Little Girl, who is at that beautiful chrysalis age, likes to read me a bedtime story. She pats the chair commandingly, and when I am settled to her satisfaction, clears her throat and begins.
“Once ‘pon a time, dere was bootiful pwecious pwincess, an’ she lived in the sky. In castle. And was happy. De end”.
It’s a bit lacking in narrative structure, but I enjoy her eagerness to skip over the conflict and get straight to the happy resolution. Big Girl does the same thing, albeit with slightly more nuance; her preferred stories are those where nothing bad ever happens, and the heroine merely skips on down a country road forever with her brown paper bag of aniseed sweets clutched in her hand.
I, too, have a tendency to want to skip to the happy ending, no matter how fantastical that happy ending may be. In the first couple of weeks of getting sober, I decided to get a new hobby, and spent an hour and $50 in a speciality fabric store buying carefully chosen bits and pieces to make a beautiful lined tote bag with an intricate patchwork outer and pink polka dot lining. This was for my daughter to take to school on Library Day. While driving home with my swag, I envisioned spending evenings lovingly crafting it. I foresaw that she would fall in love with it, that the other school mums would catch sight of it and gasp in admiration, that from there I would go on to more ambitious projects such as a full sized quilt for each of my daughters, both of which would become heirlooms. My grandchildren would each ask for their own in due course. When I got my den fixed up – this being an unused room under the main house which has bare concrete walls, a damp concrete floor, and a single, dusty, exposed electric wire dangling from the ceiling – I would install a long workbench on one wall to spread fabric on, and hanging racks on the side to drape long ironed pieces in between projects. I would spend long evenings in there, peacefully quilting my unique artistic designs.
It is probably relevant at this point to mention that I don’t sew, nor do I possess a sewing machine. And that this was three months ago. So far, I have cut out four 1.5″ squares. I was pretty proud of myself that day, I can tell you.
This is something I do all the time. If I started a diet last week, I take ‘before’ shots and mentally compose my answers to all the people who will be awed by my transformation in [...] months, explaining that it was simply a matter of a little discipline and the right attitude <tinkling laugh>. If I’ve kept it up for two weeks, I revise my original weight target down by another 10 lbs, because after all if I can lose 10lb, I can definitely achieve the same weight that I was when I was 18 (and chose nicotine over nutrition (and did not have children) (or access to a kitchen of my own)), right? RIGHT?
And of course, I do this with sobriety as well. Three weeks into starting this blog, I was seeing myself as a sort of combination of Mrs D (television exposure, memoirs), Belle (running sobriety courses and affliated merchandise) and probably also some Augusten Burroughs (definitively the funniest alcoholic of all time, also an international best selling author; my version would obviously be without the screwed up family history and dead boyfriend bits). But humble with it, you know. Humble. Also very thin, with an international quilting business.
Anyway. This morning I got to thinking about the problem with alcoholic narratives, which is that the narrative focus is on the alcoholic abuse. Our heroine has her first taste of alcohol, the drinking worsens, various horror stories ensue, there is a dramatic rock bottom forcing a resolution of the conflict. And if one is lucky – and by their very nature, memoirs do tend to be written by the still-living – there is the happily-ever-after. Which is more of a coda, really.
So when you get sober, however rocky your life was beforehand…then what? You just … keep … not picking up a drink? That’s not a story. Once upon a time there was a princess and she lived a lovely life in a castle and she was always happy and she was never sad, the end.
Stories have to be about change. They have conflict and resolution, they are about journeys and trials and redemption. We tell stories to weave connection, to reinforce norms, to issue warnings and deliver hope. They are how we understand ourselves. But they don’t just describe us; stories are a powerful prescriptive tool. Good barristers are excellent storytellers, because what they are doing is framing part of an infinite landscape of humanity to convey a particular message. They pick out the elements that fit a particular framework, they choose a timeline, they construct a narrative that takes the jury along on an emotional journey. By choosing the elements they do, they build up a particular picture, which is intended to be so convincing that it ‘beats out’ the rival version of elements by opposing counsel. The power of story means that we, as listeners, internalise a series of events and make sense of them better if they are presented as a narrative. A good narrative arc is almost magnetic; it pulls events into itself, sticking them together to form a unified whole.
Why does this matter? It matters because it works both ways. Not only do we better process external events if they are presented to us in a narrative format, but we both understand ourselves better and galvanise ourselves better if we feel that we are in a narrative arc. We deal better with times of adversity if those times are leading towards a triumph. Religious narrative, which has underpinning the entirety of human history, serves this purpose; to feel that one is part of a greater design, that there is a divine reason for the things that happen, lends depth and meaning to the sequence of events that make up everyone’s life.
So what do we do when we are no longer part of a narrative? Once our resolution has occurred and we are in our happily ever after? There’s an awful lot of life left over with no story arc to guide us. Do we, perhaps, relapse partially in order to become part of our own story again?
We need a new story. It’s not enough to live a happy ending; we need a new story, a new narrative, complete with new challenges and changes and conflicts and joys. Preferably with a handsome prince thrown in for good measure.
How do we do that? Ah, my child. That’s a story for another day.