I'm Addicted to Compassion

I’m Addicted to Compassion

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This post was originally published on July 26, 2016.

I’ve certainly matured in my sobriety. It may be a byproduct of not drinking or perhaps the result of hitting 37. Either way, a big testament to this maturity is the increase of compassion I now have for others. That’s not to say that prior to getting sober I didn’t have any compassion—I’ve always had a bleeding heart and a soft spot for others, despite being raised around a bunch of republicans. Relax: I’m not saying that conservatives don’t have compassion or a philanthropic bent, as I know many who do. I’m just saying that growing up I felt different. 

I popped out of the womb with liberal ideas without ever learning them from teachers or adults. I’ll never forget the day my family bitched about mothers on welfare as we drove home to our house in Encino. At the time, I was eight years old and chimed into the conversation with “But shouldn’t we care about the poor people and help them?” I was subsequently yelled at, so I never opened my mouth on the topic again—until I went to college.

But for the most part, when I was drinking and screwed up in the head, I was indifferent to both global atrocities and social injustice on US soil. When Bosnia blew up in the mid-’90s, and when we invaded Iraq in 2003, I was just out to lunch—preoccupied with my own drama, thinking only of my own misery. This changed when I sobered up—now I seem to spend a good majority of my time fretting about the world’s ills and feeling a whole lot of feelings about, well, other people’s feelings.

There comes a point where you have so much compassion you wind up either miserable or codependent. Back when I was in AA, a close friend of mind just couldn’t get sober and had no place to live. Because I lived with a roommate, I couldn’t let her crash at me place as much as I wanted to help. So instead, I forked out $20 for her to stay in a hostel for the night, which I really couldn’t afford. That really would have been enough, but I took it further and spent an additional $20 so I could crash with her at the hostel to make sure she didn’t drink that night.

That move was total overkill. At the time, I was looking for work and very low on cash and absolutely could not afford it. Plus, the next morning, I needed to get back on the job hunt instead of roaming around town with my friend, taking her to meetings. Being of service is great, but not when it’s at the expense of your own recovery and ability to be self-supporting. I’ve found that being self-supporting truly allows the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

I get into sticky situations when it comes to my support of others. Like with the Syrian crises: I kept reading articles in the New York Times over and over, watching the videos of all those refugees cramped in tents without enough water and food, finding myself crying and donating whatever I could to the International Rescue Committee. This would be fine if I had money to spare, but currently I don’t. At least, not the triple-digit amounts I sent off. But I can sometimes fall prey black-and-white thinking, and for some reason donating the $10 I could afford didn’t feel like enough.

Aside from giving away money you don’t have and becoming codependent, there’s no problem with having compassion—unless you’re like me and let the troubles of others totally derail your mood and send you into despair and depression. In fact, there have been times when I have to reject a guy who has asked me out, and I wind up in tears because I feel so horrible. I’ve actually ended up dating guys I’m not even that into because I feel guilty telling them no! Who does this?

Since I’ve begun to really commit to a meditation practice, which is specifically about compassion, I have come to see that letting these tragic events send me emotionally up and down and all around just isn’t the best self care. It’s also not okay to disregard my own needs and what I want in a romantic partner. Sure, I can take action that might change things—like going to a protest or getting involved in a racial justice organization (which I’ve done). But to get upset, mopey and depressed, lying in bed crying uncontrollably about things I cannot immediately change, well, that doesn’t help me or anyone else.

As far as world peace is concerned, a common quote going around the internet is “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” I believe this—truly. That it is in the small day-to-day actions we have with drivers, customer service workers, restaurant servers—maybe even bugs—and of course our loved ones, we can choose compassion, and it’s sometimes enough. Typically, when I’m acting in a kind and compassionate way toward those around me, even strangers, my mood spikes up several notches. Even if there’s a travesty happening in Africa, Istanbul or Paris, I can cope a bit better knowing that I’m at least spreading kindness in my tiny circle.

I will add that my new therapist pointed out that being hyper-sensitive isn’t always a bad thing. For so many years I was super sensitive to criticism or when people snub me or when men or editors reject me. But the bright side of hyper-sensitivity is that I hate being mean to people and want to be sure everyone’s feelings are OK. Yes, it’s possible that all of this is extreme. But in our first session he said “Tracy, our society doesn’t value sensitivity. We look at it as a bad thing. But usually people who are easily hurt often are intuitive to others’ needs.”

As I am writing this piece, I heard about yet another terrorist attack in France. Some douche just plowed over a gathering of people on a seaside walkway as they enjoyed fireworks for Bastille Day. The news, in addition to the attack on Orlando, as well as the bombings of Istanbul, Baghdad and Bangladesh, crushed me, and I began to cry again.

Still, what can I do? In some circumstances there is action you can take to change things, but as of yet I have no idea how I personally can combat this terrorism sweeping the globe. And if there’s nothing I can do, then I must remember the Serenity Prayer (no, I don’t go to AA anymore or believe in God, but I really dig the sentiment).

With the added complication of bipolar disorder, it’s important for me to stay balanced and sane, otherwise I can’t help anyone. So for me, I have to make time to meditate, re-center and to always remember that self-care is as important as bleeding compassion for those who are suffering. This was really hard for me to understand when in AA, because I wanted to just stop my life to help newcomers. I can see now that I’m not really helping anyone—least of all myself—when I stop my life and compromise myself, whether for people who are down-and-out or for bigger, global causes. When I do this, I run myself into the ground energetically and monetarily, and I have nothing left to give.

So, today I’m learning to take good care of myself. When I do this, I can have the steam to go out there and help others, volunteer, speak up and try to make change. I have to put the oxygen mask on myself first before I can help someone else breathe.

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3 Comments

  1. God I’m so glad I found your articles. Such perfect timing. Definitely identitying with lots of your themes and sensibilities. For the first time I don’t feel so alone with my philosophy that I can survive and lead a healthy sober life outside the rooms of AA. With all time I have invested in meetings and listening to a sponsor shame me for not getting to enough meetings; I could have gone back to school and gotten my masters degree. I’m just glad I can now use what I have found to be useful from AA and move on from here. Feeling empowered by simply coming to terms with my decision. Life has been out of balance for awhile and yet I struggled to follow “the program” how do you lead a normal life and keep up these meetings when you also need to either find a better job or go back to school? ” Do more service!”, “Pray more, get on your knees”.
    Done now. what a weight I feel lifted. No fear the drink is going to come get me. I do have AA friends texting me about how concerned they are about me. “I must be drinking if I’m not at a meeting”. They are caring and nice people but I’m dependent on his program to stay sober.
    I look forward to having a life now….and being sober while enjoying it.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.