When Your Minivan Breaks Down On The Road of Happy Destiny

On page 164 of the “Big Book,” the main text of the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous, you will find these words…

“We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.”

What does it mean to trudge the Road of Happy Destiny?

trudge  | verb

  • walk slowly and with heavy steps, typically because of exhaustion or harsh conditions

happy  | adjective

  • feeling or showing pleasure or contentment
  • having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation)
  • satisfied with the quality or standard of
  • willing to do something
  • fortunate and convenient

destiny  |  noun

  • the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future
  • the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future; fate

Isn’t that recovery, then? And parenting? Doing the slow and steady work of being alive? Tackling the often exhausting task of of showing up, day after day, to be a human being and to be present for other, smaller human beings?

And what about this path of happy destiny? If the path is our life unfolding before us, are its twists and turns predetermined? Do we have much control over the things that will necessarily happen to us; our fate?

Fuck if I know.

I do know that the path is there, constantly unfolding beneath my feet like a cosmic road trip or transcendent hike. I know that at times the terrain feels easy to traverse and at times my steps are so heavy I might as well be walking uphill through deep snow. I know that I cannot predict what waits for me around the next bend. While I may have a general sense of direction, I cannot know if the pass ahead will be kind or treacherous. And I know that when I meet a fellow traveler on the road, especially a woman in recovery, my load is lighter.

And there are the times that I stop, paralyzed, by the side of the road.

I like to think of these times as…

When my minivan breaks down on the road of happy destiny. 

The journey of my life, my recovery,  and my parenting is not so much about the road I travel, or the vehicle moving me from point A to B to C — the journey is about who is inside the vehicle and, more importantly, who is driving.

Are you still with me?

When my minivan breaks down, when I don’t feel like I can keep going, when I am paralyzed by fear or anger or frustration, it’s a critical time for me to examine what exactly is going on inside this van?? I can’t get the van moving again until I know who’s driving, who’s riding shotgun, and who’s screaming in the backseat.

Below are the parts of me (also known as the passengers in my minivan) that I can readily identify on any given day. I’ve also included their driving thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behaviors.

The Intellect

This one is a real know-it-all. She is logical, rational, intelligent and she is constantly wanting to know WHY things are the way they are. She is the one who uses highlighters while reading and tries to “solve” the problem of my problems with practical solutions. Her approach is formulaic. A+B=C. She doesn’t get along with my emotions; they ruin her equations.

  • Cognitions: “If you would just do x,y, and z then you could get going.” “There must be a logical solution to this problem if we only apply our intellect.”
  • Sensations: tightness in chest, furrowing of brow
  • Emotions: eager, curious, insatiable, often frustrated
  • Behaviors: reading, questioning, examining, highlighting, listing, writing, problem-solving, arguing, debating

The Scout

This is the one who is constantly scanning the environment for danger to keep herself and her offspring safe and healthy. Her amygdala is as sensitive as a newly breastfeeding mom’s nipples. She is propelled forward by a combination of anxiety and fear and lives 5 seconds, 5 minutes, 5 years in the future – she is never in the now.

  • Cognitions: “Something terrible is going to happen.” “What if something terrible happens?” “That’s a choking hazard.” “You are going to fall.” “What if you stop breathing in your sleep?” “What if you lose your job?” “What if we run out of money?” “What if I get really sick and die?”
  • Sensations: tightness in chest, panic rising into throat and neck, hot face, flushed, energy in arms and legs, stomach in knots
  • Emotions: fear, anxiety, keyed up, hypervigilant
  • Behaviors: checking, imagining, thinking, hovering, predicting, holding breath, pacing, insomnia.

The Toddler

Oh man. This one will flip the fuck out if she doesn’t get her way. You can find her kicking, screaming, and writhing on the floor when things don’t go according to plan or when the Universe takes her comforts from her.

  • Cognitions: “It’s not fair.” “I don’t want to.” “You can’t make me.”
  • Sensations: white hot rage coursing through my body
  • Emotions: anger, frustration, rage
  • Behaviors: screaming, kicking, crying, pouting (as an adult these might look like silently fuming in a corner)

The Drill Sergeant/Mean Girl

This one is a real asshole. She is motivated by a drive for perfectionism and her tactics include shaming, belittling and general ass-holery. Beneath it all, however, she lacks feelings of self-esteem, competency, mastery, and compassion. She is like the school yard bully who never hears they are loved at home and secretly feels pretty worthless.

  • Cognitions: “Look at you. You are such a loser. Why can’t you (fill in the blank)? You need to pull yourself together you stupid bitch. You don’t deserve happiness until you are (fill in the blank).”
  • Sensations: heavy body, tight chest, fatigue
  • Emotions: defeated, embarrassed, ashamed, inadequate, deep sadness
  • Behaviors: restricting food, intense bouts of exercise, paralysis, sleeping, eating as rebellion, frozen in place, unmotivated, apathetic, sleeping

The Hidden One

I imagine her as a little girl, hiding behind her hair, slouching and afraid to make eye contact. She feels very alone. She represents shame, deep shame. She is afraid to be seen.

  • Cognitions: “I am different. I am bad. I am unworthy. I am unlovable”
  • Sensations: frozen, paralyzed, pit in stomach, nauseous, tight throat, sunken chest
  • Emotions: helpless, hopeless, empty, alone, sad
  • Behaviors: silence, hiding, eating, crying, sleeping, stuffing feelings, isolating

The Athlete

This woman is driven, focused and determined. Her desire for excellence originates within and represents a competition within herself – to reach her own personal bests. She operates in action mode rather than planning mode. She thrives when there is some routine in place and when goals are short-term and realistic. She motivates through praise, encouragement, and focusing on the positive.

  • Cognitions: “Let’s do this. I got this. Get it, girl.”
  • Sensations: energized, lightness to body, floating, flexible
  • Emotions: pumped, energetic, enthusiastic, determined, free
  • Behaviors: moving body, leading a team of people, collaborating, running with kids, playing games, going to the gym, sweating, sticking with an activity until completion, follow-through

The Artist

This character represents all my creative energy. She may be lost in a daydream, writing a story, singing, thinking up ideas, solving riddles, coloring, painting, sculpting, building with blocks, etc. She is very much in the present and sees colors more brightly, hears music more soulfully, and feels the wind on her face.

  • Cognitions: She isn’t thinking so much as she is being inspired.
  • Sensations: lightness, energy, freedom
  • Emotions: Energized, enthusiastic, amazed, intrigued, curious, happy
  • Behaviors: Doing something creative! Writing is the big one but it could be any creative or playful activity alone or with the kids.

The Bodhisattva Mama

I love this part of myself so much that I bought the web domain for her name. A Bodhisattva is a person who can attain enlightenment but chooses to stay with others who are still suffering in order to help those beings also achieve enlightenment. She knows that Nirvana awaits her but she remains present and fully human to give her life in service from a place of deep compassion. What is a mother if not a Bodhisattva? My Bodhisattva Mama is so wise. She operates from a place of faith, trust, true knowledge, humility, patience, and mercy.

  • Cognitions: “You are not your suffering, my love. There is no separation between you and everything else. You are one with everything. Everything has been, is and will always be okay. This moment is all you need to find contentment. Let go of your attachments and find true connection.”
  • Sensations: lightness, floating, emptiness, loss of sensation
  • Emotions: peaceful, serene, acceptance, love, joy, freedom, presence
  • Behaviors: smiling gently, taking in what is right here now, connecting, loving, giving, receiving, touching, holding, caring, laughing, crying, setting healthy boundaries, saying yes, saying no, BEING

The Impulse

On a good day, this part of myself contributes to spontaneity and not taking myself so seriously. My impulse makes me quick witted and helps me take creative and professional risks. I have always been a risk-taker.My kids love my silly, goofy, playful nature. People say Dads are the fun ones… well, in my house, I am the fun one. On a bad day, this part of me makes it impossible to NOT do the thing that I’m obsessing about and I’m all grabbing, taking, acting out, texting, calling, yelling, snapping, posting, opining, etc. Act now, think later.

  • Cognitions: “I want to go to there. I want to do that thing. I want to eat, smoke, drink, take, ingest, have sex with… “
  • Sensations: energized, aroused, thirsty, uninhibited
  • Emotions: insatiable, energetic, wanting, desiring, needing, craving, feeling, silly
  • Behaviors: leaping before looking

OK… that’s the rundown of my passengers. There are probably 10 other characters in the van but these nine represent the big ones. Let me tell you who is usually driving when I stall out and have to call roadside assistance (aka my sponsor).

Guarantee you that one of these is driving if I’m broke down on the side of the road, paralyzed and unable to move forward:

  • The Hidden One – a.k.a my shame
  • The Toddler – a.k.a my rage monster
  • The Scout – a.k.a. my prehistoric animal brain anxiety survival sensor

If I’m puttering along on fumes but about to run out of gas, you will most likely see one of these driving:

  • The Drill Sergeant/Mean Girl – she can get me moving temporarily but it never lasts and usually causes a backslide.
  • The Scout – my fear can also motivate me but it usually can only sustain me for so long before I collapse with exhaustion and all consuming worry

If the van is moving but there are some signs that mechanical failure is imminent, then these characters might be at the wheel:

  • The Intellect – equations and problem solving and “figuring myself out” can only take me so far before they fail my human condition.
  • The Impulse – my risk-taking has definitely paid off in the past but when it’s in the driver’s seat it creates conflict within myself and with those around me. It’s likely to create an underlying mechanical issue that might short circuit the brakes and send us all careening off a cliff!

So when any of the preceding characters are in the driver’s seat, I (me.. the big me in the sky, the observer of it all, the me that transcends all other me), I have to do some work to put my best drivers back in the captain’s chair.

If the van is cruising along smoothly with some good tunes on the radio and the wind in my hair, then most likely one of these is driving:

  • The Bodhisattva Mama – she is cool, calm and collected. Nothing much rattles her on the drive because she has faith it will all work out but she also knows the journey will be uncertain and painful at times. She is steady in the storm and joyous in the journey.
  • The Athlete – Great team captain when the route needs changing or there is a steep path to traverse or an obstacle to overcome. She can keep us on course and makes the difficult feel more hopeful and life-affirming.
  • The Artist – She is a wonderful driver for dedicated stretches of road where the pace can slow, the scenery is rich, and the present moment is fully embraced.

Now, we can’t forget about who rides shotgun on this journey. The co-captain is also extremely important. These characters make excellent co-captains depending on circumstances:

  • The Bodhisattva Mama
  • The Athlete
  • The Artist
  • The Intellect
  • The Scout
  • The Impulse

You will notice that I let Impulse and Scout sit shotgun from time to time. When I started a new business venture, I needed Impulse in the passenger’s seat at times and Scout in the passenger’s seat at times. When I’m dealing with a crisis or emergency, Scout can be helpful in anticipating and planning but I should never let him drive! The Artist is always an enjoyable and welcome co-captain when circumstances allow. And the Athlete makes every journey feel more manageable and achievable.

There are a couple of characters who should never get to drive or sit shotgun.

  • The Toddler
  • The Hidden One
  • The Drill Sergeant/Mean Girl

This doesn’t mean I can get rid of them or kick them out of the minivan. You can’t kick your real toddler out of the car when you are halfway through a 24-hour drive to Florida and they freak out. Similarly, these characters aren’t going anywhere. The trick is to put them in the backseat and help them/soothe them so they can also learn to enjoy the ride.

If one of these characters claws their way into the passenger seat or, God help us, the driver’s seat – pull over immediately. Do not wait to crash and burn or stall out. Pull over and do the following.

Take the Hidden One, the Drill Sergeant/Mean Girl, or the Toddler to the back seat and have another character sit back there with them for a while until they calm down. The Bodhisattva Mama is excellent at holding the Toddler or the Hidden One or the Scout when she is way out there in fear. She can shush them, love them, and give them what they need.

To the Toddler she can say, “I know you are upset, that life is not fair, that you hate what is happening right now, but you are strong my love and you can do hard things. This too will pass and you will be okay.”

To the Hidden One she can say, “Show me your beautiful face, my love. You are enough. You have always been enough. You are good and right and whole. Let me hold you and love you until you can learn to love yourself a little better.”

To the Scout she can say, “Thank you for everything you do to keep us safe. You are the tip of the spear, our built-in alarm system, our reflex to harm. We need you. We honor you. But right now, we are safe. Deep breaths, my love. In – out – In – out. We trust that when the time is right, you will spring to action but you are working too hard. You are exhausted. Keep breathing and rest a bit.”

The Athlete can also be helpful.

To the Drill Sergeant/Mean Girl, the Athlete can say, “Keep your chin up, kid! Look at how far you have come and how much you have done. You deserve good things because you are good. We can reach small goals. We can do little things everyday. You don’t have to beat yourself up anymore. There are plenty of people to beat us up outside this van. In here, we are a team and we support each other. I know you are afraid. I know you feel insecure. You don’t have to! We are all here with you.”

And sometimes the Intellect helps too.

The Intellect can help the Toddler identify signs of a meltdown. “You are feeling anger in your body and your arms are hot. You are climbing anger mountain. If you keep going this way, you will logically explode. You have about 8 seconds to engage calming before escalation.” The Intellect can also help the Hidden One understand her shame. “When you experienced sexual abuse as a child, you developed the belief that you were bad. You were just a child, therefore you couldn’t be bad. You need a new belief about yourself to let go of shame.”

The characters that paralyze us, that cause us to breakdown on the side of the road, they just need love and attention and to have their needs met… but in the safety of the backrow with a five-point harness booster seat helping them feel secure and grounded.

If your minivan is currently broke down on the side of the road, I strongly encourage you to get out some crayons or markers or pens and draw the van. Then sketch out the characters inside. They are unique to each of us. Give each one a name. Write down their driving their driving cognitions, sensations, emotions and behaviors. You can even draw a picture of each one and get a sense of their age, gender, and what they look like in your mind’s eye.

Next, identify your best drivers. Who are your solid co-captains? Who should never be allowed to drive? Who needs some love and attention in the backseat?

And finally, start practicing stopping before the car breaks down. You may have to pull over to the side of the road and actively work to rearrange some things before you can go forward. Think of these characters as being in their infancy when you start doing this work. A three hour car trip with babies and toddlers can take 5 hours because of the stopping and checking and adjusting. As these characters grow up and figure out how to travel together and support one another, you will find you won’t have to stop as often or for as long to make adjustments.

You will also be able to analyze the road ahead and figure out the best configuration for weddings, high school reunions, holidays with your family, job interviews, the birth of your babies, bored nights home alone, death of loved ones, divorce, your kids leaving home, etc.

I’ve enjoyed this time with you – my Artist driving with a rotation of my Intellect, my Bodhisattva Mama, my Impulse and my Athlete occupying shotgun and the captain chairs behind me. I hope recovery brings you the ability to change your drivers with more skill, flexibility and speed over time.

Safe travels.

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