Observe These Hands, My Dear.
Arrived at my women’s meeting last night just as the meeting was starting. Came from having a withering argument with someone with whom I’ve had (and/or withstood) withering arguments for a long time. No big deal, right?—we all have folks in our lives who bring out the sharpest claws in us. I’ve had two or three panic attacks in the last couple months and they always begin with an out-of-body thing—it’s almost like I’m standing right next to my body, watching it go through the motions of a panic attack: face blanks out as though to deny the anger (mine; the other person’s); chest tightens, throat chokes, then the body starts to gasp slightly, as if it’s being dragged underwater.
Last night as I walked into the meeting I felt my face go blank and my throat choke and I walked to the chilly little bathroom at the back of the basement room where we have this meeting. At the back of the cold room, near the last wooden stall, under the window, I saw that someone had placed a space heater, and as I leaned my forehead onto the windowsill and a sob escaped the noose around my throat, I felt the heated air gliding up toward my face like a warm blanket.
My friend Tina followed me into the bathroom and called my name.
I fell stone in love with Tina the day two or three years ago that I heard her lead. Tina is one of those astonishing people who got sober at like age 22, and who has never had a drink or drug in the intervening 25 or 30 years. I don’t mean to make it sound as if it’s easy for her. It’s not. She’s a working mom whose partner, a guy with lots of sober-time and his own professional successes, enthusiastically supports her career and her work as a mother. She led me to the ratty little couch in the basement room adjoining the meeting room and as we talked she laid out some options I hadn’t seen before. Then we joined the rest of the meeting.
(What would I do without these women? Prolly drive down to one of the many bridges in this town. It’s their trust that keeps me sober.)
After the meeting, my sponsor, who had been there the whole time, asked me what had happened, and I told her. Again. … Do you never feel as though you must at least take a shot at making the story you’ve told a million times interesting, just to make sure the other person doesn’t scram, or scream, or fall asleep? The story of the conflict that engendered this particular argument I had last night—no way can I make it interesting. It’s the most common, most banal of stories on the face of the earth. “One of these days you’re going to get sick of hearing me talk about this and you’re going to fire me because of how boring all this is,” I told her, rolling my eyes.
(I hate it when people use the word “fire” for leaving a sponsorship. It’s not about hiring and firing. To “fire” someone is to demean them. But I said the word “fire” anyway.)
She shook her head almost in wonder and I realized I was doing it again—indulging in self-recrimination, self-censure, self-self-self, superselfinvolvement. Her eyebrows met above her glasses, and she claimed her best litigator’s stance and diction as she (once again) pointed out that I was being too hard on myself, that I was taking responsibility that wasn’t mine, that I had to cease the criticism and judgment “and, what is the word—opprobrium, shall we say?—that you use against yourself,” and to practice an attitude of gentleness and compassion toward myself and everyone else. Much of my work with my sponsor is about Step 7—humility and self-acceptance.
I want to fix myself. I want to figure out a Way To Be, a Pure Way that upsets no one else—so that I can do what I need to do for my own peace of mind and no one else will be affected. Teflon Woman. I know that the ONLY thing I can change is myself—so let’s get on with it, G, let’s figure out what “needs fixed” (as all my aunts used to say) and get out the toolbox and start in with the hammers and saws. There has to be something I can do to fix it. “It” being myself.
The idea that I’m fine just as I am, that I’m where I need to be right now, still doesn’t feel all that familiar.
When it comes upon me, however—when I let that attitude overtake me—I experience a state that approaches bliss. The other day for example it snowed, a heavy wet six inches, I ditched my morning plans because my kid’s school was delayed two hours, I drove south to the big hill in the city and walked my dog Flo and my friend P’s dog Ginger (because P is in Holland taking care of her mother) and simply allowed myself to be in the snowy morning without feeling as if I were doing anything wrong, as if I were reneging on any work (I was but amen, so be it), and I watched the dogs chase each other in the snow and heard the robins singing—a sure bellwether of spring—and the happiness welled up a little bit in me because I was right there, just doing the next thing, and it’s those moments I feel no need to change myself, Fix Myself, do anything to myself to make myself different so other people will be OK with me and my actions. Actually it wasn’t happiness, it was just contentment. The opposite of “discontent.”
“Content”—the word comes from the Latin for contain or to hold. In those moments I feel held, safe.
Other times—well, other times I stand in the Lululemon dressing room trying on expensive yoga pants and the rear-view in the three-way makes me pick apart every aspect of my body, makes me want to take out a couple grand so I can join a kickboxing class and finally possess, if never big breasts or booty, at least tiny Buns Of Steel. Still other times, I walk calmly into the church bathroom and sob quietly against the back wall. Quietly, so as not to upset anyone else.
My sponsor regarded me through her glasses and held up her hands. “I wish I could be like Rhett Butler with Scarlett,” she said, shaking her hands in front of my face.
“You mean,” I said, “where he says, ‘Observe these hands, my dear, they could tear you to pieces—’”
“—‘if it would take that stupid, wishy-washy idiot Ashley out of your mind,’” she finished. “I wish I could smash out of your head all that self-hatred and self-criticism. I would do it if I could.”
So she’s looking up at me, shaking her hands into face. She ain’t no Rhett Butler. My sponsor is like two inches shorter than me—four or five when I am, as I was last night, wearing the awesome John Fluevog boots I bought in November from the Fluevog shop in lower Manhattan. No photo can convey the feeling I get from wearing these boots. They make me taller and über-badass. Impervious to (self-)criticism.
How do you kick the enemy’s ass when the enemy is yourself?
Then she started in about what a fascinatingintelligentspiritual person I am, how I have So Many Wonderful Qualities, blah blah blah, and I stopped listening.
(Scarlett: “Take your hands off me. You drunken fool.” Scarlett is about as adept at resisting real love as I am.)
Because I have to do that work for myself. I have to Love Myself. I can’t make anyone else do that work. (Can I?) I have to come to some kind of dependable right-sized understanding of the person I am. None of that requires Fixing Myself. I can’t screw anything in there that will make it all better. It takes time. Experience. Acceptance of mistakes, of possible mistakes, of myself. Taking steps outside my limits. Risk. Grief. Celebration.
Postscript: Ed died last night, peacefully, at 4:30 a.m. A great privilege to have known him. May you be at peace, Ed, and may your wisdom continue to speak words from The Cloud into our ears.