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Marshmallows and Lies.

7 June 2012

I asked for topics on twitter this morning, because I’m feeling grayed out and dulled. This last grant actually took an enormous amount out of me. More than I thought. My single mental health day was not enough time. But I have too many things to do, and too much stuff upcoming to take more time than that right now. And I have time off upcoming. I’m looking forward to my high school reunion, surprisingly enough. I’m going to be taking a summer short course in epidemiology that will be like a small vacation. I’m looking forward to that as well. Those two things occur back to back, so I’ll be away from work for a week and a half. But it’s still more than a month away.

When I was a kid, I didn’t hate camping quite as much as I do now. Nowadays, you’d have to press a gun to my head to get me to camp. Hard. And you’d have to prove it was loaded first. But as a child, after my parent’s divorce, my mom took us camping from time to time. She was determined to provide us with all the life experiences. It’s actually pretty impressive that she did, considering her background as a Scarsdale/Barnard girl.

I inherited a rather fluid concept of a relationship to the truth. My mother is a champion of exaggeration. As time goes by, it seems she comes to believe her own embellishments. My father is a lovely man, but he too has a complex and difficult entanglement with objective reality. I think he persists in a lot of important denial. Denial that serves his need not to confront some horrifyingly difficult truths about his own life, his own past.

I don’t write these things to perform some armchair psychoanalysis of my parents. I’m more likely to be wrong than right. But it’s important to write how I understand them, because it helps to explain the way I internalized my own concepts of truth and self and independence and autonomy. How I learned to negotiate my relationship to the truths in my own life. The difficulties I’ve experienced being an alcoholic. Being a man.

On one camping trip with my sisters and my mother and her boyfriend, when I was seven or eight years old, I was burnt. We were doing what kids do on camping trips. Roasting marshmallows. Sometimes I had the patience to carefully and slowly roast a marshmallow to a uniform golden brown without blistering,  a thing of beauty. Mostly, I let them burn. I loved the taste of fire-charred marshmallow. On this occasion I was trying to slow-roast a masterpiece. My older sister was doing the same. She was better at it than I was. And it wasn’t just age; she’s always had better hand-eye coordination than I do. She’s an artist.

But something went wrong with her roasting-plan that time, and her ‘mallow caught fire. Then something went very wrong, and it exploded. Some bubble of air perhaps. Or a deposit of whatever toxic goo that marshmallows are made of. A flaming blob off sugar sizzled into my wrist. I screamed and tried to brush it off. You can’t brush off flaming sugar. It just smears and burns and spreads. The sugar melted into my skin and I screamed. Like an eight year old boy being burnt, I screamed.

It didn’t last long. There wasn’t much to it. All told there were probably only three grams of it. But it raised a terrible blister. It was rinsed and bandaged and my mother did as mothers do and comforted me. I think I was told, but I don’t know for certain, that it was a “third degree burn”. I’m not even really sure what degrees of burns mean, or if they’re a real thing. But I latched on to that idea. And for the next two and a half decades, I would occasionally tell the story of the exploding marshmallow and the third degree burn.

But it was never looked at by a physician. I don’t have a scar (though I did have a small one, for a very long time). I have no idea how bad a burn it was. I only know that it hurt a lot at the time. And that I somehow got in my head that it was a third degree burn. So that was my story. And I believed it. Mostly. In the back of my head was always the inveigled uncertainty that this was a true story. But I didn’t let it stop me from the telling.

For a long time, that’s how my alcoholism was to me. I thought of myself as a drinker. I joked about myself as a heavy drinker. As a “professional”. I tried out being a gourmand, a connoisseur. I was a drunk. An alcoholic. But I wrote a different internal narrative for myself. I exaggerated the control over my drinking in my mind. I believed the lies I told myself about my consumption. I tried to surround myself with people who drank more than I did. It became difficult.

The first time I got drunk I was five years old. I had stolen a bottle of what must have been creme de menthe from my parents’ cabinet. I hid it in my room. I drank it. I knew I had to hide what I’d done, because I ate a bunch of toothpaste to disguise the smell of it. I threw up in my father’s church.

I never developed a more nuanced relationship with alcohol. No matter what lies I learned to tell myself. And I never lost that tiny schism. That little voice saying: you know this isn’t true. When I began to drink as an adult, from the time I was about 22, I always had that wrinkle of dismay in the far corner of my mind. I knew. I knew from nearly the beginning. But I always found a way to shrug off the terrible consequence of the truth, in order to keep getting what I needed.

But truth has a way of revealing itself. And when it comes to addiction, the truth can manifest in many unpleasant ways. So often, the truth of addiction is a corpse. The addict’s. A bystander’s. For the lucky ones, like me, it was a crushing revelation that my substance no longer shielded me from the things I didn’t want to feel. The things I didn’t want to know. It was the light in the darkroom that I was not, would never be, the man I had imagined myself to be in my head. The lie that I told myself about who I was. I didn’t have the strength to believe my own inventions anymore.

In sobriety, I’ve had to forge a new relationship to the truth. I’ve had to pivot. I always thought of myself as an honest person, because you could leave me alone in a room full of money and not fear I’d help myself to any. But the lies I told were the most insidious of all. I told myself that I was a good man despite my drinking, and I fought with bone and breath to believe it.

We say that AA’s program is a program of rigorous honesty. And we work very hard at that. I haven’t been honest every day since I’ve been sober. I’ve even told a few lies that were blatantly self-serving. I’m not perfect. I never will be. Perfection isn’t my goal. I only hope to progress. Where I’ve been dishonest, I’ve apologized and made amends. Mostly. More will come.

Today, I try to see the world as it is. I try to accept my faults as they are. I try to improve what I can. I try not to measure myself against what is expected of me, but against what I am capable of. I often find myself wanting. So I try to do a little better the next day. And I try to keep my relationship to the truth on solid ground. I’ve found that means I have to say, “I don’t know” a lot. And that’s ok. I’m not afraid of not knowing things anymore. I used to be so afraid of unknown things that I’d make things up to replace the gaps in my knowledge. 

One day, as a boy, I was burnt by a marshmallow. I ended up telling a quarter-century’s worth of lies. I’m so glad to be done now.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 June 2012 10:44

    I wish I had seen your request on Twitter, as I have a good topic I’ve been wanting to request! I’m sorry I missed it.

    THIS: “In sobriety, I’ve had to forge a new relationship to the truth. I’ve had to pivot. I always thought of myself as an honest person, because you could leave me alone in a room full of money and not fear I’d help myself to any. But the lies I told were the most insidious of all. I told myself that I was a good man despite my drinking, and I fought with bone and breath to believe it.”

    I could say the exact same thing, word for word, except for substituting “woman” for “man”, of course. I even worked at a bank for a number of years, so there were times I was literally alone in a room full of money! But the lying….not so much blatant lies to others, but many lies of omission, and lies upon lies upon lies to myself.

    I did another fifth step yesterday, with a new sponsor, and a huge lie I’ve been telling myself for years was exposed. It’s only taken 18 months of sobriety for that to become clear. But yes, as painful and ego-crushing as it was to realize what the lie was and that I’d been telling it over and over, I am also glad to be done. Growth can hurt, but it’s necessary for me to stay sober and live a better life.

  2. 7 June 2012 13:40

    to answer your question: I remember the marshmallow incident (barely) but not the throwing-up-in-church incident. Third degree burns are a real thing, but you didn’t have one. You had a second degree burn, and those hurt like hell. Third degree burns are full thickness, destroying the entire epidermis and all associated structures, like nerves. Burns which blister are second degree.

    Marshmallows are napalm.

    As far as “the truth” is concerned – just about everybody knows when they are telling a lie (though mom often doesn’t), but I don’t think anybody knows when they are telling “the truth.” There are certainly lies, but there is no “truth.” he best we can hope to achieve is not to tell lies, and accept that what feels like truth to us will not be true for others, a great deal of the time.

    Alas.

  3. fenfatale permalink
    8 June 2012 13:23

    Great blog! I read somewhere that Wallace Stegner (author of Angle of Repose) wrote something to the effect of, “don’t share your memoir with your parents” as they will have a different version of that story, their version of the truth. Memories are valid. If you got a particular detail, 2nd versus 3rd degree burn from a marshmallow, that’s not such a far cry from reality. But it’s a beautifully written blog post.

  4. 11 June 2012 06:03

    So much in this post that has caused a bunch of related synapsis to engage in my head… taken me some time to come back and I still wonder how to comment…

    When I stopped drinking the lying was the a big thing – If my lips moved I was unlikely to be telling the truth… it really was a mess. Of course others, wifes, kids, colleagues etc. think you are doing it to cover up your failings with them… true to a point but actually I was lying to try and convince myself it was alright on one level too… at the end I was lying in a private drink diary I was only using myself to track my consumption – now that is not a healthy relationship with drink!

    Also I’d created these stories, that made me out to be what I thought you thought I ought to be rather than what I was. These stories were lost in the mist of time and so ingrained that I would just blurt them out – my brain was struggling with the made up fantasy and the true reality as I’d lived in the fantasy land for so long. That was hard – still today the first thought in some situations is the story I told for so long and I have to acknowledge that comes in automatically, then tell myself to move to the next thought.

  5. 11 June 2012 17:21

    As I’ve gotten older, I have had more mellow moments and not just blurting out my truth. There are times when I bite my tongue. I do believe that it’s best for me to not lie when asked a question or to be evasive. These days the questions are about politics–a subject where I can be very blunt. The one person I never evaded the truth with was my sponsor.

Trackbacks

  1. The Alcoholic Has a Need to Control the Alcohol « Emotional Sobriety: Friends & Lovers
  2. Cleaning Up Old Messes. « Infactorium
  3. Marshmallows and Lies. | guyfierimixtape

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