"Secrets of Recovery"
Are you inspired by people who have overcome their weaknesses?
Stories abound about people who have triumphed over addiction, depression, failure, and fear. It seems their demons are behind them; they learned their great lessons and have created billion-dollar businesses, soulful careers, or unimaginable peace. They are saving lives and changing the world.
What are the secrets to such awe-inspiring recovery?
Recovery is defined as being restored to a natural balance, a healthy state. But how do we know if we have truly recovered? After a particularly depressing day, one in which I had to admit that nothing I tried was working, I found myself wondering if I will ever get “there,” especially since I already thought I had.
Are people really able to put their demons behind them, never again feeling fear or anger or grief? Even Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane begged God to take his cup away from him. He was frightened of his fate, and he was one of the most enlightened guys who ever lived. Clearly his demons were not behind him. They were right there, front and center.
The ability of today’s thought leaders to recover hinged on their ability to manage their feelings, to remain in charge in spite of the negative self-talk that blared in their mental speakers. We never stop learning and growing and becoming; we never stop recovering.
The demons are always there, but our task is to reduce their significance, to avoid making choices that pull us away from who we are, and to recognize that maybe they have something to teach us.
A Recovery Opportunity
About that depressing day: I finally visited a dermatologist after three years of coping with an embarrassing skin condition called rosacea. It looks like acne, and nothing sucks the self-confidence out of me more than looking into the mirror and seeing bright red bumps all over my face. Nothing.
I had tried everything from washing my face twice a day with noncomedogenic soap to eating organically to avoiding caffeine, sun, and sugar - always hopeful that one morning I would wake up to a clear face. The breakouts continued. In You Can Heal Your Life, Louise Hay writes that skin problems represent “anxiety, fear. Old buried guck.” The papules are a glaring reminder that “I am being threatened.” Great.
This condition arose after I had my breakdown, which occurred after I stopped taking antidepressants three years ago. Maybe my body feels free to express fear physically now that it’s not numbed out by drugs. But what could I possibly feel anxious about now?
I have faced more fear than I ever have in my life in the last three years. Now I hold out my hands and ask, “There’s more?” The bumps on my face scream to the world that I am not recovered. Much of my writing is about facing fear, becoming who we are; I worry that I am a fraud. What could possibly be threatening me?
I faced my fear of getting off medication and of life without the security of my job. Facing these fears taught me that there is always enough and provided me with myriad opportunities to experience success. I played a huge role in supporting my husband and believing our business success into existence, something I had never done before.
So, why am I breaking out after having faced so much fear already and experiencing so much success? Louise Hay writes that the skin is “a sense organ” and that it “protects our individuality.” The affirmation she suggests is “I feel safe to be me.” Is that what’s going on? Do I not feel safe to be me?
Well, damn, I thought I’d been doing just that for the last three years - being me.
I did some self-examination, and I realized that she’s right. It doesn’t feel safe to be me. It never has. I live in the Deep South, where sweet Jesus is served in casual conversations like sweet tea at dinner. Funerals become revivals, because Lord knows somebody might need to be saved, lest their souls burn in eternal hell fire. You’d best be sittin’ in a church pew every Sunday, otherwise your evil ways will be the subject of every wagging tongue in the family. And gossip burns through families like fire through a dry forest.
Parents have no trouble sharing their children’s secrets, but there is hell to pay if the children share theirs. And heaven help the daughter who questions her parents’ religious beliefs or the son who chooses a life path far removed from the blue collar one tattooed into the psyches of so many southern parents. It just isn’t done. Writing is not an occupation my family is thrilled about; exposing my secrets means exposing theirs, too.
The Harsh Truth About Recovery
Any human being born with a rebel spirit is going to suffer in the South. There’s just no way around it. Southerners like their traditions, their churches, and their secrets. It’s very hard for us to admit to ourselves when we are wrong or that someone else just might have a better way of doing something.
Everyone thinks they’ve got the right religion; some southern parents have been known to disown their children for marrying the wrong kind. There’s a lot of pride here. But southern pride chokes its sons and daughters; it disconnects us from each other and stifles our individuality.
An example of the cost of southern pride, of refusing to perform the self-examination required for recovery is Paula Deen. Paula had cooked and baked her way into the hearts of Americans and created an empire that was the life-blood of her family. Then she developed diabetes as a result of her high-fat recipes. She was diagnosed years before she disclosed that diagnosis. In full-blown denial, she continued to promote her recipes in spite of her diagnosis.
I cannot judge her. I am a southerner myself, and I ask the question: How can she be anything other than who she is? She is a product of her raising, of her culture. She had to be mortified at the thought of admitting that her cooking not only had hurt her, but had also hurt the very people who loved and supported her. Her entire career rested in perpetuating her denial - until she was ready to get honest with herself. And that’s scary stuff in the South.
In the South, you just don’t go around changing things or behaving in any sort of non-traditional way. Somebody might notice. Somebody might talk. You stand to lose everything, and some of us do. I lost my children when I did something scandalous, something that many believe will surely send me straight to hell: I remarried after dating my husband only a week and a half.
The truth is that recovery is a destructive process, and people are going to delight in gossiping about your suffering through it, many times the people you care most about. Something old has to die so that something new can be born. It is called the life-death-life cycle. Paula’s old way of cooking had to die so that she could birth a healthier way of sharing her gift with the world. Diabetes was a gift for Paula Deen, a portal to her awakening. But not many people could see that at the time; it was far more entertaining to make her a pariah.
Old patterns of behavior must be released to create space for new ones. When we stop nursing our addictions, indulging in self-hatred, or being afraid, we change, and unfortunately, those closest to us may not like the change. They may like us better when we suffer with them.
The Gifts of the Demon
It has most definitely not been safe to be me. I have felt very angry about that, and I can feel the heat of that anger under my rosacea. The very people who mean the most to me, my family, with whom I wish to have a close connection, do not know how to accept me as I am and harshly judge my choices.
Yes, I married quickly, but the irony is that my husband is the best friend I have ever had in my life. Had I not married him, I would have not had his love and support to lean on during the years after my breakdown. I would have denied myself the happiest relationship of my life.
When I am me - when I share my beliefs and ideas through my writing or through my poetry, I am met with wide stares, disbelief, and even attacks. When I meet new people in the family, I can see the judgment in their eyes, the gossip having already burned through. I feel sad, unaccepted.
But it’s also a sign that I am growing, and I remember that nothing anyone thinks about me has anything to do with me. It’s not personal. It never has been.
As I worked my way through this piece, my depression lifted. I am reminded that recovery is about being in tune with oneself and that it is unique to the individual. One person’s recovery might be about experiencing a deeper spiritual understanding completely separate from religion, another’s simply the ability to be true to herself.
It is about realizing that the demons are always there; I either get better at ignoring them or better at seeing what they are trying to teach me. It is about accepting that my most beloved relationships may fall apart, that who I truly am may not be accepted.
The lesson in the pain is the gift of the demon. For Paula Deen, diabetes was the demon, but it was the demon that saved her. Asking what in me needs to be angry about others’ reactions to my growth helps me see that all I want is acceptance. I probably always will, but the person whose acceptance I need most is my own.
Accepting my rosacea, admitting my powerlessness over curing it, and exploring possible root causes helped me to identify deep feelings of anger that lay underneath my inflamed skin. This self-examination opened my heart to look with forgiving eyes on those who simply know no other way to be. I cannot make others love me. That’s my job now.
I accept your gift.