Real Progress is Meant to be Slow

By Bill Caulder 06/02/17

I am trying to stop inventing narratives around events that confound me. If my landlady gives me the cold shoulder, does that really mean she wants to evict me?

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A wooden head-shaped form with a progression of doors in its center
My sick OCD brain sucked my mind into a black hole... a bigger shit show than when I drank.

Two years ago, I lost a year.

I had a compulsive worry that consumed me. It was a really stupid worry, work-related, something I couldn’t do anything about, and had almost no chance of happening. It was born of guilt and dreamed up by my sick OCD brain one sunny afternoon when things were going just a little too well in my life.

I knew this at the time, but rational thought wasn’t on the menu. The obsession hovered in my conscience like a black hole, sucking in thoughts, happiness…even other worries. I started screwing up at work, forgetting appointments, losing things. I even forgot to sign the renewal lease on my rent control apartment—a valuable commodity in New York. I’d had two months to re-sign! I could have been evicted through my own ineptitude!

I was a bigger shit show than when I drank.

This is hardly the first time something like this happened to me in sobriety. Years ago, a girlfriend revealed a past sexual indiscretion. (Think “Chasing Amy”.) I made myself crazy over it. I took no proactive actions, like counseling or working the program. (I wouldn’t even see “Chasing Amy,” as AA friends advised—I was too “scared”!) Another black hole, another lost year. 

I have approximately 13 years sobriety over the last 24 years (four years in, two out…etc.). Every time I quit drinking, I become as unstable as a three-legged chair. There’s always some black hole, blotting out the daylight. An injustice. A fear. A painful crush (is there any other kind?). The way I saw it, I went bat shit crazy when I quit drinking, and there was nothing I could do about it.

My sponsor saw my plight as an opportunity. “For the first time in your life, you’re going to work this out,” he said, “in the program. You have to realize your problem isn’t the problem that’s always bothering you, it’s that you always have to have a problem.”

I found an AA lunch meeting near my job and started going every day. It was great to get out of the office and out of my head, to listen and share. It was like play period in elementary school. After a year or so, the problem disappeared—only to be replaced by others. My sponsor was right, alas, my problem wasn’t “the problem,” it was me.

I went to even more meetings, often two a day. I started meditating, taking long walks, reading. I spent time alone thinking about…me. This was kind of weird, since I’m all I ever think about anyway. But sometimes you need to sit down with the express purpose of working out your shit.

These activities were incredibly helpful. I remembered that even as a kid I had been plagued with obsessional worries. I came to see I don’t go bat shit crazy when I stop drinking. BSC is how I normally am, drinking just alleviated the problem (creating, of course, a hundred new ones). The only way for me to achieve happiness, I saw, was to live in the moment.

I already knew this—many times over—but I apparently have a short memory. In the eighties, I studied Buddhism. In the nineties, I took courses at Landmark Forum, where I learned, “Life is empty and meaningless and it is empty and meaningless that it is empty and meaningless.” And of course I’ve had umpteen sponsors (five, technically) try to get me in the Now. Intellectually I’ve known what to do, but the voice—my overpowering ego—would not be denied. I am a hard case. 

The writer Joan Didion said, somewhat famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We live entirely—especially if we are writers—by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria that is reality.”

I read that in college—40 years ago—made it my life mantra. It is now precisely what I am trying to stop doing. I’m trying to release the millions of stories I have “frozen” and catalogued in my relentlessly self-destructive psyche. I am trying to stop inventing narratives around events that confound me. When I saw my landlady on the street the other day, she gave me the cold shoulder. Does that really mean she wants to evict me (even though, thank God, she signed my late renewal lease)? For all I knew, her husband had just told her she was getting chunky.

The good news, if misery loves company, is I’m not alone. Researcher Matt Killingsworth, Ph.D., conducted a big study with a phone app that tracks happiness. It revealed that people are happier when they are in the moment, even if they’re commuting to work. We’re all better off being in the now.

So how does one get in the now? As luck would have it, I came upon a great read at just the right time. I was on a cruise ship and went to a meeting. There was only one other person, Don. Nice guy. We talked. His home group in Florida was big on the author Mark Singer. I had never heard of him, and told him my home group was big on Pema Chodrin, whom he had never heard of. We had something of an argument over whose American Buddhist self-help author was better.

After the cruise I bought Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Pema Chodrin is a beautiful soul and a brilliant writer. But I have to admit Singer’s book is astonishing. As a litmus test I bought a copy for my sponsor—a huge Pema fan. “Is it just me,” I asked, “or is this amazing?”

He came back three days later: “This book changed my life!” Singer makes the case that there’s always a voice in our heads, and it is the sole source of our problems. He postulates that liberation is possible by releasing those stories, those “frozen moments,” and practicing mindfulness.

My sponsor’s trick is to simply say, “No stories,” as soon as the voice starts. It works. The downside is you say “No stories,” around 500 times a day, but it beats the hell out of getting sucked into my own black hole.

The real end game is to block out new obsessions. Left to my own devices, the black holes will reproduce like tumors. The only way to prevent that is to drop Ms. Didion’s “narrative line.” Let life flow and blow by me, don’t interpret what I don’t know, don’t make up things to fill in the gaps. Let go. 

Progress has been…slow. But I am learning. When meditating in the park the other morning, I fixated on a beautiful community garden. I thought, Look at that, isn’t that a great metaphor for life? I stared a few more seconds and then thought, No, you idiot, that isn’t a metaphor for life. That’s life!

Along with the beautiful trees in foliage, the cobalt sky, the single woman pleading with her basset hound…life, sweet life, buzzing all around me. I can choose to be in the thick of it or I can go dark, listen to my inner voices, worry about work bullshit, nuclear arms…that kid I was mean to in sixth grade. I’ll take life. No stories! No stories! No stories! 

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