I’m not so much afraid of screwing things up as I am of being found out about having screwed things up. Having it exposed to everyone. It’s humiliating. I feel naked and exposed and very, very small when it happens. And I’m not sure which is worse, when people are angry that I’ve made a mistake, or when people laugh at me for not being good enough. The worst, the absolute worst, is when people call me stupid. That was the weapon of choice of my mother’s. I cannot count the number of times she hissed at me: “How could you be so stupid?” when I’d done something foolish that children do. All the times she called me a “concrete idiot” when I didn’t understand a simile or couldn’t parse a metaphor. I learned rapidly to pick things up the first time. To hide my misunderstandings.
I was, as an adolescent and as a younger man, very defensive. Because I felt I had to protect myself so carefully, I would lash out at people who accused me of not doing things correctly. Because the consequences of being wrong felt so dire. As a result, it became very difficult for me to admit when I was wrong. Being wrong was heaped with shame and horror. Admitting that I didn’t understand something was blankly terrifying. Confronted by something I felt I couldn’t understand made me angry, sick.
Being defensive is one reason I kept drinking so long. Because I couldn’t admit to being overwhelmed, I couldn’t address the problem. It was absurd that I would have any trouble with alcohol. I wasn’t a drunk, I was a “professional”. And drinking assuaged the constant terror inside, the fear of not knowing, of not measuring up. Of not fulfilling promise. Of being exposed as a fraud and a liar. Because I didn’t really understand the difference between being wrong, and telling lies. It was no worse to simply be wrong than to tell lies. And so soon, lies covered for being wrong. Lies propped me up when the truth wasn’t good enough.
Any liar will tell you that it becomes difficult to protect all their lies, as time goes on. A drunken liar has the additional wrinkle of not remembering which lies they might’ve told in a blackout, to whom and for what. I lied for the sport of lying. And my defensiveness, the hedgerow that defends a tender ego, that shelters that yolk within me that was ashamed to tell lies, allowed me not to confront what I had become. Someone who wasn’t merely “screwing things up”, but was actively sabotaging himself, and those around him.
I couldn’t see what I was, because I couldn’t look at it. And once I saw it, finally, I couldn’t bear it. I lashed out at myself, too. Cutting myself, bleeding in the bathtub, fantasizing that the black bile of my lies and shame could drain out of me in that way. It doesn’t work. I’d have run out of blood long before I ran out of shame.
When I finally had no more options, when I was finally abandoned to death or recovery, I somehow chose recovery. It isn’t an easy choice. I wish I knew a way to explain that to people who don’t have addictions. I think we’d all be a little better off if there were some way to allow non-addicts to empathize with the difficulty of that choice. To this day, drinking myself to death doesn’t really sound all that bad. At that time, it was a real, viable option. Attractive and nearly compelling. And a lot of people make that choice. And I don’t know how to help them make a different one.
I’d like to say that I’ve succeeded at being 100% honest with everyone, all the time. I haven’t. The program of AA is called a “program of rigorous honesty”, but I don’t know anyone who has succeeded at that, not even those who have many decades of sobriety. In my five-plus years, I’ve told lies. Especially by omission. But I’m making progress.
We claim progress rather than perfection, says the book. And I can gladly claim that. I have made great progress. And I am happy to continue that work. I am happy in my recovery. Happy in my new job. My new city. My new life. I’m still ashamed when I make mistakes. But I’m not stupid. I think I know that now. I would really like to be certain that I’m not stupid.
My life is moving up. A far cry from the chasms I used to long after. That a small, sick part of me will always want to call home. I can relinquish my defensiveness by remembering: I don’t always have to know. Because I’m allowed to learn.