An ode to sober communities

O!  Sobersphere, so sweet and dear, thou warm and friendly place

Where many enter lost and scared to find a kindly face

Except online, though, all are mask’d, no faces to be seen

Instead we find a friendly word upon our lonely screen

For some very odd reason, and believe me I’m as baffled as you are, this piece of poetic genius didn’t pass my beta readers* when I decided I wanted to write about how amazing the sober on-line communities are for those of us who don’t want to face a room of strangers, or call ourselves alcoholics,  or who haven’t got childcare or want to figure things out through our own words or are just plain stubborn and contrary.

So I wrote this instead, for Substance.  And I promise I won’t keep pimping my byline around here, or anything, but I wanted to link this particular piece because it was you guys who helped me write it.  Paul from Message in a Bottle, Belle from Tired of Thinking about Drinking, the lovely Lotta from Mrs D is Going Without and my personal heroine Lucy Rocca from Soberistas all contributed, but really it’s all of you who helped.  Just as you’ve helped me get sober and stay sober, with your lovely comments and your insights and your own blogs and words and friendship.  And this is the corniest thing I have ever written, but there we are.  Sometimes corn is what’s called for.

*This is a lie.  I do not have beta readers.

 

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It’s exhausting being funny: on the intersection between comedy and addiction

Okay, I wasn’t going to write anything more about Robin Williams, especially in light of some of the comments that came in on the last related post.  Several people said that I shouldn’t be focusing on the addiction issue when it is pretty evident that mental illness was the main contributor to this tragic death.  Mentioning his history of alcoholism, and the fact that he was in rehab just weeks before his death, was called ‘gossip’ – and I can see that, although it wasn’t my intention.  I’m not discounting William’s mental illness, but I write about addiction: that’s what I do.  Which came first, for Williams or for any of us, is an unanswerable question.  

But there are wider lessons to take, here, and some of them apply to us addicts even if we don’t also suffer with mental illness.  In particular, this Cracked article, Why Funny People Kill Themselves, is one of the best things I’ve read on the topic so far.

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Let me tell you about who I was, in high school.  I was the kid with the strange accent, and the not-quite-normal-ness that comes from being an immigrant.  I didn’t have the right sort of lunch, or know the right television programmes to watch.  Also I wore glasses, and had a pronounced overbite that had never been fixed with braces.  I was also precociously smart, which meant that I was a year younger than everyone else, and I used words like indomitable and picturesque in normal conversation.  As you can imagine, I was a TOTAL HIT in the school yard.

Actually, after a while, I was.  Those first couple of years were rough, but by the time I was in senior high, I was pretty popular.  Boys flirted with the idea of flirting with me; I had friends, and went to parties, and entertained classrooms full of people.  I had a reputation for being funny, and quick, and funny, and daring, and funny.  Because by then, I had learned that funny is a winner.  I still remember, and treasure, every time someone told me I was funny, or asked how I did it, or complimented my value at a party.

But being funny is a mask.  While I wrote here about the myth of great artists as alcoholics, a myth that is largely due to confirmation bias (that is, we don’t hear about all the alcoholics and depressives who die of their conditions, but who aren’t famous), there does seem to be a link between comedy and depression.  Here’s Jim Norton in Time on the subject:

The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.

I was funny because I was never convinced that people would like me if I stopped cracking jokes and started being me.  I’m not even sure why I’m using the past tense here:  I do this all the time, even now.  I measure how successful an evening was by how many times people laughed at my jokes.  I’m funny on Facebook, I interweave puns into my writing, I have been known, awfully, to interrupt a perfectly reasonable conversation at a party, that I am having with someone else, in order to interject a quip.  I’m already talking to this person!  They already want to spend time with me!  But I can’t relax into that: I have to try harder.

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It’s, yes, quite tiring.  But guess what always helped to keep that persona going?  Alcohol.

Many, many people say that drinking helped them socialise.  Lowered their inhibitions, banished their shyness, gave them confidence.  Socialising when sober is one of the scary milestones that loom up in front of a newly sober person.  How will I do it?  What if I’m no fun?

It’s a very common characteristic of the alcoholic, I think, that we are convinced that our natural selves aren’t good enough.  We turn to the bottle to enhance what we already have.  To fuel the humour or give us confidence to flirt or just overcome the desire to flee back to our little nests on the sofa, safe in our own homes.  

But alcohol is a depressant, so the more that we turn to it as a crutch, the more it takes away from us.  When I was drinking, I hated myself.  The more I hated myself, the more I was convinced that everybody else hated me too.  The more convinced I was of that, the harder I tried to be likeable, and liked.  So I ramped up the efforts to be funny, and to do that, I drank more.  And so the cycle continued.

If you learn early on that your worth is contingent on how well you perform, it’s hardly surprising that you turn to drugs or alcohol to help you do just that.  And of course, if you start with mental health issues, all of this is exacerbated.  You struggle with happiness, you compensate with humour, you self-medicate with alcohol so as to keep the plates spinning in the air.  See, look, now I’m spinning them higher, am I good enough now?  There’s flames!  And I’m on one leg!  Do you love me enough?  Am I worth loving?

Parenting is hard enough. Drinking makes it harder.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a parent. Lovely Husband and I had many, many conversations on the subject; he was clear that he wanted kids some day, but not as early in our marriage as I did. Being a sensible chap, often to a fault, he wanted to wait until I had finished my law degree and we had made a dent in our mortgage. I just wanted babies. In the end, I acquiesced to his timeline, because I knew that he’d be an excellent father when he was ready, and I was right. We had an easier time of early parenthood than a lot of people, because of the years of preparation that had gone before.

That’s the media sound byte version of how we negotiated the baby question. The uglier version is that for six long years, from the day of our wedding to the day we conceived Big Girl, I thought about babies. Even when I had other challenges in my life; law school, working long hours in a big firm, buying a new house, I still thought about babies. A friend bought me a parenting book, and I read it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a child.  I planned the nursery, the books, the routines of my imaginary day.

Every month I would hope, against reason, for an accident to have happened.  I seriously considered pricking holes in the condoms, and what stopped me was not my own moral compass but fear at being caught. Every time one of our friends had a child, I felt a pang of such envy and loss that I started reading infertility forums, because those were the women whose experiences most closely described the way I felt. And yes, I realise that might seem like a selfish and disproportionate thing to say, if you’re reading this and you have actually had infertility struggles. I know that. I even knew that then. But the feelings didn’t go away, for all that.  It wasn’t pretty. It left such a deep wound, in fact, that even after Big Girl was born, and we started to discuss the timing of a second child, the scar was ripped open as soon as he wanted to discuss waiting longer than I thought was reasonable. For a long time, it was the most important thing in my life, and the thing that I wanted more than anything else.

sleepingbaby

And then, of course, I ruined it by drinking.

Before I go on I want to make something clear. This isn’t a post about the disservice we do to our children if we drink heavily. It’s about the disservice we do to ourselves, as parents. There is enough shame and guilt around parenting as it is without me adding more. What I want to say is that having children is as wondrous, as beautiful, as it is hard and frustrating, and it is that wonder and beauty that keeps us going.  But drinking changes that balance, and makes it much, much harder to enjoy parenting.

By the time Big Girl was about eighteen months old, I was drinking quite heavily. Wine had stopped being a nice thing to have in the evenings, in generous quantities or otherwise, and had started being the reason why I put one foot in front of another during the long parenting day. I would wake up, realise it wasn’t an office day, and my heart would sink. The time would stretch out in front of me. Reading books, playing blocks, cuddling: if I had the energy I’d bundle her up and we’d brave the steep hills and walk to the park, where I’d push her on a swing for eternity. It felt like I was in a desert, with nothing but flat, dry sand in front of me, and nothing to do but to put one foot in front of the other, trudging through the hours of unrelenting sameness.  And the thing that got me through was the knowledge that at 5pm there would be an oasis, because then I could pour a glass of wine while I fed her her dinner. I loved her, and she was cute and adorable, but I didn’t enjoy being home with her at all. In my darkest months, which I can’t talk about without feeling hot shame, I was pouring a glass of wine in the early afternoon, with lunch, on the grounds that then I could float lightly through my day with my child and shut off the part of my brain that was screaming out for intellectual stimulation and adult company. I’d switch on children’s TV and steal an hour to read a book with a glass next to me, so desperate was I for relief from the tedium.

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This is a difficult post to write, because writing about the joys of parenthood is almost impossible. Perhaps that’s why, despite the thousands of words printed about modern motherhood, I still didn’t realise that the way I felt wasn’t alright. I knew that some women find parenthood excruciatingly dull, and everyone finds it hard, but when they said ‘but the overwhelming love makes up for it, doesn’t it?’ I nodded and smiled and thought to myself  ‘Well, no. No, it doesn’t.’ Because although I loved my daughters more than anything else I’d ever loved, I was rarely flooded with joy when I was caring for them. There was nothing transformative about it. I loved them, I thought about them, constantly, I would lay down my life for them, but also I was just me, going through the motions and wondering when I got some of my life back.

And I made peace with that.  With the fact that I found them boring sometimes, and frustrating, and that I was happier at the office, and that although I adored them, I longed for a glass of wine at the end of the day.  I’m smart, and well educated, and driven: of course the pace of toddlers made me feel shackled.  It didn’t make me a bad parent,  I reassured myself, although it did, sometimes, make me an unhappy one.

I don’t think I really believed that, though.  My friend Rachel, talking to me about social media and alcohol last week, said something that struck a deep chord.  She said, about the fact that she used photo-sharing sites far more as an active drinker: ‘Uploading pictures helped me compose a sort of false-reality, of a reasonably functional person with interesting hobbies and an apparent fascination with cooking. All that said “this life is okay.”‘  When I look back on how I parented, as a drinker, it is obvious to me that I was desperately compensating for my lack of authenticity.  I posted pictures on Facebook of wholesome activities like finger painting and baking.  I carefully monitored TV time, knowing that I had to limit it most of the time because sometimes my willpower would crumble and it’d be on all day.  All the time that I was parenting, I was looking over my own shoulder: am I behaving as I ought?  Should I take them to the park more often?  Am I too strict or too lax or too inconsistent?  Is it imperative that they eat their vegetables?  Am I doing this right, am I playing this role, the role of parent, correctly?

I’m a much, much happier parent now.  There’s a saying I love, which is that sobriety delivers all the things that alcohol promises.  I have more energy.  I have more patience.  I have more enthusiasm.  But mostly, I have more love.

Newly sober, we feel everything far more strongly than we did before, realising for the first time how numbed we have been. I had no idea before I stopped drinking that I didn’t love my girls as much as I was capable of.  None.  But it’s true.  Sober, my love for them is turned up to top volume. It’s as if I have been on an aeroplane, counting the hours while the pressure builds in my ears and sound is muted, and now I am finally back on solid ground. My ears ‘pop’ and sounds come rushing back in, clear and crisp and distinct.  There is so much love now, and it is so loud and so joyful.  I laugh so often at my funny girls.  I rough house with them.  I swoop them up and cover them in kisses.  And of course I also snap at them when it’s T-minus-5 minutes to the school run and they’re still wearing pyjamas, or get cross when Little Girl breaks my favourite mug because she’s running too fast around a corner.

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More than that, I have my self esteem back.  Just as switching a nightlight on banishes my daughter’s monsters, sobriety has banished mine back to the shadows.  I trust myself.  If I shout sometimes, that’s okay.  If I let them watch TV sometimes, that’s okay too.  If I spend an hour racing around the back garden shouting ROAWR at them while they shriek in delighted glee, it’s no longer because I’m saying to the universe look, look, I’m being a good parent. It’s just because I want to, and because it’s fun.

I’m not perfect.  But I am, for the first time in my years of parenthood, living the life that I dreamt of throughout my painful, yearning, baby-obsessed twenties.  Now to convince Lovely Husband that another baby is a good idea.