Responsibility in the wilderness

In my last blog, I ended with the realization that I was responsible for my own life. It didn’t matter what cards I’d been dealt: I was responsible for how I played them.

In victim mode, I’d frequently thrown up my hands in despair. It’s too much. I can’t do it all. I’m overwhelmed. There is never enough. Those words were my mantra, and I believed them.

There was some truth there: I had a lot to learn, and I had a lot to do to recover from my childhood. I needed to learn how to listen to my inner voice and limits. I needed to learn to manage money. I needed to learn how to find work that inspired me (and even to learn that that was relevant) and how to work at a job, even when things got tough. That meant learning communication and negotiation skills, as well as knowing when it was time to leave. I needed to learn how to make choices about housing and work and money, not out of desperation, but out of sustainability. I needed help with very real physical and psychological issues that came from abuse, neglect and not knowing how to eat well, exercise sanely, and get enough sleep. I didn’t know how to keep a neat house or even that it was important for me to care for myself by having one. I didn’t know how to negotiate the on-going relationship with my schizophrenic mother: I felt drawn toward helping her, toward trying to get her approval and simultaneously repelled by her and her on-going abuse and insanity. I didn’t know how to choose romantic partners or friends well.

Phew. That was a lot. And the truth of the matter is, it was beyond me to do alone. So how did responsibility fit with that?

If you’ve ever managed a project of any size, you know that a project often entails many people, working together toward a goal. A good project manager doesn’t do everything herself: she finds the right people to do the right aspects of the job, and she makes sure that things are on-track. Ultimately, she takes the brunt of the blame or the glory for the success for how the project turns out.

A life of recovery and healing is much the same: each of us is the project manager who takes the heat or the praise for the end result. We need to assess the scope of the project, and we need to call in the right people for the right tasks. We don’t need to do it all alone, but we instead need to learn what we can do by ourselves and what we really need help with. 

For me, that meant getting into treatment for an eating disorder shortly after my friend Judy said, “Lora, you’re responsible for your own life!” I needed professional help to get out of the pit of despair I was in. I had to stop moping around, hoping that someone would recognize that I needed help and come rescue me; I needed to fess up and ask directly for the help I needed.

I used my therapist, a mentor, wise friends, the internet, classes and books to learn skills. I used 12-step groups for compulsive bad behaviors that kept me from succeeding. Sometimes I had to pace myself: I didn’t always have the money or the time for everything I wanted to take on. I had to learn to trust that what I had was enough, for today. The more I trusted, the more I realized I got what I needed for the day. It might not be enough to fill the gaping hole of my emotional, physical and spiritual needs for all eternity; but it was enough, for today.

 

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Beyond Survival

Sometimes, in the wilderness times of life, the best we can do is survive. Just enough protection from the cold. Just enough food or water to get through a day. We put one foot in front of the other, not even thinking about the destination. The next step is all we can consider.

That’s how I learned to live as a child: my mother and I moved 50 times by the time I was 13. We paid bills on the first of the month, and by the second week of the month, we were scrambling for food and money to get us through until the next month’s “first.” If we couldn’t pay the rent, again, we moved. My mother often resorted to desperate actions to resolve the situations: steal, sell something, sell herself. It never occurred to me as a child that there was another way. 

As I got older, I always felt like I was behind the ball: financially, in careers, in relationships, I jumped in – and out – of situations, trying to find something that worked. I knew that strategy wasn’t working, but I could never get beyond the crisis of the moment to take a calm look at the circumstances and make good decisions instead of reflexive jumps from one thing to another. 

Whether we’re in a real-life wilderness of mountains and trees and wild animals, or we’re in the other real-life wilderness of trauma, loss and bewildering circumstances, survival is a paradox: in order to actually survive to see something beyond the wilderness, we have to get out of survival mode. 

Starving people will eat any food, just to get something in their stomachs. Emotionally starving people will grab onto the first person who shows them attention. Financially desperate people will leap at high-interest credit, or worse.

What works to gain perspective?

There is no simple answer, and I will start with the first one that began to change the direction of my desperate actions.

I was a new college graduate, and it was 1992. I was in a desperate place. Again. I felt suicidal: the structure of school life had ended (the only continuity I’d had to that point in my life); my eating disorder was completely out of control; I worked at an admin job I hated and that barely paid the bills. I’d started smoking to escape my stress (and, needless to say, that didn’t work very well). 

I sat in my friend Judy’s minivan outside her house one evening. I’d spent our evening hanging out, pouring out my story and my tears to her. She made suggestions and asked questions: could I look for another job? Refinance my car? Go to treatment for my eating disorder? I rebuffed every suggestion: I had so much overwhelm, I couldn’t do anything she suggested. I had reasons. I had excuses. I had tears.

Judy was an older, wise friend who had heard me before, and she was trying to help. Finally, in a moment of frustration, she blurted out, “Lora, you are responsible for your own life!”

Some “God moments” happen in church, when the skies part, angels sing, and the voice of God tells us what we need to hear. Some God moments happen in a minivan on a dark winter evening when God’s voice comes through a frustrated, middle-aged woman. 

I sobered up. On the spot. My tears dried on my face. She was right. I couldn’t do anything about the cards I’d been dealt, but they were in my hands. I had the responsibility of how to play them. 

It was the beginning of moving beyond survival and into living my life, wilderness or not.

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