The Deepest Work
“I remember seeing him pray in the backyard every morning. It was a big shift for me. Here was someone who wasn’t religious. He was a former junkie who’d been to jail a bunch of times, and he was praying and meditating. It made a unique impact on me, especially since it was so early in my journey.”
Adriana is describing a man she loves deeply and from whom she is now separating.
“I broke down a few days ago. I began sobbing in the shower and had to lie down. I used to judge myself for stuff like that, like only crazy people lie down in a bathtub and bawl, but now I know not to get in the way. True healing always looks insane to the outsider, but it’s hard, in moments like those, to not feel like a failure.”
“How do people get out of their own way?”
“Sometimes it’s through spiritual experiences, in profound moments of awakening, and other times it’s through slow, steady change. Most of my growth has come through the gradual variety. The chipping-away method works just fine, but part of me yearns for the big explosions. The catch is that we don’t get to choose.”
“When did you start your spiritual journey?”
“It’s an interesting question, because the moment we become aware of our journey is usually much different from the moment it actually begins. I think I’ve been aware of my path as a spiritual seeker since getting sober 13 years ago. “
“Tell me that story, please.”
“My first drink was by myself. It wasn’t about being cool. It was just about checking out. Then I got hooked on Ritalin before moving on to harder drugs. Around the same time, I started cutting. I thought I invented it when I was a kid. I started carving my wrists with a ballpoint pen and eventually progressed to razors and box cutters. It was always more painful to feel my own lack of self worth than to physically hurt myself.”
“Where do you think the pain came from?”
“My mom took me to the same pediatrician that she went to as a child. I was very young, maybe 4 years old, but I clearly remember being molested. He would fondle me without gloves on. I intuitively knew that it wasn’t right, and I could feel that he also knew. The worst part was that my mom was there the whole time. I remember looking over at her and thinking, “Something is wrong here. What are you going to do to help me?” But she would just stare blankly at the wall, checked out, unavailable, dissociated. I asked her about it once at home, and she snapped at me. From then on, I never wanted to bring it up, because I would rather take the abuse than risk losing her love completely. It was terrifying to feel so betrayed and abandoned by her, by life, by God, by everything.”
We both take a pause from breathing. I hold my cup of tea perfectly still.
“The fundamental belief that shaped my reality was that life was wicked, and that was echoed by both of my parents – like everything bad that happened in this world happened only to them, and it was all a deliberate conspiracy. For example, if the dishwasher broke, it was this great catastrophe; and they would agonize over how much life had fucked them over. It was a sense that life was evil, and that they were helpless.”
“How do you see it now?”
“Washers break. That’s it. You’re supposed to save up for those kinds of things. The only way my mom knew how to express emotion was either through anger or to completely shut down. Sometimes when she got upset she would get in the car and drive away. She’d be gone for hours. My sister and I would sit in our rooms, staring out the window silently, wondering if she would ever come back. When she finally did come back, no one would talk about it, and we’d all walk on eggshells.”
As soon as she was old enough, Adriana moved away. The storyboard for her caustic decent had already been pieced together years prior, or perhaps it was lifetimes ago, so Adriana played out the tragedy to crippling perfection. She moved away with an alcoholic boyfriend, and she did cocaine in secret. When they broke up, she moved in with a friend, and they both had a taste for stimulants. Enter, stage left, one of the most vile antagonists of our generation: Crystal Methamphetamine.
“In the beginning it was fun, but it got dark quickly. My friend would try to eat and sleep after a day or two while I would go for 6 or 7 days without food, sleep, or showering. I had a lot of hallucinations. I would see dark shadowy figures running through the alleyways, and I constantly thought people were whispering about me.”
I shiver, as if realizing a centipede were crawling on my arm, because Adriana stimulates a set of nerves in me that only respond to memories of my own meth use.
“The beginning of the end was when I hallucinated a gruesome rotting head – green, pitted, decayed, and the eyes followed me around. Then, I talked to a person who wasn’t really there. My friend asked me who I was talking to, and I realized what was happening. I was aware that I might’ve been crossing that line into meth psychosis.”
“The next night I saw the sunset, and it jolted me. I remember smiling, and it felt like my cheeks were cracking because I hadn’t used those muscles in so long. I was certain I would quit meth, and I felt so good and hopeful. Then I thought, ‘You know what would make this moment even better – a little more meth.’”
“I smoked everything I had, but I couldn’t get high. Then I started carpet surfing – looking for all the crumbs on the carpet that looked like meth. I smoked everything that looked close – rice, cheese, glass. That was the darkest moment of my life. I woke up the next day, and I had to crawl to get to the bathroom. I stopped going to work and told them I had a mental break down. Then, as soon as I could move, I rode my bike to my dealer’s house. Riding my bike like that at 9 a.m. was humiliating.”
“I recall a clear moment where I saw three paths ahead of me: either I was going to kill myself, I was going to keep using and die a slow, junkie death, or something was going to change. I tried to think of ways to get out of town for a while or different schemes to keep getting money for meth; but in the end, the only option open to me was rehab, because I had insurance that would pay for it. I had no intention of getting sober. I just wanted a break from meth long enough to get my head straight.”
Desperation, synchronicity, divine intervention, or indifferent probability. It doesn’t matter what theorem we use to explain it – life has a way of bringing about our greatest moments of awakening through tangential and circuitous unfolding.
“I had a spiritual awakening when I got there. I was an angry atheist who wanted nothing to do with a 12-step program. Then something opened up in my heart, and I realized I had been looking for this my entire life – community, support, other fucked up people being honest about dark shit. It wasn’t just about staying sober; it was a manual for living, and that’s exactly what I needed. I’d been looking for a way to live in this world for so long.”
They say that when we experience moments of awakening, the most difficult aspect is the inevitable return to illusion. Profound deliverance typically doesn’t last, at least for the majority of us who aren’t sages, prophets, or saints.
“One day I thought that finding AA was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and the next I hated everyone. It went back and forth like that for the first year and a half. That’s when my cutting really took off, and I wasn’t able to stop. It got to the point where my whole arm was a hack job. Then my legs became hack jobs, too. I couldn’t wear shorts; I wore long sleeves all the time, and I couldn’t talk about it in meetings. My sponsor said it wasn’t appropriate to talk about that in front of the group.”
A deflating melancholy fills my heart. The isms of life are so banal that it’s frustrating when we don’t allow the pain to break us open completely and expose the fundamental neurosis of our time: the Great Division. The common phenomenon is suffering, yet we try to parse it into appropriate illnesses. But our borders are not signs of differences; they reveal exactly where we connect. It is the unification of our suffering that holds the answers to the heaviest questions in the same juxtaposing congruency as the reconciliation of science and religion holding the greatest hope for our survival. We have separated from the earth. We are distancing from each other, and the associated illnesses are so insidious that any honest mental health professional will tell you that we really don’t know what we’re dealing with.
Some of us find ourselves popping a litany of prescription pills to satiate the void. Sometimes we work from dawn until dusk and binge on deadlines. Others find themselves crying while making dinner, because they know they’re lying to themselves and their children by staying in toxic relationships. What if we went past the isms? What if addressing the pain wasn’t the end game? What if it’s the beginning? For those of us who’ve been junkies, getting sober, taking a shower, and grocery shopping are huge steps; but should the main objectives be obtaining stable employment and health insurance? Part of the problem is the system itself. So why not use this trauma, this pull toward healing, as momentum to slingshot our way beyond common models of success? I’ve heard about space flights utilizing the gravity of a planet as momentum to propel the ship along its course. Similarly, realizing we need help for any addiction is an analogy for admitting that we are addicted to something much larger. The real aspiration is not sobriety, but rather freedom – freedom from the illusion of separateness. Those of us with isms, those with a visceral feeling that something is perilously out of harmony, are not cursed; we are just being tapped on the shoulder as the next wave to awaken. It is tempting to outline a taxonomy on suffering then stop searching for answers when the pain goes away, but do not settle – there is something larger calling you. Self-improvement techniques are not clever methods for an easier life; they are clues leading toward profound revelation. Don’t stop exploring once you’ve found ways to navigate through conventional society. Keep looking. The fate of the world depends on you.
“A lot of old school AA people have the idea that we’re only supposed to talk about alcoholism and solutions pertaining to alcohol; or if you want to talk about the things that are really vulnerable, only do it with your sponsor. I don’t believe in that now, but at the time I didn’t know. And that was my sponsor’s belief, so it kept me isolated.”
Another controversial belief of orthodox AA principles is the avoidance of psychiatric medication. Although certainly not as prevalent today, as many accept the need for outside help, the ideology still lingers. On a related point, caffeine, sugar, and nicotine seem to have diplomatic immunity.
“People would say, ‘Don’t take anything no matter what,’ so I didn’t even take Advil for the first year. My thinking was that I could get through anything; all I needed was God and the group!”
Laughter erupts from both us. She buries her face in a pillow, and I chortle so hard that I snort.
“It’s so crazy, but people say that stuff.”
I nod in agreement and reflect on Adriana in the privacy of my mind. Of all my interviewees, she has been the most tranquil and serene. Her intonation, cadence, and pitch are testaments to the depth of the roots into the soil of her soul. So to hear this laughter, filled with such childish abandonment, reveals a whole new color to her humanity. It allows me to feel a deep acceptance of my own difficulties, while at the same time pointing toward a sublime understanding of the human experience. Picture bellowing in laughter with a Carmelite nun; that is how Adriana makes me feel.
“My sponsor told me a story about a guy with long-term sobriety who repeatedly talked about depression at meetings. Everyone told him not to take anything. At 20 years sober, he shot himself. I could see that being me at just one year sober, so I said, ‘Fuck them.’ I started seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication, but it still wasn’t enough. My cutting was out of control, and I was dying inside.”
“I found an in-patient recovery program in Chicago solely dedicated to self harm. I experienced something there that I was convinced couldn’t exist in my life. I remember crying, because I didn’t have to hide my ugly scars anymore. It was vulnerability at a level that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, before or since.”
The energy in the room finds a soothing stasis as Adriana takes a deep breath and reflects for a moment.
“We did these role plays where people would play my mom or my doctor, and I would act out what I would say to them. We did it in front of the whole group, and people would hold such tender space. It was the deepest work I’ve ever done. This place and these people changed my life. I haven’t cut since then.”
Catharsis. Deep vulnerability. Unfiltered truth. To my mind, the most compelling aspect of this story is not Adriana standing in front the group and letting out her secrets. It’s those in the audience who stand as witness and allow the birthing process to unfold – however shocking the sights may be. Once we allow others to purge, we realize there is healing to be had on both sides of the experience – the side of the victim and the side of the witnesses. And through processes like these, one is usually engendered with a prevailing sense of unity as we come to recognize that we’ve all been hiding parts of ourselves for as long as we can remember.
“Bill Wilson had a profound spiritual experience, but he chose to not talk about it too much because he didn’t want people to think they needed to see a burning bush to get sober. He did say that pain was the touchstone for all spiritual growth; and that seems to be true in my life, but I still fight it.”
Adriana chuckles as she admits to one of the greatest challenges in life – acceptance of suffering. I think about how long I’ve known about this concept; yet I, too, continue to desperately resist it each time a new version comes up.
“Then there are people who just live in pain for their entire lives. Angry. Mean. It seems that it’s not everyone’s path, this great healing, at least not for this life. But I know that deep down we all want to be whole, to feel loved, and to be free. What I’ve found is that I will never find love, or value, from an outside source. And before anything happens, from material achievements to spiritual enlightenment, the first thing I have to do is accept myself. That’s the most difficult part.”
“Do you love yourself?”
“I think that there are parts of me that love myself, and there are other parts still stuck in the negative self-talk pattern. The main difference now is in believing that life isn’t against me.”
“What kinds of groups do you belong to today?”
“AA is still my core, and I never stray too far. But I also see a lot of different healers and have seen many over the course of my recovery. I’m in Debtors Anonymous, which was the first time I saw that I wasn’t a victim to all these financial situations that life threw at me, like the great dishwasher conspiracy. I’m also in ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics/ Dysfunction. It’s really tight and vulnerable, and I can say anything there. And I go to a hypnotherapist for inner child work. Doing inner trauma work sounds kooky, but it feels healing and really resonates with me.”
“Why is this not more common – this idea of being vulnerable and opening up?”
“I think we find it when we’re ready, and we have to go to dark places before we can be ready. But why we have to do that I don’t know. I don’t know if the why really matters.”
Newtonian science postulates that every effect must have an underlying cause – that this universe can be understood the same way an old radio may be fixed; by taking apart the pieces. This mechanical perspective was a natural antithesis to the irritable king model of the universe – one that made us live in fear of reprimand from a jealous and domineering ruler. There is another theory suggested in Eastern philosophy and echoed by the likes of Jung. The emphasis is put on the totality of the experience, on the necessity of opposing forces, and the why variable is but a trivial consideration.
“What do you do to stay well these days?”
The biggest thing is feeling my feelings. That’s the real practice, letting everything in and not looking to get busy with something else. As far as other things I do, everything is periodic. It used to be periodic drug binges and cutting. Now, its periodic mediation, prayer, and dancing. I think the reason I’m meant to be periodic is that I’m growing compassion for myself. This world is so focused on perfection and the strict rules to get there, that I think a little letting go is good for us. So I won’t be perfect, and I’ll love myself anyway. I don’t think that I need to overthink this stuff. It’s a balance for me with things that bring me joy, and are fun, and also doing things that are nourishing for my recovery.”
“What is joyful and fun these days?”
“These days it’s dancing. I wanted to be a ballerina when I was younger, so that was a longing that I put away for years. Now I’m opening my heart again. The challenge now is in letting go of what I look like and just allowing it to take over my soul. My entryway back into dancing was doing Thriller flash mobs, and I fucking loved it. I wish I could do that everyday for the rest of my life.”
Adriana laughs as she scans the ceiling and relives the flash mobs.
“Do you have any advice for people?”
“Surrender to your own path. Be humble and allow yourself to be guided, not just by others but by your own intuition. I remember hearing people tell their stories about paths to healing, and I used to think that I had to do it exactly that way. But that’s just another addiction. Synchronicity makes it so that all we have to do is surrender, trust, and take some action, just a step or two, and the universe will line up with exactly what we need. But we only get the key once we’re in front of the door. This way of living doesn’t tell us how to get from A to Z. All we get is A to B, then B to C, and so on. It will be our own customized brand of spiritual awakening. Nobody needs to do what I did. They just need to do something to start their own process. The amazing thing is that the beginning of our path is usually staring at us in the face. Mine happened to be sobriety, but that doesn’t mean it’s everybody’s beginning. Follow yours and see where it goes. All roads lead to the same place, but the scenery will vary. Don’t get caught up in how it’s supposed to look.”
Adriana is transitioning through another heavy phase of spiritual work these days. She tells me about all the doubts and fears that leave her paralyzed at times, questioning everything and yearning for answers. How can such a hefty piece of her foundation be falling away? He wasn’t just her husband and lover for thirteen years; he was the first stable piece of ground she felt after drowning in drugs and self-loathing for an epoch. It may feel gross and constricting from inside of the cocoon, but from an observer’s perspective it’s majestic. Her foundation is falling away, because she is growing wings – and it’s time for her to fly.