The Downside of Getting My Way

From Believed to Be Seen,
"When I was in high school a teacher asked our class to look at our futures and think of what goals we would like to achieve. Being seventeen years old I felt life would be complete if I could see some of my favorite bands perform live and own a big-screen TV. While I vividly remember daydreaming about how great it would be to see a few concerts and bask in the luxury of a massive glowing screen, my goals have evolved slightly as my understanding of what is possible has. [...] In his 2011 Dartmouth College commencement address, Conan O’Brien spoke to this process, explaining, 'It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.'"
From time to time it dawns on me just how terrible life would be if all I ever got was my way. I like to think of myself as some kind of Big Picture thinker, but when it comes right down to it my imagination is pretty limited. What I mean by that is: The universe seems to have a way of providing a richer life for me than the one I imagined as ideal for myself.

What I mean by that is, whatever version of an ideal life I'm able to come up with – my imagination almost always falls short of what life actually offers me. And what life tends to offer me is far more challenging, rewarding, terrifying, and satisfying than anything that I'd have come up with if I was running the show. (If I'd have gotten my way when I was young, my life would have been forever confined to the hopes, dreams, and imagination of a seventeen year old... what a sad state of affairs that would have been!) Therein lies the beauty of not getting my way: The majority of the time I end up in a better place because of it.

The Elevator to Success

This evening, at a meeting, an older guy shared an experience he'd had earlier in the day. Reading the newspaper (which, as he said, is how you know he's old), he was doing one of the word puzzles – the type where it provides the first few words of a phrase, leaving you to solve for the remaining blank spaces. "There is no elevator to success," the solution began, "you've got to take the steps."

What continues to resonate with me now is that if "success," serenity, or well being are to be had on the top floor, whatever that might be, I recognize that I go looking for the elevator when I'm thinking only about my success, my serenity, or my well being. And for some unknown reason – when I make my life all about me, there's typically little of any of them to actually be had.

Taking the steps to success requires effort, and it's in such spaces where so much of life is to actually be experienced (even though I'm pretty good at convincing myself that what I really want is to never have to put any effort into anything...). That's where success, serenity, and well being begin to be redefined though, and are often done so with an increasing emphasis on the someone who isn't named Me. Not unlike how taking the steps goes a long way in achieving success, working the Twelve Steps is a fine way to challenge that me-voice and begin recognizing that it's only through putting the work in that we begin to understand what "success" even means. There's little gratitude to be found in the elevator.

Fear of the Dark

"The things we want are transformative, and we don't know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation." –Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Embarking on any kind of new direction can be, and often is, overwhelming. A new beginning can come with fear - the What If? being a mysterious darkness where the unknown is yet to be characterized as either a friendly or fearful place... and until that journey is flowing and momentum begins to further light the way forward, my mind tells me that place is to be feared.

No matter what the goal of the pursuit might be, the unknown of what is to follow casts a shadow. And in that shadow, a monster exists. Past experiences have proven that the monster is never as big as my imagination tells me it is, but still I fear it. Past experiences have also shown that the growth that potentially awaits is always significantly more transformative than my voice of self-doubt would have me believe, but still I discount it.

Transformation awaits, but without stepping into the unknown we'll never find out what it looks like.

Right Action, Right Thinking

It's often said that "right action leads to right thinking," meaning that positive feelings often follow positive actions, rather than the inverse. For so long though my thoughts either led me astray from what that right action really was, or they rationalized questionable action in the name of something "right enough." Such is the plight of an addict, I guess – not always being aware of what right action even looks like. And what's developed out of that state of delusion is a general uncertainty of self, one which still exists to some degree despite having a few years of sobriety in the rearview.

To this day I interpret A.A.'s "my best thinking got me here" phrase with a little condescension, but I also recognize the truth behind it: Had I been open to asking for, and actually accepting, a little more help along the way, maybe life would have gone differently. Thinking back, I didn't reach my low points by asking for help, soliciting advice, or listening to feedback from others – I reached those places when I cut myself off from others and listened exclusively to the feedback loop spinning between my ears. Right action leads to right thinking, but sometimes the most right action is asking someone else what that right action might be. And when that action is taken, right thinking is often soon to follow.

A Return, A Renewal

The first time I visited New York City was in December 2005 as part of a class trip. This was prior to TSA laws tightening up, and on the morning of our flight I loaded up two water bottles with vodka for our trip. I remember making a makeshift Bloody Mary on the plane with tomato juice as I played peek-a-boo with a small child who was sitting in the seat in front of me. It was all downhill from there.

For about half of the trip I drank, which meant for half of that trip I was in and out of blackouts. It was ugly - I pissed myself one night, but managed to clean myself up before calling too much attention to myself. Or at least that's what I thought at the time. About half way through the trip our group changed hotels and I took advantage of the transition by drinking the day away. After landing in the new hotel, we took a group tour of Madison Square Garden before a New York Rangers game. I don't remember any of it.

An Irish pub was stationed across the street from our hotel, and after the game I decided I hadn't had enough. That's where my memory begins to flicker on and off: I met a pair of English tourists and we bonded over jukebox picks before we wandered in the direction of Times Square, leaving a mess behind us as we went. But when we split up it became clear I didn't really know where I was. This was before I had a cell phone and I didn't have a good grasp of direction, considering that when the group checked in to our new hotel I was already drunk. A flash of me trying to figure out which floor my room was on, trying and failing at getting my key card to work on several doors. Another flash of dozing off in a bathroom stall in the bar next door, only to be shouted at by one of the kitchen staff. Then a period of unknown before I somehow landed back in my hotel room.

Late in the afternoon both of the chaperones, each professors of mine at school, knocked on my door, sat down with me, and in gentle terms cut me off from drinking. They didn't know what to do with me and as they were liable for my safety; it was either that or I went home. That night I rejoined my classmates at a crowded restaurant table where I tried not to appear nauseated as I hunched over what would otherwise be a delicious bowl of French Onion soup. We went to The Late Show with David Letterman after. Pierce Brosnan was a guest and we sat in the balcony. Once I detoxed and my sickness passed, the rest of the trip went pretty well.

I returned a little over a year later, in January of 2017. I met to hang out and meet some people in person who I'd only known as online contacts. It was a short trip and was great, but on the last day I began drinking on the way to the airport. When I arrived (just how I arrived, I'll never know) I sat down for a couple shots at a tequila bar. That was all I remember until the next morning, with the exception of a confused late night call to my dad, trying to piece together where I was and how I'd gotten there. Then nothingness.

I woke up by the ticketing counter and my laptop was gone (I'd apparently left it at security) and had missed my flight home. Maybe I had been prevented from boarding, maybe I simply lost time and missed my plane. I still have no idea what happened. I just remember the shame, knowing that my dad and little sister had driven to the airport to greet my arrival, only to have had to deal with the fear and frustration that came as a consequence of my actions.

The third time I was in NY I had been sober for almost a year. I had been invited out by a friend who was in a rough spot, herself, but I wasn't much for company as I shared her depressed state. I felt lost the majority of the time I was there, and I remember considering on a few occasions just giving up and drinking. I didn't. I figured it would have pushed me over the edge. A little over a year later I did drink again though, and in the year that followed that decision I ended up slowly falling over that cliff.

This past weekend I returned to the city, helping my sister as she moved to Brooklyn. There was so much to be grateful and thankful for with the return to the city. Beyond being appreciative of the opportunity to make the trip and safely completing the move itself, many times it was simple moments of just being around people and seeing the moments for what they were that filled me with emotions. Without the protective armor of alcohol or the hazy mask of depression, I was just feeling raw this time around. Exposed. And grateful for that.

The best part about the city might be how its scale can recalibrate the scope of a person's outlook. Soaking in the breathtaking magnitude of the Oculus, spending time at the 9/11 Memorial, people watching in Central Park, returning to the beautiful Museum of Natural History, and viewing the immaculate creations on display at The Cloisters... it all just made me feel so... small. And of all the feelings I've experienced in New York City, that's the one that left me feeling the most whole.

New York City, NY

Photos taken around New York City, NY in August 2018.

And Then What...?

"The honey doesn't taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn't mean so much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given." —the Tao of Pooh
It came up in conversation this morning, the idea of "And then what?" Let's say I find an ideal job, that pays enough to sustain me, aligns with my values, and feeds my soul - and then what? Or a woman comes into my life who checks all of the boxes: she's funny, smart, sexy, kind, genuinely amazing - and then what? Or what if I miraculously achieve dietary perfection and tirelessly work toward building a chiseled physique - and then what? And then I still have to live with myself. No matter where you go, that's where you are, right?

Being the Party

"I can be the party, but going to the party's difficult." That line says so much for how I've felt for most of my life. When people ask me what it was like when I was drinking, they don't always seem to understand the isolation that was a part of it. Going all the way back to high school when I started drinking - I felt I had to drink more to be comfortable around other people at bars or parties. There was no way I could just be there and be myself, as if I had any kind of idea who that person was. I had to be extra, and that meant drinking more.

Many times I'd write a story in my head about how it was socially acceptable to drink more when at a party, or that the social etiquette of a party called for certain people to drink extra hard to help balance the room out, and certainly I was willing to help the group out by carrying the burden of that cross. But that's just it: I could be the party, but I could never be part of.

Replacement Therapy

Within the context of recovery, the word "renunciation" is a new phrase for me. In Refuge Recovery it's explained as "the practice of abstaining from harmful behaviors." Similarly, the term's Wiki article pins it as "the act of rejecting something, especially if it is something that the renouncer has previously enjoyed or endorsed." In looking back on my own life, some fifteen years or experimenting with binge drinking is probably as fine an endorsement of alcohol as any.

Through my own path of recovery there has been firm use of renunciation when it comes to alcohol, as abstinence has proven the only viable solution for me in moving beyond it in search of improved well-being. Removal of a vice isn't removal of the feelings or emotions that feed the craving however, which is where the concept of replacement therapy takes form: the trading of one destructive habit or pattern for another. In lieu of having the option to use alcohol (or drugs, or sex, or whatever that primary vice might be) to mask feelings or modify a mood, the same drive for pleasure or desire to escape negative feelings, begins to breathe through other mediums in search of the same result.

For some the trade-off seems harmless, but for myself the same behaviors and feelings are simply manifesting themselves in different forms of self-harm. Now abstinent from alcohol for the better part of three years, little has been done to curb or even address the abuse of food and pornography which are now used to gain the very same relief that alcohol once delivered me.

"Renunciation alone is not recovery, however," continues Refuge Recovery. "It is only the beginning. Those who maintain abstinence but fail to examine the underlying causes and conditions are not on a path to recovery. They are simply stopping the surface manifestations of addition, which will inevitably resurface in other ways."

Renunciation alone is not recovery. The absence of harm is not to be mistaken for the presence of health. Today is not the beginning, but another step in a process.

The Willingness

Willingness might well be inversely proportional to how well things are going in my life. Then again, even in the challenging times, when my ass is wholly engulfed in fire, sometimes it's hard to find the willingness to do what it takes to put out the flames.

Why does the shelf life of my willingness expire daily? Why is my willingness not renewed for a season, or even a year? And why, when I lose sight of the present moment, does future willingness tend to become predicated on an expectation of results? When I get lost, why do I become only willing to keep doing what's right for myself and those around me if the outcome of that applied will is to be exactly as I desire it to be? Why is it that if the potential results of my willingness-in-action waver whatsoever from my impossibly rigid expectations, I tend to become unwilling?

Speaking directly to this, The Big Book reads, “We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable.” Well, no shit. If transformation is the goal, a willingness to change is essential. But before taking on the world and welcoming any sort of renewed outlook on the matter, it's worth asking whether I'm willing to let go of who I think I want to be and accept whatever form my metamorphosis might take? Look back three years and it's easy to see that it if I'd turned into the person I wanted to be three years ago, that person would be nowhere near who I am today. Why, then, can't I look forward with the same willingness? Why can't I accept that letting go of this death grip I have on expectation is the only way of getting out of the trap of dissatisfied complacency? Letting go of who I am, which is who I no longer want to be, means accepting that I must be willing to change despite not knowing what the outcome of that looks like. As far as words go, those make sense - the reality of internalizing what that actually looks like and taking that action, however, is absolutely scary as hell.