When I first got sober, I was deeply torn. It was either the case that everyone should know I’m alcoholic, or no one should know at all. This conflict, which felt large in itself, was representative of an even larger one. One that has, to some extent, pervaded my entire life. Would I rather be authentic, or feel safe? Typically, I can’t have it both ways.
During that first year of sobriety, I underwent a lot of changes. Among them, I began a new Master’s program and I began to date someone new. The question of when to say something was always first and foremost at the front of my mind. Part of me yearned to do it. Both in new friendships and with my new date, I felt I was withholding something central to me. It felt dishonest. Another part of me wasn’t prepared to handle their reactions to the word alcoholic: Judgement, distaste, confusion, or somehow worse - apathy. I also feared I'd have to correct their imaginations; I was not a raucous, fun-loving, hard-partying drunk. I was just me, but I cared a lot less.
On my 1-year anniversary, I went a little nuts. I wanted to leave class early so that I could make my meeting and accept my chip. There were, I don’t know, maybe fourteen-thousand excuses I could have given as to why I would leave class early that day. No one, particularly my professor, needed to know where I was going. But internally, it felt like the moment created by God for me to “out” myself. Are you brave enough? I demanded. Bold enough? I felt like David. The overworked and indifferent professor, I suppose, was Goliath -- maybe having an off day where he mostly just grades papers. David sent the giant this polite, if not a bit overwrought, e-mail:
I am part of a recovery program, and am celebrating an important anniversary today. As such, I am hoping to attend a meeting at [time] in [place]. I was wondering if it would be possible to leave class at 4.50pm today. I'm in no way hoping to set a precedent for leaving early to make this meeting - it just happens to be a very important day for me.
If not, I completely understand!
Looking back, my very earnestness breaks my own heart. Damn. I was really trying to do the right thing. Who knows if that professor knew what “recovery program” meant? And moreover, who cares?
I was training to be a therapist at the time. I feared that any one of my superiors who knew I was in recovery would perceive me as unfit to guide anyone else through their own change process. Unreliable, a bomb waiting to go off at any moment.
In reality, I wouldn’t trust a therapist who didn’t have their own issues, and I certainly wouldn’t trust a non-alcoholic to help me recover from alcoholism. The fact that I was fully embracing a difficult change process in my own life was only evidence that I would someday be prepared to help another person do the same. But of course, my own worst fears about myself were taking the opportunity to sound off: Messy. Untrustworthy. Too much.
As much as I at times felt protective of my alcoholic identity, I hated it when I expressed this fear to other people, only for them to nod their heads in agreement: You’re right. It is quite serious. It is quite a risk. I wanted them to tell me that my fears were overblown. I wanted them to shrug and say, "Maybe it’s your mission to help the world better understand alcoholics in recovery." Don’t collude with my fear - for once, you have permission to tell me I’m crazy!
In short, I wanted people to tell me things I could only really tell myself. In reality, everyone has a different bar, a different degree of authenticity with which they want to navigate the world. They are free to respect their own limits, just as I am free to respect mine. I want to be known. If I am going to be close to someone, I want to know how they will react when I tell them I’m alcoholic. For me, their reaction is as revealing as my truth. If they don’t like my neurotic, high-disclosure, low-filter, authentic self - a self with a bit of a past, as we all have - well then, they probably won’t like me either.