Ah the good ol’ days.
Well, more accurately, the past as we perceive through a hazy nostalgic set of goggles which are adjusted to a setting that only allows us to acknowledge only what we want to see, deflecting and ignoring the things that don’t feed into the false ideal and image that we choose to project to others and ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. That’s an accurate description of how I used to see things, and at times still do, thinking that my eyes were wide open to reality when really I was asleep to my present and seeing my history for what it was. And what my past days were…well, they weren’t as “good” as I liked to pretend they were.
One of the things that happens in recovery, especially early recovery, is the romanticism of the drinking past. We select the things about the past that grooves with us, conveniently forgetting the pain, suffering, damage, consequences and regret that came with sprees and/or daily chugging. We recall the salad days, poisonous vinaigrette and all. Our enablers, our fellow alcoholics, our hard drinkers all of a sudden lose their hard and ragged edges over time and recall them as “chums”, “mates” and “pals”. We lose the hard images of vomit sprayed over countless backsplashes and weepy 3 am remorse calls to who knows who on the phone and instead opt for the clean lines of that IKEA-like polished shiny past of “must have been the popcorn shrimp I had,” and “caught up with old friends late at night”. The rationalization machine kicks in and time starts to wipe away the jagged lines and dirty crumbs as easily as ShamWow tackles Diet Shasta spills and stubborn grass stains.
This whitewashing of the ugly past isn’t as easy as deleting our History on a web browser. This is Facebook type stuff – it will never go away no matter what we do. It’s out there for good. We cannot do the Curly Shuffle around a crime scene and call it performance art. We can try and camouflage, conceal and cloak all we want, but how we lived and what we did will eventually make it’s way through the Maze of Minimization and tap us on the shoulder and punch us on the nose. Howdy, remember me?
Of course I remember you. I created you. And tried to bury you and yet you keep coming back. Are you related to Jason Voorhees? Just as nasty and frightening, with one less chainsaw, mind you.
This sterilization of our past deeds and behaviours and way of thinking is one way that the illness operates. It tries to convince us that things weren’t that bad, that we’re probably overreacting, that the Brother Grimm episodes in our lives were really just sepia-toned tomfoolery. The Little Rascals type jocularity. Light-hearted Leave it to Beaver stuff with a bong and Triple Sec thrown in for grime and crime. Perhaps they were just Rights of Passage material. Who hasn’t passed out on the bathroom floor at one point in their young, Anne of Green Gables life now and then? Who hasn’t woken up in a hospital bed with unknown maladies and injuries? Who hasn’t forced themselves inappropriately on someone’s partner or co-worker? I mean…this is just fun stuff, playful, self-indulgent, no?
The dangerous part of looking back fondly is that it’s all an illusion wrangled up by our alcoholism to lull us into getting a punched ticket back to the bottle. It’s a way of romanticising the Dance with the Devil with the Blue Dress (Puked) On and to entice our minds to conform to the old way of doing things. The “good ol’ days” mentality is a mirage manufactured to turn our attention back to the problem, and away from the solution. Alcoholism hates solutions that involves drying it out, putting it in a corner and crowning it with a Dunce Hat. Alcoholism fights for it’s life. It never goes away. But we do put it in remission. If we work for it. And the siren calls of those good times is often too much for the alcoholic who is struggling, or not equipped with the tools of recovery to manage things when those ripples from the past reach us and look for response. Justification is one of many cards that alcoholism plays, and rewinding and playing the good bits of our past is a way of playing that card. A “remember when”, stripped of it’s jarring and sordid details.
I remember many, many years ago talking to a co-worker / friend who had opened up about his cocaine problem. He would speak about the drug and drugging in loving ways. His memories and tales were wrapped up in gloss and glissando. He swooned when he spoke of the highs and the great social magical properties it seemed to have. Like a doting grandparent, his Wee One could do no wrong and preemed the romantic cocaine fantasy into a more solid reality than it really was. I remember cutting him off at one point and asking “Hey G, if it was so good, then why were you in detox and treatment? Didn’t you get fired and lose your girlfriend, etc?” His head turned to the side, eyes fled downward and he muttered something along the lines of “yeah, but”…his voice faded and walked away.
I didn’t understand how G could have seen things the way that he did, but at the time I wasn’t as ensconced in my alcoholism as I was until later. I was certainly in the grips of the grape, but hadn’t travelled to the far land of the Blackout yet and hadn’t received my visas to get into Hospital Land and the Duchy of Destruction. And of course I would remember G when years later I was in the exact same boat, waxing nostalgic over drunken bouts and flights of fancy al fresco. Except I was having the conversation with myself, not a colleague. I would sit and remember what it was like when X, or the days that I felt Y or all those occasions when I got big Z. My blue-penciled past was the sanitized snap shot that my alcoholism liked to parade around me when I was feeling vulnerable or out of sorts. And that sort of stealth attack can still happen today. The difference is that today I can see it for what it is – a lie.
You see, here’s the deal. I did have some wonderful times when drinking. Alcohol did for me what I couldn’t do for myself for some time – I was able to talk to women, I was able to squelch the self-destructive thoughts, I was able to laugh, I was able to strike up conversations, I was able to look the world in the eye…even if it was momentarily. I felt normal and and alive. I found the courage to be open and be a part of things and seemingly blend in with humanity. I had found the switch to turn me from dud to stud (ok, let’s not get ahead of ourselves). So I won’t deny that alcohol didn’t work at all in my life. It did for a short while and that’s why I went back to it over and over again. But the window of magic closed quickly. And I tried to hit that window more and more and found myself overshooting the mark more and more. And that’s when alcohol stopped being fun. I couldn’t recapture those fun times again. And the truth is that I never will. Ever.
What it comes down to is that the “good ol’ days” aren’t. They may have been, but will never be again. And that’s because alcoholism is progressive. We can’t just freeze frame alcoholism to it’s perfect nadir. It moves on even when we don’t want it to. We can’t compare ourselves to others who can take or leave ethanol. They are the ones who can party, post some pics online, laugh a bit, and move on. We don’t. We can’t. We shouldn’t. And once again, we can’t. I can’t. Ever. So that’s what I have had to make peace with. Going back through the old photo albums, with faded and yellowed images, pointing to the good times, to Old Self, to a time when fuzzy dice, fizzy drinks and floozy fun ruled does us no good. Time to start a new album. Because when it comes down to brass tacks, for me to look back and think that everything was great, is a delusion.
Sure there was that short period when all was lovely and gay, but when the darkness descended and the TIE fighters started to scramble around and attack from within and life started to swirl downward and when I pushed people out of my life, when my marriage suffered, when I lied, cheated, stole to keep up the many lies I created, when work suffered, when my depression and anxiety swelled to horrific states, when my self-loathing hit high…there was no room for fun. Fun fled fleet-footedly out of the picture long ago. I had wrung the fun out of drinking long ago. And in return it put me through the wringer. So it’s delusional of me to hark back and think that things can be like the delightful days of yore. It’s not possible.
In the final analysis, I am on a timeline that shifts and changes and grows. It swells and contracts. It takes me along paths that I sometimes can and sometimes cannot control. I can only react to what it going on, and have faith that I am being moved to where I need to be moved to. The festive days of youth are no more, in regards to alcohol. They were and then they were not enjoyable. It was a part of my journey that needed a start. And believe me, I had a long middle and ugly finish. I am now on a new journey. I don’t regret the past nor do I wish to shut the door on it. I use my past, the glowing parts and the dingy parts, as a way of moving through my path today. I can’t go back, nor do I wish to. I can’t hold on to the illusion that things will be groovy and wavy-gravy again. Because for the most part, they never were. The big gaping holes in my memory grew larger as I move in my alcoholism. The bright spots were few and far between until I was just existing. Just barely breathing. And the longer I choose to stay in those old times, the more I stay stagnant in my recovery. I can’t see where I am going when I am looking in the rear view mirror all the times, as they say. I can’t colour my past in techni-colour when in fact it was all battleship gray.
Romanticism. Justification. Fantasy. Rationalization. Delusion.
If we were playing cards, this would be alcoholism’s full house. But I am not at the table. I am there, that guy over there, enjoying something else…called life. A sober life, staying in the present.
And it’s beautiful.