A tearing sensation snaked up the right side of my back as I yanked the handle of the rower toward my midsection, and I instantly knew: I was done…probably for a good long while. I released the chain with a snap and toppled stiffly from the seat to the floor, as the digital timer ticked down the final seconds of my workout.
Tears filled my eyes. One thought consumed my brain.
WHAT. THE. FUCK.
I’d just spent almost two months nursing a pulled hamstring, reluctantly ramping down my exercise routine to easy walks and modified yoga, with occasional light rowing and ultra-light lifting. Over a Christmas trip to Illinois, I pushed a little, and was elated to make it around the flat terrain of my childhood hometown in a slow jog, without incident. My patience was paying off!
And now, this. Something worse. A jacked-up back that basically rendered my entire body useless.
OK, universe! I surrender! I’m listening! What exactly are you trying to teach me?!?!
🗣 “You’re really gonna get fat and out of shape NOW!”
🗣 You should be getting up and doing something!
🗣 “Can you stand? Then you can walk!”
🗣 “Let’s go, lazy ass!”
The soundtrack in my head pushed me off the couch and out to the park, in spite of my injury. Stopping by the creek to watch the sun rise (and massage my aching side 😩), it occurred to me.
This might be a lesson in compassion.
I’ve reflected a lot on this topic since I got sober, and especially since I started studying counseling psychology in grad school. I’ve come to recognize a tough fact about myself: Compassion does not come easily for me.
I’ve never been particularly kind to myself or shown myself unconditional love, so naturally, my capacity for tenderness toward others leaves a lot to be desired.
Sadly, for a lot of humans, it takes an adverse event hitting close to home for us to step back and gain perspective. We don’t comprehend others’ pain until we feel it ourselves. And for a perpetually restless, lifelong athlete who’s as addicted to movement as she ever was to alcohol, there’s nothing like a (temporarily) broken body to force a shift in mindset.
I’ve spent four decades beating myself up, mentally and physically, because nothing I ever did felt like enough. From eating disorders to alcoholism to overexercising, combined with constant negative self-talk, I’ve abused myself in a never-ending effort to feel worthy. Caught up in that punishing cycle, I had no energy left for anything, or anyone, else.
In recovery, folks like to say that God keeps sending you the same message over and over until you listen, and well…here we go again! I’m preparing to enter a helping profession where I’ll have to be fully present for others every day (our second semester starts Tuesday! 🥳) My future as a therapist depends on the inner work I’m doing now.
It’s high time I learn to let go, back off, make peace, and just…BE NICE.
It’s hard to explain why I suck at the soft touch. It’s not that I’m a mean or angry person who lacks all empathy; underneath my stiff exterior, I’m a Highly Sensitive Person who feels things very — almost too — deeply. Hell, I get emotional when someone smiles at me on the street! And yet, I’ve always been prone to unforgiving perfectionist attitudes and a rigid brand of black-and-white thinking that doesn’t leave much space for grace.
Deep down, I’ve always believed that life is about choices, and each person is responsible for their own. If you don’t like your situation, it’s mostly you who’s to blame, and it’s definitely on you to change — no BS, no excuses. It’s like Yoda said:
Or, as I used to say in my one month as a youth pitching coach, as I hurled a fastball into the little strike-zone square they’d masking-taped to the wall: “Just do this!”
The reason I was skittish about sponsoring people in AA was the same reason I failed in that earlier vocation. I was a bad coach because I had trouble grasping any other mentality than the one that drove me — namely, you either give your all or you get nothing. You make your body do the thing, over and over until it’s perfect, and that’s that!
Of course, I was far from a perfect softball player, but instead of deconstructing my flaws in order to learn a lesson — like, maybe you’re not just “supposed” to be great at everything, and you’re actually a normal person who sometimes needs to reroute her patterns in order to improve — I simply slapped on my favorite label: Not Good Enough. And I moved on to other activities.
I never cut myself a break in anything I did, never accepted imperfection as par for the human course — and that, it turns out, has severely limited my growth.
That, and 20 years of substance abuse.
Lacking purpose and direction, and not really valuing my imperfect life, I made a lot of bad choices as an addict. The fallout was entirely my fault. The universe kept reminding me that my way wasn’t working, and I kept ignoring it, until I basically found myself at the edge of a cliff with two choices: keep on this path and plummet into oblivion, or pivot and start fresh on a new journey.
Prior to my “come to Jesus” moment, I remember being really mad at my dad because he asked me, after one of my more egregious alcoholic escapades, “Why can’t you just quit?” I thought it was an ignorant and heartless question! He just didn’t understand! …And lo and behold, since I did quit, this is exactly the no-nonsense mentality I’ve adopted.
I went completely cold turkey on July 7, 2019. Since then, I’ve collected as many recovery tools as I could, and I’ve done whatever it takes to stay the abstinence course. Nothing that’s happened over the past 30 months ever seemed like a legit excuse to backslide. Not COVID, not job loss, not grad school, not illness, not injury.
Given that experience, it’s difficult to get myself into the headspace where relapse is an option. I’ve seen others go that route and found it hard to understand their thought process. How can you just go, “This [insert issue or adversity here] sucks so bad that I need a drink!” and throw away all the progress you’ve made for some temporary, illusory relief?
At this point, I would not be able to forgive myself for picking up a drink. But that doesn’t mean drinking is an unforgivable offense. I didn’t write the book on recovery (and certainly not injury rehab! 🙄) There’s not just one way to throw a fastball. When a higher power sends messages, it doesn’t speak to every person in the same way.
There’s a universal language that I must learn if I’m really going to help others change their lives. This starts with the messages I send myself.
🗣 Perfection is an impossible standard.
🗣 Setbacks and failures are just a chance to hit “reset.”
🗣 You don’t need to perform to be worthy. You can just be.
🗣 Healing won’t happen if you keep beating your head against the same damn wall!
I might end up being a “tough love” kind of counselor, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the inner work for me, now, is to find a better balance between the two. Less tough, more love.
Today’s exercise in compassion: Getting my ass to the chiropractor. 🤕