“People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” – James Baldwin
This is the quote that Dorothy Allison chose to put on the opening page of her novel, “Bastard Out of Carolina,” the page that comes before the first chapter, but after the one where she dedicates the work to her mother. Rummaging through a used bookstore last weekend, I came across a copy of this book and bought it. Though I knew it, I’d never read it. It takes place in Greenville County, South Carolina, the locale close to where my own mother grew up. In keeping with the tone, I should probably say, “Where my mama’s people come from.” This, plus the fact that it’s a continual presence on the American Library Association’s “Banned Books List” was more than enough to want to read it, and so I began this morning with a couple of mugs of coffee and the beginning of the story of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. Four chapters in, I’ve no regrets in picking it up.
The Baldwin quote, however, was the reminder of what today is and thus served as the impetus to sit down here in my studio this afternoon and write this post. Today is the last Sunday in March. (Yes, it is also Easter Sunday, but I’m not much of a celebrant of that holiday. It means little to me.) The last Sunday of March is the Sunday when, for many years, I picked up a chip at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that I regularly attended in Portland, Maine – the group that I considered my “home group,” in the parlance of AA. For a bunch of years; the 14th, 16th, 18th, years – the “in between, go along, live life” years – I assumed that today, I would pick up my chip to mark 20 years of sobriety. But I’m not in Portland today. And I’m not picking up that chip.
I was sober for 19 years and about 4 months, give or take. After all of those many days, I took a drink one afternoon last June. I’d share the story of picking up that drink in a meeting, except that for several reasons, I know it’s not the right place for such. For every good reason, AA meetings are about sharing and learning how to stay sober. They are most effective, in my opinion, when they stick to that single purpose. My story doesn’t stay on that track and for someone simply trying to get through a day without having a drink (an important, admirable, and really difficult thing for a number of folks), it’s a message that doesn’t help. But that said, it’s something I felt that I needed to put into words and share here, where over the past years, I’ve shared a lot about the story of me figuring out my path.
Last spring, I made a series of unwise decisions. I chose to open the door on some parts of me, to talk about some things that were of concern in my life, with the wrong person. They were things that I needed to talk about, for sure, but I could have picked a better time, situation, and person to share them with. One poor decision led to a couple more that ultimately led to nothing short of (pardon the expression) a clusterfuck of a mess, internally and externally. You’ve got to wonder why we do these things to ourselves from time to time, why we make decisions and choices that we know full well aren’t the best for anyone, ourselves in particular, but it happens. There we go. Down that road again.
After almost 2 decades of concentrated work on myself, building a life that is more in line with who I am and wish to be, I’ve developed a very full toolbox of skills to help me stay healthy. I know how to sit with myself, to talk to myself, to change the thinking that leads to behaviors that lead to negative thinking that lead to out-of-character behaviors that lead to emotional upheaval that lead to … well, you probably get the picture. Thinking and feeling and behaving are all intimately intertwined, and we can, if we wish, learn a whole host of ways to tackle thoughts, feelings and behaviors within that cycle that help us get back on and/or keep on a healthier path.
I’ve been a good student of these practices, over the years. I learned early on in that 19 years of sobriety, that not drinking was in many ways the easiest part of getting better. Figuring out why I chose to drink instead of deal with the life in front of me was a lot harder. I have been incredibly fortunate to have found a few professionals along the way; a couple of therapists who were excellent in their abilities to help me move emotionally, and a primary care doc who doesn’t believe that medicating someone for depression, alone, is the answer to mental health. After a year of taking a prescribed antidepressant, after I couldn’t quit crying daily in my cubicle and the thought of being involved in an airline crash was kind of appealing, my doctor said, “I do not want to just give you a pill that allows you to get through the days. I want you to be well.” And so he gave me the names of several therapists and I found the right one for me and I began the work of getting better. (This was all a few years ago and if you’re so inclined, you can read the longer version in the “Ordinary Year” tab of this blog.)
It wasn’t the first work, of course. It was just another chapter of work. Life is work, particularly for those of us who live in such a way and in such a society that affords us an awful lot of comforts. It’s ironic, isn’t it? When you live in a society where your biggest concerns are to have enough food to eat, to have a shelter over your head, to not contract some disease that will kill you before you’re twenty, to not be killed or raped or tortured by others who have nothing more to work towards than evil, you really don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to “suffer from clinical depression.” However, when you live in a society that affords you opportunities for education, work, friends and family and relative safety, it becomes incredibly easy to make life difficult. And that’s just what we do. We work at finding every sort of way to make life hard work. And then we get extremely pissed off when we have to do the work to make it not so. If it didn’t make for such a truly painful experience for a lot of innocent folks, the irony would be quite funny.
And such is where I was last spring, toiling away at making things much more difficult for myself than they needed to be, leading myself to a place that all of my “good thinking” tools stopped working. No matter what I tried, I could not get my mind to stop saying really awful, negative, pile-on and beat-down stuff to myself over and over and over. The interesting thing is that I didn’t feel depressed, not in the airplane crash/black cloud sort of way. I was just angry and hurt and really, really mad at myself – and I couldn’t shut up inside my head long enough to think it through and do some positive things to get back on track. So I made a decision. One more decision. There are legitimate arguments to be made to claim that it wasn’t the best decision, but in my heart and my head, I honestly believe it was okay. I would do it again, though in a different way, but given the same situation, I would choose those two shots of bourbon and a coke all over again.
The reason is simple enough. It worked.
My mind quieted of the negative thoughts and I immediately sat down and wrote out pages of thoughts and feelings and words that I needed to share with the person I was closest to in life, but hadn’t. I got the thoughts out of me. Literally. I put them onto pieces of paper, so that they would stop going around and around and around in my mind. It was hardly the end of working through everything – in many ways, it was just a start – but I needed something to open the door and at that moment, the alcohol served a medicinal purpose and allowed that to happen.
When I confessed my decision with my therapist, she said, “That is very normal behavior for most people, but you have a history of the behavior of drinking too much, of drinking rather than dealing with your feelings. You cannot forget that.” And I haven’t.
The science behind whether or not alcoholism is a disease alone that can be diagnosed and treated remains debatable. It isn’t my area of expertise or anything that I’ve studied and/or read enough about to have much of an informed opinion. What I do know, though, is myself. Because I have (and continue) to do the work to know me. I know when I’m healthy, when I’m okay, when I like myself. And I know when I’m not and/or don’t. I know the me that is constructive and creative and gives of myself to make my place in the world a positive, good place. I know when I treat other people and myself in the ways that are best. I know the me that goes to sleep content and happy, and I know the one who cannot sleep for being so sad and hurt. I’ve lived with both of these people, these parts of myself, for good stretches of time. And I know the one I prefer.
When March 3rd rolled around a few weeks back, Lynn gave me a card to mark the anniversary that wasn’t. She reminded me, as I’d reminded her earlier but maybe forgotten, that without that original date of March 3, 1993, that first 24-hours that started a journey of many sober days, we would not have the life that we have today. I can’t begin to imagine the past twenty years without all of those days. I don’t want to.
I believe that if I did celebrate at a meeting tonight, I’d share that what I learned in my 19th year of sobriety is that I’m not an alcoholic, but that I’m a person who once didn’t want to do the work that I needed to do to be the person that I really wanted to be. I probably needed to be sober for those many years to get to today. I am stubborn and not the fastest learner. I’m grateful that I’ve lived 40+ of my 50 years on the earth in homes and relationships that were healthy and happy. I’m grateful that I’ve endured only one really horrible and life-altering tragedy. I know that I’m fortunate in countless ways. I know full well that it’s the combination of these things and many more that landed me here in this chair at this desk in this studio today. As they say in those meetings, “I’m here to claim my seat.”
“People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”