Listen to Terminally Unique via…
In February of 2013 I published a writing project called Believed to Be Seen. Looking back on it in the rearview, it was an incomplete history of my problematic relationship with alcohol, written in nine parts as extended essay. With a friend’s help, I recorded it as an audio book, and published it online across numerous platforms, distributing the story wherever I could. I was 29 years old, about six months sober and—at the time—I surmised my aim with it was to document “my evolving experience with the American addiction treatment industry, and how I finally found my way out of its maze.” Or that’s what I wanted other people to believe, at least. I remember at the time thinking it might be more fitting to call it, Drunk, Fat, and Sad: Life Lessons from an Unemployed Addict, but my own self-seriousness got in the way. The obvious angst of the sentence about finding my way out of some maze might speak to where I was at in my own recovery at the time. I was frustrated, searching for an identity, rejecting my past, rejecting “the system.” In essence, I used it as a means of researching my way sober. And for almost two years I stayed that way. Until I didn’t.
In her book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes, “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.” To overlay that onto my situation, I had an idea of what I wanted out of sobriety, but around the time I published the project, I can’t imagine that sobriety itself was anything beyond a means by which to solicit validation. I had gotten sober, or at least sober for as long as I’d been in roughly a decade, and hoped that someone, anyone, would now please look at this good thing I’ve done and pat me on the back. I only thought I knew what I wanted from the whole process—both the act of not drinking and the writing about the not drinking—but fortunately for me, reality welcomed me to a life I hadn’t anticipated.
Unleashing something on the Internet is like squeezing out a globule of toothpaste from its tube. Once it’s out, it can’t really be put back in. Certainly, after its release, I became confused about what any unforeseen consequences might be related to me sharing “my story” online. I genuinely still struggle with that. I simultaneously wanted to be the kind of person to have something unique and profound to say about recovery, while also recognizing I was barely sober and didn’t have anything to say that could be considered remotely profound. The release amounted to a few dozen Audible downloads and an idle torrent. A few friends purchased it to support me, it received a whisper of attention on reddit, and I received a small handful of emails from readers, but it wasn’t long before I took the project offline. I later republished it, but did so while harboring concern about it maybe showing up for someone googling me. It’s freeing to put a story like that out into the universe, but also terrifying. The problem with hoping that someone might notice you is that you might not like what they see when they do. Part of my concern also came from knowing I hadn’t stayed true to the person I imagined myself to be in the piece’s conclusion. After almost two years of not drinking I slipped hard.
Believed to Be Seen has lingered in my mind since that time, representing something I’m both proud of and uncomfortable with. It’s a snapshot of where I was for a period of time when things were going well, prior to them becoming very very unwell. Embarrassment—aligned with acting like an expert of my situation, and my addiction, only to lose control of it again—led me to hiding it away when I got sober in 2015. Finding my bottom yet again in the fall of that year, I turned to Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) out of desperation to get better. The narrative I’d written for myself a few years earlier was that A.A. wasn’t for me though. That it was fine for some, sure, but wasn’t capable of helping me. What came with that was a strange invisible cloak of shame that I’d betrayed myself, despite doing a healthy, supporting, and healing thing for myself. For the several years I was an A.A. member, I don’t think I let anyone know it existed aside from my sponsor. I never felt like my criticisms of A.A. had truly passed, but that wasn’t something I was ever comfortable talking about with other firmly-rooted members of the groups I attended. So I kept the writing and my thoughts on certain matters to myself. And life went on.
I ended up “working” A.A.’s Twelve Steps with my aforementioned sponsor and have not had a drink of alcohol since October 20, 2015. That said, it’s sort of funny that I wrote about finding my way out of the treatment “maze” because I willingly went back to rehab once I got some momentum in recovery. In 2018 I made the decision to go to graduate school to become a counselor and left a stable, successful corporate job to work in the first of several professional roles I’d have in and around the rehab industry. These positions ranged from peer support to case management to eventually (albeit briefly) working as a therapist, myself. Through that process I gained a deeper understanding of recovery, but also a whole new set of problems and issues aligned with trying to recover from alcoholism.
So what is this, then? On the surface, I’d like to say I have an idea of what it is. Or, at least I did… I’ve been telling myself what that is for about a year now. In the spring of 2022 I left my therapist position, and followed that by uprooting myself to another state to land myself around friends and family. Once I made that transition, I took a few weeks to focus myself and put all these ideas down on page. Now picking this up about ten months later, I’m not sure where it might lead or what it actually is, which is itself both thrilling and scary.
My original intention with this project was to reflect on that 2013 piece, Believed to Be Seen, focusing on that base material but addressing it through a modern lens: Taking time with it to discuss what I now believe about certain topics (and myself) and what I wish I might have said differently. Certainly, I’m uniquely qualified to tell my own story, but this is also a chance to look back on what I wrote and challenge the story as it was first written. However reliable a narrator I am now is still up for debate, and the fallibility of memory is absolutely a problem as time moves on, but I still think there’s value in that aspect of this exercise.
The format is going to be pretty straight forward, with parts or chapters alternating between new thoughts (such as this chapter) and those published in 2013 (such as the one which will come next), each telling a story or bearing a specific focus of their own while also hopefully providing a sense of narrative and topical cohesion. They won’t align perfectly, and this certainly isn’t going to be a linear process, but I feel like it’s one that will be as conclusive as I’m likely to ever compile. That’s the format, at least, that this will take, but I’m still unsure about where it will lead. Unlike last time, where I edited, proofed, and concluded the piece of writing before releasing any of it, I’m publishing this introduction with the remainder of the work still sitting in the state I left it when I stopped working on it ten months ago.
Life really does seem to be an iterative process, and my hope is that this project captures and documents as broad a view on alcoholism and recovery as I can surmise, as viewed from two distinctly unique periods of my life. This work serves both as a critique of my writing from a decade earlier, but also a document of any new insight I might have gained from my own recovery and professional experience in the treatment field since that time. On one hand, I want to say this project exists as my story of alcoholism. But on the other, it’s more about mental health. It’s also just a document of a large part of my life as a human. And within that experience I’ve learned that for all my differences, I definitely have a lot in common with others who have and continue to struggle with addiction. My journey has been unique in some ways, while being very common in others. Perhaps more than anything, I hope some useful insight into the addiction mindset is what’s communicated in a way that helps make it more clear as to why I and many like me are the way we are.
As many in “The Program” of Alcoholics Anonymous do, I refer to that as a “terminally unique” perspective, and its destructive and insidious nature is at times as baffling for the person experiencing it as it is for those around them. It’s a warped sense of American hyper-individualism taken to the extreme, amplified by bouts of isolation, problematic use of mind-altering substances, and a strained relationship with mental health. It’s a belief that no one will ever truly understand you because of how different one’s own personal experience has been. And it’s something I can call out in other people because I’ve still got it myself: An embedded line of source code so entrenched within me that it can’t seem to be fully exorcised from my thought process; instructions reconfirming a misguided notion that I am somehow alone in this world and unlike everyone around me, despite a lifetime’s worth of evidence confirming the opposite. That’s what I think this might be about, but where it goes from here will be a surprise to you and me both.
[The track opening and closing the episode is called “styles.”]