In clinical understanding and recovery common knowledge it’s said alcoholics stop maturing at roughly the time addiction takes hold. A man who starts drinking alcoholically at the age of 19, say, will react to the trials and glories of life as a 19 year old would, even when he’s a 70 year old codger. Alcoholism exercises some psychic freeze in the brain, forbidding wisdom to take root while allowing all the other aging processes to settle in on their merry way.
This always made sense to me in kind of a metaphorically speaking way, but I never fully trusted it. It is untrue to say that alcoholics are unanimously “immature”. We count brilliant doctors and artists, gifted spiritual leaders among our ranks; are we also the emotional equivalent of a toddler with a crappy diaper and a howling desire to be fed?
I was 31 years old when I quit drinking. I would have readily admitted to having shortcomings, but immaturity would not have come to mind. In the rickety course of those 31 years, I’d seen some things. This is life: we all see things, sooner or later. We fall in love, we get embarrassed, we let some treasured dream go as beyond our capabilities. We look hard at dying things. Indeed as an alcoholic I probably saw a good deal many more things than the usual Jane Doe does in her fair share; I’d had a career and lost it, I’d had a marriage and lost it, a child and lost it. I’d had (and lost) more relationships and brilliant plans than most people do in a lifetime. I’d been christian and atheist and vaguely pagan. I’d been to New Orleans Parish Prison for godsake; if that’s not seeing life, I don’t know what is.
Oh I had drunk champagne beneath the Eiffel tower and I’d swum naked in the Pacific under a full moon. I knew Life.
If you can’t catch the sarcasm in my voice, let me tell you: I’m ridiculing that 31 year old self. From the vantage point of a little bit of sobriety, I am amazed at how wrong that woman was. Yes, I saw and did many things. But I’d not accepted them or integrated them. I was unable to know or live the lessons those experiences should have taught me. Instead, I was a 31 year old drifter, not answering the phone because of a hangover, feeling sorry for myself because life seemed such a burden.
I was cynical. But cynicism is a shoddy pretend half sister to maturity, sniffing at higher and lower orders both. As if I somehow knew better.
Meanwhile, people around me seemed to have figured something out that I just didn’t get. Friends entered serious, committed relationships and seemed changed by them. Other friends entered law school, taught math in the city, fought for the hearts of kids. There was a thread to life, a progress, an unfolding, that I hadn’t gotten involved in. At 18, being wild and in love was kosher. At 23, I was adored for my ability to mix a vodka martini while telling stories of world travel. At 27, though, the stories told at family gatherings or once in a blue moon girlfriend chats changed; my friends had these interesting, convoluted, sometimes dangerously deceptive 2 kids and a Subaru kind of lives that seemed, underneath it all, solid and true. One girl friend told me of a pregnancy, and in later years I saw that kid struggle to toddlerdom, careen into the Beloved Son, and go shuddering off into the world of middle school with his bangs in his eyes and his shoes untied. I, meanwhile, said the same thing to this girlfriend about my life, year after year after year. I was always meaning to start something, or just getting over a crisis. But the fact is, I didn’t have a life to talk about. At 31, I was the only one left in the bar.
I could call that glamorous. But it wasn’t. My family members evolved through births and deaths and cross-country moves to some narrative I’d not been given the script to. My peers became lawyers, or priests, or stay at home dads with an incredible talent for photography. They had stories. I was a stuck record. What’d you do? or what’s going on with you these days? could only really tell the story of which bar I’d visited on the weekend, or involve an apology for not showing up, or express self-pity for the difficulties I had at work/school/relationships. I realized later that I had the same relationships, over and over again, with the same problems and ending in similar ways. And I had the same crises in my development as a writer, or my boss, or my landlord.
I no longer had anything to say for myself.
Maturity: the right things at the right time
Maturity has something to do with appropriateness; feeling grief at a loss, remorse when we’ve hurt someone. It is the bigger knowing of how to act with these feelings. Maturity involves the knowledge that feelings will change, being feelings; it’s the cognizance of a bigger picture. Alcoholism destroys the appropriateness of feelings and distorts reaction. This is why they say that bit about ‘stunting’; it’s common for an alcoholic to react to setbacks over and over again in the same way without perceiving a need to change or a sense of continuity.
Not only do alcoholics repeat experiences without change, they often react inappropriately. They may overreact to a small setback or take a minor argument as an excuse to end a relationship. At the same time, alcoholics have a sense of numbness and under-reaction. They under-react to negative events, or fail to respond to major issues that need their attention. An alcoholic knows what it’s like to blow up over spilt milk, but not feel much at all as your marriage deteriorates. Many alcoholics know how detached one can feel watching the emotions of others; we know everyone at the Christmas gathering is happy but don’t feel it ourselves; we are simply unmoved by the tear-jerker movie.
A year or two before I’d quit drinking I’d decided to write a story on a man named Bobby. Bobby was a homeless guy running a racket holding visitor’s bags and cellphones on Riker’s island. I’d mentioned the story in the company of other writers and one of those writers violated what seemed to me every ethical code there be by publishing my story idea as his own. He didn’t even write it well. A mature person would probably have any number of ways to react to this. A mature person would probably also have more stability in life and not be depending on each freelance story to buy the groceries. But stable, mature, I was not. I reacted to losing Bobby’s story -and the credit for it- by seething quietly at the gills. Fuming under pent breath. My reaction was to drink. I drank. I drank and I read the published story out loud to any one who would listen. Once alone, the anger proved to be a mask to a depression. I felt defeated, outdone, caught. It seemed I wasn’t such a good writer, after all; this other guy did it better, and he actually sucked. I had seemed proof that I would never become a successful writer. Proof that my ideas were awful. That I couldn’t make it. Here was the fact that I was worthless; worse than worthless, I was a fool for not realizing my worthlessness sooner.
I forgot about the story but the sense of defeat walked with me for days, filtering all my interactions and every project I took up. Fueled, probably, by every whiskey I downed in that week’s time. Sure enough, a week later, I was considering how much better off the world would be, my friends and family in particular, if I ceased to be. For alcoholics, praying that that 18 wheeler will take you out can be a fairly normal emotion. I got suicidal when someone ‘stole’ my story, but by the time I was that low down, I didn’t realize the story had started it.
Here is the reverse: I was a barmaid and I, like barmaids will, had people stay after closing time. They finished their drinks, I’d probably be drinking too, they tip well and everybody leaves happy. It was a Wednesday in september. I was working alone. Then, the two guys raped me. They dragged me across the cement floor, caught me in the bathroom, and took me down the wall. I broke an arm and chipped a tooth and choked on cock, bled from my anus all over the octagon tiles.
My reaction was, first of all, whiskey. Then it was a flight to Guatemala and a clip of dropped classes. I didn’t tell anyone, made up lies about why I couldn’t say goodbye in person. Said I was fine, happy, excited. I didn’t realize my wrist was broken until I was in the Guatemalan highlands and someone insisted on having it checked by a doctor.
I might have under-reacted in order to survive. I didn’t feel anything in order to go on being ok. I can see how I needed to numb myself until the event was distant enough, safe enough, to no longer tear me apart. I also know that is common in sexual assault. Splitting. Dissociating. Numbing. I don’t regret or feel a need to hyper analyse that numbness.
It is common, but I am also convinced I went numb because I was an alcoholic. I’m convinced of this because I reacted to every crisis with numbness. I may share it with other survivors, but all the other times it’s just a weird coping skill of my own. wierd coping skills were ubiquitous. Cry over spilt milk; ignore the eviction warning. Put every hope in a one night stand; get bored with the nice guy who’s worried about me. This is an alcoholic’s brain on stress.
I thought myself mature; I’d traveled the world, had successes, brushed off failures. But I existed in a strange bubble of nonsense, a nonsense everyone could see but myself. I thought myself a grown up, but I didn’t even know what I was feeling. I didn’t know who or where I was. Grown up, like hell.
Here’s a story: a man went to treatment for drug and alcohol problems. In his counselor’s cheap partitioned office there was one of those posters with dozens of smiley faces and names of emotions. This is what rage is. This is rejection. A blank forehead and wide eyes means confusion; squinted eyes and a smile is joy. When you leave here, the counselor said, not only will you be familiar with each of these feelings (yes, each and all), but you will know why you are feeling them. The man was dumbfounded. All he knew how to be was mad or asleep. I get that, because I’m an alcoholic.
Maturity and Denial
Wisdom, there’s a word for maturity. We say Sage. Knowledgeable. Well-heeled. What we’re talking about when we say ‘wisdom’ comes down to a certain facility with emotions. A wise man will know what he feels and why. He’ll feel anger or joy or loneliness at the right time.
One of wisdom’s key attributes, having to do with that bigger picture mentioned above, is the ability to feel and express empathy. Consider: empathy is what makes a Ghandi or an Elanore Roosevelt. Empathy is the center not only of intimate relationships- which can’t go very far without it – but also of business acumen or political savvy. It’s empathy that marks kids out as ‘emotionally intellegent’, according to the classic book. Emotional intelligence allows for flexibility, for right action at the right time, for an understanding of circumstances and of others. Emotional intelligence is at the heart of self mastery, and empathy is at the heart of emotional intelligence. Aristotle would probably say that empathy is the core of his virtue ethics and understanding of excellence. Wise people are good not only with their own thoughts and feelings, but with right responses and intuitions about the thoughts and feelings of others.
Empathy is hard for alcoholics. Running right alongside that is the common refrain in recovery literature and self help circles about selfishness. We learn that it’s self-obsessed fear or insecurity that drives us and screws us up. We learn to step out of our own selves, to serve others, in order to get better. In a sense, we’re taught to act as empathetic beings before we know how to feel the thing. Like learning to drive on a video game.
I have seen how this works out in the lives of others and looked back in my own experience to see it true, but I’ve wondered why alcoholics should be immature and self-centered. Why does that happen? What makes us like that? And why is it the people who get this, who practice service and empathy and chide their selfish selves, who seem to get better? Who find joy in selflessness? Saving the self by forgetting the self? How can we both not care about anything but ourselves and not know what it is we really feel?
And why, since it seems to be true that we’re self-oriented and find empathy hard in general, does it also seem that alcoholics are tremendously smart and well rounded and together in other respects? I’ve known very compassionate people who are alcoholic; people who are pastors and nurses and caregivers, therapists. It cannot be true that these people are ‘immature’ or ‘self-oriented’ and that’s the end of the story. Alcoholics can be very ‘high-functioning’, holding down high pressure jobs and managing the supervision of employees, massive amounts of money, or issues of tremendous importance to others, on a daily basis. I’ve known a lot of alcoholics who really are incredibly smart. I know that I handled some parts of my life with grace and moxie. I survived that violence without too much wear. I make a mean pork chop. I’;ve read more than most small town graduating classes put together. I am an intelligent, and furthermore kind, woman. How, then, am I also self-centered and unsympathetic?
I think the answer to both those questions is buried deep in the fisted heart of denial, that other bastion of alcoholic how to.
The Deep Fisted Heart of Denial
Alcoholics come in all shapes and sizes. It hits every socio-economic group and all levels of intelligence. We are rich and poor, talented and clumsy, articulate and shy. Men, women. You know. It’s only natural then that the symptoms and effects and behaviors of alcoholism are unique to each one of us. Some of us black out, some never do. Some went to jail, some didn’t.
Denial, though, is the one part of alcoholism that every alcoholic shares. Alcoholism is denial.
It’s multifaceted. I denied (minimized, justified, hid, didn’t mention) how much or how often I drank to others.
But my brain also denied (minimized, justified, hid, didn’t mention) how much or how often I drank to myself. This was half true and not true at all at the same time: I knew and would admit that yes, I was drinking last night, but I wouldn’t connect my feelings of emptiness or guilt to that fact at all. Nor would I connect drinking two days later with the first incident and wonder if they made a pattern. I could see no pattern. Each drink happened distinct, autonomous, and entire. I had drinks to celebrate and others to wind down. I had drinks with dinner and others on a beach. I had a drink one night with friend x, and three days later with friend y. To my mind, these were not related. I didn’t notice the common denominator. My brain didn’t tell me I was drinking. Hourray! it said. or goddamn it. or oh my god its good to see you again. screw him, it said, or, why now? but never you’re drinking you’re drinking you’re drinking.
People talk of denial being a kind of forgetting. Most of us have had moments in which we swore (or promised someone else) we’d never drink again. Most of us seemed to strangely forget that vow within a matter of minutes, days, or months. But it’s a particular breed of forgetfulness; we don’t necessarily forget our own phone numbers or where we grew up as a kid. We don’t forget our husband’s birthday. But we forget how awful sick we were, or how deeply ashamed, or how terrified.
Think about it. Without denial, alcoholism wouldn’t work. We’d have these terrible consequences, know what happened, and desire to stop. Without the denial coming in, we’d just stop. There wouldn’t be a problem. But we do deny, and denial allows the cycle or pattern to repeat itself.
Once we’ve denied, we’re also involved in a lie. Once denial kicks in, the truth gets fuzzy and relative and uncertain. Naturally, lies, truth, and behaviors affect our emotions. Put denial and emotions together and you get very confused, broken people. That’s exactly what alcoholics are.
Back, then, to the stunted growth of an alcoholic. If I began this denial at the age of 13, told some lie, splintered experience from what I remembered, than the balance between inner and outer worlds, myself and others, split. Emotions go haywire. I have a disease that needs me to keep drinking and is willing to call a white horse black if it needs to. The disease starts saying “i don’t feel guilty’ or ‘that wasn’t so bad’, when truth says otherwise. Alcoholics lose the capacity to feel the right thing at the right time. Since what we feel and think doesn’t correspond to the larger picture, since we have to deny our behaviors to others, part of us starts to believe I’m in this all alone. No one else is here, no one knows this.
Depending on who we are, what other help or problems we have, how young we are and how quickly we develop alcoholism, the ways we deny vary. I watched a man tell his girl he hadn’t been drinking for days while sipping vodka out of a plastic water bottle. The odd thing was, both knew it. He knew she knew it. But he still felt compelled to deny. I’ve watched little kids say that ‘mommy’s sick’ and I’ve watched siblings bail each other out of jail so the rest of the family wouldn’t know. When I was a kid, I’d ask for money for pizza, but was always buying booze. How we deny might have varied, but we all did it. Denial was the mechanism by which we lose the ability to learn from our experience. It’s also the mechanism that starts isolating us from every other human being on the planet. It’s the denial that makes the relationships sick, the behaviors strange, and recovery difficult.
When that lie became imprinted in our soul’s pocket, we change. There isn’t any bigger picture. We know in our hearts I’m in this all alone. We do learn somethings. We master some things. Oftentimes, pushed perhaps by a nagging desire to make up for shortcomings, we drive ourselves ruthlessly. Alcoholics are frequently highly ambitious, leaders in their fields, highly competitive, deeply perfectionist. But because we are simply unable to integrate some of our experiences, we remain half formed, partial souls, unfinished people. We’re emotional cripples.
A girl I knew lay on her couch staring at the burnt lightbulb in the ceiling fixture. She thought about changing it, the difficulty of getting a ladder, etc, etc and wished she – like other women she knew – had a man to fix it for her. She sipped at her cocktail. “I laid under the light all night long, feeling sorry for myself, drinking alone. Never mind that it was Friday and I wasn’t trying to meet anyone. Never mind that I’d ignored invitations from friends. And certainly not looking at my part in why the last few relationships failed. Just drinking and warped by self pity.”
“Then I remembered that I’d once been a lighting technician.”
The Why And the Bigger Picture
Maturity or emotional intelligence matters, I think, a great deal. The lack of it rolls insipid cycle of active alcoholism. Having it makes recovery possible.
Imagine this. A small group of life long friends is gathered around a campfire. The discussion turns, slow and steadily, to what each wants to do with his life. Not in the sense of careers or achievements. Half of these men are retired. Instead, they are talking about what they want to accomplish before they die. What they feel compelled to do. What gives them joy.
One of these men is quiet. When pressed, he shrugs. In my heart of hearts, he says, I just can’t believe that anything good ever really happens.
Or this. A young man commits suicide. At his funeral, there is all sorts of talk about why, how could he, why didn’t he think about his daughter, what was he thinking? I, shotglass and bottleneck in hand, had a hard time joining these conversations. What do you mean? You haven’t thought about it? I know exactly what he was thinking.
Because we are alcoholics, we live in denial. Because we live in denial, we are isolated and emotionally dyslexic. Because we live in denial, we can’t shake the idea that I’m in this all alone. Recovery feels like being born. The difference is not subtle. It is more than black and white. The difference between active alcoholism and recovery is like the difference between life and death. But how do you go from denial to integrity?
How dare you acknowledge, and then somehow change, your core belief whispering this is it.?
Integrity, Emotions, and how we get sober
Recovery is terrifying because it means learning to feel, to acknowledge our immaturity, and to put all the pieces together. That means we have a backlog of emotions to go through, and the process can be daunting. If your goldfish died thirty-seven years ago, you’ll have to grieve it. Recovery is also threatening because it shakes our core belief and forces us, all vulnerable and unprepared, to grow up.
But this is also why recovery is so amazing. This is what recovery IS. A person who’s very gut knows he’s alone and doesn’t matter becomes a person who’s core knowledge is one of belief, purpose, rightness of it all and strength. Strength strong as bedrock. Alcoholism is tragic and painful because it gives us half selves, sick souls, unfinished human beings. But once we see our partial selves, we know the fragile and sad version of life as well know it isn’t everything: there is more. Denial breaks and we’re forced, a bit belatedly, to go through the stages of human development like a normie. Maybe that’s why recovery can look so drastic, so compelling, so believable to people even outside of it: it’s the human story, writ large. What an alcoholic needs to figure out is what we all need to figure out. We’ve got to figure out who it is we are. Who we are, right now.
How, why, what happens are questions we all ask and no one has any good answers for. Statistics can’t predict who has a shot at recovery and who doesn’t. The odds of anyone getting better are slim to none (90% of alcoholics die actively drinking). But there they are, these recovering ones, with six months sober, with 2 years, with 50 sober years. When we have seen the change – existential and gut wrenching and utterly profound – that comes to an alcoholic in a relatively short amount of time, or even more, when we meet a person with long term sobriety who exemplifies humility, a sense of purpose, a steadiness and rightness we want to call integrity, we want to know how to give it to all the suffering alcoholics. If we have family or friends stuck in the deep fisted heart of denial, we want them to understand (to DO) this integrity thing. When we are active alcoholics, the idea of a life unlike the one we’re living seems idiotic, too simple, impossible. Maybe it works for them, we say, but I’m not like that. It’d never work for me. Doctors and psychiatrists and science have long wondered at what happens to turn a drunk into a recovering alcoholic.
It comes – sharp and really painful, usually, when we can see the bigger picture for even a moment. When we realize what we see and feel is not what’s happening out there in the larger world. When we still feel nothing really good ever happens…I am alone…real change is impossible…you can’t..but are able to wonder if that belief might be wrong. If there might be more to the story. My first sponsor sat across from me picking at a chef salad. I told her I didn’t really get it, I didn’t really know if I could, I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t flinch at my doubts. All you’ve gotta do, she said, is take an honest look at your life an accept what it is you see.
Acceptance is the beginning of the 12 steps, the moment of clarity when we know we are sick. Acceptance is a sledgehammer to denial, and we are able to see how lopsided and crippled we are. Acceptance is the moment of recognition in which we see our half-souls, realize we are not people of integrity, but wish we were.
Denial is alcoholism, and it leaves us with half-lives. Recovery is acceptance. And acceptance, then, is maturity. Acceptance is also that glimpse of hope: if I’m only half, than there is more. If I’m an alcoholic, I can recover. At base, the man at the campfire, my friend the suicide, and myself had all lost hope. We couldn’t see a bigger picture.
Know Hope: Acceptance
I’ve been playing with semantics: Alcoholism is denial and immaturity, the inability to see past isolation; recovery is acceptance of one’s sick half un-intergrated soul; acceptance is maturity; maturity is wholeness; wholeness is integrity. Integrity is the state of being part of something larger than oneself.
It is a mystery why some people are able to recover. Some people desperately want to recover and are unable to. Relapse is also something of a mystery, if we’re honest. But I believe acceptance, or hitting bottom, or admitting defeat, or asking for help all involve the knowing of hope to some extent. If we can admit that we have a disease, we can learn of the disease’s treatment. If we can admit to being an alcoholic (not a unique, completely unprecedented form of alcoholic -like behavior), than we can also admit that there are alcoholics who have gotten better.
And hope, I think, doesn’t need to be much. Most of us didn’t fully believe we’d get sober, or, if we got sober, that we’d feel any better. Over and over again I was told ‘you don’t have to feel this way anymore’, ‘you’re not alone’, ‘you never have to drink again’: I didn’t totally believe it. I believed it very, very little. I thought there was a ninety-nine million percent chance these ‘recovery’ people were bullshit.
But I also thought, maybe. Maybe? Maybe this life I’ve been living isn’t the whole story; maybe there is more. That has been enough, so far.
The Recovery Process
is a process. Recovery can be terrifying because we suspect we’ll have to feel, or learn how to feel. Most of us have a backlog. If your goldfish died in 1974, you will have to grieve it now. No-one is ‘recovered’ or ‘cured’ the moment they decide to stop drinking, just as no one is wise when they are a two year old. Figuring out our emotions is in many ways what we do all our lives.
Unfortunately, though, many alcoholics (and those around them) expect complete change immediately. It is true that alcoholics are stunted by their disease, and that they careen wildly ahead and learn faster than growing mold once they’ve gotten sober. But there are stages to maturity, shared across time and by all human beings, and moving from one place to another takes time and the willingness to simply experience the place one is.
There is a temptation to look for one minute miracles, or lists of principals. It can be tempting to think you do 12 steps and then get better. Recovery, though, isn’t like that. Recovery is like the proverbial path or journey that one takes to become a hero. Metaphores for jouneys, changes, the stages of life are strong in recovery. There is a sense of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which we must begin with meeting our needs for food and shelter, and slowly work our way up to ‘self-actualized’ beings. There is much of Jung and Erich Fromm. Even the stories of traditional religions are used, in recovery, more often as symbols of transformation than as miracle cures.
Maybe I am wrong to say that, I’m assuming miracles have to occur immediately. Maybe miracles happen slow as time, as deep as growth. Maybe the odd reality of becoming finer selves is miracle enough.