It always seems to come back to turtles.
I am not sure why, but when I close my eyes, breathe deeply, crank up the burnt sage and seek communion with Upper Management, I see turtles (sea turtles?) I wish I didn’t. But there they are, crinkled pointed beaks, sun soaked tails, glinted and tinted eyes, unfiled nails. A dodgy skin care program wrapped in iridescent plate armor and highlighted by a gait that is the laughing stock of the aquarium set. Oh Great Creator, why are there no noble timberland wolves, majestic bald eagles or tony stallions in my spiritual collage? I would even take a rat – it at least has the pedigree of having a whole Chinese New Year enshrined to it, and rats are venerated in some temples. Even a Vietnamese Potbelly Pig has its own innate charm and joie de vivre.
But a turtle?
I will stay open minded then. I will invite, seek and harbor ‘turtle-ness’ into my life. I will embrace the turtle – wrinkly, ragged body and all. The thing about the turtle is that for this alcoholic, it’s an apt zoological entity and representation for me thus far. The correct anthropomorphic avatar…a fit for my journey so far. Not exactly sexy, but I’ll take the George Burns of the not-so-wild kingdom over whatever the equivalents of Pauly Shore or Donald Trump are. I’ll split even on a Paul Lynde, though.
For years and years, before, during and after my active alcoholic days, I had very limited ability to feel my emotions and needs. Not to say I didn’t feel – of course I felt. Too much at times. Not at all other times. That is one of the reasons I drank – emotional stability, if you can call that. (More like sustained emotional insanity). This manifested in many ways, one of which is that I had very slow access to how and what was going on internally. Even a simple “What do you think of this color?” or “How do you feel about this movie?” question was painful to answer. I needed time to think these things through. I needed lots of time to process things. I didn’t have an answer. It was somewhere in me, but I was covered up and trampled on by my fears, anxieties and anger. I just didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. Sometimes it would literally take me days honestly to come up with an answer to those kinds of simple questions. Hare speed – this we are not talking about.
This sort of tortoise like tempo was torture to most people in my life, especially my wife. It’s difficult to engage someone when there isn’t anything to meet up against. I stood there most times, seized up, as someone would be trying anything and everything to illicit an response from me. I just didn’t know what to do or say. My inner life was so stitched up and sewn shut that a SWAT team of snails was about the only thing that could get there and do anything about it. I didn’t know what it was they wanted to hear, and I didn’t know what it was I wanted to say. It was in that middle ground where I got all muddled up. Safer to put my head in the shell and hope for the storm to pass over…let me get washed up on whatever shore was closest. And most often, shores had huts with booze. Giddy up, partner.
And retreat – well, that was (and still can be) classic me. Hide in the protective covering. Don’t let them see you vulnerable. Don’t let the see you…period. Sneaking away into myself was a defense mechanism, much like my emotional turtle-like prosopopoeia . It was my way out, via way in. Waaaaay in. But there was no real sanctuary in the hub of denial and distraction. There was no proper way of interacting when the currency of truth was forsaken and abandoned. Honest engagement is forfeited when one of the parties has put themself down for the count before even entering into the arena of discussion. And that was my modus operandi. Cover up and wait it out. Camouflage as a rock and let them bash upon you until they can’t stem their own bleeding any more. Crisis diverted. At least until the next time. And there was always a next time.
The problem with a shell of course is it’s weakness – the underbelly. Soft-ish. Permeable. You can crack that baby open like a pinata on Cinco De Mayo. And cracked open I got…often. It was usually of my own doing, actually. Drinking was a way of removing that shell, of cleaving my way out. It was only through the drink was I able to feel less vulnerable, less targeted, less fearful of my surroundings. I was able to feel things. I was able to engage in those kinds of conversations that allowed me to know what it was that was going on. But the window on that was short. Very short. But at least for a tiny amount of time, I actually had some opinions. And boy did I have opinions. And they were often the wrong type stated to the wrong people. I couldn’t find that happy medium of finding me and losing me. In and out of the shell. Chafing that already sandpaper like skin.
Another manifestation of my chelonian self is my still current way of getting to things. I don’t do change well. Or with fleet of foot. It’s not that I don’t enjoy change – I do, and I know it’s imperative that I continue to change, to well….change. I don’t want the old me showing up. I’ve had it with that clown. But I get to things when I get to them…and I find that it happens at a pace that is much more laggardly than I would want it. But there it is – what I “want”. What I “want” got me in lots of trouble. So, I have to think of what I need and how that will come about. I must allow things to unfold at the pace they need to. Not to say that I procrastinate and just hope that the world gets to me in due time. I have actions I need to maintain and affix myself to so that I have a clear program of movement (albeit slow) in place. I need to do things outside my comfort level, think and behave in ways somewhat foreign to me. And so I do them. But slowly. With measure. With full attachment to my core values and beliefs. With the Power of the Creator gently guiding me.
I understand that I am far from alone in the slow-to-change category. It’s perhaps part of the growth that we alcoholics (and addicts) need to break through to gain more freedom from self and to see things in a greater light. I certainly wasn’t quick to change when I was drinking – I had my rituals, my go-to bottles, my superstitions, my emotional benders, my grudge list, my stubborn and willful approach to life. I liked that set up and lined them up like shot glasses on a rail. So it’s old self that sometimes slows me down in the growth department. Fears tend to be the greatest thumbtacks-on-the-road-to-slow-the-tires-down offenders. Fear of change, or ironically enough, fear of not changing, gets me to an almost backwards crawl at times. But I persevere, I march on, I continue even when the pace is glacial. What I have to remember is that being unhurried or measured doesn’t mean listless or lazy. I have to make that delineation clear to myself.
I have accepted my turtle spiritual guide. I am not exactly snuggling with it, but it works for me right now. It reminds me that I no longer need to hide when I sense trouble. Trouble usually arises from within in so many forms, so I am able to approach things with a steady, purposeful stride. I have learned that my shell is now a fortification of my beliefs and my boundaries and my faith. I need not recede within the casing, but I also don’t give ground to the things that plan to sink me. And those things as well often come from my inner world. I have a shell that grows with me, that builds around my core, that helps shape and keep my form solid. I am no longer waiting to be seized upon. I do the seizing now.
In my just over two years of recovery I have realized that it’s not a race of sorts, this new life. I am where I need to be. I will come to things when the Creator deems me ready to come to them. Sometimes I need to hear something from somebody to snap me out of my old place or thinking. Sometimes it’s just about facing something head on and waking up to it. Sometimes I will have a thought just dawn on me, and I will slap myself up the head and say “Why did that take me so long to figure out, genius?” It’s just what it is. It’s where I am at – either in the sparkling water or muddy shoreline. It’s my milieu and I need to be defined and afforded internal malleability there.
It’s my inner turtle at work. Going with the tides, stomping in the sun, just being a turtle.