I was born of sin under the stigma of adultery and illegitimacy. My original identity redacted and replaced in order to preserve a middle-class illusion of morality. My existence served to satisfy the appearances of an infertile couple and as I later discovered, also as a narcissistic supply for my adoptive mother. Initially I fit perfectly into the so-called moral mould cast by her emotionally abusive upbringing, but later it led me into darkness, self-destruction and alcoholism.
Some say that by definition you can’t be an ex-alcoholic. I disagree. Yet on the checklists provided by those kindly medical sites, I used to be able to tick all the boxes. Black outs, check. Daily drinking, check. Dehabilitating hangovers, check.
Twenty years have passed since my worst excesses. I still indulge myself occasionally–mostly in moderation–but if I do choose excess, I do it on purpose. And with purpose.
Out of the many constructs that have helped me consciously regulate my alcohol intake, none include abstinence. Alcohol helped me quell the incessant anxiety largely due to my mother’s all-pervasive control, and any adult attempt by me to control my reptilian instinct for oblivion proved ineffectual, or worse provocative. My inner child rebelled until I no longer tried to control her. She’d had enough of that. The adult me learned the hard way that the methods which were the catalyst for pain, couldn’t be used to heal that pain.
Thus it is seemingly impossible to rationally force myself to do anything I don’t want to do–be it meditating, stopping drinking or exercise. These are all choices I don’t like even though I know of the health benefits. Many can get themselves there by sheer grit. Some employ fear to motivate themselves. But those methods are inaccessible to me, so I’ve found a way to hack my own psychology.
1. The Eradication of Guilt
Guilt, I found, served little purpose in my life apart from as a sort of currency I paid for my mistakes. As though if I paid enough guilt, I could let the mistake go–but that held no guarantee I wouldn’t repeat it. The price was more guilt in a neverending cycle, which drove my anxiety higher, and my need for oblivion greater. But getting rid of the guilt required more than understanding it.
Catholics–although famous for their guilt–are able to be rid of it every Sunday by confession. They wipe the slate clean, often just to go and often do the same damn thing the following week. There is extraordinary relief in confession and my writing is confessional. Being raised as a protestant, a permanent sinner whose rescue could only come from an external source had done me no favours. Religion controlled my mother and she controlled me. I eradicated religion and eventually all contact with my adoptive parents. And of course, I write. Every day. The pain must be expressed somehow.
2. The Eradication of Shame
Shame as internalized judgement had systematically undermined my self-esteem and fear of rejection compounded my anxiety. Developing a skin thick enough to withstand internalizing judgement takes practice. It requires extensive processing and analysis from every angle. I became a researcher; on neuroscience, on childhood development, on the very nature of humanity. Vile self-truths which might have prevented others from looking at themselves, didn’t prevent me. I already had the capacity to tolerate what others found intolerable.
The eradication of judgement in my life has occurred in several stages. The first was to decouple my behaviour from my worth as a human being. The second was by understanding that my behaviours were what my mind considered the best way to survive my environment. I understand why I stayed in an abusive relationship. I understand why I drank. I understand why I cheated on my ex. After all, I had learned that attachment was treachery. Somewhere, somehow it was all rooted in my survival mechanisms. The mind picks ones which have worked in the past, over new and healthier ones–even when they stop serving us, even when my environment changed, even when I became an adult.
The recognition of this truth eradicated my judgement of myself and others, released me from anxiety and opened the way to modifying behaviours which were harmful. I live my life, as others have said in an effort to discredit me, ‘shamelessly’. And proudly.
3. The Eradication of Gaslighting
Gaslighting–or distorting reality to creative cognitive dissonance and mental tension in someone else–is an extraordinarily powerful weapon. Trump’s constant efforts to lie, omit or otherwise create an alternative fact world, not only undermine the media, they harm the human psyche. Gaslighting destroys the ability to trust that anything is real, and in a world where nothing is real you become paralysed with fear of unknown consequence. Living with a narcissist means you can trust nothing and no-one, including yourself. If you still live under the control of shame and guilt, the world is a dark place indeed. The mind, lacking any way to successfully survive successfully under these conditions, resorts to the only option it has left. Death promises the end of the pain.
I have been there at the bottom, in the doubt of all things. Covered in the shit of shame. Suffocating in the pain of guilt. Why did I not choose death then? I did. Twice, but I failed in my attempts to attain permanent oblivion resorting instead to the slower more accessible oblivion of alcohol. When I reached the bottom of my spiral for the third time, I’d already done the work by myself and with therapists; they helped me eradicate the constructs of shame and guilt. The destruction of trust alone was not strong enough to destroy my will to live. But you do need trust in something, if not to survive certainly to thrive. And definitely to laugh in the face of oblivion when it comes calling.
In the years which followed, I built trust. Not in any innate goodness. Not in my own ethical intentions. Certainly not in politicians. In the real recognition of our humanity. In our instinct to survive which has proven time and again to disregard any moral decency when it doesn’t serve our purpose. We can rationalize anything after the fact. It is a hypothesis which despite extensive, albeit anecdotal testing, I have yet to find holes in. But the loss of religion, shame and guilt left me without morals. Quite by chance, I found that I was amoral by choice. Fortunately my childhood pain had give me a huge capacity for empathy. I know the longing to be free from pain and I am compassionate, almost to a fault. I had to be in order to forgive myself.
Freedom attained through consent and tolerance–as a peace keeping treaty rather than a moral precept–and beyond any arbitrary value judgements of right and wrong, have been the foundations of my rational framework of ethics for the past ten years. They have served me well, although highly suspicious of my own cunning survival mechanisms I have evaluated them against the countless examples of others I admire–those who have established universal human rights on these same principles. More than meditation, more than religion, they keep me grounded, pragmatic and thriving in this paradoxically vile but beautiful world. I have not lost my pain, but I have learned instead to respect it, indulge it and use it.
Right now I’m cultivating a love of whisky. Once or twice a week I pour an inch. Hard liquor is not like beer where you slowly start to slur your words. There is a sharper clarity, at least in the beginning. For thirty minutes or so I can access those old paths which tap into my past pain. It is crystal clear and hard like diamonds. I only need a few sips before I can feel the depth of where it once carved out craters in my body. It is violent and harsh but in the end it just sounds like a child crying; I cradle her in my arms and connect with the pain tearing its way across the world, there’s a lot of it right now. And then I stop, drink a few glasses of water and brush my teeth… after all, tomorrow it’s a school day for my own beloved children, and I’ve got work in the morning.