Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In the Face of Malicious Intent


There are things we learn as children that help us survive. In recovery, in some way or another, it seems that virtually everybody has had it rough as a child--an alcoholic or addict parent or parents (and the resulting emotional neglect); physical abuse; verbal abuse; sexual abuse by a parent, relative, or family friend; torment by kids at school; some combination of the above; and the list goes on. I've yet to meet an alcoholic who isn't a supremely sensitive human being. But we learn early on that our sensitivity is our downfall. The continual pain is something a child just hasn't the wherewithal, the maturity, to not internalize. We think we deserve it somehow. Yet, we still have to live with ourselves.

So we do what we can to survive: We learn to not feel at all. Or we learn to never feel responsible for what happens to us. We learn that feeling like shit is the normal state of things. We learn that life isn't fair. And sometimes, some of us learn self-loathing. But at all costs, we learn to never, ever show our hand. We keep our cards close to the chest lest someone try to pull one over on us.

These coping mechanisms get us through the hell, but they don't serve us well as adults. It's simply no way to live. Oh, for sure: abused kids, for example, develop an amazingly keen sixth sense about people--they can "read" somebody with malicious intent with ease. Why are we good at this? Because as kids, at any time, a parent might explode and the blows come raining down. We learned to watch for the slightest sign, the sudden furrow in the brow, a lip beginning to twitch upwards into a snarl--and we knew to dash.

But as adults, it's a different world. You can't run from the room when you get a bad feeling as your boss walks by. You can't run from confrontations anymore (especially since, as an adult, now you actually do have some power). But it's self-defeating to be thrown into a constant state of vigilance such that, if your guard is continually up, you'll be perceived as paranoid, plain and simple. And where you may wind up shutting someone out who doesn't deserve your paranoia.

So I spent a lot of time as a using alcoholic trying to "unlearn" my own instincts I'd developed as a child, to stop relying on my gut. I learned to talk myself out of red flags, warning signs. Sometimes to stop the gnawing feelings of anxiety, I would try to drink them away. And then people would see me as gullible or as someone who too readily invites trouble into my life. It was all very confusing.

Confusing to know where to draw that imaginary line between who's worthy of or deserves our trust versus who is a predator, who has the intention of harm?

As a sober person, I am learning to trust my guts again. When I look back over my life, the vast majority of people who have hurt me are people my guts told me at the outset I should be leery of. Call it female intuition. Yet I also believe in giving people second chances, because heaven knows, I've needed those myself. My sponsor and I had a talk dancing around these issues today: when are you setting yourself up for anguish; when is it okay to crack the door open? There isn't really an answer. In early sobriety, her answer seemed to be: err more on the side of caution, Joyce. But we both had to joke about my Southern upbringing: always be polite, no matter what. A lady has manners. I have a hard time being, well, rude.

So we settled on "keep your eyes open." Expect the worst, but hope for the best. And if good things happen, be pleasantly surprised. But the moment your alarms start going off, don't reach for a drink. Listen to the damn alarms. My childhood happened to me for a reason. My Higher Power has given me everything I need. Barring someone shooting my head off with a shotgun, the only person who can really hurt me is ME.

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