Monthly Archives: March 2013

Part 3: Emotional Attachment

blog4-attachmentSome time ago I was working with my friend and mentor, Terri. I was bitterly complaining about my ex-wife and two kids. They weren’t speaking to me and it was killing me. I was going on about the impossibility of the situation and how much pain I was in and how it could never be repaired and how awful a person I was for letting things get the way they were. Terri was listening patiently and making rational comments about the whole deal. She was calm and positive, and seemingly unaffected by my stream of awfulness.


Finally, we got out of my car and walked toward her house. “How can you be so calm and rational about this?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “I’m not emotionally attached to it.”

There are moments in recovery where someone says something that sets me on a path to discovery. This was one of those moments.

My immediate response was along the lines of, “Yeah, okay. Right.” But I also began to realize I didn’t fully understand the implications of what emotional attachment meant. As I have many other times in my recovery, I set about spending the next couple of weeks exploring its meaning.


I realize I am highly sensitive and I am finally beginning to recognize this as a gift. Most of my life, however, I’ve considered it an insult when someone would say, “You’re SO sensitive!” But now my sensitivity, coupled with a new and productive sense of purpose and direction, allows me an extraordinary capacity for empathy and intuition, it enhances my creativity, and allows me to work well with others who are suffering and in need of direction. My sensitivity has finally become my ally.

My ego and my stomach share a lot in common. Both are constantly looking to be full. When one starts feeling empty, my wonderfully crafted body sends a signal to my brain that presents me with a ping of anxiety and prompts me to do something about it. My ego is constantly monitoring my sense of validity among my peers, and when it interprets signals indicating I am invalid in some way, I get a ping of anxiousness that prompts me to react. In my old ways of thinking, I responded by taking actions such as buying a new car, or nicer clothes, or consuming a mood-altering substance that bypassed the normal pathways of my neural circuitry and gave me a feeling of relief. Meanwhile, the issue wasn’t resolved, I just temporarily felt better.

For me, I’ve come to think of emotional attachment as allowing a person or thing to define me in some way. That’s not to say emotional attachment is a bad thing, it’s neither good nor bad in and of itself – it’s how we work with it that becomes tricky.


With my high degree of sensitivity, my emotional attachments can be healthy, or severe and sometimes disabling. I’ve discovered a tandem characteristic to attachments: my ability to reason becomes severely hampered and my emotional responses can go “off the charts.” I can experience overwhelming love or, unfortunately, I can really get hurt and experience great pain. Basically, when I become emotionally attached to something or someone, my reasoning goes out the window – “See ya! Bye bye.” I’ve lost it.

Part of my recovery has been finding ways to understand attachments, recognize when I am involved with an attachment, and make sure I am applying a reasonable, productive approach to the situation. But how? I’ve just stated my ability to reason vacates the premises! If I have interpreted the attachment as hurtful or negative, I also get a visit from my “awfulizer”gene. This gene sequence guarantees everything I ponder is somehow awful, my past is now awful – there are lots of negatives and they, of course, are all my fault – and it has an enhanced “time-machine” feature which allows me to project into the future so that I may prepare myself for all the awful things that are positively, one-hundred percent about to happen. Things will never get better. The awfulizer gene also has the inherent capability to turn all thoughts into absolute facts. Do not dispute these facts; my awfulizer gene guarantees them!

So, again, what do I do about this?

Interestingly, I go back to the beginning of this post where I discussed my friend Terri sitting patiently, listening to my awfulizing about my ex-wife and estranged kids, and responding rationally and positively. She was not emotionally attached and her brain was clear of the swirling cloud of angst afflicting my reasoning. Not only was she able to be free of the brain-clutter, but she was also able to show me an example of how to help others do the same – that is, she might say, “Tom, here are the facts, okay? And this stuff over here is stuff you’re currently making up right now because you are hurting, and I’m sorry you’re hurting. When you hurt, you tend to awfulize, ya know? I mean, maybe they were really emotionally caught up in the thing and each of them really identified with each other. Who knows? People aren’t always beacons of good mental health.”

She’s teaching me this process. It’s not all that easy for me, but it’s helping me learn to look outside of myself. And this process is teaching me how to help others who are in need, like I am when I get lost in emotional attachments.

There’s a passage in some of the recovery literature I read frequently. The first time I read it, it struck me like a palm to the forehead. “Finally, we begin to see that all people, including ourselves, are to some extent emotionally ill as well as frequently wrong, and then we approach true tolerance and see what real love for our fellows actually means. It will become more and more evident as we go forward that it is pointless to become angry, or to get hurt by people who, like us, are suffering from the pains of growing up.” Wow. Other people are suffering too.

It goes on to say, “Learning daily to spot, admit, and correct these flaws is the essence of character-building and good living. An honest regret for harms done, a genuine gratitude for blessings received, and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we will seek.”

—-


Geez. You know, I write about this like it’s a simple process. But it’s not! I think about my early recovery and I realize it was pure hell. It’s taken so much time to start to grasp this. It has taken me experiencing the process time and time again for it to start to sink in; a track record of living through it, practicing these new approaches, experiencing the value of observing myself work through it, looking back on my meager successes, having someone experienced and skilled enough to hold my hand and give me confidence, exposing myself over and over again to new principles, learning from the examples of others, and a host of other recovery insights I haven’t even covered yet.

“Time takes time,” I’d hear them say. I hated that statement. I modified it to, “It requires a period of acclimation.” Somehow I find that more palatable.


An early counselor in my recovery said, “Tom, the most important thing you can do for your recovery is to become a self-advocate. Ask for what you need. Go after it. You deserve it.”

Humbly,

Tom

Continue to Part 4: Asking For Help

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Part 2: The Wheels On The Bus Go Round

ImageA friend said, “I’ve got a lot of crazy people on my bus, and I’ve come to be okay with that – as long as none of them are driving.”

Yeah, me too I think; I’m at that place as well – at least most of the time. But there are certainly times when I watch some of my old thinking work its way back up into the driver’s seat. Sometimes it happens abruptly and before I even realize what’s going on.

I’ve made some respectable strides in recovery. However, I’m still working on being comfortable around people, especially in social settings. I’ve built my sense of social inadequacy into some major self-defining, Mount Olympus type challenge that will clearly indicate my level of social worthiness. Yes, I can still be prone to dramatics.

So, I’ve been sticking one foot in front of the other and going out to lunch with people. It’s a challenge for me to sit at a lunch table with others and try to be a part of the conversation. Some people find this easy to do. I don’t happen to be one of those people – at least not yet. And that’s okay.

This week I went to lunch with three other people. One was more or less preoccupied with their phone for most of the lunch. The other two were deeply engaged in describing their experience and reflections on a recent difficult event. I listened attentively, nodded my head, smiled or grimaced where appropriate, tried to enter a comment here or there, but after ten minutes or so, I decided I was not a part of the conversation. In my mind, at that point, they were clearly in a love-fest and I wasn’t invited  – and as I watched, my old, negative thinking started inching up into the driver’s seat. Before long, I decided I was boring and socially inept. When my meal was done, I bolted. I had trouble even saying goodbye.  I drove away feeling there was something wrong with me. For the next couple of hours I asked myself why I was trying to be social in the first place. I heard myself say I’m not capable of small-talk, and I should not have gone there. It lasted a couple of hours and then I recovered – I tend to do that now.

The Shitstorm.

Yes, I curse. A lot. Not yet during this blog experiment, but I will.

A “shitstorm” is a phrase a friend and I coined for sitting down and writing about whatever is bugging the crap out of me. When I get emotionally constipated, I start to feel like I can’t move through something that is blocking me; something that is making me feel hopeless. So, I write. I let it all hang out. I don’t try to be a wonderfully-minded, mature person. I just write whatever is coming to my mind. Then I review it with a friend, make amazing discoveries, and feel a since of growth, new-found strength, and quite often visit a place of contentment and “okayness.” There’s a whole list of benefits I could list as result of writing shitstorms. At some point, I will go over them in detail.

Here’s a portion of the shitstorm I wrote this week. It’s pretty ugly and self-damning in places but there are also glimpses of recovery-minded thinking. It’s also a clear indication of what it looks like when I let the crazy person drive the bus.

Insert Shitstorm:

So, this week at lunch with Smug, Shrilly and Jack. What do I want to say about that? Hmm… Well, it’s unfortunate I can let poor social encounters take me to a bad, self-destructive place so easily. However, it’s pretty fucking cool that I can extract my head back out of my ass within a couple of hours -verses days. So why the fuck did it bother me so much? Let me see if I can say:

1. It has always been deeply painful to feel “less than” or separate from others; to feel like I don’t belong or that there is something wrong with me. Very painful. It’s been happening since I was a little kid. Always hurt like hell, too. I can remember many scenes from childhood where I felt like I didn’t belong. It made me want to crawl in a hole and never come out. It seems certain that these type feelings were a major inspiration for my drinking as well. No big news there. Happens to a lot of folk – especially alcoholics from what I’ve heard. It is however, especially painful that I can be this far along in my recovery and still be vulnerable to it, and that my response to it is still so acute! Fuck! I mean, there must be some quantification of mental illness that measures how quickly a person gets overwhelmed by such negative emotions, which would probably mean I’m still pretty damn sick. Maybe that’s what bothered me the most about Monday’s lunch. Then, a couple of hours later, the recovery-minded thoughts kicked in and I realized maybe there’s also a quantification of mental illness that measures how quickly a person recovers from such negative thinking – and I felt better.

(*Note: I should mention here that I don’t even know exactly what happened at the lunch. I just felt like I had nothing to say, that nothing I could have said would have been worth the diaphragm energy to produce it, and it wouldn’t have been listened to anyway – I would just be temporarily interrupting the love-fest. I felt like “out of respect” I would sit there and listen so I could tell myself I had accomplished my part in stepping up to the plate and taking on the challenge of going out and trying to be social. Once my food was done and I had sat there the compensatory 5 minute post-meal segment, I was outta there.)

2. Here’s the hard stuff for me to admit: I envy the fact that folks can sit there and make such lovely emotional contact with each other – all the wonderful smiles and support and body language and cooing over each other, even as they gave multiple examples of chasing their asses around in circles, digging deeper holes, and wondering what the fuck happened. They could have been talking about the right way to eat potato chips, and they would have been happy to have each other to talk to. I, apparently, don’t have that. Or do I? For whatever reasons, I seem to want to say I can’t or don’t or I never have. I have had sooo many fucking times in my life where I was “a part” of a conversation that I wanted desperately to be actually “involved in” but somehow felt I would have to “dumb down” my thinking and words so I could better identify with what was being said. That seriously sucks on several levels. Whatever. I can still be a defensive, judgmental ass. I drove away from lunch feeling like a loser – the real dipshit. It didn’t fucking matter what was being said. I spent the next two hours wondering why I wasn’t drinking. I thought about my daughters and my certain lack of charisma and how utterly boring I can be; stuck in a place of wonder of how I can so deeply observe the details of behavior but not get to actually participate in any meaningful, rewarding way. Stuck in a somewhat helpless, defensive posturing that comes from some place I don’t understand and that I still want to somehow control; that seems to have a mind of its own, that has a will greater than my own, that puts me in positions that hurt me, separate me, and leave me suffering. Why?

My thinking is so very performance-based; if I do the right things, think the right thoughts, understand and apply spiritual principles, and muffle or subdue my natural tendencies, then I will be worthy. It’s like I live in some performance-based engineering paradigm. It’s also how I interpret the recovery: I have to perform well. Show me the performance parameters and I will work to achieve them. Be proud of my accomplishments and I will then experience self-love. I cannot conceive of what it must be like to love oneself without these conditions. It’s like my brain literally stops without these terms and conditions in place.

Then I wonder why I seem to love my close friends and my family and maybe few others from my past. I seem to be able to love them even though they have characteristics I would not find favorable for my paradigm.

Then I attempt to look at myself in third-person. There’s Tom sitting over there. Interestingly, I kind of like the guy. He’s certainly an interesting character. I can understand why he feels a little awkward at times. I could like him if I met him even though he seems a little intense. I could probably end up being best friends with him. Interesting. Then I come back to first-person and poof, it vanishes; now I don’t like the guy. What the fuck??

Maybe this is so much to do with old thinking. And maybe learning to like myself is so much to do with new thinking. Maybe it’s that simple; retraining my brain. Neuroplasticity. At this very moment, that makes as much sense as anything else I’ve come up with. I mean, when I think about the idea a God loving me unconditionally, it doesn’t fit my performance-based paradigm, that is, I haven’t performed well so why would God accept that? It does not compute. I’m left blank. Geez, it sounds so clinical and devoid of love. It is, however, how I seem to think at times like this. I mean, it makes sense, you know? That’s why I’m so fucking critical of others and why I like getting up into my judgment seat. It also hurts less when they don’t invite me in; I can just say they suck because they don’t perform as well as me. That thinking, of course, does not work and I’m left feeling like a dipshit.

I guess for now, I’m gonna try the third-person exercise for a while. It’s weird but at least I can get something of a glimpse of what it might feel like to be okay with myself independent of my unforgiving performance structure. It is just so completely foreign to me though – completely. What inspired that?

I don’t know if people can understand what it was like to live with my mom. She could be so believably lovable and warm, and then turn around and try to kill herself. She was also regularly acidic and able to spew vitriol at anyone and anything at any moment at the slightest provocation – and I do mean the slightest interpreted provocation. She was mercurial and volatile and explosive and fickle and erratic, then animated and lively and musical and talented and attractive. She had no friends, only husbands and boyfriends. How the fuck does a child come out of that with stable emotions and social acumen?

Dad’s side of the family was stable, hard-working, reliable, positive, enviably funny amongst themselves and perhaps unintentionally aloof. Mom, of course, found no success among them. I guess dad found a pretty, interesting girl and married her, and now she didn’t fit.

In my time and memories with dad and his family, I found regular, stern rebuffs when I didn’t perform within the confines of their performance parameters – including whippings and accompanying stories of their youthful spankings. I also found, however, loving inclusion when I performed correctly. After they had been divorced for a while, I moved back in with dad at age 12. I quickly became disillusioned with his lack of depth and understanding and his seemingly inability to inspire me with love and warmth. He seemed shallow and almost confused and embarrassed by my acting out. His words were angry, hostile, threatening, and only inspired me to become worse. I hated him bitterly for letting me down and not showing me a path to love or acceptance. Unlike my mom, he had no ability to show me warmth and leave me with a feeling of acceptance. It was confusing as fuck.

Why the fuck am I writing all of this? I guess so you’ll say, “Oh fuck, Tom. No wonder you’re so fucked up! I wouldn’t be able to function normally either if I had such an emotionally fucked up youth. You need a special pass on life. You are special. The normal rules of acceptance and performance don’t apply to you. Let’s treat you in a special way. Your progenitors where particularly unsuitable – no wonder you are so deeply disturbed. I think we should grant you special exclusions from the normal responsibilities of adulthood. Let’s see if we can come with a unique plan, lovingly tailored to the needs of an emotionally-stunted individual like yourself. Wow, it’s really amazing how far you’ve managed to progress in life given your unusual handicaps and emotionally retarded parents. I think you deserve recognition, rewards, and special accommodations. Just think of how marvelous you are! Most people like you would be much more fucked up and probably deceased due to self-inflicted wounds. No wonder you’re so sensitive! My, my, you are just so fucking special.”

End of shitstorm.

That is what a shitstorm from me look like. And, as I’ve said before, it is always healing to get that stuff out of my system and down on paper, then go over it with a friend or mentor. This is part of my process – move it out. It is one of many parts to my path to recovery. More to come.

Humbly,

Tom

Continue to Part 3: Emotional Attachments

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Part 1: Getting Started

doorI’m not a writer. I’d like to be, but as with so many other things in my life, I’ve shied away from experimenting with challenges I don’t feel I can do perfectly or respectably; I don’t care for discovering I’m not good at something. I’d rather leave it in limbo my entire life than find out I’m inadequate. But, here I am writing; I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable to potentially negative judgment. Why?

The answer, in part, is because I have found value in it. It turns out the benefit of overcoming fear has had profound results in my sense of well-being. But if you’re like me, overcoming fear requires some serious motivation. At some point in my life, the pain of not making needed changes became greater than the fear of making them. That’s when growth started to occur. It sounds simple enough perhaps but in reality, I had to reach a level of complete desperation; serious life-threatening, institutionalizing-type motivational pain.

So, I need to speak to you from my heart. That will mean I’ll need to write without reservation. Being honest will mean telling you things which may give you pause. You’ll have opportunities to “qualify out,” that is, you may be inclined to say, “I can’t identify with what he’s saying because I haven’t been to a psych ward for five days, or I haven’t lost my job, or I’m still married,” etc. In response, I’ll pass this one by you: If you are not interested in what I have to share, then there’s nothing anyone can say to make you stay. If you are interested in what I have to share, then there’s nothing anyone can say to make you leave.

There’s a wonderful quote I heard that gave me insight into my journey. It’s one of the quotes I hold up as a long term goal. It goes something like this: “The highest form of human intelligence is to observe oneself without judgment.”

Admittedly, that’s a long term goal and perhaps a little advanced for the beginning of our conversation. But it is, nonetheless, an important component of my recovery. It’s one of those moments when I realized that bringing out for review the long-held terms and conditions I’d tried to honor as the rules for my life, putting them out on the table for review, would prove to be incredibly valuable to understanding what I deemed important and where I had perhaps gone wrong. Displaying these rules openly would allow me to make some difficult decisions on what needed to be gotten rid of, what needed to be kept, and what needed to be revised or worked through.

So much of my journey is about healing. Healing for me has meant overcoming impossible constructs of fear, re-establishing relationships in real and honest ways, developing a sense of self-esteem, crying, accepting my flaws and respecting my efforts at improving myself, finding purpose, regularly dwelling in a place of contentment, and knowing I am exactly where I am supposed to be – writing a blog.

It occurs to me now that I want to restate one of my main goals for writing: I want to appeal to those who are suffering, perhaps desperately suffering and in pain. When I first began the process of recovery, I was deeply depressed and suffering enormously. I had reached a point where I just wanted to die, in part because the thought of ending my life was the only form of “relief” I could muster. I would have given anything to find even a glimmer of hope; just a few minutes of of relief. I would have loved to have found someone out there who could understand the pain I felt and somehow attempt to validate me and perhaps allow me to think there was a way out. That is why I write this blog – to let you know I have been there and I know with excruciating detail how you feel. I am here to tell you I found my way out, and I am honored to be able to share it with you. I’ve helped others find their path and there is good reason to believe there is value in this experience I share with you now.

Humbly,

Tom

Continue to Part 2: The Wheels On The Bus Go Round

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Introduction: Personal Insights into Depression, Alcoholism, and Anxiety

ImageTwo and half years ago, I entered recovery. Now the time has come to share my experience and insights into depression, alcoholism, and anxiety.

I’m not a professional blogger. In fact, this is my introductory attempt. It will be a learning experience and I’m looking forward to it.

At first thought, I feel I’d like to accomplish several things. First, perhaps appeal to anyone who is suffering. When I came into recovery, I felt extremely hopeless and devoid of purpose. I had failed – miserably. I had lost my sense of purpose. My only source of relief was thinking of ways to end my life. I had what I now see as “the gift of desperation.” Second, I’d also like to have an outlet for sharing my experience in recovery; how I gained strength and insight into a different way of thinking; a different approach to life.

My plan at this moment is to share my personal experience. I believe this blog may develop much like a story line, so I would recommend, after reading this introduction, you start at Part 1 and move forward sequentially.

I am no expert and I don’t intend to develop an advice column, but I’m pretty sure I will make suggestions that I found useful and productive in my experience.

If that sounds interesting, stay tuned. I will be getting this thing up and running soon.

Humbly,

Tom

Continue to Part 1: Getting Started

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