Before I begin I need to acknowledge a few things:
#1. I’m in recovery and have been sober since 2011. If you are reading this and you are not in recovery or do not have any issues with substances – that is a blessing! Rest assured that the following story is helpful (at least I hope it is) for anyone, really.
#2. I know that being sober doesn’t make me an authority on addiction or make me better than anyone.
#3. I do not claim to understand what it is like for all people who are fighting for freedom from whatever drug or alcohol that controls them. What I do understand is how powerful we are and what it feels like to be powerless.
All my life I’ve been a follower. I give way too much credit to people, build others up to mythical status, and defer to others’ opinions rather than trusting my own. This became really clear when I started drinking. I was the stereotypical spineless teenager that cared more about being accepted than doing what was right.
Despite having a childhood and a family filled with love and direction, the only way for me was wherever my friends were going. Mix in some bad skin, poor hand-eye coordination, a mediocre intellect and the recipe was complete.
To the outsider, I probably seemed like I was relatively happy. Yes, I had bad skin but it wasn’t so bad. Poor hand-eye coordination, sure but I still made the freshman lacrosse team. A mediocre intellect, but I earned B’s and kept it moving.
My issues were never to the point where I’d ask anyone to feel sorry for me. But see, the thing with issues is when they are yours, they are all you can see.
I must have been such an enigma as a kid because I had such low self-worth despite being showered with love and attention.
When I looked in the mirror I would only see my imperfections, not my cool blonde hair and blue eyes. I only talked about the times I was cut, not the teams I made. When I reviewed my report card I only saw the D’s not the A’s.
I also rarely acknowledged the faults in my friends and constantly deferred to their opinion. When I started drinking it was because my friends were, and I had no idea who I was, so I followed. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a victim.
After a night of drinking in New York City, my father picked me up from the train station and I reeked of booze. Knowing I needed an excuse, I told him that a drunk guy bumped into me and spilled his beer. He didn’t hesitate. “What’d he spill it down your throat?” Point taken. Like I said, I wasn’t a victim.
So often I tried to deflect blame for situations for which I was clearly in the wrong. I’d come home from school with a bad grade, “Everyone did poorly!” or come home from a night out drinking with friends, “Well maybe if you didn’t get in my business so much I wouldn’t feel the need to go out with my friends!” Granted, sometimes excuses are valid, but most of the time I was just trying to avoid blame and responsibility.
It’s an extremely detrimental way to go through life and I fell into the habit of making excuses for my behavior. Why did I drink? “Well, do you see my skin? I’m so insecure. It’s the only way I can fit in!” Why did I lie? “Come on Mom, all the guys were there!” It’s really depressing.
As an adult, now when I see students fall into this trap, I can’t help but feel sorry for them. At the time, to them, it really seems like it’s the way to go. Deflect the blame and get through to the next day. The problem with this way of proceeding is that we never really leave those disappointing moments. They stay with us because they are unresolved.
I remember a couple years ago when I was talking to my parents about how I behaved in high school and my mother revealed to me that she knew all the times I was drinking. All the times I lied, she knew. All the times I used my insecurity or depression as an excuse for my behavior, she saw right through me.
The fact that she redirected me, without complete embarrassment, is magic. I was so lost and vulnerable and my parents did just the right amount of correcting. I had plenty of room to find out who I was, but not enough room to feel like I was alone or unchecked. This middle road served me well, especially when encountering the tough issues associated with addition, the toughest for me – telling the truth.
A colleague of mine once said, “See the thing about drinking when you’re young, is that you have to be a liar.” Even as adults, any time we have an agreement with someone – avoiding smoking, gambling, or talking to an ex, whatever it is, if we aren’t going to fulfill our half of the agreement, then we need to become comfortable with being liars.
As an underage drinker, in order to continue, I had to keep up the lying. I wasn’t of age, I didn’t pay the mortgage and I was dependent on staying in good graces with my parents. Unfortunately, the real person I was lying to was myself. I always had fun when I went out, but if I did something wrong, I would feel an extreme sense of guilt that was more vivid than any crazy night.
So many people would tell my parents that I was a “good kid” and talk about how proud they should be, except my behavior was not reflecting what they thought about me. I was being sneaky, doing whatever was popular, and ignoring a lot of the great advice I’d been given.
Throughout my life, I have always viewed myself as a moral and just person, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I learned in order to be seen as moral and just all of the time, acting that way most of the time doesn’t cut it.
It pains me to this day that there are people out there who only knew me as a drinking buddy or in that context that think I’m a jerk or worse.
We don’t get free passes because we’re stressed, drunk, high or angry at someone else.
We don’t get free passes because the people on the other end of those interactions have a hard time unseeing or forgetting our actions.
Now, yes we all need to practice forgiveness, but no matter what the circumstances or conversation afterward, words can’t be unsaid, feelings can’t be unhurt.
I’ve been working with middle and high school students since 2007. For the first part of my career I was drinking and it interfered with my job. Not in the way that I was drinking before work or was drunk while teaching, but because having it as a part of my life held me back from being the best role model I could be for the students.
Over time I have found the easiest way to connect with someone is by being authentic, no one likes a hypocrite. So when I was teaching Theology classes speaking about how we need to live the Good News and treat one another with respect, I can imagine some students saw through me. I had issues that needed attention before I could practice what I was preaching.
A turning point in my relationship with drinking was when I realized I was sacrificing what I really cared about for something that gave me nothing but fleeting satisfaction. I had attempted to cut back a few times to no avail. My Sunday mornings became filled with apologies and anxiety.
I’ll never forget finally dropping down to my knees in my bedroom, distraught and defeated.
That evening, I walked into an AA meeting and with the help of God, my friends and loved ones, I’m free.
Now I have no excuse for the things I say or actions I take, there’s nowhere to hide and no place to run. This is a raw and intimidating way to go through life but it’s also fulfilling.
I no longer need to give alcohol any credit for my courage or creativity.
I can no longer blame something else for how I am.
I now own everything I do.
If you are reading this, are of age, and can casually drink without it getting in the way, please don’t think I’m speaking down to you. It’s not something I’ve been able to do. However, I think regardless of where we are on the spectrum of use, we all need a thorough evaluation of any substance, emotion or person that has power over us.
Things, thoughts, and people should add value, not cause destruction.