I would like to be angry but I’m simply tired. The house is still leaking. It doesn’t happen every time it rains, but it does happen, and water intrudes into the second floor closet, which is now opened up for the third time. I’m beginning to lose my mind. No idea how much this next venture into home repairs will cost. Thousands, I’m sure. And I can’t even get it started until things dry out. Which means weathering another storm this week.
But it is simply another thing. I can tolerate it. I have to: I don’t have another choice. And I’m fortunate enough to be able to face the financial aspect of it. It’s difficult and challenging, but I can do it. My emotions and frazzled, my frustration is high, and I have trouble sleeping. Which means that I think about drinking. Let me be clear: I don’t want to drink, and I’m not tempted to drink. I’m just aware that if I were to, it would make me unconscious, which is often what I want when it’s 11pm and I can’t sleep because I’m aware my house is leaking.
But other than that, I had a good weekend. I ran. A lot. Saturday I ran 11 miles, and Sunday I ran 10. That’s the longest weekend of my life. Total time was about 3:35. So, not fast. But decidedly on the pace I’d like to run my marathon in the fall. I get a little bit of grief from BB for stretching out my mileage too much, but I’m listening to my body and feeling good.
I got really good blood numbers at my annual work physical. Other than my fasting glucose, which is always around 105, everything looks good. Lipid panel pretty solid, if trending a bit high. A1c stellar. And at the gym, my body fat came in at 17.7%, which represents a 4.2% drop in the past three months. I’ve been working like hell, and it’s all coming together. Like most people, I’d like to be fitter than I am, and slimmer, and sexier. But I’m making progress. And progress is all I need.
I don’t think I’m especially good at anything. Not innately. What I’ve always been is willing to work just hard enough to get by. I’m no perfectionist. I’m not interested in a beautiful final product. In something flawless. I just want today to be better than yesterday. And I am fortunate in that slow, steady progress is deeply satisfying to me. I know that not everyone has that temperament, and I’m not sure how to cultivate it.
As I’ve said and written many times, I think the only thing it takes to be good at something is to be willing to be bad at it. I was a bad pianist for a long time. I was bad at math. At relationships. At computer programming. At running. At sobriety. At writing. Today, I’m pretty good at most of those things. I’m not great. Being great might take some kind of talent or drive that I don’t have. But I’m pretty good. And more to the point, I’m satisfied.
Finding ways to be satisfied with my life is the most important thing to me. Living in a constant state of disruption and frustration and discontentment is what leads me to drink myself into oblivion. So I work. I work reasonably hard at things that make me reasonably happy and I feel pretty good most of the time. It’s not deep wisdom. It’s simple. But it can be surprisingly difficult. Negative emotions are so seductive.
But I’ve found the path forward that works for me, most of the time. Turns out that these days, for the most part, it’s a running path along the river.
Last night I got my seven-year coin.
The topic at the meeting (my men’s discussion meeting) was acceptance. And I talked about something that has been provoking anxiety and I simply have to accept. My boss is moving on. He’s staying with the organization, but being promoted into a different department. I like my boss. He’s affable, honest, and easy to read. We’ve had a good working relationship. I’m not happy he’s moving on.
But I have to accept it. I certainly can’t do anything about it. He has the ability and privilege to move on to bigger and better things, and that’s what he’s doing. Practicing acceptance and understanding that my anxiety is transient is difficult for me, but necessary. Because if I allow my anxiety to take over, I end up in very bad situations, emotionally. And that can affect my relationships, my work, my whole life.
I’m especially anxious because my boss and I have been working on getting me my own lab, with staff and a budget. This is something I really want and that my institution seems to be moving towards. My boss is a manager. His boss, our department head, is on board. Her boss, the Chief Medical Officer, is also on board. But they’re very, very busy. And my boss has been the strongest advocate and well-positioned to create movement. He’s done that for me before.
Now, there will be a vacuum there. I don’t know how to make the administrative moves I need to make. All I can do is try to keep the project in the minds of the director and the CMO and see where that leads me. I think it will still happen, but this is definitely a gummi-bear in the pipes. Or whatever.
When making career moves, I think people need to be aggressive, and need to find supportive professional partners. I’ve been doing that and now one of them is moving on, and I don’t know what to do to replace him. And yes, it’s all about me.
I’m suddenly frantic about whether I’ll be advancing fast enough and building appropriately. I want to have important roles and a big name and be very important to my institution. I want to be indispensable. I want I want I want. Because I’m selfish and ambitious and insecure. But also, I hope, because I believe I have something to offer.
So my anxiety is high, at the moment. But things are moving along in all my life’s pursuits. I feel healthy and strong. I am very happy in my relationship. I have a good career and I am making further inroads into diverse opportunities (I am being invited to lecture at another hospital soon, and possibly at a university. I am consulting for a corporation interested in medical devices. I am being interviewed for German radio later today.).
So things could be worse. I’m doing really rather fabulously well. But knowing that doesn’t control my anxiety. I need to practice acceptance and serenity. It’s difficult for me, but it’s possible. Deep, slow breaths. Ease.
The trip to Spain was absolutely stellar. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful everything was. Seville’s Alcázar was the architectural highlight. But we saw so many things! Like the Palacio Real in Madrid.
And Seville’s absurdly large cathedral. Like, really ridiculously large.
And of course, Ronda’s “New Bridge”, which is difficult to comprehend. The vertical distance in the photo below is about 300 meters. That’s a 5 story hotel at the top. We hiked up and down more times than is necessary. And it was amazing.
And the Alhambra, in Granada. A masterwork of a citadel on the hill.
There’s so much more. But these are the tapas – a few small Spanish treats.
Last week I was in Spain for a vacation with BB. We went to Madrid and to Andalusia, touring through the south and seeing amazing marvels in Seville, Ronda, and Granada. We ate at great restaurants and awful little holes-in-walls. We stayed in a couple of decent hotels and a couple of rat traps. We made time to run and hike. It was, entirely, an incredible experience.
And in the middle of it, I had my seventh sober anniversary. I celebrate February 16th, the anniversary of the first day I didn’t drink, with the intention of no longer drinking. That was 2008. I remember at the time thinking: “If I’m still sober at 40, I’ll make seven years.” Well, here I am at 40 years old. Sober seven years.
I’ve been writing Infactorium since I was about 10 months sober. I’m not going to recapitulate the seven years of sobriety, the thousands of pages I’ve written, here now. It’s been a long, wonderful, difficult, trying, magical seven years. And I’m proud of the accomplishments I’ve achieved. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. I’ve worked incredibly hard, and sometimes when I look back on all of it, I feel inestimably weary.
I know we’re supposed to deflect praise. I know we’re supposed to say that sobriety is a pure gift and that we had nothing to do with it. And that’s not just false humility. It defends against pride, and egotism, and the belief that we’re bigger than the disease. The belief that we’re cured. The belief that we did it once, we could do it again, so it’s ok if we drink just this once. That never works out well. I’ve watched people die that way.
The truth is probably in between. I don’t know why I’m sober, and why so many others who wanted it as much, worked as hard, and had so much more to give than I have are dead now. I don’t know why I’ve put together seven years of sobriety and yet I know people smarter, stronger, and wiser who struggle and suffer and finally fade away.
But I do know this: I could not be sober today without the work I’ve done. The tools I’ve assembled and the skills I’ve cultivated. The efforts I’ve mustered. Sobriety is work. Daily and endless. I work today to be sober today. I work today to be sober tomorrow. And if I keep going like that, the future will take care of itself. As it has for more than seven years now.
So for this post, I’m going to allow myself to be openly proud of the work I’ve done. Maybe that’s unbecoming. But I am.
The evening of February 15th, as we sat at a sidewalk table of a restaurant in Seville, after dinner, the waiter brought us a pair of shotglasses filled with dark liquor. Compliments of the house, an after-dinner aperitif. There am I, in Spain, traveling, sophisticated, with my partner and the Andalusian night teeming around us. Six years and 364 days. It would have been so simple. My mind flashed on the lies I’d tell to try to justify it. We alcoholics are great poets with lies. Lies to her. Lies to me. Lies to you.
And I put my tools to work. I look at my life before. My life now. My life after. I watch everything melt into the dredge. I let my fear of shame buoy my resolve. I have used up all my redemption, in this life. I won’t deserve any more chances. I don’t deserve the ones I’ve gotten.
I sniffed the liquor. I watched BB take a sip of hers and make a face. Anise-flavored, I think. We went home. We went to bed. The next morning I sat down in the shower and cried. Six years and 365 days.
I am less and I am more than I used to be. The ways I am less are generally well-left behind. The ways that I am more are generally well-earned. And I have been given a gift I don’t understand. And I don’t need to. I don’t know why plants grow, but I know how to tend a garden. Well enough, I know.
Much of Spain is covered in olive and almond trees. BB and I ran on a trail through olive groves that seemed to cling vertiginously to the side of sheer cliffs. The almond blossoms were blooming all across the valleys around Ronda. These strange gnarled trees that offer up peculiar fruits. Inedible, until properly bred and harvested and prepared. It takes a decade for a tree to fruit, sometimes. It is the work of a lifetime.
This is the work of a lifetime. And I am just begun. That is the beauty of alcoholism. That is the beauty of recovery. Each day I can weep. Each day I can rise. Each day I offer my gratitude. Every day I am just begun.
Today I have seven years of continuous sobriety. I’m in Spain at the moment, but I’ll have more thoughts another time.
The eve before discovery, we wait
on crested waves of fear and churning hope.
Which unturned stone is poised to change our fate?
What prize is perched atop that dizzy slope?
So run, alive, with me these ancient trails,
and stand on stones ten centuries stacked!
We’ll fly those waves with pregnant sails,
We’ll climb these walls and trek the long-trod paths.
Tomorrow’s sun arises elsewhere new.
So sit with me as this prevailing dawn
alights another land we never knew;
alights this hopeful fear, and ever on.
I do not know the way, but walk with me.
From home, to shore, beyond this churning sea.
I suffer from several mental illnesses. Alcoholism, depression. Whatever leads me to cut myself. An eating disorder. Medical diagnoses that, in a simpler time, might simply have had me labeled “drunk”, “crazy”, “hysterical”, or “unstable”. “Neurotic”. Now, those older terms are out of favor, and medical terms are in, with the idea that this provides me some protections. I’m not simply defective, I’m ill. And as such, we should remove the stigma of these pejorative terms. Furthermore, we should never use those terms to describe anyone at all, because it might imply some judgement against people like me, who did not choose to be this way.
Now these words are considered “offensive”. I am supposed to be angry that someone would judge me for my condition. I am supposed to be defensive, in response to offensiveness, and lash back against someone who would condemn me. I am especially supposed to be offended because I am in remission from mental illness. And being in remission, I should not be subject to even reasonable precautions taken with the actively mentally ill. So stigmas against me are particularly unjust!
I am reminded of the great piece about language by George Carlin, in which he suggests that more soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might be helped if it were still called “Shell Shock.”
The academic and political distortion of language to the tyrant of offense is appalling. Of course one should not offend people deliberately to no purpose. And of course we should pay attention to how others respond and be sensitive to how our language impacts them. But too many of us have wax-paper skin, torn on the first rough word.
I am tired of being told what words I am supposed to be offended by. In AA, many of us deliberately choose words like “insane”, “crazy”, and “drunk”. Simple, plain words that describe how we interact with the world. And if someone tries to use those words to hurt me, you know, maybe they’ll succeed. But if someone wants to hurt me, using softer words won’t soften that intent.
Feel free to call me “crazy”. “Mentally ill” is not any better. It’s not your words that hurt, it’s your meaning. And that meaning will assign itself to the new vocabulary in due course. And if you don’t mean to hurt, using the “wrong” word doesn’t magically make you injurious.