Living Hawthorne

I’m off work today and the sky is grey and rumbly with distant storms. Today was supposed to be one of those super productive Mondays where I superhumanly tackled items on my to-do list before the rest of the week crashes onto me full of ER shifts and doctor’s appointments and tech week for yet another ballet production. But my nine-year-old is home sick today with a fever and a queasy belly after spending all of yesterday, (which was Mother’s Day) looking pale and drawn and not at all his usual self. He’s tucked up in his loft bed reading and dozing and so I find myself drawn to write.  I think I’ve written a hundred blog posts this spring, none of which have found their way into little black letters on a page. My brain has been swirling with ideas and connections but the insistent tug of real life on my elbow has meant that they get shelved for some later time when I can sit down and actually hear myself think.

So today, quite unexpectedly,  I find myself with a quiet house and a steel grey sky that seems to call for coffee and contemplation.  So those thoughts that have been shoved aside are creeping up to me asking shyly “now?”

I think the last time I managed to blog a few months ago I was battling the flu, which turned into pneumonia. My months of training and visualizing myself triumphantly (or wheezingly) completing my first half marathon devolved into a struggle to just walk up a flight of stairs without having to sit down at the top.  My lungs took their time healing, and I found myself weighing whether or not I could possibly run my race, with my longest run before getting sick only being 8 miles and then not running for almost six weeks. It was a bitter disappointment to drop down to the 8k, ( as we all know I hate quitting) but ended up being a good experience as I let go of my expectations and decided to just enjoy the experience of running a race in the nation’s capitol surrounded by history and monuments and about 9000 badass women on a blustery cold day. I stayed with a good friend I’ve made in sobriety, one of the core group of truly amazing women that I check in with daily. As I ran, and watched the sun glinting off the Potomac, surrounded by thousands, I had one of those ridiculous smiling, almost out of body moments where all I could hear was that Talking Heads song playing over and over in my mind: ‘you may ask yourself, “well… how did I get here? Letting the days go by… water flowing underground…once in a lifetime” and cracked myself up at my own cheese and sentiment.  But that’s me in sobriety.

And I think it comes back to the Hawthorne Effect. This is something I had never heard of until a few months back when I saw it mentioned in an obscure NYT article (which my swiss cheese brain has forgotten the name of) and made a note to look it up. The idea of tapping into our own potential just by feeling “seen” intrigued me.  I did a little research and then suddenly I started noticing references to this study. My hospital was undergoing a mock quality review in preparation for a visit by the Joint Commision (hide yo drinks hide yo snacks!)  and someone posted a link about a study that was conducted back in the 20s and 30 at a factory in Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago.  It had to do with industrial research and I won’t bore you with all the details but basically there was a study conducted which monitored and changed the physical conditions of factory workers after getting their input. While they found that people’s individual performances are influenced by their environments and the people around them as much as their own innate abilities, they ultimately found that workers’ productivity exceeded anyone expectations due to the fact that they were part of a study.  The fact that someone was actually showing an interest in the workers themselves and their conditions led to levels of production no one had anticipated.  Being part of an experiment, where they knew that they were being watched and not in a punitive sense meant that in the end, they did their best work and morale improved exponentially. All it took was an awareness of “positive regard” and something innate took over.  Their best work resulted from the knowledge that they were SEEN. The study called this the Hawthorne Effect. A kind of intangible, unmeasurable magical thing.

So this got me thinking about the last two years of being sober, and how being part of what started as an accountability group has morphed into something I could not have imagined.  Just about two years ago I was newly sober and shakily staring down the barrel of my first “dry” summer with three small children home. I had gotten into a routine of checking in and posting almost daily on a sobriety support group website. I was looking ahead with fear and dread to awkward pool parties and social events and knew that having my kids home and in my orbit was going to make long, leisurely posts and reading sobriety memoirs and time for self-care a serious challenge.  So, I threw out a plea asking for an accountability group that I could text at least daily to keep myself on track. Five women from all over the country answered my call and two years later we are still in touch daily.  We have been through a lot of life changes and trials and challenges as women and mothers, have had the gift of meeting in person, sitting in the same room together, laughing and crying like the dearest of lifelong friends.  We have basically exceeded our wildest expectations as to what could happen when six women who are trying to get sober decide to let themselves be Seen.

We text and share articles and pictures of our kids and video snippets of ourselves telling stories and asking for advice and offering encouragement. We tell jokes.  We lift each other up. We share the profound and the mundane, the painful trials, triumphs and losses.  We think out loud and we grow as we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. You ladies know who you are and I am humbled and profoundly grateful for all you are to me. What an unexpected gift.

Allowing myself to be observed, in the most positive sense (our own Hawthorne effect) has caused me to grow in ways that I would never have done alone.  It’s one thing to live up to your own expectations and another to put yourself out there and allow your life and actions to be observed, and to be reminded what it is we are striving for.  The daily reminders of why are doing this hard, crazy thing (to make our insides match our outsides and to show others it can be done) but not doing it alone have made this journey rich beyond what I could even imagine that first shattered morning when I realized it was time to get sober. I had no idea what was coming.

And so that leads me to the second thing I’ve been mulling over.  Which is Lobsters. I know, random, but hang in with me for a minute.

As I’ve emerged from my winter funk and cast off the lingering shadows of seasonal angst and depression, I’ve found myself saying yes to things that a year ago would have sent me running for the hills.  I’m saying yes to going and hanging out again, traveling with kids, and taking steps to really do things that scare me. Because the discomfort of staying scared and anxious and stilted is just too uncomfortable.  I’ve outgrown my own stories about myself and it’s time to write new ones.  I’m drawing inspiration from a snippet I heard on a Goalcast episode,  and a story told by Rabbi Abraham Twerski.

The transcript:

“The lobster’s a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand.

Well, how can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining, and the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell, and produces a new one. Well, eventually, that shell becomes very uncomfortable as it grows. Back under the rocks. The lobster repeats this numerous times.

The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable, goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets a Percocet, feels fine, never casts off his shell.

I think that we have to realize that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth, and if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”

So, in doing something that made me incredibly uncomfortable: asking for help and being vulnerable, I have set off a rate of growth that has caused my shell to be tight and restrictive many times over. But because I’m sober and no longer a stunted lobster, I’m casting off the shell.   I’ve come through things that once seemed impossible: quitting drinking, being able to sit in my own skin feeling all the uncomfortable feelings (surprisingly, it’s not fatal!), attending social events as my majestically awkward self, not having to numb my anxiety, navigating death and  losses, running hundreds of miles a year and completing a triathlon after rebuilding a body wrecked by drinking, writing about this experience for myself and others … an entire world has opened to me beyond the narrow confines of self-loathing and hangovers. This winter I have spent my time under the rocks and have emerged in my new shell.   I’m already feeling that this one isn’t going to fit me long. There have been lots of “Ah-ha” moments this spring like the one I had running along the Potomac with an icy wind in my face and tears in my eyes.  I’ll be writing about some of them in the next few weeks.

I’ve got lots of things to sort and examine and I’ve decided it’s time to ask for help again.  I am meeting with a therapist this week. I have low expectations, am keeping an open mind and trying to be non-defensively curious about what comes next for me. That I can even write that, is a testament to the love and patience of sober warriors who have pushed and prodded and listened and borne with me as I slowly figure it all out.

So if you are feeling the pinch, knowing it’s time to level up and be seen, I encourage you to step out and take that risk. Allow your self to be seen by others with positive regard until you can do it for yourself.  Eventually, you will begin to look at yourself that way too, as farfetched as that may sound. I know it’s hard. Hope was something I became afraid of as I reached the limits of my addiction and was trapped in the small and cynical scarred world I had made. It seemed like it was for people who were stronger or maybe just more naive.   I thought I had figured out how to stop being a lobster–numb with alcohol and just not take the risk to ever be soft and vulnerable.  I could stay forever under the rock and attempt to ignore the tightness of my own shell.  My reality was all pain and no hope, so the best I could hope for was to numb out and take some of the pain of life out. I didn’t realize I was taking life out altogether.  I’m not sure I could have said that out loud, but I was certainly living as if that was true.

Now, I say that life is pain, yes.  It hurts like hell some days. But it is also unspeakably beautiful. And the only way to go through all of this is through. It’s frightening but it’s also all real. Transformations aren’t always pretty like we think of when we think of butterflies or other ethereal creatures. I can relate to the lobster– a little feisty and snappy, down in the murk and under the rocks sometimes.  I am soft and mushy inside of a hard shell.  Sometimes I have a literal pea brain.  But I want to get really big.

Because we know the really big ones get thrown back by lobstermen and they become wily survivors who have the best stories.

I want to be one of those.

 

 

A cold wind

” A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.”– George R.R. Martin

Winter snapshots from my past:

I sat on a log on the shore, my numb fingers feeling oddly separate from me as I watched them lacing up my skates.  My breath rose like smoke in front of my eyes, as I peered over the top of my scratchy scarf. In the moonlight, the lake glistened and stretched ahead into the dark for miles. The frozen ripples of waves near the shore were bumpy under my skates as I headed out towards the smooth center, pulling my thick mittens back onto my cold fingers.  There was no sound except the scraping of my skate blades, the occasional rustle of trees in the circling darkness around the glow of the lake. Now and again I would hear the groaning echoes of the ice as it would shift and sing and moan beneath me, reminding me of ancient whales singing somewhere in another frozen place.  The moon shifting slowly overhead, my leg muscles burning as I skated, racing ever onward to the darkened shore of the other side. I spent countless weekend hours like this. I never thought to complain about the cold. My thoughts focused only on the smooth gleaming ice beneath me, the speed, the way the air moved in and out of my lungs, stinging wind on my face. I was temporarily invisible, in a lonely place of cold and dark but still buoyed up by the magic of the moon, the music of the ice.

And another…

My boots crunched in the frozen deep snow along a half-mile perimeter of barbed wire. I had my M-16 at the ready, my black Army-issued balaclava scratching my face where my breath froze into crystals. The temperature hovered right around 2 degrees. My Tyvek jacket and fleece socks were fighting a losing battle against the bone-chilling cold.   The icy darkness stretched out along the wire, yet strangely lit from beneath by the deep snow. My voice sounded small, speaking into my hand-held radio, “Tower 6 moving right”.  I could hear a few other staticky voices checking in as re-assurance we were not all out there alone in the frozen bleak. I reached the outer limits of the wire,  then crunched the other direction for another half a mile.  I repeated this trek every two hours as part of Guard Duty on Comanche Base in the middle of Bosnia-Herzegovina long ago.  I thought of fellow soldiers sleeping warm and safely in their bunks as I trudged along for a 12-hour shift in the inky darkness of night. The long hours of walking, freezing then re-thawing in my tower, lost in thoughts and lulled into some kind of other-world with my isolation and the frozen dark and the hypnotizing white all around.  Until one night there was someone on the other side of the wire. He appeared suddenly, like a phantom out from between snow-laden pine boughs, his dog at his knee, his shotgun held over his arm.  I froze.  Breathless.  And so did he.  Our eyes met and held for a full count of ten. Then he raised his hand and saluted me, turned and walked back into the white pines, the branches swaying slightly in the cold wind. I rubbed my eyes wondering if I’d somehow been dreaming.

I can think of a thousand stories of winter, and I could wax poetic forever about my love of snow, the way it covers and muffles everything, the beauty of it, the incredible wonder of little footprints, yet for as long as I can remember I have always hated this time of year. The space after Christmas when hard winter settles in for real, when spring and the promise of bursting green buds and life and hope seem endlessly far away. It’s the winter blahs, when it’s bleak and mud or bleak and dirty snow and the magic seems to have drained out of me and it’s all cabin fever and dry skin and sniffly noses and no number of candles I light or hot cups of tea I drink seem to be able to penetrate the cold gloom that arises from deep within me. I hate it. Seasonal affective disorder. Such a dumb name for something so hard to describe. Joy Vampire? Fleece and angst-itis?

This last half of my second sober year has been rough.  I told someone the other day that it’s basically kicking my ass. Since right before the holidays, I’ve been dealing with a sudden identity crisis due to a major cut back of my hours at work, (as in zero hours).  A major source of my sense of self, and also the source of a lot of trauma has basically been ripped away.  I feel almost like I’m in a second adolescence where I get to decide who or what I want to be, minus the old labels. Of course, this crisis occurs at the time when my usual high energy almost always seasonally ebbs, leaving me bone tired, in a place where no amount of sleep seems to put a dent in my heavy weariness. It also comes at the worst possible time from a realistic, financial standpoint as I struggle not to panic and visions of ramen noodles and malnourished kids and burly car repo types dance in my head.

These days self-care is summed up by actually changing out of my flannel cat jammie pants and making the effort to shower, going to the closet to get a clean fluffy white towel instead of just grabbing my daughter’s hooded duck towel that is hanging on the back of our bathroom door. I put on jeans and a plain sweatshirt, feeling like some kind of colorless bird. I swipe a brush through my hair and put on some tinted moisturizer to cover my dark eye circles, and I try to smile while all the while that voice is there. The constant underlying voice that maybe all people who struggle with depression or addiction fight against. It whispers underneath it all as I pour cereal into bowls, brew coffee, drive kids places and read them stories, struggle through math homework, matching socks, wiping fingerprints off mirrors. It’s there at the end of the day when I crumble into bed, and pull the duvet over my head and feel the comforting weight of a cat curl up in the place behind my knees and pray for oblivion and sweet sleep.  Its there when I answer the thousandth question of the day, through the endless litany of Mom, Mama, Mom, Mommy, the clearing up of yet another mess, the cycle of emptying and loading the dishwasher, the trudging up and down the stairs with the endlessly reproducing loads of laundry. It stalks me down the crowded aisle of the supermarket as I pick up bananas and whole grain bread and feel my eyes stinging in the cold as I load the plastic carrier bags into the back of my sensible minivan. It is there as I scroll social media and try not to compare my rumply insides with the perfect shiny outsides of countless “friends.” It fades a little when I head out the door with a warm hat on and music in my ears, trying to move my body in search of those endorphins I am so sorely lacking.  It’s there as I take my meds, drink another glass of water and remind myself that this too shall pass.

It’s a terrible voice, the voice of depression.  I used to drink to drown it out, if not temporarily, for it always returned with more fuel every time I couldn’t drink “successfully”. The endless loop of old tapes. what did you think would happen when you always settle?  you are nothing special. you never have been. foolish girl thinking you deserve anything at all. everyone would be better off without you.  you’re a fraud. everyone would walk away if they knew how stupid you really are. you are just taking up space. what is the point of you? it’s so easy to think maybe I’m an illness or your “addiction” but what if I’m the only one telling you the truth? people tell you that you have a gift but really, being a storyteller is just a fancy way of saying you are a good liar. keep moving, because the emptiness is so staggering that you will fall apart if you truly looked at it. there is something wrong with you. what have you ever done that is worth anything? nothing would change if you disappeared. who are you without all your stories and lies? you are weak. you don’t deserve better. your children really deserve better than you.

It’s sickening. I want to run from that voice, scared to believe it might be right. It feels like it may be right. But it isn’t.

I heard the phrase “emotional sherpa” the other day and found it to be the perfect description for what I’m feeling lately about the past, my role as recorder and storyteller and the repository of all the memories for my family, for myself.   The roles and labels I have clung to that need to be re-thought in light of this new me, the sober me. The baggage that I drag, the memories and the old worn-out narratives about me, my life, my mistakes. It falls in on me when I slow down and things are dark and quiet.  It’s time to drop the baggage.  I only want to move forward carrying what serves me.  But I’m a slow learner. For me, it tends to be relinquishing inch by inch.  I’m internalizing how to talk back to that voice, how to replace those old tapes with new ones. To remember that feelings are just that. They aren’t facts. I will get through this winter. And the next and the next.  Because underneath all of my stories, there is a core of steel that has never bent.  It’s the part of me that has survived things I never should have. In recovery, I’m making a new me, forged around that central core, that spark of truth.  But I’m not doing it alone.

Camus said it so well: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.  And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger–something better, pushing right back.”

So, if you are struggling with your own winter of discontent, with deep sadness or shifting of roles, or wanting to isolate, or even somehow deeply mourning that old carefree you with pint in hand, the you of BEFORE, I want to remind you that you aren’t alone.  The community of friends in recovery who drag us out of ourselves, challenge our assumptions, call us on our dramatic, overwrought bullshit.. they are part of the invincible summer. One of the gifts of surrender. A roadmap for when we get lost in our own heads and thoughts. So I challenge you: even if you are in an enforced hibernation due to mother nature being off her meds… if like me, some days it all feels dull and muffled and endlessly blah. Reach out. Talk about it. Tell the truth about where you are. You may be overwhelmed by the number of “me toos”.  Because you are NOT the only one. Addiction wants you to believe that you are terminally unique, the only one suffering as you are. But you aren’t. We recover.  We move on. We learn new things, and even if we slip down the slope a little and even fall off entirely, that’s not the end of the story.  Not by a longshot. 

Spring is coming.