I gravitate toward believing that at the core of our experience as humans in this beautiful and chaotic world there’s something universal. It’s less lonely that way, believing that there’s something that binds us together, a landmark that we all would recognize if we were ever privy to someone else’s interior landscape.
That flash of commonality is what I reach for in a book. I’m always struck by the way that good authors can pull that common human thread–for better or worse–until I nod in recognition. It makes me suck in a breath, seeing the creeping darkness that sometimes skirts my edges spill out onto the page. Or causes my heart to practically explode with light at the potential humankind has for good and for hope.
I suppose you could call all this “the human condition,” but then it sounds like something that needs to be cured. And I can surely look around the world, especially lately, and see the destruction–of the earth, of each other–and feel the inky darkness, edging close to the brightest moments, making it hard for us to see each other, and think that maybe the human condition does need some curing. But then there’s all that joy in everyday moments to reckon with. The sheer beauty of connection and love. And all of it is bound up together. Co-existing.
For a long, long time, I didn’t know what to do with my darkness or my light. Everything felt like too much. The emotions felt too big to hold. Joy felt tenuous (surely someone would discover I wasn’t meant for joy and snatch it away). The darkness burned and ached and I just wanted to escape it.
And I dulled it all with a drink. And another. And another.
Until nothing mattered anymore.
That’s what being an alcoholic is like. Something that a lot of people can do just fine–with impunity, even–becomes all consuming. There’s nothing measured about the way an alcoholic drinks. They might be able to hold it together for a couple drinks in public. Or not. Alcoholics come in a lot of varieties. But almost all of us plunged to depths we’re desperate not to relive. Whether in public or private. Some of us were criminals. Some just morally bankrupt. All of us were big liars. Every last one.
Because all alcoholics have wildly different stories that end in the same place, we don’t have to look as hard for common threads. We know that there is, in fact, an interior marker that we all have. A place of brokenness and–if we’re lucky enough–a scar from the healing.
I suffered from a terminal desire to be special before I got sober. I thought I was the exception to every rule. I thought fate would ultimately smile in my direction, the way it does for the chosen few. Simultaneously, I thought I was too hideous to ever really be seen or loved.
Alcoholics are a study in contradictions.
But here’s where the thread frayed for me: sometimes I’d hear people in recovery say that in a perfect world they’d be able to drink normally. Or someone else would say that, if they found out they were dying, they’d start drinking again. And I just didn’t get it. My self-esteem was so shitty when I was drinking. I let people down left and right. I was an embarrassing mess. And I was awash in shame all the time.
So, I figured maybe I was special. Maybe I’d never wistfully think about a drink. I mean, I had a double mastectomy to stave off invasive breast cancer… and not once did I think, “What this health crisis needs is a shot of tequila!” And I know damn well that if I was dying the last thing I’d want is a drink, because I’d want every second with the people I love.
Life is beautiful and horrifying–but now I know it’s a gift and I don’t want to squander one minute.
I am not special. And while I do not want to drink, I finally (after 14 years) faced the first situation that had me in so much panic, fear, and shame that I would’ve done almost anything to escape it. It felt desperate. And horrible. I wanted it to stop. And I knew precisely what would make it stop.
In those dark & desperate moments, I remembered viscerally what it felt like to slide onto a bar seat. To hear the thunk of the pint glass on the table in front of me, to take a sip, and to feel it all slip away. To be completely released from fear and anxiety and uncertainty. To slip into a sweet haze of oblivion.
And then I understood.
We’ve all got the thing that feels like too much. The one greatest fear that feels too big to carry. And when things begin to unravel and that fear makes it all the way to the forefront until we’re staring it in the face…
Well, I suppose I can’t say what it’s like for anyone else to face down that fear. But I can say that, for me, I felt like my skin was burning from the inside out, while I shook with cold, fear, and despair. It all seemed hopeless. Futile. And couldn’t see past that exact moment to understand how I’d ever be okay again.
So, it’s probably not much of a mystery why I wasn’t keen on sitting with that particular feeling.
But what I have learned in the past 14 years is to surround myself with people that really know me. And love me. All the parts of me. I don’t keep secrets anymore. Because secrets feed shame; they keep us sick.
And so, I told Simon about the fear. And the darkness that was edging in, the hopelessness. I didn’t tell him about the brief but intense desire to liaise with a drink (not yet at least. That came later). But I told him the rest of it. The shame. The panic. About how I felt like the horrible things happening were all my fault.
He listened. He heard what I was saying and what I wasn’t. And, because this year marks 20 together and because regardless of our differences in personality, temperament, and really everything else, we are hellbent on loving each other, he knew what to say. He knew how to acknowledge the weight I carried on my shoulders, and how to gently take it from me. To make me lighter. To convince me that not only would the world continue to spin, but that I would be okay.
He brought me back to myself.
And then I could see more clearly what this crisis could offer me: a level-up on my understanding of my own capabilities and strength. I can do hard things. But sometimes I forget that I can. Or I sell my capabilities for resilience and innovation short.
And sometimes, I just forget how much I am loved. And all the good that the Universe wants for me. All the time. Even when the evidence appears to be to the contrary.
After 14 years, I still write and think about recovery because it’s still relevant. It will always be relevant for me. I came from a place of not believing I was worthy or capable. I thought that fucking everything up (rinse and repeat until the end of time) was my destiny. But those were lies (I told you about alcoholics and lies).
The truth: I am special. And not special at all. I am worthy of love and light. The universe wants only good for me.
But sometimes there will be chaos. And pain. And fear. And in those moments, the light will dim and the darkness and the lies will try to come rolling back. But now I know better. That’s what all that work was for. I know how damn hard it is to get sober. And I know I don’t ever want to have to get sober again.
So my choice is to get honest. To admit that my brain can do things that scare the hell out of me. But to also know that I am not alone, that I can rely on the people I love to pull me back toward the light until I can see it for myself again.
Secrets are only powerful until they’re spoken aloud. And darkness can’t fight the light.
Those are the common threads that continue to save me.