Saturday, March 27, 2010

Slamming My Guilt, With Good Results

I had a big insight.

There I was on Thursday, experiencing one of the worst pain days I’ve had since this whole ordeal began six years ago. Absolutely nothing I did worked to ease the burning and aching in my face, so I did the only thing that I knew for sure would bring me any relief, however slight it would be, and that was to take more pain medication. But with that decision came the usual overwhelming sense of guilt--that somehow I was being weak, was copping out and dropping out of life, disgusted at my fate.

The tears came easily that day, initially having been set off by a newsletter I regularly receive from author Annette Colby, a doctor who specializes in matters of the heart and soul, and who I’ve spoken to once on the phone and have had multiple email conversations with in the last two years or so. Her topic that day was a ten-step plan on how to bring more love and joy into your life, and it brought back such poignant memories of the happiness I was feeling before all this began.

I wrote to Annette to thank her for her words, as they’d set off the tears, for which I was grateful. I needed something to crack through the tension I’d been carrying that day, and was so thankful for the release. Annette responded with her usual compassion and wisdom, and then said something I didn’t expect. She said that if I needed to take the pain medication, it was a complete waste of energy to feel guilty about it, and that if and when the day came that I decided to stop it, I would, but until then, I should simply enjoy the relief it brought.

While this might sound obvious to some, her words truly altered my state. For the first time I can remember during the past six years, I decided that just for that day, I wasn’t going to feel guilty about any decision I made in order to cope with my pain, whether it be painkillers, cigarettes or wine. I saw very clearly that what I deal with on a daily basis is beyond what most people can even imagine, so why should I be judging my behavior in order to cope with circumstances so completely beyond my control?


Day in and day out, I live in such unchartered territory, which is why I’ve found so little solace in therapy or in programs like AA or rehab, where two years ago I did a two-week stint to get off the pills, only to find myself in agony again once I got home. The rehab experience was awful--not anything like one sees in shows like Intervention, as I was treated in the same punitive way that so many of these more ordinary places treat addicts--that we’re diseased degenerates who can’t be trusted and thus must turn over our lives to a supposedly loving god who will set us free if we just surrender our will.

While this approach may work for some, and I do respect it (despite my cynicism about that treatment center), for the addicted pain patient, this program just doesn’t work. No amount of steps or surrender did a single thing to alter the awful conditions of my life, nor did this loving god, who from what I can see, has dispensed far too much suffering upon this world to be taken seriously.

I suppose this is why I found Annette’s words so comforting, as she was putting her trust in ME--that I was the only one who truly knows what’s best for my pain, and therefore shouldn’t feel guilty about the decisions I make.

And so, for the rest of the day, I did whatever it took to bring me comfort, and a surprising thing happened. Without all of my energy being eaten up by pain and, more important, guilt, I felt a certain joyousness about life return, and I was shocked.

Suddenly, my thoughts turned to my art studio, which I’ve been attempting to organize ever since I moved into my new apartment here on Feb. 3. I couldn’t believe how effortless it felt to just go in there and start moving things around, as I was now eager to get started on a new painting. And every time I felt guilt begin to creep into my consciousness, I would say out loud, “Stop it!” and indeed it would just go away.


Curiously, two other things happened in previous days that perhaps laid the groundwork for Annette’s words. The first was a book I found literally in someone’s trash, titled simply enough, Meditation, which recounted meditation techniques by a famous instructor named Osho. There are descriptions of about 100 different meditations, one of which is for smoking, in which Osho describes the plight of a troubled man who had chain-smoked for 30 years, and had come to him looking for guidance on how to stop.

Surprisingly, Osho told the man that he should NOT stop, but instead smoke every cigarette with complete attention and consciousness, as it was the thoughtless, automatic behavior that was the problem, not the cigarettes. If the man continued to smoke, Osho told him to just enjoy it, as what did it matter if he lived a shorter life as a result, but if he stopped, Osho said it would happen effortlessly, and of course, it did. In short order, through conscious meditation on his smoking, the man soon saw the insanity of his behavior, and he was able to quit.

The second occurrence that alerted me to the destructive power of guilt was a few web sites I stumbled upon completely by accident that challenged whether or not Jesus Christ ever actually lived, as apparently, there’s absolutely nothing in the historical record about his existence. Yes, there are the gospels, but supposedly there’s nothing else--no stories written by the historians and writers of the time about this man of miracles, no record of his execution by Pontius Pilot--stuff like that.

I know so little about this subject that I bring it up not to invite debate, but to recount the curious effect it had on me. What if Jesus Christ never did exist? What if he was nothing more than an archetype created by the collective unconscious in the same way other deities have been created over the course of history, like Zeus? It’s indeed a fact that Christianity isn’t the first religion to speak of virgin births and resurrections, so what if the indoctrination I received as a child (which sometimes fills me with superstition to this day) was all a fabrication?

Over the course of the next few days, I could see that my guilt was also born of fear of sinning against this god of my childhood--that I was living an evil existence, even though the circumstances of my life were not of my own making.


So what’s the upshot of all this? Well, yesterday was probably one of the happiest days of my life in the past six years. I treated my pain as I saw fit, fully willing to accept any consequences of my decisions, and I did not allow myself to feel any guilt whatsoever about my actions.

And with that came joy. When I went to bed last night, I was so eager to wake up this morning that I actually couldn’t fall asleep, as if I were a child tossing and turning on Christmas Eve.

While having my morning coffee today (coffee being yet another thing I’ve been berating myself for), I eagerly jotted down a list of things I want and need to do today, and instead of it feeling like a weight, the list feels like, well, a life.

There’s nothing extraordinary on it--just ordinary tasks to do on an ordinary Saturday--and for once, I’m actually looking forward to starting my day.

I can’t remember the last time I said that.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Quitting Smoking: An Existential Review

HELP!!! I’M DYING FOR A CIGARETTE!!! I’m having an operation next week, and in order to not develop complications, I must stop smoking and drinking TODAY. ACK! This is worse than when I got my nose pierced last week! This is worse than that time I screwed up my haircut and ended up shaving my head. This is worse than the night someone stole an entire wheel off my ’79 Chevette and left the back axel sitting on a cinderblock.

At first, I thought I could stop this coming Monday (I'm writing this on Saturday), but then the doctor upped the procedure date late yesterday afternoon, which means I have to stop TODAY. So last night, after having my final smoke and sip of wine, the cigs went down the toilet and the wine went down the drain, and now I feel like a crazy person who’s ready to run out onto the main drag here in my pajamas and see if I can grub a smoke from some passer-by.

Why didn’t I save just one cigarette??? At first, I put the pack under the faucet, then threw them in the garbage, but I knew it would drive me insane this morning to see beautiful, wet cigarettes in my close but so I pulled them out and flushed them down the toilet.
Out of sight, out of mind, right? NOT!

Oh, what I’d give for one right now. I’m tempted to go buy a whole pack just so I could have one more, and then I’d throw the rest away, but luckily I’m too cheap (and too poor) to do that. Let’s see...did I leave a stray cigarette around somewhere? Is there some gross butt sitting in a random ashtray that has one last drag in it?

Of course, I’m drinking my morning coffee here, which is making the torture worse. Caffeine and nicotine go together like...well, caffeine and nicotine. They provide that one-two morning punch that’s like no other...that blast of energy and goodwill that puts a rosy glow on the whole world, before reality comes crashing back that I’ve got bills to pay, work to do, and an aching jaw that’s still aching.

What also aches is the existential question as to what do I DO with myself when I’m not smoking? Right around now, I’d be lighting up, legs crossed, sipping coffee and finding some mundane TV show far more interesting than it would be ordinarily without the caffeine/nicotine enhancement.

Oddly enough, I’m not a heavy smoker by most heavy-smoker standards. I like one, or two, occasionally three in the morning, then that same amount again in the afternoon when I pour my 4 p.m. glass of wine, which must also become history if I care anything about the outcome of this operation next week.

It seems that engorged veins have been forming in my stomach again, which means I could pop a whirly at any moment, and as I learned six years ago, this is NOT something I ever want to happen again. I lost seven pints of blood from my 10-pint system, so if quitting smoking and drinking is what I have to do to ensure a positive outcome, I’ll do it. Believe me, there are things far worse than death in this life, and I’ve just about had it with life-threatening complications.

I suppose that’s the good thing about quitting today...not just the obvious stuff, like it’s the healthy thing to do, but also the relief I feel in not playing another round of Russian Roulette with my health, which is what smoking feels like. When you’ve got a chronic blood clotting disorder and you light up a cigarette, that single little tobacco stick could easily be the last one of your life, instantly, if another deep vein thrombosis were to occur.

I’ve been aware that, even though I’m on Coumadin, every cigarette I smoke is a flirtation with death, or worse, a stroke. Or even worse than that, another clot that would cause even more pain than I’m already in. I’ve been in that vicious circle of feeling intense stress from chronic pain, then relieving that stress with painkiller abuse, smoking and now wine, which, in turn, only makes the pain worse, I suspect. Ah yes, I live the very definition of insanity...doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

I’ve known for awhile that these habits have had to stop, particularly the last two (at least in the immediate sense), but just couldn’t find the motivation, which I’ve been praying for. Are these newly engorged veins God’s answer? The fact that I could seriously clot or bleed out during next week’s operation if I don’t stop has indeed provided me with motivation, along with a sense of relief that I don’t have to worry that today is the day that the bullet is in the chamber. I suppose there’s a certain satisfaction that this feeling of relief will become more prominent once the nicotine cravings pass.

Of course, I suspect I’ll be hit with another craving whammy around 4 p.m., which is when I usually pour my glass of cheap Carlo Rossi chablis, over ice, a tradition I picked up from my mom during my visits to her at the Jersey shore. Oprah comes on at 4, and that's when we kick back to sip on the cheapest wine on the market.

Carlo Rossi’s wine is great, because it’s only 9 percent alcohol, and you can buy an entire jug (gallon?) for about $12 dollars.

Even though I’ve just moved into an affordable housing apartment building, I’m actually in a swankier part of town now, and when I’ve gone into local liquor stores to inquire about my “jug” of Carlo Rossi, I’ve been met with horrified stares, to which I reply, “It’s for my mother. She also likes wine in a box. Hee hee.” Kathy Griffin and I have a lot in common.

Oh brother. Today’s just gonna be a tough day, no two ways about it. Or rather, EXACTLY two ways about nicotine, no alcohol. If someone told me, “You could die from doing this,” I might actually go ahead and continue. But it’s the stroke/clot/hemorrhage possibility during the operation that seriously has me spooked this time.

As anyone in chronic pain will tell you, the thought of dropping dead isn’t nearly as scary as some of life’s other little dramas. There are far, far crueler fates, and as I’ve had my share, I’ll do everything I can to prevent any more catastrophes.

Hopefully, it’s thoughts like these that will get me over the hurdles in the coming days and weeks. I will continue to keep a log of the ups and downs of my journey to quit tobacco and say goodbye to Carlo once and for all.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

X Marks the Spot

I haven’t written since mid-December, which means a whole winter has passed yet again. I haven’t been lazy, though, even though I can so often define myself that way.

My cat became deathly ill in late December to the tune of $3,000, and then a sudden twist of fate (the good kind) came my way when I got an affordable housing unit here in Hoboken on January 1st, which I found out about four days before I was to move in. (I was lucky enough to get a place right in the same city.) That meant I had to carry two rents for January, plus pack up 18 years of my life in four weeks to be ready to move by Jan. 27th.

But alas, at 2 a.m. on that date, I found myself in the emergency room with food poisoning, just five hours before the movers were to show up. Between the puking and the pooping and the moaning, I had to make emergency phone calls to cancel the move, and attempt to cancel the heat/electricity cancellation for that date. After three days in the hospital, I rescheduled the move for Feb. 2nd, which meant I had to sleep on a leaky air mattress in a freezing cold apartment for an additional five days.

Even though my cat and I pulled through our respective health catastrophes, by the time I found myself here in my new place, I was in complete meltdown mode, crying hysterically at the most gentle of prodding.

Moving in and of itself is an emotionally wrenching experience, even without additional drama. After the movers dropped me off here, I went back to my old place to tidy up loose ends (i.e., pick up scattered garbage), and in looking around remembered the exact day the realtor had showed me the apartment 18 years earlier. It looked precisely as it did then, and I literally began sobbing, remembering who I was as an early 30-something, and all that had transpired in that time.

It was all so poignant as I recalled the ambitious musician I was, out to make her mark in the world, moving to this quaint bustling city just across the river from Gotham, yet who carried such buried and awful sorrow. I could kid myself that I was happy and carefree then, but I was anything but, and given the choice, I certainly prefer being who I am now, even with the chronic pain (...I think).

But what I had then—that I don’t have now—was a sense of purpose...a propelling ambition to move forward at all costs, blindly, ably, with a fierce stick-to-it-tiveness that I marvel at in hindsight. I was aware at the time that my ambition was a crazed one...something that drove me and defined me in ways that weren’t particularly healthy, but I pushed ever forward.

I knew then that I so completely defined myself as a musician that if I never made it in the biz, I wondered what I would do with myself in my, say, 50s, which is where I am now.

With all the illness I encountered in my 30s and 40s, I suppose it’s somewhat odd to say that I’m grateful that my troubles completely redefined my values as the years passed, but as I sit here now at age 51, in chronic pain and dealing with continuing health problems (my endoscopy results today were not good, as trouble is brewing for another hemorrhage), I’m somewhat baffled as to who I am or what I should do...issues that I most certainly did NOT deal with when I moved to Hoboken 18 years ago.

To some degree, I’m aware that I still haven’t dealt emotionally with the devastation that occurred in 2004, when catastrophic complications of my blood clotting disorder left me in chronic pain, probably because I’ve been on painkillers for most of that time, abusing them frequently in order to deal not just with the pain, but with my ample confusion about life in general.

One can’t really be on painkillers AND deal with emotions in a psychotherapeutic way. But it’s all been a double-edged sword, of course...trying to keep the pain at bay with painkillers in order to have a life, yet not having a life because I’m on painkillers. Talk about a conundrum.

So after this long, hard winter, filled with trials, tribulations and triumphs of all kinds, my cat and I often lie on my bed amidst the boxes and move-in clutter and wonder what’s next for us.

Of course, I should just speak for myself. She’s perfectly happy just being herself, and is obviously thrilled to have had so many benign tumors removed, as despite being seven years old, she’s acting like a kitten again (which has its good and bad points). I even had to go out this week and buy her some new toys so that she can occupy herself instead of mauling my hand, still her favorite toy, unfortunately.

But we humans don’t have it so easy. How I wish I could just chase a treat, lie in the sun, eat, and look at the birds in order to be happy. Instead, I ponder my existence, yet at the same time am thrilled that I now have so much more storage space. The practical joys of life can indeed have a way of easing existential quandaries.

On Monday, I went to a preliminary session in New York for biofeedback training in order to help me deal with my pain. My brain was hooked up to electrodes for a stress test, and naturally, I failed. Or rather, my nervous system did. Apparently, chronic pain has tapped me out completely, to the extent that I have no reaction to stimulus that would make a healthy person freak. I would think that a good thing, except the doctor told me that there are certain things a healthy nervous system SHOULD respond to, like danger.

Perhaps I should have been hooked up when I got my nose pierced yesterday. It was so freakin’ painful that I’m sure my stress level would have gone through the roof and exploded the computer. But that’s what it takes to get me to focus these days...a big, painful needle through the nose.

I may not have any goals or ambition at the moment, but I do have this shiny little piece of jewelry on my face now, right next to where the worst pain of my life is. I just realized that in this moment. A pretty, little decoration is almost an “x” marking the spot of the bane of my existence.