Wrestling With Smoke



“At its most basic, wrestling is about exerting control over a competitor through a series of moves, maneuvers, locks and throws. There is no greater feeling than physically throttling somebody and doing it on a level playing field.”


From “Wrestling for Dummies”.


I didn't know anything about wrestling, except that it's a surefire way to get ringworm. Until, that is, my boys started attending their current high school where wrestling is a big deal. One day I went by the varsity practice and peeked my head in to see what was going on. It was intense. All that suppressed power just waiting to explode frightened me. The restrained energy combined with the gritted teeth and deep grunting noises made me feel like I was standing on the edge of the Chernobyl reactor right before it blows. The pressure is mounting, the wrestlers can't contain it, and shortly there will be an explosion that will kill or contaminate everyone in the vicinity. Wrestlers remind me of some oxen I saw in Cuba once, trying with an intensity that I didn't know existed in the animal kingdom to pull an old 1950s Chevy out of a big black mud pit. There was a quiet fury in those animals and there is a quiet fury in wrestling. Bulging eyes, clenched teeth, intense straining movements. The seemingly futile fight against gravity, the sweat just pouring off the body and face, running in rivulets down the clenched jaw and popping neck veins. And that was the oxen! Human grappling is even more extreme. Watching wrestling makes me grind my teeth - especially when the opponents conspire to get themselves into such a knot of sweaty muscled human flesh that it is impossible to tell where one wrestler ends and another starts. There is a tension in those human knots that is almost unbearable.


So what does wrestling have to do with alcoholism? Not much physically, but mentally it is the perfect metaphor. Because that's what I do in my mind more often than I would like. I could be waiting in line for a coffee and standing there innocently enough but in my mind I am in an Olympic wrestling match. A match to the death. The problem is I'm never wrestling against another person, I'm wrestling with smoke, with vapors, with imagined phantoms. I wrestle with my thoughts. I wrestle with my mind’s wildly creative and super sneaky moves, maneuvers, locks and throws.


Yet for all the years that I have been doing this I know that wrestling with smoke is a losing proposition. Usually after we have done battle I am left laying exhausted and depressed on the mat while the smoke just drifts happily away, leaving nothing but a faint whiff of whatever it was I was wrestling with clinging to me, as I lie there in the agony of defeat.


So who or what am I wrestling with? People, places and things past, present and future. I can spend hours thinking about someone I don't like that I MIGHT have to see in 2 weeks. I'll wrestle with that for days if need be. The “what ifs”. What if…she walks in and says_____? What if…he walks in and does_____? And I'm suddenly furious…that in 2 or 3 weeks someone I may or may not see will do something that pisses me off. And I do that for the past as well. What if things had been different…yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago?


I love that description in Wrestling for Dummies: "There is no better feeling than throttling somebody on a level playing field.” Unfortunately my mind is NOT a level playing field I'm the one who gets throttled. Because what was it really that made me drink and drug? Nothing but my thoughts. I can blame all sorts of people, places and things for my addiction but at the end of the day it was my traumatized mind that told me to fill a Poland Spring bottle with vodka. It was my mind that convinced me (once all my doctors had cut me off) that the internet could be my doctor, my prescriber of pills of all sorts. And I did its bidding. Thank you, mind.


What is really underneath my addiction is a powerful anxiety disorder. Psychiatrists have diagnosed me with everything I do have (and a lot of things that I don't). But my favorite diagnosis was when some fancy pants shrink told me I had A.A.S. or Acute Anxiety Syndrome, which I immediately re-named A.S.S (Anxiety Syndrome Syndrome) as I found it more amusing. "I've got the ASS and I've got it bad" my friends and I would joke with each other over coffee. So now, with sober clarity, I notice when I start wrestling with smoke. When I’m lost up there, wrestling away with my thoughts as if my life depends on it, my body will alert me. My jaw will hurt for no reason and then I realize that I've been wrestling away and grinding my teeth. Or I'll suddenly feel light-headed and I'll see that I was in such an intense wrestling match up there that I forgot to breathe. What a waste of time.


I heard once that meditation is not about breaking the mind, the way you would break a wild horse. Instead it's about giving the mind a break. And that's why meditation is so important to me. I have spent a lot of time trying to break my mind. I’ve used threats and entreaties and promises and ploys. I'm sure I was trying to break my mind with drugs and alcohol at one point. Or at least trying to put it in a coma so it would shut up already. All to no avail. So I'm trying this new way. When I find myself wrestling with my thoughts I don't get in the ring. Instead I ask my mind to come join me on the sidelines and we watch the wrestling match from there. Sometimes we even get popcorn. Those matches are so much more enjoyable as an observer, not a participant. In those observed matches there is no winner and there is no loser. There is just smoke, vapor and phantoms. And that smoke, those vapors, when left untouched, tend to dissipate on their own, floating away, back into the ether from whence they came. And to which they belong.

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