Listen to Terminally Unique via…
“…How I finally found my way out of its maze.” In the years since its publication, this introduction is one of the things that continues to sit most sideways with me about Believed to Be Seen. In the writing, I did my best to explain where I was coming from and which themes and subjects would follow, but framing myself as a survivor of a dysfunctional system positioned me in a strange light. It suggests a few things, such as there being a system in place to keep individuals struggling with addiction lost, as well as an inherent suggestion of victimhood relating to those “lost” in that system. I don’t believe the portrayal was insincere so much as I didn’t recognize the ignorance at its core. I had enough experience with drinking, some experience with recovery, and a 30,000 foot view of what the treatment system was all about, so I figured that was enough to establish authority on the subject matter and go about things the way I did. This reminds of a line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which reads, “Who are a little wise, the best fools be.” I’ll add to that, those who are a little sober, the most hubristic be. And at the time of that writing, I was only a little sober.
In his book Tribes, Seth Godin writes, “Magician and essayist Jamy Ian Swiss has written about the annoying and shortsighted kid who shouts out to the performing magician, ‘I know how to do that trick!’ Does it really matter that you know? The world is jam-packed with books and manuals on how to do the trick, whatever the trick is.” He continues, “So if it’s so easy to figure out how to do the trick, why do so few people do it? If it’s so easy to figure out how to do the Twisted Aces or the French Drop, why are so few people amazing? Because, of course, it has nothing to do with knowing how the trick is done, and everything to do with the art of doing it.” If I had to estimate, I had somewhere around six months of continuous sobriety from alcohol when I published Believed to Be Seen. At the time, mind you, that was the longest I’d been sober in a many years, so it was no small feat for me. But even then I felt an undercurrent of insecurity about it, judging myself for not being sober long enough to be writing about my experiences from the position as a sober person. To frame it similar to Godin’s example, I had committed to learning the trick, but not the art of doing it.
What I mean by that is I had barely gotten a handle on how to stay sober, personally, let alone gained much of a sense of stability regarding what life as a person who doesn’t drink alcohol might actually look like. Despite this, I published an extensive piece of writing about how it was that I got sober. A part of me was proud of the work I did and the accomplishment of making it to where I was, while another side of me was intensely critical of myself. Part felt I had done a good job in researching recovery’s historical side, while the other balked at the notion of objectivity and recognized I was primarily using “research” as a means of gathering evidence in support of conclusions I had already arrived upon. I hadn’t lied about anything, but I definitely used omission as a means to obscure the shades of green around my collar. I was a rookie pretending to be a veteran, and I knew it. In many ways I’m still a rookie.
Having now spent several years around many newly sober people, I could be hard on myself here, but I recognize this mindset of early recovery wasn’t something exclusive to me or my situation. In fact, the more I look back at that period, the less unique it becomes. I ended up remaining sober for almost two years which, again, is no small wonder considering it resulted from something akin to emotional self-surgery. But like many others I’ve since come in contact with, I was out in the world advocating for my newly adopted lifestyle before the fresh coat of paint on my own even had enough time to dry. In working on and releasing my writing, I found a temporary sense of purpose—in a way, that was the goal I was aiming for. Purpose. But not unlike the Greek myth of Sisyphus, I had rolled the boulder to the top of the mountain only for it to roll back down the other side. I thought that publishing Believed to Be Seen would provide some sense of prolonged meaning in my life, or be met with affirmation which would provide a meaningful sense of satisfaction, or at the very least propel my writing “career,” as if I ever had one. Instead, it mostly just led to confusion… and donuts.
I had achieved the not drinking part of recovery, but had barely scratched the surface on the deluded thought processes behind the addictive behavior which had nearly led to my death a couple times over. The A.A.-ism, “I don’t have a drinking problem, I have a thinking problem” was certainly true in my case, though having a beginner’s level of self-awareness about why I was drinking kept me from seeking additional help to work on those “thinking problems” for several more years. I projected my frustrations in lieu of doing the hard work on myself, casting the treatment system, the legal system, Alcoholics Anonymous, and everything else even tangentially associated with recovery as “the maze,” while remaining woefully unaware I was lost within something of an internal labyrinth of my own creation. It was delusion in its most sincere form.
In the following years there remained a hum of unexamined shame relating to my sobriety, in part due to a bubbling conflict surrounding the fractured narrative I had created for myself. I worked really hard at writing and recording the project, but any feelings of accomplishment didn’t last. Within a few months of the release, I’d moved to a new city and was focused on different line of work. I received a few emails and comments from people who had read or listened, but it wasn’t long before I took everything I could offline and hid it all away. I wish I’d known what my true motivation was, but looking back I have a sense for what was driving my decision making then.
“Once the mind has accepted a plausible explanation for something,” writes Ryan Holiday in Trust Me, I’m Lying, “it becomes a framework for all the information that is perceived after it. We’re drawn, subconsciously, to fit and contort all the subsequent knowledge we receive into our framework, whether it fits or not. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive rigidity.’ The facts that built an original premise are gone, but the conclusion remains—the general feeling of our opinion floats over the collapsed foundation that established it.” Looking back at the last chapter, the depiction of self as a victim of circumstances runs parallel to an underlying current of perfectionism. Despite doing what I thought I should have been doing as a young person transitioning into adulthood, nothing I had done was enough for me. Barely squeaking by and graduating from high school, I still ended up getting accepted to college. And I graduated there, too. Despite working long retail hours and maintaining an increasingly active addiction to alcohol, I also ran a website as a side-business and worked hard to pay off the majority of my student loans within a year of graduating. With the support of family, and the help of a friend who was a realtor, I purchased my first home, a condo, at the age of 24. I wasn’t making a fantastic income, but I had no car loan or other debt to speak of by the time I moved in, as far as I can recall. And yet none of that was enough. I don’t know that I’ll ever understand where this sort of thinking first came from, but the portrait drawn by Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements does well in explaining how it snowballs. He writes,
“There is something in our minds that judges everybody and everything, including the weather, the dog, the cat—everything. The inner Judge uses what is in our Book of Law [our belief system, which is influenced by everything from social norms to familial influence] to judge everything we do and don’t do, everything we think and don’t think, and everything we feel and don’t feel. Everything lives under the tyranny of this Judge. Every time we do something that goes against the Book of Law, the Judge says we are guilty, we need to be punished, we should be ashamed. This happens many times a day, day after day, for all the years of our lives. There is another part of us that receives the judgments, and this part is called the Victim. The Victim carries the blame, the guilt, and the shame. It is the part of us that says, ‘Poor me, I’m not good enough, I’m not intelligent enough, I’m not attractive enough, I’m not worthy of love, poor me.’ The big Judge agrees and says, ‘Yes, you are not good enough.’ And this is all based on a belief system that we never chose to believe. These beliefs are so strong, that even years later when we are exposed to new concepts and try to make our own decisions, we find that these beliefs still control our lives.’
For so long I reinforced a story in my mind that I was a victim of circumstance, though perhaps more influential, I was the victim of my inner judge which constantly confirmed within me a sense of personal insufficiency. That sounds highly dramatic, and it is, but that doesn’t make it any less part of the framing through which I often crafted my own reality. Up the hill I’d go, pushing another boulder, only to reach the summit and have it roll down the other side because of some personal failing, as that judge was quick to remind.
Defining the word “shame” in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains it as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” That word “worth” is tucked away in her definition, and essentially, and when talking about perfectionism a sense of personal worth can become wrapped up alongside that sense of “never enough”-ness to a point where it cannot be achieved. While I’m aware of this today, and I’ve put in a lot of work into it in my own life, I’ll be honest that it still plagues me. For anyone who knows me, they know I’m still really hard on myself and I still associate my value with distorted standards at times, but one of the big victories of this past decade for me was the development of awareness surrounding the thought processes which have been reinforcing my addictive behavior.
Perfectionism, and the victimhood aligned with it, was merely one outgrowth of distorted patterns of thought I regularly experienced throughout years of active addiction (and, I’ll add, through subsequent years of recovery, though to an increasingly lesser degree). For whatever reason, the dark corners of my internal experience were fertile ground for nurturing unreasonable expectations, impatience with others and myself, a tendency to hold resentments, and many other maladaptive patterns of thought that are regularly experienced by those who find their lives overwhelmed by alcoholism. (As a sidenote: I want to recognize the stigma around using the word “alcoholic,” opposed to a more person-centric term such as “individual with alcohol use disorder.” As a means of shorthand though, I’m going to use the term “alcoholic” to characterize, define, and even sometimes label those with an addiction to alcohol; myself included. While the day might come when society has outgrown use of the phrase, the word “alcoholic” is also still the most widely adopted term relating to alcohol use disorder in western culture, so it’s what I’m sticking with.) I bring this into the conversation because of how important that awareness can be, not only for those suffering with an addiction, but for friends, family, and anyone else trying to understand this stuff.
In adding some self-compassion to my assessment here, despite going through treatment once myself and having an entry-level introduction to therapeutic tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy, a decade ago I had no idea what I was dealing with when it came to what was going on in between my ears. To lean on a cliché, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and because of that I figured my situation pretty unique. I’m proud of the critical awareness I was developing in my early-to-mid twenties, when I began to challenge the idea that an ideal life ripe with boundless satisfaction was to become of an education, career, house, wife, and kids, but as a six foot tall white able-bodied heterosexual male in America, I’m not exactly the textbook definition of a “victim.” And yet I was uniquely a victim of my circumstances in my mind. In writing Believed to Be Seen I had created something I thought was unique because of how unique I believed my addiction and my experience with addiction was. But all this desire for uniqueness did for me was continue to separate me from other people. It continued to show up in my everyday life, this trait of desperate hyper-individuality that would continue to isolate me from others because of how different I convinced myself I was compared to everyone else. This otherness is something that I needed to have checked, and for good or bad, it was brought into the forefront in late-2015 when I re-entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
[The track opening and closing the episode is called “styles.”]