Sunday, 3 February 2013
I found my happiness living with a raging alcoholic - 04.10.2012
I found my happiness living with a raging alcoholic. This may sound rather counterintuitive, particularly as I’m not using the word “raging” casually. It wasn’t a lifestyle I enjoyed, and definitely not one I planned on taking on. However, it was during those overexciting months that I learnt how to be happy. Credit where it’s due, the experience did me a lot of good, and I still refer to the mode of thinking I developed then when all the chips are down.
It is a fine line, I guess, between personality traits and character flaws. I have always been a perfectionist, obsessive, unduly intense, and prone to excesses of introspection. These are great characteristics in the workplace, I guess, but they make for a pretty unhappy approach to daily life. I was the child in school for whom a 99% result was a failure, because you should be able to get 100% if you’d done it right. If you got 100%, that was nothing to be excited about as it was the minimum grade you should have aimed for. God forbid if I didn’t come to the top of everything. I was so competitive that most times I refused to compete unless I could win. I was also easily bored. I needed to be doing something at all times. I needed to have a project or purpose or something to excite me. I had to be inspired. I had to be involved in something that could absorb me totally. Humdrum, routine things and normal everyday life would make me morose. I spent most of my time dissatisfied and frustrated, either at myself, others or life in general.
An aspect of my perfectionism was that I had to make sure that I made the best decisions at all times. Of course, when you’re obsessive that means that you want to see all the possible angles, consequences and pitfalls. In the absence of a crystal ball, it becomes almost impossible to make any decisions whatsoever, as you can’t possibly have all the information. When I did make a decision I would routinely end up endlessly revisiting it. Had I done the best thing? I mean, the best thing ever? As circumstances changed or new aspects revealed themselves, naturally it often emerged that I could have done something differently. Off I’d go kicking myself in the backside, because I failed.
This seemed to change dramatically when I made my life’s crowning boo-boo. To cut a long story short, I gave up my job, house, and entire life really to run off with a circus worker. Yes, I ran off with the circus, with no prospect of a job. In my mid-thirties. I gave up my career, sold up my possessions and left all my friends, just like that. But hey, there were mitigating circumstances. I was dissatisfied with my work. My dog had died. I’d broken up with my boyfriend. On and on the list goes, but essentially I was fed up with things not being exciting or rewarding enough and decided that I wouldn’t just rock the apple cart, but push it off the nearest available cliff. Oh, and I was madly in love.
Unfortunately, it shortly emerged that my intended had a drinking problem. How he’d managed to keep it either under control or under wraps while he effectively ensnared me, I’ll never know. Within a period of weeks, he morphed from a loving, strong, supportive, caring man into a schizoid monster. Most evenings he would go off into the night, coming back after closing time off his face and spoiling for a fight. His confrontations with me were purely verbal, but those who say that “words will never hurt them” haven’t encountered a clever verbal assailant, or being subjected to out-of-control verbal rage. It is painful and it is frightening. Some nights he managed to pick a proper fight and I would have to deal with ambulances, police or the hospital. These were the good nights – on the bad nights he drank at home, and then I would not only have to put up with the after-effects of his drinking, but also with his dark descent down into the bottom of the glass. The mornings after would be spent tiptoeing around him, the bear with the sore head, whilst repairing any physical damage to the house and occasionally to him.
Now, under normal circumstances I agree with most people that the best way to live with alcoholism or aggression is to not live with them. Pack and go. Just get the hell out. Unfortunately, what most people conveniently forget is that when you’re living with an alcoholic, circumstances are usually entirely removed from normal. Nothing is free – not even your safety or your freedom. Every time you close a door you have to give up on whatever lays behind it. In my case, I stuck with it, quite pragmatically, until I judged that the danger I was facing was excessive and no longer justified by what I was getting out of staying there. But that’s another story.
The point is that my time living with an aggressive alcoholic was one of the happiest times in my life. In fact, it was when I learnt how to be happy. It was a case of needs must, I guess. The situation was really quite hard to manage, both from a practical and an emotional point of view. I needed to take very good care of my head in order not to get crushed. That was the primary objective – avoiding implosion. For once in my life, the focus of my life was to keep me ticking, to keep me sane and happy. All other considerations had to be shelved, because I knew how close I was to emotional collapse.
The strange beauty in living with a raging alcoholic is in the times when he’s not around. People who’ve always had a peaceful life won’t be able to relate to this. When your life is interspersed with moments of intense fear, the quiet times are just fantastic. I guess this would be a small reflection of the feeling people must experience in lulls during warfare. There is a mad carnival feeling to those quiet moments. You can enjoy the silence, the peace, the ability to relax into your home, into your skin. I learnt to value moments like having a cup of coffee with my dog – really learnt to notice it and appreciate it, to relish the tranquillity in it. I didn’t just bolt down my drink whilst thinking of 3000 other things, as I did before, as I too often do now. I was able to really pay attention to the experience and truly take pleasure in it. At that time I thought I’d never be able to be bored again, as there was such a joy to be felt in experiencing nothing happening.
I learnt to focus on a single moment. That truly is a trick. Like a camera, I’d just notice what was around me at that time. When you don’t know, but can reasonably fear, what the night will bring, anticipating the problems to come, borrowing trouble, can do you in. If you sit there fretting about what may come, it will consume you. At the same time, if you waste mental efforts in revisiting the hows and whys of how you got yourself in there, it will drain you down to nothing. Incidentally, the same pinpoint focus on the present is naturally generated by major confrontations. In danger situations, your body releases a chemical cocktail that helps you focus on and react to the here and now. Maybe repeated exposure to that mechanism made me able to engage it at will. I can’t be sure. What I do know is that I could suddenly really focus on whatever was around me. It felt very much like being a child again, looking at everything with fresh eyes. I could trip out just watching the sunlight play through leaves. Movies and books became real.
After a lifetime of multitasking, neurosis and introspection, living in the moment was a major buzz. Aside from being able to enjoy whatever you have or are experiencing, which you can’t do if you are not focusing on it, I also became able to switch off my timeline. I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow, yesterday, all that could be and isn’t, regrets, or even what was on my to-do list. I literally just concentrated on what was around me – the food on my plate, the sunshine, a movie, the rain, anything. When you know that something horrible may happen within hours and you remember that something horrible happened just hours ago, you must be able to switch off the fear and focus on the fact that nothing is happening now. If you can’t, all you will experience is pain from what happened and fear for what may happen yet.
I suppose that, in a way, this is the sort of mental exercise advocated in samurai movies. You know something awful will probably happen, but you do not dwell on it, because ultimately something awful will eventually happen to us all. Like it or not, life is a terminal disease. We will all die. Unless you are planning a suicide pact, love encompasses eventual loss from the word go. Either your loved ones will lose you, or you will lose them. I have always been conscious of my mortality – not purely aware of it in an academic level, but actually felt the death to come in my bones. I prefer the Viking approach to death. They believed in death being predestined and completely outside of your control. All you could control was the way you lived. Although I don’t believe in their mythology, I always found it useful and have tried to live by it. However, my all-time favourite quote on death, from “Kingdom of Heaven”, is: “all death is certain.” And that is the bottom line. Whether you believe in life after death or not, death is a bridge we all must cross. Once you accept the inevitability of death, for yourself and everyone you know and love, everything else becomes comparatively easy to deal with. Everything becomes temporary. One way or the other, everything will end, whether you like it or not. So you better enjoy it now if it’s good, as much as you can, and if it’s horrible you can remind yourself that it’s temporary. You suddenly find yourself not holding onto things so tightly, because everything is temporary. You can brush things aside, forget them and move on, taking with you only what you decide to take.
There was another flipside of living with alcoholism. The episodes can be truly awful, but afterwards you can bask in the bizarre glory of having survived them. Yes, it would be rather nice if the brown stuff hadn’t hit the fan, but look, it did, and you dealt with it, and you’re still here, still standing, and able to carve a cautious smile, able to move on from it and find some joy. There is an immense strength in that, and I relished that hugely. I suppose it came of always doubting my abilities to cope I always needed to prove myself, and whatever I did I was never able to convince myself I could manage. Suddenly, I was coping all the time. I’d rather not have had to cope, but the fact that I was doing it made me feel very competent, very strong.`
It may seem a strange way to find your happiness. But for someone who has never been fully aware, never fully relaxed or confident or content, always yearning for more, learning to grab hold of any moment which isn’t awful and notice the beauty in it is a miracle. I wasn’t hoping, wishing, regretting, remembering, anticipating or projecting. I was in the here and now, feeling the sunlight on my face, tasting that pizza, listening to music or just noise or just silence. I was present in my experience, which, however humdrum, is unique because you never get a chance to relive a single moment.
I wish I could tell you that I maintained that mental agility, but it isn’t true. I guess that like any other skill, if you don’t use it you lose it. Too often, again, I find myself eating or drinking without tasting, hearing without listening, and getting embroiled in pointless mental exercises that take me away from the present moment into the past, the future or alternative realities. But when I remember, when I try hard, I can still isolate that feeling. I am here and it is now, and the bombs are not falling – but they will fall, sometime, some day, so we must enjoy the here and now.