“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality” John Gardner
The word itself (or compound word, at least) alone sounds desolate. The hyphen plays for dramatic pause. Looks wise, the hyphen resembles a metal bar between two heavy weights. A barbell that I can clean and jerk to build up my ego even further. Tone up my self-centred thoughts of despair. A workout for the Lower Me, the one that likes to play victim. And no one likes to play victim more than the alcoholic. If you asked me why I drank, I would scrawl out my grudge list on a piece of paper the length of a limousine, resplendent with the names of people, institutions and principles that just irked me. A revengeful list that acted as a blueprint for my blaming and eventually, for the bottle passing my lips. How dare it be my fault that I drank? If you felt like me when I didn’t drink, you’d drink too. I was a man who had a constant chalk mark around his body as he walked around. Victim.
Like alcohol, self-pity was something I wallowed in, straight up. Undiluted. It was part and parcel of my alcoholism. Like depression and anxiety, self-pity was part engine, part exhaust of the vehicle. Self-pity helped to drive the vehicle, and yet was a by-product. It was a toxic circle of life that fed upon itself in a sick manner of living. The more I felt sorry for myself, the more I drank, and the more I drank, the more I felt sorry for myself. Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink, as the saying goes. And that saying goes for good reason. Staying caught up in the moment, like a needle on a skipping record (just dated myself), I was in a rut that I couldn’t jar into moving. And even if I did, I found a way to get right back in to the swing of things. Pour me another drink.
While I found self-pity to be a wonderful companion in my active alcoholic days, I never saw it for the nefarious creature that it could grow up to be. And grow up it did. It became a relentless beast. Self-pity came easy to me. I didn’t have to struggle to feel sorry for myself. It was one of those things that I could tee up and crank out of the ballpark. Every. Single. Time. Self-pity felt comfortable, as comfortable as an inward faced nail-lined suit of armour could be. Self-pity was a security blanket. Self-pity was a favourite pet that I fed with anger and fear. Self-pity was my “go to” when alcohol was or wasn’t working. Self-pity gave me identity : Paul, Victim Extraordinaire. Nice to meet you. Here’s my card.
Now, I never understood, even into my sobriety, why self-pity was seen as such a big deal. So what if I was down on myself a bit? (Or a lot). So what if I kicked myself while I was down and thought less of myself? So what if I couldn’t count one good grace in my life? I wasn’t hurting anyone, right? I mean, I wasn’t out on The Paul Mental Anguish Tour hitting a phone or face-to-face meeting near you. So what was the big deal? I heard people talking about it as if it were as bad as drinking. Taking a quick look around on the interweb, I saw that there was voluminous amounts of bad press for the thing that had been a partner in my misery all these years. It took me a long time to wrap my head around this thing that at surface level, was nothing more than a “woe is me”. Seems that after talking to others on this recovery path, and doing a little research and soul-searching, I finally understood why self-pity is such a powerful narcotic, as Mr. Gardner’s quote describes.
You see, while I may not be addicted to self-pity, I did find it intoxicating. And you know what? I find it the same today. If and when I choose (and make no mistake, I now choose to get into self-pity), it’s intoxicating. It’s a dip into the Forbidden and Lost Sea. It swells my head and closes off my eyes and ears. It hardens my heart and sends me into some hookah-like trance, complete with psychedelic white rabbit trips and a kaleidoscope of colours. Black and black and grey, namely. When I am immersed in self-pity, everything floats away. I am the only one there. I am grounded to nothing and my thinking reflects that. That’s the allure of self-pity – nothingness. Getting away from the real world around me and cuts me off from the sunlight of the spirit. Post haste.
Self-pity is fear and self-centeredness ripped on ‘roids. When I feel sorry for myself, I am fearful of something. Sounds odd at first. If I am scared of something, why would I sit in self-pity? Oh woe is me is my anaesthetic to things that bring fear out. The way it works is like this: when I am frozen in fear about something, I react by convincing myself that there is no choice in the matter. I am fated to be in some particular situation. There are no other ways for me to change things. That is because I fear making that change. And fear comes down to two things: afraid of losing something I already have, or afraid of not getting something I want. So if I am afraid of making a change in my life or environment, then I justify it by getting into a place of victimization. And in that victimization, I no longer am in the sphere of gratitude. I lose perspective. I start to see the negative in myself. I start to see the perceived pointlessness in the situation. Self-esteem gets trampled on and I find myself dropping down the ladder of spirituality. I head to the basement, where the creepy and furry and clickety-clackety things are.
So I find myself feeling that the world has had some big Star Chamber conspiracy meeting and left me out. What’s the point of trying to change things now, I ask myself. I will probably fail, right? Why look worse than I really feel? And if I do try and fail, I self-sabotage. See Paul, you are a piece of shit. We knew it all along. Now have a good day now, y’hear? The other part of self-pity that truly trounces on us is that it takes us out of the chance of being of use to others. When I am wrapped up in self, I don’t see you. You don’t exists. All of a sudden I forget all the things that I should be grateful for. I can’t help you in any way because I am so entrenched in my own filth that I am immobilized. And the more I get wrapped up in self, the more I stay wrapped up in self. I am no longer of service to myself, or to you. I am gone. Sounds familiar, yes? My alcoholism worked in exactly the same way. My drinking wore the same shiny clothes to lure me into a dull shell of me. Game, set and match.
Now this all sounds theory-like. Convoluted, even. But here is exactly what happened to me the other night, to show just how quickly and effortlessly my mind can work and de-evolve and break down into a puddle of mush.
Scenario: I was at a meeting. It was a speaker meeting, which means that someone gets up and tells their story – what is was like, what happened, and what it’s like today. A typical way of describing their drinking days, how they turned things around and how the program / fellowship has worked for them in their lives today. The speaker was younger than me, and as he spoke, he used a lot of curse words. Not in an angry fashion, but I have always felt that when we speak at the podium, we clean up our language a bit. Most people do, but this cat was letting the f-bombs drop like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. When the meeting ended, I saw several guys come over to the dude and asked him if he could speak at their own meetings. I spoke briefly to a man I know well (he was one of my counsellors at my treatment center) and abruptly ended our conversation. As I walked up the stairs, I saw a newcomer with his new book and some pamphlets. I saw one member of the group talking to him.
I jumped on my bike and raced home. I felt hot. I felt down. I felt out of sorts. I felt a small sense of the “fuck-it”’s (excuse the language…hypocrite!) creeping up on me. Not for drink, but for not trying to get myself out of it and maybe calling someone. I vented to my wife about my sense of worthlessness and went to bed resentful. I woke up feeling the same and went the entire 24 hours feeling like crap.
So, Pauly, what happened?
Here’s what happened – watch my ego just flying everyone like White Lotus Butterfly Twist Kicks from a Jackie Chan movie:
- Speaker used foul words. (Ego: judgement / feeling better than. I am better than him. Why am I listening to this. I speak better than this. My talks are elegant.)
- Speaker was approached by others (Ego: resentment. I have never been asked to speak at someone else’s meeting. Why him? His talk was shallow. Mine are deep. Fear: that no one likes me. That I am not worthy of their time.)
- Abruptly shut down conversation with friend. (Ego: selfishness. I wanted to sit in my pity party and didn’t want my friend to pick up on it. Starting to feel low about myself. Ego: sweeping statement / condemnation. Why do I have to lower myself in my language and diction to be popular? Do I have to talk like a truck driver and use one syllable words to be known in AA circles? Aren’t there any well-spoken people in the program? No point in trying to change this culture. This sucks)
- Ignored newcomer. (Ego: selfishness / sweeping statements / resentment: I always talk to newcomers. Always. And I walked past this guy because what’s the point these days? These guys never want to do the steps and they just go back out drinking. And someone is talking to him already – maybe they have more in common than I ever will with these guys. I know I always feel better talking to a new guy, but screw this. I like my pity party and anger. Feels like a silk glove. Fear: that I will be seen as a bad sponsor. That I am unlovable and not worth anyone’s time. That I will be seen as a fraud.)
- Vented to wife. (Ego: selfishness. Liked the attention of the woe-is-me tale. Felt unique. Felt better than. Felt hard done by. To my credit, I did mention that I was talking out of ego, and that it’s not like me to be like this)
- Didn’t call sponsor or anyone that night. (Ego: selfishness. Didn’t give anyone the opportunity to give me perspective, to be of service. Thought I could do it myself. Fear: That I would be told that I am full of crap (d’oh!). I would be told truth. That I am unworthy)
See how that worked? Yikes! And the next day was just a regurgitating of all that. Now, I was able to slowly dig myself out of there. I did speak to someone and I did use some readings and tools at my disposal. I was able to do something similar to what I just did now to give me clarity and focus and a handle to understand where and how this came about.
But I will tell you, that self-pity truly was dangerously intoxicating. I haven’t been that entrenched in it like that in at least a year. I am not ashamed to say that, because it’s part of the growth process for me. I will get into these self-pitying jags again, no doubt. I know myself and it’s just a comfortable place to land on the uncommon occasion. It’s not ideal, and it’s something that I work a lot on in getting myself clear on and clear of. Self-pity has always been my default. It’s not always easy to shift gears, but that is where my path takes me…learning to veer left when I normally dive right. Learning to zig when I like to zag. Feigning downward when the uppercut is jutting towards my jaw. Learning to polka and not diving into the mosh pit.
See, this whole thing we do, as alcoholics in recovery, is all about getting to the causes and conditions of our behaviours and ways of thinking and reacting. Self-pity, fear, ego, judgement and other things used to eat my lunch on a regular basis. Pile them up like Lego and my thoughts and hands used to reach for a bottle of something. A bottle of Get Away Feelings was all I sought. Unfortunately, the bottle would often exacerbate these feelings and keep my jeep stuck in the desert sand. A desert where bones get bleached and dreams die. Not my idea of serenity.
Self-pity has no rewards other than pulling me deeper into self-pity. It cuts me off from others, from you, from the Creator. It’s like pulling a thread on a finely knit sweater and watching it dismantle, stitch by beautiful stitch. It’s like sitting in a box and breathing your own filthy exhalation over and over again. It’s like poking yourself in the eye hoping to help yourself see better. It’s a wasted process and a way to dull the roar without dealing with the lion. This is one of the greatest challenges I have in my own journey, in my path. Because the pull is often great, and like the drink, it always tries to find a way to bring me back to it. Sure I won’t get pulled over for having too much self-pity in my system, but that is no reason to indulge. My room for growth is limitless, as it is for everyone. Our ability to break through and get past what holds us down is in our capacity and limits. Through the strength of keeping tight ties with the Creator, with the fellowship of others, with counsel, with prayer, with written work, with mindfulness and meditation…all these things are at my fingertips, and it’s my choice whether I use them or not. I am not powerless over this. It’s whether I want to be there. It’s whether I choose to be in bleakness or gratitude. Darkness or brightness. Pain or love. Ego or selflessness. Self-pity or self-esteem.
My takeaway of what happened that night, and what I have learned since taking a step back and examining all this?
- I am no better, nor any lesser than anyone else. We are all God’s children. How we express ourselves is none of my business.
- Perhaps I am taking myself too seriously. Perhaps my talks are too pedantic. Perhaps how I talk to others is too professorial. I need to relax a bit.
- My way of communicating is my own. I need not debase or dumb myself down at the expense of trying to be popular. I am who I am and as long as my will aligns with His will, then I am okay.
- Fear still drives me.
- Reaching out to others is the only way I get out of this. Period. Humility is the key to all of this and I need more of it when these things arise. (See #2, taking myself too seriously)
- I am where I need to be.
I can only hope to further stretch and grow with this sort of inventory. Things are going to happen and I will get annoyed. I will be tested. I will find myself surrounded by people or in situations that I would rather not be surrounded by. I will find myself grasping at straws when I should be easily centred. And that’s life. It’s how I react to these things that brings me serenity and out of the morass of self-pity. I need to continue bringing myself to the light, to usefulness, to purpose, to love, to joy, to looking at the good, looking at the similarities, looking at what the heart has to say. Come with an open heart and open mind. If I do that, I am at least on the right path.
I don’t know about you, but I am ready to throw my old business cards out. Perhaps get new ones: Paul. Child of God. Extraordinaire.