Real medicine

I knew a lady who was cold. It was early in the morning and she was shivering. She asked her daughter to get her a hot cup of coffee. She hadn’t slept well all night. We have been in a camping event so there wasn’t any central heat. She hadn’t brought enough blankets either. I looked at how she was sitting – all hunched over, hugging her arms to herself. This was a physical coldness and it didn’t need to be fixed by putting something into her, especially a stimulant. That would make her feel worse with her lack of sleep.

Her hair was thinning a little so I offered her a knit cap. We lose most of our heat through our heads. She put the cap on and within 10 minutes she was visibly warmer. She relaxed her shoulders and rested her arms on the table instead of hugging herself. She was a lot more comfortable. It was a simple fix that didn’t require coffee.

I had a coworker who had a headache one day and he asked for a Tylenol. I gave him one. Two days later he said he had another headache. He asked for another Tylenol. I didn’t give him one this time. He was young and needed to learn how to take care of himself. By that I mean more than just buying his own supplies instead of expecting other people to supply his needs.

More importantly, he needed to learn how to take care of himself by fixing the cause and not the symptom. The symptom just points to the cause. I told him to go drink water. If he didn’t feel better after 20 minutes (which is about the same time that a Tylenol would take) then I would give him a Tylenol. He went over to the water fountain had a sip. I said “No, keep drinking until I tell you to stop.” He needed to have 16 ounces of water, not a sip. I watched him drink and counted off the time and then told him to stop.

I forgot about keeping time on purpose. An hour later I pointed out to him that he hadn’t asked for a Tylenol again. His headache was gone.

Likewise, we have a guy who is studying to be a doctor who is there every day at the library. He’s a doctor in another country, but America won’t take his credentials. He has to take the exam here to be licensed here. He’s been studying every day and he’s not been taking care of himself. It is starting to show.

His hair isn’t brushed, his clothes are rumpled, and he now is saying that he can’t sleep and he has a headache. He asked me for a Tylenol. Rather than give him that kind of medicine, I gave him real medicine. Whether he takes it or not is up to him.

Real medicine is to suggest he take time off, go eat healthy food (all he eats is meat and rice), go exercise, and spend time with his wife. He says that he can’t leave his studies. He doesn’t get that if he doesn’t take care of himself, then it doesn’t matter what he studies – it won’t go in.

We’ve talked about preventative medicine before and he blows me off. He’ll make a fine western doctor if he passes. They treat the symptoms and not the cause too.

I tell him about friends of mine who are now off their diabetes medicine because they eat healthy food, exercise, and have lost weight. He thinks I’m lying. He says it isn’t possible.

He even brings his food to the library. Somehow they have an understanding in the department he studies in. He’s got a little crock-pot that he plugs in to heat up his food. He doesn’t even have to cook it. He gets it from his in-laws. When I say he needs to take time away from his studies and go outside the library for lunch, he says he can’t eat anywhere else because he has to eat food that is halal because he’s Muslim. I point out that you can eat vegetarian food and be perfectly safe. He wrinkles his nose at me.

It is hard to watch people drown.

Sure, I could give him a Tylenol. But that is aiding and abetting.

I’d be like the doctor who gave my Dad a prescription for cough medicine, knowing that he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Of course he coughed. Cough medicine isn’t the right medicine. Real medicine would be to refuse to treat him until he stopped smoking. Real medicine would be to direct him to smoking-cessation programs. Real medicine would be to help him learn better ways to deal with stress than smoking.

Real medicine involves hard work, not a pill. Real medicine involves being mindful and disciplined. It features daily exercise, no stimulants, no refined sugar, and lots of vegetables. It includes focusing on breathing. It includes learning to speak up for yourself. It includes being creative. It includes making time to rest. It includes working towards your dreams. It isn’t easy.

Becoming conscious is a lot like becoming sober.

Resolution. On gossip

Making a real resolution to stop saying anything negative or stop gossiping is like making a resolution to stop drinking. It is turning from something bad to something good.

But the problem is that all my old “drinking” buddies are still drinking. All the people who still like to gossip and say negative things are still going to come up to me and try and drag me into it. I can tell them that I no longer want to be part of that life but it doesn’t matter. They haven’t made that decision that they don’t want to be part of that life.

So what they’re doing is what they’ve always done. They don’t realize that they are weakening my resolve. They don’t realize that when they try to get me to gossip that it is like trying to get me to drink. I tell them I’ve sworn off the stuff and they still don’t get it. They don’t know how to be my friend unless they are gossiping. So sometimes it means that they don’t talk to me at all.

I’m sad for them, that they don’t know how to talk in a healthy manner.

Gossip isn’t just speaking negatively about someone. It is repeating what someone said without them present. It is spreading information that didn’t need to be spread. If I have a private conversation with someone, I don’t want to hear about it from someone else. They weren’t in the room when the conversation happened. If they weren’t invited when the conversation happened, then they shouldn’t have it repeated to them.

Sobriety sucks

I hate being sober. The lights are too bright, the music is too loud. Everything is too much, too fast, too close. I feel too much.

When I’m sober, I feel everything without a filter. Perhaps I have Asperger’s. Perhaps I have sensory processing disorder. Perhaps I’m empathic. Perhaps I’m just human. Perhaps this is normal, and I’d spent so long being altered that I don’t know what normal feels like.

Being sober means that my normal coping mechanism is gone. It was my teddy bear and my security blanket. It was my shield against the onslaught of the world. It was my go-to-thing for everything. If I was happy, I was stoned. If I was sad, I was stoned. If I was with friends, I was stoned. If I was lonely, I was stoned.

I started using it to enhance life. If food tasted good while I was sober, it tasted even better stoned. If a movie was cool sober, it was even more interesting stoned. But then it got to the point that the average everyday wasn’t good enough, and I had to be stoned to do everything. Life was vanilla, and stoned was 31 flavors. Who wants to have vanilla when you’ve had it all?

I don’t like myself sober. I’ve discovered I’m a very angry person. I don’t like being angry. I don’t think it is very ladylike.

So I write, and exercise, and do yoga, and paint, and collage, and bead, and drum. I fill my time with different ways to process my feelings, because I’ve got a lot of processing that has backed up. Instead of having the normal process of feelings go in, get dealt with, and then they go out, I shoved them deep down. I shoved feelings into myself the same way that people shove broken and unwanted things into their basement or attic or storage unit. Eventually, the reckoning time comes and you have to do the work to get all that stuff out of there so you can have room to breathe. It is like poop – if poop doesn’t get out in a timely manner, it backs up and you get sick.

I’ve been sober for four years this time. I say “this time” because I was sober for about the same time, about fourteen years ago. Sobriety, like being messed up, comes in waves. You think the high is going to last forever and it doesn’t. You think being sober is going to last forever, and it might. I’ve given it up, and walked right back. Just like a person in an abusive relationship, I keep going back until I put enough value on myself to stay away, or I find someone new. With sobriety, “finding someone new” just means finding another high – trading alcohol for cigarettes, for instance.

Being sober longer is seen as better, but in a way it is worse. You forget why you left in the first place. You forget how bad it was. You’re tempted to go back, just for a taste. Except a taste is never good enough when you are an addict. One bite becomes a bunch. Next thing you know you are right back where you were, stoned, sick, and stupid.

I don’t want to find another addiction to fill this hole. I just don’t want it to be so big, or gaping. I can feel the wind whistling through me.

A new take on sobriety.

Sobriety isn’t just about being off of drugs and alcohol. It is about being into life. And this is about life as it is, not as you were taught it should be.

It is about being awake, and conscious, and fully present. It is about being mindful of your actions and your life. It is about being truly alive.

It certainly isn’t about having a blissful life. So many people want that. Even if they don’t try to avoid pain by drinking or doing drugs, they’ll try to avoid it by staying in a job or a marriage that they hate, just existing. Or, they’ll try to avoid it by leaving the job or the marriage they hate, eternally trying to find the right something or someone who will make them feel better. Or at least feel. Notice it isn’t about staying or going – there is something in the middle.

In part, it is about accepting life as it is. It is about resetting your idea of what life should be. This isn’t about settling. This isn’t about living with a terrible situation. This is about not thinking that “Happy” and “Beautiful” and “Popular” are normal states of being all the time.

Everything changes. The only constant is change.

Don’t be a zombie. Zombies aren’t alive. You can be one of the living dead and still have a pulse. Zombies just exist through their lives. Even if we don’t self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, we can cease to be alive by watching TV, or by being glued to our computers or cellphones.

Zombies don’t go for their goals. They don’t try to fulfill their dreams. What is it that you most want to do? I don’t mean “make a million dollars” or “go to Paris” or “be famous”. I mean – what is it that you were put on this Earth to do? Is it “write a book about paramecium” or “teach teenagers how to play guitar”? What is your gift that you need to give to the world? What is it that is your special thing that you and only you can do? Do that.

What will make you come alive, what will make you be truly sober, is discovering the thing that is your gift, and then giving it. It isn’t about being selfish. Making a lot of money and being famous are about receiving, not giving.

It is about taking responsibility for your choices and decisions. It is about making a choice and sticking with it – not second guessing and waffling. It is also about admitting you were wrong if you made a decision that didn’t work out well. It is about learning from that and trying again.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us in his book “Wishful Thinking : A Theological ABC” that your calling, your vocation, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Ferris Bueller tells us “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

It’s that.

Plenty of people are sober, but they aren’t really alive. They don’t do drugs, but they don’t do life either. They sleep all the time when they are off work. They can’t stand being alone. They eat comfort foods and distract themselves with movies and read books to help them escape their meaningless lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue. And get worse. And they continue to escape.

Sobriety is about facing the pain, either head on or sideways. It is about living through it, and with it, and because of it. It isn’t easy, but it is the only sane thing to do.

Live. And live well. Don’t just exist. Be sober, completely.

The smell of compassion.

You see all sorts of things when you work with the public. You smell all sorts too.

I dread warmer days for this reason. Sometimes the counter is just not deep enough to suit. There is always the dilemma – body odor, or perfume? Both are bad for different reasons.

Strong perfume or cologne affects my asthma. I start having a hard time breathing, so I start to breathe very shallowly and sparingly. I’ll make the transaction go as fast as possible just to get them away from me. I think it would be rude for me to just walk away and take a deep breath and come back, but then it is rude to wear so much cologne or perfume that it makes breathing difficult. If you bathe daily and wear deodorant, you don’t need perfume.

But then, sometimes people use artificial scents to cover up the natural ones. That is much harder.

Sometimes the bad odor is a mix of smoking, not bathing, and drinking. If you drink alcohol often enough it comes out in your sweat. Sometimes it is the smell of poverty and desperation. Everything the person puts into their body is cheap. Sometimes the smell is so strong that even if the person isn’t standing there anymore, the smell is. It is like a bad ghost, haunting where they were.

It has to be hard to be in the skin of someone who smells this badly. Some seem to be totally unaware of it. They have gotten used to it. One patron seemed to be aware that he had terrible breath from smoking cheap cigarettes so he’d talk out of the side of his mouth. He’d sort of clench his teeth to talk. He’d then go outside to smoke yet another cigarette. His partner had an entirely different aroma. He smelled of some mixture of cheap cigarettes, gas-station food, and ferret. He seemed totally unaware of the funk that surrounded him. He checks out only DVDs and the smell permeates the plastic on the cases. There is nothing for that aroma except time. I wonder what the next patrons think when they get these titles.

I feel bad for all the people who smell really badly. I want to say something. I want to tell them that they don’t have to poison themselves with cheap food and cheap cigarettes and cheap alcohol. I want to tell them to not treat themselves so cheaply. I want to tell them that everything they are doing to fix their problems is actually causing more problems. I want to save them.

And I can’t. And I shouldn’t.

I’m sure that people wanted to save me when they saw me out doing my errands when I was stoned for ten years. I’m sure that when people saw me glassy eyed and mindlessly smiling they thought that something was wrong but it wasn’t kind to tell me. As long as I wasn’t hurting anybody, let it be. And so they did. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway. I wasn’t in a place in my head where I could or would listen to anybody.

I am trying to be loving and compassionate, and serve people where they are and as they are, instead of where and as I want them to be. I’m trying to love them on their journey. I’m trying to understand that who they are now is the result of where they have been and I don’t know that story. I’m trying to understand that they are doing the best they can right now, and that even though it isn’t what I think is best, it is what it is.

It is hard. I want them to all slow down and love themselves enough to get off the Ferris wheel, the treadmill, the hamster wheel that our society gives us when it tells us we have to be more than we are. I want to tell them that they don’t have to keep doing it the way they are doing it, because my way is better.

And then I remember that I’m not being loving when I think this. I remember that to not let them make their own choices is to not let them be who they are. Who am I to tell them how to live? Each person has to grow their own way. Each “wrong” choice leads to openings and opportunities. I would not have learned to appreciate working out at the Y if I hadn’t been obese. I would not have learned the secret peace of being sober if I hadn’t been an abuser.

But here’s the trick. Even if they never stop smoking, or drinking, or eating unhealthy food, or doing any number of things I think are “bad”, I have to understand that is OK too. That is the hardest part. I have to know that they may stay just like they are, and that this may not be a stepping stone to health. They may not be a diamond in the rough. They may not ever be a flower in the making.

The ones who smell bad are just the ones whose choices result in that. There are plenty of people who make choices that don’t call attention to themselves, but I might disagree with if I knew.

I remember reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” many years ago. Well, I didn’t really read it. I read about a quarter of it. I couldn’t finish it because the narrator kept talking about how sad he was for the people he was with, that they weren’t as enlightened as he was. I knew then that such an attitude was, in itself, not enlightened, and I quit reading.

So now I’m trying to learn this lesson all over again. The minute I try to make someone else into my own image, I’m not respecting them. I can’t fix them. But more importantly, I have to learn that just because they are different from me doesn’t mean that they are broken.

Recovering, not recovered. On addiction.

So what is the deal about the term “recovering” addict? You are never described as a “recovered” addict. It is as if you never get there. You are never home safe.

And really, you aren’t.

Even if you have been sober for twenty years, the fever is still there. Even if your last hit was so terrible that you ended up in jail and then the hospital, and you lost your wife and house over it, that fever is still there.

Because you forget. You forget how bad it can be. You forget how bad it was. All you remember is the high and the good times. All you remember is how it took away the pain.

You forget about all the pain it can bring, and did bring, to you and to everyone you love.

You say you are “recovering” as a sign to you and to others that there is no escape from addiction. You never ever are the same after you’ve been an addict.

You know what it tastes like, and you want it again. You forget the bitter and only remember the sweet. And you think that just because you were able to escape it then you can do it again. You think lightning can’t strike twice. You think you can just do a little bit of it and be fine. You think you are smarter than it.

It is the same as playing with fire. While fire can help, it can harm. It can light up the room and keep you warm, or it can burn down your house. It can be the difference between cooked food and raw food – it can also be burnt to a crisp and made worthless.

Drugs burn us up and make us worthless.

The trouble with drugs is the same as the trouble with fire – it can’t be contained very well. You think you’ve gotten it under control but really it controls you instead. You don’t do drugs. They do you.

When you forget, you’ll start doing drugs again. Just a little. Just to “take the edge off.” Soon you’ll be sneaking out to buy drugs. You’ll make up excuses. You’ll lie to your loved ones. You’ll call in sick to work. You’ll miss out on all the activities that you used to do for fun – because you are using drugs.

You think – that can’t happen to me. That is for suckers. That happens to losers. And I say to you – what makes you so special?

You aren’t special to drugs. You are another conquest. They are like a virus, eating away at all that is you. Slowly, slowly, you lose your fight. Slowly, slowly, it wins.

Quitting doing drugs doesn’t mean you are cured. You can’t get immunized against drug addiction. No matter how much you’ve done and how long it has been since you stopped doing it, you aren’t safe. You haven’t built up a resistance.

The only hope is to never let them back into your life again. The only way to do that is to continue to say you are “recovering” and not “recovered” as a reminder to keep that door closed and bolted shut.

Poem – How to get sober.

One moment at a time, not one day.
At the beginning, a day is too long
too stretched out,
too scary.

At the beginning an hour feels like an eternity
packed with uncertainty
and dread.

At the beginning of our coming
to consciousness,
of our coming
back to ourselves,
even an hour is too long.

That is why we got high, got stoned, got drunk.
The day stretched out before us with
more questions than answers,
more problems than solutions.

We are adults in name only.
We were shortchanged
on the skills
to be human.

We have to relearn
and unlearn
a lot.

It is hard, this being human.

It is why we ran away
for so long.

Just like a person who was born with legs
but never used them,
We have to be patient with the process.

We have to relearn how to walk
when we never learned in the first place.
We have to relearn how to live
when we never learned in the first place.

We have to be patient with ourselves.

Patience isn’t one of our strengths though.

We were raised by a world that taught
“Get rich quick”
“You deserve it”
And instant enlightenment,
no waiting.

So now what?

Go for a walk
Soak up the sun
or the cold
or the rain.

Be open to what is
right now,
not what you want it to be
not what you think
it should be.

This is a time of relearning
what it is to be


Just like a person who has spent
her life in a cave,
going outside is painful.
The light is too bright.
The sounds are too loud.
Nothing is familiar.
Nothing is comforting.

Don’t go back
to the cave.
Don’t go back
to being asleep.

Take a small step.

Take another
when you are ready.

No hurry.

You can sit outside that cave mouth for a long time.

You don’t have to go running
because if you go too far too fast
you’ll fall
and retreat
back to that cave.

Slow and steady does it.

A lot of getting sober
is unlearning.

You aren’t alone
in this process.

We are all unlearning
and relearning
what it means to be ourselves.

You are beautiful. You are needed. You are loved.
And you can do this.

“Home for the Holidays”?

I woke this morning to the sounds of “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” playing on the radio. That has been my dilemma for a while now. What is home? Where is it? Is it a place, or a feeling?

For many people, “home” means where their family is. My parents died almost twenty years ago, and the rest of my family isn’t kind. I tried spending Christmas with my aunt for a while and that just didn’t work out. I was always the “Tennessee cousin” – always in the way, always left out. I felt like I was crashing a party. There were a few members of the family who made space for me and seemed to understand who I am, and for them I am grateful. But it wasn’t enough to make it worth the drive, and the constant travelling to visit every other member of that extended family on that day was overwhelming to me.

Now that I’m married, “home” could mean my parent’s in law. I’ve faked it for years, but it just isn’t what I need. They mean well, but it isn’t quite the gathering that makes me feel the peace that I associate with the birth of Christ.

This past month it has been extra awkward, and if you’ve been following along you’ll know what I’m talking about. Just thinking about going over there is bringing back that old feeling that I’d almost forgotten – dread. I thought that my hernia was acting up – but no, that’s the feeling I get in my stomach when I am very anxious about something. It is a sharp, scary pain. It is the kind of pain that curls me over into a fetal position. It is the kind of pain that stops me in my tracks. The last time I had it was in my first year of college. I was away from home, in a dorm room, no friends, no car, no idea what I was doing.

That was about as un- “home” as possible.

If “home is where the heart is” then if there is no heart, no love, no peace, then that feeling crops up.

I’ve been meditating on this day for a month, after the whole Thanksgiving fracas. I talked to my spiritual director about this, and her take on it is that maybe God put me into this family to bring healing. Maybe I’m the Christ-bearer – that I need to bring Jesus into the situation. This doesn’t mean to preach to them. It means to be like Jesus. Calming. Peaceful. Compassionate. Loving.

The line from the 23rd Psalm has started coming to mind in the past few days. “You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies.”

This is not a vision of “home” that is particularly appealing. “Home” and “enemy” should not be in the same sentence. For many of us, it is. For many of us, “home” isn’t a place to run to, it is a place to run from. For many of us, at the holidays we remember why we left home in the first place.

So what is “home”? Home to me is where I can be myself. Home is where my husband is. It is where I can spend all day in my jammies, making jewelry or reading, stretched out on the couch in the sunlight. Maybe a nap will be involved. Maybe a walk around the block. Home is peaceful, and quiet, and calm. Home isn’t full of sound and noise and people. It certainly isn’t full of drama.

I’ve been doing the math on Christmas this year and trying to figure out what I can handle if I go over to my in-law’s house. Go, but leave early? How early is too early? Don’t talk about certain topics? Put on a brave face? Don’t talk to a certain family member who always likes to argue, especially about faith?

I really can’t handle being around someone who speaks ill of my faith on my holiday.

I can handle it any other time. I understand. I have a lot of the same issues with Christianity. I dislike the hypocrisy. I dislike the fact that the church has become something other, something where I can’t see Jesus for all the administration and bureaucracy. Sometimes “church” is more “crazy” than Christ-like. But on Christian holidays I really can’t take the criticism.

It is like I’ve invited someone over to my house, shared my special toys with them, and then they throw them down and stomp on them. It is rude. It is childish. It is thoughtless.

So, “Home for the Holidays”? I’d rather stay at home. But I’m expected to be at the in-laws. I don’t want to. I don’t want to play the dutiful wife. It was easier, way back when, when I got stoned for the holidays. Everything blurred into a nice warm glowy blob. Now that I’m sober it is all spiky and strange.