Monday, October 11, 2010

It Takes One to Know One

I recently blogged about how actively using alcoholics—even when they’re sober—live in a distorted reality, so that you can’t ever wholly believe their version of things. In response to that, I received a message from a friend who was curious about this and asked me to elaborate. I wrote her back to explain, but it occurs to me that I should probably further illuminate my meaning here. I’m not saying that alcoholics tell lies all the time intentionally (though some of us do). What I am saying is that yes, our booze-soaked brains simply make things up that we come to believe.

For instance, we do something that I call mental “flipping”—something in one moment may be okay with us, but a few minutes, hours, or the next day later, it is suddenly not okay, and not only is it not okay, but it’s worthy of our scorn. Worse, it’s worthy of our rage. I remember once that a lover of mine (we’d been together for four years, but had spent the last several months apart because I’d gotten a job promotion that had taken me to Chicago; she was supposed to be joining me when she finished up her degree at the University of Iowa) called me one night to confess she’d cheated on me with a mutual friend. I wasn’t actually surprised. Our relationship had gone stale in many ways. So at first I was okay with what had happened and was willing to go along with relaxing the rules of our relationship. She was relieved.

I hung up the phone and hit the bottle for a couple of hours.

I sat there, replaying our conversation in my head. Images of the two of them together swarmed my imagination. I sat there drinking, stewing, and getting angrier and angrier. Now, a normal person wouldn’t have been drinking alone to begin with. But it was upsetting news. In that case, a normal person wouldn’t have consumed the better part of a 12-pack of beer. And if they had, they at least would’ve gone to bed and slept it off. Or maybe called a friend for sympathy and to vent in a way that harmed no one.

Nope. Not me. I kept drinking and drinking, and finally I called her back. Out came the rage. “I hope he gave you AIDS!” is one thing I remember shouting (this was the late 1980s). “You used me—I took care of us while you finished your degree and now that it’s almost done, you’re dumping me.” I honestly don’t remember much of what else I said, but it was definitely all ugly. I’m sure I threatened to kill myself, too, as that used to be an old standard of mine. She was horrified, and baffled by how, two hours earlier, I’d been loving and forgiving, and now I was being a crazy enraged person. I’d totally flipped.

Now, which person was the REAL me? Sober, my reaction to her was grounded in reality and in the facts of the matter. The truth was, we’d been in couples counseling well before I made the move to Chicago, and I remember thinking the move would probably either “make” us or “break” us. She had paid her own tuition and worked two part-time jobs while in school, so neither was it like I’d worked full-time and fully footed all of our bills. She had carried some of the weight, and she had not used me. Yes, of course I was hurt that she had cheated. That was, after all, a rather chicken-hearted way to end a relationship—to wait to break up until after you’ve found a replacement. Then again, sometimes that's just how it works: you don't really consider breaking up as an option until someone else comes along to rock your world.

But pretty much everything I accused her of when I was drunk was just mean-spirited bullshit.

A normal person would’ve been horrified the next day and called to apologize and take back the angry words. "I was upset. I didn't mean it."

But nope. The bullshit became the mythology I stuck with for some time afterwards—and this is the key point. It was one I’d created when I hadn’t been in my right mind. Yet it became, in my mind, the absolute truth.

It made for a better story, that’s for sure. It got me pity from my lesbian friends (“Oh, she cheated on you … with a man!”), it earned me kudos for being the long-suffering breadwinner who got used up and ditched, and it made me have to not take on one shred of responsibility for why our relationship hadn’t worked out. I also enjoyed my role as victim because it gave me yet another excuse to explain my out-of-control drinking.

I’m not saying that people who aren’t alcoholics or addicts don’t do this same thing. Fact is, everybody, on occasion, will “spin” the facts of a situation to put themselves in the best light. Pathological liars do it as a matter of course, and don’t mind completely inventing things in order to manipulate people. But most people don’t go that far, and when they distort the facts deliberately, they are aware they’re doing it and at least may eventually set the record straight. But addicted people are under the influence so often that virtually everything in their lives gets at least a little flipped. Thus we wind up living in a delusional reality: not quite as delusional as that of a schizophrenic, but a distorted reality nevertheless, and it’s not entirely intentional.

So sobriety becomes a process of unraveling all the bullshit, separating the facts from the fictions we made up along the way. It is a long process of reevaluating your entire life, all the events, and all the people in it.

It’s heartbreaking: we have to own a lot of crap and swallow a lot of pride. But there are definite benefits. You clear the decks, wipe the slate clean, and begin again with a stronger foundation. So it’s not like you wasted your life. You learn from it. Another benefit is that your bullshit meter becomes more highly calibrated than that of the average person. You get good at cutting through all the nonsense and going to the real heart of a matter, because you can spot a rationalization, a projection, an assumption, an ulterior motive, a mile away.

As they say, it takes one to know one.

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