And everything I do is judged, and they mostly get it wrong, but oh well. Cuz the bathroom mirror has not budged, and the woman who lives there can tell the truth from the stuff that they say. She looks me in the eye, and says, “Would you prefer the easy way? No? Well ok then, don’t cry.”
I do it for the joy it brings, because I am a joyful girl. Because the world owes me nothing and we owe each other the world. I do it cuz it’s the least I can do. I do it cuz I learned it from you. And I do it just because I want to. Because I want to. ~ Ani Difranco
Ani Difranco has been my absolute favorite singer/songwriter since I discovered her in 1994. Her music has been the soundtrack to my life. When she released Dilate in 1996, the track Joyful Girl became my own personal anthem. I have always been an optimist of the highest degree. I have always tried to find the positive in things. And Joyful Girl just spoke to everything I was and everything I wanted to be.
That is one reason that my grief shook me to the core. I had dealt with depression before, but nothing this prolonged and agonizing. Nothing had ever robbed me of my will to live and sucked the color from my world the way Jay’s death did. To have been, for 30 years, one sort of person, and then to wake up one day to find oneself with a completely different outlook, a completely different mood and worldview and constitution? It is, quite literally, to become a stranger to oneself. And when this new persona settled into my life for a good long stay, I started to wonder who I actually was. Had I been the person I always thought of myself as? Or was this the person I truly was? Would I ever feel like myself again, or did I need to resign myself to this new way of existence? It was, without a doubt, the most alienating thing I had ever experienced, and it left me profoundly unnerved when I allowed myself to consider it at all.
Eventually, though, the person I was re-emerged, and I welcomed her like an old friend. The world started to have color again. I would find myself smiling for no reason. I began to allow myself to feel hope. In early 2011, I started dating someone briefly. It didn’t go anywhere, but even the sense that I could be attractive to someone after all I had been through contributed to my forward momentum. Throughout 2011, I continued to work at improving my health and putting down from the crutches that I knew were impeding my recovery and growth. I kept flirting with 12-step programs only to retreat for one reason or another, but I knew that my willingness to keep trying again indicated that I was on the right path.
In the late summer of 2011, I finally met someone that I really felt I “clicked” with. Darrell was fresh out of a 20 year marriage (which should have been my first red flag) and our first date was, while not as epic as my first 26-hour date with Jay, quite a good one. There is a metaphor that I use to talk about grieving, partly swiped from Utah Phillips and partly cobbled together from my own experience in 12-step programs: I like to say that grieving is sort of like being an alcoholic. A person who goes to AA can be sober for an astonishingly long period of time—twenty, thirty years or more—and he is not likely to ever say, “I’m no longer an alcoholic.” He is going to sit in that meeting, raise his hand, and say, “My name is _______ and I’m an alcoholic.” Because, at least in the AA way of thinking, he always will be an alcoholic, even if he never touches another drop of liquor. The phrase, “I’m an alcoholic” has a different meaning to him than it might to an active alcoholic. Alcohol itself has a different meaning to him. But the fact of his alcoholism hasn’t stopped being true.
That is how I think of grieving. I will always, always grieve Jay. What that means now, seven and a half years after his death, is far different than what it meant a year after. But it is still true, and I believe it will always be true.
I told Darrell this on our first date (not mentioning my own 12-step experiences), and, emboldened, he used the anecdote as an opportunity on our second date to tell me he was in AA, and sober for seven years. At that point, I was still trying to find the right fit for me with respect to a 12-step program, but I was actively attending one and working with a sponsor, and I told him as much. It seemed like kismet; here was someone else who was working towards recovery in his life, something I was desperately trying to find for myself.
We began dating, but unfortunately the fact that his 20 year marriage had only come to an end six weeks before we met would, unsurprisingly, come to cause some complications. When his wife found out he had a new girlfriend six weeks after she left him, she started to reconsider her decision. They had a three-year-old daughter, and so he told me he had to try to make things work for her sake. Throughout late 2011, we played this back-and-forth game as he tried to make up his mind which of us he wanted. We parted ways in November after a big fight that his wife caused between us, the details of which are unimportant. I quit my 12-step program again in frustration and sadness and picked up some of my favorite crutches to cope with my despair at the end of our relationship.
However, undaunted, I put them back down again at the beginning of 2012, knowing as I did that my life was not going to get better if I kept relying on things outside of myself to make me feel better. At the same time, Darrell and I started talking again and would spend another month or two playing back-and-forth. It was at that point, since I was dating an alcoholic, that I decided to give Alanon (the 12-step program for friends and families of alcoholics) another try. It was one of the many programs my mom had urged me to try out, since both she and my father were alcoholics. Given that it was important to Darrell that I be participating in some sort of active recovery work, too, I thought that Alanon was perhaps the group I had been searching for. (The other time I tried it was many many years prior to this—before I had even met Jay, in the early 2000s.)
I can admit freely now that I really only gave Alanon a try because it was important to Darrell. (Ironically, doing things to please others is a major Alanon trait.) But I wanted to show him that I was, in fact, taking my recovery seriously. I didn’t want to give him any excuses to dump me again. And so I got a sponsor and started working the steps, at last taking my commitment to do so seriously. One of the most surprising things for me when I finally joined Alanon was the realization that almost everyone I had ever had a relationship with had been an addict. (Well, save one, and he was a compulsive liar.) There was my high school boyfriend Roger, a pothead. There was my college boyfriend, an alcoholic. Dave was pretty clearly a sex addict. There was the compulsive liar. There was Jay, who had died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. And now there was Darrell, a recovering alcoholic.
For someone who prides herself on being pretty self-aware, someone who had been in therapy for a decade at this point, I was pretty thunderstruck by the fact that I had completely missed that my romantic life had been nothing but a string of addicts. SERIOUSLY?! HOW HAD I OVERLOOKED THAT? I suddenly realized that, regardless of what had gotten me in the door, I probably was exactly where I needed to be. The more I listened to other people’s stories, the more I heard my own. My whole history of failed relationships and dysfunctional men was explained right there in that room. And when Darrell broke things off with me a couple months into 2012, I decided I would show him. I knew he thought I was only there because of him, and although he was actually right, now I was going to prove him wrong. I WOULD STAY.
And stay, I did. I did a meeting or two each week, and met with my sponsor on a weekly basis. I started to feel like I was coming to understand what was so powerful about the 12-step approach, something my mother had been telling me for years but that I had refused to believe. I had insisted that 12-step work was just like therapy, and hadn’t I been working with my therapist for a decade already? I looked askance at the idea of powerlessness and turning things over to God, since I didn’t believe in God nor did I think I was powerless. But slowly I became convinced that something was happening to me through my participation in the meetings that had not happened in all my years of therapy, although I couldn’t have given it a name or even articulated what it might be.
In late 2011, also as part of my effort to please Darrell by showing him I was taking care of myself, I rejoined my martial arts school. I had participated in martial arts from 2000-2005. I had even earned my black belt within weeks of finishing my PhD. But after Jay’s death, I dropped out, and after I slipped the disc in my back, I presumed I could never return. Still, I knew that I was physically unwell. I had some physical recovery in 2009 when I had gone on my health retreat, but since I didn’t keep up with it and had gone back to binge eating and being sedentary, the progress I had made had slipped away. I was fat, yes, but that was nothing new. It didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that I could actually feel how unhealthy I was. My joints ached. My back hurt. In martial arts, I could not participate for the whole class period. I would have to take breaks and sit at the side of the room, trying my best not to feel humiliated by my physical condition. My instructor, who was also a very close friend of mine, did his best to do everything he could to encourage me to keep coming. I doggedly attended class at least twice a week, but because I was in such poor health to start with and because my binge eating was still quite out-of-control, my performance was not improving as quickly as I hoped it would. In fact, it didn’t feel like it was improving at all. I had reached a point where my body hurt all the time. I could not stand for more than ten minutes. I was scared I was going to slip another disc or hurt some other joint. I knew I was getting older, and I could see how things that should be easy, like bending over and straightening up again, were becoming more and more difficult. I was terrified that I would disable myself if I did not do something about my physical condition.
As a result, in summer of 2011, I started to take steps to have weight-loss surgery, something that went against every fiber of my being. Nothing in my belief system had ever prepared me for the possibility of cutting up my stomach and giving myself surgically-induced bulimia. Even considering such an action was horrifying: I am a body-positive feminist and fat acceptance advocate. How can I justify doing something that flies in the face of my own values so? I teach women’s studies! How can I explain this decision to my students and colleagues? And yet, I felt imprisoned by my body in a way I have a difficult time putting into words. And so, I felt that I had no choice: I would have the surgery.
I told my Alanon sponsor that I had made this decision, and after a few weeks of mulling it over, he came back to me and said, in a gentle and loving but firm way, that he knew very little about binge eating, and that my deciding to go through weight-loss surgery was something that he did not think he had the experience to guide me through alone. He asked that, if I wanted to continue to work with him, I start attending Overeaters Anonymous (OA) as well.
In 12-step programs, we talk a lot about willingness, and I realized this was where that concept was about to become real for me. Willingness means that you accept that someone else might know better for you than you do, since your own best thinking is what got you to where you find yourself. I really, really liked my sponsor. I felt I had grown so much from working with him. And so, even though I had tried OA 3 or 4 times before (although not in many, many years), I did as he asked me to do and attended a meeting.
As soon as I did, I realized that addressing my eating disorder was probably the most crucial thing I could do for myself. Until then, I had thought that my recovery work in Alanon was the most important thing I could possibly do, but it became apparent to me very quickly that OA was about to become even more important. I started working with my OA sponsor very quickly and was able to stop bingeing within 3 or 4 months of starting the program (at which point I also stopped working with my Alanon sponsor, because I realized that I really did need to focus all my effort on my OA recovery). After my first meeting with my sponsor, I came to understand that, while weight loss surgery could possibly remove my ability to binge, it would not remove my desire to binge. It would be akin to what AA folks call “white knuckle sobriety”—quitting cold turkey without working a program. OA, my sponsor promised me, could take away my desire to binge. I was highly skeptical, but I realized that considering weight loss surgery was my own version of “rock bottom.” I so desperately wanted to avoid the surgery that I thought, “I don’t buy this shit for a second, but dammit, I am going to do whatever this woman tells me to do if it means I don’t have to cut up my stomach and rearrange my intestines.”
And, not to proselytize (hey, to each her own) but that shit—much to my surprise, delight, and, frankly, annoyance—worked for me. I had tried it several other times in my life, but this was the first time that I just fully embraced it. I saw how in previous attempts, I had been holding on to my own self-will rather than surrendering it. And it was only once I did finally let go of any desire to control the outcome that it finally, truly worked. I’ve been abstinent from bingeing now for almost 10 months and have lost almost 100 lbs. I don’t say that because I want congratulations or admiration. I honestly can’t take credit for it, because it wasn’t my doing. It was my willingness to let something else work within me that allowed it to happen. Besides that, as a fat acceptance advocate, I have a complicated relationship with my feelings about weight loss in general. I don’t necessarily want to be praised for it. It was never my goal to lose weight for the sake of losing weight. It was only to improve my health. Sometimes when I look in the mirror and realize I feel better about myself for having lost so much weight, I actually get angry because I don’t want my acceptance and self-worth tied to such a thing. I only mentioned a number at all because I want to impress upon you all what a huge change this program has made in my life. In fact, about six months after I stopped bingeing, I also started working Debtors Anonymous to curb my compulsive spending behaviors. Those are the two primary programs I work right now, and they have brought me so much peace and serenity. And believe me when I say, no one hates that fact more than I do.
I don’t want to talk about God and higher powers. I don’t like feeling as if I am preaching to other people. I find discussing my spiritual growth embarrassing. But I do it. I’m not eager about it, necessarily, but if I find myself in a place where I feel like my experience can help someone else, I do share it. If it’s not for them, cool. I back off. But if they are interested, I’m happy to tell them whatever I can.
It’s not easy. I put a lot of effort into my recovery work (although I never feel like I do as much as I should). I’m still learning. There are days I resent what I have to do to stay in recovery: pray, make outreach calls, read literature, write, attend meetings. Plenty of times, I just want to say fuck it and go back to my old way of doing things. But I can’t. Because when I look at my life before and after recovery, I can see how profoundly happy I have become. I am not perfect by any means. I still struggle, and I still suffer at times. I still hate to exercise and I suspect I always will, because it’s just not my bag. I still make incredibly selfish or dumb decisions about relationships.
But at the same time, I have this deep sense that everything will be ok. I can see when I am trying to exert control over situations that I can’t control, and, more often than not, I can let go and back away from them more readily than I once could. I try to keep the focus on myself: what can I do, and what is not in my power? And then I focus on doing what I can and try to leave the rest to take care of itself.
In part two of this series I wrote about the “false self” I had constructed. When I think back to my feelings about being a “Joyful Girl,” I think that, before Jay’s death, that joy was part of my false self. When I would meditate in savasana at the end of yoga back then, I remember how this deep sadness would well up inside me, even though I had no sense of what it was about or where it was coming from. It would happen routinely, and I found it unnerving and distressing. I think that was my real self, expressing its despair because I was not dealing with myself and others honestly. Now, when I do savasana, I don’t feel that sadness anymore. I feel at peace. And I think I’m a lot closer to being that “Joyful Girl” now, almost eight years after Jay’s death, than I ever was when he was alive.
It pains me that it took his death to reconfigure my life so radically. I am glad that I never have to make the decision about whether to undo his death or not, because, while I probably could have come to this place by another route, I am not sure what that would have been. I like to think I would give anything to have him back, but I know that I am a far healthier and happier person now than I ever have been in the past. I have found a way to live with as much honesty as I am capable of. Grief, for me, has been a path to discovering myself and to finding peace. While I still hunger to share my life with someone, I know that all I can do is to be the best me I am able to be. The person who is able to see that and who wants to join me in my journey will come along sooner or later. My job is just to be ready when it happens.
Going once, going twice. Sold to the girl who ignored all the advice of all the people who knew better. And she just stood there on her front porch, waiting for her will to come and get her. And she was packed, she had a suitcase, full of noble intentions. She had a map, and a straight face, hell bent on reinvention. And she was ready for the lonely. She was in it for it only. ~ Ani Difranco
(Note: I had finished this entry with a photo of myself as I did with the previous entries. However, today in my meeting I was reminded of our tradition of anonymity. I should not be publicly identifying myself as an OA member with my photo included, so I removed it. Doh—I'm so bad at anonymity!)