Monk hands

The Illusion of a Clean House

Sobriety

I’m absolutely terrible at relaxing, I realise that now. I was up at 5 am today (a Saturday in the middle of a long-weekend) because I get grumpy when I sleep in. I don’t know why; I love sleeping in. But when I do I inevitably end up spending most of the day crotchety and ill tempered, as though allowing my body to rest is wasting time that could be spent on more useful endeavours like laundry, yard work, or doing the dishes.

Once upon a time I would stay up until dawn playing Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, Icewind Dale, and other fantasy RPGs. I played guitar, wrote songs and poetry and would while away the hours day-dreaming about ideas for novellas and short stories. But somewhere along the line I went from easygoing and fun to dull and dreary, forever putting responsibility and commitment ahead of spaciousness and joviality.

Every spare second became an opportunity to be productive and useful – picking something up, putting something else away, planning for what needed to be done next, worrying about what I was omitting, forgetting, or ignoring. Lists, tasks, obligations – always living in the future rather than the present. It’s positively exhausting sometimes, but I can’t seem to stop the habit.

My son has been begging me to start playing World of Warcraft and telling horrible dad jokes again, because apparently I’ve become too boring, bossy, and judgemental – and I believe him. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and so it does with me.

In re-reading these words I realise what an obsession it’s all become. There is a line where being proactive and productive becomes something else – something less helpful and all together more restrictive; where the emphasis shifts from cleanliness to control. When I feel helpless, I clean. When I feel worried, I clean. When I feel inadequate or self-conscious, I clean.

It’s as if having a pristine house will let me live in the illusion of control for just a little while, until something is out of place and needs to be resolved. Then the whole cycle starts again.

In early sobriety I was taught about how lack of power was my dilemma; that alcoholics like me try in vain to control the world around them and when we can’t, we get upset and either lash out at others, drink to deal with the anxiety of life, or both. I seem to look at a messy house as symbolic, as if it’s an indicator of the quality of my life or how well I’m performing and providing.

I don’t drink anymore, but I still have to contend with the anxieties of life as much as anyone else. I do sometimes worry that I’m less capable of dealing with the stress than normal people, but that’s neither here nor there. I must deal with what is, not with how I wish things were.

A clean house will not help me deal with life any more effectively than a messy house, but seeing the world through a place of serenity, acceptance and gratitude certainly will. So today, when I “clean house,” I plan on doing it internally – beginning with my frame of mind.

Grumpy looking pug

Being Eeyore

Sobriety

If I was a cartoon character this week, it would surely be Eeyore. I’ve been flat, uninspired, and utterly unpleasant to be around. As if I have my own personal rain cloud following me around everywhere, I seem fixed on forever finding the darkness beyond the silver lining.

I could provide a laundry list of excuses as to why my life feels like one big bother right now, but in the end that’s all it would be – excuses. At some point you have to admit that, yes, some parts of life are a downer, but in the end we have to move past them all the same. Otherwise you end up stuck like Eeyore, floating down a babbling brook of discontent, refusing to grasp at the branches your friends are extending to you to help pull you to shore.

You can either join the others and play Poohsticks, or continue to wallow passively alone in the river, dejectedly weighted down by the waters of your self-induced, soggy misery.

It’s times like this that maintaining morning routines and mental health practices are the most important. Even when it feels like you’re accomplishing nothing, and a grey fog of sadness hangs thick in the air, following through with daily meditation, stretching, exercise, conscious breathing and reflection are actions that help you move forward. Even when it feels difficult and uninspiring, you are still making an effort to work things through, and that’s surely something to be proud of.

Likewise for me is writing. I sat down to this post not wanting to write, but wanting to feel better. So I’ve approached the process as an internal dialogue in which I make an effort to grasp for hope, and seek the light that guides me out of the darkness. I didn’t set out to write about how life isn’t fair, but to talk about what I was going to do to try and feel better. And in the end, I did.

Older man sitting with his head in his hands.

On Pain

Sobriety

I may or may not have broken my toe last night; either way it was excruciating. And yet, in the thick of the expletive-filled, agony-soaked, writhing minutes after kicking the side of the fireplace barefoot, a thought occurred to me. Not only is pain a fascinating sensation, it serves an important purpose in life.

Pain sucks. It is not fun. I don’t mean pain in a BDSM “it hurts in a good way” sense, but in a helpless yet profound “please make it stop, I can’t take it any more” way.

Pain tells us, in no uncertain terms, that something is not right. It gets our attention immediately, and forces us to focus on the injury – whether physical, emotional or psychological. Pain is something not easily ignored, and in that way it quiets all unrelated thoughts and sets a specific aspect of our life in stark relief to everything else.

If we choose not to address the pain, most likely it will remain, if not get worse. It’s a bit of a divining rod in that way. When we pursue activities that cause or contribute to the pain, it’s abundantly clear. And when we implement strategies that reduce or eliminate the pain, that is also abundantly clear.

In that way, we see that pain can inspire change. Not always huge sweeping changes, but change nonetheless. If you land funny when you’re running and twist your ankle under unusual circumstances, you won’t necessarily have a deep and meaningful spiritual experience. But I do think you’ll be more careful on that stretch of road in the future, or try to be more mentally present when you exercise – both of which are change.

Pain isn’t necessarily physical either. When I drank, life got harder and harder. Hangovers were unpleasant, certainly, but the shame and guilt of things I’d said and done on a big night out were frequently worse so. The more I tried to fix my situation, yet continue drinking, the more I failed. This added frustration and confusion to the mix, which is discomfort in a different way.

When I found myself on the side of the road, being arrested again, the pain surged past the point where I was capable of ignoring it anymore and I realised I had to live differently. I wasn’t physically hurt, but the internal agony, shame, fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt were arguably just as bad. This provided me with the acute motivation I needed to start doing things differently.

Where it not for this sensation, I don’t think I ever would have had the inertia to carry through and do whatever it took to stop feeling what I was feeling. In that sense, the pain was useful – not fun, but useful.

Glass of whiskey

On my last drink

Sobriety

The night of my last drink began with a sigh, and ended with handcuffs. After an eventful seven year run – from 17 to 24 years old – the last chapter of my life as a young, practicing alcoholic amounted to more of a resigned, slow exhale than an impassioned death wail.

After two and a half years of debt in the wake of my first arrest and conviction for drunk driving, I had finally paid everything off. My car had been totaled, my insurance company had dumped me; I’d faced court, AA, MADD, drunk driving school, had my drivers licensed suspended, gone to jail, and even watched an autopsy – but it was all over. My credit cards were officially zeroed out, and I didn’t owe anything to anyone. But for the remaining 6 months of my probation, I was finally free. I was ecstatic, and I decided to celebrate.

Despite the significance of the occasion, I gave surprisingly little thought to where I would go, and in the end opted for a bar that I had passed many times, but had never gone to before. Looking back, the night was positively uninspiring. I remember very little of significance from the beginning of the night aside from one detail in particular.

I only ever experimented with smoking. It really wasn’t my thing. It makes your clothes smell, your hair smell, it hurts your eyes, and it makes hangovers that much more toxic the next morning. Yet strangely, I did smoke when I drank.

I remember being outside, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the moon. Not in a profound philosophical way, but with a sense of deep melancholy. The moon seemed so isolated and lonely, and I suddenly thought: “Is this all there is?”

No epiphany came. No sense of renewed purpose in life, or clear direction going forward. No realisation of my defects of character, or the danger I was to society. Just my own sad, inebriated loneliness, out on a street corner just before closing time. So I left.

I had no plans for how to get home safely. I rarely did. On the occasions where I tried to plan ahead I always ended up driving drunk anyway, much to my shame and regret the following morning. Somewhere along the line I stopped even contemplating it anymore. So I got in my car and headed up the empty road.

Four traffic lights later I saw the police lights in my rear-view mirror and diligently pulled over. No thought of panic or fear. No recognition that I was drunk behind the wheel of a car. No memory that I was still on probation. Nothing.

The short police officer rapped on my window, and was soon met with the miasma of my alcohol-soaked breath, which sent him reeling noticeably. I smiled, carefree, and said good evening.

“Have you been drinking, sir?” He asked almost rhetorically.

“Yes, I have,” I nodded immediately, without any qualification.

The puzzled expression on his face should have been a clear indication of the trouble I was in, but I was never a difficult or belligerent drunk, just a reckless one. After a few drinks, I loved people and was always happy to tell them anything they wanted to know.

“How many drinks have you had, sir?” he stammered finally.

Making a contorted face while I thought, I finally shrugged.

“I can’t remember. I lost count,” I admitted casually.

“Would you step out of the car, please?” he said slowly.

“Sure!” I exclaimed happily.

For all I know I could have asked him how his night was going too. That’s the sort of thing I did when I drank. Social, talkative, agreeable, aiming to please. Were it not for my pension for driving under the influence, and the occasional habit of sobbing pathetically during sad songs, I was pretty entertaining to be around on a night out. Self-preservation was utterly absent from my mind, as always.

In the next few minutes, I utterly failed every sobriety test they threw at me. I couldn’t walk a straight line, I couldn’t touch my nose with my finger, and I couldn’t even write the alphabet.

It was that last one that hit me – hard. I made it to the letter C before I realised I couldn’t remember anything after that. Suddenly out of the blue, I was struck by the realisation of where I was, the condition I was in, and what I’d done – and it shattered me.

Despite all the promises I’d made to myself to maintain and moderate; without any second thoughts, I had gotten drunk and then drove, again. I was utterly terrified.

I slumped down on the curb, and started to sob. How did this happen? Why did this happen? I don’t understand! I completely lacked the vocabulary and comprehension to understand why, again and again, I found myself doing things I wouldn’t do sober. I wasn’t a bad guy, I just made really stupid decisions.

In an instant, all faith and trust I had in myself vanished, and I became gripped by fear. I knew I had to change, but I had absolutely no idea how to do it.

“Don’t forget to read me my rights,” I said quietly, “I know that’s an important bit.”

“I won’t forget that part, sir” the officer said shaking his head.

More tears streamed down my face.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I stuttered.

“No, you can’t,” he smiled kindly and put the handcuffs on me.

The next day was 30 July 1999. I haven’t had a drink since.