Do you have an area of refuge?
It was my first meeting of a men’s society of addiction treatment specialists, and my nervousness made me arrive early. Anxious questions ran the hamster wheel in my head. Would I fit in? I’m a recovery coach; would the sullen gray conference room be filled with condescending psychiatrists and psychologists? That was my fear, anyway. The humorless fellow sitting in the corner — or perhaps it was a sculpture entitled Hostile Man Gazing at Smartphone — didn’t make things easier for me.
Since I was early, I grabbed the men’s room key and headed down the hallway. Maybe splashing some water on my face would help, or peeing. I didn’t have to pee, but I always can pee if I walk into a public men’s room. Something about the whooshing water and scent of urinal cakes.
I fitted the key into the men’s room door and… nothing. It wouldn’t open. Shit. Was the bathroom a one-hole job and there was already someone inside? Then why didn’t have one of those “OCCUPIED” badges on the doorknob? Regardless, I wasn’t getting in. Well, I couldn’t just walk back into the meeting room so soon. Then I’d have to explain to Mr. Motionless that I couldn’t work a doorknob.
I decided to prowl the hallway a little, see what this place was like. The men’s meeting was taking place at the headquarters of a large outpatient center for sex addicts, and I had only been there once before and seen very little of the joint. It turned out there wasn’t much to see: a rectangle of monochrome hallways lined with office doors belonging to therapists. Maybe I could knock on one and swing it open, say hi in the middle of someone’s session. I decided against it. I’m a professional like that.
I turned to head back to my meeting room when my eye caught a phrase I had never seen before. It emblazoned a permanent sign mounted to the doorway of a stairwell. “AREA OF REFUGE.”
Area of Refuge.
I had no idea what that phrase meant technically, but I understood the words and I liked what I felt. Area of Refuge. A place — maybe not even a place, just a borderless “area” — where I could feel safe. Merely walking into an A of R would trigger feelings of calmness, serenity, safety. Given my anxiety before this meeting, I could use my own Area of Refuge right now.
But I couldn’t open the door; there wasn’t time. Besides, it simply led to the stairwell leading to the floors below and above. Didn’t it?
I had to handle my anxiety without visiting this new land. Instead, I fell back on techniques I knew worked.
I stood there, right near the AREA OF REFUGE sign, and slowed my breathing.
Then I prayed. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Then I murmured a couple of ad-lib affirmations. I am a wonderful and qualified recovery coach. I have excellent social skills.
Then I tried to become mindful of the industrial carpet beneath my shoes, the overly-conditioned air and slow hushed rush of the ventilation system. I became present. My knees thawed.
A moment later, I walked back to the meeting room, where other men had already showed up, waiting for the meeting to begin. One old fat man in a Hawaiian shirt (he looked like Santa Claus on vacation), asked me to help him get the bagels and shmear from his car parked on the street just outside the building. He was a jolly sort (naturally being Santa Claus on a break) and I immediately felt my spine soften. It was going to be fine.
Later at home, I remembered the phrase and looked it up. Area of Refuge: a location in a building designed to hold occupants during a fire or other emergency, when evacuation may not be safe or possible. Occupants can wait there until rescued or relieved by firefighters. This can apply to the following:
• any persons who cannot access a safe escape route
• any persons assisting another person who is prevented from escaping
• patients in a hospital
• sick people
• people with disabilities…
It struck me how right this definition was for my situation. Sure, Wikipedia was talking about physical emergencies, but everyone knows there are spiritual emergencies too. I have about one each day.
At the addiction treatment center, I had an important meeting coming up in a strange place with strange people. Evacuation was not possible. In my job I often assist people who are prevented from escaping by their addiction. Sick people. People with a disability. Sometimes people who wind up in a hospital. I really did need an area of refuge at that moment.
And I found one.
Right there, at the sign clearly marked “AREA OF REFUGE,” I found mine. By slowing my breathing, praying, feeling the ground under me, I created an area in which I could and did take refuge. I surrounded my spirit with safety and soon the crisis passed.
I wondered if my techniques would have been approved by the people who designed the area of refuge in that building, the experts. I read further.
An area of refuge is typically supplied with a steady supply of fresh or filtered outside air. Similar requirements apply to emergency lighting in areas of refuge. …A call box is required in each area of refuge, which can call into a central location…
Yep, my area of refuge was up to specs. I had a steady supply of filtered air, right in my lungs. It was just a question of slowing and deepening my breathing to tap into it. Since I needed help, I used my built-in call box to notify a central location: I prayed.
We all carry an area of refuge within us, waiting to be utilized should a spiritual emergency arise. A safe place within each of us — within you — in which we can access fresh air, feel the solidity of the walls and floor, and even place an emergency call. It’s understandable that many of us, myself included, forget about this fantastic facility: it isn’t as clearly labeled as that stairwell in the hallway of the treatment center I visited.
So decide right now to post a big permanent placard somewhere near you heart, your solar plexus or your belly. Wherever you decided your area of refuge is waiting. Be sure to maintain it in pristine condition, with meditation (for the air supply), prayer (to maintain the call box) and connection to healthy friends (to keep the ground solid and insulating).
Next time you have a spiritual emergency and feel that evacuation is not a possibility, don’t forget. You have immediate access to your very own Area of Refuge.