A couple weeks ago I read a man’s revealing blog entry about how his world was suddenly upended by his loving wife dying from a fast-acting form of cancer. He wrote how he simply came apart after her death and spent the majority of his time tipping a bottle. What saved him, he said, was bottoming out, letting everything go, and being brutally honest with himself about every aspect of his past, present, and future without her.
While these words below (inspired by his article) are mine and not his, it was a powerful and hopeful message that needed to be shared—how he slowly rebuilt his life from the ground up by changing how he viewed his role in the process. I’d like to list his url page of the article here for all to read it directly but unfortunately I can’t locate it again. Sorry. This fictional account is the best I can do.
Jack, my counselor, told me he had one rule, and that was to be honest in our talks. “Be honest?” I sneered back at him. The only truth I knew for certain was that I was still sinking in a tar pit of pain over my wife’s sudden illness and death that past year—I raged for half an hour at the unfairness of it all to both of us. “You want REAL?” I told him, “THAT is very real to me—so there Jack, THAT is my being honest with you!”
My counselor then said to use that very real pain as the starting point to feeling what truth is for me—to use it as the gauge of honesty for every other aspect of my life to help determine what I expected from life in general, and even more importantly, what life might actually expect from me—which made no sense at all to me back then. “What LIFE expects from me?” I yelled, “Screw life! What did it ever do but give me more pain?”
He said that if I could just be honest with myself over what I truly felt for my wife before and after her illness, and allowed myself to feel the real depth of my loss over her death, then I could be honest about other parts of myself as well. That honesty, he said, would help me determine how I wanted to live the rest of my life.
The booze, he said, was keeping me from ‘feeling’ in general because if I never really let myself feel the pain, then I could never get past the pain to move on from there.
The court-required AA meetings helped because other addicts/alcoholics won’t let you lie about what you do or why you do it. They know. They’ve been there. They’ve said and done the same things, and they call you out on your stuff. You can’t hide it from them. You get that real fast. And I needed that. I needed their truthfulness to help me uncover my own.
But I wouldn’t call those meetings support as much as I’d call it a mirror held up to your face that you can’t avoid. There you are—twenty or so different versions of you—all gathered in one room sharing stories, shame, and self-loathing. And there I was with a bunch of other people supposedly just like me—like being called by some other name to tell something similar to my story, like Jim or John or Lori, …or Frank or Jerry—but they were all different versions of me. “Same brand of ice cream, just a different flavor,” Jack said.
Well I didn’t like how that made me feel, so I told them about it. Said I didn’t belong there.
“Accept it,” they said. “We are alcoholics. You’re an alcoholic—lying is what you do, especially to yourself. That’s who you are because that’s the most comfortable way to be—at least it always has been. Problem now is that even lying doesn’t work for you anymore.”
They were rough with me at times because I was so stuck in denial—claiming I was the victim here—why couldn’t they see that? One guy even pointed to me and said, “You want to keep seeing this same lying sack of shit staring back at you every time you look in the bathroom mirror? NO? Then change what you’re doing—change what you’re thinking. Because if you can’t accept the living proof of who and what you are sitting here all around you—if you can’t stand to think that you’ve been lying to yourself and to everyone you say you loved day after day for most of your life, then don’t expect your future to be any different. It’s your choice. YOUR choice, man!”
The “Your choice!” repeated over and over in their own stories. It’s always your choice. It’s your decision. “No one makes it but you,” they kept saying. “It isn’t really about life’s unfairness, or how much you miss your wife,” one of them told me. It was about being honest with myself about what I was feeling—what I still AM feeling about it all, and deciding if that’s what I want to feel in the future.
“If you can do that,” my counselor who led the group said, “if you can be honest with yourself, then you can pull yourself together and get on with your new life without the booze. But it’s really up to you.”
And as a parting shot, another guy who looked a lot like my sleezy Uncle Charlie, who was the last person in the world I ever wanted a lecture like this from, told me, “If you aren’t willing to help yourself buddy, don’t expect us to help you.”
Well, a couple years later I can tell you that it wasn’t easy by any means. Some days are still a struggle, but eventually I learned to view that past history of my previous self and life in a different way—what Jack called “in a more constructive manner”—one where I could refocus on how I had survived those painful life lessons, and use that survivor mentality to help me feel good about myself again, …which was far better than feeling so rotten all the time, where I simply wanted to numb myself into la-la land with the booze.
But maintaining the what Jack had named “lesson-filled, boot-camp view” of my previous life which he said I had successfully survived, was a difficult choice that I had to keep making day after day—sometimes every minute of the day for awhile, until I grew more comfortable in my new skin.
And getting to know this new me who thought and acted completely different from the old me, was the hardest part of it, because I finally realized that for 42 years I’d basically been doing nothing more than lying to myself, so I hardly knew what truth looked like, or even what being truthful felt like.
In fact the more I considered it, I’m not sure that I had ever been honest with anyone, let alone being honest with myself back then.
Was everything I’d said and done in my entire life a lie? If so, then wasn’t any part of it real? And what part of me was the real ME who was actually worth knowing? To figure that out, Jack tried to flip my mind again to see WHO it was that I wanted to become, to know how to get there. He said it was like creating an image of the new and better me that I would simply have to GROW into. But how could I do that?
Jack framed it to me this way: If I were the adult parent of a newborn ME ready to be introduced into this world full of challenges and wonders, what kind of parent would I truly need to be to successfully raise baby ME into a solid, well-balanced adult? Would I need a critical, demanding, drill sergeant constantly condemning ME and beating me down for my failings, or a nurturing, caring, coach continually encouraging my daily progress and raising me up to feel good about myself?
Not a tough choice, really. I didn’t need to feel any worse about myself than what I’d already been feeling. What I needed was to feel more loved and supported than I had actually felt throughout most my childhood. Jack agreed. He said what I needed to help me succeed in my new life direction was my own loving guidance and support, not more self-condemnation.
Per Jack’s instructions, every morning now when I look in the bathroom mirror, I ask myself this question: “How are you going to encourage the best from that young kid in you today—how are you going to parent yourself to become a strong and loving person?”
Then I look right into my own eyes and say the words of a speech I’d memorized for doing this daily self pep-talk, “How can I express myself in more compassionate ways—in ways that other loving and caring people want to share in—ways that help them to recognize the goodness of my heart so they want to become more a part of my life?”
“How can I be a good person?” I ask the ME staring back in all my imperfections. And that’s the goal I set for the day—every day—just trying to be a good person in some way—trying to help somebody or to do something nice for somebody else, because it makes me feel good when I can do that. And the more good I do for others, the better I feel about myself. Funny I know, but that’s how it is.
Well, as you can see, I’m still working on that goal of being a better person. But I wanted others to know that being honest with myself was a key to clearing out the garbage from my life. Think about it: You got to keep taking out the trash to keep from stinking up the house.
And if that ain’t being honest, …then I don’t know what is.