Oh the Drama. With a capital D.
Well, not the Guiding Light or Real Housewives of Tagg Flats, Oklahoma (or whatever) kind of drama. No sissy fights or paying off hired killers in leisure suits or wearing white after labor day kind of drama. I mean the kind of drama that comes with being an active alcoholic. The kind of drama that slinks its way into the lives of those who surround themselves around the alcoholic, and acts as a ligature against the skin of common sense and emotional stability. The kind of drama that only we could only create out of almost nothing, a mess of jangled feelings splattered onto loved ones just like Gallagher and his watermelons onto nearby audience members. And the catalysts for my drama were perceptions and my reactions to those perceptions.
Look, I never sought out drama. I always saw myself as a cool cat who just let things slide, Daddy-O I stayed out of the spotlight, tried to slip under the radar, played dead when the bears of conflict came sniffing around. I pictured my role in this world as the Grand Observer – a man from an unnamed planet whose daytime gig was to make notes about you Earthlings and send them to the Cosmic Imperial Poobah in return for bottles of Jack Daniels and some beef jerky to snack on. I was the antithesis of drama. I wasn’t some hysterical pollyanna or chicken little. I wasn’t about sitting around and gossiping about the neighbours or putting on a show for others. I was just so absent of drama that I was a dud of a dude. Or so I thought.
I used to produce drama at a Jerry Bruckheimer-like pace and consistency. And the basis for this was how I reacted and responded to others. Being the selfish boozer that I was, egocentric and living a mantra of “Me Me Me Now Now Now”, I often overreacted to the smallest of actions and words by others. I would somehow find a tiny thread of something you said or did and turn it into something it wasn’t. I’d blow up any tiny morsel of perceived negativity or criticism and bombard you or any
victim bystander with a barrage of just how hard it is to be me soliloquies. I took even the kindest words and twisted them into something that wasn’t there and not only make you feel like a piece of something I stepped in at the park, but made sure everyone could see the bottom of my shoe. In full Techni-Color. And the funny thing is this was how I operated, without me being aware I operated like this. This was the button on “default”. It was how I could interact with the world, as I never felt I was truly part of it. I couldn’t see any other way of being with others. And clearly I couldn’t be subtle about it, so might as well have gone with a little pizzazz. Putting on the Ritz a bit. A little cheese with that w(h)ine and cracker.
My greatest method of creating drama was in my overreacting to situations. This happened both when drinking and when I was stark raving sober. Oh, and perhaps in between – hungover or on the outs of a hangover. In other words, I had a fairly reasonable chance of going a little over the top when there wasn’t even a top required in any given situation. You know what it’s like – you’ve had few too many Mint Juleps and all of a sudden the volume on our voice goes up a few decibels. Every emotion gets amped up to sometimes ridiculous levels. We don’t get a little nostalgic – we get downright sappy. We don’t experience something as simply amusing, – we find that it is the funniest thing we have ever heard ever in the history of ever. We don’t see something as a little bit sad, but we see something in the shade of utterly and completely tragic and life destroying. And boy do we have to let others know about this too. Immediately. With volume and all the tact and discretion of a Joan Rivers on the Oscar red carpet. And I am not just talking about when I have overdone it with the booze (what, moi?) – this was the sort of way I would react even when not intoxicated. I may have found different ways of expressing these overwrought emotions, but they got expressed one way or another. I didn’t know how to deal with emotions, so I either clammed up or I went big. Barnum and Bailey big.
Not knowing how to deal with emotions, like an adult, was terrifying and embarrassing. I didn’t have the wherewithal to understand, process and respond to other people’s emotions or mine in an appropriate way. I remember going up to someone after a meeting and thanking them for their talk, telling them how I could relate to some things and how she did a great job, and she just stared at me and laughed. No words. Just laughed at me. And walked away. What a madwoman, I thought. But I realized that I used to do the same kind of thing. I would laugh when I should have been comforting and warm. I cried when I should have just smiled politely. I deflected when I should have accepted. I screamed when I should have held somebody. I wailed when I should have reflected or just shut my mouth and listen. My response to things and the thing were a mismatched pair of socks. One plaid, one striped. Utterly ridiculous, but still kept me warm. Still did the job – for me. And that’s because that was all I knew. That was all that my mind and my sometimes drunken behaviour would only have space for. Lunacy.
This soup pot I called my inner landscape – a pound of female teenage hormones, a cup of toddler tantrum-cy, a dash of Sammy Maudlin, a sprig of man-boy Mork – was what I relied on, sadly, to navigate my way through adult situations. And how was it that I got stuck with this Motley crew of inadequate emotional children? Well, I was still a child, to be honest. They say that drinking stunts our emotional growth. I started drinking at 15. Not alcoholically – that took a scant few years to kick in. But I could easily compare my emotional state at 40 years old to be that of a 15 year old boy. An unhealthy 15 year old boy. A teenager who still had large self-esteem and self-worth issues. Whose idea of torture was talking to others, or connecting with others. Or looking in the mirror. A young man who hadn’t learned to navigate the muddy waters of relationships with others, who was still trying and failing, trying and succeeding. But mostly failing. So now add booze and freeze frame this. Keep it vac-packed like instant coffee. Add hot water (and this alcoholic often got into hot water) and hazzah – a bitter brew, weak and ultimately unsatisfying.
Getting sober didn’t make my jumbled gumbo of ooey gooey emotions normalize immediately. At all. They were still there. I still didn’t know how to be. It took me about three months to stabilize my emotional life. It took me 90 days to get off that roller coaster. Sometimes I just wanted to hug everyone on the streetcar. Or I wanted to strangle them all. Usually both within 30 seconds of each other. It was like all the wires in my feeling brain were hot wired to the “crazy” setting. I could cry one moment and then do cartwheels the next. Insanity. But this is common when we get sober. Our emotional state is stabilizing. Just like our bodies are healing, our minds and spirits are too. It’s like dismantling an engine before rebuilding it. And this is what I felt like when I was going through this uninvited turmoil and jackhammer like instability. What a bumpy ride it was.
The good news is that it did slow down. I started to grow up emotionally. Through a program of recovery and actually paying attention to other people’s cues and parroting what other (“normal”) people did in other situations, I learned to deal with things as they cropped up. I learned what a somewhat normal or appropriate reaction to something was. I learned that what I felt didn’t have to translate to how I acted or spoke. I learned that I was a work in progress, and to be kind to myself. To see myself as that 15 year old boy, and allowing him to grow up at the speed he needed to grow up. I looked to certain people to show me the way, to guide me, to mentor me. I still do. Sometimes it was just about being quiet, sitting in reflection, and seeking the answer that way. I recall having a conversation with my sponsor about this a long while back, and he beamed at me while he declared proudly “Paul, I feel like I’m 21 years old now!” He too had been going through his own emotional growth and was starting to feel a shift in his way he approached the world and himself. As I have. And continue to do so.
The wonderful benefit of a more normalized inner life is that I can be present and sound in the moment. I no longer have to manufacture drama to call attention to myself or to feel that I am part of something larger than myself. I trust my instincts now and listen for the guidance I get from the Creator. I can be wrong of course, a fumbling newborn foal, but I find that it’s not as big a deal as it used to be when I am wrong. I no longer need to overreact to situations, because I am content with where I am at and need not answer the call of being the center of attention. I am at a place now where I don’t throw hissy fits inside when things don’t go my way. I can certainly feel them, but I can shut them down or quiet them down a bit (internal hissy fits are my specialty, by the way. Call me for special rates). I don’t need to be on one side of the spectrum or the other. It’s OK to just be OK with things. I don’t have to be a hater to be liked, I don’t have to be a lover to be accepted. I can just be.
And in this state of more well-ness (you didn’t think I was there yet, did ya? Give your noggin’ a shake for thinking so), I find that I can open myself up for more of me. To tune into that intuition that helps keep me on track, to do the right thing even when I don’t want to, and to keep an even keel about me, emotionally. Meditation and contemplation have helped to keep the rabble rousing down to a nice dull roar and affords me a buffer for when I do allow ego and pride to take over and I act or speak inappropriately. My Emotional Intelligence is now starting to hit the “Operable” part of the meter. No longer in the red zone. Not quite in “Bliss” mode either…but every now and again, the meter does brush up against it, and it’s a joyous thing.
So if you’re new to this sober game, this recovery do-hickey, remember that it does get better. You’re not a mad person. You’re healing. You’re going through what many of us have gone through in the beginning – a reset of sorts that requires time, patience and some self-love and self-forgiveness. You are seeing things in a new light, a new perspective and are like a child – learning to grasp at life with new eyes, new hands, heart cracked open. Your wants and desires will go a bit left and right, your feelings may seem to rule the roost, but rest assured you’re on the right path. Find something that centers you and practice it. Be consistent with it. Talk to others, even about the smallest things. Chase the happy…lose the sappy.