That ranks up there with “I know, but…” and “It wasn’t my fault,” in the alcoholics lexicon of most used expressions.
I don’t know how many times I uttered that phrase, knowing that approximately 99.9% of the time, I wasn’t fine. I was far from fine. If you could find a map of the Universe, plunk “fine” down on one spot, calculate (don’t forget pi) and circle the polar opposite, that’s precisely where I would have found myself planted. Head first, no doubt, in either a toilet or in regret and pain. Or perhaps a lovely medley of both.
The ability to cover up is a skill that I learned early in my drinking days…well, even before that. Of course, alcoholics haven’t cornered the market on “Fine” (ask any parent who has a teenager), but we certainly rely on it much more than we should. Learning to cover myself and my true feelings through the fabrication of a false bill of goods was a necessary habit. Letting people in on how I truly felt often turned into betrayal or a dismissing gesture. I also felt that I was burdening others with my troubles, so even when I was shredded up inside and torn to bits, I was “Fine” when asked. “Fine”…indeed.
Now, in polite society, I wouldn’t expect myself to go into a diatribe or blow-by-blow account of what is really happening inside of me. When the crossing guard asks me how are things, I will do the polite social contract thing and say something positive yet non-committal like “good,” or “great, thank you…and you?”. There is an expectation that the question is more of a kind consideration or hello than an inquisition into my emotional state. Done. Easy. It’s the other stuff that’s hard.
When I was drinking, or thinking of drinking, or recovering from drinking, my emotional landscape was full of craggy rocks, sharp stalagmites and bogs of self-pity. Add a healthy dose of anxiety, teen angst poetry-like depression and resentments upside and down the place and you had about an un-fine wonderland as you can construct. Like Dollyworld, but built by Goths. What do you say to someone when deep down, you feel like a Bergman film scored by Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Connie Francis? It’s easier to gloss over the pain than acknowledge it. Easier to take a pass than meet the hurt head on. Why open the vault, when tightening the locking mechanism is much more effective?
There was a part of me that felt that by saying I was ok when really I was collapsing under the weight of my own darkness, I would perhaps be able to trick myself into feeling fine – that if I gave that tepid word enough energy, it would manifest itself into a meager smile or at least get me away from the fire of my own pain. Telling you I was alright was a way to keep you away from me and to bolster the little one act passion play I had going on inside. I would be crucifying myself over and over but I’d only let you see the setting sun behind the hill and not the nails and cross. I played into my own fantasy that I wasn’t important enough to be concerned about by anyone, including myself.
So it wasn’t until I couldn’t hold back any more, when I was brimming with enough toxic “un-fineness” that I would have breakdowns…binges, anxiety attacks, lashings of self-pity all played out to a sense of doom and failure. The dishonesty and shame of going against my own grain only fueled things. I so wanted to talk to someone, to let go the release valve, to just be held and told that I would be ok. But I wouldn’t allow myself to do so – I had the sense that I would lose control, or that I would look weak or foolish. How damning that was to myself. How cruel that was. And selfish to those who would have been able to help…who were itching to see my pain go away.
Just another mask. Just another way of escaping.
Part of my alcoholism was the denial of many things – my drinking problem, the emotions and conditions that preceded drinking and my mental state. In dealing with the booze issue, I have had to make a big turn on the accessing of my emotions. Where I would be blank, or overwhelmed, I have had to learn to not catastrophize everything, to not let things take over, to let go of a lot. Honesty had to be implanted and cultivated. Allowing others to help and to allow my pain to get into the open, the breathe, to be worked with and discarded in healthy ways was new to me. Working the program of AA afforded me new tools and skills to meet the Fine Contraption head on and to take it apart. I had to learn that is was ok to tell someone that I was feeling shitty. That I felt like drinking. That I hated myself. That I didn’t like anyone in the room. That life sucked.
And guess what? The earth kept revolving. No one died. I was able to not vent per se, but to engage in a dialogue with my hidden self, the one I tried to Fine to death. I was able to see that negative feelings are still feelings, and carry as much weight as I want them to. And it’s also ok to feel good, ok, fine and mean it.
I was picking up my sons the other day from across the street where they were playing with the neighbourhood boys, and while I was getting my kids ready, the mother of the boys asked me how I was doing. I blurted out “wonderful!”. The wife and husband looked at each other and just looked back at me quizzically. “Wonderful?” Yes, I told them. Wonderful. I joked about perhaps having my Oprah voice on or something. But I was feeling wonderful, and didn’t want to devalue or dismiss that feeling. Same as if I wasn’t feeling fantastic, I would acknowledge that too, without getting maudlin or morose.
There is a power and force that comes from true honesty and direct contact with the emotions that burble and bubble and squeak beneath and over the surface of my spirit. I am not perfect in this. I am still learning to trust where I am in the Fine – Unfine Barometer. I can gauge my internal temperature and know that it is neither good nor bad, but just is. It’s ok to not be ok. And it’s ok to be super ok. Lying about it only disarms me, and I can’t be there fully…and I spent enough of my life not being fully there. And learning to balance the true sense of me, emotional identity and false self is a delicate thing.
It’s a fine line.