Monday, August 20, 2012

The Relationship Elephant

On Saturday I went to the Greater New Orleans Roundup, which is a big AA/Al-Anon convention, which means that over a hundred alcoholics and enablers assemble in a hotel for the weekend and somehow don't burn the place down. Anyway, I didn't stay for the whole thing, or most of it, as I'd intended. Just the Al-Anon speaker, and the Relationships in Recovery workshop afterwards.

I'd had my doubts about anything called a relationship workshop. For one, I'm not in a relationship so there's nothing to work on, and two, the whole thing would be an hour and a half reminder that I'm not in a relationship. But, I thought, my last relaitonship while I was in recovery was not exactly healthy, so maybe this will lay ground work for the next one. And maybe I'll meet someone hot.

But when the speaker started off by holding up a stuffed elephant and throwing a black veil over it's head, I was inclined to leave.
"This is a little boy who starts off with all of these hopes and dreams," she said, lifting up an adorable stuffed elephant, whose plush arms were open wide and little button black eyes looked sweetly out to us. Then she took a black, lace scarf out of the bag at her feet and shrouded him with it. "And this is addiction."

I thought, "I am 36 years old, sitting in a room with a trained professional who is waving a shrouded stuffed animal in front of me."

She took a couple of steps back to a chair and laid the elephant on the seat. Then she began to walk around it in circles.

"And now friends and family are all focused on the addict, trying to help him, trying to figure out what to do and everyone is becoming crazy, or leaving. But all he can see is the addiction. It has clouded everything."

Then I wanted to leave because it was uncomfortably familiar. I've been in this situation before, both as the crazy person orbiting the addict and the shrouded person clouded in my own bullshit with love ones circling me and unable to reach me. And that was just the introduction. She talked about how growing up like that can create certain personality traits, like for instance, not having a sense of your own identity, and how that's one thing that's essential for a successful relationship.

"Well, fuck," I thought.

It's only been in the last year, really, that I've felt a secure sense of my own identity. And it's only been in the last few months that I've been uncompromising about it, I mean in the sense that I won't change who I am to please other people.

The workshop turned out to be good. There were a couple of uncomfortable moments, like when she called for volunteers. "Is she going to make us wear veils and stagger around stage?," I thought. She kind of did, but it was cool. She took these two guys, had them face each other, and gave them props that represented different things.

"You grew up with drinking in your family," she told one guy and handed him a paper cup. "And drug addiction," she added giving him a prescription bottle. She turned to the other guy and draped a gray scarf on his shoulder and put large, Elton John-like sunglasses on him, "And you experienced traumatic loss, and you saw violent, ditsurbing things, so you learned not to look at what bothers you." Then she put earphones on the other guy. "And you grew up with a lot of screaming and name calling so you learned not to hear." Then she handed one a plastic sword, and one a shield. "And you learned to attack when you felt cornered, and you learned to block and run when you got scared." Then  she draped a red scarf on each of them. "And let's say here were affairs, which caused distrust and chaos in the family."

After all this, the two guys were standing there, struggling to keep their sashes on the shoulders and juggle the other props at the same time. Then the speaker took a step back and said, "Ok! Have a relationship!"

I did think to myself, "There are no representations of their strengths," but I didn't say anything. Someone else pointed out that in a way they balance each other, which she agreed and said that a couple like this could achieve balance, but without a clear sense of self, they will pretty much be unbalanced, deaf blind to each other and miserable.

"That explains a lot," I said to my friend Lucy after we'd applauded our speaker, who was packing up her dysfunctional elephants and sunglasses.
"I know. You hungry?"
"Good. I need Indian food."

We'd discussed going to the Indian Independence Food and Music Festival that Lucy had seen advertised, which at that moment I thought was ironic because my first lesbian relationship was with an Indian woman. That was definitely a time when I was a little shrouded elephant with no clear sense of self.

So when I thought "music and food festival" I thought of an outdoor event with music, dancing and food. Like Jazz Fest only with sitars and incense. But no. This was in the gym at the University of New Orleans, and Lucy and I didn't get past the front door. There were nicely-dressed Indians sitting at tables, their chatter echoing in the gymnasium, and low, strange music.
"I feel like an interloper," said Lucy.
"I feel like we're intruding," I said.
"That's what I mean," she clarified.
"Oh. Damn it, you know not to use big words when I'm hungry."
"Well, let's go get something to eat, then. There's a good Indian place on Cleary."
So we went to the place on Cleary and it turned out to be one of those places that don't open until dinner time, which for them was 6:30. It was 5:30.
"I can't wait," I said.
"We could go to Taj Mahal," she suggested, another Indian restaurant that wasn't too far.
Still, she called them before I drove of again, and it turned out that they were closed too.
"Damn, what is this?" I said. "They can't all be at that festival. Barely anybody was there."
"I don't know. And I don't like Nirvana," which was another option. The only other one we knew of.
"Lucy," I said.
"India has failed us."
"I know."
"I'm protesting. Let's eat something British."
"We shall have boiled meats!" she said.
But that sounded gross, so we went to Lee's Hamburger joint.

"So what did you think of that relationship thing?" I asked. We'd each been appeased with a hamburger, and were able to talk about these things, sitting in a booth, munching on fries.
"It was good," she said. "Kind of common sense, but it was good to have a visual."
"Yeah. You would think all of those concepts would be common sense, but I didn't have it."
"I think I wore those sunglasses," she said.
"I think I wore the sunglasses, the headphones, the sword, the shield, the cup, the pill bottle, the grief sash, and the affair sash."
"I think you did."
"So how do I know when all of that stuff is off of me?"
"Well," she said, leaning back. "She didn't make those guys take those things off. She just made them balance on those stools."

The speaker had brought out three stepping stools, and told each man to stand on one and then each set a foot on the third stool.
"See? They have to be in balance with themselves if they're going to give to the relationship. There must be a clear sense of 'me,'" she said, pointing to each of the stools where the individual feet were, "before there's a sense of 'we,'" and she pointed to the stool with both feet planted on top.

I don't know when my next relationship will be, but I hope to have the me in good balance. I might keep the Elton John glasses, though, not to remain blind, but for style.

So where to now, St. Peter
If it's true I'm in your hands
I may not be a Christian
But I've done all one man can
I understand I'm on the road
Where all that was is gone
So where to now St. Peter?
Show me
Which road I'm on
Which road I'm on

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