This post was originally published on April 23, 2015.
Recovery encourages us to believe we can be loved for who we are, as we are, just for existing. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. There’s nothing to improve. Recovery isn’t a program of self- improvement, you’ll hear in meetings. We work toward self-acceptance. Before sobriety, I was a hard-core perfectionist for whom self-acceptance was definitely not a goal.
Picture me at 23, determined to be perfect: I ran two, four, six miles a day, sometimes twice a day, before and after work. At work, I would do or say anything to please my boss, volunteering for everything, staying late and even coming in on Saturdays.
I would do anything to avoid feeling fat. For three years of my life, I wrote down everything that I ate. I’d estimate the servings, approximate the calories. This wasn’t because I was in some sort of support group that suggested this, but because I followed my own OCD-like rules that told me any extra ounce of me would be wrong. No butter, no sugar, no refined wheat. If only, I thought, I could lose two more pounds. Then, I thought, I’d be perfect.
“Perfectionism seizes on the psyche and doesn’t let go,” Ann Dowsett Johnston says in a personal essay for The Atlantic on her own battles with alcohol and perfectionism. For perfectionists like us, alcohol is the perfect escape from a high-achieving lifestyle. For women, especially, the pressures to be the best at everything can feel all-consuming. Alcohol gave me an ability to “turn off” this pressure cooker.
Even as a child, I had prided myself in being a high achiever. I was over-involved in high school, graduated from a reputable liberal arts school, the first in my family to go to college, and transplanted myself to New York City to pursue an ambitious career. By my early 20s, I felt I had made it, even though my relationship with alcohol had already presented itself as problematic. I didn’t even recognize that I had a problem with alcohol because—on the surface—I was so healthy and such a success.
My regimented lifestyle meant I’d lay off booze until the weekend, at which point I’d let go. One drink down, I’d start to relax. After two drinks, I was feeling good. Finally. I’d order a fourth or fifth drink just because I could. I could afford it. I’d tell myself I earned it. When I got drunk, I’d eat and eat and eat. I told myself, It doesn’t count if I don’t write it down. No one, I told myself, will ever have to know.
If only I looked good, I thought, I’d feel good. In reality, the opposite was true. The effort I expended to look perfect exhausted me, both physically and emotionally. Being “perfect” meant acting as if everything was fine. But nothing felt fine. I stuffed my emotions down until I got drunk, at which point my dark feelings would all come pouring out.
Most troubling to me now, when I look back, is to see how my perfectionism alienated me from others. Sometimes when I drank, I felt like being mean. I’d start fights with strangers, women in particular. I’d call them sluts or hags loud enough for them to hear, in retaliation for nothing—for not liking what they were wearing or how they were dancing or how they ordered their drinks. Maybe they’d have a Long Island accent or maybe they were just too happy to be there. I liked to bring these kind of people down. Other times, I’d feel sad and sorry. My boyfriend at the time would take me home and I’d sob myself to sleep. In those moments, I wouldn’t know why I was crying but it felt as if I’d never stop. Something—I had no idea what—was always wrong.
The problem was me. But it was nothing that could be fixed by a facial or even by earning another degree.
A warning sign came the day I tried to squeeze in a workout after a glass of wine. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t have waited to start drinking until after I’d had my run. Today, it’s quite clear why: I was an alcoholic, and my alcoholism was progressing.
Inevitably, my “healthy” habits hit the road. You just can’t go for a 10-mile run after a night of hard drinking. Kale is the opposite of appealing when you’re hung over. My go-to breakfast went from bran flakes and soy milk to a greasy bacon and egg sandwich followed by an M&M cookie, all washed down with an extra large ice coffee with enough sugar to form a syrupy layer on the bottom. There was no more writing this down, no accounting in my mind for how I’d gone from a marathoner with a great job to an unemployed smoker. I had no explanation for why I quit my high-stress job for a significantly less demanding one, only to eventually quit that job when just showing up became too much effort.
Signing myself into rehab was just about the most imperfect thing I could have done. In my mind, it was humiliating. Having mental health problems and being an alcoholic just did not fit with the image I strained to fashion for myself. That image, I was forced to accept, was false. To get better, I had to stop pretending to myself and others that I was superior to anyone else, or that my value as a human being was contingent on whether or not I was a size two. In other words, to get better, I had to stop trying to be “better.” I had to stop trying to be perfect, and let myself be me.
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