We, who are coping with an addict in our midst, are told to take care of ourselves. It seems so counter-intuitive. Aren’t we supposed to be taking care of our addicted family member? But slowly, attending meeting after meeting, we become convinced of the wisdom in focusing on ourselves and not on our addicts. We begin to embrace the idea of taking care of ourselves. Pretty soon we find ourselves asking others “Are you taking care of yourself?” “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” Unfortunately the answers frequently offer limp and somewhat vague explanations. Maybe we throw out an activity we recently participated in or a trip we are planning. We say things like, “I’m feeling better,” which in no way answers the question but tends to divert the topic. We confess that since becoming parents we haven’t spent much time ‘taking care of ourselves.’ We also confess that we don’t really know what it means to take care of ourselves. So I’m going to hit this topic head on. What the hell are we talking about?
What does it mean to take care of oneself? Is washing my hair taking care of myself? Is reading a mystery novel taking care of myself? Maybe buying a new pair of shoes is taking care of myself. Somehow these activities don’t ring true. I always wash my hair and I’m always reading a book. Buying a new pair of shoes might be fun for some people but for me it is a chore. Coping with addiction has not altered my day to day routine. I still go canoeing twice a year. I still go to my workout. I still travel and read books and knit sweaters. What it has altered is the level of pleasure I get from everything I do. Yes, everything. Pleasure where are you?
And so, I’ve been thinking about pleasure and what it means. How important is pleasure in our lives? How is pleasure defined? According to Merriam-Webster pleasure can be a state of gratification, a source of delight or joy, even a frivolous amusement. We qualify pleasure with words like ‘sheer,’ ‘simple,’ and ‘great.’ We use it to describe both physical and emotional experiences and we retain our memories of pleasure. We can revisit a pleasure just by thinking about it in the same way we can revisit other experiences in our lives. An absence of pleasure is a common complaint of persons in the early stages of recovery as well as in person who suffer from depression. I think a good analogy is losing one’s sense of taste. What happens when a person can no longer taste their food? Is pleasure essential to our well being? I believe it is.
I’ve decided to explore some of my pleasure memories; maybe they can kick start my pleasure zone. Because, let’s face it, that is what is missing. I can continue doing everything in my life but can I find joy? Can I get goosebumps? Can I laugh until my side aches? Can I delve into a book so deeply that I stay up all hours of the night reading it? Can I dance with abandon? Can I completely relax so that I feel like I am floating on air? Can I do something that makes my heart pound and my breath gasp? Can I close my eyes and feel warm and centered and content? Here are some physical pleasure memories I revisited.
I am in an old fashioned swimming pool, half asleep, drifting on a plastic float after a vigorous swim. This image stems from my childhood when I spent a good portion of my summers hanging out at my neighbor’s pool. I was always welcomed there and treated with kindness; something that was often lacking at home. I recall the feeling of the sun slowly drying my skin. I experience a delicious shiver with light goose bumps on my forearms. The warmth is intoxicating. My hands rest in the water. If I float to the edge, I gently push off the side with my feet. The motion of the water rocks me gently. My eyes are sometimes half opened, or else blissfully closed. I feel completely safe and content. Of course this floating didn’t take place until I was exhausted from jumping off the diving board, swimming under water, and playing Marco Polo. Perhaps that is why it was so utterly divine.
I have a memory of facing a friend, holding both her hands with both of my hands and twirling around in a circle. As we twirled, we would lean away from each other and throw our heads back, looking up at the sky. Our loose cotton dresses would cling to our legs. Our feet were bare. We would get completely dizzy and then fall on the grass in uncontrolled laughter. We’d try to stand up without success. We would look up into the trees and see the branches moving around in circles. We learned this pleasure from older kids. It made us feel giddy and high. Somehow we knew our parents would not approve. The sensation in our bellies similar to a roller coaster ride, the dizziness that made us unable to stand up and the knowledge that we were doing something we probably weren’t supposed to do was thrilling.
I once had a boyfriend who had a motorcycle. I loved the motorcycle far more than I loved him. Despite all the warnings, the danger, the disapproval, I would fling myself on that motorcycle with complete abandon. I remember the feeling of holding on to his waist and letting the air whip my hair in all directions. Rather than feeling afraid, I felt exhilarated. My life was completely in his hands. There was a sensation of motion as I leaned left or right in sync with his body. There was no conversation. I couldn’t see him or hear him. Our communication was entirely between our two bodies. It was such a physical pleasure that I think about it whenever I see a couple riding along on a motorcycle.
My husband and I took a vacation in the Czech Republic. It was a walking tour. Every day we walked 9 or 10 miles through the foothills and small towns. Naturally our feet would get hot and swollen. Fortunately there were ice cold streams almost everywhere we went. After hours or walking, we would sit by the stream and slip off our shoes and socks. We would slowly lower our feet into the water. It was like an electric shock that was both painful and soothing. Our feet would literally go numb. The sensation was indescribable. Whenever my feet are tired and hot, I long for the streams of the Czech Republic.
When I would work the night shift in the hospital, around 5 in the morning I would almost be sick with exhaustion. It literally made me nauseous. The replacement team would arrive at 7:00 and the hustle and bustle of changing shifts would revive me. But on the way home, the exhaustion would return. I would feel almost drugged. I would literally tear off my uniform and crawl into my bed. In the moments before I slept, there was a physical pleasure that is hard to describe. The realization that I could now succumb to my exhaustion was exquisite. I would actually fight sleep for a minute or two just to feel that feeling as I would surrender to my overwhelming need for sleep.
I have worked in the garden far too long. It’s hot and dry. My hair is matted from wearing a big hat. My arms and neck are bathed with a mixture of dried sweat, sunscreen and dirt. My lips feel cracked. I have yet to clean up the mess I have made; garden tools and trimmings still need to be put away or tossed in bins. I look around and think about what I accomplished and what I didn’t. Every bone in my body aches. I remove my shoes and socks and carefully walk into the kitchen trying to avoid shaking off clumps of dirt in the house. I open the refrigerator and get an ice cold drink (water, cola, tea, or beer) and tip toe back outside. I plop down into a chair on the deck, put my feet up, open my drink and and take a big swig. It is the best drink ever. It quenches a thirst I have been ignoring for hours. Part of me wants to pour it over my head but I know I need every drop. It is the reward for all my hard work. No drink is ever as satisfying or thirst quenching as the drink I have after hours of gardening.
So what do these physical memories have in common? I let go. I succumb. I’m on the brink of something: exhaustion, discomfort, thirst, defiance. I allow myself to completely surrender. I let go of all control. There is no hesitation, no second guessing, no what ifs, no fear. So, here is my pledge: I’m going to quit thinking about caring for myself. I’m going to turn on the music and listen to a song, a song I love, one that I know every word. I’m going to turn up the volume. I’m going to close my eyes and dance to that song. I’m going to let my body sway and my feet move and pretend I am the performer. I’m going to twirl around with my arms extended until I feel dizzy. I’m going to run up and down the stairs until I am completely out of breath just to feel the pleasure of gasping for breath. I’m going to swim again, swim until I am exhausted and then ease myself into a jacuzzi and close my eyes. I’m going to watch a movie that makes me laugh really hard and maybe one that makes me cry really hard. I’m not on a pleasure cruise, I’m on a pleasure hunt. It’s a start.