Don’t Let Skeptics Get the Best of You
January 28th, 2013 by Katie Morton
After my post about giving up alcohol appeared on the Yahoo! homepage last week, I performed the whole “look-don’t look” dance with the comments. I knew what I’d find there, but what surprised me is how certain some people are that I’m going to fail at my resolution of abstaining from drinking for a year. This certainty was often accompanied by assumptions about how much I drink and how big my problem is.
It made me realize that there are some serious misconceptions about people who struggle with alcohol, and by extension, with overeating, or any other compulsive habit that humans develop. Humans find ways to escape themselves. Movies. Cookies. Facebook. TV. Shopping. Video games. Golf. Bobsledding. Escaping ourselves becomes a problem only when we engage in these behaviors at the expense of living a fulfilled life. Many times we do these things because we don’t feel like doing the hard work of figuring out what would make us feel fulfilled.
There’s a story about a couple who sold their children to pay for their video game addiction. Does that mean that everyone who plays too many video games is on a slippery slope to this outrageous extreme? No, and it would be ridiculous to think that way. The brain mechanism that is lit up by gaming is the same as it is for drinking. And some people who drink do crazy things like leave their kids in the car while they go to bars at 2AM. Does this mean that everyone who wants to cut back on drinking is headed for this kind of problem? Of course not! I can’t even believe I needed to explain this, but I’ve read so many ignorant comments on the issue, I felt the need to air this out.
For every habit you can think of, there are people out there who take it to extremes — and there are people out there for whom cutting back or stopping on their own is something they can do. More people should feel free to say that they are taking a break and resetting their relationship to alcohol without being afraid that some nutcase is going to spring from the bushes and scream, “ALCOHOLIC!!!”at them. (Kidding. But you know what I mean.)
I know that people can give up drinking, no matter how dire their struggle. Even the most “hopeless” of cases are able to give it up. John Cheese, a writer for Cracked, came from an abusive, broken home. As an adult, he was, as expected, a mess. He was washing tractor trailers for a living, and he was drinking about 18 beers a day. When he was told that he was seriously impacting his health and that his life was at risk – that’s how deep he was into booze – he quit. On his own. No AA, no counselors. (I’m not saying that “cold turkey” is the safest way to go when you’re drinking that much.) But he did it, and he documented it with his 9 YouTube Videos That Prove Anyone Can Get Sober. I admire what John did, obviously! John considers himself an alcoholic, and will never drink again.
Then there’s my more direct influence, which is Aidan, a mom of three girls in NYC. She recently completed her one year without wine, and was wildly successful in her goal – she now feels ambivalent towards alcohol. She has had a drink now that her one year is up, and she remains unclear about alcohol’s role in her life going forward. I deem this is a success, because it obviously shows that alcohol no longer holds a big place in her focus. Wine matters much less to her now and occupies a much smaller part of her thoughts than it once did.
And if that’s my definition of success, then I’ve already succeeded. I don’t think about alcohol very much these days, and that’s as it should be.
And I didn’t even want a drink.
Last week I learned that my 92-year-old grandmother is dying in earnest. I was told that she had days to live. (That estimate has since been bumped up to probably about a month.) At first, my old ways of reacting to the doom of a loved one kicked in big time: painful, embarrassing, face-melting crying jags took over my body.
My grandmother is one of the lucky ones. She’s had a good life, raised a large family, has 7 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren. She enjoys a leisurely and luxurious old age in a well-appointed assisted living home with family nearby. Nobody lives forever. My grief felt…not in proportion to reality. All-consuming. Without any warmth or the positive reflection that productive grief — the real processing of the passing of a loved one — provides. My grief was bitter, expansive, consuming, and unending.
In the past, my response would have been to drink. My husband came home from work the other day, after a very long and crappy traffic jam, and poured himself an amaretto on the rocks. I caught a whiff of the sweet almond smell. It was pleasant. I enjoyed the smell. But I didn’t want a drink. When I cleaned up the kitchen later that day, bottle of amaretto in my hand, I looked over at the liquor cabinet. The door was open, and I could see all of the bottles lined up inside, showing off their fancy labels. I admired them, thought fondly on the ritual and tradition that alcohol provides. It’s nice, in the face of the death of a loved one, to pour yourself a drink. But it’s not necessary. And I don’t miss it.
I faced my grief to tease out what it meant.
I tried to watch my thoughts when the crying took over, but my mind was blank. In bed at night, I held my journal and a pen and I asked myself, “Why does death make me lose my shit?” The answer was kind of broken and half-hearted, not quite signifying the intensity of my pain:
Mortality…that I will die, that Alex (my daughter) will die…that this ride will come to an end…that we are separated physically in death…that it’s so permanent and final, that the door closes…that we can never exchange words again.
But then I wrote about The Wonder of death:
That experiencing the death of a loved one is a universal human experience…it’s a great moment of life to be present for, this strange severing…knowing she is coming to the end of her human game and she will go “into the light,” part of the Great Consciousness…her earthly suffering will end and she’ll go on a cruise.
I realized that my pain, my intense grief, doesn’t match up with my new spiritual beliefs. The pain of my grief matches my belief system from college, when I dumped my Catholic upbringing when it occurred to me that a personified God, a bearded dude on a throne in the clouds, didn’t feel any more real to me than Santa Claus. I became an atheist, and was immediately thrust into an intense grief at the idea that “worms will eat our brains” when we die, that we are simply gone forever, our consciousness lost with our death. I lost my shit, to put it nicely. And then I drank a lot of vodka to forget about death.
Each time I lost someone after that point, I cried my face off. Bitterly, endlessly. It was horrible, and not normal or helpful grief. It was destructive and endlessly depressing and debilitating, and it could be over someone that I didn’t even interact with! – like when I learned of the death of a former coworker, for example, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and frankly, didn’t like very much.
A woman on a mission.
I realized I had some work to do. I needed to see my grandmother, first of all. My instinct in the past was to distance myself from the dying. If I visited someone’s death bed out of obligation, I wouldn’t really “be” there. I would do my best to remove my mind from the situation in order to prevent myself from losing my shit. And then afterwards, I would find friends who wanted to go out and have some fun at a bar so that I could continue to not think about death.
This time would be different. I needed to see my grandmother, but to really be with her one last time. Only, every time I thought, “This will be the last time I see her!” I would well up into hysterics again. Showing up on my grandmother’s doorstep and forcing her to comfort me wasn’t the plan. So the other thing I needed to do, before I saw her, was to reconcile my current spiritual reality with my outmoded emotional reaction to death. The deeper plan was to rewire the brain circuit inside me that immediately goes into overwhelming meltdown at the mere thought of death.
I bought the audio edition of Deepak Chopra’s Life After Death, in which he explores the culture, religion, and yes — science — of the afterlife. He tells stories of near-death experiences, which I found particularly inspiring, and he also offers proof of a greater consciousness, the potential for reincarnation, and ways the mind may operate outside of the body.
In the book, Chopra also discussed neuroplasticity, the process of changing the brain, which coincidentally, was my mission.
On Saturday, I drove 5 hours to NJ, just me and this audiobook. I started the drive crying endlessly. And then, somewhere on Route 95 North, I stopped crying and I started smiling. My plan was to spend the night at my parents’ house, to get up early Sunday morning to visit with Grammy, and then hit the road again by 9AM Sunday so I could be home in time for my husband to catch an afternoon flight to Seattle.
Saturday night before I went to sleep, knowing I would see Grammy in the morning, I wrote:
I feel like a different person…strong, calm, joyful, pragmatic, peaceful. I couldn’t cry if I tried to make myself. I feel like my emotional circuit has caught up to the joy in death.
The joy in death. I never thought that I would think such a thing existed.
The next day, I had my visit. It was wonderful, joyful. I gave Grammy some pictures of my daughter, and showed her some videos on my phone. She’d just seen Alex over Christmas, but she’s never seen the unedited version of Alex, running around at home, doing the loony things that 2-and-a-half-year-olds do. It was a great visit. We connected, we laughed, and I felt so happy I was able to see her, even with the knowledge of, “This is it.” I was able to be fully present to the experience of being with her. There was no trying to distract myself or to escape the reality of why I was there. It just was, and it was okay.
Do not let the skeptics tell you what you can or can’t do.
This brings me back to the clueless comments on the Yahoo! article. All those people who wrote things like, “Yeah, this was the kind of thing I used to tell myself before I went to AA” or whatever. The person pointing their finger at me needs to turn it around and poke themselves squarely in the chest. Talk about delusional! To think you have the power to predict another person’s life choices and future is pure madness.
Please remember this:
No one has the power to determine your reality.
It’s a human tendency to project our own failures and weaknesses onto others. Sadly, I think a lot of people are convinced by the negativity of others. They buy into this fatalism about many areas of life. “Once you’re beyond a certain age, it’s too hard to lose weight.” Or “I’ll never find fulfilling work that makes me money.” Or in my case, “I’ll never be able to come to terms with death. It just freaks me out too much.” Just because these things are difficult does not mean they’re impossible and thus not worth pursuing.
We have not been put on this earth to be comfortable. We’re here to work hard and to take our best shot at living great lives. Your couch is not a magic carpet that will take you to greater heights. There’s a clinical term for shutting out all possibilities for a bright future: it’s called depression, and it’s frequently caused by hanging onto negative and defeatist thinking patterns.
We all have internal struggles, whether we choose to acknowledge them and examine them, or not. Some people go to bed too late. Some people procrastinate. Some people work too much (or too little.) Some people exercise too much (or too little.) All of these habits, including drinking, can be overcome by the average person when they put their minds to it.
When thinking about highly difficult achievements, the question to ask yourself isn’t “Can you?” It’s “Will you?” Go ahead and kick your own butt, or life will do it for you. Let’s prove the skeptics wrong together.
Photo: kris krug / Creative Commons