Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Leech That Is Fear

One of the most defining, life-altering experiences of my life happened over the course of about two weeks many years ago. I was in the middle of doing my Fourth Step for the first time, out of the old Fourth Step Guide (that remains much the best piece of Narcotics Anonymous literature on the subject, on balance; I am currently working on the Fourth Step out of the flat book, and although the sections on relationships and sex are thought-provoking and helpful, as a whole the flat book's Fourth Step doesn't measure up to the thoroughness of the Guide), and I got to the section on fear. I was 37 or 38 years old at the time, and I had never taken fear seriously as a motivating factor in many of my decisions up to that point in my life. But as I began to write, it was like being hit with a diamond bullet between the eyes: I realized that every decision of consequence, every decision that affected the course of my life in any significant way, had been motivated by my fear surrounding something. Fear of being alone, fear of failure, fear of displeasing my father, fear of financial ruin or even mere insecurity, fear of being wrong, fear that others would think badly of me, fear that the church people were right and I was doomed to damnation, fear of losing what I already had-- every important and most unimportant ones I had ever made since about the age of ten had, when the extraneous layers of justification/reasons were stripped away, been motivated by fear of something.
And all those different fears actually could be grouped together under one big heading: Fear of Something Happening That I Would Not Like Or Be Able To Handle. I had three small children at the time, and this kind of raw, basic fear was something I could see directly affecting a lot of their life--and it was with a shock that I realized that in some ways, they were handling it better than I had been for most of my adult life. And even though I had already made a major breakthrough emotionally by that time about my belief in and understanding of God, I now began to truly understand How It Works. The belief in a loving, caring God whose Way serves to guide me to a better way of life is necessary for the process to go further, not so much for forgiveness of past mistakes, misdeeds, and crimes, but as the ally and support needed to articulate and overcome the fear of something happening that was not going to be to my liking. The belief that God had me no matter what, that whatever I was afraid of happening was not going to be the end of the world, was not going to kill me, and could be walked through and dealt with, was the single most important change in belief and attitude in my entire life. And it led to a positive, deep, and for the most part lasting change in my behaviors. I have not been paralyzed by fears, for the most part, ever since. I have walked through countless situations where my fear had bubbled up to where I could recognize it for what it was, and through whatever means I had at my disposal to rely on that God of my understanding, I faced down the fear and took action on the situation.
Was every decision that I undertook in all those situations a good one? No, But even in those circumstances, the pain and consequences that came as a result of them were tempered by my belief in that loving, caring God, and invariably were not as bad as I had feared they would be. The means to deal with the emotions aroused were always present, and I availed myself of them if the need arose--and more to the point, I found I was able to realize that a bad decision was merely a bad decision, and I was not locked into making more bad decisions trying to justify that original bad decision. It was no longer mortally wounding to my self-image and self-esteem to admit that I had been wrong, and concurrently and perhaps more importantly, it was no longer a matter of life and death to admit that I had been hurt. I had been raised that admitting that you were in pain and were hurting was a sign of weak character, and an invitation to a predatory world to have your carcass ravaged beyond salvaging. And it was with first a sense of wonder, and then profound relief, that I found out that this was not the case. If anything, it was a relief to be able to say "That hurt" or "I was wrong" or "I need to step away because this is killing me." It did not mean "I'm a failure" or "I'm terminally useless" or "I'm never going to get it." And it did not mean, especially with the passage of time and experience built upon itself, "those of you that are disappointed or angry with me are not going to project your disappointment or anger onto me enough so that your views and thoughts regarding me have replaced God as my Higher Power." And this insight enabled me to build on the original revelations, to not only give myself a break by admitting to my fallibility and basic humanity, but to understand that fallibility and occasional missteps and bad decisions were what made me a human being. One of the most profound statements ever made  by Alexander Pope centuries ago:  "To err is human, to forgive divine." I had gotten so caught up in the Christianity (Catholicism was bad enough, but as I got older I realized that so many Protestant faiths were even worse in this regard) I had been raised in and the theological message given more or less from toddlerhood: that perfection was not only an ideal, but an expectation, and that falling short of perfection was sinful, an indication that there was something intrinsically, perpetually wrong with me (and with you and you and you and so on), and that the basic spiritual quest of mankind was to try to placate a Supreme Being that was, when all the broth was boiled off, disappointed at best and pissed off at worst with us. For eternity.
That's a tough way to live life. There is no tougher way to live life, in fact, that trying to live up to expectations that cannot be met.
And I came to believe a very different set of propositions than those I had grown up with, that had led me to the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous, broken and destroyed, thirty-five years into life. I started with the basic premise, which we do in our Second Step, that God is, at the core, loving, caring, and greater than ourselves, And if He is that, then He by definition cannot expect more out of us than we are capable of. More importantly, He will not. If fallibility is a defining characteristic of humanity, than a loving, caring Supreme Being must know that we are not capable of perfection, and thus will not hold us to that standard--and more to the point, inflict punishment and consequences for not meeting that standard. It's not a necessary core belief, but I and most other believers in God that I know believe that He created us or is the one that set the universe in motion, and so in some way He either made us imperfectly or at the least is fully aware of our imperfections. Either way, a loving, caring God cannot and will not expect us to be perfect.
This seems simple and logical, and yet it was totally mind-blowing at the time I was coming to believe in it. And one thing I didn't really expect, but became clear as I was working Step Four for the first time, was how much I had been truly, deathly afraid that I was damned for my imperfections, that I was going to spend eternity in a very uncomfortable and painful place. That may seem silly or simplistic, unworthy of a mature man--but it was real, and I know, after spending nearly two decades now in the rooms, that it is a very deep and real fear of a whole lot of other people, too. And the belief that I was not required to meet expectations that I had no way of meeting was literally the lifting of the weight of the world. And when I lost my fear of eternal perdition, I became happier, easier to get along with, more realistic in my expectations on others, and less controlling. One aspect of the deep-rooted fear, I soon came to see, had been that I was deathly afraid of being called to account for something someone else was doing or had done--and so it led to all sorts of controlling behavior on my part, a near-pathological need to impose my will, by whatever means necessary, on those around me--I simply was unwilling to take the chance that you might fuck something up that I was going to have to pay the price for. When the stakes were that high, we were going to make it or fail on my terms, not yours. I had a substantial ego--yeah, I know that's a real shock to those of you that know me now-- and believed, even more than I do now, that I was smarter and more capable than just about every other human being on this planet, and I would literally be damned if I had to do what you wanted to do or follow a course of action you laid out. There was simply too much risk for me to let that happen.
And with the loss of the fear of damnation, that need to exercise control to that degree vanished. And it was a domino effect, once that one was toppled. I still don't relish the idea of ever paying prices for bad decisions, and I am still reluctant to put myself in positions where others are making decisions that directly affect me. But I have accepted, on a truly deep level, that I will still occasionally make bad decisions, even with good intentions, even with a wealth of information available to me. And more importantly, I have come to realize that few decisions are ever black-and-white propositions, that a worthwhile, nuanced, complex life necessarily leads us to decisions where any number of outcomes are possible. We talk a lot about "forks in the road" and "going right or left", but in reality, after eighteen years clean and a life that has evolved to a degree of complexity and spiritual fitness far beyond that I could have ever imagined, life is more like a maze or a labyrinth than a linear journey. Every decision brings the prospect of another decision in the near future, and ultimately, the decisions we make can lead us literally anywhere. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Many "mazes" are outdoors, full of pleasant scenery and nice spaces; the labyrinth does not have to be the dank dungeon of the Minotaur. Life has become more of a journey of discovery, not a prison that must be escaped from. And wrong turns are not the end of the world, not evidence that I am terminally flawed and unworthy of pleasant things happening.
And the loss of fear of the Big Thing has allowed me to make progress on all the little fears listed a thousand words ago. They're actually not so little; they are the concrete realities of everyday life, the mental dwellings that are built on the foundation of how we answer basic existential questions. Two that we all struggle with are fear of how we are perceived by our peers and the world around us, and fear of being alone. And I have been thinking a lot on both these questions recently, as one other basic truth of a recovery program has been hammered home for the umpteenth time over the years,. That truth is that the understanding I have of God never runs on autopilot--we use the term "conscious contact with God" for a good reason. If I do not actively seek the help of this loving, caring God that I put so much effort into discovering and coming to believe in, then I go back to what was essentially the default setting--the fear that I felt for nearly forty years before that first Fourth Step. It takes praying, it takes meditation, it takes a positive concern for others, it takes putting spiritual principles into action on a regular basis--it takes effort. I cannot live life on cruise control. I cannot burn fuel I burned yesterday; the tank has to be refilled on a regular basis. If I do not, I get stuck--and getting spiritually stuck means, in practice, that all those fears that get banished to the wine cellar when I am living in conscious contact with God all of sudden are sitting at the kitchen table again. And while they haven't sat down for a holiday meal, the two fears have been served snacks.
And I've been trying to get them back down the basement stairs. The first one, fear of what others think of me, is something that has certainly not returned to the levels it was at a few years ago. Indeed, it is really just rooted in two things. One was an expectation and something that kicked up deep-rooted feelings of unworthiness and not measuring up. I joined the home group I am a part of about a year ago, precisely because it wasn't one of the more boisterous and popular groups in the area--and as such, I didn't expect my medallion celebration to be attended by sixty people, with fulsome and extended expressions of what a wonderful man and credit to the human race that I am. But emotionally, there is always a part of me (and I know this is not unique to me, either, from talking to others) that wants to be made a big deal of, that wants bells and whistles and cheering crowds. It's not necessary, and I don't feel like I or my recovery is somehow lacking because it didn't happen. But I did hope--well, get real, Steve, I expected--a few people to show up that did not. And while it didn't eat at me, I'm not going to tell you I didn't notice, and that I caught no feelings at all over it. But that was minor, and as the milestone recedes into the background, it fades into a mere smudge on the window.
The other is a little more basic and calls for the application of principles like acceptance and faith. There are few people in the fellowship now that I truly am not comfortable around--but one  of them, somebody that I have found it necessary, for various reasons, to avoid as much as possible, suddenly decided a few weeks ago that my home group was the one that was necessary for her to join. And honestly, there's a part of me that is fearful of this development,because some of the whirlwind she has historically caused has directly and negatively affected me and someone that matters a great deal to me. In other words, I started feeling some primal, basic fear. I'm dealing with it the way I need to deal with it. Psychologists will tell you that the animal, physiological response to fear is "fight or flight," and honestly, for a few weeks, I contemplated both responses. But I am not an animal, and am not bound to animalistic responses. There is a third response--acceptance, both that I am powerless over others and that God is my Higher Power, not anybody or anything else. And realistically, I have to admit that this person is moving along her own path to a better understanding of God and what it means to live a recovering life, and it would be horribly and blatantly unfair of me to claim that she has made no progress, because she has-- a lot of it, in many ways. And the net takeaway for me is that there's always something for us to work on, that complacency leads to problems. I just said a few paragraphs ago that recovery doesn't run on autopilot, that it takes effort to maintain, and that our spiritual journey is never completed, but requires constant movement forward. And this is the next turn in the maze.
The other area has been trying to come to terms with the fear of being alone, and the decisions I am making in the area of my relationships. There is another person involved in this, someone who not only is at the beginning of a recovery process, but who has a lot less life experience than I do, too. I don't have anything to hide or be ashamed of concerning how my relationship with Lauren has gone over the last three years. And yet, in the soul-searching and discussions and working through things that has accompanied her relapse, consequences, and now remedial course of action, I have come to realize four basic truths: 1) The heart wants what it wants. The fact is that the attraction is real, for me and for her toward me. Expectations are even more explosive and corrosive in this area of life than they are in any other, and there have plenty of them that weren't terribly realistic for both of us, over the last three years. I am now seeing that it is a testament to who we really are that our relationship has survived all those unmet expectations, and that there is still something real to work with. 2) So much of the step process over the years has involved recognizing and taking responsibility for my part in any situation. For most of the time we've been around each other, I really haven't done that. It took a long time, but in the last several weeks, I've actually listened to, and begun to truly grasp, how the way I've been and acted has appeared to her, and even as well as I have come to know her, I belatedly have realized that the lenses I had been seeing her through still needed some major corrections... I'm not giving her a pass on some of the things she did, and I'm not taking all the blame on myself, to be sure. But the fact is that I'm the one with years in the program, and I'm the one with many more years of life experiences, and I'm not the one that has gone through the traumas and disappointments that she has. In other words, I was better equipped to handle a lot of the issues that were bound to surface, and to temper my expectations of her to a more realistic level. Some--not all, but some--of her actions were due to a lot of what I came to realize during that first Fourth Step--so many fears, no effective way of articulating and dealing with them, and thus self-destructive and unhealthy attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors manifested themselves as responses. Again, she doesn't get a free pass on the consequences of some of those choices--but I now see that at least some of those choices were responses to things I did and didn't say and do, and how I was placing expectations that weren't terribly realistic, and how my walk didn't match my talk in some of what I was saying to her. 3) I have become convinced finally that I do matter to her, more than anyone else has mattered to her before. I have also become convinced, long after I started saying that I did, that she is someone that I am focused on because of who she is, not what she looks like or other factors. We've been around each other for over three years now, and if it wasn't real, we would have given up on each other a long time ago. The fact that I have not thrown up my hands and given up is something totally new to me, and while I have known that for some time, it is only recently that I have realized that because it is new, God's will for me here is to apply different ideas and act differently than I ever have before in any previous relationships. I have honestly come to believe that the essential situation is "I've given you the chance to have what you always said you wanted, and I've done the same for her, as well. But you both are going to have to work for it, and you both are going to have overcome the things that you are afraid of to get where you want to go." This perspective, needless to say, is something that is new to me. It's a challenge, but it's also been a relief, and it's been freeing. Because I've had some very real fears and a lot of reservations, and I've accepted just in the last week or two that they weren't serving as defense mechanisms as much as they were being impediments. I am a firm believer that there are no coincidences. I have come to believe that what has happened in the last couple of years needed to happen so that I, and her as well could get to this point. And while there are certainly going to be obstacles and issues, and there are still going to be fears to be addressed, at least they will be new issues, not the same old garbage.
And 4) I have become confident in my own judgment more than I was. I am aware that there are many people in our circles that have opinions on this subject. And rather than get into a detailed refutation of what I know is out there, I'm just going to say that I am not afraid of what others may think. Intellectually, I know that most of the time, what people have to say says more about them and what their motivations would be in a similar situation than anything that might be of "care and concern" for my, or her, welfare and well-being. But more than I think I ever have felt before, spiritually I am feeling that at the moment. I'm not going to say "I don't care what others think;" we are social animals in general, and part of a small society in particular, and of course I care to a degree (and so does everyone that says "I don't give a shit what other people say"). But that concern is not my Higher Power; it is not going to be the basis of my decisions and my actions. It never has totally been, but it's played more of a role than it should have in the past, mostly because of fear of what others think.
Well, I'm not afraid anymore. And that's been a relief, and the lifting of a burden, and it has made easier to move forward, to have faith that whatever is supposed to happen for me and for us will happen if I can follow the will of my God. I've been working through a lot of stuff in the last year or better, and I feel like I've finally learned, internalized, and begun to act on what I was meant to learn , internalize, and act upon.
And the release from the grip of fear, in all its forms and manifestations, is the greatest benefit of the program of Narcotics Anonymous. It is the new way of life that the literature talks about, and it is the most obvious fulfillment of the promise of being free from active addiction. And it is like ridding myself of a leech that sucks the life and the pleasure of living my life right out of me. I'm happy to be living my life today.

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