This post was originally published on August 20, 2015.
Over at Buzzfeed, contributor Chris Owen told us nine things he doesn’t miss about his addiction and boy, could I relate. From how much money it cost him to never being able to turn off and not ever being able to get a good night’s sleep, it’s a list that basically any alcoholic has experienced. But the one I related to most was definitely number eight: “Being an arsehole.”
“Lying to everyone you know and care about is a terrible thing,” Owen writes, “but an addict has other priorities.” Reading over the author’s list of dickish behavior typical of active alcoholism sure brings back memories. Though I wasn’t one to hide booze around the house, I definitely snuck away from one or two family functions to get drunk or high. I definitely, on occasion, returned to said family functions drunk and belligerent. I have a particularly ugly memory of one Christmas my mom spent behind a locked bedroom door in tears, humiliated and in grief over my conduct from the night before. It was probably for the better that, on most friends’ birthdays or other occasions, I had the habit of just not showing up. As Owen concludes, alcoholics—controlled by their addictions—put themselves first, constantly. And we hate ourselves for it.
To be fair, for a lot of addicts, I think this behavior starts as a compensation. I was an uncomfortable kid, for the most part invisible in my house unless I made myself the center of attention. In the beginning, I did this by achieving. I had the fear that if I didn’t earn all A’s or wasn’t cast as the lead in the school play I wouldn’t matter in my mother’s eyes (even as an adult, I believe there might be some truth to that). Of course, overachievement has the opposite of its intended effect among one’s peer group; no one really likes the kid that answers every question in class and then joins every club after school and has to be in charge. I was bossy, dominating, arrogant. Desperate to always be the best, underneath all my accolades I was fragile and insecure.
At a certain age, I discovered alcohol and pot, and later sex, to be a solution for social discomfort. Feeling self conscious? Just get obliterated! Drunk enough, you’ll feel nothing at all! Almost overnight, I started hanging out with the “bad” kids. Getting drunk or high with friends became a way to feel liked. I’m sure that even “normal” drinkers use alcohol to loosen up and find that sharing a bottle or a joint can bring about a counterfeit intimacy. The problem: as an alcoholic, I always liked drinking or using a little more than everyone else. My friends and I would share a joint and then while they all went off swimming, I’d want to keep smoking. I might even steal your pot. I didn’t want a swig of vodka, I wanted to get fucked up. I didn’t want to share—I wanted it all for myself.
Once drunk, I’d have what I thought of as “dark” thoughts. I didn’t want to go to the movies with a big, friendly group of people and have a normal amount of fun. I wanted to go to the movies with your boyfriend, and I wanted to make out. Maybe I wanted to fuck him, which was dirty and wrong not only because he was your boyfriend but also because sex, I had been taught by our sex-negative culture, is dirty and wrong. I wasn’t trying to feel liked, I was needing to feel loved. I was desperately compensating for what was lacking in my life—that is, a true feeling of belonging.
You learn in recovery that a part of what drives our self-centered behavior is thinking of ourselves as “terminally unique.” Like I was the only one who felt out of place and awkward in high school. Like I was the only adolescent girl with a burgeoning sexual appetite. Like everyone isn’t suppressing random impulses all the time. What I learned in recovery: we’re all assholes, at least some of the time. The trick is to not act like one.
I thought that because I had an impulse to do something “bad,” that meant I was a bad person. Like, if I was jealous of my best friend because she had a boyfriend, that meant I was a real dick and I might as well try and sleep with him. What I learned in recovery: everyone feels jealous at one point or another. It’s a human experience to feel entitled, or to act bossy because you feel insecure. Anger is natural. So is sadness and fear. I spent a lot of time hiding from my feelings, afraid they were indicators of some kind of personal defect. What I learned in recovery: human beings are all kinds of defective. That is to say, we are all imperfect. And that’s okay.
Owen writes that “In rehab the first thing they tell you is that you’re not a bad person trying to be good, you’re an unwell person trying to get—and stay—better.” I heard something along those lines, too. I acted like an asshole until I more or less became one. Recovery gave me back the option of acting like a decent human being.