This post was originally published on October 16, 2014.
“You haven’t shared in a while, Alice,” a friend said to me after one of my regular women’s meetings. “Are you okay?” It was a beautiful sunny day, and with a candid smile on my face I told her that I was happy like I’d never been before, that things were really good.
“I don’t want to show off,” I added.
“It’s not showing off,” she said. “It’s a message of strength and hope—you’re giving back and showing the miracle. It helps other alcoholics more than you can imagine.”
The phrases “happy destiny” and “Great events will come to pass for you and countless others” echoed in my head. I wondered whether my house was starting to be in order.
Happiness is not a familiar feeling for me. My default mechanism has always been suffering—a condition that I slowly turned into a skill, if not something to be proud of. It almost felt like a bullet wound—a war medal.
My parents taught me that hard work meant constant sacrifice. We weren’t rich and yet they gave me everything they could, always making sure I knew how difficult it had been to provide me with everything I needed and beyond. Maybe that’s why it was in that same early act of receiving that I first experienced feelings of guilt and unworthiness.
By default, my ego tells me I deserve the best. Nevertheless, my utterly low self-esteem forces me to think otherwise so I’d better be ready for joy to disappear in the blink of an eye.
In the past couple of months—having been gifted with the experience of pure happiness and real love—I gained a true understanding of how deviously the disease had been working for years, how much I’d essentially been a victim of emotional terrorism.
I’ve always been afraid of pleasure and joy and anything belonging to their emotional range. I felt guilty when I smiled and was addicted to the old idea that it is only through suffering that one is worth existing.
Until very recently, whenever things would get a little better, misery was my reassuring plan B. Going back to the sick world was the only escape—the ultimate geographic before I’d be granted death. I was merely surviving, most of the time by a choice that had been dictated by fear. After all, bulimia, drugs and alcohol had been my best friends for ages; I felt confident that their doors would always be open for me. Whenever life took a wrong turn, I comforted myself by mentally crawling back into the arms of my old pal darkness.
“What happens when the tidal wave of happiness reaches land?” I asked myself whenever I was happy, terrified by the idea of having to learn the art of hurting from scratch. I did not yet know that waves could have a gentle and healing nature and not always be tsunamis.
Without exercise, muscles atrophy. My brain’s cells do too if I don’t relentlessly work out the frontal lobes, where long-term memories are stored. I never want to forget where I came from and have been through—the self-loathing and familiar comfort of despair.
In order to help me deal with daily guilt and anxious thoughts—what I experience if I take a break from my productivity binge or a short vacation or simply sleep an extra hour in the morning—my sponsor reminded me that sobriety meant joyous and free, not miserable and frustrated.
For too long I believed that I would only get a prize by struggling.
Maybe it was because of my religious background or my fear of abandonment and eternal damnation, but today I am learning to identify the unhealthy and useless patterns that my brain has been using for years to cope with life. I can now see them so I pause and ignore their calling, remembering that guilt is one of their tools.
Today I’m getting accustomed to the notion that living in fear is just like living in expectations—both actions take me away from the present moment. So I exercise faith, I surrender and I trust the process by looking back and seeing that I was always taken care of, even when all seemed lost (though I’ve written myself a long list in case I forget again).
Last week I went to a meeting in New York; it was nine alcoholics sitting in a circle in a dimly lit church basement. We discussed chapter 15 of Living Sober, focusing on the phrase “Watch out for anger and resentment.” It was a round robin meeting, so I had no other choice but to share.
I wasn’t angry or resentful in that particular moment but actually on a romantic cloud and in a state of gratitude. I remembered what my friend had suggested after the women’s meeting a few weeks earlier, and without thinking too much about it, I opened up.
Three newcomers were there, and my message reached them loud and clear. I know I will eventually encounter a new struggle because, of course, the seesaw of life keeps moving. But if what’s been given to me can help someone else, I’m game for the new ride.
I understand that memories stored in the frontal lobe will never leave me; but at least now they will be just covered in dust.