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Let the Haters Hate—I'm Living My Dream
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During the five years that I was relapsing on booze and cocaine, I really had nothing else going on in my life. It was: Walk the dog, get drunk at the bar, get high all night. Walk the dog, get drunk at the bar, get high all night. Sometimes go to AA meetings and cry about how I couldn't stop drinking. Forget to walk the dog, get drunk at the bar, get high all night.
I thought maybe if I went back to school I would focus and it would help me stop drinking and drugging. After all, I had dropped out of an MFA Fiction Writing program at Brooklyn College years earlier. And so I applied and was accepted to a writing class at the New School. I lived two blocks away, and all I had to do was show up twice a week with a few pages of work and be prepared to critique classmates' work.
When people say good things about me, I think they are being disingenuous, blowing smoke up my ass. The criticism is the real deal.
But I couldn't even manage that. I made it to one class, high on cocaine, and left early because I couldn't breathe through my nose and knew I was making a lot of noise just trying to breathe. I never made it back.
When I did manage to get sober eight years ago, my world expanded considerably. I ventured out of my apartment with the garbage bags taped to the windows to keep daylight out. I went to the park, had coffee with friends, enjoyed restaurants, and I attended sober friends' plays and performances. I heard more live music when I got sober than I ever did when I was a slave to the drug in my dark apartment.
But not much was happening for me artistically. I rarely practiced piano, which used to give me great pleasure. And I didn't write anything for years.
And then I was asked to contribute some writing to The Fix. I published a few pieces, and it got my creative juices flowing again, for the first time in years. One essay I wrote, in particular, made me happy: “Six Psych Wards, One Woman,” my Zagat's-style guide to NYC-area psych wards I have been in. After getting a lot of good feedback about this piece, I started to think: Is this a thumbnail sketch for a book? A book about what it's like to be hospitalized twelve times and recover from institutionalization? I got excited about the project, and decided to commit to it. Who knows where this adventure will lead?
And so I signed up to take a writing workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, at the beginning of June. Coming to the writers' retreat at Omega was a leap of faith for me. Instead of going on the traditional vacation to Virginia Beach with my active alcoholic husband, spending my time counting his drinks or dealing with his negativity because he's miserable not drinking, I decided to spend the money I had saved to go to Omega by myself. I was nervous, and already expecting to be annoyed by the place, which I suspected might be sort of hippy-dippy.
My friends Sandy and Joe dropped me off, and I left my luggage in the office until my room was ready. I was worried something might get stolen. I was still in NYC-mode.
I wandered around the grounds, which were beautiful. I was delighted to see some groundhogs running around in the garden. One came up to me and stood on his hind legs looking at me as if to say, “Who are you?”
I saw some women in tie-dye and batik, loose clothing, barefoot or in Birkenstocks, exposing their armpit hair when they lifted their arms. They smelled of patchouli. “Ah, yes,” I thought, “As I expected.”
Sandy had warned me about the “angry hippies” there who floated on spiritual air only to snap at people for being on their cell phone or smoking. And I did come across some such people. “Uh oh,” I thought. “I'm here for a WEEK?!”
The next morning I found my way to the writing workshop. First of all, there were no chairs out, just seats on the floor. (By the end of the week, most of us were in chairs.) In the middle of the room was a burning candle, and the teacher, Nancy, rang a gong to call us to order. “Oh boy, here we go,” I thought.
I looked around the room at the 18 people joining me on this experience. “She looks weird,” I thought. “I should stay away from that one.”
And yet, judgmental as I was, I wanted them to like me. To like my writing. For Nancy to like me and approve of me. To be the best one in the class.
For our first assignment, we were asked to write for 20 minutes from the prompt, “Dinner at our house was...” I scribbled something down but wasn't that happy with it. Then the first few brave souls shared their essays and I was blown away. They were so talented. I decided to fly under the radar and not share until after lunch, when I could rewrite my piece to make it more impressive.
But Nancy informed us we would all read that morning, and be late for lunch. So I shyly read what I had written, and was so surprised by the laughter in all the right places and the appreciation of my story from everyone in the class.
Nancy's philosophy is that when people are given a safe and nurturing place to share their writing, without the typical criticism of typical writing classes, they will go deeper, write more of their truth. The experience of taking her class is much more than a bunch of writing exercises. It is an invitation to write about past and present pain and joy, and have a catharsis.
And she is right. By the second day, every single person in the class had blown me away by at least one of their pieces, and I had gotten some really positive, encouraging feedback from the group and Nancy about my work.
I no longer judged these people, nor did I feel judgment from them. I felt privileged to be invited to see behind their masks, as I revealed myself to them.
I didn't care who was eccentric, who was the skinniest, who was most talented. I genuinely cared for these people. And I truly felt they cared for me.
Yes, some of the people at Omega were armpit-haired, patchouli-smelling angry hippies, but after a while I didn't care or judge. I really felt, “Live and Let Live.”
I went swimming in the lake one afternoon and was so excited to see a beaver swimming around with me. I told Nancy later at dinner that unlike how I feel at home in my bathing suit, here I just didn't care I was overweight. I didn't feel embarrassed or self-conscious. I didn't feel judged.
“That's Omega!” Nancy said. And it was.
On Wednesday night, my writer friend David picked me up from Omega to have dinner in town. I had sent him some chapters of my expanded “Zagat's-style guide to psych wards," and I asked him his opinion.
“Hated it,” he said. At first I thought he was joking. But he wasn't. “The Zagat's structure is gimmicky and cheap.”
I was floored. Most people who had read my original piece on The Fix, and my entire class at Omega, really liked the idea, and thought it was funny and clever. It shows that I survived twelve hospitalizations by my sense of humor.
I came back to Omega that night in turmoil. This project, which I had been feeling excited about, now seemed like a huge brick wall that I had no idea how to climb over, or what might be on the other side.
Who did I think I was? Writing a book! I sucked! I wanted to quit.
The next day I shared with Nancy and the class what David had said. And they all vehemently disagreed with him, urging to me to go on with the project they believed had a lot of promise.
Here were 19 people telling me they liked my writing, my story, my humor, and then there was one critic I came across, and I was choosing to listen to the criticism. When people say good things about me, I think they are being disingenuous, blowing smoke up my ass. The criticism is the real deal.
I realized, with Nancy's help, that it mirrored my childhood experience. My mother would constantly give me praise and encouragement, while my Dad was often critical. His negativity carried more weight, to me, than my mother's pollyanna attitude. I listened to the judgment.
I do the same thing in AA. I judge people in much the same way as I did at first at Omega, and in turn I suspect they are judging me. I can get nothing but love and support from a room full of people, and yet I zone in on the one person who seems to dislike or judge me, and that is the one I'll focus on.
My experience at Omega taught me not to make hasty judgments of people, and to let go a bit of my desire for approval. Not everyone is going to like me, or my writing. And that's okay. It made me see that everyone has their own path, their own story to tell—whether it's in writing, acting, painting, dancing. I have renewed excitement to share in my friends' artistic ventures, seeking just to witness and rejoice in the beauty of their process.
A week after returning from Omega, I went to my group therapy for people who are in recovery. We had a substitute therapist. I was excitedly sharing my enthusiasm for the Omega experience, and he interrupted me to say, “You know, the world really doesn't need another recovery memoir.”
Thank you for trying to crush my dream! But I'm not going to let your long-term sober misery get me down. I celebrated not taking his negativity to heart by attending my choreographer-friend Nancy's dance showcase, and it was beautiful to see her work in progress.
I am going up that brick wall, one brick at a time. Even if the only people who see the finished product are friends and family. It's about the journey, the awakening of my soul. That brick wall? I want to see what's on the other side.
Sadie Long is a pseudonym for a long time contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about animal activism in sobriety among many other topics.