I go to AA meetings at a meeting house that’s about a three-minute walk from my doorstep – down the block and across the street. On my way there, every time, I pass two A-boards – one outside the wine shop that I live above, and one outside one an improv comedy theatre across the street (the wild little brother of the Chicago improv scene). The latter, just a few doors from the Alano club entrance, always has an arrow pointing inside reading “Drinks”, and one pointing out into the street reading “Your shitty life”. The first sign at my doorstep has a different, terrible punny slogan every day that I oddly enjoy, like “I only drink wine on days beginning with T – Tuesday, Thursday, Today, Tomorrow…” or “It doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full. There’s clearly room for more wine.”
On Monday evening, after a profoundly whiney (no pun intended) day spent working from home and feeling sorry for myself, I reluctantly stepped out onto my street for the first time all day to go to a meeting that I was chairing. I glanced at the wine shop sign. It had two arrows – one pointing towards the door, reading “Wine”, the other, pointing out onto the street, reading “Reality”.
Passing both of these signs on my sixty-second walk to the meeting, Monday’s blues melted away, as I was reminded that, yes, that used to be me – avoiding my ‘shitty’ life at all costs. It might have helped me through some dark years – I’m pretty sure that alcohol did, in fact, work for a time – but the result was that my emotional and spiritual growths were completely stunted because, by numbing myself, I was missing out on all of it, all the juicy, real stuff that my shitty life had to offer.
My Alano club has a wide variety of people, from all walks of life. The stories that I hear as far-reaching as the places we’ve come from. They speak of family trees addiction, sexual abuse, homelessness, hard drugs, incarceration, death, and I think “You know nothing of pain.”
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to put things in context – no, I didn’t have it so bad. But to say that I know nothing of pain is incorrect because my relative pain is all that I know.
Truth is, I felt the pain of being a human from a very young age, and I’ve spent most of my life avoiding that pain at all costs. I was a tightly wound kid with a ferocious temper; outwardly adept at most things I put my hand to, inwardly nurturing a perfectionism that would soon spin out of control. In the interim, though, I thought that was in control of things (probably over-subscribed to the Western notion of personal autonomy and individualism), and so I made it my business to try to control everything and everyone around me – I think I inherited it from my mother, for whom I was the ultimate ‘perfectionable’ object. I liked my pencils always sharpened, my hair perfect, my friends close. But life was unruly and uncontrollable. Realising this caused me daily pain, which I started figuring out how to avoid, early on.
This doesn’t make me any less human – in fact, it’s a pretty human thing to want to prolong pleasure and avoid pain. Comprehending this helps me place myself in the grand scheme of humanity, which helps me feel less alone, less of a freak. At the same time, it’s important that I don’t normalise it – I’ve got to acknowledge that, because I’m an addict, I’ve taken this very human response to freakish new heights.
I got into AA and found myself reciting the serenity prayer at the end of most meetings, and sometimes to myself (back in the early days when I felt like a fraud in my own mental spaces, a spiritual novice days at a loss for words). The lines of that prayer are potent; they take root somewhere in the back of your mind. Day by day, I began to realise that I have no control over anything external to me; something I’d always known but never fully accepted.
Yet, even in the knowing, I still feel discomfort throughout the day – a vast amount, in fact. I take comfort in the things that make my world feel smaller, more comfortable. I feel the discomfort of craving – not for alcohol, anymore, or even cigarettes or caffeine, thankfully, but for sugar or other foods, and the dregs of weird food behaviours that have clung to my coat tails since adolescence. There’s a difference between hunger and craving; I know it well. But what I’m really craving is comfort – not [insert drug of choice]. That old feeling of micro-managing my own weirdnesses takes the edge off.
For the first time in my sobriety, I’ve been feeling a lot of justifiable discomfort; on the horizon are some huge life changes, and though I try not to entertain fear anymore, it does feel like I’m being cast into the unknown without a lifeline. I know that I’ll be fine – I have my spirituality, and I don’t have to drink to get through this – but all that I can do about the future is make the next right decision. As freeing as this is, it is literally a daily practice that I have to work at – staying present and making one decision at a time is not something I’m used to.
And the present is often uncomfortable. But there’s a lot to be learned from that. I’ve been working, through meditations, to figure out how to get beneath the discomfort. Rather than doing my usual of feeling a craving or an emotion and stuffing it down, I’ve been thinking “What’s really going on here? What can I do differently?”
Ultimately, ninety-nine percent of the time, I do nothing differently. But more frequently, I stop and allow these questions to arise; check in with the discomfort, try to locate it within my physical body. I’ve noticed that anxiety lives in my belly. Craving closes tightly around my throat. Sadness weighs heavy on my heart. And then I move away from or give in to it. It’s early days yet, but I’m talking about breaking a habit of avoidance that’s spanned the majority of my life, so even these flashes of stillness are minor revelations.
I don’t want to take the edge off anymore. I realise now that the only way that I can move through this time is… through it. Life isn’t supposed to be a merry-go-round. If it were, I’d have been better off switching drugs instead of getting sober – I could have doped myself up to my eyeballs and fast-tracked myself to a happy overdose. But what I wanted in sobriety was authenticity – to know that, whether I’m feeling awkward, awful, or amazing, that it’s real, that I’m living out my truth. So, when I find myself in discomfort, it’s not a sign that I’m doing something wrong – it’s the exact opposite.