My friend refers back to a favorite t-shirt of his which read, “Outwardly Calm.” That describes, rather accurately, the preferred image I’d like to portray to others. Anything short of that can mean I’m vulnerable or defective, and in need of help. If my ego had its way, I’d be completely invulnerable, never needy or weak, or any of that silly stuff that’s for kids. Even when I was a youngster, I wanted to be Superman, or at least able to fly.
I still have flying dreams. My friends or people I know are always close by in the dreams. I impress them by floating above their heads and zooming around like a fighter jet. They always look at me and wonder how I do it. Interestingly, I can never seem to fly above power lines.
Ever since I can remember, my dad tried to teach me how to be a man. Often he would compare me against Roy, my cousin. Roy had all the right and important stuff. He was eight weeks older than me, slightly taller, could run slightly faster, could throw a football farther, had bigger muscles, and could get a deeper tan than me. He also had a wonderful and beautiful mom who was brought down from heaven just to be there for Roy. She was the walking embodiment of grace; always had the right thing to say, always carried herself with majesty, had a great sense of humor, and was loved by all. She even directed her local church choir. Dad would often motivate me by saying, “Don’t you want to be like Roy?” Whenever I was shy or uncomfortable in a crowd, he’d say, “Hold your chest up! Get up there to the front of the line! Stand up for yourself!”
I was never gonna be like Roy. I seemed to have a knack for constantly proving this to my dad. It was often painful and I ended up spending the better part of my life being really pissed off at my dad for being such a douche bag.
Dad was a hard worker. He was a blue-collar man who worked his way up through the company, starting out by running a giant printing machine, then moving up to Quality Control, with an office of his own. He worked for the company for 35 years. He never got fired. He provided everything we needed monetarily and we never spent a day going hungry. He saved his money with discipline and is now retired comfortably. Dad never had a problem with alcohol. He never talked about his problems. He never visited a psych ward. If he ever did need help, I don’t think he asked for it. He got through any difficulty on his own. That’s the way I saw it. That, in fact, was wrong.
As an alcoholic, I am particularly skilled at comparing my insides against other peoples outsides. I would often try to model my insides against the outsides of those I admired. The fact is, however, I had no earthly idea how much they might be struggling, or whether they had issues with substance abuse, or even whether they had secret fears they would suffer with for the majority of their lives. I only saw what I wanted to see. Anyone who did show signs of difficulty might end up the subject of my discreet cruelty or the brunt of private mimicking. I would never want people to poke fun at me. That would be unbearable and unfair. I had lived my life trained to never be overcome by failure; to remain stable and unaffected by the common woes of life. This would keep me insulated from embarrassment and potential isolation. As much as I may not have liked my father, I did want him to love me, and I did want to be a success in his eyes. Somewhat unconsciously, I wanted to live up to the standard of achievement he had set for me. If he could do it, with all his ignorance and limited insight, I could do it better.
At some point, depression started getting the best of me. I blamed my mom for it. Her mental illness, suicide attempts, and terrible attitude were at the core of my problems. I clung to my thinking, much of which had been formulated in my childhood. It’s interesting how the simple constructs of childhood reasoning can be carried into adulthood; never grown out of, just enhanced with the sophistication of intelligence and experience.
Some of my core thinking had survival as its inspiration. When I was nine years old, my mom’s second husband used to beat her regularly and would come after me on occasion and leave the welt marks of a whipping with a belt. It was violent and not the kind of thing a child should be exposed to; lots of screaming and trepidation when evening rolled around. I guess that lasted for a year or so. Later, when I moved back in with my dad, he seemed to spend a lot of time being angry with me. He had very little patience for my acting-out and his inability to control me and my “smart mouth.” There was not a lot of “warm and fuzzy” time around the homestead.
When you’ve survived that form of torture, and not found proper refuge or nurturing from a parent, showing any signs of weakness is not part of the plan for the future. I wanted to be tough, even though I was helplessly sensitive to seemingly everything. It would not be easy to ask for help, or to listen to advice that challenged me in any way. I was easily offended, lusted after control, and seemed to have an embarrassingly short temper. There was plenty of shame to accompany my sporadic outbursts, and lots of promises to never let it happen again.
Drinking alcohol offered relief because it made me feel better, but the deeper issues remained and I found myself dependent on its affect. Alcoholism is a progressive disease and the history of my drinking is proof of how it can ruin those of us with best of intentions. I finally found my bottom after great loss, and for me, it was only at this point of desperation that I could began to ask for help, admit my powerlessness, and really begin the hard work of recovery.
Admitting defeat. That’s about as tough as it gets. I’d rather eat a briar sandwich – or maybe six briar sandwiches. At first thought, admitting defeat meant I was weak and vulnerable. It meant people would know I had failed and they’ll all poke fun at me and certainly have no respect for me. I’ll be a weakling. My life will have been a failure. No one will love me. My dad will have no respect for me and my family and Roy and his mom will all think I’m stupid and worthless.
If that sounds a little childish, perhaps it is. As I mentioned before, most of this thinking originated from the powerlessness I felt as a child. I can even see Roy and his mom looking at me weird and disappointed. I can see that idiot beating up my mom and I can still feel that pain even as I write this. It sucks and it still hurts. And, apparently, it was still inspiring me, even into adulthood.
I depended on my thinking, which meant I had to be right. Being wrong meant failure. Being right meant safety and exclusion from pain. I was an expert at being right, and when I wasn’t right, I was an expert at wiggling out of the truth. I was never actually wrong, just misinformed. Whatever the case, it was never my fault. Surely I could find someone to blame.
Finally, someone said, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” Wow! That hit me between the eyes.
The psych ward probably brought me to my knees. The center where I stayed afterward, introduced me to recovery. I asked, “What if maybe I need to have a look at this? What if I’m possibly not right? What if I wanna just sort of stick my toe in the water and see what you’ve got to say? What then?”
Their answers didn’t work. Unbelievably, there was still another 10 months of drinking and medicating left in me. Finding my way to recovery was yet to come. I’d lost my job of 18 years, lost my marriage, and began alienation from my two girls. I didn’t show up for Christmas, missed both their birthdays, ran out of money, and would have been homeless had not my parents funded my apartment. I spent my time alone and struggling for the strength to kill myself. I could not muster that which I needed but could not fathom: trust.