Even before I got into recovery, I was big on self-improvement. I was always turning over new leaves and trying to commit to being more tolerant, less anxious, whatever it was. My New Year’s resolutions lists were long. Some of the time, I think I even made some headway.
It wasn’t until I was sober, however, that these improvements were noticeable—to me or anyone else. When I was introduced to the idea that I was self-obsessed, perceived everything through that prism of self-obsession and it was this very prism that was making me miserable, I was able to start challenging the way I’d always thought and approached the world.
The problem, when you’re aware of your flaws and have had some success at diminishing some of them, is that at a certain point you start to think that absolutely everything about yourself is ripe for improvement. And that’s when I start to get into trouble. See, there are some qualities of mine that we can all agree aren’t good; my tendency to leave late for appointments and then tailgate other cars and be thoroughly annoyed by their drivers in order to make up for the fact that I simply didn’t budget my time right is, we can all agree, bad. The fact that I take many things that have nothing to do with me personally? Likewise bad. But what about those characteristics that don’t fit firmly into the bad column but which, arguably, cause discomfort or pain?
The one I’ve been thinking about lately is the fact I’m a very efficient and dedicated worker. This quality has been called many things by me and other people and has received as many compliments as it has criticisms. Workaholism, obsessiveness, anxiety and “no ability to exist without accomplishing something” are a few of the words that have been used. This quality obviously has its attributes: I get stuff done and don’t ever seem to tire of work or working. And yet on a certain level I know I’m anesthetizing myself with my work the same way I once did with cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes. I get that it’s not quote-unquote normal to feel a surge of panic whenever a to-do list gets finished or at the end of a project—that to many, this is when relief and a feeling of a-job-well-done kicks in. But I don’t experience that. I look at people who seem to know how to traipse from lunch plan to hike to movie to wiling away the hours watching a TV show or filling out a crossword with genuine admiration.
When I think back on the old days with any fondness, in fact, it isn’t the drinking and drugging that I romanticize. I had enough darkness those last few years that the fun memories all have a constant shadow over them. But the days after? The mornings and afternoons where I was hung over and couldn’t do anything but lounge around—where simply managing to rent a movie felt like an accomplishment of the highest order? Those days I remember longingly as times where I didn’t feel like I had to push myself to be Superwoman. And frankly, aside from a few chunks of time where my workaholism somehow lifted, I haven’t been able to do much of that in sobriety.
Another one I struggle with: the things I’m just not that interested in. Let’s take politics. Now, I feel great shame about my lack of interest and am fairly convinced that anyone fully conscious today should care a lot more about our government and what goes on in other countries than I do. A friend said to me recently that I was the only person she considered an intellectual who had no political interests. While I argued with her that I’m not actually an intellectual (my favorite show, for years, was Real World), the question I can’t answer is this: should I be working on changing this about myself or just accept that my interests are what they are—what I “should” care about be damned? I know that I have certain interests that are on the list of things-thinking-people-should-do—reading books, for example. Plenty of people I know don’t read at all and I don’t judge them for this; I think it has more to do with what we learned to do as kids than with our intellectual powers. So if I deem it okay for my friends to not care about literature, I guess it should also be okay for me not to care about politics. I mean, I don’t care about sports either and I don’t shame myself for that. Yet I still struggle with knowing when I’m not growing enough and when I’m simply not accepting myself as I am.
Recovery literature stresses that acceptance is the answer to all of our problems—that if we are “disturbed,” it is because we find “some person, place, thing or situation” unacceptable and we can’t have serenity until we “accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.” But my attempts to gain acceptance sort of remind of the same quandary I face when I attempt to accept the will of the universe rather than trying to get the universe to bend to fit my desires. Which is to say: when am I accepting and when am I avoiding? When is inaction contributing to the problem and when the solution? I honestly don’t know.
Still, for now, this is what I’ve decided: I’m going to work on believing that everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be at this moment—including me. If the work or politics thing gets to be a big enough problem that I need to do something about it, I’ll count on the universe to let me know.
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