This post was originally published on September 1, 2015.
One of my best friends in this world called me tonight crying. She explained that she had gotten into a fight with her ex-boyfriend. They had a fun-filled yelling match on the phone after a terse email exchange.
I sympathized more than usual in this conversation. Not because I have an ex-boyfriend with whom I cage-fight verbally, but because I understand the subtext beneath her tears: she should be able to step away from this relationship. She shouldn’t yell or say mean things. She should make better choices now that she is over nine months sober. So I told her what any female friend worth her estrogen would: put on Sex and the City, cry, pray and call me if you feel low. This got a laugh from her, which tells me we were on the same page and she would be okay for tonight.
One thing this friend and I do routinely (other than cry/bitch about guys) is bond over our favorite SATC episodes. The one that came up tonight is among them. We discussed the “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” episode (Season Four, Episode 11) in which Carrie agonizes over the time she got pregnant, had an abortion and never told her partner at the time about her pregnancy. She lies to Aidan, her current boyfriend (who should have been her choice over Mr. Big, fuck that guy) about getting an abortion. She and Samantha ponder what life would be like with a kid who’d be 13 years old. Carrie questions whether or not she should have told the guy that she was pregnant. Samantha, the fucking oracle of the group (quite literally), sighs and says, “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda.”
I consider SATC one of the most useful tools in my recovery. Because it’s my recovery and I do whatever the fuck I want. I talk to my sponsor, I pray, I meditate, I go to meetings, I worship in the Church of Man Love by listening to Bowie. And naturally, I re-watch SATC to soothe my obsessive-compulsive brain when I don’t know what else to do.
When Carrie asks in that episode, “Why are we shoulding all over ourselves?” I started to think about recovery. Why, after so many leaps and bounds toward healing, do I still should all over myself? This is where the ladies of SATC stop being useful. They talk about their issues over Cosmos, while I talk them out with my fellow alcoholics.
Much like my friend, I did a lot of shoulding last week. I can tell you that for an alcoholic, this is not a good headspace to be in. My thoughts veered toward my current situation—I should be more financially secure; I should be in romantic relationships, not train wrecks; I shouldn’t be living with my mother; I should be with my LA friends right now; I should have answered when that creditor called; I shouldn’t be so honest; I should go to five meetings a week, minimum.
Once I started in with the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, I spiraled. I felt that familiar rush of negativity wash over my brain. When I drank, I’d get a similar rush from low blood sugar and a high BAC. Then I’d get drunk and do regrettable things. When I should, I feel shame—the kind of shame that I drank over.
I can’t help but think how futile the whole line of thinking is. At what point did I become the arbiter of my fate? Where along the line did I get the message that I am not exactly where I am supposed to be? I most certainly will not blame AA for my case of the shoulds. I am an alcoholic in early recovery who finds herself questioning the very things that I drank over. Sure, I made the decision to turn my will and my life over to a power greater than myself—but what about the shoulds?
My sponsor often tells me to picture what life I want to create. She views suffering as an important step toward healing. A couple of nights ago, I told her that I shouldn’t suffer needlessly about things like relationships. She disagreed. Suffering, she said, is one of our greatest teachers.
At that point, I recalled something I read in the Big Book of AA: as alcoholics, love and suffering are our greatest teachers. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t get sober to sit around shoulding and suffering. I got sober to have the freedom to be myself, to fall in love, to find a purpose in life. I got sober to escape having a master. But how else will I learn about how to circumvent alcoholism’s fuckery if not by experiencing life sober?
Then I remembered why I started in recovery. I was burdened by my life. I felt a sickness in my heart that I could not explain. But when I walked into my first AA meeting, I didn’t have to. My fellow alcoholics were out of answers—spent from too many shoulds—just like I was. All that was there was support through suffering. All that we needed was each other. And a solution. Because as Gang Starr says (I also listen to rap when I’m not listening to Bowie), “It’s a long way to go when you don’t know where you’re going, when you’re lost.”
After talking with my friend for a while, we both stopped shoulding. She told me she knew that she would feel better, eventually. She and I went on to talk about more pleasant things, like feminism and yoga. We made a pact to be there for each other through the impending pain cycles of the next few days. I told her I could understand how she felt. She told me she would call tomorrow. We decided we should be proud of ourselves.
The beauty of one alcoholic talking to another: We can, we will and we do.