Despite Americans’ penchant for talking about ourselves, we harbor a deep fear of rejection. The Jones’s keep looking cooler, and no one wants to feel “less than” as they’re trying to keep up. Constantly communicating via text, social media and occasionally by phone call or (gasp!) face to face, we hesitate to get too real lest we appear weak.
An old fashioned dose of liquid courage can seem the perfect antidote for the social anxiety that ails us. Sometimes I miss having the shield of a strong drink in my hand to hide behind, or “one too many” to blame for verbal diarrhea. Unfortunately, when fueled with alcohol, it’s not uncommon to cross the line from open and connected to brash or maudlin. Drinks are poured, secrets are repeated and resentments resurrected. We vomit out melodramatic “I love you’s” or blubber uncontrollable tears over trivial matters. Alcohol is sometimes called “truth serum”, and that can be fitting. But it also inflates, minimizes, or twists up truth completely. In my experience, drinking creates a barrier instead of a conduit to genuine relationships.
In sobriety, there is no liquor laden armor. Instead, there are opportunities to let down your walls, get real and look yourself and others in the eye. Instead of hiding, you have the chance to wear your gritty past like the badge of honor it should be. That is, if you’re making a considerable effort to leave the past where it belongs.
Take a few sober alcoholics & addicts…particularly ones that are “working a program” and seeking enlightenment…put them at table for food and chit chat, and what happens?
A real F*#$@ ing conversation. Truth transpires. Connection commences. No liquid courage required, no Jones’s to impress.
A recent scene in the life of Tiffany:
*(names and identifying factors have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent)*
Friday night, my new friend *Jill* and I pulled up to a pub advertising seriously delicious pizza, my #1 favorite food. I was hesitant about the pub part, but the promise of pizza calmed my nerves. This was my first time visiting *Jill* at her home, and first time meeting her friends.
One trait *Jill* and I share is that we’ve used substances (i.e. alcohol and/or prescription pills) as a coping mechanism. Since we no longer imbibe, social situations can be extra tricky; we are both relatively new to sobriety. Walking into a “fun”, ethanol fueled, crowded bar scene with the smell of hops and fermented grapes filling my nostrils…I still tend to feel a little…..out of place. And even a little bit freaked the F*%# out.
We approached a table of smiling people, iced tea and diet soda in front of them. They weren’t hard to recognize – the only over 21 peeps without an alcoholic beverage in hand.
Introductions were made. Now this part can get weird; when someone asks how you know each other and the truth is “We met at a recovery retreat” “We really hit it off in IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program)”or “We bonded over Detox and DUIs”. People start backing away, slowly.
If necessary (usually if I have a friend who’s uncomfortable; my motto is “sober out loud”) we’ll formulate a slightly less appalling tale ahead of time to avoid funny looks or awkward silence. No need in this crowd…. the truth was told and met with understanding smiles all around.
My sweet, quiet friend lit up as soon as we sat down. We were in her comfort zone, her longtime recovery crew. She turned to the good looking guy on her right…”Hi, *John* How are you?”
I settled in to peruse the topping choices on the menu while waiting for the requisite question and answer session….”how are you?” “Fine” “Good” “Doing Ok, and you?” Lather, rinse, repeat.
My brain woke up though, curiously captivated as *John* answered:
“You know what? I’m better. Depression was really starting to set in the last few weeks, but I’ve been able to get off the couch and get to the gym. Today I talked to the guy my wife was sleeping with, and got that off my chest. Didn’t even yell at him. He’s not gonna come around anymore – said he has his own problems, he’s out. It’s been a struggle but since my wife let me move back in, I’m working through it. We’re not completely back together, but it’s a step. And I’m sober, going on months now. Gonna go to my first SMART meeting tonight.”
Holy sh*&%, *John*. Way to get this party started. (P.S. check out SMART recovery if you’ve ever been curious about going to a “meeting” but AA makes you want to puke. Or even if it doesn’t.)
The pretty brunette chimed in next, pointing to her ankle….”This is coming off in 2 weeks! I’ve got court next Thursday and I think I’m about done.” She looked at me “Trust me, if you ever have the choice, pick the ankle bracelet. You don’t want to spend 40 days picking up garbage!”
We all laughed. I tuck that bit of advice away (I’ve learned never to say never). But actually…..I’d take the garbage picking. She had that shackle for 6 months! And have you seen the show Schitt’s Creek? Annie Murphy gets to garbage pick with a smokin’ hot guy. Hey, you never know!
The conversation continued…fears, challenges, triumphs. One guy is getting full custody of his children thanks to his sobriety. He’s grateful and hopeful that his ex wife will find the same joy in life. Someone else shares about the self-imposed “Blow-n-go” (car breathalyzer) she’s installed in her vehicle. It’s an expensive but worthwhile reassurance for her family. She’s been rock solid in recovery but earning back trust can take awhile…including gaining back trust in yourself.
We joked with John – “Don’t you know the answer to “how are you” is “Fine”!? Didn’t expect you to recite your daily journal entry to us!”
He laughed along and said “What’s the point of that? We’re here, you asked. Every time I talk about it, I get a little better. I gather a bit more strength.” He’s so right, and I nodded my head at these brave, intelligent words.
As we talked, any lingering need to preserve my ego faded away. In the company of strangers who were becoming instant friends, inhibitions melted and I felt confident and hopeful. I was surrounded by alcohol and never once gave it a thought.
Leaving the restaurant and already looking forward to leftover pizza breakfast, I was overwhelmed with emotions of gratitude and abundance.
I credit *John* with breaking the ice. His willingness to be vulnerable gave the rest of us courage and permission to do the same.
Brene Brown says it best in my opinion:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.”
Sharing vulnerably = connection = feeling worthy.
I want some of that. Lots of it. I think we are all looking to feel valued and connected.
Of course, there are barriers to sharing at this level…we worry that we will be judged, criticized and ultimately rejected. We’ve been trained to buy in to these fears, so we modify our answers to protect ourselves and others from embarrassment, and also feel our judgmental opinions are justified.
I’m not suggesting that every time a stranger greets you that you go into a diatribe of the deeply intimate emotions you’ve experienced that week. No need to sullenly answer “life sucks and then you die” or passively aggressively “could be better, whatever”. But what if we all begin to allow ourselves and others the space to be honest, without fear of criticism or shame?
I know what happens in that space….it’s the hour of magic I had at dinner with a group of strangers. It’s hard to explain this experience: optimism in the face of tragedy, overwhelming compassion and unconditional acceptance. It’s like the layers of BS were stripped away, revealing brilliant humility and a desire for connection and purpose. Yeah, all of that over a slice of pizza!
I feel pretty lucky to belong to a tribe that can throw away social norms in favor of vulnerability and genuine connection. So what if the members wear ankle bracelets, are subject to random urinalysis or have to start their car with a sober breath? Parole and probation build character!
Membership to this tribe means I get the benefit of living with a constant reminder that I am fallible, yet unbreakable. I see adversity through a lens of empathy and hope.
Recovery programs have guiding principles based on non-judgment, loving-kindness and helping a fellow out anytime, anywhere. We may come from shady situations, but if we’re doing it right, we radiate kindness and authenticity. If we’re doing it right, we’re on a trajectory toward mindful, fearless, personal growth ….one day at a time.
I’ll end by borrowing a quote from my friend Jason MacKenzie of Mental Health Warriors and The Dadly Book of Open (check out his podcast and fb group. Seriously good sh*%#. He’s crushing stigma all over the place)
“And Remember….I have struggled too. If you ever want to talk, I will not judge you.” – Jason Mackenzie and (now) Tiffany Swedeen.