Posts Tagged ‘disappointment’

Last week, my boyfriend brought home a bottle of 10-year-old single-malt scotch. We keep alcohol in the house – wine, gin, beer, and Italian liqueurs – and so far it hasn’t been a problem. Scotch never appealed to me. But for some reason, this lone bottle had a different effect than all the others that have come and gone without issue (or relapse).

The night he brought it home, my boyfriend poured a meager amount into an ice-filled glass, and sipped at it leisurely. When I caught a whiff, it turned my stomach, and transported me. The smoky-oakiness of the scotch reminded me of my last night in Oaxaca about 10 years ago, a night when I drank far too much mezcal and ate nothing but the accompanying orange wedges and a handful of cayenne-fried crickets (yes, crickets). On the overnight bus ride back to Mexico City, I threw up into a bag of souvenirs I’d purchased from Oaxacan artisans, surrounded by what I’d imagine were several native Mexicans rolling their eyes: Dumb drunk gringa.

Like a lot of my darkest drinking moments, this happened while I was alone, or at least not surrounded by people I knew and who could hold me accountable. This is partially what allowed me to convince myself that I didn’t have a problem and to continue drinking for so many years.

A few days after my mental Mexican journey, my boyfriend left for the second-to-last of several work-related trips. He packed his things and got on yet another airplane, obviously leaving the nearly full bottle of scotch sitting on our kitchen counter.

Alone on the couch that night, I felt bored and lonely and in desperate need of distraction. I ate an unsatisfying meal purchased from the market and watched end-to-end episodes of Wallander, Project Runway, and Hannibal. Still, a feeling of dissatisfaction and emptiness persisted and I craved something to fill the void.

I was very aware of the bottle of scotch on the kitchen counter. Even though the smell and taste bordered on nauseating, I was acutely aware of the potential to be found in that bottle.

The concept of satisfaction has been on my mind lately. Having reread the new edition of Intuitive Eating, I was reminded of my own tendency to make consumption-related decisions in response to external stimuli. For example, eating foods I consider “good” as opposed to “bad,” eating at conventional mealtimes regardless of physical hunger, and the tendency to disregard my desire for certain foods in favor of what I “should” be eating.

In some ways, drinking alcohol was very satisfying to me. Without it, I recognize that I often feel deprived. What I choose to eat and drink is thereby often in response to this feeling of deprivation. Whereas I could make up for an unsatisfying meal by having an extra glass of wine in the past, that same unsatisfying meal now feels more troubling, and there is a greater sense of urgency to find something that satisfies me. I now have a tendency to purchase expensive indulgences like imported artichoke hearts, Marcona almonds, macadamia nuts, and fine dark chocolate in an attempt to substitute them for the missing indulgence (and satisfaction) of drinking.

If someone so much as suggests that I stop drinking coffee for some reason, I hear myself vehemently scoffing, I’ve given up enough! I’ve certainly emptied more breadbaskets and consumed more desserts since I stopped drinking, not to mimic the physiologic effects of alcohol’s sugar content but as a psychological substitute, a reward for teetotaling.

Some friends of mine gave up drinking for a year or more and now are able to drink moderately. I envy them but don’t dare try it for myself because I fear nothing has changed in my relationship with alcohol except for the choice not to drink it. While I miss drinking a glass of wine while cooking or having a cocktail with friends and family, I also miss drinking alone, on lonely, bored nights like the one I described above. I miss nursing my feelings of dejection, like wrapping myself in a warm blanket to ward off the cold. I miss the privacy of it and the indulgence of finishing a bottle of wine without any judgmental onlookers.

If I were to start drinking again, I’m fairly certain I would rely on external stimuli to determine how much I drank, for example, controlling the amount of alcohol I have in the house, something that becomes more difficult when you live with someone who can drink moderately and does not have to limit available quantities.

This is all to say that for all my thinking and writing about Buddhism, impermanence, and learning to become comfortable with discomfort, I still miss booze. It is true that if I sit with the discomfort and the desire, the moment eventually passes. But by no means have I meditated away my desire to drink. It is something I think about regularly and for good reason: by keeping it front of mind, by noticing the different drinking behaviors that distinguish my boyfriend’s healthy relationship with alcohol and my abusive one, perhaps I reduce the risk of being blind-sighted by a relapse.

I should say that I resisted the bottle of scotch that night and every night since. It’s still sitting there, the level dropping by a half-inch or so every couple of nights as my boyfriend enjoys it moderately. I, on the other hand, am still learning to sit with the knowledge that I’m different and the awareness that not drinking is one of the tradeoffs that comes as a result of being honest with myself.


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You’re sure
There’s a cure
And you have finally found it
You think
One drink
Will shrink you ’til you’re underground
And living down
But it’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
It’s not going to stop
‘Til you wise up

~from Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”

Before meditating the other day, I read the following from Chogyam Trungpa’s Ocean of Dharma entitled “The Truth of Suffering”:

We must work with our fears, frustrations, disappointments, and irritations, the painful aspects of life. People complain that Buddhism is an extremely gloomy religion because it emphasizes suffering and misery. Usually religions speak of beauty, song, ecstasy, bliss. But according to Buddha, we must begin by seeing the experience of life as it is. We must see the truth of suffering, the reality of dissatisfaction. We cannot ignore it and attempt to examine only the glorious, pleasurable aspects of life. If one searches for a promised land, a Treasure Island, then the search only leads to more pain. So all sects and schools of Buddhism agree that we must begin by facing the reality of our living situations. We cannot begin by dreaming.

Facing the reality of my living situation is something that has been on my mind a lot lately (possibly since birth). I tend to bristle at Pollyannas, am wary of always “looking on the bright side,” and have cautioned friends and family members not to blow sunshine up my *ss. I am drawn to examine life’s painful, messy, and uncomfortable aspects. Though some consider me a pessimist, I have always thought myself a realist.

I don’t mean to be a downer. The negative side of things just seems truer to me; putting a positive spin on everything smacks of delusion and denial. Like everyone else, I yearn to be happy but I struggle with what this means. What is happiness? Can one be happy and still acknowledge the difficulties in life, the sense of chronic ickiness, the presence of suffering, disaster, and death?

Recently I attended one of the Rubin Museum’s Happy Talks with Aimee Mann and Neil Labute, two artists and individuals I have admired and followed for years. Neither is known for his or her happiness per se: her lyrics are raw observations of conflict, disappointments, depression, and anxiety; his plays portray some of our least savory characteristics and personal struggles. At the talk, however, both reported they are generally happy.

This has me thinking that perhaps it is the acknowledgement of difficulty that allows happiness to exist. One cannot exist without the other, yet it is incredibly difficult to hold both the positive and the negative aspects of life in one’s mind simultaneously. By acknowledging the existence of life’s unsavory bits, however, perhaps we are freed up to enjoy the beauty, joy, and softness that is also present.

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When I was a ‘tween, I had a dear friend named Gwen. We were two oddballs. While other girls our age were boy crazy, Gwen and I were obsessed with the Broadway musical Cats. We knew all of the songs by heart, purred and arched our backs and strutted together, licked our paws.

When we were not quite old enough, Gwen and I watched The Breakfast Club. John Hughes at his finest. The princess, the athlete, the criminal, the brain, and the basket case: Five students with seemingly nothing in common spend a Saturday afternoon together in high school detention and learn they are more similar than they thought. Anyone who watched the movie could identify with one or more of the archetypes. Either they were one of the popular kids – the beautiful rich girl or the clean-cut jock – or they weren’t for one reason or another – too smart, too poor, too weird.

I was dazzled by Claire’s sense of style, her effortless beauty, the way she danced; intimidated by the arrogance of Andrew the athlete and John the criminal; cautious of Allison, the basket case. I identified most with Brian, the awkward bookworm who took academic failure far too seriously. In its oversimplified way, The Breakfast Club acknowledged the unwritten rules of high school society, what determined which social caste you fit into. After the film was over, however, we never saw what happened to the characters 20 years later.

Gwen and I stayed friends for about another year before she ended our friendship; her family moved away shortly thereafter and she attended a different school. Losing a friend in this way was not new to me. During the previous 2 years, I was (for lack of a better word) dumped by several other girlfriends. The friend who drifted away the moment we moved from our small elementary school to the larger middle school where through some secret ritual she emerged as one of the popular girls; the friend who called to inform me we were no longer best friends because that position was now occupied by her cooler cousin who’d recently moved into town; the friend who had a crush on the boy who in turn had a crush on me, thus ending our friendship, but not before she spread a rumor that I stuffed my bra; and the group of girls who called en masse to let me know I was being let go and that they collectively thought I needed “mental help.”

At the time, I was most troubled by the rejection and the loneliness. Like everything else, though, they passed and weren’t all bad as they definitely contributed to the introverted, sensitive, and thoughtful person I am today. What lingered, however – and what sometimes troubles me to this day – was never knowing what I had done, what made me so unilaterally intolerable to those I held closest. I suppose there are a number of explanations: maybe I was a jerk, maybe my friends were mean girls, or maybe I happened to be a repeat casualty of the fickle teenage years. Regardless of the cause, the result was the same.

Soon after my friends separated themselves from me, I began drinking to fit in with a different crowd. (This is not to blame anyone for my drinking; I could have picked up physics or community service, but I chose instead to drink.) And drinking became my way of coping, with uncertainty, with social anxiety, with loneliness. It worked…for a while.

Since I quit drinking nearly 5 years ago, one of my greatest challenges has been dealing with the same uncomfortable feelings without the buffer of alcohol. My meditation practice has offered me the opportunity to face these feelings without cutting myself off from them. Meditation encourages me to lean into the discomfort, to become curious about it, and to look at it squarely without rose-colored glasses or the stink eye.

Recently, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. In the days leading up to the reunion, I prepared myself for every possibility: who I might see, what feelings might arise, and how I could react. Walking in that night, I felt fairly grounded. What I was not prepared for, however, was seeing Gwen, who all but disappeared when she ended our friendship and who didn’t even graduate with us.

Seeing her brought back all of the uncertainty, the insecurity, and the unsettling feelings I tried to put to rest. But in that moment, I recognized what I was feeling, acknowledged it without reacting or repressing, and let it go. I moved past Gwen and into a room filled with other nervous, excited, and nostalgic people (most of whom had a drink in hand).

Surely I wasn’t the only one there with insecurities or unanswered questions, but most of us seemed to check those at the door. Conversations focused on what we were doing now: home, work, kids, families. Part of the beauty of a 20-year reunion is that you forget most of the reasons you were friends with one person but not another. What remains is the familiar outline of someone’s face – perhaps with a few extra lines or gray hairs – and the knowledge that we shared an experience a while back. As adults, most of us learned that kindness, compassion, and curiosity are more important than being one of the cool kids. One of my former classmates exclaimed, “I wish things were like this 20 years ago!”

Before I left the reunion, I spoke with an old friend and congratulated her on all the wonderful things she had achieved since we left high school. I still haven’t forgotten her response. She said that people never seem to miss a chance to remind you of your mistakes, but that every one of them was necessary and brought her to where she is now.

NOW being the operative word. I guess we could all say that.

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If you were an American girl growing up in the 70s and 80s, you probably read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Judy Blume’s quintessential coming of age story focuses on the sixth-grade Margaret, as she deals with boobs, bras, boys, and first periods. Because Margaret’s Christian mom and Jewish dad choose not to bring her up in a particular faith – instead offering her the option of finding her own way – Margaret becomes obsessed with her relationship with God, exploring the faith and religious beliefs of those around her and having a series of conversations with Him that begin, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.

As a girl, I also took my relationship with God very seriously. I prayed every night on the silver and blue crystal rosary given to me by my Nani. She told me it contained a drop of holy water that had been blessed by the Pope himself, and I kept the beads under my pillow.

After listening to a particular homily, I took care not to just ask for things in my prayers. Instead, I thanked God for what I had, for the health of my family, and to care for those less fortunate. I went to church every Sunday, was christened, attended CCD (Catholic religious education), received first communion, and was later confirmed.

I loved the fact that the church had an answer for everything. Back then, many of those answers rang true. Love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, blessed are the meek…To a confused and fearful 10-year-old, this kind of certainty was literally the answer to my prayers.

At the same time, I had some questions. Listening to the story of Adam and Eve, I’d narrow my eyes at the people in the nearby pews and wonder, Are any of you buying this? Even with my most strenuous willing suspension of disbelief, it was a hard pill to swallow. But I was willing to overlook it because of the security offered by such dogma.

More troubling to me was the concept of original sin. How could every person, from the time of his or her birth, already be guilty of some grave wrongdoing? And didn’t anyone find it suspicious that only the church (this church and no other) could offer redemption (and while we’re at it, eternal life)? The accuser becomes the savior? Here I learned that I was born bad and would spend my life striving to be better.

As I grew older and more aware, my misgivings with the church extended beyond the story of creation. Other doctrine grated on me and smacked more of a desire to control than to inspire the masses. Masturbation – bad. Sex before marriage – bad. Homosexuality – bad. For a bunch of old men who [allegedly] never had sex, they sure had a lot of opinions about it. And didn’t they realize that people – dare I say, even women – could think for themselves and make choices that were right for them?

Don’t even get my 10-year-old self started on the idea that not all dogs go to heaven! Maybe the church didn’t have the answers after all? At least not for me.

In my late teenage years I stopped going to church, stopped praying to God, and for many years wandered about without any spiritual path. I couldn’t practice the faith in which I was raised and everything else seemed like someone else’s religion.

My lack of spirituality left a palpable void and a direction was unclear. Plagued by life’s uncertainties, restlessness often gripped me and would not let go; I felt the need to be doing something else, to be somewhere else, even to be someone else. But what, where, and who?

One of the ways I dealt with this – and much of what I’ve written about here – was by drinking. It filled the hours and offered me a break from discomfort and fear. When I finally quit, the discomfort was still there but I managed for almost 3 years without medicating it.

Then, about a year ago, I decided to try meditating. I’ve described my initial experiences before and have shared some of the readings I found particularly poignant. Essentially, meditation offered me a way of existing in the world – the same me that felt terribly afraid and directionless – and remain somewhat stable.

At this point in my life, the wisdom I’ve gained from various Buddhist and meditation books – and from my teacher – just makes sense. It doesn’t prescribe who to be or how to live but to find out for myself by asking questions and trying out each teaching to see if it works in my life. Here is a small sampling:

On inherent goodness and ceasing the endless cycle of self-improvement from Susan Piver’s How Not To Be Afraid of Your Own Life:

Remember, we were born without fear and have a natural ability to love. Returning to our inborn fearless state requires unlearning certain things, not acquiring new skills. We don’t have to become daring where we’re risk-averse, calm when we’re anxious, or self-loving if we have self-doubt. Instead we can relax. We can learn how to be who we already are, honestly, unapologetically, and intelligently, embracing everything that’s wonderful about our life and everything that’s a mess.

On being in the moment from Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty:

In practicing meditation, we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is…’This very moment is the perfect teacher’ is really a most profound instruction. Just seeing what’s going on—that’s the teacher right there. We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom. It’s available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

On having compassion even when it’s supremely inconvenient, from Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You:

In the fifth stage [of practicing compassion], when we generate compassion for the difficult people in our lives, we get to see our prejudices and aversions even more clearly. It can feel completely unreasonable to make a compassionate wish for these irritating, belligerent people. To wish that those we dislike and fear would not suffer can feel like too big a leap. This is a good time to remember that when we harden our heart against anyone, we hurt ourselves. The fear habit, the anger habit, the self-pity habit—all are strengthened and empowered when we continue to buy into them. The most compassionate thing we can do is to interrupt these habits. Instead of always pulling back and putting up walls, we can do something unpredictable and make a compassionate aspiration.

On not fearing uncertainty, from Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

The warrior, fundamentally, is someone who is not afraid of space. The coward lives in constant terror of space. When the coward is alone in the forest and doesn’t hear a sound, he thinks there is a ghost lurking somewhere. In the silence he begins to bring up all kinds of monsters and demons in his mind. The coward is afraid of darkness because he can’t see anything. He is afraid of silence because he can’t hear anything. Cowardice is turning the unconditional into a situation of fear by inventing reference points, or conditions, of all kinds. But for the warrior, unconditionality does not have to be conditioned or limited. It does not have to be qualified as either positive or negative, but it can just be neutral—as it is.

At the end of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, while she’s only begun to figure things out for herself, our heroine receives a sign from God that basically she’s going to be OK.

Though I’m only beginning to learn about Buddhism, I too know I’m going to be OK. I haven’t yet made a formal commitment to this path – though I sense that is in my future – but what I’ve learned has already opened up my eyes (and heart) and helped me to begin again…and again.

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First Taste

[In an earlier version of this post, I shared that I had first tasted alcohol when I was given a small amount of SoCo while teething to rub on sore gums. However, in the words of so many politicians, I apparently misremembered the circumstances surrounding my first taste of alcohol. It was my sister who was given this medicinal SoCo and I who stuck a curious finger in that cap when no one was looking.]

There were probably tastes of wine at the dinner table, sips snuck at backyard picnics, and slugs of warm beer while helping mom “clean up” after a barbecue, but no specific drink stands out until the age of about 12.

Then I recall a first sense of fitting in that was strongly tied to alcohol. I was an awkward kid; I skipped a grade and was always last to join a circle of friends. Never quite right, I seemed simultaneously older than and younger than my peers. Once alcohol entered our “tween” social scene, though, I found my niche.

In friends’ basements, I drank beer that must have been supplied by older siblings. Early on, it was clear that drinking was something I excelled at. I could go beer for cheap-ass beer with the boys, which seemed to make up for a lot of the other ways in which I fell short. Soon I came to look forward to the parties and get-togethers where I knew there would be beer. Literally everyone was doing it and this continued without major incident throughout high school.

But the night before my high school graduation, I got really drunk on screwdrivers. My best friend, who was a year older and had already spent a year in college, was giving the party and one of his friends mixed the drinks, 50% vodka and 50% OJ.

The next morning, I was as hung over as I can remember ever being. Between trips to the bathroom to vomit and back to my bed to moan, I told my parents that I had eaten some bad jujubes (I continue to be a very, very bad liar).

Standing upright was the opposite of what my body needed to do, which, to be specific, was to lie perfectly still on the cold tile bathroom floor next to the toilet. Standing upright while wearing a cap and gown seemed impossible, especially since I had to face my mother, a teacher in my high school who was to personally hand me my diploma.

Standing in line to graduate, I threw up in my mouth. My body was in utter rebellion and I had nowhere to run. I swallowed, mounted the stage, received my diploma from my grimacing mother, and descended, breathtakingly ashamed.

That was my first taste of the dark side of alcohol, a full 16 years before I decided to stop drinking. A high price to pay to fit in.

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