[I'm often asked what it means to be an alcoholic. How is it possible to be otherwise solidly rational, yet repeatedly make bad decisions that are guaranteed to hurt yourself or those close to you. Didn't I understand how dangerous and destructive my behavior was? Didn't I know that there were better choices? And of course I did understand and I absolutely knew the impact of my behavior. But, by the time it reached the point of destruction, I was no longer under my control.
This is, of course, a departure from triathlon. But it's a way for me to illuminate my personal history. And, just maybe, help those out there trying to understand how even a smart, capable person can drink themselves into near oblivion.
And sometimes it's just important to remember where you're coming from in order to make it to where you're going.]
I hate to feel vulnerable. To feel exposed and perused, critiqued and judged. I fear it for reasons you may expect – I worry I won’t meet expectations or be a disappointment to anyone who cares. I have carried these worries around since childhood, tucked away from sight and rarely mentioning them to even my closest confidants. I think if I considered it carefully, I would have realized that I wore these emotions on my sleeve – that my fears were as easily identifiable as my behaviors were predictable. But I thought I hid them well, even craftily. Of course I didn’t. Such is irony.
I remember so little clearly from my childhood, and often envy those who have bright and crisp memories of both the banal and monumental experiences. But I do have certain moments that stuck in time for me, that I can still feel the air around my body and the emotions in my bones. The clearer memories are often the most evocative ones – those that elicited some new reaction or emotional response. The fuzzier ones bear witness to moments of comfort and careless joy, love and acceptance. I carry those with me as well, but they’re in a different suitcase.
I remember as a child wanting to live up to expectations – to those expectations of my parents, my teachers, my music instructors, and my extended family. One slip, one deviation from the expected or the hoped for would send my small body into a tail spin. I remember clearly my fourth grade social studies class – the last hallway of classes towards the road, down the hall, past the bathrooms, and on the left. I can’t remember the teacher in detail or by name, but simply his form. He was small, diminutive, with soft edges and a fuzzy balding head. He wore cardigans and bow ties. He used a pointer with a cream colored rubber tip on a pull down map that would rumble and shake with each articulation. I sat in the very middle of the class and learned the continents and basic geography. I remember knowing where
These details are fused with me through memory from one moment in time. I had received a failing grade, passed back from the student ahead of me and the one ahead of her. I was shocked, affronted. I felt exposed and disappointed and confused…and fearful. I flushed directly. I sucked in a squeaked breath and my insides turned to jello. I was either going to vomit or have diarrhea, or likely both. My fear had liquefied my insides like a destructive acid, invisible to the other students, but burning a fire throughout my torso. I desperately feared disapproval. I feared admonition. But, mostly, I feared being found out. My body revolted at the possibility. Having my shame exposed, my inadequacies confirmed. For public confirmation of being an outsider, not belonging. I somehow knew that I was that one thing that did not belong with the others.
I never learned what to do with those feelings, how to manage them. I bore down and pushed through the emotion. I ranted and raved against the feeling and tore into my parents, looking for response. I quietly consumed the confirmation and felt full with my own frustration. As a child I could not find the words, I only experienced the raw emotion. As an adult, I did not realize it needed articulation, no one told me life didn’t have to feel that way. I thought my fears and worries were an approximation of real life. I thought that this unmentionable measurement against the rest of my world was both private and unique, but shameful.
The anxiety was exhausting. I was twisted up with anticipated expectations and imprecise rules. I was a constant barometer, measuring others approval in casual glances and subtext. I never knew what I should be, or how to do that. I saw the ease with which my friends floated through life and I compared my own toppled insides. I never felt appropriate, so I always did the appropriate thing. I never felt like an insider, so I craved belonging. I continued to be convinced that there was something inherently wrong with me – so deeply connected with something I did wrong or was foolish about years ago and long forgotten. Something so wrong that I could never allow that fear from social studies, the fear from camps and middle school dances, the fear from acne and double chins…that cumulative construction of my conclusion of ineptitude.
So I hid. I hid myself. I hid my fears. I hid my progressive shame. And as an adolescent I was awkward, yet gifted. I was told of my talent but terrified of whispering in corners. And it was fine to be awkward, for a time. Through college plowed through the emotion again, revolting against my own potential, convincing myself that it was a farce or some cruel construct placed on me by fate.
I hid from commitment, I hid from responsibility. I hid from any challenge that may reveal my true adequacies. I hid from my own potential and progress.
I coveted the warm surge of wine soaked belonging. I could feel graceful and thin, gracious and uniquely beautiful. I could feel like a jewel and loved. Without question, my intoxicated self was intoxicating. I was addicted to her -- her without the weight of insecurities. Her, who had style and grace, said all the right things and found creative ways to engage and elicit. Her.
And I coveted. Those moments were mine, all mine. I knew the key and knew it's price. And I was willing. Willing to pay the price of loss, disappointment, and failed promises to have those moments that far outweighed my reality. Those moments of complete levity and release. I had eyed those emotions -- those great crests of confidence and beauty -- dolefully from behind a glass partition. Wine crashed through the resistance and allowed me to bathe in it.
And, as you would expect, my life began to fade from view and slip away. The harder I pushed for that time alone, the more I had to trade for it. Every day was a compromise and every day capsuled a palatable failure. Every day I would promise myself that I didn't need this to be Her. And every day I was unable to find out, even for those few hours, what that would feel like. And every day I gave in. And each time it reminded me of why that was all I deserved.
To be an alcoholic seems like an indulgence to those who don't experience the why. To skip out on responsibilities and add only the minimum required appears to be the easy way out -- a self centered exercise for all to see. And it angers and incites and frustrates. It harms and alters those in its wake. It spits on all the work you do -- your hard efforts, your good decisions.
But to an alcoholic, there is nothing indulgent about drinking. Nothing is ever enjoyed without taint -- every moment, stolen or earned, is poisoned with your own shame. Shame colors your own reflection and erodes the lining of your soul. Shame is the inevitable parasite that is barely tolerated as you barely make your way through the day. Shame answers back from the bottom of a toilet and through the din of a headache. Shame pierces your future and drains your promise. It is a lifestyle. It is an imperitive. It is an absolute and the only emotion you can manage to experience. Shame doesn't require articulation, it just is. And then, when you're not looking, it is what you have become.