed my stop, I just kept sitting there until the bus driver said, “Viskas.” That’s all. I said, “Oh ok, viskas.” And then I got off the bus in a part of town I’d never seen before. And I wasn’t even scared. Depression is being lost and not giving a single fuck. Depression is wondering into a grocery store and buying the first thing I see, just so I have something to hold onto.

Every night at a house across the street from my dorm, a German shepherd  barks for hours, over and over again. It’s so pointless. Sometimes I feel the same way, like my whole life is just a bunch of noise playing on repeat. But on the outside, I smile and laugh. I pretend that everything inside is still in order. But actually, inside is chaos, cold like the Lithuanian nights that set that dog to barking and barking and barking.

 

 

Here: Study Abroad Update

home

 

When I said goodbye to my family at Chicago O’Hare a month ago, I looked back twice. The first time, they were standing there waving at me, proud and scared as I was. The second time, they were gone, their places filled by strangers bumbling from one place to the next. I gripped the straps of my back pack around my shoulders and took a deep breath, and then another, and then another until I was ready. For what exactly I couldn’t say. But I felt ready. Ready to leave, ready to try. Just ready all at once.

But precisely what makes travel so exciting and powerful is the fact that I’m not actually ready—a reality I’ve had to face repeatedly in a myriad of mundane settings since I arrived in Lithuania. Ordering food, buying a bus ticket, trying to pronounce a new acquaintance’s name. No amount of packing, prayer, or day-dreaming makes someone ready for what travel actually is: a stubborn and clumsy rebirth.  This process of awakening and adaptating is ugly and imperfect. Like the time I tipped and then kept tipping the hairdresser until I realized she was still just trying to understand what “Do I tip you now or later?” meant. Or the time I mispronounced “student discount” on the bus. Or the time I stood before a class of adult English-learners and used too many technical grammar terms, my methodological blindspots showing clearly to my cooperating teacher as the class looked at each other, completely confused.

And it’s not just that the rebirthing process is often awkward. Sometimes it’s just disappointingly cyclical. No matter how well I’ve begun to learn the streets or the social cues, I find myself walking in circles. For every landmark and memorial I’ve visited, I always see the same old me reflected back at me in ways that aren’t always comfortable. Here I am, an American. Here I am, human. Wandering, searching, fumbling human. Here I am—running away from home, but always finding it again in myself. Here I am, all on my own but never really alone. Here I am, maybe not ready, but stepping into myself day by day in good faith. Being reborn again and again and again… Here I am in Lithuania. Here I am, going home.

Remembering

“I can see why you like fall so much,” my counselor says after we’re quiet for a while. I nod and glance at the red-numbered alarm clock on the book shelf to my right. 9:40. From her office window upstairs I can see a few students making their way along the sidewalk that hugs the outer wall of Jackson Library. They scatter themselves like points on a graph. Rise over run, their locations for a moment fixed, calculable. I am somewhere off the grid. Anonymous, I tell my counselor. No one can see the axis I run.

“I’m surprised you’re doing as well as you are,” she says.

I am leaning forward on the little couch in her office, my shoulders digging into my thighs as I look down at the cup of tea in my hands. Beads of condensation hang from the plastic lid like suspended tears.

“I think I just miss when we were all together, even if we still had our issues,” I say, placing the tea back on the table and resting one foot on the opposite knee, remembering. I say that sometimes it was so cold when we camped that we just stood around the fire complaining, but we loved it. I say it was like we were making fun of ourselves—like we were home.

I tell my counselor about our travel trailer, about the bunk beds me and my brother used, mostly for staying up late and giggling on fall weekends. I tell her about big bowls of chili and cans of cherry coke and the way the October leaves looked at Brown County State Park. She smiles. She knows exactly what I mean. Life before divorce. Life after divorce. We pause for a moment. 9:55. It’s not good to dwell on the past too long. I have to stay in the present. I pick up my lukewarm tea and make my way out the door, shifting along my axis in a new direction. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m moving again.

The memories are too much to carry, so I stuff them back. The happys and sads shuffle over one another like playing cards. They tuck neatly away into some general box I label “the past.” I’ll hold them again, flipping through them in that quiet way the next time my counselor says, “And how did you feel when…”

How did I feel? How did I feel when? This won’t be hard to remember, but I’ll take a long time getting the words out.