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.


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