“A Crisis of Identity” is the tenth part of a project called Terminally Unique. It features what was originally the fifth chapter from a piece I published in 2013 called Believed to Be Seen. To gain a better sense of what this broader series is, I suggest starting from the beginning with the introduction titled “A New Pair of Glasses.” For those of you continuing on through, here is “A Crisis of Identity”…
“Mental health should be more than the absence of mental illness.” —Martin Seligman
I woke up a few hours after I had fallen asleep, with a nauseating urge driving me toward the bathroom. I did not have feeling in my legs though, so I ended up crawling to the toilet where heaving voided some of what had become of the bottle of blue pills. All I can remember is feeling like my eyes were not working right because I did not recognize myself in the mirror. I went back to bed. My dad showed up in the morning and, realizing what was happening, pleaded with me to go to the hospital. For hours I laid in bed, refusing to move, but after a day of arguing, laughing, and crying, I finally agreed, and was admitted to the emergency room as night fell.
About two weeks passed between the time when I was admitted to the E.R. and the time I became stable enough to graduate to the facility’s mental ward. Time spent in a psychiatric ward might appear to be the darkest in someone’s life, but for me the most difficult stage of the process was actually the time leading up to the decision to put me there. Desperate for anything, I clung to the hope that I could still somehow die even though the medical physicians and psychiatric staff (not to mention my heartbroken but no less faithful family) were having none of it. In the event my round-the-clock supervision took a brief break I planned to remove the needle from my arm and cut my wrists open with it. Being in that position and feeling helpless to even end my life: That was dark. But the mental ward itself, once I became resigned to the fact that I had to be there, was not all that bad. (As far as mental wards go.)
Following further psychiatric assessment and an appearance in court it was determined on my behalf that the hospital wasn’t going to be the last stop for me. The hammer fell, a court order was motioned, and it was explained that I was to spend time at an inpatient treatment program to help treat my own dual diagnosis of alcohol dependence and major depressive disorder. I fought the transition to the next leg of my journey not because I did not think I needed it – I was very much aware that I drank too much and was depressed – but I fought it because I was none too keen on the options I was given. Unlike the hospital and subsequent psychiatric lock-down, I felt like I deserved a say in where I would land. I had familiarized myself with Alcoholics Anonymous and The Big Book, but did not feel like The Program was for me. Yet a 12 Step treatment facility was still set up as my destination.
Instead of urging me toward sobriety, the big blue bible created a wedge of separation between me and the idea that there was any actual value in what was being offered as the recovery process. After voicing my contentions I was eventually given a choice in my treatment. Presented with the option of spending more time in the hospital while waiting for a spot to open up in what was only explained as an “alternative” treatment program or opting out early to land in a 12 Step facility, I decided to wait. When a bed opened up I was loaded into a van and driven to my new temporary home in a remote forested setting.
The fundamental elements of this new program involved the nurturing of a process that strives to leave its participants more in tune with an understanding of how we can better react to our circumstances by becoming aware that we are creating our own experiences (and not the other way around). “Health Realization,” as it was called, placed increased emphasis on mind, consciousness, and thought using three interconnected principles: 1) our thoughts shape our experiences, guiding how we view the world; 2) personal consciousness is what makes our thoughts appear real; 3) the mind is the source of both consciousness (the ability to become aware of your life) and thought (the power to think, and thus the ability to create reality). Rounding out the philosophy was the belief that we are all born with innate health and well-being (which is sort of like The Wizard of Oz in that everything we are searching for we already have) that can be regained through the practice of embracing these aforementioned principles: We are not sick and in need of a cure, but rather we are already healthy and just have to learn to rediscover what we have lost.
Once my inpatient treatment had run its course I was informed that I would be handed over to an outpatient program, which would include living at a halfway house. I argued for another option, and with my parents serving as guardians I was allowed to move in with them while participating in three months of intensive group sessions as an alternative. While I was reinvigorated by the philosophical tone of my “alternative” treatment process, the ushering from one forced stage to the next failed to instill within me any sense of clarity or purpose to move forward. Any insight into recovery I had been given was helpful while under a facilitator’s watchful eye, but quickly became dismissed by no real life motivation to remain sober once I was on my own. A month removed from my outpatient graduation I huddled with a group of friends in a Japanese restaurant hoisting celebratory sake bombs to commemorate the night. Given my new understanding, I felt things would be different.
A primary characteristic of individuals who have made the move to pursue Alcoholics Anonymous is that they are unsure about what is going on with them – to some degree we are all just confused people seeking answers. The disease concept offers an obvious solution, but over the past century numerous authority angles have helped warp it into an associative identity crisis wrapped around a substance abuse concern: the onset of alcoholism has historically been addressed as everything from denial to underlying homosexuality to the manifestation of suppressed childhood emotions to outright character defects. While this sort of pseudo-psychoanalysis was not factored into my situation, when my treatment was up I felt uninformed as to exactly how I was supposed to reconcile this new theoretical motivation within my day-to-day life. I quickly became more conflicted about drinking than I had ever been, struggling with who I was because of it, and where I might fit in the world due to my diagnosis.
Increasingly so, it feels like America is becoming an entitlement incubator. That may be true, or that perspective might only reflect my unmet expectations. Upon being set free on my own again, the very feeling I felt I was missing out on–deserved, even–appeared everywhere around me. I was confused about my direction and what the future might hold, but more than anything I felt like I was missing out on some larger sense of happiness. No matter where I would go it seemed as though people were simply happier than me: If they did not appear to have a greater sense of direction or purpose, at least their daily lives seemed to give them some sense of satisfaction. While friends were pairing up with loving and supportive partners, pursuing fulfilling careers, and dedicating their free time to gratifying hobbies, television and other media only twisted the knife further, broadcasting some alien reality by continually exposing what I lacked.
It is easy to get caught up in ideal projections and focus not on what we are thankful for, but what we are lacking. Celebrity and glamour have become so highly valued that the idea of being famous or attractive would seem synonymous with godliness. While being pretty or popular do not equate to being happy or satisfied, it is easy to get caught up in lusting after those models of success when all else fails. This is especially true as they appear to become increasingly feasible to achieve. If you can’t be rich, you might as well be gorgeous… or on reality TV, a rather ridiculous medium horrifically mutated to represent micro-fame as the pinnacle of collective aspiration. In part, these fleeting and undependable projections of happiness impacted my own sense of inadequacy.
At war with this satisfaction-mongering is a billowing front of self-helpedness that has become far more a diversion from happiness than a guide to achieving peace of mind. Compiled with advertised promises that we, too, could feel satisfaction if only for a faster car, a bigger house, an expensive vacation, or flawless skin, and by the continual projection that these immediately attainable goals are being achieved by Everyone But You, feeling disillusioned, dissatisfied, unreasonably insecure, empty, powerless, and guilted into blaming ourselves for the failure of not having achieved such ideals would only seem natural.
For so long my self-esteem has been tied to what I do and not who I am, and because I did not have any sense for what I wanted it was impossible to incorporate a new lifestyle–let alone a lifestyle which was not entirely of my choosing–into such utterly conflicting surroundings. I was not only confused, but felt I was damaged goods: not only had I failed at taking my own life, but I was a clinically-diagnosed alcohol-dependent depressive on top of that. I did not understand myself, the world around me, or what was supposed to be my reprieve from addiction, and in the face of ever present billboard-happiness I remained jealous of what I thought I was missing.
In the years that followed my exit from treatment one of the main points of conflict I struggled with was overcoming the compartmentalization of recovery methodology. The treatment center I was sent to never bothered addressing A.A. or any other recovery methods, indirectly asserting itself as the lone alternative to 12-step treatment. I was clueless about what other resources might have been available, or what organizations might best suit whatever my plans for future drinking were going to be. Instead, my goal was decided for me–that I was to remain sober–and once my outpatient program was over, I was supposed to be well-equipped to meet that goal.
Such a closed-off approach to personal recovery remains consistently problematic, with methodological disagreement in both physical meetings and online forums often resulting in little more than broad-stroke condemnation. Rational Recovery, for example, is rife with condescension defiantly aimed at Alcoholics Anonymous, without checking its own arrogant undertones: by its own definition any recovery found outside of its program is irrational. By conceding that there are beneficial aspects to other treatment models, individual organizations risk the appearance of authority necessary to project their competitive (marketplace) advantage. This becomes exponentially detrimental when a program regards itself as singularly beneficial. A.A. members, for instance, are then subject to misplaced confusion when they relapse, angry at themselves because they didn’t follow the steps close enough — failed products of a perfect system.
Countless times I have felt similarly broken because of my confusion, lost because I wanted to appear normal, carrying on as a civilized citizen, socially interacting with others over drinks while remaining in control over my prevailing dependency and depression issues. There is a tremendous vulnerability that accompanies this mindset, often leaving those who experience it feeling in no position to ask questions about their recovery. Confusion about addiction does not open individuals up to gullibility, necessarily, but it certainly invites a sincere desperation that leaves any promised recovery attractive. Whether it be a judge, a doctor, or an A.A. sponsor, there is an implicit belief that those who are there to help, do so with your best interest in mind.
There has not ever really been any sort of life-affirming goal that I have been working toward, so I just took the treatment goal and adopted it as my own because, why not? University gave me something temporary in terms of purpose – working toward surviving the next exam seemed to occupy enough of my attention to just barely survive the four years that it took to graduate. But I stopped caring once the realization kicked in that there was no pot of golden purpose at the end of the reading rainbow.
I doubt that I am any more disillusioned by life than the next person, but something that I have struggled with as the reality of full-blown adulthood became increasingly concrete is my own inability to figure out just what it is that I was looking for in life. I want to be happy. Everyone does. But how? No matter how happy I should have been with my life, my job, or my family – I wasn’t, and I had no idea what might fix that. Trying to end my life did not make me happy, mind you, but at least it gave me a momentary sense of purpose – as if I were Moving On for a reason. And when that failed and recovery became my carrot on the stick, I lost direction when I felt I had tried only to be greeted by results that failed to live up to the promoted examples of how fulfilling sober living could be.
What it means to be recovered is utterly indefinable and uniquely based on an individual’s definition of well-being, but too often does happy for the sake of being happy or sober for the sake of being sober become the surviving ideal when the chaos of addiction strikes. Recognizing one’s identity is a strange task in and of itself, but a more complex challenge is distinguishing genuine identity within a limited world of projected ideals. Because I was reflecting the goals of others in my own pursuit of happiness, I failed to take time to understand what it was that I really wanted from life, and this failure to learn who I really was only brought about a false sense of who I was not.
One of the most understated aspects of Rational Recovery’s model of treatment is its emphasis on defining an actual drinking goal, requiring its participants to honestly state what their plan is regarding any future drinking. This might seem obvious, but it is critical because the decision to drink is as equally determined by the individual as the decision to not drink is. Sobriety had been the prescribed goal, but it was a goal that had been planned on my behalf that I never truly wanted for myself. The idea of a sober future was nauseating in its appearance of joyless boredom and I felt I had failed not because I could not remain sober, but because sobriety was not my plan. Years passed following my treatment before I finally hit a point where I was ready to silence the gut feeling that materialized every time I told someone that I wanted to be sober. In trying to uncover some sense of identity while dodging all these conflicting influences, I felt a lifestyle balance seemed appropriate, and recognizing my general issues with moderation–binge-eating has long been an issue for me as well–I felt I could no longer be insincere with what it was I wanted. And I did not want to be sober.