Recovered - I love it by Michelle Cowan

I’m listening to a YouTube video of shamanic drumming. Oh yeah, now I’m ready to write this blog post.

It’s strange to be a writer for so many years, to have always had so much to say, and to now feel nothing. Nothing’s knocking on the door, much less beating down the door to get said or written or sung. This is a strange feeling for me.

The plain and simple truth of it is that life is good now.  I feel recovered from the eating disorders. Thoughts sometimes enter my head like, “Oh, I’m definitely going to binge tonight,” or, “God, I really want to eat a ton right now.”  I’ll even occasionally eat more than I feel comfortable with. Sometimes, I obsess about exercise more than I would like to admit. But would I classify any of this as disordered? No. I honestly think I’m recovered.

I’m interested in reading Jenni Shaefer’s book Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, where she discusses being completely recovered. How has she dealt with this transition? It’s such a strange feeling to have had these thoughts and behaviors for so many years and to, now, not experience them in the same way.  I’m not sure if time has eliminated the thoughts and the desires or if I’ve learned new ways of dealing with the thoughts that have essentially neutralized their effect on me. Okay, maybe I am sure that it’s the latter, but I’m not negating the possibility that the universe is sending fewer of these distractors my way. Whatever the case may be, it’s a fantastic feeling.

It’s scary to come out and say in a public way that I am “recovered.” Our culture constantly repeats, “Pride cometh before the fall,” and with this, implies that saying, “I’m over this,” is a form of pride.

I don’t pretend I could never fall to the eating disorder again.  I don’t even claim to be totally free of unhealthy thoughts or feelings. However, I do feel like a completely different person, and in the last year or more, I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of situations I thought for sure would “go ED” not go anywhere at all.  Those binges I think are going to happen… don’t happen. I go without exercising, and I don’t obsess about it.  I get back to it the next day I have a chance, and I do an exercise that’s fun. I don’t restrict my food. My weight sometimes goes up, sometimes goes down, and I’m fine.  I like my body.  I don’t hate myself.

If anything, I have an aversion to anything diet- or weight loss-related. That’s the one conspicuous remnant of this disease.  But it’s helpful. I don’t need to put myself in triggering conversations.  I don’t need to start believing that diets or obsessing about my body is okay.  That’s not healthy.

I’m glad to be away from it, and I don’t see myself going back into the ED any time soon.  I still want to help others dealing with these issues, but I’ve entered a new stage of life with much less drama involved.

I will admit that a major component in my most recent “up level” in recovery has been falling in love… and remaining in steadfast, true love for, well, eight months now. I’ve reached many plateaus on this 11+ year journey of recovery, but this has been one of the most interesting and satisfying. They always sneak up on me, these places where I feel steadier, more stable, and more insightful about myself and the world around me.  Love snuck up on me the same way.

Lately, I’ve been reminded of Aimee Liu’s book Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives, in which the only consistent factor in the lives of the “recovered” women she interviews seems to be that they eventually fell in love – usually with a person – but sometimes with a pursuit they love more than the eating disorder. 

It’s difficult to love anything more than an eating disorder. ED is powerful, comforting, and most of all, familiar. It takes a powerful love to transcend that. But all of these women had found something they wanted more than their EDs.

For a long time, I thought my great love would be music or writing or some kind of cause. But when I face facts, I don’t love music that much. I get lost in it.  I enjoy a state of flow when I’m in it. But no single thing was more appealing to me than sitting around and eating.  It took major life changes for me to find things I loved more than my eating disorder.  It turned out that a way of life was what I loved more than the ED.  I only made true progress when I started to see how I wanted to live my life. Once I truly defined my values and saw how much I loved life when it worked a certain way that I stopped doing behaviors that prevented me from having that kind of life.

I would slip and have tough times off and on. I probably will continue to experience these same ups and downs throughout my life. Every several months, I have to reorient myself to life so that I’m living in a truly whole way and not just according to some arbitrary routine I’ve developed.  I’ve learned to vary my schedule, change what I’m involved in, and basically live life differently very, very often. It’s when I get too mired in routine that the ED pops up. 

Of course, too much volatility in my life leads me to the ED, too.  So it’s all about finding balance. There is a level of change that stimulates but doesn’t overwhelm me.  I’m continually learning to find it.

I’ll tell you one thing, though: romantic love is the one sure-fire shakeup. You can’t count on it. You don’t know when it’s going to come. But when it comes, it makes life better.  At least, it does for me.  There are others who fall in love more easily and end up hurt by love a lot more often than I have in my life. Those people also enjoy more love-highs than I have. Meh, to each her own.

So here I am, in love – in real love – and also feeling very recovered. I’m in a good place. Before, I’ve been afraid to say out loud that I’m in a good place. I feel like it primes me for a fall. But thankfully, I now see that my psyche is not a mirror of the American consumer audience. My brain doesn’t have to behave like people who can’t wait for their favorite up-and-coming star to win a slew of major awards and then get thrown in jail for drug use or general stupidity. I don’t have to be on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop, worried that my success will be followed by an inevitable failure.

This society has blinded a lot of us to the generosity and beauty of human nature.  Many in America think human nature – or some external force in the world – wants nothing but to build people up and then tear them down. People even think life works that way– that what goes up must come down. Well, Earth may be governed by the law of gravity, but my heart and my life are different matters. I want me to succeed. I want other people to succeed.  I’ve seen people continue to climb and enjoy life more and more. I’ve seen people live beyond success and failure, beyond achievement or pursuit, beyond our definitions of what life should be. I want that. What happens when there is no “failure”? What happens when I just enjoy life as it is? What happens if I really don’t ever get sucked into the eating disorder again?

Sure, maybe I got some help from love in this latest stage of the journey. I used to think it was weak to need something like love to recover, but now I don’t care if I’m weak or strong. We all need love to be okay. We do. And frankly, it helps to have someone around when I get in a peculiar mood, someone who’s there when I might otherwise lock myself in my apartment and eat, someone who’s there to help me move on when I do eat too much or start obsessing about when I’m going to work out next. It helps to have someone I think about more than myself. When my heart opens up, I’m recovered, right then, right there.

I’ve been waiting for love. I’ve been thinking about it.  I was ready for it.  And I was a hell of a long way on my recovery journey already by the time it hit.

Honestly, I can’t even imagine what the next thing might be at this point. Like I said at the beginning of this article, I feel nothing. I feel content. I feel ambitionless.  But here’s a secret: my mind’s still trying to think of something new to do. Michelle isn’t done yet. I’m just learning to bask in contentment for a minute. Can I do it?

Change Sneaks Up by Michelle Cowan

Change arrives in nature when time has ripened. There are no jagged transitions or crude discontinuities. This accounts for the sureness with which one season succeeds another. It is as though they were moving forward in a rhythm set from within a continuum.

To change is one of the great dreams of every heart – to change the limitations, the sameness, the banality, or the pain. So often we look back on patterns of behavior, the kind of decisions we make repeatedly and that have failed to serve us well, and we aim for a new and more successful path or way of living. But change is difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old pattern, rather than risking the danger of difference. We are also often surprised by change that seems to arrive out of nowhere. We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality beings to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.

-John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us

Change is slow and fast at the same time. I search for change, long to be different, to be better, seemingly without any real results despite all my longing and striving. Then one day, I look up, and I’m called to do something I couldn’t have done five years ago, and somehow today, it is easy. The slow, slow progress comes to fruition in a single moment.

I’m bewildered by how different my reactions and inclinations have become in the last few years. Lately, I am faced with challenges that would have baffled me in the past, but on a daily basis, I now move easily through them. Something in me that I couldn’t see was changing, changing all the time.

Maybe I am more like nature than I think. In the natural world, vegetation naturally evolves from one state to the next. Every year, plants emerge, new and somehow ready for the brand new year ahead. They don’t know what the year will bring, but somehow, the vast majority of the landscape is completely ready for its challenges, better equipped than it would have been the year before. Nature feels the earth and moves with it. Something in me is dancing this dance, too.

My relationships with people have entirely changed, along with my orientation to work, music, spiritual practice, and family. Some changes are huge, and some are small. Most are indescribable with words. All I know is that when a challenging situation arises, I’m not sent into a frenzied state. I’m able to ask for help (more of the time). I know that everything will be okay.

Maybe that’s the miracle of time. The longer I live, the more chances I get to see things go wrong – and go right. And what do I learn from observing this? That the world keeps turning, people keep loving, lives keep moving. Life is okay. Things happen, and I deal with it. People deal with life, and we go on. Seeing our collective cycles of “dealing with it” adds a sense of calm to my life.

I’m not pretending that I don’t still freak out or have emotional upheavals. That’s simply my personality. But even my mood swings don’t perturb me the way they used to. I’m accustomed to the flow of life and of my emotions. The internal swings are less frightening and subside more quickly because I no longer increase their intensity with my extreme reactions and guilt.

I feel like I have been a child, learning all the basic things about simply living in a human body for so long. And now, I may not have learned all the lessons there are to learn, but I’ve learned quite a bit – enough that I’m ready for new challenges.  That’s a good feeling.

This stage of life is new to me – this feeling that I have truly learned something, without consciously learning it. So much of my education has been driven by concerted, organized effort, but this is something different. I will enjoy this feeling, even when life cycles back around to remind me that I am and will always be a beginner.

Some thresholds can only be crossed in one direction, and I’ve crossed something like that.

I think I can live better now. I think I can love better. And I am immensely grateful.

Potential by Michelle Cowan

I got to thinking about potential today – how our American culture seems, at some level, obsessed with living up to one's potential. When will we wake up and see the truth? No one, not even the most successful among us, lives up to their potential.

There are several different ways to approach this topic. Dating, for instance.  I've dated many people based on their potential, and I can't express how monumentally disappointing that's been.  Even if people change or grow, they still rarely match up with the wonderful ideal I build of them in my head. The day inevitably comes when I have to admit that this person I'm dating is not the same as the idealized potential person I've been carrying around in my mind. They are who they are. And that person isn't the right one for me.

Another way to look at it is more personal.  Am I living up to my potential? At least 98% of the time, I don't believe I am. From my perspective, I am filled with infinite potential, and my mind rather recklessly believes that I can attain the fullest expression of that potential. But practically (and obviously), I cannot. Infinite potential?  Definitely not attainable. Infinity 101.

So then, I wonder if I need to erect some kind of slightly sub-infinite version of the potential me. I may never be able to be the perfect person in my head, but perhaps I can be something close to it. Once again, this is a trap. Which parts of my infinite potential do I give up?  Which parts do I alter? Which pieces do I remove?  To take away pieces of my potential is to take away pieces of myself and to blind myself to the kind of creation I actually am. I'm creating a kind of Frankenstein monster that I think I'm more likely to evolve into, which completely devalues who I really am.

The truth is: I AM my fullest potential.  At all times, my potential lives actively within me. There is no "living up" to it or attaining it.  At certain times, the light of my potential emanates from me more than others. But all the while, it exists.  It flourishes in my soul.

The trap that ensnares me is the idea that this potential should manifest itself in particular ways. One lie tells me that because I have a vast reservoir of untapped musical talent, I should have a lucrative and respected musical career. This belief traps me. It seems like a reasonable goal, and because it seems reasonable, my mind decides it has a right to beat me up about not achieving it – at least, not achieving the version of it that I see in my head.

Under my reservoir of musical talent is a base-level propensity toward creativity. I am a person who takes ideas and makes them real. Songwriting is only one form of creation. This part of my soul manifests in other ways. The problem here is that I value certain manifestations above others. In fact, some manifestations are entirely invisible to me. For instance, I feel quite accomplished when I finish a song, send a thoughtful card in the mail, or write a blog post. These are measureable feats for which I can pat myself on the back. On the other hand, I devalue activities like writing in my journal, cleaning my home, rearranging the pillows on my bed, planning the day ahead, drawing while watching television, or calling a friend just because I thought of him.

All these activities could be expressions of creativity. I'm bringing ideas into the physical realm. But somehow, I miss it.  I miss the fact that I am expressing my potential at all times. I miss the reality that my potential can be called upon at any time, in all situations. I miss all the wonderful things I do and the wonderful person I am even when I do nothing.

When I think I'm not living up to my potential, I beat myself up. I tell myself that I could be doing more, saying more, or making more.  I always need to be "more" than I am.

But there is no "more" than I am.  I am already all of me.

It's been instilled in me as an American that I need to find a way to use every ounce of potential I possess to create a life and, really, a person named Michelle that lives up to all she is "meant" to be. I have somehow been taught to think that I have to work very hard to make this happen.

These days, I suspect that I don’t need to work very hard at all to live up to my potential. The way to be the full, rich person I am is, instead, to let go. Everything I hold onto only holds me back. I have to let go of ideas about who I should be. I have to let go of rules I've accepted or set for myself. I have to let go of dreams. I have to let go of problems. I have to let go of friends, of lovers, and of having everything the way I want it.

When I let go, I fall into the hand of a higher power that knows exactly where I need to be.  That higher power knows exactly who I am – all of my potential – even if no one else does. The natural world supports me letting go and flowing along to its rhythm.

When I let go of trying, I become exactly who I really am, and that person might surprise me. I may think I know what my fullest potential is, but the truth is that I have no clue. Why try to live up to an image of Michelle that may not be anything like me?  For all I know, I am so far from my true potential, the only thing that will get me there is to completely let go and fall for miles into a completely new life and way of thinking.

For today, I give up the search for potential. Today, I know that I am already living up to my potential and that I am loved and accepted by everything that matters most. I am today. I show up for today. And daily, I am becoming a greater expression of the beautiful light that lives within me, even if I can' see it.

Songwriting Workshop by Michelle Cowan

Believe it or not, I had never been to a songwriting workshop before this year.  I've written songs with others, read books, and done a lot of self-teaching.  But this experience was different.  I knew it would be.

The past year has been filled with classes and learning.  I realized that, if I want to get anywhere in the music business, I will have to be at the top of my game.  And that means getting better at anything I'm already good at, like singing and playing the piano.  I'm usually very focused on developing totally new skills and learning brand new things.  However, the people I see who are successful take what they excel at and focus on making that part of themselves the best it can be. This realization led to me signing up for voice and piano lessons again, not to mention a few audio engineering courses.

A fellow songwriter friend, Monique Grezlik, and I drove to New Braunfels and spent two days luxuriating in our craft.  The workshop was led by Susan Gibson, best known for her song Wide Open Spaces, performed by the Dixie Chicks.  Let me tell you, she has dozens more that are equally fantastic.

Anyway, the simple act of setting aside an extended block of time for my craft made all the difference.  I wrote a new song, worked on others, learned new exercises to get the creative juices flowing, and met fellow songwriters who I hope to be friends with for many years.  Some co-writes are guaranteed after this adventure.

I want to encourage you all to set aside a big block of time for you to work on whatever your creative passion is. A couple hours here and there is fine, but a full day devoted to your craft yields serious results.  I liked having the time structured and guided, and I certainly took breaks. But the main thing is that I made the time, and the muses showed up.  If it happened for me, it can happen for you.

I posted a video of a recent song I wrote called This Time. I didn't write it during the workshop, but I performed it in a show afterward. Head on over to my new Video page to check it out and enjoy!

Go creative energy, go!

Constancy by Michelle Cowan

Constancy.  It’s why I get extra good stuff at my regular lunch place.  It’s why I know how to play the piano.  It’s how I made (and kept) most of the friends I have.  It’s how I keep improving in spin class. It’s how I wrote a novel in the 7th grade (not a good one J ).  It’s how I developed a consistent meditation practice.

Perhaps some people are born with a calm mind, incredible musical abilities, perfect technique at [fill in the blank], a chiseled body, and a line of people out the door to befriend and love them.  But I doubt it.

People develop these qualities over time, through constancy.  Notice that I didn’t say “by perfecting their abilities,” “honing their craft,” “working harder and faster than everyone else,” “spending all their time on this activity,” or “following a carefully defined path.” No.  It's constancy.

I’m not talking about becoming an Olympic gold medalist or the greatest writer of all time, although constancy DEFINITELY plays a part in those achievements.  I’m talking about marked improvements and marked stability that we "mysterious" build up in certain areas of our life.  

I’ve often heard people use the words “consistency,” “frequency,” and “repetition,” but something about “constancy" speaks to me.  A friend brought it up at the Houston Zen Center a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to forget it.

He was referencing Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which Suzuki discusses the Japanese word “nin.” Its usual translation is “patience.”  But Suzuki posits “constancy” as a better interpretation. Suzuki discusses it quite eloquently, and I highly recommend looking this passage up. But I want to discuss what it means to me.

My friend at the Zen Center said that when he started thinking about developing “constancy” in certain situations, instead of “patience,” he felt a powerful energetic shift inside. I did, too. Neither term is better than the other, but “patience” connotes something akin to "waiting" for me. I feel like I’m often being asked to wait and “have patience,” and I rarely excel at it – much less enjoy it.  Whether I need to be patient waiting in a line, or when dealing with another person’s behavior that might annoy me, or when dealing with myself and the qualities I wish I was developing or getting rid of sooner, patience comes up again and again.

Patience feels kind of helpless to me. All of life might be waiting, sure.  But maybe that's why I hate all of life sometimes.  I feel like I'm being asked to just sit there and wait for things to develop.

In contrast, constancy implies action.  Constancy (as my friend explained it) means that when I’m sitting there, annoyed at myself because I’m not doing something quite well enough, I keep doing whatever I’m doing. I could be sitting down to meditate, and my mind is going everywhere, just like it always does.  I could stop, or I could keep sitting every day.  It means that when I have a low-energy day at spin class, I don't stop going out of frustration.  I keep going, even if just once a week.  Or when someone in my life is doing something that annoys me, I don't totally change my course to avoid that person.  I keep doing what I'm meant to do, even if that person has to be around while I'm doing it.

I often picture myself at a pottery wheel, trying to make a bowl or something.  I am not happy with how things are going.  If my mind says, “Be patient with yourself," I think, "Whatever.  I’m not getting this.  I’m just going to stop now.”  In contrast, if my mind says, “Constancy, Michelle. Constancy," I turn my attention away from my angry or frustrated thoughts and focus instead on the task at hand. The more bowls I spin, the better it will be. 

Sure, I could also read pottery books, take more classes, learn better technique, and study the different kinds of wheels and clays available to me.  But I will see results even if all I do is just continue to put clay on a wheel and make bowls.  I will get better.

This applies everywhere.  I will eventually make friends if I keep showing up and talking to at least one person at my regular haunt. I will eventually get better at the piano if I keep practicing new songs.  I will develop stronger legs and cardiovascular conditioning if I keep going to my spin class. I will finish my novel if I keep writing a little bit several times a week.

I don’t have to be the most outgoing person and talk to a dozen people every time I go to certain meetings or meet-ups. I don’t have to practice the piano two hours a day. I don’t have to work out six days a week to see results.  I don’t have to write for an hour every day to finish a book.  And I don’t have to meditate an hour every day before sunrise to gain a little enlightenment.

For me, one person is enough. Twenty minutes a day is enough. Three days a week is enough. Fifteen minutes every other day is enough. Five minutes a day is enough…

I tried to start meditating many times and couldn’t stick with it. I would be very consistent for a few days or weeks but then stop.  I knew that meditating was changing something in me and that I wanted to do it every day.  But I couldn’t get myself there.  It wasn’t until a therapist said that scientists had done an experiment where they had looked at the neural pathways of people receiving certain stimuli, doing certain activities, or thinking about certain things. They mapped their brains at the beginning of the experiment and then had the participants meditate for five minutes every day for two months.  At the end of the two months, neural pathways had actually changed.  And the participants overwhelmingly reported changes in mood and reactions.  Five minutes per day.

That released me.  Somewhere in me, I thought I had to meditate at least 20 minutes for it to be meaningful.  SO WRONG.  Many days, I can only get seven minutes or 12 minutes in.  But the fact that I do it every day keeps me going for the next day.  Even when I don’t see a difference in my thoughts or behavior, I keep doing it.  I trust that meditation is where I want to be.

I do the same thing where I can elsewhere in my life.  I think that having patience with myself often translates into me being way too lenient or lazy about behaviors I honestly do not like. Things get boring and stagnant when I allow myself to drift into certain old habits, and I become unhealthy.  Constancy has energy.  It pulls me into flow. Even when I think that whatever I’m doing is pointless, I feel a special energy in my life when I remain constant.

Constancy is not like pushing myself to do a million things every day and feeling guilty if I don't accomplish my goals. Constancy is continuing on, even when I can't get everything done that I want to get done.  Constancy is continuing on.

Sometimes, that's all I can do, really.  Just let go and continue on.  I'm grateful to my friend at the Zen Center for the good word of the month: constancy. 

Longing by Michelle Cowan

Longing.  I feel longing. Underneath the disappointment, the anger, the sadness, the lonesomeness, the tiredness, the confusion (I could go on), lies longing. My whole being aches for something unnamable.

It’s tempting to leave it at that. Once I realize that I can’t describe something in words, it’s pretty easy for me to leave it behind (at least for a few hours) and sit on my meditation cushion, believing that I’m somehow accessing the unnamable. I can breathe in and out at my desk at work and experience the unnamable feeling.  I can get down to it via non-linear channels. 

I asked God if, when I encounter the thing I have been longing for, I will know it. I haven’t heard back yet.

I think I will know. I think that whatever it is is very close. I’m not sure if it’s a person, an event, a job, a chance, a vocation, a feeling, or a group. It’s probably something else entirely. For certain, it is a longing for change – either in me or in the world around me. Something needs to come in and mix up the action. But that’s not such a huge revelation. Any longing is a longing for change of some kind, even if it’s just a longing for a change within that will allow me to enjoy the world as it is.

Or maybe every longing is simply a desire for the longing to go away. Maybe longing just is, and all we can do is want it to leave us alone.  But what would I be without a longing of some kind?  Once I achieve the object of my longing, doesn’t the longing just transfer to a new object? Once it transfers, I then spend days, months, or years figuring out what the new object is.  After a while, I might lay hands on the not-so-new-anymore longing, but all that leads to is the appearance of a new new longing. 

Or maybe I’m always entertaining multiple longings. I’m filled with hundreds of longings, and when one goes away, others stay or newly appear. The longings constantly flow in and out of me.  I’m a body of ever-shifting longings blowing and whirling through me – some finding their way to the core and making a home for themselves, and others whizzing by faster than I can feel them.

I like this image of me as a swirling cacophony of movement and yearning. That’s how I experience life. It also explains why longings often confuse me. I misinterpret what they are.  I assume I have a singular longing when, in fact, dozens or even hundreds or thousands of longings compete for my attention every moment of every day. The crux of my disease is that I mistake a surface longing for one of the deeper ones. I might eat something or apply for another new job instead of paying attention to the deeper longing. I assume I want food or a career change, when maybe what I long for is far more complicated.

The key to my salvation is not satisfying longings. It must be something else.

It’s easier to attend to surface desires and far more difficult to discern the deeper longings.  I doubt those deeper longings are any harder to satisfy than the surface ones, but pinpointing what it is that could satisfy the deeper desires – that’s the trick.

So here I sit: me, a swirling mass of longing. That about describes it.

And which longing is at my core?  Which longing do I feel right now?  Is it the same longing I’ve felt for the last two months?  Or has it changed?  What is this?  And does it matter if I fulfill it?  Will I barely feel the satisfaction of fulfillment and simply move on to the next longing? Is it better to become friends with longing and let it exist in my heart as long as it chooses to stay?  When do I take action to fulfill a longing? Or could all my longings be fulfilled without me doing anything? Could developing satisfaction and contentment with the longing actually be the path to fulfillment?

Maybe.  I think I’m hungry…

No Resolutions by Michelle Cowan

I know that I haven't written anything in quite a while, and I'm not even sure when I will get back to it.  I make no promises—no resolutions.  This goes for booking gigs, too. 

This music business thing had me flying high for a few years and seemed to gain momentum, but keeping that momentum requires a lot of energy from me. Therefore, I've decided to form a band.  Soon, I will be coming out with a three-song release showcasing some great work over the last couple of years.  But I am also determined to record and release a full-length album with a band of my own within the next three years.  That's the next project on the horizon.

I hope to grace your ears soon with acoustic versions of new music, for yes, I still write music every day.  I just also happen to be in the middle of learning about contentment with a life that doesn't drive me absolutely crazy with too many commitments and too many projects.  As an artist, I am called to share something special with the world.  My contribution hasn't come to fruition yet, so please be patient as the multiple ships I've set sail come back into the harbor at their own time.

Basically, I'm forming a band because I need help, and I can't do this alone.  I can't not do music.  I can't stop performing. But nor can I create the music that's in my head on my own. 

More soon ~

Progress Sometimes Feels Like Going Nowhere – Part II – Tightrope Walking by Michelle Cowan

I am blatantly retelling a metaphor I heard in a meeting last week.  But I don't think the teller will mind…

Recovery is like walking a tightrope, but not in the way many people think of it—as tentatively taking one step after another, unsteady, unsure, risky, fearful, dangerous.

According to my friend's telling, when a person walks a tightrope, he isn't walking from one end to the other.  He's falling down from one end to the other.  As he crosses the expanse on his tightrope, the walker carries a long pole for balance. With each step, he falls a little to one side, shifting the bar to the other side to compensate.  Each step is a process of falling and recovery, of falling and recovery. 

My friend in the meeting suggested that each moment of recovery is where we meet God on the most honest level. We don't feel our need for a higher power until we really need one.  Without falling, we are never required to try anything new. We are never required to grow.  If we fall, we must do something differently in order to reach the other side of whatever expanse we are trying to cross.  Growth is rarely a matter of taking several steps in a straight line, even though to people who don't see the internal life of the tightrope walker, it may appear to be so. 

Another way to think of oneself living life and pursuing recovery is as a pendulum. We swing back and forth across a balanced middle. In the midst of our disease, we swung wildly, barely seeing that middle.  As we mature, we usually swing more slowly and don't necessary fly as wide away from the center as we used to.

But back to the tightrope.  Before we get much awareness of ourselves or of true recovery, we approach canyons and open expanses with trepidation. We take a deep breath and promise ourselves that we can make it across.  It's only a few steps.  We just have to keep our path straight.  When our assistants and friends come to us with a balancing pole, many of us shake our heads and claim we don't need it.  It will be too heavy, we insist. It would impair our progress. 

Then, no matter how strong we start out across that expanse, we each, inevitably, begin to fall.  Those of us who agreed to take the pole but have not yet learned how to use it throw it from our hands. Those who refuse it are out of luck from the get-go. We falling to one side.  What little we know about recovery is not enough to keep us on top of that rope.  The only thing we can do was grab onto that rope before we fall completely.

We cling to that rope, hanging on with our feet dangling.  We might try this for a long while, pretending we are some kind of hero in a spy movie, muscling our way across the canyon with our hands. But even the strongest among us can't move forward that way for too long. We have to stop at some point.  We stop and simply hang on.

That's what some of those plateaus I talked about in Part I of this post feel like.  We are merely hanging on.  Maybe someone gave us some techniques to use to recover, but we don't always know how to employ them all.  We aren't used to trusting a higher power.  We aren't used to doing things any other way than the way we've always done them.  We dangle from the rope and wait.  

At this point, some people let go.  Some people relapse.

Others of us are fortunate and brave.  Somehow, we take a rest and get back on top of the rope.  Usually, it's our higher power that manages this feat, but we must be willing.  This time, when someone hands us a balancing pole, we learn how to use it.  We watch other tightrope walkers and see how it works.  And it all eventually comes to together, sometimes after multiple turns under the rope.  We realize that we don't have to muscle through life anymore.  We just feel ourselves fall and move that pole. 

Did you read that?  We feel ourselves fall and move the pole.  This depiction of recovery explicitly states that we will not be urge or symptom free 100% of the time.  Recovery isn't about that.  Sometimes, the addictive thoughts go away.  Sometimes, they do not.  In either case, it usually takes time for them to leave us. 

Recovery is about how we react to those urges and thoughts.  It's about not going crazy or freaking out when they happen.  Even if we act on ED impulses, it is to our detriment to think it's the end of the world.  All we have to do is move the pole slightly.  It's a barely perceptible movement sometimes. We learn how to accomplish these slow, steady movements over time.  We learn how to not completely lose our minds (most of the time) and change one thing in our lives. We do one thing differently.  We discard something that used to work for us that no longer works. We find a new way to handle a situation.  We move that pole.

And we find the middle again.  We can walk forward. 

This is such a different image than the hero or the whirling dervish that picks herself up and does everything possible to stay in recovery. Sometimes, these wild attempts at changing our lives do more damage than good.  Maturity in recovery means we get a little more discernment—at least a lot of the time.  Or maybe it's simply that we start being able to see the difference between extreme and prudent action.  

Risk-taking is essential.  Tightrope walking is inherently a risk!  I'm not saying we live our lives in a boring way and always make "safe" decisions.  But we can make smart moves instead of panic and fear-driven ones.  Recovery helps us do that. 

I feel that recovery is helping me do that, even if I still find myself driven by fear no again.  At least I can see it now, and move that pole. 

Progress Sometimes Feels Like Going Nowhere – Part I - Plateaus of Progress by Michelle Cowan

For me, progress in recovery is a funny thing.  I've described it as a slow spiral upward, where sometimes you're lower and sometimes you're higher, but you are always higher than where you used to be—on average.

Another way I see it is as a series of terraces or plateaus on our way up a mountain.  We find the mountain when we first get into recovery. This is a huge step, and we find ourselves on plateau one.  It's all new, all cool, and all special.  Early in recovery, we may even jump up two or three plateaus.  It's an awesome ride!  It all feels new... until it feels old...

Eventually, we end up on a terrace or plateau where we chug around for a while, trying to figure something out or just hanging out, it seems.  Some people call it the three steps forward, two steps back syndrome—or the two steps forward, one step back syndrome, where we feel like we're sliding back down the hill. 

While we're stewing in this place of zero-progress, we may get glimpses of that next plateau, but we can't figure out how to get there or why we sometimes don't even want to get there. During this time, some of our symptoms may, in fact, get worse.  We may not notice it for a while, but eventually, the weirdly elementary things we are doing grab our attention.  We feel like idiots in recovery, like we're stuck.  And we often overlook areas of our life in which we are improving. 

These plateaus instigate such a mix of emotions.  We might be doing all the "right" things, but we seem to be going nowhere.  Or we go somewhere and then fall back—repeating the pattern a dozen times.  When you are on the plateau, remember that nothing is lost or wasted, that you are learning.  Because, eventually…

One day we look around and – WOW! – we're on the next plateau!  How did we even get here? 

What happened?  It's like we had an epiphany or are just now realizing that we don't want things we used to want or do things the way we used to do them.  It's exhilarating and validating in so many ways…

And it's usually followed by another slow churn on a plateau.  Borrrring.  We may take a couple more quick leaps up the mountain, but the plateau is inevitable.

I've come to realize that these sudden jumps are not so sudden.  We do a lot of work as we circle those plateaus.  We learn many things, we try new ways of behaving, we fail, we succeed.  We experiment.  We learn.  And eventually, all these disconnected attempts and mistakes and learnings come together.  We arrive at a new place.  It's that moment of connection that makes it feel like we graduated all of a sudden. 

Life is about accepting that plateau and TRUSTING it. I have to learn to trust myself and my higher power.  In the beginning, recovery is all about releasing the self and relying wholly on a higher power.  Later recovery is no less about HP, but for me, more time in program has also required me to regain trust in myself.  Regaining that trust has entailed some mishaps, but I have come through those a better person, even if it meant extra pounds or other consequences I might not have liked or that really might not have been the healthiest way to go.

Continuing in recovery means believing that my higher power truly enables me to be the person I was meant to be, not the person covered up and weighed down by addiction and eating compulsions.  Whereas in the beginning of recovery, I am taught that I can never trust myself, later in recovery, I must learn that I CAN.  This is a difficult mental shift, and one that some people don't manage to make.  For them, they repeat steps one through nine of the 12 steps over and over, or end up having to act out so that they can start back from step one—the familiar.

If I see recovery as an evolving thing, I get to acknowledge the progress I make over time.  I don't completely lose touch with the old way I made decisions or think I know everything, but I don't discount myself and all the things I have learned.

For me, the twelve steps and recovery are useless if they are nothing but a big cycle I go through again and again in the same way.  I think programs of recovery are designed to take us to somewhere new.  As humans, we are designed to grow.  My recovery reflects that.  For instance, I use all 12 steps, but not in the same way or at the same pace or even with the same kind of attention as I used to.  But of course, it can be difficult to remember that when I’m on the boring, no-movement plateau.

It's a tricky thing when we get to this point of learning to trust again.  When our eyes have been open for a while, and we start seeing the cracks in some of our old recovery ideas, it can be scary.  Is this meeting that I've gone to every week since I started really not for me anymore?  Is this person I looked up to really full of crap?  Is this coping mechanism that used to work for me not working anymore?  Is the way I do my reflections and inventories still effective?  Are the habits that once kept me sober now weighing me down and discouraging me?

We have to ask these questions, and when we do, there might be a few steps forward and back again.  It can feel like we are making no progress or like we are losing something.  It can feel like we aren't being as "good" as we used to be.  But we have to take a holistic look at our lives.  Is EVERYTHING really going downhill?  Or are we struggling in some areas more than we used to and EXCELLING in others?  Are we improving anywhere?  If all we see is backsliding, there might be a problem.  If we have not found healthy ways to fill in the spaces left by the recovery techniques we have left behind, we may need to check ourselves and talk with someone.  When we feel ourselves sliding downhill, it might simply be a signal that we need to try something new—change therapists, change meetings, change some of our habits or recovery methods, change SOMETHING. It doesn't have to be a crisis. 

In any case, I live for those days when I feel like I finally "get" something that I didn't get before.  I know that those breakthroughs are products of weeks and months and often years of work, but they feel like miracles.  And I think they are.  They are slow-working miracles with big payoffs.

Take a look at your life.  Are you on a plateau?  Can you see the next step?  Do you not know how you'll get to where you want to be?  Maybe you don't have to know. Maybe you are in just the right spot, learning just the right things, laying the groundwork for even greater things to come.  Not all of recovery feels the same.  That's because you are changing.  Let yourself change and let it be slow if it needs to be slow.

I'll discuss this weird feeling of, "Am I making progress when it feels like all I do is make mistakes?" in part two of this post. 

Unstuffing by Michelle Cowan

Why do we stuff our lives with so much?  What holes are we trying to fill? Or maybe I should ask why do I stuff my life with so much? 

It's a reaction to a feeling of scarcity I've carried with me for as long as I can remember. It's why I like to save things.  It's why I like to keep in touch with friends for years after our relationships stopped being very meaningful. I don't like to lose things. I mistakenly think that if I let something go, nothing will fill the void.

But something always fills the void.  Something always comes in and fills my life with newness when I let go of the old.  I have to be willing to release things or say no to them from the start.

Lately, too much has been swooping in, and I've been accepting far too much of it. I have to unpack my life.  Much like when I stuff my body with food, if I stuff my life with commitments and activities, I feel sick, tired, and sad.

At first, being incredibly busy feels great, especially when everything I'm doing are things I love. It's hard to say no when the opportunities are all so great. Nevertheless, too much of anything does not equal happiness.  Too much is usually, well, too much.

Why am I becoming more aware of this tendency to stuff?  Meditation. During meditation, I get an acute sense of what it feels like to exist without worry, to not have to do anything. In those moments, I know down deep that I will be okay, even if I achieve nothing or win nothing. Most of the time, I am not worry-free throughout my entire meditation, but in those pockets of serenity, I understand what it means to let go.

Only now, at age 30, am I can beginning to understand letting go at a deeper level.  I barely got to know it as a concrete thing in my 20s.  Before age 26, it was a mythical idea.  Now, I see the deeper necessity of letting go. 

After living on earth long enough (I guess 30 is long enough), we accumulate things and we start choosing what to save. People like me want to hold onto everything, to go back, to keep the old for the future. Everything seems equally meaningful. But in actuality, it's healthiest to release it all and to move forward afresh. It's also healthy to know when my life has hit capacity and to say no to new commitments and things at those times.

Today, I commit to choosing things for my calendar based on my values, not on my fear of not having or being or doing enough. I can make choices that align with what I want to be and what truly matters—not other people, not the world's standards, but instead, my values.

Will you clear you calendar with me?

In the Pocket by Michelle Cowan

Someone told me something interesting this week: If we don't know exactly why we are where we are and why we're doing what we're doing, we’re probably in the right place.

This flies in the face of what I've believed for years. I thought that a feeling of certainty meant I was on the right track, but I'm beginning to think I was wrong. 

I've been categorically unsuccessful at guiding myself to happiness and contentment for years, despite many methodical (and less than methodical) plans and schemes. I'm smart.  I'm a good problem solver.  I should be able to find the best path, right?

Not so much. In recovery, my work is not to uncover the right path. My job is to be fully present in this moment, to develop and nurture my connection with a higher power, to do a daily personal inventory, and to take the steps that my higher power lays out in front of me one after the other.

If I do those things, I often find myself in places that make little sense. But they are usually places that feel… somehow… okay. If I had made my own way, things would make sense.  I would know what happened and how I got there.  When I let go and let something greater than myself carve out my path, it's a bit disorienting. But it's so much richer than the security of being able to tie together all the pieces.

How much more delightful life is when it doesn't make sense!  Sense is boring.  Sense gives me security, but it's bland.

Interestingly, when I look back on those moments of disorientation, they make sense. They make a beautiful sense. That is comfort enough for me.

This past month has been one of looking inward and staying connected with HP (my higher power).  I've managed to integrate mindfulness into my daily habits better than ever before. 

I've noticed that I stop more frequently throughout my days, letting questions come up like, "Why am I doing this?  Is this what I should be doing? How do I feel right now?"  Time and time again, the answer is that I feel good in the moment.  I feel good.  I feel secure.  And that's all that matters. I move on, through the thoughts, just like I do during meditation.

I can feel confused and unsure but also good.  I can have no idea where I'm going or why I'm doing what I'm doing and still know I'm doing the right thing.

It has taken many years to get more familiar with this feeling.  I call it being "in the pocket." When I'm in flow and feel wholly safe and loved, I'm "in the pocket."  I live for that feeling.  It makes everything and everywhere safe.  I'm being carried through circumstances that make little sense to me, but I am on the path I'm supposed to be on. The only way to get off-track is to get out of touch with HP.

I might ask:  Why am I in this class?  Why am I taking this drive?  Why did I decide to walk outside?  Why am I calling this person?  Why am I choosing to sit and do nothing when I have 20 things I could be doing?  Why am I drawing this picture?  Why am I sitting down at the piano?

The answers don't matter.  What matters is that I really live those moments.  And if I do, I'll enjoy every piece of my life… and also move out of each piece at just the right time.

High Water by Michelle Cowan

It's stormy outside in Houston today. I was trying to get from a hair appointment to a frozen yogurt shop when I encountered a stretch of deep water.  I drive a tiny hatchback, and after seeing a Jeep and a Chevy Blazer struggle through the water, I knew I couldn't make it.  I stopped, threw on my reverse lights, and the person behind me backed up so that I could escape.  Immediately after that, I saw two or three cars just as small as mine try to make it through the water.  All three bailed out halfway through.  It was a near-disastrous mess.

As I watched a Nissan Versa chugging through water almost higher than its tires, I couldn't help but sympathize. Much of the time, I feel like a tiny car surrounded by water. I'm rolling farther and farther into the rising current, not knowing how deep it might get. Still, I roll forward, water splashing. The water is so impermanent but somehow also so powerful. Puddles that start small grow more quickly than I expect.

That's what my to-do list feels like sometimes. Maybe that's what my life feels like sometimes.  There's so much I want to do — an endless list of tasks that slowly rises up around me, sloshing up on my windows, slowing down my eager wheels.  I'm going through a music business coaching program right now, and ideas for what I need to do to grow my business and my brand are flowing. But my energy level doesn't flow at quite the same rate…

I don't have the energy to implement all these ideas.  It's not that I simply won't get to all of it now.  It's that I probably will never get to some of it.

That's where prioritization comes in.  Only prioritization can save me from the rising water.

I got quiet with myself today and decided on two things I could do this weekend. I can write this blog, and I can work on the paperwork to register my new songs with ASCAP. Two things.

This seemed brilliant.  But then I promptly sat down at the computer and chose to update the auto-responses to my contact forms and mailing list sign-ups instead. Sure, I accomplished something, but not what I set out to do.

I've decided that this is okay, and it simply means that I need to investigate what keeps me from doing the other two things on my list.

After some examination, the difference is in the perceived complexity of the tasks. Updating auto-responses involves more editing than writing (less pressure), and the dozen different auto-responses I need to edit are all short and fairly simple to update. The task as a whole is easily broken down into its component parts.

In contrast, I had done no work to break down the steps required to do my two higher-priority tasks. I knew I had to do a little more pre-work before I could tackle them.   

In reality, writing a blog entry is no big deal. I know how that goes:  I write it, leave it for a while, come back and edit it, post it, and then send out an email notice.  Pretty basic. I'm doing it now.  I'm clearly accomplishing at least the biggest part of that task: the writing.

The ASCAP publishing task, however, was more mysterious because it involved some research and many as yet undefined tasks.  I wasn't sure how long it would take me, so of course, I was avoiding it. I'm less familiar with publishing.  As a solution, I decided that I would work on it for a maximum of one hour.  I could set a timer.  One hour. 

With unclear tasks that I can't seem to start, this is a great strategy.  It's not that I have to finish the task.  I just need to work on it for a short while.

I believe in SARK's concept of the "micro movement."  Sometimes, full steps are too big.  We need to break them down to the micro-level.  I can get on the ASCAP website.  I can look at the tools.  I can fill out something, ANYTHING.  But I don't have to do it for more than an hour.  I can even limit my time to 20 minutes if I need to.  It's all about inventing ways to allow myself to start a task.  I clear the way instead of forcing myself to do it.

Now that I've given some actual thought to what I have to do instead of just writing line items on a to-do list without further thought, I feel like I can get these two tasks done.  I don't feel like a tiny car trying to muddle through high water anymore. I have choices.

Maybe some people learned these skills early in life.  Somehow, I missed them.  I have the "I must get everything done and get it done NOW" gene.  Part of recovery — and life — is about finding balance within that tendency.

If I ever feel this way again (which I can guarantee I will), I can do exactly what I did today: back up and go down a different street, a street with only an inch or two of water rather than a few feet. I back up, look at the tasks I have to do, and then I break it down into the smaller steps that can get me where I want to go.

Success! And no flooded engine.


Update: Between the time I wrote the first draft of this blog and when I published it, I completed my publishing tasks.  I'm totally done — for now.  There are a few more things I need to do to get set up, but this was a major step. It was so easy once I started getting into it.  I'm going to use the back-up and detour technique the next time I get stuck on a task I don't want to do.

Refuse to Choose Guilty Thoughts by Michelle Cowan

I have a lot of experience managing my thoughts.  I have learned that it is possible to encourage certain kinds of thoughts and discourage others. It's a matter of attention.  If guilt-ridden thoughts like, "I should be making more money," or, "I should be thinner," get my attention, my brain will try to use these thoughts to motivate me.  It seems to work, and my brain uses what it thinks works.

What my brain doesn't seem to realize is that these guilt-ridden thoughts cause other issues. The berating motivates me, but in the end, I feel worse about myself and want to rebel against those thoughts.

The same thing goes for food-related thoughts. Food has historically soothed me, so my mind brings up thoughts of food to comfort me in difficult times.  Little does my brain know that this is creating an unhealthy dependence on a single coping mechanism: food.

In the past, I thought I needed to pay attention to every thought I had, convinced that every thought had some nugget of truth or wisdom that I needed to learn from.  Even if the thought was clearly negative and hurtful, like, "Look what I've done by eating all this food.  My body is not as attractive as it was five months ago," I was convinced that I needed to mine these belittling thoughts for virtue.  The logic goes: Perhaps I need to hear how ugly I am to feel motivated to eat more carefully. The only way I will change how I behave with food is by feeling bad about what I've done in the past. 

It took many years to realize that not every thought has virtue—that I can choose to move past thoughts that are not helpful or supportive. What I have learned is that I do not miss out on life lessons by disregarding these thoughts. Instead, my brain learns to rephrase the thoughts so that they motivate and support me. "Look at my ugly body" can go away.  "How can I love my body?" will come up soon after.

My brain already knows both negative and positive ways to frame thoughts. By disregarding the negative, hurtful thoughts, I train my brain to offer up more supportive, kind thoughts. The positive thoughts are no less motivating than the negative ones.  In fact, positive thoughts provide more long-term motivation because they don't come with the self-sabotaging side effects of the negative thoughts.

I get to choose not to guilt myself into action.  A while ago, I challenged myself to see if I could lead a life I was proud of without guilt.  My family has historically been driven by guilt. My great-grandmother guilted my grandmother. My grandmother guilted my mother into action.  And my mother guilted me. None of them realized what they were doing.  Now, I tend to guilt myself.  Fortunately, I am aware of the pattern and can escape it.  I can live a brilliant life without guilt-based motivation. I hypothesize that if I move past guilt-based thoughts and only hold onto non-guilty thoughts, my brain will make more non-guilty thoughts. I will still achieve all the things I once believed I needed guilt to achieve. (This pattern of thinking is a project I work on daily.)

This isn't to say that I should ignore any thought that says something negative about me.  Mostly, I concentrate on moving past thoughts that tend to guilt me.  Thoughts like, "I have a very low tolerance for X person," or, "I tend to seek attention at the expense of others," don't send me on a guilt trip.  I can accept those observations and ask questions like, "What in me is irritated by X person?" or, "What do I like about attention?" Those thoughts are not the same as, "X person probably hates me," or, "I want too much attention."  Those thoughts judge me and the people around me.  They may hold some truths for me, but I don't need to pay attention to them.  If I move past the negative thoughts, positive thoughts with the same message will come through. I don't need to worry that I'm missing out on a major life lesson.  My brain knows how to rephrase its thoughts.  I just have to train it to pick more positive phrasings.

I'm excited to finally relax a little more. Guilt leads me to food, because food blocks out the guilty feelings. Without guilt, it's easier to make healthy choices based on factors outside of emotional avoidance.  We don't have to pay attention to negative thoughts, even if we think they might be helpful.  Our brains are smart.  They can rephrase.

Too many of us have taken the advice, "Take every thought captive," far too seriously.  It sounds like a smart thing to do at first, but in practice, it's a recipe for neuroses.  Sure, some people don't reflect on their lives or thoughts enough.  These people chronically turn to  distraction. Maybe they need practice in taking thoughts captive.  But many of us naturally reflect on our thoughts and try to analyze every thought that breaks into consciousness.  By trying to take every thought captive, we become captive to a myriad of overwhelming ideas and suggestions.  Even the chronic distracters out there may spend so little time considering their thoughts because they don’t realize that they can actively choose which ones to focus on.

Brain studies show that only a very small percentage of thoughts make it into consciousness.  That means that when we choose not to give time to a conscious thought, a dozen more wait to break through.  Of those thoughts, we can choose to give time to only the truly helpful ones.  Don't be afraid to ignore thoughts. I assure you, a bevy of other thoughts wait to take their place.

We may not choose all of our thoughts, but we can choose the ones we want to give time to. We can choose how long they stay in consciousness.  Some unhelpful thoughts may come up over and over and over, but by moving past them, you can train your brain to pick other thoughts.

It's tough.  Ask for support when you need it.  I'm only now to a point where I really understand what it means to choose my thoughts.  Meditation has helped, and I can't recommend it enough. Spending a few minutes actively choosing to let thoughts go has been immensely helpful, and I think I'm getting better at it. 

However you decide to train your brain, go for it, and refuse to run your life on guilt.