A week after my husband, Bernie, and I were married—37 years ago—we moved to Washington, DC. We lived in a tiny apartment in a complex filled mostly with newcomers to the city. Angie lived in that complex. Every morning she left for work dressed in the uniform of Washington bureaucrats in the 80’s; a white blouse, blue blazer, blue, below-the-knee, straight skirt and the obligatory running shoes everyone wore for the mile walk to and from the metro before they changed into blue pumps at the office.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but for six months the partially conscious and partially unconscious narrative I believed about Angie—based on her work attire—was that she led a sad, stultifying life.
Then one evening we attended a wedding in a beautiful, downtown hotel ballroom. The groom was the son of an Egyptian diplomat stationed in DC, so many of the wedding rituals and traditions were part of Egyptian culture.
As guests were finishing dessert an exotic, belly dancer appeared balancing a silver candelabra on her head which held 12 blazing candles, all while her hips vibrated vigorously. The guests were mesmerized as she glided and gyrated past each table. An Egyptian at our table whispered, “she’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
When she got to within a few inches of Bernie and me she locked eyes with ours, smiled warmly and winked. In that moment we both recognized this exquisitely beautiful dancer as Angie, our downstairs neighbor. Was I ever wrong about Angie being just a boring bureaucrat. I had to create a new narrative in which Angie was a confident, captivating entertainer with extraordinary balance and miraculous- moving hips. She gave new meaning to the term “hipster.”
We sometimes describe Recovery Café’ communities as places where individuals who have suffered horrendous losses grieve those losses and create new narratives.
Who among us has not experienced loss and the need to create a new narrative from the ashes of our loss?
Some of us have experienced the loss of a friendship or a marriage. Some have experienced the loss of health or mobility. Some have experienced the loss of a loved one due to betrayal, illness or death. Others have experienced the loss of a job or a dream they held for themselves or their children.
Psychologist Martin Seligman talks about three mindsets that can become roadblocks that prevent our moving through life’s losses and creating new narratives. Incidentally, all three roadblocks begin with the letter P, so they are easy to remember. These three p’s can block our movement to spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. The three roadblocks are: pervasive, permanent and personal.
In countless creative ways the Recovery Café communities address these three mindsets, or roadblocks, and call forth new narratives in the lives of staff, members and volunteers.
The first roadblock is “pervasive.” It’s common for those of us who have suffered trauma, addiction or other mental health challenges to allow those experiences to define our entire being. We can lose touch with our true identity—which is so much deeper and so much greater than our trauma or illness or the symptoms and behaviors that emerge from our trauma or illness.
Only a community committed to seeing and nurturing our deepest, truest selves can set us free from the mindset that our illness is pervasive; that our illness is all there is to us; or that our illness is us.
John’s mom used to put alcohol in his bottle when he was a baby to make him sleep. When he was 9 years old—while helping his Dad repair the washing machine—his Dad was electrocuted and dropped dead right in front of him.
John used alcohol to numb the pain of that trauma and the many traumas that followed. Finally he decided to end his life. As he was about to jump off Seattle’s Aurora Bridge he heard a voice that said, “Don’t jump.” He looked around but didn’t see anyone. John recalled, “it stopped me long enough to realize I didn’t really want to die; I just didn’t know how to live.”
When he arrived at Recovery Café, in his mind his depression, PTSD and alcoholism defined him. It was all he could see about himself. After a time of showing up for his weekly recovery circle, and being immersed in our community, he began to realize how much he had to give others. He began to catch a glimpse of his truest self. He shared, “I used to think I had zero worth, but my Recovery Café community saw differently.” Now John is an instrument of love and healing in the lives of so many others. He once told me, “I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s in the world.” John, with the support of Recovery Café, created a new narrative.
Another roadblock, which we seek to address in our Recovery Café communities, is the mindset of “permanence.”
This is the mindset that tells us that there is no way out of the pit we are in; that this pit is permanent. One of the symptoms of depression and other mental health challenges is a loss of perspective; an inability to imagine ourselves in a healthier place; a loss of any capacity for hope.
Restoring capacity for hope is the critical beginning of the journey toward healing. It is one of the things Recovery Café communities “do” best.
In a Seattle Recovery Café members’ survey, 94% reported that being part of Recovery Café’s community restored their capacity to hope. All the Recovery Cafés in the Recovery Café Network are committed to generating hope.
Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School and author of Anatomy of Hope, writes that: “Hope is as vital to our lives as the very oxygen we breathe.”
The third roadblock to spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being is the mindset that we are personally to blame for everything that has happened to us. So the third P word is “personal.” I am not saying we should not take personal responsibility for our choices. Making amends for past wrongs and repairing the damage of past mistakes is essential to healthy communities.
But we are not personally to blame for everything that has happened to us.
Nine out of ten of the individuals Seattle’s Recovery Café serves have experienced early trauma. Many have experienced one trauma after another. Many view these traumas through the lens of shame. Shame doesn’t tell us we are good persons who sometimes make mistakes and sometimes experience trauma and loss. Shame tells us we are bad persons; our lives are mistakes and that we are personally responsible for and deserving of whatever terrible things have happened to us.
It takes loving, intentional, highly sensitized communities—like the Recovery Café communities—to transform the trauma of deeply internalized and deeply ingrained shame.
It also takes a larger society willing to look at our conscious and unconscious narratives and how those narratives have shaped systems and structures that perpetuate shame, be they private, governmental or religious.
In short, we need to create new narratives. Narratives in which all lives are valued equally; narratives in which the suffering of some is the concern of all; narratives in which we acknowledge that we cannot become who we were created to become while some have no possibility of becoming who they were created to become; narratives in which we claim and live the oneness of the human family.
Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Which brings me to three more P words. These three P words are not roadblocks but are gateways to spiritual, emotional and psychological well being. The first gateway P word is proximity.
If we are to transform the unjust systems in our world we need proximity to those suffering under unjust systems; we must get close enough to the suffering to be transformed by the suffering. We must develop authentic relationships that cross racial, socioeconomic, and other barriers. Real relationships are what change us and then motivate us to change the world.
The second P word which is a gateway to spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being is purpose.
Recovery Café was founded on the belief that what gives life meaning is discovering and living both our general purpose and our specific purpose.
Our general purpose, the one for which all humans were created, is to manifest love to every life that is touched by ours.
Our specific purpose is that particular place and those particular people with whom we feel drawn to put our weight down and to offer our gifts. Our specific purpose is the particular place we invest our lives for the sake of others; the particular way we invest in a purpose greater than ourselves
That’s why one of our membership requirements at Recovery Café is that every person must be a contributor in our larger community by helping to run the Cafe and by participating in the healing of others in the community.
Which is closely related to the final P word that is a gateway to spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. The word is, paradox.
There is a paradox at the heart of meaningful lives and healing communities. The paradox is that it is in giving our lives away that we, in fact, find life; that it is in offering our lives for the sake of others—for the sake of our broken world—that we, ourselves, become whole.
With love and gratitude for each of you who are offering your lives for the sake of our broken world.