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Willingness (Or Washing Ashtrays...)

Oh it would be lovely if willingness always came to me in this passive acceptance but that is not my lot...willingness, true willingness, always comes in the form of desperation.


I am the kind of person who is not willing. I am a resister, an up-ender. I seem to enjoy the fight. Even when resistance and grit are useless...


I have been unwilling to do a lot of things in life. Always thinking that I have some end run around what everyone else had to do. Always looking for the shortcut...the secret that allows me to get where we all want to go faster, with less effort and easily. But really, all those detours I have taken, have really shown me the degree to which I am ungrateful and unwilling.


I am not sure why I was born thinking that the rules didn’t apply to me, but I was. And I really somehow believed that I could do this life thing, working only on what I wanted, when I wanted. Delusional, I know. But it was how I operated.


For me willingness came in the most bizarre way. It came only and completely wrapped in the gift of desperation. Willingness was not within my grasp, until I was so desperate that I would do anything...and then, even then, I still stubbornly refused to do what was asked of me to a degree.


Again, I have to go back to 25 years to the pit of my alcoholism. I was dying slowly, drink by drink. My liver was failing and my triglycerides were off the charts...I was bloated, bruised and psychologically a shitshow. I would often wake myself from my drunken slumber sure that there were cockroaches crawling on me...I did live in Florida, but they were never there...it was just delirium tremens. But I didn’t know any of this...I didn’t think my tests results were that bad, I didn’t know that not everyone would be awakened from a sound sleep feeling like there were things crawling on their skin. I didn’t know...none of that landed with me because I was doing ok on the outside. I was in my final semester of law school. I was working five different part time jobs, I was dating three men in three different states and I was a crisis counselor 40 hours a week on a hotline. I was doing FINE!


Except I wasn’t.


I was barely showing up for class, the jobs I treated as somewhat optional (except the bartending job that one I showed up to), the men were evidence of how amazing I was, and I was very lucky that I never got a call when I was blotted.


I was a mess. Internally my organs were failing. Lab results do not lie. I also drank one of those giant bottles of pesto bismal from Costco every three days. I thought it was totally normal that I had one of those in the center compartment of my car and would hit it like a wino hits their bottle. It was the only way that I could keep food down...There were whole genres of food that I could no longer eat: nothing spicy, no dairy.


Despite all of the above being true, I thought I was doing ok. I thought that everyone walked around with all of this shit swirling in their lives. I didn’t know that I was living a lie and really I was practicing more at dying than living. I didn’t know. Hard to believe but denial is a great ignorer.


While all of the above was happening, there was a growing panic in my chest. I would wake up in the middle of the night and have no memory of how I got home. I would panic not being able to remember for a little while what I did or where I went and with whom...this was happening far more often, so I drank alone in my bed so that I could go back to sleep.


I would say that I was living with a daily dose of quiet desperation except that wouldn’t be true. I was just living the only way that I knew how. I was mentally, spiritually, financially and emotionally bankrupt but I was determined that somehow this horrible way I was living was the only way to live. I would make it into something, I just had to keep trying.


Then one morning it all changed. It was as if I was in this cold, dark room and someone opened a window. The light rushed in and I saw the life I had been living. I saw how awful it was. I saw it in the stark and revealing daylight and I was shocked.


How did I get here?

How did I let it get this bad?

What was going to become of me?

Where the fuck did I get that shiner?


That morning instead of waking with panic and dread, I woke with desperation. I didn’t want this life anymore and I didn’t want to die. I wanted another way. I wanted out. I wanted something else for myself. And I wanted it with all that I was...fucked as I was, I wanted to live differently. But how?


And it was that day that I began living that new life. Oh, I didn’t know it at the time. I was just desperately trying to find something to make me feel better. Weekly therapy was really only keeping me on this side of the dirt...not helping me really change anything (totally had a great therapist and she was a HUGE part of me getting help - I was just lying to her a great deal so it is hard to help someone who lies all the time about everything).


Suddenly all of my rebellion was distilled into this desperate desire for my life to be different. And I knew, as only the dying could, that I didn’t have much time to seek a new solution.


And that is how I got to know willingness. It came wrapped in my own confusion, denial, hard heartedness, fear, pain, and an absolute certainty that I had no idea what to do. I was all out of answers, I didn’t have any more great ideas. I was fucked every way that I looked at my life and I was desperate.


That gift of desperation saved my life. It opened doors and windows that would have forever remained shut had I not been desperate. Desperation got me to willingness...kicking, bitching and sometimes screaming but it got me there.


As I entered recovery, I was told to do a whole bunch of things that I thought were stupid, were completely offensive and were not going to work! However, because I was desperate, I did them. Not all of them because I continued to defend my right to be miserable for some time...but overall, I just did what I was told. And when I didn’t, I seemed to immediately get in enough emotional pain that I became willing in much shorter order.


Desperation was the gateway to willingness for me. Just doing what I was told even though I hated it, thought it was ridiculous and sometimes felt like I might spontaneously catch on fire.


But I did the stuff and guess what? My life began to change. I didn’t have to believe in it. I didn’t have to think it was a good idea. I didn’t like it at all. I just had to do it. And to be willing to do it again tomorrow.


Willingness for me is obedience in action. It is the action steps I take after being given an instruction. This is where I become a soldier for my own well being...doing what I am told to, when I am told to do it without really debating it or arguing about it. I just do the thing and guess what? I feel better.


One of the first things I was asked to do was wash ashtrays...now I had just quit smoking so I was sure that I would be given a pass. I mean, it was HARD for me to quit and everyone would be sensitive to my pain in this area. Nope! They could have cared less. They just piled more disgusting ashtrays in my soapy water, completely ignoring me, my pain and ire.


I stood at that sink, angrily and poorly washing those ashtrays, slamming them down on the counter to punctuate my irritation at being asked to do something that was so clearly beneath me and an offense to my abstinence...


But guess what happened? I got to smell what ashtrays smell like when water hits them. There is a pungent odor that is pervasive. You can’t get away from it. It is wet and foul and invades the airways of your chest. I stood there day after day washing those fucking ashtrays and became so disgusted with smoking and smokers that I began finding a chair that was as far away from the smoking side of the room as possible. Before I had always sat in the smoking section because I wanted the contact buzz I got from the second hand smoke...


So my willingness to wash ashtrays saved my life twice. Once because it made me never want to smoke again and twice because I got to practice willingness every single day. I got to do something that I loathed solely for no other reason than I was told to do it. I just did it despite my inner dialog that daily told them all to fuck off. I did it anyway, against every fiber in my being that told me I didn’t need to wash those fucking ashtrays.


And a wonderful thing happened. By washing those ashtrays, I had to stick around and be among the people who would congregate in the kitchen. And they would sometimes talk to me while I stood there slamming metal ashtrays around. And soon, they invited me for coffee and pie even though I didn’t drink coffee (I did enjoy the hell out of pie!). They sat me in the middle of those diner tables to prevent me from escaping and dying. And everything about my life changed.


So I came to know willingness by getting to know how to wash ashtrays when I wasn’t even a smoker anymore. There is no one on the planet, or even from some sort of divinity, that could have explained that my life would be forever changed because I washed those fucking trays. Not one person. But it was, all because I was willing. Even though it was dumb, it was beneath me, I didn’t need to do it and I didn’t want to do it. Even with all the reasons to the contrary, I did it anyway over my own very loud and convincing internal dialog. I just washed them anyway.


And that was the beginning for me. I learned willingness by washing ashtrays. I did such a poor job that they promoted me to coffee cups in a short while, tired of all the banging I did with those metal disks of death. And I didn’t want to wash their coffee cups either! I didn’t even drink coffee back then! Shit, the things they asked of me!


But I did it. I did all the stuff that I was sure wouldn’t work and had nothing to do with anything. I did it because I was desperate and I didn’t want to die. And I could see the light in their eyes, and the love in their smiles and I knew that they knew something that I did not...so I just did the fucking washing of items I found abhorrent. I just fucking did it.


Today, I usually have a much better attitude about willingness and require a lot less pain to become willing to do what is asked of me. What hasn’t changed is the mental resistance I have to what is asked of me...I still rebel. I still don’t want to. But I know, because I was there, that washing ashtrays saved my life so whatever ridiculous thing is being asked of me now, may well prove to do the same. So I am willing to do what is asked, when it is asked because I know that on some level, my life depends on my willingness to do the stupid shit being asked of me AND that my life will most likely be so much the better for it.

Willingness is the key to change. I have to see that my own ideas are limited and confining. Willingness flings wide the door to my own imprisonment and sets me free...and sometimes, it looks like washing ashtrays...and that is completely fine by me!





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