Some of you are familiar with the morning scramble. And I’m not talking huevos rancheros here. It’s that we’re-going-to-be-late-if-we-don’t-get-our-socks-and-shoes-on scramble that occurs just inside the front door, amidst a flurry of backpacks, gloves on the wrongs hands and a pile of protests that would shame the House of Commons. Inevitably, as the sock and shoe debacle ensues, there is the unspoken sparkle in the air – the race is on. And as the two boys hurry to win the World Shoe Putting On Championship, it’s inevitable that the one who is about to lose will announce with the gravitas and wisdom of an Abe Lincoln speech “it’s not a race.” Yeah, right. It’s the mental preparation for the letdown. A dismissive waving of the white flag. An indifferent gesture to let the other competitor know that it’s just a childish game anyway, and I will get you next time. But for now, I will ride my high horse to school. Who needed shoes anyway?
These little tête-à-têtes put me in the mindset of looking at my own competitive nature. Now, I always considered myself a passive man. A gentle meadow of a male who frolicked amongst the wild flowers, handing out gold stars for participation, declaring that we’re all “winners”. Competition was good in small measures, but it never defined anyone. I had the Sesame Street Handbook of Fairness and Gentleperson Sportsmanship. Well, I thought I did. It wasn’t until I got sober that I looked back with different glasses and saw that I was a far cry from the cheerleader, and more like the bruising linebacker who wanted to eat your lunch…and your face.
I am not a jock by any stretch of the imagination, but I did compete in some things. Ball hockey, ice hockey, air hockey, table hockey, spinning for hockey cards, soccer, chess. Namely hockey (is my Canadian showing?) Now, there is nothing more exhilarating for me than a full on, 5-on-5 game with goalies. You need goalies, eh? But sometimes the goalies couldn’t make it. Maybe one showed up. And then the fun quotient would plummet, as would the motivation. At least for me. The game had changed – it wasn’t as fully charged. It’s was like Jello without the gelatin. Pointless. And the worst was going down to the local rink and finding it was pleasure skating time, instead of hockey time. What? Why bother putting on skates to just move in circles? To tinny outdated music? Might as well be on a carousel. Asleep. With a pacifier in my mouth. The problem lay in that I had no goal to achieve. There was no winning in pleasure skating. And that was disturbing to me.
The idea of winning at something was very important to me, now that I look back. Well, let me correct that. It wasn’t so much the winning (that was nice in it’s own way), but in competing. And to be more specific, I needed a goal to achieve. That’s why pleasure skating did nothing for me, or playing with a single goalie, or doing anything that wasn’t maxed out and primed for ultimate combat. Paintball? Sure – nail the other guys good and hope you don’t get a Burnt Sienna #7 splattered on your skull. But tossing a ball around? Why bother? Lame. Golf? Sure – grip it and rip it and let that dimpled darling dance around the lip of the cup and kerplunk into a massive mandatory-high-five eagle. Walk in the park? What’s the point? Lame.
The need to out do, out manoeuvre, out perform was always constant. I was able to turn almost everything I did into some sort of competition. Now, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some sort of glee I got from drinking others under the table as well. There was a jolt or urging about having something at stake that drove me on. I needed a shiny object at the finish line to propel me. And it need not be materialistic in nature. I rarely won any hardware in the sports department, unless you count a participation certificate as hardware, so that wasn’t the driving force. Was it the compulsion to prove myself in some way? Was it a lame UFC-type bravado that was bred from low self-esteem? Or was it testosterone-laden hormonal instinct? Or just good old-fashioned healthy competition? I am not sure, but I can tell you there was something there.
And still is.
You see, I have seen this play out in something as innocuous as running. I took up running three months ago, and took to it immediately. I thought that it would be good for me in many ways – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And it’s not disappointed in those areas. I started very slowly, doing more walking than running. And soon enough that “sizzle” started up in me. That competitive edge. That Tony the Tiger jumped off my morning cereal box and infiltrated my brain. I pushed my running program. I twisted it and yanked it’s hair and gave it a Crossface Chickenwing Pumphandle Suplex and was eventually running harder, further and faster. Every time I ran, I had to go further. There was no pleasure skating before and now there was no such thing as pleasure running. More, more, more. Fast, fast, fast. Now, now, now.
There is nothing wrong with goals and training and improving. I understand that. But the well I was tapped into was something deeper, and had been tapped countless times. My scratch marks scar those well walls. The idea that running would be this leisurely addition to my lifestyle had the lifespan of a Happy Groundhog Day Hallmark card. It immediately became about the distance, the time…how far can I take it? And soon enough, my body told me the limits. My body put a line in the sand and said, ye shall not pass here…for now. I maxed myself out. And then it began – the backlash. The old ways crept up in me. The old Paul, with his old thought patterns and rationalizations and justifications and internal temper tantrums returned. What’s the point of running then, old Paul asked. Where’s the pleasure in that, if I hit my apex already? Now, now…it’s not a race, remember?
What this comes down to is that Old Paul with all his Old Ideas will always crop up. It’s a zombie that just keeps reanimating. I can knock it with as many swift shovel shots to the head and pray it doesn’t pry itself out of the dirt…but it eventually does come out. And it wants brain…mine. And it sometimes gets it, sometimes not.
The one thing I thought would happen when I got sober and into recovery is that I would burst out of this old skin and become this new person. And by new, I mean latest-iphone-version shiny new. With kick-ass Orange County Choppers decals, a funky Paul Sr. moustache and an all-chrome exterior overlapping a monster engine. I was going to be James Bond, The Terminator and ER-era George Clooney rolled into one. Clearly that didn’t happen. I tried really hard to act differently, think differently, behave differently and feel differently. It didn’t work. I was stuck with…me. Or was I?
Without getting into the whole thing, I can see now, just past two-and-a-half years from my last adult bevvie, that I have changed in many ways. These changes happened on their own time. The Creator’s time. I couldn’t force those changes even if I wanted. It would have been like putting toothpaste back into the tube. Now, there are things I had to do to move past my old ways. I had to do the work suggested in my recovery plan, I had to move past fears, had to get out of my comfort zone, had to shift my thinking and perspective, had to do things that utterly terrified me (like you know, interacting with strangers, be responsible and such). It wasn’t a matter of me lying in my PJ’s and praying to the Great Coach to transform me into Wayne Gretzky or Maurice Richard. Or the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa, for that matter. I had to get out there and do the donkey work. I had to make sure that my will and His will were aligned. I had a new protocol in my life…if I wanted to save and change my life.
But the old me still wants in still. Of course it does. It was my Operating System for 40 years. It’s like wiping everything off the old hard drive. It’s still there in some way, unless you smash the hard drive with a sledgehammer. So the ghosts of my old ways of thinking continue to float about, whispering, prodding, enticing. They look for the easier, softer way to do things. The cowardly ways. The cheap ways. The dishonest ways. The isolating ways. They show up at times I least expect them and I sometimes fall for their charms and allure. And the way I know I have fallen for them is that feeling in the pit of my stomach that tells me – “that wasn’t cool, Pauly”, or “you know better”. And that’s the thing with this sobriety – I know better now. I have no excuses. I can’t blame the booze, or my delusional state any more. I have more awareness. And that’s what makes this doubly hard – is that I am aware of what I am doing and why.
What brings me comfort in knowing all this and experiencing all this is that I am certainly not the only one who goes through this. Experience and discussion with others tells me that it’s a struggle many of us have. Whether you’re sober three days or thirty years, the old us still tries to lasso us into old patterns. Get us all tied up real good like. Poke us with a branding iron and have us buck around with a clown jumping out of a barrel. I for one am tired of the rodeo that was my life. And while things have changed considerably, there is still me in this mix. Not the Old Me, or the New Me, but the Core Me. The Authentic Me. The one that is aligned more to how I act and behave now, and yet may still be hidden from view. And that’s a new concept for me.
The way I see it, is that we all have that Authentic Self in us. How it manifests in our old lives and in our new lives is unique to us all. How much of me was in the old me? I don’t know. How much of me is in this new form? I am not entirely sure. But I get clean vibes when I act a certain way or feel genuine to my self or to others. Like the times I help someone when I know the old me wants to step over them. The times I hug someone when I know the old me wants to recoil and figure someone else will do it. Like when I turn the mirror on myself when I know the old me wants to turn it on others.
So where’s the balance? Or is there need to have one? Of course, I push towards the light. The Old Me is going to crop up. And that’s expected and I have come to rely on the unexpectedness of it. But I have also come to rely on the fact that the Creator is also nudging me to the Authentic Self. Working through others, He shows me where I need to go, how I need to be, where I am needed. Things will shift and change as needed. There is no rush. Others show me that it’s possible to change for a better purpose. The people in the fellowship, sober bloggers, friends and family, spiritual gurus, strangers at meetings, my own children…show me that moving towards the light of Authentic Me, nestled in the web of my spirit and mind, is nothing to fear. It breaks the binds that continue to chain me to the wall. The old fears, resentments and ways of thinking need not pin me down. They come up for air now and then, but they don’t define me any longer.
So I struggled with this the other day, in the guise of a simple, almost benign, question – “Do I run today?”. I knew that my run would be a short one. I didn’t have the time nor the strength for a 2 hour session. So what would it be – convince myself that short runs are pointless, that unless I am maxed out it’s not worth it? Or would I run for the sake of running, without a glittery trophy of sorts waiting for me? I ran. I shut the question down, to be honest. Didn’t give myself time to over think it. Sometimes I just have to shut myself off and do the simple things. I just put myself out there and let the Authentic Me just take over. Embrace Me. Let the old thoughts creep us and watch them slick away, like drops of rain on a window. Let the Creator direct me.
I took my time putting on my shoes. New shoes. Not old shoes. I tied the laces tightly, opened the door and bolted out. And ran – just for the hell of it. And enjoyed it.
It’s not a race, remember?