When I was active in my alcoholism, bad stuff happened. All the time. So often, I couldn’t allow it to register. Slept with your boyfriend and now you’re mad? I had better avoid you. Called off work again for no legitimate reason and I’m probably going to get fired? Just don’t think about it. Seven years into recovery, bad stuff like this has more or less stopped happening. I show up when I’m expected to. I live an honest life.
Still, the old mechanisms are hardwired. I’m always on alert.
Even when good stuff happens—which is more and more often—my first instinct is to convince myself that it didn’t. Sounds insane, right? But there’s a good reason for this: If I don’t allow myself to be fooled into thinking something good has happened to me, then I won’t be disappointed when that good thing is taken away. In my mind, there’s nothing worse than disappointment amplified by the humiliation that I dared believe I was worthy of whatever made me happy in the first place.
I call this the “Carrie phenomenon.” I am afraid that, like Carrie, I will be falsely led to believe that something good is happening in my life—Oh yeah, hey, the star football player is totally taking me to the prom and now I’m being crowned prom queen! This is great! And just as I am feeling the warm goodness of the moment, letting the appreciation of others and rightness in the world soften my defenses—BOOM—they dump pigs blood on my head. Oh hells no.
A couple months ago I pitched The New York Times an article and the response was decidedly not a rejection. The editor pulled a paragraph and asked if I could expand the argument being made in the paragraph into an essay of its own for a column in another section of the paper. What an awesome opportunity! I was going to write an essay for The New York Times! Good thing I didn’t let myself celebrate—or, God forbid, tell anyone of the opportunity—because, when I read the paragraph, the very best thing that had ever happened to me became, officially, the very worst thing I’d ever done.
Smack dab in the middle of the paragraph was a sentence—a complete sentence, the very argument of the paragraph that had attracted the editor’s attention, in fact—that I was pretty certain I hadn’t written. This was not my original idea, I realized. This sentence is clearly not my voice. If you’re a writer, you can probably imagine what happened: I must’ve copied the sentence down at some point in a notebook and forgotten where it’d come from. Then, at a later date, it had made its way into my writing and into a scene that found its way into the essay I had just pitched The New York Times.
In a state of abject terror. I put the sentence in Google and yep, it came up. Word for word. The whole sentence had been lifted from a 2011 article printed in The New York Times. That’s right, I had plagiarized The New York Times to The New York Times.
Of course when I told the editor about the mistake, I lost the assignment (full disclosure: instead of being given the assignment, I was invited to turn something in on spec, which I did, and she passed). A setback, but not the end of the world. And yet, like Carrie, I wanted to burn the whole thing down.
It was an honest mistake but it didn’t feel honest. And therein lies the problem: from the beginning, the whole endeavor felt dishonest. What was I thinking, pitching The New York Times? I’m not a Real writer. I’m a fake, a fraud, a liar. I can’t have nice things. When I get them, I’ll only ruin it. I don’t deserve them. They’ll only be taken away.
Self-defeating thinking is an alcoholic perversion of “self care,” an instinctual protective mechanism developed to help me avoid pain. Truly caring for yourself means being honest and present, taking the good with the bad, and allowing yourself to experience a full range of feelings. But truly caring for yourself is not in an alcoholic’s nature and the reason why we can do the same horribly painful, self-destructive things again and again, expecting different results. In a recent blog post, I quipped how a therapist had once suggested to me that I’m full of self-loathing and denial. “No, I’m not!” was my immediate and unintentionally hilarious reply. But she was right and it’s taken years of recovery to admit this.
Sobriety is wonderful. Good things happen to me all the time. Sometimes they’re a result of my hard work; sometimes, it’s a matter of luck. Most often, it’s a combination of both. Sometimes bad shit happens because I’m unlucky or because I’ve made a mistake. My personal brand of self-defeating thinking wants to chalk good stuff up to luck. It causes me to behave superstitiously, not walking on the cracks of my mind for fear of disrupting the universe’s delicate balance and causing the things I cherish to be taken from me. When bad things happen, my self defeating thinking does not want me to think of it as bad luck. Instead, I want to blame myself entirely. Mistakes are not mistakes but indicators that I am bad, dishonest or dirty or in some way inherently wrong.
Here’s where 12-step work can be incredibly useful. A searching and fearless inventory is an opportunity to acknowledge painful, embarrassing or difficult events, thoughts, emotions or actions. We learn to admit difficult things to ourselves, to the universe and to another human being. We learn our “big deals” are not such big deals. Sometimes, eventually, we can even laugh about it. Fearless doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel fear—only that you won’t let your fears stop you from being vigorous and painstaking.
Defeating self-defeating thinking means turning setbacks into stepping stones. In my experience, as a writer, it means understanding rejection is part of the process and failure is one step closer to success. It means selling that article to someone else (minus the plagiarism) and continuing to pitch The New York Times just as if I believed in myself. It means not giving up.