by Dana Bowman
My family and I are in the mountains in Colorado Springs, sitting down to a picnic lunch. All around us is splendor -- big time, picture postcard splendor. Blue skies. Fluffy clouds. Mountain peaks that stretch up and up. Any moment Julie Andrews will twirl by, serenading us.
But I'm slumped at a corner of the table, staring at my feet.
My shoes look forlorn and ready for a bath. I lean in to investigate: yes, one shoelace is loose. Breathing deep, I start to work on the knot, while listening to my sons holler as they plan their next adventurous hike.
My husband has learned not to ask. He hands me a hotdog, light on the ketchup, and I grunt a thank you. I chew. I stare.
This little moment between me and my feet is a bit nutty, but I was told to do it, by a professional, because of my raging ego. And since not following instructions has gotten me in some trouble in the past, this time I shelved the ego and listened. And it's actually working.
I first learned about the power of the ego in my high school psychology class. Our teacher told us, "Ego is just you and the rest of the world. And all your ego wants is to rule over the rest of the world." He was also the football coach, and since our team was on a 12-year losing streak, he must have been well-acquainted with the challenges of ego.
I think we're all born with a gigantic ego strapped to our backs. As we grow and learn, that "I'm first" mentality hopefully develops into a more realistic sense of our place in the world.
But when you drink like I did for 20-something years, some of that learning and growing is stunted. Maybe that's why I feel sometimes like I'm stuck in high school, half-listening to my teacher lecture about ego, wondering if it's manicotti day at the cafeteria.
But I'm not a teenager; I'm an adult in recovery. And where better to learn about my ego than now, smushed together with two toddlers and a husband, in a cabin the size of a postcard, with a boatload of vacation expectations?
During our mountaintop lunch, I was broadsided by an incident that had occurred hours earlier, when my faulty directions almost got us lost. I just couldn't seem to forgive myself. At the same time, I also couldn't forgive my husband for having the nerve to point out my mistake.
There's the rub. The ego takes us to the mountaintop and shouts: I am first! And most important! Listen to me! All the time! And it's very possible I am always right!
Then it drags us down to the valley of despair: I am awful and horrible and really, really bad at directions! And I can't even tie my shoes properly.
My ego lands me in all kinds of mental and emotional messes. Sometimes it drags me in to useless arguments, like when I insist that my version of arranging the refrigerator is superior to my husband's. Sometimes it causes me to bulldoze over other people in casual conversations, because my point can trump theirs even before they have finished their sentences. My ego tells me nothing is enough: I deserve more money, a better house, different hair, smaller waistline, bigger shoe collection, etc.
But the most painful part about battling ego is the loneliness. Having to always be right can drive people away. It can make my husband become cold, my children petulant or, worse, very quiet. It builds walls.
I have a friend in recovery who calls his ego "Mikey." "Mikey wants what he wants, but I don't need to listen," he tells me, with a grin. "I just shut the jerk down." Instead, he says, he calls a friend, or goes to a meeting and makes coffee. In recovery, we learn to be of service; this helps remind us that we aren't the best, nor are we the worst. This is called humility.
Learning to manage your ego when you're in recovery from addiction is tricky. Because thinking about yourself isn't all bad. You can, and should, be chums with your ego. Without it, you wouldn't savor a challenge, or healthy competition, or realize that occasionally, you are pretty fabulous.
And, in recovery, you want to be well. So that means "working on yourself." It might sound like a lamely scripted breakup, but it's imperative. You are actually breaking up with alcohol. You learn about self-care, and there's a whole lot of thinking, talking, writing and swimming in yourself that goes with all that.
But at the same time, paradoxically, all this immersion in self might have been what landed you here in the first place.
"To be an addict, you often have to be very self involved," Olufemi Sharp, a licensed counselor from Kansas City who specializes in addiction, tells me. "This narcissism is going to manifest itself in many ways. The problem is being so completely absorbed with self that you can't focus at all on what's going on around you."
Once the drinking -- and all the chaos that came with it -- is removed, it can be hard to stop self-obsessing and become more balanced. "Balanced" is when your spouse asks you to turn left, instead of right, at an intersection and you don't immediately start considering divorce.
After I got sober, my ego loved to participate in self-loathing. Though it may not seem like it, self-hatred is just as self-aggrandizing as puffy self-importance. But for some of us, it's a natural response to having to deal with a messy past.
"As for the self-loathing, perhaps that is a part of the self, but perhaps also the regular or constant reminder by those hurt by the addiction, and their inability to forgive the recovering addict," says Derek Wittman, an outpatient therapist and substance counselor in Syracuse, New York.
So while we have legitimate regret and shame, this can sometimes lead to shame-overload. And there's no healing there. Owning the pain of your past is one thing; letting it own you is another.
Wittman adds, "There is an element of pride in both a sense of heightened self-importance and one of a portrayal of extreme self-loathing. Both demonstrate a lack of self-awareness. Self-awareness is key."
It is key -- but that doesn't mean it's enough. Look at me! my ego will screech. I am a horrible mother with bad hair! But at least I am aware of it! Sometimes a wrong turn on the road to self-awareness lands me right back in narcissism.
But all is not lost. When these thoughts start swirling, there are some practical tools to help. Staring at my feet was Sharp's suggestion. "Once those negative thoughts start coming, they take up quite a bit of momentum," she says. "You have to redirect it. I know it sounds quirky, but stop and just think about where your feet are. This shift will get you to slow down and reframe all that negativity." It's crucial that this is done immediately -- and whether or not I want to.
Being told to do things I don't want to do is very difficult for me. I think, Surely I deserve to chew on these lordly thoughts a bit before they go.
Also, it can be difficult to type while staring at your shoes. But it can be done.
In some cases, foot-staring is impossible or even dangerous. So Wittman offers another trail marker for recovery: taking a basic action. He encourages his clients -- "regardless of their experience in recovery and regardless of their drugs of choice" -- to take up hobbies or sports they used to enjoy. These activities can "stimulate positive memories of a time before we began to alter our brain chemistry," he says. "Hobbies and sports that people enjoy are generally positive experiences that enhance self-esteem."
Really? Surely it's not that simple when I am so complicated, I think. Yet when I reflect on the past months, I realize: I have become a knitter again. I run every morning again. I write almost every day (now less as a hobby, more as a necessity, like oxygen. Or chocolate.) I knit while my husband and I watch bad TV. I run at sunrise because it clears my head and helps me feel like my skin belongs on me. I click away at my laptop every stolen moment I can, and I feel at peace.
The best way to maintain this feeling of peace? "Mindfulness," says Sharp. "You must slow down... Then you can start to think of what you can do for others, and contribute to the flow of life."
When I feel like a walking hole of neediness and disrepair, it's hard to be helpful to others. The 12-step recovery model emphasizes helping people. I have heard the "service is key!" mantra so many times that my initial reaction is, No way. That's too hard and I really need to focus on my recovery right now. But that's when I get into trouble.
So here's what I do now: When my narcissistic tendencies start to climb out of me like the scary pale girl does from the well in that movie, The Ring, I grab my knitting needles and start casting on like crazy. In my mind I'm brandishing a pair of needles at her: Be gone! I'm making a sweater!
It's been suggested to me that taking my knitting needles everywhere I go is not such a good idea. They are long and sharp, after all. So instead, I pause and stare at my shoes. Then I think about buying a new pair of Adidas, or getting that hot pink pedicure, or making my children pick up their evil, pointy Legos. It's just another step on the path.
I know it sounds simple, but really, with my ego and all, that's about all I can handle. After all, I'm too smart for anything more complicated.
Dana Bowman is a freelance writer from a sweet, small town in the Midwest. She is the author of momsieblog.com mainly because her children generously donate loads of material. She feels that pretty much all parenting books can be improved through reading aloud paired with interpretive dance.