Perfectionist Seeks Good Enough Gardener

“Perfectionism is the destroyer of emotional health and addictions recovery.”
– A local counselor

Yes, but perfectionism is all I’ve got to try to make you love, like, accept, or approve of me. If I give up perfectionism, I give up my way to you. I give up any hope of any connection ever. I free-float, spread-eagled in chaos.

My garden, my teacher, my tormenter?If I give up perfectionism, if I give up straining ceaselessly to get it right, I have to let things be wrong. And when they’re wrong, I am the Farmer in the Dell‘s cheese. I sit all alone in a bewildered, woebegone, forlorn heap of never being enough to make things go right.

And perfectionism is all I’ve got to protect myself from relapse. If I am not perfectly abstinent from alcohol, I risk destruction.

Today is 2.5 years for me without a drink. According to these numbers, I’ve got 2.5 more years to go to significantly decrease my chances of relapse. I can’t do another 2.5 years like the first 2.5.

I’m trying to be perfectly:

  • abstinent from alcohol
  • squeezed into the confines of “I only want positive people in my life” so people will want to be with me
  • a good person, a good person in recovery, a good friend, girlfriend, mentor, counselor, citizen, neighbor, homeowner, housekeeper, gardener, cat care giver, daughter, sister, writer

That’s a full plate, but who doesn’t have one?

I have an overgrown garden. A lot of people do. It’s just a garden, right? Ah, but the local counselor is right. Look how unconscious perfectionism terrifies me, and destroys any hope for contentment, even acceptance or equanimity.

“Because I have failed at being a perfect garden owner, I am a bad person, do things badly, and deserve bad treatment. The garden is growing a maw like the monstrous flower Audrey and will begin to snack on me limb by limb and render me increasingly unable to anything about anything and I will be a legless, armless torso watching her smile approach, helpless against her petals as she lips me into her darkness.”

Isn’t it awesome to be me, to have my mind?! My friend Karan Rains says, “It’s harder with smart people.” Yes! I love my smarts, but gee.

I get “Lighten up, Anne” pretty frequently, but I can’t obey. While my spread-eagled self still has her feet on the ground, I’m going to take it full on the chest. Here’s one reason why: “More reliance on approach coping and less on avoidance coping…is linked to a higher likelihood of remission [among those with alcohol use disorder].” I understand the impetus to turn from pain. But it doesn’t work.

If I’m going to approach what’s bothering me instead of avoid it, however, I’ve got to be able to regulate my feelings, mood and behavior. A predictor of relapse is inability to self-regulate. If I become flooded with feeling, my brain gets flooded, too, and I can’t think. I can’t make sense of what I’m feeling – stress, distress, pain – and I become instinct. Pain is threat unto death. Instinct directs me to relieve it or die.

And that’s the double bind of addiction. Approaching either option risks failure. If I don’t address what’s eating me, distress will accumulate behind my back to such heaviness that I’ll be bent with pain before I’m aware of it. I’ll be called to drink out of hopeless anger or helpless despair.

If I do address what’s eating me, I’m eye-to-eye with pain. In agony, it’s very hard to see pain as teacher, not tormenter. I can be driven to my knees. Drinking would feel like mercy.

My near-relapse troubles me. The garden et al. troubles me. I gotta watch out for trouble. I wish my locale had more help, but it is what it is and I am determinedly my own addictions treatment planner and provider.

How to untangle that double bind? First, I become aware I’m in need of self-care. Then I calm myself. Then I use everything I know about addictions treatment and implement it for my own case. Then I practice self-kindness.

So. That little heap of woebegone is a child.  I prescribed myself a stuffed animal which I bought yesterday. The stuffed animal can be a transitional object or comfort object that can help me heal my attachment issues, a tragic part of addiction. I kindly suspended judgment and let my 56 year-old self hold the little teddy bear. Not surprisingly, I began to sob like a child. And, as hoped, felt comforted.

Now for Audrey, The Garden. I prescribe myself support. I will try to find a gardener. I accept with kindness that I am not enough for the garden. But I am enough for me.

. . . . .

If you are interested in working part-time as a good enough gardener in Blacksburg, Virginia, here’s the job description. I would love to hear from you.

Practicing Radical Self-Kindness

When the clothes dryer broke, I thought, “I deserve bad things happening to me because I am bad.”

When the newly installed air conditioner broke, I thought, “That’s what I get for being too big for my britches and thinking I deserve better than I have.”

When the handyman tightened only half the kitchen sink after replacing the counter top and stopped returning my calls, I thought, “I deserve bad treatment. I’m not worthy of better.”

Ah-ha! I caught those thoughts in the thickly padded catcher’s mitt of my increasingly muscular and acute self-awareness. Those thoughts hurt! They don’t help!

black_raspberriesThinking that I am bad, wrong, inadequate, undeserving – these self-judgmental thoughts are as automatic and unconscious as my blink when a bug beelines for my eye. That bad things happen to me because I am at fault and faulty? My secret shame and pain. That good things might happen only if I work and strain and extend myself? Over-doing seems a logical antidote to under-deserving.

I writhed in agony and sobbed in anguish during most of the first year and half of my abstinence from alcohol after about seven years of increasingly problematic drinking. I beat myself with a baseball bat of self-judgment. What was the matter with me that I couldn’t stop myself from drinking? What was the matter with me that I couldn’t feel better after stopping? I knew the answer: justice was being served to my disgraceful, disgusting self.

I don’t know when and why the turn came – I attended support groups, I was in counseling, I was self-administering every evidence-based addictions treatment I and people helping me could discover – but I began to see that I was getting frighteningly worse, not better. I realized what I was thinking wasn’t helping me.

I had a simple realization. I felt better when I was kind to myself. I felt worse when I scorned myself. When I felt good, I had few thoughts of drinking. When I felt bad, I badly wanted to drink.

The center of my self-administered addictions treatment plan became radical self-kindness.

Why radical? In year 1 of abstinence, I had an 80% chance of relapse. At 2.5 years sober, I still have a 40% chance. Last month when I was driving to the grocery store just to look at the wine, I had a 99% chance. Please, no.

Becoming a practitioner of radical kindness does not result from an act of will. Like abstinence, it takes sustained effort over time with the support of others.

For me, the practice of self-kindness had to be preceded by the practice of self-care followed by the practice of self-calming.

self-care > self-calming > self-kindness

When I began my internship as an addictions counselor in 2005, my supervisor, Cary Hopkins-Eyles, handed me my job description and the first line read, “Self-care first.”  That was a world view shift from my primary mode of operation: other-focus, other-care. 

Deficits in self-care are common with people in recovery from addictions. I was lucky. “Self-care first” kicked in when I became abstinent and I knew I must become my own addictions recovery caregiver.

In the context of administering self-care to myself, I could then begin to understand how self-calming is a part of self-care. If I am flooded with feeling, I can’t think kind thoughts. I can’t think much of any kind of thought – I am all instinct, ready for fight, fight, flee or freeze. I have to calm myself first. Then I can become aware of what I’m thinking. And I can decide if I want to keep thinking that. Or I can choose to think something else.

I can choose to think something kind.

Instead of giving myself a talking to, I now speak with myself. Here’s an example of a radically kind conversation with myself:

“Oh, Anne, I’m aware you’re thinking self-scolding thoughts and feeling distressed! Hang on! You believe the way to be a very good girl – maybe worthy of, if not love, then approval – is to accept the judgment and blame of others and and to judge and blame yourself. That doesn’t feel very good at all, does it? It’s okay to want to feel better, to feel good. You’ve lived 56 years harshly judged. You’ve done your time with that way. Let’s try something different. So, self-care for you right now would begin with self-calming. Deep breaths and shoulder shrugs work for you. Let’s do those. Good. Now, what would be self-kindness for you? How ’bout we talk through that clothes dryer thinking? And then get you on the clothes dryer problem-solving team, okay? Wow, can you make things happen when you see the problem to solve!”

When I open my catcher’s mitt of awareness, those misery-making, unhelpful hard ball thoughts have transformed to dandelion seeds and I blow them, kindly, away.

. . . . .

Photo: I looked in the yard for a dandelion but couldn’t find one so took a picture of a bunch of black raspberries transformed by me eating every last one of the ripe ones.

Would You Help Me?

I have seen many people drunk but, face-to-face, I have only seen two people who had been intentionally abstinent from alcohol drink again to the point of drunkenness.

Their faces showed why they drank, and what I would seek through drink, too – the careworn face smoothed, all tension of expression eased. The face shone with release, peace, “that feeling” that comes from getting to be alive but not having to handle one single memory or loss or doubt.

But the eyes. Haunted, they will haunt me – frightened like a child is frightened, knowing he’s just about to be struck, baffled as to why. And then shifting to separate, unconnected. “The eyes are the mirror of the soul” we are told and I looked deeply but saw space. No self.


Would you help me?

Under the right circumstances, if it all just gets too much, I might join them in drinking again. In spite of having seen what I saw in their eyes.

That’s because consequences are of no consequence when it comes to addiction.

“Think of the consequences!” alcoholics and other addicts are told.

Fear of negative consequences doesn’t motivate a person who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs to not drink or use. Gratitude for – or fear of losing – the good people and the good things in life doesn’t protect a person from drinking or using. In the moment just before drinking or using, I am unconscious of you or of me. I cannot access feelings and I cannot deliberate about choices. I become must. Must drink, must use, must do. Must.

I differentiate between what a person does and who they are. While these people were actively drinking, I scrutinized them for what we accuse alcoholics and other addicts of being – selfish and self-centered.

I saw behavior that might be termed selfish. I heard words and read texts that could be labeled pro-themselves and anti-me. I saw driven choices that seemed “about them” that did not protect me or others.

But in terms of behavior vs. self? I wasn’t watching a characterologically selfish person in action. I saw only desperation.

This is where our deepest held beliefs about addiction are challenged. Is addiction an illness, a health problem to address? Or, in our secret heart of hearts, do we believe the person has a choice and just isn’t exerting enough self-control? Do we believe, at essence, that alcoholics and other addicts are bad people doing bad things?

Based on my personal experience and my experience working with others, addiction is an illness. I’ve probably written 100,000 words on this blog and will probably write a million more trying to express the absolute tragedy of having one’s self be taken from one.

  • If I fell and broke my leg, would you tell me to stand before you’d help me?
  • If I were falling into a diabetic coma, would you require me to admit I’m a cookie-binger before you’d help me?
  • If I were feverish and ranting, would you insist I apologize for my words before you’d help me?
  • If I’d had a paralyzing stroke, would you require me to reach out for help first before you would reach back?

I’m anticipating you would offer me unconditional help in these situations. Even if my prior choices had led up to the injury or illness, you’d fuss later. You’d help now.

We don’t have to discuss beliefs about broken bones, chronic diseases, mutterings that result from elevated temperatures, a disconnect between brain and body, do we? But about addiction, we have to have the belief talk.

Oh, and the plot thickens. The vast majority of addicts have trauma in their pasts from which mental illness develops. Get this: the choices that would lead up to my relapse might not have been rational. They may have been made under the influence of mental illness. That’s called co-occurring disorders and most addicts have them, too. I do. So, really, for the choices leading up to my relapse, and for my relapse, I might not deserve any scolding at all. Just help.

If I started drinking again and oh-so selfishly told you to get the f*k away from me, would you help me?

If I Relapse

By some definitions, I have had one relapse.

Addictions treatment in my rural town consists of counseling and support group attendance. I was in counseling. I attended a support group meeting. One could argue I had “entered addictions recovery.” Then I drove home and drank all the wine left in my house. Some might term that a “planned drunk.” It was. Before I started, I inventoried the partial bottles of wine left to see if enough remained to sustain my drinking pattern. Barely, but I worked with it.

The next day, I attended the support group meeting again. And I began the process of learning the 1000 decisions I have to make each day to not take a drink. I haven’t had a relapse, i.e. a drink, in 890 days.

For years, we’ve heard in addictions treatment that “relapse is part of the process.” I’ve seen the “process” at varying distances, from a newspaper obituary to the inside of a vomit bucket. Agony. For everyone.

Just over a week ago, I had, to paraphrase Janeson Keeley, a near relapse experience.

In my opinion – and I consider it a determinedly and agonizingly informed one – whether addiction is a disease or not, a relapse is the presence of illness.

What illness requires is care. A few times in my life, and I know I’m lucky that it’s been only a few, I’ve been overcome by illness and been unable to help myself, blacking out when I attempted to rise. If people who loved me had waited for me to hit bottom – to see the error of my ways and reach out for help – I’d be dead.

A person was standing, then dropped to the ground. I knew the person had diabetes. I knew the person was unlikely to have practiced the self-care and self-management required to maintain her health. Should I have shouted at her, “Hit bottom! That’s the only way you’ll learn to do what you’re supposed to do! Look what you’re putting me through! You should be ashamed of yourself! Change! Now!” At that moment, she had no ability to undo what she had done or not done. She was heading towards coma and death.

If I have a full relapse experience, I’ve become ill.

But here’s the difficulty in caring for me. Once I take the first drink, I will have a soul thirst that must be quenched.

It’s the enraging, inexplicable part of addiction that can demoralize all who have it or try to help those who have it: once the addiction kicks in, it is my allness. I can’t see you. You are no longer dealing with me but with a self overcome by addiction.

In an ideal world, if I take the first drink, and then the inevitable second, you would transport my body – with me, my self, barely conscious – to a relapse facility where I would be given drinks and monitored by medical personnel, all the while coached and counseled to thwart the hostile takeover of addiction vs. my self. I would be helped to get my self back as my 51% majority stockholder.

Since that facility doesn’t exist, if I relapse in my rural town, please, just take me to the hospital. I’m ill. I have health insurance. It’ll be okay. When I’m released, please hire 24-7 home health care workers to stay with me. Deplete my savings. It’s worth it. Arrange as many visits from as many support people as you can. Try to cobble together a recovery facility for me.

Please, for the love of all that’s humane, please don’t reprimand me. You know not what you do.

Relapses usually are the result of accumulation of pain, with the last pain being the catalyst. Scold me and you add to my pain. I have to use my energy to protect myself against you instead of for strengthening my self. I know you have the best of intentions. We are all taught that shame is a motivator. It’s not. Telling me I’m bad and wrong curls me into a despairing heap. I am worthless, helpless and hopeless. Shame is a destroyer. Please, please don’t kick me when I’m down.

When the person with diabetes fell ill, I felt afraid, hurt, angry, betrayed, and hugely inconvenienced. She acknowledged later that she had not done what it takes to, essentially, prevent a diabetic relapse.

It’s human nature to want to hurt back.

But I didn’t dump my upset on her. I cared for her.

If I relapse, please hug me. Then ask me these questions:

  • What have been sources of pain that have been accumulating for you over the past few weeks and months?
  • We might wish for more or other, but we have two components of addictions treatment in our town: support group attendance and counseling. If you were doing both, what about them wasn’t working for you? If you weren’t doing either or both, what were your reasons? What would need to change for support groups and counseling to work for you?
  • What do you need that you don’t have? Let’s see if we can get it.

I think answering these questions would help me feel better. Because to feel better is what I most need if I’ve relapsed. That I struggle to help myself feel better is my core problem, the primary origin of my vulnerability to addiction, and the primary reason for my relapse.

When I’m stable again, when I am running Anne, Inc. again, oh, my, yes, please, I am so open to talking with you about how you felt during my relapse. I want to be close with you. In the presence of your honesty and mine, addiction’s stock drops. Ours rises.

I Was Just Going to Look at the Wine, Not Buy It

Since addiction is life-long and life lasts and happens as it does, something will always happen that will trigger the need to drink or drug or do.

In my on-going struggle to understand the relationship between the self and addiction, I think a being begins life at 100% self, however one wants to define “self.” I think once addicted, a being can only max out at 80% self. Addiction will always control the other 20%.

I think in the moment the need to drink or drug or do happens, the self’s power drops to three possible levels: 49% or 50% or 51%.

. . . . .

For me, Friday at 5:00 PM is my most vulnerable time to drink. From a long week of 24-7 recovery work, from business work, paperwork, housework and cat care, I am depleted. Last Friday, much life happened and, in my vulnerable state, I was flooded with unremitting anguish. I thought to myself, “I want to talk to my mom.”

I now know that if I ache to talk to my deceased mother whom I loved helplessly and devotedly but with whom I had a troubled relationship, I need to call someone immediately. But I did not do that.

I thought I would just drive to Kroger and look at the wine. Not buy it. Just look at it.

I got in the car.

. . . . .

I work around the clock determinedly, sometimes desperately, to max my self out at 80% against the power of addiction to make me drink again. I can’t truly know this number but I’ll estimate I make probably 1000 decisions each day about what I think and what I do to prevent relapse.

Last Friday the percentage of my being that is self began to drop and headed towards those three possible levels: 49% or 50% or 51%.

If my self had dropped to 49%, I would have bought the wine, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand with a starfish on the green level, and opened it in my car in the parking lot. I would have experienced the mother love of wine.

If my self had dropped to 50%, whether I drank or not would simply be chance. Anne would be lucky or unlucky.

If my self dropped to 51%, I would have enough self, however much the need of addiction screamed to me of its caged longing, to look and walk away.

. . . . .

Addiction robs me of so much of the being I used to be. It robs me of caring about consequences. That I would break my 82 year-old father’s heart if I relapsed – which I did think of, which breaks my heart to say – meant nothing to me. It robs me of memory. I remember very little of my trip to Kroger.

I remember getting a small cart, not a big one. I think I thought to give myself at least some kind of chance and to start at the milk side of the store instead of the wine side. And I saw the sour cream. And thought I would like some potato chips and dip. And then I thought I would like spinach to go in the sour cream. And from the spinach, I turned back to the potato chip aisle. And somewhere near the fish I thought to myself that I forgot to look at the wine. And I thought about going back. And I didn’t.

. . . . .

This is so hard for people who don’t have an addiction to understand: drinking would have been an act of mercy. I was suffering beyond bearing. A good, kind, ethical person would have given me a drink. The Good Samaritan, whom I revere, would have given me a drink. I was fighting my own principles and values not to take a drink.

My self dropped to 51%. This is Thursday morning. Looking back, I think if I had been to one less support group meeting, called one less person in recovery, texted once less, read one less piece of recovery literature in print, online, via email, been to one less counseling session, practiced one less moment of self-care – one less workout, one less f*king spinach smoothie, one less nap – I would have had a drink. It was that close. It required 28 months of accumulation of action to protect me against the first drink.

Because once I have the first, I can’t not have the second. That’s what addiction is.

How tragic! How exhausting! No wonder hardly anyone makes it through this!

Woman Rising by Jackie Harder

Image: “Woman Rising” by Jackie Harder