I took this photo today: a humid August afternoon in my backyard garden. I just spent an hour harvesting vegetables, batting at mosquitos, pulling weeds, chasing our free-range chickens from the garden, and dripping sweat. Abundance was a word that came to mind at the same moment of feeling totally overwhelmed.
What the photo doesn't show is another 10 pounds of cucumbers in my fridge, a food dehydrator at-the-ready on my counter, a giant canning pot on the stove, and eggplants screaming "Make ratatouille!" while slowly losing their plump purple-ness in the crisper drawer. Sweat is beading on my forehead in a summer heat-wave panic. So much effort!
The last thing I want right now is to reap what I have sown. The abundance is killing me. I was up to midnight the other night canning pickles (and cleaning up exploded pickle jars - more on that below). There are unwashed chicken eggs on my counter.
Abundance is hard work. My mind is urging me to retreat from this hot August to the cool basement and watch episodes of Chef's Table and admire what mythical chefs do with their organic, picture-perfect abundance while I sip wine with my feet up.
Everything is going right. And I don't know how to handle it.
Can recovery feel like this sometimes?
Why do we fear getting better?
When someone struggles with depression, some days may feel like a black hole of isolation... and sometimes like a warm blanket on a dark, rainy day.
When someone experiences mania, some days may feel like a train screaming around the bend in the tracks, about to fly off the rails... and some days the mind opens to creativity never before felt or sensed.
The rush of a high may feel like pure love in chemical form... and other days, may leave someone crawling out of their skin, fighting off a mighty infection from a dirty needle.
My point is, the experience of mental illness and addiction is not all bad. For most people, it changes daily, weekly, or seasonally. And it can become a familiar cycle of ups and downs.
Dr. Susan Noonan, MD, wrote:
Recovery also means leaving the familiar illness and “life as you know it now” behind, venturing into the world of wellness that is uncertain and unfamiliar to you. That can be scary. You might feel anxious, irritable, feel like retreating back to your old depressed self. You don’t know what to expect, especially if you’ve had trouble remembering what you were like before the depression began. So some people may feel more comfortable keeping things as they are, staying with the familiar.
Most people learn to cope with the lowest lows, learn to accept the ups and downs as a part of life. Many of us get used to the constant struggle. And when the proverbial clouds part and the sun finally shines down, we can feel like we're in a foreign land.
Dreaming of a garden in the depths of winter.
I begin planning my vegetable garden in February. The time of year in New England when there are still a good 4-6 weeks of winter left. When my Serotonin is depleted and my Vitamin D is way below recommended blood levels. It is a welcome escape to dream of green and wet and dirt and warm tomatoes when everything around me is dry and salty and wooly and cold.
Planning and preparing can be an endless, indulgent phase of change. Like with recovery, the inevitable moment comes when it is time to reap what you have sown.
And when that time comes for me and my garden, I have to look up from my spreadsheet, my predictions, my quaint seed packets, and my book of recipes with pretty pictures and I have to take action. I have to get dirty and sweat and get bitten and stay up late and get overwhelmed by all that is being offered to me by my own well-designed planning and research.
How does anyone handle recovery?
Before I attempt to answer that, let me say I have a problem with the word "recovery". Or even the idea of recovery being a stage someone arrives at. I much prefer this beautiful definition (written by the late Bill Anthony, and modified by me to widen the scope beyond just mental illness):
Recovery is a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills and/or roles. It is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life - even with limitations caused by an illness or state of mind. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the sometimes catastrophic effects of physical or mental setbacks. Recovery from any illness - spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical - involves much more than recovery from the illness itself.
Recovery is a process. An evolving circumstance. A cycle, not a fixed point on a linear scale. It's not a moment on your bucket list or a before-and-after photo for your social media feed.
Before you get discouraged by the idea of striving for something you will only momentarily keep hold of, take heart: this is the way change and growth have been for millennia.
I need to confess, be real. Yes, some of my pickles turned out like this:
But before I go off and get my Master Pickler certification, please know that 50% of them turned out like this:
It took a lot of energy and time to arrive at a 50/50 outcome. But just last night, we opened a jar and ate them with hot dogs and beer and it was all quite tasty and worth it.
Recovery is another word for evolution.
You have to get up off the couch, go out the door, and join with the life you have envisioned. And it rarely turns out as you had imagined. But that is the point: life is about participation, not imagining.
When we participate fully, openly, in our lives, we lay a stronger foundation for change. We break habits. We also shed the familiar. And we encounter fear. Don't they always say change is just outside your comfort zone?
Anticipating abundance (and it's twin sister, distress) as a stage of change.
Bill Anthony, a man many refer to fondly as "the godfather of the Recovery Movement", gave us a clue. He let us know that recovery is a, "...deeply personal, unique process of changing". If you are a geek like me, and really into the psychology behind behavior change, then you may know about Prochaska's Stages of Change.
"... action is the most demanding of the Stages of Change; you need to be prepared to increase your resources to help prevent relapse."
In other words, plan for the abundance in order to welcome it with some, even tiny, degree of grace. Or else your eggplants are going to turn brown in the crisper. And if they do brown, turn them to compost and rejoice in their becoming fertilizer for next year. Waste is only a matter of perspective.
Taking action, as Prochaska said, is the most demanding phase of change. Call in your family, your friends, and let them know you're going to need their support in real ways. Increase your resources.
"Distress is the biggest barrier to continued progress".
We think we've done all this hard work and now that things are happening, it should be easy. This is simply not the case. We have to keep pushing and opening up.
If tolerating your own distress keeps throwing you for a loop, call upon the wisdom of Marsha Linehan and her practice of radical acceptance:
Radical Acceptance Is:
• Acceptance of things as they are.
• Understanding what we can and cannot control in life.
• Being non-judgmental.
• Looking at “just the facts” of the situation.
• Acknowledging our situation.
• Letting go and not fighting against reality.
• An ability to tolerate the present moment, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable.
• Mindfulness of our emotions and allowing ourselves to lean into the discomfort of painful emotions (remembering that no feeling lasts forever and if we can sit with them, they will eventually rise and peak on their own-much like ocean waves).
The more we realize that the action phase of change takes massive efforts and that distress can keep us cycling through the recovery spiral, the more successful we will be at shedding old ways of being and take on new perspectives. I can personally say it's taken many revolutions around the spiral of change to realize this truth for myself. You too, I bet?
This isn't an existential question.
So, what do we do? How do I, and you, and your friends or clients or family members make the leap from imagining a better future to embracing and living it?
This isn't an existential question. It is a question that has been answered by scientific research and yes, you can handle it if you know what is going on.
As outlined by Prochaska in his books and many published research studies, you can reflect by yourself or with someone you trust on where you're at:
Reflect upon your own perceptions and reactions to not changing (whatever the behavior is that you're trying to change).
Use writing or art or talking to come up with self-motivational reasons for change, the reasons to get back on track. Write it down. Make it a visual reminder.
Explore what can be learned from the experience of being overwhelmed by change. There is much to learn and this will help with feeling discouraged.
Reflect on the idea that this experience is a normal, common, and temporary part of the spiral of recovery.
Talk, write, or create art about the advantages of the behavior change.
Be a compassionate and reflective listener to your own internal self, don't just focus on a string of "the right" questions. Be mindful, see what comes up.
Explore your values, hopes, purpose and goals in life. And again, record these somehow: in song, in art, in writing, in a crisp Excel spreadhseet.
Ask yourself a key question--what do I want to do now? --and move on toward a plan for renewed change. Own it, it's yours.
I'll close this post with a photo of me last fall, in the parking lot of a local hotel. I'm picking apples from trees that drop their fruit onto the pavement each year and get swept, like waste, into the dumpster. We harvested over 50 pounds that evening and ate apple pie all year.