What Recovery Looks Like

dark hedges

Hiding in the Filthy Office

I literally blew the circuit breaker in the kitchen at work the penultimate week of the semester. The microwave, toaster, and toaster oven do not cooperate simultaneously, and my husband, who is also my colleague and was also suffering from unheated lunch, was trying to explain how circuit breakers function and how me trying to plug the device back into the socket would not work.  Because this happened during the end of the semester when I wasn’t sleeping enough, I took this lesson as an attempt to explain my stupidity. I stomped off to my office to fume; when I came back for my food, I was trying so hard not to cry that I couldn’t even acknowledge his attempts to talk me off my angry cliff. I just nodded, said yes, I know, it’s fine, I love you too. “I think you’re having some PTSD,” he said. “No one is telling you you’re stupid.” 

But I felt stupid, so I hid in my office litter of ungraded portfolios, unwashed dishes, and un-submitted conference receipts. Students were writing overdue and self-absorbed essays, and administrators were making decisions that I despised. I was on two search committees and in the throes of meetings in my busiest grading week of the year while on an adjusted (for more class time) teaching schedule. Outside, temperatures rocketed from 30 degrees to 80. My pitta dosha boiled but despite knowing better, I operated on a self-care deficit. An online yoga group I’m part of had started a yoga and meditation challenge the week before.  I’d done one of the recommended yoga practices and exactly none of the meditation challenges.

I heard a yoga instructor once say, “It’s empowering to know how to care for yourself.” It’s also infuriating. When I left my ex-husband and began the miserable work of therapy, I watched myself do the wrong thing every day. Someone would manipulate me into doing something and I’d let it go even though I knew I should stick up for myself. My dad would send me money and I’d keep it, but not answer his phone calls. Another friend would challenge me on an idea and I’d overreact. I’d also overcommit, eventually disappointing people with late or shoddy work. Sometimes the misery of what I knew and yet failed to do correctly was as demoralizing as not knowing why I was screwing up in the first place.

One of my friends is currently making hard changes to heal from an addiction. Even though she knows why she wants wine and drugs, and why these will someday kill her, it doesn’t get rid of her addiction or her sometimes reckless attempts to feed it. This infuriates her; why be given the knowledge if she can’t do something better? Why, she asks, am I so apathetic?  Why do I want to blunt my feelings?

Why do I need so much help? we ask. No one has answered.

Sizing Up, or, Not Putting Your Elbows on the Floor

In yoga philosophy, twin limbs of this miserable self-awareness are a yama (a moral restraint) called satya, meaning truthfulness, and a niyama (a moral code) called svadhyaya, or self-study. Satya says I must resolve to be unflinchingly honest. Svadhyaya says I have to look closely at the situation. Then afterwards, I can choose to do something different. Something different can feel like a rocky path not yet hacked out of the mountain. It can even feel wrong, like re-learning how to swim or throw a ball or move into a yoga pose I perfected years ago (note: you never really perfect a yoga pose).

It can feel like swallowing pride. Addie Zierman, author of one of my current favorite books When We Were on Fire (and also a very lovely human in person) wrote a blog titled “Size Up”, about finally making herself buy a bigger size of jeans. I got anxious on her behalf as soon as I saw the title. Like Addie, I grew up conservative and Midwestern and evangelical and woman in the 1990s, which meant I spent a number of those years terrified of sizes.

Sizes are one kind of unhelpful performance marker; yoga poses can be another if I’m not careful. In a class I streamed recently, the instructor told us to settle into lizard pose, a hip-opening runner’s lunge that can be made more intense by  putting the elbows on the floor. As I creaked into the pose, she mentioned that after twenty-five years of yoga, she still couldn’t put her elbows on the floor. “I couldn’t do it in my twenties and I sure as hell can’t do it now,” she said. “And it took me that long to be OK with it.” I gasped a little in the middle of my ujjayi  breath and felt tears creep up.

Addie writes, “It’s about letting go of what doesn’t fit anymore, of who you used to be, of who you  thought you might turn into. (You are too old and too awesome for all that nonsense.) . . . In the mirror, the reflection you see is not one of failure but of courage as you expand, expand, expand more fully into yourself.”

Focusing on My Nose

But sometimes letting go of that nonsense is awfully hard. I realized that as I fumed through a gorgeous hike in Ireland last week. What was I so angry about? Initially, some dirty dishes; eventually, the fact that I was pissed off over something so stupid my last days in a beautiful place. The old anger that made me want to hide, snap at people, and hit myself continues to lurk, though less frequently than it used to. While I now know why it happens and how to help myself through it, the fact that I succumb to it at all continues to frustrate me.

Yoga teachers suggest finding a focal point in yoga poses–over the fingertips of an outstretched hand in Warrior II, a spot on the wall in balancing poses, the tip of the nose in Pyramid pose. In some guided meditations, instructors advise students to focus just on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils.

Thinking no farther than my nose helps me get through yoga classes and meditations when my mind is distracted; it’s also a good physical reminder of how to get through a day or a moment. Just keep breathing, I sometimes tell myself when I notice I’m angry powerwalking through another moment. Focus on the end of your nose.

Recovery is simple steps that feel like they might kill us. But sometimes we survive one simple step–just keep breathing— and then take another. My friend is walking her way towards sobriety; I’m no longer an angry doormat who compensates by hitting herself. Knowing how to recover is not the same as being recovered, but it takes one to get to the other.  My friend writes, “I’ve come to find freedom in the 24 hours I have. I find freedom, crazy as it sounds, in the idea of taking simple steps in the right direction. Staying sober is only the beginning. My journey out of wreckage and into a group of like-minded people is about finding myself and my will to live again.” Three years on, I’m still recovering, but when I look back–not too long, focus on your nose– I barely see the wreckage.