Swallow It

That first Christmas being back in Portland with my family was my first time being sober through the holidays since I was a teenager. It was raining Christmas, that distinct Pacific Northwest drizzle that is less than rain but more than mist, much like in the Scottish Highlands but without the romance, and we ate Christmas dinner at my brother-in-law’s parents’ house. It was an extended gathering of his family and my sister’s. I knew everyone, but not well enough not to be uncomfortable when the banter faltered. I don’t follow sports, not even the local U of O Ducks, but if I had the evening would’ve been a breeze. This was the fallback topic when there was no interest in the other person, easy conversation for people halfway through their second jumbo box of Gallo’s finest.

The evening was a booze fest. Everyone but the young kids had a glow on. So on a day that was pitched as being meaningful in a religious, and failing that, a family sort of way, nothing meaningful was said except for a token grace spoken before everyone chowed down.

Watching my mom with her glass of wine brought back uncomfortable memories of childhood. She would come home drunk and tell me how much she loved me, get really dramatic and say she would die for me, complete with slurred speech. I learned to dread the drunk “I love you” speech. She was always totally uptight the next day, as if she’d said nothing, and I often wondered if she even remembered any of it. Instead of feeling loved, I simply learned that what people said when they were drunk didn’t mean squat.

Both my parents like to drink and it was from them that I learned to drink and learned that it was how our family coped with the troubles life sent our way. If someone hurt you, you reached for the bottle and swallowed it. You did not face the trouble and deal with it because if you did that the whole family would come apart. If my parents stopped drinking, they’d get divorced, and that was what eventually happened. My dad quit for a while, but my mom kept on and that was the end of their marriage.

My mom always kept on. She’d get stumbling drunk and never acknowledge it, as if that would make it like it never happened. But it did, again and again, and it left its mark. I hated sloppy drunks. So I drank, but never got sloppy. After a certain amount I would go home and drink alone, really swallow my pain, and there no one would see me stumble to the fridge for another beer or pass out in my armchair with the DVD player repeating the same setup program again and again.

It was while living in Boston that I got into the full swing of it. The depressions would set in like the fog on Boston Harbor, my eyelids would feel heavy and my thoughts sluggish, and the only way to burn the depressions off was to get drunk and lose myself. I’d find an Irish pub in the North End and start in on the Guinness and Camel filters until I dulled the edge on my dark mood. After that I’d hit the bars where my friends hung out and stay out until I was buzzed enough that I didn’t care if I was out or not. I was running from my mood, but, like Buckaroo Bonsai said, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

I gave up the booze and cigarettes because that was a candle I’d burned from both ends, wax was all around my feet and the two flames were about to meet. Now it was a bunch of little things I was hooked on, none of them as destructive as booze, but it all felt like I’d slid from one addiction to another as easily as slipping on comfortable shoes after work. They were a means of escape, a way to avoid being home. Not home in the sense of sitting in my living room, but present inside my head dealing with my thoughts and fears and anxieties.

Here I was in my forties trying to fill the same unmet emotional needs I began experiencing when I was a boy. Thirty-odd years of beating my head against the same problem had burned me out. I’d come up with answers here and there but they did more to reshape the question than to answer it.

At the core, it was about self-worth. I’d do stupid stuff to undermine myself, to confirm that I wasn’t worth other people’s love, but it was more complicated than that. I didn’t respect most of the people I knew. I didn’t disrespect them, I just felt that respect was earned by acts of emotional courage and strength and I saw very little of that in the people around me, especially in the bars where it was all about gratification.

Much in my life was about emulation, so my flawed thinking went that if others didn’t deserve respect, then neither did I. Few faced their demons. Most avoided them as I had been doing, and wrapped themselves up in social drama that took on far more importance than it had.

When I faced my alcoholism for what it was, a dead-end escape route of slow suicide, and quit the booze, hanging out with my friends got old. They would metamorphose into drunks, and without being tight myself, listening to their self-inflicted trials and tribulations was too much like listening to the hamster complain about being on the wheel.

When I got past the self-abuse of the drinking and cigarettes I thought that would be it. All I’d have to do was not drink or smoke and my life would heal and all would be okay, but addiction peels away like an onion and my body had to clear itself of the physical effects before I faced the emotions that got me hooked in the first place. I thought my addiction was to the booze, but the booze was only my tool of choice to avoid the emotions. My real addiction was avoidance.

I didn’t have to be a drunk to be an addict. Drunks were messy and thus easy to spot. When I quit, my understanding of addiction deepened and I saw it as driven by a fear of being alone with myself, and that it came in many guises, shopping on eBay, pints of chocolate Häagen Dazs, cycling to exhaustion, and I saw addicts everywhere.

When I quit smoking my sense of smell returned and I noticed smells I hadn’t in years. When I quit drinking it was as if another sense had returned too. I began seeing addictions in the people around me. One friend ate sugary foods she knew with her arthritis would leave her in pain the next day but ate them anyway because she felt she deserved to feel that pain. She was unworthy of feeling otherwise and her body took these feelings and thoughts and manifested them by attacking itself. I had an overweight friend on a similar cycle, and a riding buddy who dulled his pain with shopping for high-end bikes.

It was the same for myself, and it was why my addiction had found new ways to undermine my self-respect through pointless crap that served as a momentary escape from the depressions and confirmed that I didn’t deserve even my own respect. Self-respect seemed the basis of happiness, but I couldn’t be happy. I didn’t respect myself because I’d never learned to love myself; in fact, I’d been taught just the opposite. The drunken words of my mother ran through my head, words she only said when drunk and ignored in the morning.

I knew my current crop of addictions were more dead-end escapes like the booze had been, more layers of the onion, but now I realized that the morning I quit drinking was actually when I began to learn to love myself, to stop swallowing the pain and begin facing it. I figure I’ll eventually work through it and as I do I’ll shape my life into something more like I’d imagined it to be as a kid.

*   *   *

I ate my Christmas turkey seated between my mom and my sister and watched the wine go down all around the table. Faces were rosy red like a cartoon Santa. My two young nephews ask if they could taste my sister’s wine. She said sure, go ahead, and I saw their future arced out in front of them. They were being taught the same coping skills I had been and hopefully they’ll have better luck with them than I did.

I left as soon as I could without being rude. Outside in the cold air, I felt a rush of anger and pain and wanted to turn it in on myself. I wanted to go down to Fred Meyer’s, pick up a pack of smokes and a suitcase of beer and go hole up in my apartment where I could take the pain out on myself, swallow it, like I’d learned to do so well.

But I didn’t. I drove home swearing to myself that I would never subject myself to another family gathering where booze was involved. I was going to learn to love myself, and my first step was to look out for myself and to protect my sobriety at all costs.

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