If I was not in recovery and heard someone say that recovery has meant that they’ve had to change everything, I would assume the person was talking about switching up their friends and activities. And while sure, I’ve also done that, I’ve been thinking lately about the fact that I had all my basic life values backwards before.
Not all of this can be blamed on my addiction, of course. I was raised by upwardly mobile folks who were interested in getting even more upwardly mobile and even though that really just describes my dad, he was the louder of my two parents and so his messages were the ones I heard. These messages were very specific and they were constant. In short, they were: Be the best because if you’re not the best, you’re worthless. Get straight A’s and as close to a 1600 as possible on your SAT’s. Go to an Ivy League school and aim to make $100,000 a year at your first job. Sue them before they can sue you, even if the person is a family member.
My dad got an 800 on his math SAT, went to Harvard and made a lot of money soon after graduating. I was an okay but not great student who did so poorly on the SAT’s that my dad went and found a guy who wrote SAT books to be my personal tutor. This man taught me a bunch of tricks that had nothing to do with learning anything and my score jumped 200 points. Though this man wanted to use me in an infomercial touting his services, the leap was not enough for Harvard: despite the fact that my brother was already enrolled there and my father and grandmother were alumni, I was rejected. The school sent my dad a letter informing him of this before they contacted me but I was the one that saw the mail before he did so I’d already opened it, heard the news and broke it to him gently. He was really the one who needed consoling.
I don’t think I really cared all that much. I mean I knew I wasn’t Harvard material. I pretty much accepted the fact that everyone in my family was superior in certain ways that I was not. I was much more interested in going out than studying and was fine with enrolling at Trinity College, which had far less rigorous academic standards and had received an honorable mention on Playboy’s lists of Top 40 party schools.
That was on the outside, anyway. Thinking back now, I believe I was actually inwardly eviscerated by the fact that I felt so unable to measure up to the rest of my family. Before I found drinking, drugs and smoking, I used whatever I could find to help me cope with my shame over this—picking at my cuticle skin, fantasizing, leaving my body to escape the present moment and whatever else could help me avoid dealing with the fact that I didn’t feel remarkable in a family whose only value was that you had to be remarkable.
When I got sober, I remember my rehab counselor telling me that what I was learning was so different from what I’d been doing that it was going to be “like walking on the moon.” He was right. And after three decades of thinking I had to subscribe to a belief system that only reinforced how much I didn’t measure up, I was indescribably relieved to hear about new rules for living. Rules like: Thinking about other people and being of service to them would help me feel better. And that I should look for the part I played in my resentments so that I could let them go. It had never occurred to me that I was unhappy so much of the time because I thought about myself 24-7. It had never occurred to me that I could forgive those who I felt had wronged me.
I think that’s probably why I’ve taken to recovery as strongly as I have—the fact that I wasn’t only dying because I was inhaling lethal quantities of cocaine and drowning that with alcohol, pills and cigarettes but also because I had a belief system that was on its way to choking me to death.
Of course, this is a belief system that much of the western world subscribes to—the idea that we have to achieve and acquire and be successful and most of all look successful in order to have happiness. I’m not sure I would have realized what a sham that was if I hadn’t gotten sober; I still have trouble realizing it’s a sham now. I still want success and chase it every day with everything I have. But I understand that it is not going to get me the mythical it that I want—that there’s a reason that some of the most successful people I know are also the most miserable and that, to use one of 100 examples, director Tony Scott jumped off a bridge despite his commercial and creative triumphs.
It was only when I got sober that I was able to actually get out of my own way and start finding some of the success that had escaped me for so long. For a long time, I kept trying to impress my family with it: I would send them articles I’d written and tell them when I was going to be on TV. It would hurt me that they didn’t seem to care until I realized that nothing they said or did would change the fact that I’d felt like such a loser in their eyes for so long. And some people are just never going to give you what you want, anyway; in my last conversation with my dad, he told me that even though I’d managed to scrape out a living as a writer, I’d have made much more money if I’d just listened to him and become a lawyer. Over the years, I’ve learned that looking for any sort of validation from people who aren’t able to give it is, as the Alanon expression goes, like going to the hardware store for milk.
But starting off with values so askew has meant that it’s taken a lot of work to just try to enjoy what life has to offer. It’s very challenging for me to stay in the moment, even though I know that’s where contentment lies. I regularly want to duck my sponsees’ calls. I often forget that, as the St. Francis prayer tells us, it is better to understand than to be understood and regularly find myself growing frustrated if I feel a friend or family member isn’t listening to me while I try to explain some usually inconsequential detail about my day. I still find myself seeing someone in an extremely expensive car and making up a story in my head about how perfect that person’s life is.
And there’s another thing: I have to concentrate in order to relax. Isn’t that supposed to come naturally? During Shavasana in yoga, unless I’m using my meditation mantra, I’m probably thinking of article ideas or grocery lists. (When I was writing my second novel and felt stuck, I’d actually get a massage because that would help me brainstorm; I’d duck out of the massage room afterwards and, still in my robe, jot down the plot twists and turns I’d thought of.) Social media—the fact that I now have an easy way to escape the moment, even if that escape is simply capturing it and broadcasting it to a world I’ve convinced myself cares—has been a dangerous development for someone like me. I mean I love it, but that’s sort of my point: moment escaping is now so easy that the person who’s not photographing and then madly punching keys on their phone is often regarded as the unusual one. That’s okay; we’re all doing the best we can in a world that isn’t always or even often easy. And I’m grateful to be learning any of this at all; if I’d stayed on the path my dad seemed to think was the only one, I would have spent my whole life feeling like I didn’t measure up. Though I can’t change the past, I do have some power over my attitude about the present—even if I do have some trouble staying in it.