There is a man in my Sunday morning meeting who almost always has something to say that I find meaningful. His name is Jim, and he’s married to a co-worker of mine who is also in the program. They are in their late fifties, I’d guess, and have been sober each around 20 years. Mary goes to that meeting sometimes too. Recently she was there for her 19th sober anniversary. I first saw her there in August of 2008. Right before I started my job.
I was hired by this big hero PI, essentially to be a concierge engineer for the hospital where I continue to work. It was a position not dissimilar from a post-doc, I suppose. I was paid a bit more than a post-doc, and I had a real contract, which around these parts many post-docs don’t. Anyhow, Mary was the big hero PI’s direct assistant. She’s an RN, but hasn’t practiced in years, and being his assistant is more than being a secretary. I’m not sure of her position, but it’s high level administration.
So there I was, about 2 weeks prior to starting my first ever real job, where someone was going to pay me to do engineering in a hospital. I’m six months sober. I’d been consulting for them already for about a year. Mary has since informed me that she noticed my hangovers and odor of stale alcohol from time to time. Of course, I shrouded it in cigarette smoke. But it’s hard to fool a recovered alcoholic. We can often sense it (though of course not perfectly) in the active drinkers among us. When I saw her there I freaked out and was sure that she was going to ‘out’ me t0 my new boss. I was terrified. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was a far bigger liability to her than she was to me.
Jim once said, at a pot-luck meeting at their house, that alcoholism may be miss-named. After all, for those of us in recovery, we look back and see that alcohol was not our problem. It was simply a compulsion, and a symptom of a far larger and more difficult set of emotional and physical and (as we say in the program, and as I have no better word for) spiritual* maladies. Alcoholism, Jim says, might as well be called Isolationism. We alcoholics tend, in the end, to shrivel into ourselves, living tiny lives in close spaces, full of fear and shame and a desperate desire not to be caught-out, not to be seen for what we are.
I still do that. I will spend long periods of time alone when I am not feeling centered. My time traveling in Scandinavia and New Zealand alone was often introspective and sad. I spend a great deal of time alone even when I feel fine. Three nights a week, I spend the entire seven hours from when I come home from work until I go to sleep alone, usually. I could go to more meetings, to socialize more, but I am generally content to be by myself. I’d like to be with a partner, of course. I get lonely. But I do not any longer treat my loneliness with alcohol.
But I was asked yesterday when I started feeling like I was genuinely part of the online science community. And my response was: “I still don’t.” And it’s true. I am too much in my head to feel truly a part of these things. I think it is closely related to imposter syndrome, but I usually feel, when I am among groups, that people are politely tolerating me and wish that I would leave. I am convinced that people would be having a better time if I weren’t there. When I drank, this was sometimes literally true, and I was asked not to come back to things, or to modify my behavior, or I was simply told to leave sometimes. As a sober person, I can still be tone deaf and socially inept, but I think I am rarely utterly inappropriate.
But it is very difficult for me to feel a part of things. I feel a deep need for external validation, but when I get it, it doesn’t persist. I’ve been told, explicitly, that I am welcome and an important participant. And that feels wonderful for the moment. And then, often only minutes later, I will question if that validation remains in effect. My confidence in the feeling of acceptance begins to erode almost instantaneously. And soon enough, I feel isolated and other again.
The reason for this, I presume, is that when it all comes down to it, I don’t know how to be comfortable with myself. And so no amount of external validation can replace the internal sense of deficiency. No matter how much coal I shovel onto the fire, it eventually burns out. And I know that the need for validation is exhausting to others. So I try not to let on how isolated and ashamed I feel. And I try to do the things I need to do to build up my sense of belonging from within, rather than trying to fuel it by leaching emotional energy from others.
Sometimes, the solution is simply to recognize that there’s a problem. That the problem is me, internal to processes. If I feel unloved, it is not because no one loves me. It is because I believe myself to be unlovable. If I feel isolated, it is not because I am unwelcome, but because I believe myself to be beneath invitation. I recover only when I recognize that I am my problem. And then when I take action to thwart my self-destructive behavior. So I participate in the online science community, even when I fear I am not welcome there.
Because the one of the crucial steps on the road to recovery from Isolationism is to recognize that my own perceptions are not always, even not often, accurate. It is difficult to interact with a world which I cannot sense objectively. Often I feel like participating in a social environment is like asking blind man to identify colors. He doesn’t have access to the tools. But for me, I simply have to recognize I’ve got my eyes shut.
*While I do not personally believe that “God cures alcoholism”, I know people who do, and who are sober, and happy, and I respect that view. However, the description of alcoholism as a spiritual disease works for me. Not because there’s anything magic about it, but because it is a disease of the nested and intricate and perhaps unknowable fibers of the self. Whether there is anything immanent about that or not doesn’t truly matter to me. What does matter to me is that spiritual seeking appears to promote recovery.