What if I don’t ascribe to the “god of your understanding” or the spirituality demanded by recovery programs?
Getting sober engenders existential angst almost as surely as drinking leads to hangovers. While detox was marked mostly by patients waking to clearer minds, rehab saw many waking to religious and spiritual literacy. And the program anticipates this, quickly offering solutions to existential questions with God-isms and answers of faith-based clichés. But I don’t buy it.
So where does that leave me? If I’m definitely not religious, am I even spiritual?
I started to lose touch with my inner philosopher while in the throes of alcoholism. It’s not just that I don’t believe in God and am secure in my agnosticism, I had stopped asking questions about what would help me become a more complete person — what would bring me closer to peace so I wasn’t boozing to black out? In what areas do I need deeper understanding to be able to say, in any given moment, ‘I’m OK’?
For many, the path is religious. And for many, it works beautifully. But it never took for me. Growing up in a somewhat Christian environment, hearing things like ‘life is great now that I’ve let Jesus in my heart,’ I felt conflicted. When I think of religion and spirituality, I can’t help but picture the baby Jesus — a fat white baby with bat’s wings and a Cheshire smile flitting around at eye level. Why would I want that thing in my HOUSE, never mind in my heart?
And yet, in some ways, I’m quite envious of religious and spiritual folk who can find such contentment in faith. I feel it even when the spiritual say ‘the Universe has a way of working things out.’ It just doesn’t fit for me.
But now that I’m sober and I’ve reacquainted myself with the philosopher within, the bigger questions do need some attention.
The programs are Christian in tradition but have somewhat grown to accommodate my atheistic and agnostic brethren. Instead of urging participants to find God and connect with Jesus, they use terms like ‘god of your understanding.’ It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t cut it for me because the implication is still surrendering to something that exists beyond our senses and influence.
The bit about choosing ‘the god of your understanding’ over religion is a tempting compromise, but it still elides a fundamental problem: choice. The neat thing about agnosticism is that this perspective rests not necessarily on active disbelief, but on accepting that should something as grand as god exist, it is beyond the reach of human conception. So we accept our inability to see something so sublime in scale, and we still continue to function and thrive.
Unless you’re an alcoholic like me.
Us addicts tend to rely on substances in moments of fear — especially fear of the unknown. When things happen to us that are beyond our control, drugs and alcohol can help us forget and help us feel better about how small we can be as individuals.
When religion steps in, it can replace substances and offer answers like ‘it’s God’s plan;’ and the spiritual tend to say ’everything happens for a reason.’ When we don’t have religion or spirituality, the paradox of feeling so unimportant and unable to effect positive change is that we know we’re all there is. So, when the answer is always drugs and alcohol, it’s hard to make any kind of existential progress. Subsequently, hardships and difficulties can feel as though we’ve failed on all fronts. Like the fault is our own.
And sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t.
At the risk of sounding solipsistic, a specific kind of psychotherapy has begun to offer some great help in this area. Like a good Millennial, I’ve had several therapists since my teens. The way I see it, therapy is kind of like dating in that we all communicate in different frequencies, so once we find someone who’s frequency is compatible with our own, we can know it’s a relationship worth pursuing.
The very ideas of ‘frequencies’ and ‘energies’ always got under my skin. But getting sober has pushed me to really pay attention to the ways people make me feel, to figure out who in my life is making it more or less difficult to be myself. And having gone through these recovery programs, I pay closer attention to the quality of what people say — that is, how much of what they’re saying is from care and wisdom? And how much of it is simply a regurgitation of something they once heard and thought sounded nice, like a useful soundbite?
My current therapist works with the same organization that saw me through detox, rehab, a dual-diagnosis partial hospitalization program, etc. (Yeah, they’ve been good to me.) Luckily, this organization does not deal exclusively in the Christian programs, so they offer the expertise of educated professionals who can speak to the science behind practices that may be counted as spiritual — yoga, meditation, CBT — without ever needing to use that term. (Also like a good Millennial, I’m pretty label- and ritual-averse, and prefer to look at the quality and benefits of individual practices rather than to any sets of behaviors or beliefs that seem prescribed or even remotely traditional.)
Once we start dealing with abstract ideas like ‘frequencies,’ the world of spirituality is pretty unavoidable — I’ll admit it, begrudgingly. If spirituality is the active belief in and tending to the quality of life that exists beyond the material, the measurable, and the actionable — does it make me spiritual to strive to see beyond someone’s words and actions, and also beyond my own?
In sobriety, I’ve also found in myself a rejuvenated go-getter and the sense-of-self to recognize how annoying this can be. So I preemptively sent her an email, warning of my tendencies to control therapy sessions to quell my anxieties. I think she was impressed.
She also sees through my arch observations and the red herrings I try passing for epiphanies.
So she’s taken those tools away from me in a form of hypnotherapy that deals with Internal Family Systems (IFS). Here, the philosophy is that we develop coping mechanisms — substance abuse, excessive self-blame, avoidant wordplay — to protect the Self that sticks around even after we don’t need them. It’s what fuels my depression and makes me feel alone when I can’t pour myself a drink and feel unable to effect positive change in my life. By addressing these mechanisms through acknowledgment and acceptance, we can retire them and continue to grow.
This growth, I’m learning, is much more than simply physical and mental health. Be it the Freudian Unconscious, the Jungian Shadow, the Soul, whatever, the Me that is more than destructive behavior and automatic response to stimuli needs tending.
And so far, it’s working.
When I find myself asking what I can do to be a more complete person, I can say ‘thank you’ to the parts of me that tell me I’m alone and nothing matters and there’s no God looking out for my wellbeing. And then I can push through that and remind myself that writing and making art and sharing myself with others are the closest things to feeling whole that I’ve ever known. And that it’s enough for now.
But still, the program likes to hear things put in its own terms and parts of me still like to please, despite my better judgment. So as far as church goes, I’ll take Rothko’s Chapel. Prayers and chants? North’s score in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ I’ll take the racing-heart, is-this-the-sublime? feelings over booze.
And the god of my understanding? Recognizing — beyond the frequencies of anxieties that have failed to grow with me in sobriety — that actually, I am ok.
If that makes me spiritual, so be it. But I’m not convinced.
The bar was small and noticeably unpretentious. Nothing about the place was inviting: the beige particleboard furniture, the cheap casino carpeting, the generic one-coat paint job on the walls — it was as if the place had been furnished precisely so that tourists would feel neither welcome nor put-off. This was important, of course. In a small resort town that saw thousands of visitors each week — just for the day, or to celebrate engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays, it’s important that people leave their money behind and quickly go back the same way they came in. The door was always kept open for those ready for the exit.
I kept busy at work, at bars, and in bed. Strangers came from all over the world. We drank. We flirted. Sometimes we fucked. More often than not I would never see them again, and it was fine. I had come to love the impermanence of it — and I felt like I was finally being honest with the world, saying through my lifestyle that I’ve never felt anything like a permanent kind of person, that when we walked away from each other we were embracing our one-use-only purpose.
By the middle of my second summer in town I settled on a plan. I would continue to work and play there in summers, and in the winter I would teach abroad. I would be unmoored — beyond the purview of gatekeepers, and eluding the call of responsibility had by soft hearts. I would spare myself the anxieties of getting too attached and too hopeful, and subsequently spare those around me of having to mitigate my misfit presence. If the last ten years had revealed anything about myself, it was that I was not the kind of person that makes the lives of others better — certainly not easier.
Here’s the thing about the fear of belonging: it’s pervasive and it’s recursive. It feeds itself with every crumb of what might be genuine human connection. It metastasizes until the spirit is sallow and unrecognizable. No matter how much I wanted to be a part of where I was, I found reasons why I’d never be good enough for those already there. And I compiled evidence with ease, having countless years’ experience in destroying my own self-worth. It was in the ways people looked at me when I spoke — the ways their eyes went awry, if only for a moment. It was how they spoke to me — kindly and thoughtfully, like they knew if they were just nice to me I’d finally go away. I was fundamentally unwell, irreparably unfit, and irrevocably unwanted.
I negotiated this in silence.
He walked into the bar casually and it was obvious he was a local. Silver-haired, hands in his jean pockets, his broad shoulders rested beneath his t-shirt in a way that told the world he had some time to spare and he could go anywhere he wanted. Right then, he chose to sit at the bar and chat with the bartender.
He was kind to me. Genuine curiosity about me and how I had come to work at such a place in such a town quickly endeared me to him. His handsome face, dark humor, and sense of ease won me over. For two summers he spent several evenings, every week, at my bar. We shared stories about our lives. We drank together. We got to know each other, but always with the protection of having the bar between us.
Although I resisted his charm, wit, good looks, all of it, I wasn’t playing hard to get — I was afraid. He was 27 years older than me. I was impressed by his career, and intimidated by what seemed to be his full and functioning life. An activist and political junkie, his years of work, stress, and loss rested quietly behind aquamarine eyes. Compared to me, he had grown up in a bigger world with many privileges, and this seemed to have preserved an exuberance that reminded me of the way a child’s eyes light up at the sight of his birthday cake.
His professional work was of measurable consequence in the world. He was bettering the lives of those struggling in his community. Compared to the work I was doing, he was lifting up those who needed lifting. His work seemed to more than justify his place.
The night I stopped resisting, he sat across the bar from me glossy-eyed, despondent, and drunk. His best friend had moved out of his house and he had been feeling lonely. But it wasn’t the kind of loneliness men would offer me as bait when their flirting or pick-up lines had received a kind smile and gentle brush-off. I thought he saw me… But his loneliness was not mine. Mine had been buried for so long that I had convinced myself it was something like a minor cramp, easily relaxed by a quick swig of whiskey chased by a one-off with a tourist.
But he wasn’t a tourist, and that frightened me.
All the ingredients for a successful relationship seemed to be there. We shared a love of cooking and food — we were writing a cookbook. We kept a garden. Our dog was the love of our lives. We impressed each other with our quick answers while watching Jeopardy!, and he always scored better. But it was our black humor that glued us together. It became an unspoken competition between us to test the boundaries as we made irreverent and horrible jokes. And at first it felt intimate. Ultimately, it proved corrosive.
It started at the bar, before I stopped resisting. For months we planned the darkest wedding we could imagine, and this was precluded by a mutual admission that neither of us would ever marry. So, we would have Something Blackened, Something Broken, and Something Stolen. At the conclusion of our vows, pigeons painted black would drop from the ceiling onto our unsuspecting guests. The details became more and more intricate, and always dismal.
When I finally went home with him, we fucked, and I slept over. When we would wake in the morning, we often wanted to stay there in bed just a bit longer. But I had to work at a busy restaurant and bar. As my eyes opened, I’d lean in to his ear and say I didn’t want to go to work. ‘Would you call in a bomb threat?’ He worked in public health assisting people with chronic and life-threatening illness. So when he’d say he didn’t feel like going to work, I’d offer my solution: ‘Want me to call in a cure?’ We’d giggle at the awfulness of it, feeling both guilty and indulged.
Later, when we would meet someone new at a bar, we’d often be asked how we met. And with a face that seemed lit up by a birthday cake, he’d just as often say, ‘Well, he came over one day and he never left.’ I’d laugh amicably, almost dutifully. But I wondered, too.
It was a small sleight, and I felt it. Rather than talk to a friend to gain advice and perspective, I kept it to myself. Besides, it was made clear to me in the beginning that I was not to discuss our relationship because of his stature in the community. It might complicate things on a political level, and that wouldn’t be fair to those who need him. Too much would be at risk.
He seemed to develop a knack for making me feel lonely and unwanted. Whether this was done consciously or not, there was too much evidence to ignore. He’d begun to lean away from me when we watched television on the couch. His eyes began to dart in another direction when I’d lean in for a kiss. If I’d come home early from work on a weekend evening, he’d often be entertaining company. His disappointment at my unexpected arrival would be punctuated by the same crushing questions: ‘Why aren’t you at work?’ Or worse, ‘What are you doing here?’ It didn’t seem to matter that we were living together. I kept telling myself I was being too sensitive or paranoid, that he was being careless or just kidding.
We took the same anti-depressant — the same dose, too. But his depression was not mine, and my dose wasn’t enough. When the winters came I’d withdraw into myself, unable to accomplish the simplest, most mundane tasks. It frustrated him when I’d spend days in bed with a bottle of vodka. Sometimes he’d ask, slurring, “Why don’t you do anything?” As if my shame didn’t already exist. And later, whether it was to inspire me to seize the day, or to remind me that depression is no excuse — “I wish I could just stay in bed and drink all day. But no! I’ve got to go to work!” He’d leave heroically, with ceremony in his wake.
It hadn’t occurred to me that clinical depression was so desirable — that believing the people in my life will be better off if they just don’t have to see me that day was an easy way to avoid work. My depressive indulgences were luxuries I took for granted. The subsequent guilt was overwhelming.
It also didn’t help that I was unemployed during the off-season. I felt useless and could barely support myself, let alone embrace my sudden residence in a world I knew never meant to keep me.
Shame was compounded by stagnation, and I had no apparent way up. I couldn’t figure out how to better my circumstances, and I was prohibited even from getting food stamp assistance. Because how would it make him look — a pillar of the community — if his partner were using food stamps? So I went without and didn’t complain. I erred on the edge of gratefulness, because who was I not to listen to a man who belonged?
So I became complicit.
He tried to help. He bought me a calendar so I could keep better track of bills, appointments, and obligations. He gave me a sketchbook so I could revisit a collage-making hobby I once enjoyed. He ordered a printer so I could revise and work on essays and research projects I’d let slip away. Once, he held me as I cried for no apparent reason, telling him I was too tired and didn’t want to wake up anymore. The second time it happened, he convinced me to call an ambulance to take me to the hospital for a night of observation.
As I waited outside the hospital for him to pick me up the next morning — the sunshine searing my wasted eyes— one hour became two. And in the near-silent ride home, he mustered the courage to remind me how difficult it was for him to have to leave work and see me like that.
For some time, therapy helped. I payed closer attention to how much I drank and how often. But sometimes, when he came home from a bar after work, I’d be a bit drunk — not out-of-control, falling, or terribly messy, but noticeably enough. And even though I’d be proud of myself for having done the housework — life’s administrative tasks tended to — he’d get angry with me for drinking. Even when I was coherent, maybe as drunk or less drunk than him, he’d be angry and I didn’t understand. He had also been drinking, and I hadn’t done anything wrong. At least not those times.
No doubt he was remembering that night I was so wasted he called rescue to check my vitals, embarrassed while the paramedics asked me if I felt safe in my home. Or that morning at 4:00 AM when I woke him to tell him that I had been arrested the previous evening, and had to walk home because I didn’t have my cell phone and the taxis had retired for the night. I was a drunk and had gone too far, too many times. And he never forgave me for it.
More than a month later, and shortly before a vacation we planned to take together, court was upon me. I realized late the night before my scheduled appearance that I would have to ask him to drive me there. I’d have driven myself, but I didn’t have a car and the last time I went the taxi cost me nearly $100 — I had just given him the rest of my cash for the week’s rent.
As we pulled into the lot, I reminded myself that I was being shown mercy: the charge of Assault and Battery on a Police Officer had been dropped, so I was answering the sole charge of ‘Disorderly Conduct and Public Intoxication.’
The day it happened was a bad one. We had been arguing and I took to the bottle hard. When I’d had enough at the local bar, I realized I needed to sleep it off before going home, lest he see me drunk. I woke on the lawn of the town library to the probes of two police officers. Feeling I had done nothing wrong other than sleep in a public place, and still drunker than anyone should ever be, I retaliated. I was mostly blacked out, so the rest of the incident came to me by way of police report. It was ugly. The person described in those words seemed so beastly to me — what had happened to the compassionate pacifist I once was? How had I developed such capacity for rage and destruction?
I removed my seatbelt and paused, recognizing that he was not unfastening his — the car was still running, his hands firmly on the wheel at 10:00 and 2:00. I sank. “Would you mind coming in with me? It will mean a lot if you do.” My words were meek and I was embarrassed for asking. This couldn’t have been a larger imposition, and he made no effort to hide that fact. And when we returned to the car and secured our seatbelts — me relieved with the generous sentence of six months probation, he squinted severely and spoke low: “You know, that was really hard for me.” In that moment, he needed me to support him. So I thanked him for enduring the difficulty of witnessing my humiliation and public admonishment.
I’d just have to keep a lower profile.
The infantilizing started early. Even though he relented a bit when I made my discomfort known, he couldn’t stop. The jokes about me needing pull-ups or a booster seat, telling friends I was jealous of his newborn grand-nephew because he got to sit around and poop in his pants all day, the fact that he used the same nickname for both myself and the dog — I was already down, and I felt him kicking with a self-forgiving smile. But I loved him, so I forgave him every time.
Not knowing how to process my frustrations with him or with myself for feeling stranded in a town with so little opportunity for work, I continued to binge drink. I drank to stop feeling, to just opt-out. But after some time, booze started antagonizing that rage in me. Rather than passing out, I’d sometimes explode and direct the torrent of anger and fear at him. I’d accuse him of not loving me, of being spoiled and narcissistic, and of diminishing my progress by gas lighting me. I had grown tired of feeling cornered, shamed, and useless. So I made him hurt, wanting him to finally recognize my own pain. I asked, exasperated, if he even wanted me. Incredulous and offended, he spun around to face me and made the example of my still being in his house evidence of my importance to him. But that was only tolerance. I should have felt lucky that he’d stayed with me, despite my alcoholism and depression.
Of course, he was drunk that night, too. But this hurt me more than anything he’d said before. ‘Maybe I don’t want to be with you!’ It was my last desperate attempt at trying to make him understand that he was not the only one in the relationship who had been forgiving and tolerating.
I wasn’t making his life better, and certainly not easier. And he ignored me for two weeks.
His issues with intimacy and his almost pathological tendency to avoid were no secret — he’d admitted this to me, sheepishly and embarrassed. So I made myself as available as possible, waiting for him to sit and talk with me. After work one day, he told me he was about to be back in town and we planned to meet at a bar. I waited, sipping one drink to keep a level head. After an hour, he arrived already drunk with no obvious intention to talk. The only person I wanted to talk to wanted nothing to do with me. Days later, he was gone when I woke. I asked if we could talk later. He agreed, but recanted that promise soon after, writing that he just couldn’t do it today. ‘Please forgive me.’ I forgave him, of course. But I was still alone and waiting for him.
It gave me butterflies when I’d hear from him, and I would feel embarrassed by the cliche. Then it would turn my stomach as I recognized how I’d grown so dependent on him. I had become pathetic and sick. I loved him. And that wasn’t enough — not for either of us.
The day before my 30th birthday, we finally talked. After weeks of binge drinking through relationship limbo, embarrassing myself, and worrying others, he had broken. ‘I work so hard to have this house and this life and I just want to be happy and not worry. I can’t worry that I might find you dead at the bottom of the stairs — and have the police in my house, and I’ll have to talk to your mom and tell her what happened to you…’
He was putting our relationship on a break ‘at the minimum.’ He insisted that I needed long-term, intensive treatment, that I needed to go away for a while far from town. This didn’t mean I had to pack up my stuff and leave forever, he assured me — I could leave my things there, he’d water my houseplants, and I could come back. But he wasn’t able to explain the parameters of our break. And the part of me coming back was never clarified to mean back to him, to our dog and to our home, or if he meant simply back to town in general. He said he just didn’t know what it meant.
After the regular appointment with my therapist, I spent my birthday at home alone and without alcohol, afraid that if I went into town I’d drink myself dead. He had planned to spend that evening making dinner for the family of friends in another town, anyway. When he came through the front door around 10:00 PM, glossy-eyed, drunk, and without a birthday cake, he sat beside me on the couch. With one eye closed and one eye opened, he looked at me and asked, ‘Was it your worst birthday ever?’ ‘Why would you ask me that?’
I was shocked and hurt, not anticipating that his final act of cruelty would be delivered with an unmistakable tone of compassion: ‘Because I know it was.’