Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

Here it comes: I’m going to out myself. I am a member of Al-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and family members of alcoholics. Technically anonymity is a big part of the program, but I have decided that keeping myself anonymous in this is actually against my best interests, and so I am finally going to talk about something that quite literally turned my life around five years ago when I found it.

When I first went to Al-Anon, I had no idea that alcoholism had effected me as much as it did – I was not aware of how much I was aware of the people around me, to the point where I was counting others’ drinks, keeping score of others’ behavior, and living a life that revolved mostly around how much I could stay out of the way of whatever terrible thing I imagined could happen, regardless of whether it happened or not. (I wrote about this before without talking about how it was related to Al-Anon; you can read my post on codependence here.)

Now I know that a lot of my behaviors are related to having grown up in the company of an alcoholic; that many of my actions are actually defense mechanisms that were built into my childhood to cope with things beyond my control; some part of me created them to keep me safe in a situation that never felt safe to me on a very deep level.

When I first went to Al-Anon, I was already aware of many of the tenets of the program; the alcoholic in my life had stopped drinking when I was young, and I had been to meetings before, as a child. I knew the first step of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, which, coincidentally, is the first step of Al-Anon, too, although in Al-Anon we focus more on our inability to control another’s relationship to alcohol: 

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable.
In my first Al-Anon meeting of about 4 people in a small village in Mexico, we read this first step, and everyone shared what their first meeting had meant to them. There was a silence when everyone else had finished. I looked down at the book in front of me, swallowing repeatedly to hold back the tears. 

Someone cleared their throat and said, very gently, “You don’t have to say anything, but we are here to listen.”

“I don’t want to be in charge of anyone else anymore,” I said.

And then I cried. 


I think I may have spoken more. I think I may have explained that I wasn’t even sure I belonged there, because I hadn’t lived with an active alcoholic for more than 20 years; I probably expanded on the idea that I had always thought unconsciously that my job in life was to take care of others. I probably said all this, but I have no idea how, because all I really remember of that day was racking sobs and the relief that came from finally giving up the thought that I had the ability to control anyone, any situation, or how anyone acted. Best of all, it wasn’t my job to fix it. It wasn’t about me, and anything outside the sphere of me was none of my business.
At the end of each Al-Anon meeting, there is a line, and it has always been one of my greatest comforts, much the way that Al-Anon became a comfort to me in the fact  that I could go to a meeting anywhere in the world and the format was always the same; the ritual was always similar. That line says, “In closing, I would like to say that the opinions expressed here are solely of the person who holds them. Take what you like and leave the rest.”

Al-Anon – and other 12-step meetings – allow a person to talk about what is bothering them in an environment where people understand where they’re coming from and what they’re going through, but it also allows that not everything heard in a meeting is going to apply to everyone, and that is one of the most comforting parts, as far as I’m concerned.  However, I have not been going to meetings lately, and it has caused me to forget how important this line was to me, and how applicable it is not just in a 12-step environment, but in life in general. 

I’ve been so tired lately, invisible audience. I have stopped answering emails, I have stopped engaging, and I have found myself either holed up in my home or escaping to Costa Rican beach towns, all because I am having problems hearing myself think. This is not a new problem, but it is a cyclical one: when I am trying to grapple with new emotional upheavals or discoveries, I tend to get easily overwhelmed, and during these time periods, anything anyone tells me comes at me in stereo sound, with a lot of bass and not a lot of room for me to hear myself think.
What’s new, however, is an immediate connection to my intuition that wasn’t there before. Before, anyone could state how they felt about something with conviction, and I would find myself wanting to believe it was true because they seemed to know it was, and it very likely IS true…for them. It would take days or weeks for me to finally come to the understanding that just because they believed it didn’t mean I had to…that in fact, the exact opposite might be true for me.

The difference now is that I am suddenly feeling my disagreement in the moment, where I never could before; where, because of my experiences as a child, it was never safe to do anything but defer to the biggest, loudest and most insistent opinion out there. Now, when someone says something that is against my best interests or doesn’t resonate with me, I feel sick. Nauseous. And it is not until I consciously dismiss their words and own that I don’t agree – either out loud or simply to myself – that I start to feel better.

I have to take what I like, and leave the rest. And believe me, there’s a lot to leave: ideas about my role in life; what I am capable of; what is not my responsibility; others’ ideas on spirituality, reincarnation; my career, if I even want one. There is much more to leave than there is to take, and this is news to me. It is no wonder I have always felt overwhelmed, if I somehow thought I had to take all that was handed to me and treat it as truth, even if it didn’t fit.

In Al-Anon, we sometimes refer to emotional sobriety: of an ability to maintain equilibrium in the face of life’s storms. Many people in Al-Anon are still living with active alcoholics, and our own disease is often seeking out these people and trying to care for and change them; making their lives our own. Regardless of whether that’s the case, regardless of how each day shapes itself, the truth of the matter is that there will always be something to rock the emotional boat. I am finding that my own emotional sobriety has more to do with choosing the right battles. I have to work on letting go of the ideas that no longer serve me, and fostering an ability to manage stress that does not actually require an absence of stress, but a healthy awareness of what is mine to own and what I don’t have to; what is outside of the realm of my control or responsibilities. It is about being aware of what I get to take, and what I get to leave when I leave all the rest.

Love and all the rest kisses

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reviving Intuition

My life is magical in so many ways that I can no longer attribute it to luck, first because it takes away the part I’ve played in it and that’s just not fair to me and everything I’ve done to get here, but also because I have a sneaking suspicion that I could actually have whatever I wanted if I would stop getting in my own way and let myself believe I deserve the best that the world has to offer me. My life here seems to reflect that, to the extent that I’ve been able to let it.

On the other hand, even when the sun is shining and the rainbows are gathering over my beautiful little casita in a Panamanian mountain town, the storm clouds are thundering away in my head, and it is very, very often that I vacillate between ebullience at the world I see around me and wailing grief and rage at what I find within. It may not be a black and white world, invisible audience, but the color contrast is often just as stark between my inner and outer worlds.

“She’s not the kind of girl who lets herself get stuck in situations that aren’t serving her.”

One of my friends said this about someone we know, and it has stayed with me. This is a friend that I admire most because of his ability to tap directly into his intuition and just go with whatever it tells him, unlike me. He and I have had many conversations like this one:

Me: “I know her. When I first got here, she roped me into something and it took a long time to extricate myself, despite the fact that I knew something was up when I first met her.”

Him: “When I first met her, I felt myself automatically backing away. That’s when I knew she was no good.”

I can look back on nearly every situation that hasn’t turned out well for me, especially the ones where I’ve been taken advantage of by others, and see that at the beginning I knew that it was a bad idea, but I got caught up in the other person’s needs, their enthusiasm, and often logic and common sense, ignored myself and went with it. Not only that, but when I started to figure out just how much a situation wasn’t going to work for me, I didn’t crash through a window to escape. Instead, I tiptoed around apologizing, taking all the blame, and letting myself be convinced that I was the one that wasn’t good enough to be able to handle the situation better. In fact, it is usually only months later, once I am completely removed from whomever or whatever happened and when other people are in the process of discovering for themselves how terrible things are revolving around that person or situation, that I finally let myself think, “Hey, yeah. I was RIGHT!”

But you know what, invisible audience? This is what we’re taught. I am not the only one who has a problem with this, and it’s not just because of my mountains of self-doubt and insecurities.

I am certainly not the only one who’s ever been told to hang in there; that whatever job or situation is worth the discomfort or unhappiness because of the benefits; because of the paycheck; because it’s an important career move. How often are we told to forgo happiness – which, aside from and as part of survival, is all I’ve been able to figure out my intuition wants for me – for what’s safe, what’s logical, what is good for us?

That’s the one that’s really gotten to me lately, invisible audience: how often I have ignored my own internal mechanism, as ancient and true as animal instinct, because I was convinced that the exact opposite was what was good for me.

I can look back at my life and see them now: a string of decisions that I made because it was the most logical and good-for-me choice; a choice that ultimately took away my happiness and shackled me, either emotionally, physically or financially.

The editor at the Guadalajara Colony Reporter who verbally abused me and whom I was convinced to continue to work for for three more weeks to finish my internship; to hang in there and therefore give the impression that what he had done was ok.

The mentally unstable and jealous boss who hired others over me and left me a contractor, meaning I didn’t have health insurance through the company when the stress she put me through caused enough of a breakdown to trigger appendicitis and depression. It also meant that the week I spent at home post-appendectomy wasn’t paid.

Taking on debt or buying things that were not important to me because of where I “should be” by this point in life: the kinds of gadgets or cars I should have; etc.

Maintaining friendships with people who cannot offer me anything emotionally and yet suck the life out of me in every encounter we have in the name of friendship.

Responsibilities that I did not ask for regarding who I am supposed to be as a friend, a family member, an American, a woman. Expectations of what I should be, impressed upon me as what was best for me while they were slowly but surely tearing me apart.

Do I sound enraged, invisible audience? Because I am. I am enraged that sometime in my life, someone made it clear enough to me that I couldn’t trust myself that now it’s taking everything I have to revive the part of me that knows better. I am enraged that I have been so hesitant and self-doubting that I have let countless opportunities that didn’t make any sense pass me by because they weren’t logical, while picking the logical ones that made me feel sick to my stomach because they’d be good for me. I am enraged that I’m even having to relearn how to listen to what my body actually wants me to eat, because my whole life what I’ve heard was good for me makes me physically ill. I am enraged that sometimes I feel like the crazy one, and that I have spent so much time apologizing for the moves my intuition has made on my behalf, sometimes without my knowledge, and many times without my permission, because I was never taught to trust what it was telling me.

My intuition, with not just a little bit of kicking and screaming, has pulled me out of jobs, situations and relationships and put me in foreign lands, over and over again, until I finally realized that maybe, just maybe, what was actually good for me was not what everyone else said was good for me – things like a corporate job, buying a house or a job with benefits. Maybe it’s finding my bliss amongst overcrowded taxis, other travelers or expats, and outside of the idea that all that is good for me can only exist in my own country.

I am enraged, and it’s a pretty new feeling for me. Polite people don’t get enraged, you see. Rage is not an acceptable thing to feel, it’s not good for you. Tell that to my intuition. I am enraged that it’s taken me until now to consider that I might be the one who knows what’s best for me. It’s probably going to take a little bit of time to get to a point where I can listen to others’ ideas for me without becoming angry at them, not because of what they’re saying, but because of what so many have said before them, and mostly because I’m angry at myself for having listened.

It will take some work, but I’m ready for it: I’m ready to learn to trust myself, and if it takes some rage to clear away the expectations so I can listen to what I have to say to myself, then so be it.

Love and enraged kisses