Authors: Ashley Judd
So that night, after reading my work for the first time, I began to apply the solutions suggested. Lying in bed with the old, familiar crushing pain and loneliness, I realized that the principles I had heard in Granny P’s lectures could be applied to my feelings. I reached for the strange new words. Wheels turning, I thought,
I am very powerless right now. I am powerless over this old pain, what others have done and left undone. I am powerless over the fact that the only way out of this old grief is through, and that only I can take this journey. No one can do it for me. And yes, right now, my life is indeed unmanageable by me!
And I remembered what I had heard emphasized: Being powerless is an act of surrender, but it does not mean helplessness. I had choices. So I chose to move on, to open my mind to the idea of a Power greater than myself, who could do for me what I clearly could not do for myself: restore me to wholeness, sound thinking, sanity. For had I not been strangely insane? I contemplated my God concept: loving, nurturing, gracious, and accepting, a whole, perfect, infallible, eternal parent. Next, I found myself at the turning point. What was it going to be? Keep doing what I had been doing, keep getting what I had gotten? Or try something different? Was I finally in enough pain that the risk of changing, using these strange new tools, hurt less than the pain of staying the same?
And then I made the decision. I decided to abandon myself to the care and protection of this Power, as I understood it that nanosecond. I turned my will (my thoughts) and my life (my actions) over to the care of my Higher Power.
To my astonishment and eternal gratitude, relief was instantaneous. The anxiety vanished. The pain lifted. I could breathe, but I almost held it in this strange new space of calm and placidity. I felt like looking around in the dark, to see what had changed. But the peace seemed secure. It lasted a minute, then another, and another after that. I became comfortable in bed. I relaxed. And blessedly, I dozed.
About twenty minutes later, the big feelings began to creep back in, the emotional disturbance returned. I remembered that honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness was all that was asked of me, so I repeated the three steps I had taken earlier. Amazingly, it worked again. And it kept working: that night, and every day since.
I continued to work on my autobiography and inventories, and as I wrote out each year of my life, I relived the emptiness of my past. I thought once more about leaving treatment when that periodic pain in my physical heart recurred while writing about that pivotal seventh year when the childhood depression began. But by the grace of God, I stuck with it. It wasn’t easy, though. Even the pastor with whom I did one-on-one spiritual counseling once a week asked if I needed to be on meds (I did treatment medication-free). That hurt. Everything hurt.
Being put on “no talk” hurt, too. On Thursdays after lunch, we clients queued nervously as we were admitted, one by one, into the treatment team staff room, where they had collaborated on our new round of assignments. One week, mine was “no talk.” I have never been more ashamed in my life. I was sure I was being told not to speak because, just as the kindergarten teacher had said, I “talked too much.” I was sure they needed me to shut up because my needs and wants were just too much, because I was a burden … all the things I had felt growing up. Although I was told the assignment was to help a person go deep within, feel all the feelings—sometimes for the first time—in this safe place where one could do that, I didn’t hear that. I heard the old messages from long, long ago. But I persevered, and I did good work. I was miserable, but I took the action, and I found myself benefiting from it. I had to let go on a very, very deep level, and I began to see how much conversation is unnecessary, how much it can be used to chat feelings away, sidestep uncomfortable emotions, attempt to control, avoid focusing on oneself, and so on.
After “no talk” ended, I was partnered with a three-hundred-plus-pound compulsive overeater, and she was designated as the leader of our duo. I walked out of the staff room impressed by their insight. I grasped they were giving me a vital chance to truly break my denial (which stands for “don’t even know I am lying”), to accept eating disorders as a lethal disease when untreated, and to make some major facts about my family and the legacy of addiction crystal-clear. Oh yeah, and I also got, loud and clear, that they were still working with me on my tendency to lead and asking me to experience what it felt like to step back, not be in charge, not use the old will to survive and hang on for dear life.
I became known for giving excellent feedback during those portions of our groups. I listened keenly and watched transfixed by all that happened. I reached to see connections, patterns that I could apply both to others and myself. I liked waiting until the end, hearing everyone else’s remarks first, then working on assimilating, synthesizing.
Although I worked hard and participated fully, I was hardly a model patient. I tried, as all patients do at different times and in different ways, to control my experience and defy the rules I didn’t like. I came to despise Irma, now one of my favorite people at Shades, whom I greet so joyfully each time I return to visit (which I do at least twice a year). She was the tech who mostly did the night room inspections, and I blamed her mightily for my chronic sleep disruption. I resented the excessively early mornings and approached them with a hard-done-by attitude. I wrote Irma up repeatedly for talking too loudly, hollering from one room to the next, which I found rude and disruptive. While allegedly working on a resentment-forgiveness meditation practice, I more than once snuck in forbidden naps. There was also the high-stakes “Affair of the Teabag.” Each meal, clients are provided one hot beverage, either decaf coffee or herbal tea. I had selected coffee, but when Trey, that hard-nosed tech at Shades and unfortunately (I thought) the spouse of my case manager, happened to look away just as I passed the teabags, my hand reached out, grabbed one, and stuffed it in my pocket. I sat down with a smirk on my face, ate my meal, drank my decaf coffee, and returned my dishes to the kitchen. I walked away, a lift in my step. I didn’t have a mug. I didn’t have access to hot water.
But by God, I had a teabag
I continued to think about my precious contraband. And before I knew it, during a long quiet spell during a Twelve Step meeting I attended but did not qualify for, and thus at which I did not share, I said I had something on my mind and asked if I might share. The group conscience voted yes, and I proceeded to tell my teabag story.
The most wonderful, remarkable thing happened. Hearing it out loud, I was struck by the absurdity of my actions and rationalizing, and I began to laugh. Others laughed, too—with me, not at me—and before I knew it, I was crying, I was laughing so hard. It was the first time I had laughed in treatment, the first time I’d had fun. Something inside me was beginning to change. My peers told me they could see it!
I had another breakthrough: After photocopying my work for my case manager, I snuck in a fax to my housekeeper, asking her to send me more Varsity fountain pens, for I was almost out and mailing a note would take too long, because, dang it, I want what I want, when I want it. I finished my fax with a postscript: “Do not fax me back. I am not supposed to be using this machine.” I did not know the fax was set to provide a miniature copy as confirmation of a successful transmission until Kristen, my case manager, simply handed me the paper trail.
It was a turning point in my time at Shades, for I began to see what they were doing and how they worked. I was so afraid I was going to be in superscary trouble, maybe secret double probation, when Kristen showed it to me, but all she did was lay it on the table where I worked on the porch and walk away. I began to realize she was simply reflecting my actions back to me. I realized she had been so simple, so direct; she had not shamed me. Thus began a rapid evaluation with a new perspective: No one had ever shamed me at Shades. When I had felt shame, it was the core shame that had been inside of me when I walked in the door. I began to accept that I had been so ashamed of my shame, I could never name “shame” as what I felt during a feelings check. I also saw that the treatment team was both encouraging and leaving me to a process, a journey, that only I could undertake, in a place where it was finally safe to do so. It made perfect sense to me when Tennie later said, “Ashley, you know what we are really treating at Shades, don’t you? The big ‘C.’ ” I was about to guess, “Codependency?” when she said, “Control.” Shades of Hope took everything out of my control: what time I went to sleep, when I woke up, what I ate and how much (including slices of lemon and the temperature of my water), my access to the phone, and when, who, and how many calls I made. There was no computer, no music, and no TV, and my self-soothing routines and practices, both nurturing and harmful, were taken away. I sat there, literally, for forty-two days, everything out of my control, so I could feel the emotions I had worked so very, very hard all my life to avoid and, if that wasn’t possible, control. It was the greatest gift anyone ever gave me, and in spite of the considerable agony I was in for much of it, I would do it again in a heartbeat. The rewards are worth it. I used to say that the way I now sleep like a baby every night of my life, made it worth the price of admission. But the gifts and promises of recovery are so rich in my life, the abundance and joy so great, that wonderful sleep is but a minor chord in a great symphony of healing and joy.
In the months before I ended up at Shades of Hope, my thinking about my service work was alarming. Each morning as I woke up, a single anguished thought would rush into my awareness: 28,000 children will starve to death today. I forced myself to trace the trajectory of their deaths, from hunger to malnutrition to stunted growth to the body cannibalizing itself to wasting of flesh and organs to expiring, knowing it is a long, slow, painful deterioration. I would think about a mother, if she were still alive, witnessing the decay of her child, helpless to stop it. Times 28,000. I would think about the Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph, “The Vulture,” of a hunkered child, teetering mere breaths before she will topple over and die, a vulture patiently waiting for her carcass. I would think about how the photographer, haunted, would later commit suicide. I would panic. I would think: I have to sell the farm. I have to move to a refugee camp. I have to give up my whole life as I have known it to be useful to any degree, to take responsibility for the lives of those 28,000 children. They died yesterday. More will die tomorrow. This was all before my feet had hit the floor. Ultimately, I mobilized myself with excoriating thoughts about my own pointless ineffectuality. I would rage at myself to create some kick-start in my brain chemistry that would allow me to get out of bed and drag myself through another morning. I was hitting bottom, and I had no idea. I just thought I cared a lot about the world.
At Shades, we were able to talk about the incredible all-or-nothing, black-or-white nature of my distorted thinking, the abject lack of moderation. The counselors and my peers helped me believe I actually can care—deeply, passionately—and that there is only so much I can do, and even that, in spite of good intentions and energetic motivation, I will do it imperfectly. They constantly admonished me to seek God’s will for my life, not my own, even if my own will is that today, 28,00 children will not die of starvation. They asked me to see myself as a small cog in a great whole, or, less poetically but no less helpfully, as in a Hula-Hoop. I can only control what is inside my Hula-Hoop, and having obsessive thoughts about great forces and processes outside my Hula-Hoop actually render me useless within the only domain in which I do have the chance to be effective. They also challenged me about my alleged belief that when I change myself, I change the world, that when I take responsibility for myself and my healing, I am effecting ineffable change on a spiritual level that I may not be able to see, but is no less real.
A woman came in for treatment while I was there who had been, among other things, an injecting drug user, and in her circle of addicts, it was common for both men and women to trade sex for drugs. Now clean and sober, as well as abstinent from her eating disorder, her thoughts turned to how her high-risk behavior had possibly exposed her to HIV. During group, I was asked about my international service work, and I was momentarily lost. I had not, apart from the conversations about my all-or-nothing thinking, which had been very inwardly focused examinations of the innermost workings of my psyche, thought about the work itself. I was cautious, as I did not want to inadvertently abandon my treatment process, and mentally “go away,” or let my focus stray back to the outside world, which I would be rejoining soon enough. I had come to believe that in many ways, Shades of Hope represented the real world: A place where the truth is told, the Self is sacred, and I wanted to absorb as much of this great reality as I could, ensconce myself in it so that I could have it firmly embedded in my consciousness before I went back to the distractions, the hyper marketplace, the love song codependency, damaging belief systems that can make up daily life in America. So I haltingly began talking a little about some of my work, especially, obviously, HIV prevention. Perhaps it was the first moment that I was able to bring my recovery and new personal skills to the domain of service work. I shared my experience, insights, and hope around HIV testing, how to handle results (positive or negative), healthy behavior change, and carrying the message to other vulnerable people. The woman listened gratefully, fearfully, and cried when she asked me to go with her while she was tested. I did. She cried again when she was given her results, which she had asked to hear in group. She was negative.