Push Off from Here
It Is Not Your Fault
It’s 2013 and I’m sitting at a table on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston on a hot August morning, across from my friend Grant. He’s a partner at the advertising agency I worked for before I started my current job as an account director at a different agency down the road, and one of the only two sober people I know in the world. I’d emailed him a few days earlier, when I woke up hungover again and scared. Grant suggested we meet for coffee.
As I stabbed at the ice in my coffee, I explained to him what had been happening. I told him about the DUI earlier that spring, about leaving my daughter alone in a hotel room overnight a couple of months later, which had forced me to go to my first twelve-step meeting, and how that still hadn’t been enough to get me to stop. I told him I never knew what was going to happen when I drank anymore and that I was afraid, really afraid, both that I had to stop and that I might not be able to. He listened and nodded and smiled his warmas-sunshine smile. He said he knew exactly what it was like. He told me some of his own stories from years back. He’d been sober twenty years by then—an inconceivable thing.
After a while he looked at me and asked, “So, what’re you going to do, kiddo?”
I was struck by the casual, curious nature of his question, as though he was asking me what I was going to have for lunch later. Why is he acting like I have options? What does he mean, “What am I going to do?”
“I mean, I have to get sober
,” I said, confused.
He read me. He knew the dense knot of shame permanently lodged in my throat, the self-loathing I carried everywhere and the effort it took to live this way, day after day. He knew my answer came from a punishing, punitive place inside me.
He paused and waited for me to look at him.
“Girl, I want you to know something. You’re not bad, you’re sick
, as in not well right now
. And it’s not your fault, not any more than it would be your fault if you had cancer.”
“Yeah, I know I know,” I replied, waving my hand in the air. I couldn’t hear it. I didn’t buy that this was a disease, if that’s what he meant. And if he meant something else, the intimation that this was anything or anyone else’s fault but my own was ridiculous. I drank and kept on drinking. I knew better. I lost control.
“You deserve to heal. And it’s going to take time. You need to do whatever you need to do to give yourself that chance.”
The idea that I deserved healing was preposterous to me. Healing is defined as the act or process of regaining health, getting well, mending. To me, the word suggests that one has sustained an injury outside of their control, that something has happened to them—an accident, the death of a loved one, an illness—such that the natural, responsible reaction is to allow for a period of repair. Healing, as a word and a concept, carries tones of empathy and compassion. I couldn’t fathom feeling deserving of either of these things when it came to my drinking. Because I was the one who made the messes. I chose to drink, despite the mounting consequences. I lied to people I cared about, manipulated them, betrayed them. I didn’t show up. I didn’t keep my word. I kept moving the line of acceptability further and further out. I chose alcohol over the people I said were important to me—even my daughter. I had done the injuring.
No, I did not need “healing.” I needed to fix it
. I needed to suck it up, get a grip, and stop f***ing drinking already. I wasn’t helpless; I wasn’t a child. I was a grown adult approaching forty years old. I had a graduate-level education, a career with a string of promotions and accomplishments. I had experience and skills, and I made important decisions at work and at home every day. I’d already been married and divorced. And principally, I was a woman and a mother, which meant I was supposed to provide
the help and healing, not the other way around.
I had become an expert at pushing through and pressing on while appearing to be unfazed—a skill I began developing very young. When my parents divorced when I was six, I distinctly remember walking into my dad’s small, sad, empty apartment for the first time and smelling the weight of his sadness everywhere, as if there’d been a gas leak. I decided right then that I would make everything okay by being okay. I’d smile and be cheery and never let on that anything about our new life was different or upsetting.
The trouble is, it worked.
I was praised for being “strong” and “resilient,” and as a result, I dug in harder, pushing away anything that might communicate dissatisfaction or, God forbid, need. I grew to believe I could fix uncomfortable situations and feelings—that it was my job
to fix them—and if I couldn’t, it was a failure on my part. In essence, I came to believe other people’s feelings and problems, especially my parents’, were mine. I came to believe the problem was me.
At the time, sitting there with Grant, I had no idea the extent to which this belief had shaped my life. Later, as I became more aware, I started to see the way it bled into everything. It showed up in the way I overcompensated in all my relationships, the way I acted both needless and desperate with men, the way I fawned over people who were angry and abusive to try to win them over, the way I overworked, the way I tried to tame my appetites for food and love, and yes, yes, yes, the way I used alcohol to blot out the pain of perpetually abandoning myself in these ways.
Over the course of the year following my conversation with Grant, as I kept trying at sobriety, I clung tightly to this idea of self-blame, but I also kept listening and learning. In AA meetings, I listened to the stories of other people who had come before me, and to those who were walking alongside me, trying to get sober themselves. I noticed that the people who got sober and seemed healthy and at peace weren’t in the business of endlessly beating themselves up. They were honest about their mistakes, but they didn’t wear them as an identity. They had a lightness to them, but also a solidity—an unshakable center. Most of all, they had a sense of humor about it all. They just didn’t take themselves all that seriously, even as they took life seriously. In this listening, and in conversations with other sober people, it started to occur to me that maybe I wasn’t the absolute worst. Maybe I wasn’t all that different from anyone else in the end, and maybe hating and berating myself wasn’t going to be the way through this thing. I slowly started to see the difference between the people who got sober and seemed to be free, and those who stayed stuck in selfhatred and shame.
What I noticed was this: People who kept blaming, whether they put all the blame on themselves or on others (two sides of the same coin, as it were), didn’t get better. Some pointed the finger out into the world: to blame their partner, their kids, their boss, their parents, their luck, their job, their history; and others pointed it inward, on themselves. But the sentiment was the same. What’s more, they hated themselves and that hate showed up everywhere: in their pinched faces and apologetic hands, in their shoulders, curved around their hearts like a claw. They wore it in their aggression and anger. They wore it in their speech, in their rebuffs of kindness and goodwill, as if, when directed at them, it must be a mistake. Sometimes they wore it invisibly, underneath the shellacked performance of a “high-functioning” person, like me. It bled out in stuttering eye contact and hands shaking under the table. These people, for whatever reason, could not, or would not, move beyond the shackles of blame; they could not see themselves as anything but bad and broken. I could identify this because I was one of them.
What I saw in people who got better was that they found a third way. They didn’t push away the dark parts of themselves, but they didn’t overidentify with those things, either. Similarly, the goodness in them didn’t hold outsized weight. As author Thomas Lloyd Qualls said in Waking Up at Rembrandt’s
, “Believing you are good is like believing in the half moon.”
The people who got better seemed to accept the whole of themselves, like the moon. Sometimes the moon is fully visible in light. Most of the time, it is partially hidden in the darkness. But neither the illumination nor the darkness changes the shape of the moon itself. Believing it does is a delusion. The moon is the moon is the moon, no matter what part of it is illuminated. And the people who got better seemed to understand that they are who they are who they are, no matter what part of them is made visible in any given moment.
As much as I identified with the self-hatred and self-blame, a deeper part of me reached for this notion of fullness. Or perhaps it reached for me.