Drinking My Education.
Yesterday I wrote about not being good enough to be a professor of systems engineering. But if you’ve read this blog long at all, you know that I’ve wondered if, in different circumstances, I might have been. I don’t know. I’ll never know. I find myself, often, tempted to blame woes in life on my alcoholism. The thinking goes, “If only I weren’t an alcoholic, I’d have…” and then whatever is currently bothering me fills in the ellipsis and is magically solved in the fantasy world where I didn’t spend a decade-plus drunk.
This is seductive thinking. At least, it is for me, and I know it is for many alcoholics. I want to blame any troubles I have on anything but myself. This is a mechanism by which my alcoholism attempts to reclaim me. If I cannot influence my life for the better, if the difficulties I have are the fault of some unconquerable malady, then I get to despair. Despair is wonderful. Despair is someone else’s fault. I’m not responsible. This was done to me, not by me. So it doesn’t matter what I do anyway. It’s hopeless. Let’s drink.
Now, let’s be clear. It is neither my fault nor anyone else’s that I am afflicted with the disease of alcoholism. That’s just a thing that happened by accident of my birth and genes and brain. Seems to happen to a fairly large number of people. There’s no point lamenting it any more than lamenting that I was born with a predisposition toward type II diabetes. It’s my life. We’re all born with good things and bad things, and on the whole, I came into this world spectacularly high up on the privilege scale.
Even drinking or not drinking is not in my own power. When I decide how to live my own life, I make bad choices with respect to alcohol. However, when I am part of a strong social network of people who suffer from the same malady as I do, and have found away to address it and live sober, I am capable of following that path, that program, and living a sober, useful life. I have gained so much through this process. Through descending into alcoholic misery and then being lifted back out of it.
But I also cannot help but wonder what I might have lost. If I hadn’t spent the years from 21 to 33 drinking as much as I could – wholly encompassing graduate school – would I have been able to do the math? Would I have ended up on a different road that might’ve included a professorship in systems engineering? What life would I be living today? but through long and – hopefully – honest self-appraisal, I think I know the answer.
A worse life. I was always pretty darned smart, but I was never very diligent. Because school was easy, I didn’t work very hard at it. I had a B+ average in high school, and a B+ average in college. I went on to have a B+/A- average in graduate school, which is kind of disgraceful. I was allowed to skate through on privilege and potential. And I think my grades would have been almost exactly the same if I had never picked up a drink. Because I got B+’s before I drank, and B+’s after I drank. The fact of the matter is, I am a B+ person. I am willing to work that hard and not much harder.
My alcoholism has taught me to take responsibility for my behavior. I may not be able to control my drinking without help, but it is unequivocally my own responsibility, and no-one else’s, to get the help I need to keep sober. It’s my life. It’s my disease. It’s my charge. I am the one responsible for my life. As much as it is appealing to offload the responsibility for my alcoholism to doctors or parents or circumstances, it’s mine. It simply is. I am the one who has to face the truth of it, recognize my powerlessness, and do the things required to remain in recovery.
My alcoholism taught me to look at myself, give up my need to control all of my life, and other people’s lives. To examine how I contribute to my own problems. To focus inward for the solutions to my discontent, instead of expecting other people to solve my difficult feelings for me. To focus outward for my efforts and interactions, to make my life about being useful to others and contributing instead of expecting the world to cater to me.
But I wish I hadn’t drunk my education. I don’t remember the elegant math I learned. I couldn’t shift gears from my current work in healthcare simulation and go to putting rovers on Mars (or similarly math-intensive engineering work). Not anymore. Probably not ever. I just didn’t retain faculty with nearly as much of my training as I could have or should have. I was capable of it. Never of the truly theoretical work, but I was good enough to solve problems like that.
But I like working in healthcare. I think I’d be working in healthcare engineering no matter if I’d been an alcoholic or not. I simply suffer from grass-is-greener disease sometimes. The truth of my life is, I probably have a better life than I would have if I hadn’t been an alcoholic. I’m almost certainly happier than I would be as a professor even if I had been able to take that path. I don’t work as hard as most professors. And I don’t like to work that hard. My chosen profession uses the training I remember how to do, and compensates me more than adequately.
I’m an alcoholic. Being an alcoholic has taught me to live. Not just sober, but free. There are living oceans of experience I will never grasp. But I can cup a bowl of water in my hands, and marvel.