This post was originally published on July 2, 2014.
A friend of mine recently confessed that he is terrified of me. Obviously, this made me laugh. But as he started to explain, I realized it’s not the first time I have heard from a man—usually one I am dating—that he is scared of me. In the past, it was usually due to my unpredictable behavior while drinking or my inability to think about anybody but myself; however, now I am being told that a man I feel close to is afraid of me because of my keen ability to clearly identify and communicate my feelings. Go figure.
When I think about how much money and time I have spent working on myself over the past two decades, it’s kind of unbelievable. Countless hours in various forms of forms of therapy and 12-step programs have brought me to a place of peace within myself. Of course, I’m an alcoholic and alcoholics always wrestle with some character defects—as do non-alcoholics of course—but now I am starting to wonder: at what point do we stop relentlessly working on ourselves and just accept who we are? My answer has always been, “Never! There is always more work to be done!” But I am starting to think I might be wrong about that.
My journey towards healing the immense pain I was in began at age 16 when I started seeing my first therapist, Joann. Despite her Masters Degree from Tufts University and picturesque home in the suburbs, Joann was a total bad ass. She had long, straight, jet-black hair and wore dark, draping garments—the kind you might see in old photos of the 1970s Manhattan art scene. But what made Joann the greatest, and gave her the ability to get the attention of a rebellious teenaged brat like me, was that she was married to a black man. It was this ultimate I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness that earned her my adolescent respect and taught me to never let people tell me it’s not okay to be who I am. (Racism accusers, take note: this was a different time.)
I saw Joann for six years, during which I learned about boundaries and how to see people and situations for what they really were. Joann was the first to encourage me to stop “going to the hardware store for milk” (a phrase I learned later), which is still one of my most valued tools. Most importantly, Joann gave me a loving and safe place to go during the chaotic and excruciating years before I could just walk into a bar and drink myself comfortable. She instilled in me a life-long thirst for therapy and quest for self-betterment.
When I was 26, I was living in Los Angeles and my drinking career was in full swing. Back in Boston, I fancied myself a moderate drinker but in LA, it wasn’t long before my affinity for getting sloshed on screw-top gas station Chablis became hard to ignore. I knew I needed help—not with drinking, of course, that wasn’t my problem—but in dealing with my depression and overall unhappiness that was leaving me no choice but to drink (duh).
After one particular Monday night of drinking at my local valley dive bar, I picked up a total stranger off the street. I forgot to get his name but I did remember to give him a blowjob. The next morning, I called Bill—a therapist that had been referred to me who supposedly specialized in sex issues. Turns out, what Bill specialized in was muthafucking miracles.
During my four years as Bill’s patient, I got sober, started a creative career and stopped sucking off guys I met on the street. He helped me develop a deeper understanding of my behavior and why I kept repeating it, completely altering my perspective on life and changing the way I lived it. Bill taught me the language of recovery—how to identify my feelings, own them and express them in an appropriate way. Basically, Bill taught me how to be a strong, black woman inside a white Jewish woman’s body.
With the understanding of myself that I got through my work with Joann and Bill, I turned to the 12 steps and my sponsor to guide me through my life as a sober woman. Through staying sober (and trial and error), I learned how to conduct my relationships by the principals of the 12 steps. I was taught me how to rely on a power greater than myself to hold my spiritual hand and give me the strength to keep going with confidence and a sense of security. In English, I learned to run my “great ideas” by other human beings before acting on them and to ask God relieve me of my fear and be with me as I walked through difficult situations (sometimes) with grace and dignity.
At six-and-a-half years of sobriety, I started dating someone with 29 days of sobriety. Please, hold your applause. The morning after we had sex for the first time, I drove him (because obviously he didn’t have a car) to a meeting to get his 30-day chip. Why? Because I like to be of service and am a full-blown masochist. No one should date a person with 29, even 69, days of sobriety—but a woman with over six years in recovery definitely shouldn’t. I wish I could blame it on stupidity but the truth was, I knew I wasn’t supposed to date a newcomer; I just didn’t actually understand why I shouldn’t date a newcomer. And believe me, I paid dearly for that ignorance.
It wasn’t like I didn’t get anything out of my two-year investment with the newcomer. Our relationship was trying and generally awful but I really loved him; and when you love a sick alcoholic they don’t break your heart—they shatter it. So through heartbreak and betrayal, I was invited to go deeper into my core issues and get to know myself better. I was also given the gift of a bottom and I know for sure there are things that I will never have to endure again in a romantic relationship because I am just not able to be or stay attracted to that kind of dynamic anymore.
What feels like the biggest upside to my devastating break-up with the newcomer (who relapsed shortly after we broke up) is my confidence in knowing how I feel and not being afraid to express it. The downside is that unless I am talking to a therapist or my sponsor, I am generally not understood by people—especially the men I haven chosen to date—and I am not sure why. It’s not because they aren’t smart; it’s just that I believe there is a language that is spoken—in self-help books, in the rooms of 12-step meetings and in the offices of therapists—and people who haven’t been exposed to that don’t understand. I assume it must be like trying to communicate with someone who normally speaks English but can only talk about their feelings in Cantonese—which has got to be frustrating (unless, of course, you happen to speak Cantonese). I know that I am pretty frustrated when I am unable to be heard.
So even though I have reaped countless benefits from all the work I have done on myself—inner peace, confidence and self-esteem—I have also found a very real problem in trying to connect with people who don’t have that same background. Sometimes I wonder if I have recovered myself out of finding a long-term mate. I know so many brilliant and beautiful women who can’t find working romantic partners for this reason. It’s almost like they are too advanced for the average man’s ability to identify and communicate emotions. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s just women who are struggling; I am sure there are men out there who find the women they meet to be less aware of themselves than they are.
So why can’t we all find each other and live happily ever after?
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