Free Spirit

I’ve been referred to as a “free spirit” by no less than ten people in my lifetime. The first time I heard it, I bristled. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I snarled. The first guy who made this observation was, by all accounts, a Grade A Douchebag, so I shrugged it off. He and I were on a consistent first-name basis / hook-up schedule, so I thought that maybe his comment was innocuous. Nevertheless, I had a hard time shrugging it off.

The second time I was accused of free spiritedness was at a bar, several thousand miles away from the first encounter, in front of a large group of people. My friends thought it would be funny to use it as a new nickname. Our bartender made the mistake of agreeing with them. I was offended. So I settled the score by hooking up with him that same night.

When I think “free spirit,” I think “slut.” This word has sparked the most acrimonious fights between me and nearly every male I’ve encountered sexually and/or romantically in the past decade–even some with men in my peripheral groups of friends. The slutty implications are worse for me than the trite words themselves. I can agree on one thing–I enjoyed freedom in my drunkenness much to my detriment, and my spirit carried me through some of the worst hookups on record. What I can’t agree on, though, is the false innocence of veiled insults. I sense that phrases like “free spirit” are passive euphemisms to describe women who behave in socially unacceptable ways.

When I drank, it fueled in me an unconscious desire for sex.  Very rarely did I admit to myself that I didn’t actually want to partake in the act itself, I just wanted to know I could get any guy I wanted. I admit that I behaved in a most irresponsible way. I didn’t always use protection. I rarely vetted or got to know the men I slept with; I took them on their word to be “good guys,” or people who “never do this.” I tried my best to want to be a liberated woman, yet I felt everything but free.

I have a complicated relationship with the word slut. I continue to try to reclaim it as something I chose to be. But that doesn’t cover the whole truth. Throughout the entire decade of my drinking, I tortured myself with my own promiscuity. As my tolerance for whiskey increased, my ability to disassociate with my behavior followed accordingly. When I lost my everything-but-virginity freshman year of college, I was terrified. I was 18, far away from my parents and my twin sister. I didn’t know anyone at school, considering I had only been there for two weeks. I wandered down the hall of my honors dorm room floor to the first open room I found. I asked the familiar-looking girl if I could talk to her for a minute. I had to tell someone, anyone. She was gracious in letting me sit there for an hour, spilling about the night I had. Through tears, I explained to her that I had just hooked up with someone and I was scared of how I had done it. I had no idea who he was or why I thought it would be a good idea to get as drunk as I did with someone whose name I couldn’t remember. She hugged me and assured me that everything would be ok. We became the best of friends. Months later, I sat through a lecture given by my feminist professor who examined the “Hook-Up Culture” of college campuses. She railed against derogatory words aimed at young women’s sexual choices, especially when alcohol was involved. I felt a little less alone and a little more validated.

I lost my virginity full-stop sophomore year. I was elated to be reunited with my twin at her college. I missed the comfort her presence brought me. I had decided the summer before my second year to transfer to her school without telling any of my friends, including and especially the sweet baby angel who protected me from myself. I was baffled by who I had become in college, someone I assumed no one wanted to be around. Once I got settled into my new school, my sister introduced me to a couple of her friends, knowing I needed to get into a social scene ASAP. I slept with the first guy I met. He was nice enough. I didn’t consider that I had embarrassed my twin. All I cared about was getting rid of my virginity–too much pressure.  The resulting years of college consisted of more humiliations than I care to remember. I slept with many men, some of whom cared about me. The only ones I was interested in were the men who acted just like I did when they drank–that is to say, sluts.

I knew my behavior was out of control. And I couldn’t stop myself. I once wrote with permanent marker on my pelvis, “stop.” Hours later, I got drunk enough to ignore even that. The guy I went home with saw it and laughed.

I lost my ability to choose when I drank the end of my sophomore year. After my father died that winter, I focused on my studies and time with my sister. I flirted with sobriety due to the grief I felt, but that didn’t last long. Two months into not drinking, I blacked out and sustained a drunken-dancing injury, tearing my ACL. The night I popped my knee, I walked through the snow to my dorm room in order to hook up with someone. I spent the next day tormented by my actions in the emergency room. When my doctor asked me if I had been drinking, I replied, “a little.” It took several months of recuperation and surgery to repair my knee. My spirit was not so lucky.

When I got my first job out of college, I thought that professionalism would repair my reputation. It didn’t. This time, instead of the occasional degrading comments on a college campus, I endured outright name-calling as an adult. I put myself in situations where I’d sleep with someone, then a few weeks or months later, I would sleep with their friends. Most of the time, I acted on false presumptions that the original guy I hooked up with didn’t like me and didn’t care. Whether I was right about that or not, I forged ahead. I constantly left people in my wake of self-destruction, hurt and confusion. I learned to disconnect myself from my behavior in order to look at myself in the mirror.

To be clear: my goal was rarely sexual satisfaction. Rather, I participated in sex to ease my compulsions. All I knew was that if I drank, I would be going home with someone. I was never a bad person, but I knew that my promiscuity did not reflect the person I was raised to be. I couldn’t stop hurting myself or other people. I had a hard time explaining this to my friends, though. They thought my sexcapades were funny, albeit sometimes a little risky. I couldn’t find the words to tell them that I desperately wanted to stop.

I’ve known lots of guys who sleep with women and men alike at the rate I did. It hurts me to know that they don’t have to walk around with the same label. While I am not proud of my behavior when I drank, I can’t help but think that words like “slut” or “whore” are there to shame women. I don’t remember the last time I heard someone call a guy a slut. In fact, the only time I’ve seen it was on the episode of The Office when Michael Scott calls Dwight an “ignorant slut.” That’s just about the only time I’ve laughed at the name, either.

The last person who called me a “free spirit” was the girl I tutored a couple of years ago. She was born the year I graduated from college, so I knew intellectually she had no information about my past. She was simply observing that I seemed like an unencumbered person. When she gifted me with a Little Mermaid Free Spirit sign, I winced at the pain those words still caused me. Despite her actual innocent gesture, my heart ached. It was at that point that I saw I didn’t need to identify with the girl I once was. My sobriety has given me the chance to be in a long-term, loving relationship that exists despite my past. I seek to forgive myself every day for who I once was. But I don’t know if I will ever be able to separate myself from the memories of how I used to behave. The good news is, I am not the only person who has a story like mine.

As for those of us who choose to sleep around or prefer not to be in monogamous relationships, that’s your right.

Be a slut–do whatever you want. As long as you are safe and free.

Photo by Pyper Wyn Davies

My Can-Do List

I teach a child–we will call him Aaron–who is too funny for his own good. He cuts up in class, but it’s hard for me to get mad at him because he’s so clever. He doesn’t show outright disrespect, he just talks A LOT. He also happens to have one of the highest grades in the class. He is funny to the point where I promised if he could get an ALOL–Actual Laugh Out Loud–I’d give him a bonus point. I leveled the playing field with the other kids by awarding them two bonus points each if they could correctly identify a David Bowie song on every test.

Last week, I told the sixth graders they could name the skeleton I use to teach them where different bones are in the body. They used the democratic method at an impressive pace to vote on the name “Sheldon Dipper.” Aaron led the charge, of course, because he approved of the class talking way too loudly for any extended period of time. After the vote, Aaron talked far less than usual for almost a week.

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His semi-silence didn’t last long, however. A couple of classes later, Aaron yammered incessantly. I asked him to move seats, to which he replied, “I can’t, Miss Lucy, that is not on my Can-Do List.” Setting aside the blatant insolence of this child, I burst out laughing. I made him write his quote down on the white board near Sheldon Dipper and took a picture of it. I would have given him a bonus point then and there, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. These kids are highly quotable, which makes it damn near impossible for me to remain stern.

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There is a lesson in this, naturally. On the same day the Can-Do List came into being, I had a 12th grade student reveal some disturbing details to me as I wrote notes on the board. While my back was turned, this student began making fun of his friend who was clearly hungover from a night of high-school drinking. He then tells the class of three students that he can rip “like five shots” before he gets too sick. I tried hard to keep my mouth shut. Now that I am an educator (or at least, on my way to being one), I have to set boundaries with the kids. I am openly sober, but it isn’t my place to Go Tell It on the Mountain with teenagers. This same student once told me that he had a problem with drugs and alcohol, “in the past”– that his way of dealing with childhood trauma has been to soldier through it with stoicism. All I said in return was that if and when you’ve had enough, you’ll know; there is help. I offered my support to him if he needed to talk about anything that was getting to him. And a split-second later, the only girl in this class walked up to me to say in hushed tones that she sometimes felt she couldn’t talk to her mom about her depression. I silently whispered, “Lawd Help Me.”

What I wrote on the board while this emotional shit show erupted was the different types of chemical reactions that exist in nature. As I finished writing about “combustion,” I explained to the group that chemistry is easier when you personify the elements. Like a person who pushes down too many emotional things, combustion occurs. Except when humans explode, the volatility can be much more destructive to life than any chemical meltdown.

I have to walk a tight rope with the older kids. I am old enough to know better than they do about life things, but young enough that they are still getting used to calling me “Miss” Lucy without it being awkward. Turns out, talking openly about my recovery is not on my Can-Do list. That has proven to be harder for me than I anticipated. My instinct is to swoop in to save these teenagers from unnecessary pain. In short, the clarity in my sobriety is a Catch-22: I can spot an addict a mile away, but it isn’t my place to diagnose anyone, no matter what their age or pathology.

The best I can do is be there for them. The only way I can do that is to be sober. And study. The last time I took biology or chemistry was the year these kids were born.

Lawd, help me.

 

Go On, Give A Little

It took the better part of a year for me to realize that though my own orbit is speckled with all kinds of cool people and things, the world does not, in fact, revolve around me. The trouble with being overly sensitive or too hell-bent on self-improvement is that I inadvertently become the center of my own universe, and for someone with a brain wired like mine, that can only mean trouble.

The most important lesson sobriety has taught me is that the only way I stay better emotionally and spiritually is by being there for someone else. This bit annoys me to a certain degree, considering that I am not a saint and there are many people who I feel do not deserve my unique blend of kindness and generosity. This may or may not make me a betch but I have had to learn not to over commit to people who aren’t really there for anyone other than themselves. That being said, exercising discipline by calling people I might not know that well or sitting with them for coffee to actually listen to how they are doing, has eroded my ego quite a bit. It is a lesson to me that I have such an ego problem in the first place, but once I saw my fears as the real ego-culprits, I felt much better about knowing my own character defects.

When I am helping someone work through an issue, I cannot possibly focus on my own problems. It is virtually impossible to do two things at once. Though I tend to carry on full-blown conversations with myself in my mind, nine times out of ten, a conversation with someone else is almost always more interesting because it is unpredictable. I practice listening, particularly when I do not want to because it is my way of learning selflessness while donning my best attentive face.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note here how my friends and relative strangers have been incredibly generous and thoughtful to me with their time and resources. I have gotten a premier education in selflessness through these people who I would be lucky enough to even attempt to emulate. For today, at least, I’ll give in and give it a try.

Photo courtesy of Alana Jones-Mann

Humor in the Divine

I used to recoil at the thought or suggestion of meditation. I never gave much credence to time spent alone because the idea of me spending more time with myself than was necessary felt unbearable. I did not see the freedom in stillness, nor did I believe I could ever find spirituality within myself. I spent my days and nights seeking meaning and happiness in the external–I relied solely on people, places and things to do my bidding for me in the world. I also secretly sought happiness in everything except following my intuition or believing in a power greater than myself.

Trust that still, small voice…have faith. You will find a way.

Diane Mariechild.

I do not know who Diane Mariechild is, but she has a really decent point. I realized tonight after speaking and meditating with other recovering alcoholics that the way I reconnect to my higher power and quiet intuition is through humor. I cannot digest such heaping doses of spirituality without laughing at the absurdity in taking myself or this life too seriously. The more sobriety I experience, the funnier things become. I have a friend who reminds me that the icy fortress that once encased my heart continues to melt through tears, and I believe even more so through humor. I feel happiest when I am around people who are intelligent and funny. In my experience, the more a person is willing to exercise rigorous honesty with themselves and the world, the more likely it is that they have a great sense of humor.

I practice meditation daily, spending anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes silent and still. Depending on my mental state, I am either completely distracted or perfectly content. When I first got sober, the thoughts and feelings that came up after 20 minutes of torturous silence were far too much for me to handle without self-given permission to relax a little. With the help of some friends who suggested I take it easy, I was able to back off from the impossible task of perfecting a lifelong practice. It turns out that spirituality has absolutely nothing to do with perfection. In fact, I believe perfection and spirituality are mutually exclusive.

My Golden Rule: If it is funny, it is probably true…and it gets funnier.

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Along Gratitudinal Lines

I will be the first to admit that riding the bus in LA brings out just about every negative or unsavory thought and emotion from deep within my psyche, where I have managed to keep them at bay for almost a year’s time. When I board the bus to find my seat, my senses are almost always immediately assaulted by one noxious odor after another. I have some real questions here, people…like why does it always smell like someone up and defecated in the middle of the isle? Is this the best place for you to pass gas, in confined corridors? Real questions.

Forgive me, my privilege is showing.

I’ve gotten on the right bus going the wrong direction; I’ve taken the bus on time and have gotten off three stops too early, having to walk a mile out of the way to my destination, and it’s only been a week. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I’d been terrified to expose my directional weaknesses to avoid the inevitable hiccups of public transportation. The truth is, I don’t have the money to spoil myself on Lyft rides, let alone car payments. I feel most challenged to pivot straight to gratitude when I am at the mercy of the public transportation system. I know myself well enough to know that when I am ungrateful, my brain starts overpowering my spirit, and that reminds me a great deal of how I justified my drinking in the first place.

One such night last week stood out to me where I needed gratitude to protect and defend my sanity. I watched myself pitch a major internal bitch fit, followed swiftly by a categorical Terrible-Two’s toddler-like meltdown. I had accidentally ridden 20 minutes in the wrong direction, which gave my brain permission to shift into self-pity that I couldn’t better my situation at that moment, not to mention disappointment in my attitude. This is where my sober brain took over to show me a split-second of reasonableness. I knew from experience what a cute couple acceptance and gratitude made. I have written at least one gratitude list a day for the better part of a year to practice for moments like these that threaten my serenity. I dried my tears, silently praying to my higher power to say “Thank you”. I continued, saying “Thank you for my health and safety. Thank you for this bus driver. Thank you for keeping me sober in this time of distress”. I witnessed the chemistry of my thoughts change. I realized after a solid 10-minutes of exercising gratitude, I felt MUCH better.

I have every reason in the world to be grateful. Everything happening in this span of 24 hours is just as temporary for me as it is for everyone else, even those who drive their very own cars. This is the time to wake up to the beauty that it is to be a 28-year-old female in the middle of Tinsel Town with the coolest people I have ever met as friends. Seeing my surroundings as they are, not as I would have them to be, makes the margin of ingratitude that much smaller. My gift as a human is to tune out all of the distractions–including my own thoughts and feelings–that fool me into thinking things are not exactly as they should be at this very moment. I once had a coworker/mentor tell me that when I got to be so dismissive of my own reality that I was “just trippin”. I laugh a little when I see how silly it is to get myself all whipped into a mental lather about how much I don’t have or how much I need to still do to be successful. I am exactly where I need to be. And so are you.

xx

 

Say Uncle

Friday, that’s what’s good. I started this morning unwittingly speaking to a group of recovering alcoholics about my process of surrender. This is my very favorite topic to discuss because in the past six months, external forces in my life have all but pistol-whipped me into a constant state of bowing (or Bowie-ing 👌) before the Powers that Be. Never before has it been so impossibly clear to me that my reactive state to things outside of my control will not work when the universe responds better to a calmer, non-reactor. I wrote about my tussle with Fate here.

My Crash
The Toyota crash that lives on in LA infamy

It makes me cringe when I think about where I was mentally six months ago. I woke up each morning sending intentions to Bowie for good measure, then immediately ruminating over my financial messiness. Almost as if The Force heard me and decided to laugh one day, I was involved in a major head-on collision that directly insured financial meltdown and general chaos. I will forever remember the feeling of absolute certainty that this was not how I go out–whether by death or by relapse. I don’t know how or why that thought came to me, but the second before I saw the truck barrel toward me, I felt myself release control and accept that I was not going to die and I did not have to drink over this. I fully cop to the possibility that I was undergoing shock, yet my intuition tells me that I was watching myself undergo a profound shift in perception. I saw my life exactly as it was in that moment, even if it was at point-blank range.

Without disclosing too many details, I will just say that I could no longer continue at my former job without an available vehicle. Cut-to: no job, no way to afford my apartment, out by the first week of February. At this juncture in my already-storied sobriety, I see that my instinct to suit up for an arm-wrestling tournament with the Universe is futile and self-defeating. With all of the courage and support from friends I can muster, I Say Uncle. You win, magnificent unicorn of a higher power. Today, my choice is to either feel sorry for myself or to stay open to being pleasantly surprised by life. I am but a passenger.