Remember when you first ever heard your voice played back on some sort of recording device? Mine was a cassette machine (yeah, dated myself – what else is new?) No doubt I was dictating some sort of manifesto in a robust manner, with a fedora hat on head and Popeye Cigarette candy in hand for effect, ready to be analyzed by great minds when they found the tape in some rubble after the zombie apocalypse. I wish. In fact, I do recall reading a chess game instructions book into a mike attached to our family stereo. I remember pronouncing “colonel” exactly as spelled out – Col-o-nel. Extended “L”. Imagine the horror of later hearing this squeaky, sinusy, limp voice when I pressed “Play” on the tape machine. I sounded like a bassoon swallowed by an drowning emu. On helium.
Tom Waits I wasn’t.
My initial thought upon hearing my voice was that it wasn’t me. It’s as if some gremlin sneaked in and re-recorded my words, as a gremlin-college prank to prove he was gremlin-worthy of hanging out with beer can-shotgunning gremlins. So I was both disappointed and just shocked that I sounded like that. My imagined self (husky Nick Nolte-like dude or debonair Laurence Olivier) didn’t match up to my actual self (ribbit, ribbit). Once again, what I pictured in my mind and what actually transpired never matched. A silly thing of course, as we all have experienced it (except maybe Barry White or Lou Rawls).
The same sort of process happened in my recovery journey – when I started to look at myself with a new pair of glasses, so to speak, when I started to see me for who I really was and not who I thought I was or imagined myself to be, I was both disturbed and aghast. Really? I was like that? I really was doing and thinking those things? Huh – you mean to tell me all those years I did those kind of things? That was part of the price of me digging down and taking a whole new look at my old ways of thinking. Even today, I have to catch myself as I really am, and not through the sort of distorted carnival mirror of self that my mind likes to try and sell me. No shipping and handling charges apply.
One of these areas of my life where I was probably most surprised to see myself in that gremlin-like way was when it came to gossiping. Gossiping was for the 17-year-olds at the Applebee’s parking lot smoking port-tipped cigarillos or for Martha and Irene getting their hair did with an instrumental pan-flute version of “Poker Face” in the background. You know, the ol’ Stitch ‘n’ Bitch. Sitting around knitting dog paw mitts and screwdriver cases for their men while dissing the one woman who isn’t there. Throwing people under buses like one throws salt on icy sidewalks.
If there was one thing that I wasn’t, it was gossipy. Sure, I had some opinions of people, but don’t we all? I can’t run into people and not make some sort of call on them. My filters need criteria. My brain needs a pigeonhole to plug folks into. I had to make quick decisions on whether I liked you or not. Judgements to hand out like mini-Three Musketeers bars to the wee creepies on Halloween. Whether they were correct in terms of factual evidence was just circumstantial. And of course, I had to also discuss these thoughts and opinions with others, with said
When the whole idea of looking back and seeing what I was like, how my old ways of thinking were, how I used to behave and how I used to talk, I was ready to take on certain things. I realized that I was a dishonest person, I saw that I was a user of people, I saw that I had an ego the size of a zamboni. I was prepared to face those new notions. But several other characteristics took me by surprise, and I have to say that gossip was the one that really shook me down like a beat cop on a two-bit hoodlum. I never thought I was that kind of guy. Ever. But evidence would show me wrong.
I didn’t have to go far back into my history to see this truth. Even in treatment, where twenty-three of us men (men!), we were as bad as any other sort of sewing club or mid-afternoon patio meet up. Or a Facebook group. Here were a mix of tough guys, street dudes, high falootin’ types, low riders, middle class shlubs, elite flyers, and professionals, and we all yakked away by the front door like a clutter of nattering seniors at the bingo hall smoke room. At the treatment center, if you weren’t in the room, there was a very good chance that you were the topic of conversation. Us guys talked about who got kicked out, who should be kicked out, who said what to who, prophesied everyone there, took everyone’s inventory, trashed others house duties (“Did you see how he vacuumed the hallways this morning? Abysmal!”) and found any way to tear someone down.
And it didn’t stop there. Many of us kept in touch afterwards, and when someone relapsed (many did), it got the remaining posse’s tongues wagging. Seemingly concerning texts or calls (“Oh, how is Phil doing? Have you seen him lately?”) were really ways of finding out the filth on someone. There was a sick part of me that wanted someone to go back out. Something I am embarrassed and saddened to admit. It was about being the last to sit in that pathetic game of Alcoholic Addict Musical Chairs. And we all wanted to be last man standing. Did I mention that was sick thinking? The gossip train kept us running back and forth between feeling lower than others else and feeling better than others. There were no stations in between.
When I look at it, that is really what gossip is really all about – feeling superior to others in many ways. Some use gossip to further an agenda, or to trade it as a form of currency, or to make themselves seem more important in the circle that the rumours and half-truths are hatched in. But certainly for me, it was about finding faults in others, airing it out to like-minded others, and playing judge, jury and executioner. It was a way of making myself look that much better / smarter / shinier while at the same time undermining someone. It was one-upmanship, but in reverse. The addition of my ego through the subtraction of your worth. Character assassination at it’s finest.
When I point the rifle at someone and start shooting up their character, it gives me a hit of me. See how I am not like Freddy there, or like Terry or Samir? I am constantly putting myself up on that first place winner tier, spraying (non-alcoholic) champagne at everyone…tinged with some acid and maybe some thumb tacks. I am using my words to cut you down at the knees, but more importantly, to bring myself up a notch or two. Nothing screams fear than supreme judgement and condemnation to make myself stand out a bit more.
So when I found this truth in myself and saw how empty and vacant a feeling I had afterwards, I vowed to be more empathetic and follow that old saw about not saying anything if I don’t have anything kind to say. There is also that idea of thinking before speaking (what a concept for a guy like me). To wit, when I am thinking about opening my big trap, I think – is it kind? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? Is it true? Huh? I have to think about these things? Isn’t it just easier to hammer away at the gentle vessel of someone’s character and let someone else pick up the shards of damage?
And for a while, I was quite adept at circumnavigating any sort of interpersonal pot shots and sessions where some one or some others were getting skewered. It felt alien to not be a part of something that came so easily to me and yet, it also felt better not being a part of it. Cleaner, if you will. But like most of my old thinking and behaving, it started to creep back into my life. I found myself taking a shot at this person, a shot at that, taking inventory on that person, judging this, that and the other. It was like putting toxins back into my spirit.
The way this happened is through work, because work is where I struggle with this. As a manager (not of The Office variety), I have to evaluate people on an ongoing manner. I have to keep tabs on performance and adherence to standards. I am friendly with the folks, but at the same time I keep a healthy distance / boundary. For me, the less I know about them personally (i.e. romantic or other private matters), the better. I don’t see them as robots, but I certainly don’t get chummy with them (and this is something new to me, by the way – in my old life, seeking validation from others meant that I didn’t keep proper boundaries). But gossip being what it is, my ears do hear things. The good news is that I am usually the last to know…so that’s a good sign. If I know something, then it’s the worst kept secret.
Trying to separate the personal from the work has been a tricky endeavour for me. In evaluating a person, I take into consideration their attitude as well. And a person’s attitude can be coloured by things not related to work – stress at home, relationship woes, financial worries, etc. So when I hear that so-and-so is acting a certain way because they broke up with a boyfriend, or because they have been out partying three days in a row, or in one instance, arrested at work (I was there), then speculation starts to rise up. The line gets a little blurry for me because now I am talking to my peers about these folks and I hear more details, some salacious, some not, but the common thing is that that person isn’t in the room to defend or attest to anything.
And that’s where I start to feel a little grimy. The spiritual chimney starts collecting soot. And yet, I don’t put the brakes on it either. Ego hold the shoehorn on this little Stitch ‘n’ Bitch session and then feeling good about myself and propping myself up to the fancied or real follies and spectacles of other people’s lives takes hold. The circus is in town and the monkeys are back at it. Flinging poop at each other, seeing what sticks and who’s stinks the most.
I can’t blame work, though (did you catch me trying to justify a bit there??). It’s just an excuse. Sure it’s tricky, but I can learn to navigate it, leave the room when needed…just like I used to. It’s just a matter of being horrifically honest and knowing that I do enjoy it at times. Knowing full well that it does feel poisonous to my spirit when I do, kind of like when I used to fire hose adult beverages down my gullet in an attempt to feel “normal”. Trying to fit in at the sake of someone’s battered and bruised character doesn’t bode well for a kind and goodly man of considerate graces. And that certainly isn’t me when I allow my Lower Power to take over.
It is funny that one of the things that I never thought I did – gossip – was also one of the toughest to walk away from. And still be aware of. At home I am much more aware of myself, so I have to manage myself outside of the home. Practice that love and tolerance thing when it’s easy not to. That’s the work, isn’t it? Doing the things you’re supposed to do when it’s the easiest to not do them. It’s easy to be all kind and spiritual when others are watching, or when things are going well. But to grow along spiritual lines when the chips are down, or where temptation is tickling you under the chin? Double down on those cards…it’s gonna be a tough roll of the dice at times. Call my ego’s bluff. Spin the wheel and see if the little ball ends up on an even number so I don’t go all odd on you.
Listen, it’s like anything else…it’s something to be watched and be aware of and pray for the guidance that I need. Listen to others. Follow the lead of those who walk through the landmine-laden fields with the ease and flowiness of a Hair the Musical extra during “Aquarius”. Stay on the right side of the tracks. Be kind to others. Be kind to myself. Live and let live. Grow a little every day. Let the Creator in on my plans and see what He says. I can’t do anything about the inflections and tone of my voice, but I certainly can adjust the inflections and tone of my spirit.
And above all else, I can just put another tape in and start again.