Monday, June 20, 2011

Growing Up

I swear, I think I'm becoming the poster child for recovering alcoholics, or perhaps with summertime and the cold-beer-swillin' season upon us, more people are emailing me with questions. That's okay, I really don't mind sharing my experiences. I will say that my experiences are just that--they're MINE--so others' mileage may vary, but really, since most alcoholics act in amazingly predictable ways (we're all just variations on a theme), often I've found in retelling my experiences, they strike a chord of recognition in others.

I've written before here about how a chronic alcoholic eventually comes to live in an unreal world of distortions and exaggerations, perceived slights and paranoia. Getting sober becomes a process of figuring out what, precisely, was real and what was total bullshit, or what parts of a thing were real and what parts were the phantoms of the alcoholic's sick brain.

It can be tough to explain to someone who doesn't have an addiction problem because most of us have had a few drinks too many at some point, and we know how we acted. Our tongues loosen; we lose inhibitions. I know, way back when I was in grad school at Penn State, apologizing to a friend once over getting teary about something on one occasion when I'd been drinking, and she pooh-poohed that: "Sometimes the truth slips out when we're under the influence." And that is a true statement. At least, it's a true statement for someone who doesn't have a drinking problem.

For someone who has a drinking problem, the opposite is true. You can't trust anything we say when we're drinking. It's because we out-and-out make shit up. We may temporarily believe it while we're under the influence, but believing it doesn't make it true. We may even still believe it when we're sober, between binges. But seriously, somebody who drinks every day or every other day or even every third day ceases living in the real world at some point. Our lives become a muddle of distortion.

Everybody is out to get us: our bosses, our spouses, our friends, the government, the bartender who cuts us off, the therapist who tells us our drinking is out of control. Sometimes when what we say or believe is convenient for someone else to believe, they join us in the conspiracy of untruths. We sober up, and suddenly they've lost an ally. There is at least one drug addict I know who adamantly refuses to believe that I'm alcoholic. To accept that would mean she might have to accept she's got a problem herself. She liked me better when I was drinking and agreeing with her all the time! There is another who, because when I was drinking I was more than willing to collude with her in feeling victimized by certain persons, prefers to believe I was saner when I was drunk and that now, sober, I'm living in some kind of weird denial or living an act.

The truth is, I simply got sober and the person we see before us is the real me, and she honestly had no idea who I really am.

Well, people always believe what they want to believe. Sometimes we think we stand to gain something by keeping the blinders on. Alcoholics usually like their blinders because wearing them enables them to continue their addiction.

All I can say is that nobody should really trust a using addict or alcoholic. They might have good hearts and they might mean well. They might be loveable (in moments) and they might even believe half the shit they tell you. Some of it may carry a grain of truth. But the bottom line is, a using addict is not in their right mind. They see the world through hazy goggles. You can fully expect an alcoholic or addict who cleans up and gets sober to turn into a completely different person. HOW different depends on how bad off they were to begin with, how far along in their addiction they were.

Thankfully, for the vast majority of people, the sea change is an awesome, wonderful thing. For me, I've learned exactly how much I used to make assumptions, believe they were true, and then act out based on those beliefs. The arrogance! I was willing to believe half-stories and take action before getting the whole story. Nowadays I am willing to patiently get the whole picture, or at least as complete a picture as I can, and I'm not so quick to judgment--and even if I make a judgment, it's seldom done with any kind of blaming. It's done with understanding. I may disagree, but I don't feel the need to punish or persecute. People are who they are. I love them anyway.

It's a much better personal space to reside in rather than feeling angry and misunderstood all the time. I no longer have any expectations of anyone, beyond desiring them to be honest with me and to do the best they can. Consequently, people hurt me much less, and I don't take disappointments personally, because very seldom is something personal. And if it is, it reflects more on them than it does on me. These all seem to me to be healthier methods of coping with all the infinite varieties of human experience. It's much, much better than drinking and blowing up and living in a fictional world most of the time.

A sober colleague of mine once put it this way: stopping drinking, he said, was simply learning to grow up.

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