So recently, a friend and I were chatting about her last year of sobriety. It is such an immense and intimate and complicated journey, and through her words, I got a sense of the perceived cyclical nature of the beast for people navigating addiction. How this thing hovers above and teases at them, trying to get them to come out and play. How it taunts constantly and how it tries to convince you that sobriety isolates you.
She explained to me how she struggled with the feeling of pointlessness of sobriety. “What is the point of all these days and chips,” she asked, “if relapse is inevitable? What do all these days of sobriety mean? How do I find meaning in this space with this thing hovering over me? How do I find joy again? What do I do with this space between? How do I live and enjoy life in this space between sobriety and relapse?”
Her struggle laid within her inability to see sobriety as anything more than time spent waiting for the inevitable relapse; as a time of caution where one should not re-engage or make plans and build, as it will likely all be gone tomorrow. As space defined as living between two walls; between success and failure. A place where the love of people around you for success of sobriety is short-lived, as disappointing them with relapse was surely lurking around the corner. A place where the success of treatment felt hollow and artificial and perhaps premature. A place where finding joy was damn near impossible.
Her words haunted me in a familiar way, like the remnants of a bad dream do. I remember thinking to myself that what she described felt like a timid life, a hesitant life, a life I have perhaps once lived. A life that was hard to define; a life confined. A life which existed somewhere in the space between the top of the mountain and the valley, a space filled with nothing but the inevitable, painful slide down the hillside into the valley.
The resonating familiarity of her story niggled at me, until one day I had the epiphany that her “space between” was not unlike the space we occupy between cancer treatment and possible recurrence; the space between treatment success at the top of the mountain, and the valley of possible recurrence. A space which echoes many of the same questions she voiced so painfully and honestly, “What is the point of building if cancer will just come back? How do we find joy with cancer hovering about? Is applauding the success of treatment premature as disappointment is to follow? How do I live in this space, where I feel isolated by the experience of cancer?”
While I know that recurrence is not inevitable, I do think those early years at the peak of the treatment mountain are often spent wondering just as she did, about the pointlessness of re-starting life if cancer is still lurking in the wings, just waiting to push us down the mountain the second we step out into creating a new life. This undefined, limbo-like space is something I spoke of before in the Unafraid blog; being in a place that leaves us wondering, “Just how do I live in the space between?”
Is our life simply a never-ending cycle of events which dictate that we exist only in the events and then in the space between two events?
Vast portions of our life are indeed ticked off this way on both large and small scales; the space between jobs, the space between lunch and dinner, the space between the beginning and end of school, the space between jobs, the space between chemo’s. The space between Thanksgiving and Christmas and winter and spring. The space between morning and night, between semesters, the space between relationships.
In a cycle of life that is seemingly A to B to A again, the space between is indeed filled only with the tasks of living through the event, recovering from the last event, and preparing for the next. But is all of life that way? What happens when we assume that cycle? Do we live differently in the space when we assume that this either/or cycle is in all things? Does it limit us?
I was walking with my son the other night and as I often do, I picked his brain for blog fodder. He is 17 going on 78, an old soul as they say in the South, with an uncanny ability to almost always make me see something in a way I have never looked at it before. As we walked, I wrestled out loud with this notion of how we find a place to be alive, to live in the spaces in between the walls of the two events, with how confining it is; I said, “How do you live a normal life between A and B and A again?” I asked him this thinking that somehow, the key was about how to make a mental shift in the way life was lived in the space. He was quiet and then completely leapfrogged me and said, “I think the faulty logic is this, you are wrong to assume there is a B, that there is a parameter, a point or a something that bookends the space. It’s faulty logic to assume there is a B, because when you do, it just makes the space dead space, and that is not life. To assume the next point, especially as relapse or recurrence assumes failure. There is never a B unless we put it there. It’s not about how to live in the space between, but to see it as not being space between because there are no parameters.”
Personally, I think that kid is too smart for his own good.
For sure, living within the perceived confines of an A-B-A cycle indeed dictates how our life is lived, leaving it as dead space which is filled not with living, but with the sole tasks of recovering from, and preparing for; between sobriety and relapse, between cancer and recurrence. And honest? My experience is that when we view life this way we also tend to find ourselves living unnaturally in the space, living a life of extremes in the space between. For me this meant that right after treatment, my life was frantic and somewhat reckless, and then at times it was disengaged. But the reality is that no matter how I filled the space, it was not a normal life. My living was still dictated and driven and distracted by my perception of the inevitable pattern of the wall ahead. I lived in anticipation of the next event, certain that B was sure to come, and that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I lived with extremes where I vacillated between either, “I’m gonna take a running start and gather all the speed I can to hurdle the next wall,” or “Why bother gathering speed if the hitting the wall is inevitable, and it will be just that much more painful at a faster clip?” I lived between disengagement or overkill.
That is not living, that is dying…in the dead space. There is no real joy to be found in the dead space.
Surrendering to the inevitability of a point B enables us in an unhealthy way, allowing us to give ourselves permission to succumb to the lure of the false protection that is offered when we refrain from what we think is pointless re-engaging. I found myself doing this by not dating again after divorce, saying, “I am safer here, in the harbor, because if I go out and date, I could be hurt again.” Staying in the dead space allows no living, and as they say a ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships were made to do.
Breaking the confines of the A-B-A walls can only happen if we adopt a new philosophy; that life is more of a Dot to Dot puzzle where, in the dot to dot that is our life there are a million dots. Sure the dots are in sequence, and we almost always go to next dot, but we never really know what part of the big picture the each dot represents. And the most wonderful part is, the same dot is never repeated, ever! There are never two # 35 dots! We never know what the whole picture will be until we complete our life. Dots can even be skipped over and we can still see the big picture in the end. One dot has absolutely no relevance to the dot before it or after it. Acceptance is found in embracing the notion that dot 35 has absolutely nothing to do with dot 36, it is only the next step in life. We don’t know where it is taking us, what dot 36 holds, but we just keep moving our pencil along the paper, living as we move.
This shift in thinking from a predestined A-B-A cycle of life, to a Dot to Dot philosophy of life defines not only the difference between surrender and acceptance, but the difference between grief and post traumatic stress. An A-B-A cycle is the essence of PTSD, as when we are in that space, we continue to feel the hover, we are confined in that space as the PTSD continues to assert that the inevitable will come yet again. PTSD and the assumption of an inevitable relapse or recurrence, demands that one must use their time in the space preparing for the future bad. It negatively dismisses the notion that any other future is possible. It makes life difficult to live, as its presence and foreshadowing are exhausting and demanding and heavy. There is no room for anything else, especially a normal life in the space because PTSD takes up all the space and fills it with its wearying tasks. PTSD most definitely surrenders to B, it prepares for B, it asserts that we are destined to a life of more of B, more of reading the same book over and over; that we will slide down the mountain and hit bottom again no matter what we do. We never finish and move on, we just finish and start to prepare.
Living life as a Dot to Dot allows us to grieve in a healthy manner. Grief allows us to finish the emotional task at Dot 35 and look for the next dot with no preconceived notion of what it will hold or where it will be. While hope emerges in grief, there is no preparation for what is next in grief; it is open ended. Grief allows us to put the book on the shelf, and explore to select a new one quite randomly, perhaps from the same shelf, perhaps from a different library altogether. Grief concerns itself only with what happened, and assumes nothing about what is to come. Grief is the acceptance that we don’t know what is next. We just finish and wait for what God brings us next, and live in the space that gets us to the next dot. Life is indeed lived large, and boundless and wide open in the space that is 35 1/2.
Joy lives in 35 1/2.
Surrendering to our feelings of point B as inevitable is unhealthy; it is as if we are standing on the mountaintop and see nowhere to go but down into the valley. Conversely, acceptance happens when we turn around or look over our shoulder, and realize that we are actually only on a summit, and there is still more mountain to be climbed; when we suspect a dot is way up there in the distance.
A colleague has a saying I just love, whenever someone says, “You must parent this way or that,” she likes to say, “According to who?” According to who indeed! According to who is B inevitable? After five years, I still catch myself at times acting as if I am living in the space between, with B still hovering about menacingly somewhere walling me in. Sometimes, I do feel like cancer isolated me from others, but now I think in a good way. Chronic illness will do that to you for sure. But I am getting there, I am getting there. Shifting to a Dot to Dot philosophy does take time, but girl, let me tell you, when it clicks, it is game changing; for that is when we start thinking of the possibilities of where our life can go, up past the summit, and outside of the confines box of recurrence. We can grieve the cancer and move on saying, “Hmm I wonder what is next?”
That is acceptance, embracing the notion that we don’t know what the next dot is or what the next dot will look like. We can let God be God. When we let go of the control that comes with thinking that we know what is next and how the space is defined we are free. When we do this, when we let go, the space between evaporates, and life, a full and joyful life just appears and blooms in its place.
In football, a Hail Mary pass happens when the quarterback decides to just go for it, throwing the ball out there, free from the confines of restricted and planned play. He relies essentially on divine intervention for success of where the ball lands. Simply, the ball is thrown out there as hard and long as it can be thrown, not knowing where it will hit. It is a manuever based on hope. We must make the Hail Mary pass and throw our lives out there, free of the confines our perceived cycles and parameters. We must simply live in the hope that it will hit the next dot, accepting that God, and not the past, will decide where that will be.
Hail Mary… full of grace indeed.
“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
Vincent Van Gogh