“Just for today: I can look anyone in the eye without shame. I am grateful for the loving support that has made this possible.”
It’s my last day off work after the Christmas break before being thrown back into the melee that is the 9-5 daily grind. Sometimes, eleven months into sobriety, it is easy for me to forget just how much things have changed for me, how things that were once insurmountable have become almost business as usual and how genuinely miraculous that is.
On this day for the last few years I have been gripped by an all-consuming fear of going back to work, irrespective of what job I’ve been in (they were all going badly round about this time). I thought back then that it was because of those particular jobs/managers/responsibilities/to-do lists that I was fearful; I had no idea that it was actually because my illness was progressing, year on year and with it so was my mental anguish (spiritual malady) that would have felt just as bad no matter what I did during the working week. The fact that due to the increasing prevalence of alcoholism in my life, keeping all of the necessary plates spinning in the vital game of dual existence was becoming ever more relentless, just added to the perpetual fear and anxiety.
Of course, I needed a solution. For an alcoholic pre-recovery, there is only one solution available to us; and so, on this day every year for the last few years, I was drunk to the point of blackout almost from the moment I woke up. I genuinely believed I was only doing this to quell my fear and anxiety. If only my job/the real world and all its responsibilities were more manageable and didn’t weigh so heavily on me, then I wouldn’t feel like this and I wouldn’t need to drink. I’ve yet to meet an alcoholic who at this point was able to understand that their drinking, their constant state of fear and life’s unmanageability were all just different facets of the same illness. Such is the frighteningly confusing and deceptive nature of this physical, mental and spiritual disease. I could fix my job to make life more manageable (something I tried, several times) but the constant state of fear would still be on me. I did not know this at the time. Nor did I know that I wasn’t drinking because I was fearful; I was both fearful and drinking because I was an alcoholic.
It is probably worth pointing out that it doesn’t take a particularly switched on individual to notice that if there’s one thing that’s going to make an anxious return to work even worse, it’s a day in blackout and a raging hangover. Most people who know me on the surface would credit me with being at least slightly switched on; but I just could not see this, the blinding insanity of my supposed solution. Even in moments where I had some semblance of clarity as to how stupid I was being, it made no difference. Another thing I did not know at this point was that it made no difference because I had long lost the power of choice. I would drink to blackout on this day each year and countless others, purely because I was powerless not to do so. The ways and means in which alcoholism deceives us is truly staggering when you think about it.
As I write about this, I can feel that old fear in me again. The memory of it is really powerful; it claws at my stomach and tightens my chest even though it is not of this moment. Thankfully I do not feel the real terror that I felt each of those years before but I can still recall from experience that it was far worse than the feelings I am mustering as I reminisce. It was completely consuming and absolutely inescapable. It was both physical and mental. It made any logical and rational thinking impossible. It was absolutely the tool my alcoholism needed to bring me to my knees.
I didn’t mean for this post to have such a macabre tone to it really. Thankfully I am writing today from a place of contentment and just for today I am fortunate enough to feel very positive. It does not hurt to reflect though. Personally I think it a really important part of my step one to dedicate some serious thinking time to the physical and mental pain I used to be in. It’s so easy on a good day for good to feel so normal. The past horror seems a world away sometimes. However, in case my illness wants to take that good place a step to far, from wellness into complacency, it is no bad thing for me to have fresh in my mind how it used to be and how I will always have that powerlessness and insanity inside me if I choose to let it grow again. People have said to me in the rooms that those fresh memories of our drinking days are the great gift the newcomer has and brings in turn to people with longer sobriety. From my experience as a newcomer these last eleven months, I have felt that to be true and it is a gift I shall try to always nurture.
As I began this post with, today it is crazy if I truly stop and appreciate it, just how different things are in some ways. I’m actually really looking forward to going back to work. Yes I know, there’s no pleasing an alcoholic sometimes; give me two days and I’ll be lamenting how fast paced things are again and how exhausted that makes me. Part of this is because I was truly blessed last year with being gifted a fantastic new job, which has really helped me cement the fresh start I have tried to carve as I embarked on my journey in recovery. As much as I’m always last to admit though, part of this is also because I have been amazingly fortunate to have developed a different head on my shoulders (emphasis on different, not perfect), through putting the drink down and actually being lucid (this is very helpful at work it turns out) but more importantly, through simply speaking, letting go and letting God as a result of working the twelve steps.
The difference in my attitude and approach to work probably became most apparent when I was helping an employee through some very testing work related anxiety this year. I found myself telling her with conviction that she should try to let go of the things she can’t control and just put in small positive steps to address the things she could. I told her that as much as a manager probably shouldn’t say this to an employee, it really was just a job and that if she kept it in that context, whether things went perfectly at work or not seemed a lot less terrifying. I strongly suggested to her that she needed to stop working extra hours because unless she looked after herself and allowed herself to enjoy time with her friends, time with her family or time just relaxing, she wouldn’t be in the right place to be the best she could be at work anyway. I told her from my own experience that people (me, her, every human out there) fucked up at work and that if she was trying to avoid that at all costs, she was setting herself up for a lot of anguish and inevitable disappointment…but that it didn’t matter. We’re fortunate enough in our profession not to be doctors, so our mistakes are not life and death and anything else can be put right if we face it. Really, worst case scenario, we make a mistake and we lose our job; again, not life and death, we will probably get by even if it’s a struggle and we have it in us to find another one. We will still have our health and we will still have our loved ones.
These are all things I believe today, although granted some days my beliefs are firmer than others. I wish I could have believed them back then but the truth is that even if someone had spelt them out to me in the most simplest of terms, I did not have the capacity to listen or the power to take them on board. There was no room for anything else in my head when my alcoholic fear-induced insanity was screaming so loud. Thank god it is not so loud today, thanks to the help I’ve received and the suggested work I’ve done.
Like the quote at the beginning of this post, today I have much less fear caused by shame and a constant anxiety that I might be found out (not necessarily about anything specific). I have much less fear around losing a lot of worldly things, my job being the most noticeable difference in this case. I have much less fear around people being utterly appalled by me, thanks to definite progress in how at peace I am with myself. I have much less fear that the wreckage of my past is going to crop up and ruin me at any unforeseen moment, such is the great gift that steps 4 – 9 give us if we embrace them to the best of our ability. I just think I have a lot less fear in general because really, whatever happens today, it just cannot be as bad as it was this time last year. On a good day I am able to remember that, as it stands, I have got past the living hell that exists when you’re an active alcoholic and as a result, with love, support and a relationship with my higher power, I can probably deal with most things involved in living life on life’s terms.
I still have my triggers though. Step 4 and 5 have given me a better understanding of what they are. So many are people based: “what if they took that the wrong way…what if I’ve ruined what they think of me…how might that have upset them?”, As such I’ve begun to develop an understanding that codependency has always been a real issue for me and will certainly continue to be so unless I address it with the same level of focus that I applied to my drinking.
Financial security is another big one. I wish I could break the pattern of telling myself, “to hell with it, you work hard and you can’t take your money with you”, as I treat myself to something, before the pendulum swings the other way and I agonise over the relatively small purchase; “what have you done you absolute fool! Financial ruin is imminent!”
I also had a bit of an epiphany over why I procrastinate with certain work related tasks. I put off addressing them almost always because I’m digging my head in the sand purely out of fear. Fear that I can’t do them, fear that I’m not good enough to do them justice and ultimately fear that I’ll fail. Leaving something to the point where you have the shortest possible time-frame to complete it because you’re worried you won’t do the job well…now that’s another strand of insanity right there. Proof if anyone needed it that alcoholism and the head it gives us can find ways to rise to the surface irrespective of whether we’ve put the drink down or not. Self-esteem…this will always be something I need to work hard at.
So you see, I can’t say I’ve been completely liberated from fear and I personally believe it is such a fundamental part of my human coding that I probably never will. There is no cure for my alcoholism, only a solution for living which gives me a daily reprieve from its grasp and my fear goes hand in hand with the rest of the illness; it will be with me always but I am so grateful for the fact that just for today (and for many days since I got sober) that fear is a thousand times more manageable.