What’s that saying we hear around the rooms – “Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it” – ? In the last few weeks I’ve learned that when you do get what you thought you wanted, it turns out not to be what you thought.
A week ago Wednesday a client of mine canceled, so I thought I’d grab the time to write a post. I’d skipped the previous week because of a long hike, so I pushed myself to just crank something out. News of Robin Williams’ suicide had shaken me. My own years of battling depression were but a drop in the bucket to his, I knew, but after Google brought me his choice words on the inner experience of alcoholism, I’d felt a powerful upwelling of compassion. Could I maybe write about that feeling?
An hour and a half later, it was online. That entire day, the post got one (1, uno) view. I considered deleting it, seeing as it didn’t “fit” with most of my blog. Except that I liked it. It said what I’d felt. So, after adding the opening disclaimer, I posted a link to Facebook and left for work.
When I got home that evening, there were 187 views. Since my previous all-time high had been 80, I thought something must’ve gone haywire with my WordPress stats. Two friends had shared the link – that’s it. But just for shits and giggles, I posted it on an open AA Facebook page as well. In the next 24 hours there were 1,600 views, a number doubled or tripled daily. As of right now, the total number of views has reached almost 75,000 from over 100 nations.
Two weeks ago, I’d have told you my only reaction would be elation. Every writer wants to be read, right? But the feeling I had was more like when you’ve put too much lighter fluid on the briquettes and light them too soon. The flames leap higher, and still higher, until – aack! – they’re gonna burn your frickin’ house down!
Exposure was a scary feeling I’d not anticipated. Comments began to pour into my inbox, a few of which accused me of discounting depression, glorifying myself, or forcing AA on others – none of which I’d intended. In these voices I felt aggression, like flaming arrows entering my home. They seemed certain I thought I knew shit, that I was saying, “Here’s the real deal on Robin Williams.” But there is no high horse to knock me down from. I never claimed to know anything. I’d written my feelings – what I’d wondered, and how that felt.
I’ve never seen this in AA literature, but it seems to me that, just as there plain hamburgers and cheeseburgers, so are there two basic types of alcoholics: plain and codependent. Plain alcoholics fear god won’t care for them, and codependent alcoholics fear they’re not worth caring for, period. That is, unless others say they are. They try all kinds of martyred, manipulative ways to win the approval that might just fill that painful hole in their soul. It’s a double disease that divides the adult self, who of course knows better, from the inner child who still pleads, “Like me! Like me!”
In my case, apparently, that means everybody. I’m a cheeseburger with extra cheese. My self-worth is as precarious as if I were riding a unicycle, so that any disturbance makes me wobble and flail my arms absurdly all over the place. Because this fear was absurd. Even with tens of thousands of folks quietly reposting, every time I checked email, my body would respond to anticipated criticism with huge shots of adrenaline – that toilet flush in your stomach that fills you with dread.
During the days of highest blog traffic, I couldn’t even sleep. I just wanted it to be over. When I described my critic-angst to sober friends, their advice was either “Fuck ‘em!” (by far most common) or “It’s self-centered to expect others to see what we see.” But neither helped. I’d originally started this blog to publicize my addiction memoir, which I secretly hoped might some day take off the way the blog has, but now I had doubts. Maybe I was just too easily bruised, I thought, to be putting myself out there that way.
The irony is, I don’t fear the world. This past weekend, I loaded up the car with my son, dog, and two backpacks, drove 138 miles into the North Cascades, hiked a mile in, rented a canoe, and paddled 4 miles on a glacier-melt lake to find a small inlet where our sober friends were camping – no roads, no cars. Sunday morning, along a trail where for the past two years we’ve encountered bears, I went for a run carrying a collapsed, pointed trekking pole just in case. Major bear poop showed up on the trail about a mile in – dark with lots of berries – but since it didn’t look fresh, I kept on, just keeping my eyes open and blowing out a trumpet-style farty noise every so often as a bear-bell. That kind of courage I don’t lack.
What I fear most lives inside me. It’s that dark secret that I do suck and I’m going to be exposed as a fake and a fraud. It’s the fear that others will discover how flawed and vile I am and react with disgust. On this camping trip, surrounded by loving alcoholics and the beauty of mountains, I saw my fear as something I need to make peace with until god takes it. When it comes on, I can only accept it as I would a sneezing fit or the hiccups, involuntary and inevitable. Whoops! Adrenaline rush! I’m a fake and a fraud who’s unworthy and unloveable and everybody’s gonna find out! …Gesundheit!
One of the greatest gifts I’ve received in sobriety is the distance that allows me to not believe my own thoughts. I have faith in something far greater than my own brain, something that shapes my life with wild turns of events that I could never, in a million years, see coming. For now I can tell fear, “Thanks for sharing.” I can hold up the “Please wrap it up” card. But I can also trust that god is teaching me in ways I can’t yet fathom, and that fear, like pain, is a voice for what still needs healing.