Learning to Sit Still

Learning to Sit Still

By Chloe Caldwell 02/19/13

I always prided myself on my ability to handle my drugs. Now that I’m making my first clutches at sobriety, I’m beginning to see that I’d much rather be able to handle me.

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The author, ideally not ruining anyone's night

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It turned out that yoga teacher training is nothing like running into yoga class late and on heroin. Yoga teacher training is a commitment, a physical and mental challenge, not a quick fix to make you feel better about your body. Turns out we actually have to work. During our first week, I was struggling in Parivritta Trikonasana. My legs were shaking from working so hard and I kept falling over. My teacher tried every prop and modification with me before she finally shrugged and said, “Maybe you just need to get stronger.” I held back tears. She meant it in a physical way, but I knew there was more to it. The body and the mind are connected and I was embarrassingly, obviously, ungrounded. 

When I was singing the words “Save me” and “Please love me” over and over, I thought I was talking to my friends. To the universe. To the man I would meet and fall in love with. To the city of Portland. But now I know that those words were for me. I see now that I can live anywhere if I can learn to build a safe home inside my own body and mind.  No one else cares if I binge eat, get drunk alone, and secretly pop pills.

And in the same way that I’ve heard alcoholics say that their body starts rejecting alcohol, drugs have stopped working for me. The last time I took a Valium, I turned into an evil bitch, then slept for 15 hours. Oh, and even worse—I got completely ripped off when trying to buy drugs from a stranger at a bar. I gave him $20 and he gave me some black dirt from outside wrapped in tinfoil. I found this out when I went to the bathroom to snort it. He’d already left the bar. 

I have more time now that I’m not going the distance to get drugs. When I’m not looking up pills on Google, I have time for movies. For hours of coffee with friends. To get my hair colored. To sleep in. 

I’m embarrassed yet relieved to find that the cause of my drug use is anxiety. What’s working for me is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. As I’m sure thousands of others have discovered before, DBT feels like it was written exactly for me. DBT is a form of therapy using four modules: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness—four things that have never come easily for me and were leading me to drugs. Training myself to be in the present moment is saving my life. I remember thinking once that doing heroin was the opposite of being in the present moment. All I wanted was simple and yet the hardest thing to find: A sense of well being. And I was using shortcuts. 

It’s pull-your-hair-out frustrating to take the long way after using shortcuts. Last month, a yoga instructor and philosopher named Michael Stone visited our teacher training. He asked us, “What would it be like to have a feeling and just feel it?” And then, the thing that made me cry, that made me gasp for air, that made me understand myself more: “The cause for unhappiness is that one cannot sit still alone in a room.” While in Michael’s class, he had us doing formal seated meditation and then fast and slow walking meditation. While in the seated meditation, some of us would start to nod off. “Be awake!” he would yell. “Forgive yourself. When you’re sitting, you’re not going anywhere or planning anything. You are here, sitting in your life.”

Do you know anything more terrifying than sitting still in your own life? I don’t. 

Some days are better than others. On “good” days, I eat kale and go to yoga and read books and drug use doesn’t cross my mind. On not great days, I notice I’m using coffee and wine as a sort of speedball. And on worse days, I look out the window from my basement apartment and see the sneakers hanging over the telephone wires and think about standing there and waiting for heroin. But then I think, Would I buy heroin for the child me? I use all my DBT tricks all day long. All. Day. Long. What can I do to self-soothe? Can I use opposing emotion? Distraction? Mindfulness? How can I make this moment I’m stuck in better? Besides the occasional pill, I’ve been clean for five months. 

Recovery is heavy DBT therapy. It’s walking around with workbooks in my purse: The 12 Steps for Women and DBT for Anxiety workbooks. It’s telling my friends and family that I need support. It’s learning to sit still in a room by myself. I roll off my bed and do this first thing every morning, sometimes for five minutes and sometimes for 20: I set a timer and literally hold hands with myself while I sit. This is how I sit still in the only life I have, trying to love the only self I’ve got. 

Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. Her essays have been published in Salon, The Rumpus, Thought Catalog and more. She lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first piece for The Fix.