In 2011, I was working at an ad agency in Boston, my daughter was two years old, and things were a real goddamn mess. I was drinking at least a bottle of wine every night, my husband and I were screeching toward the end of our marriage, we had no money and piles of debt, and we were working through filing bankruptcy.
Although I wasn’t sober or anywhere near considering getting sober (I’d have rather chopped off my pinkie toes), I still gravitated toward the one sober person in the agency: Grant. Grant was the Creative Director and one of the partners at the agency, had done the whole NYC advertising thing, bottomed out, and sobered up many years before making his way to Boston. We had an easy rapport with each other from the go, probably because I needed what he had but didn’t know it yet.
Because things were such a mess, I was constantly seeking answers in books, as I always have. One day when Grant walked by my desk, he saw the book I was reading and picked it up.
“Any good?” he asked.
(I think the book was Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser, but I can’t be sure; it was something along those lines, something to help people pull themselves out of the dark.)
“Oh my God, yes, you have to read it,” I started to gush and then followed him into his office to keep talking about it after he put it back down on my desk. (This is what we did, or it’s at least what I did.)
After I’d gone on for a while, I told him I’d bring it back in for him when I was done.
“Sounds good, kiddo,” he said, chuckling. “I haven’t been in existential pain for quite a while, but I’ll try it!“
I remember thinking, Really? No existential pain? Isn’t that what life is to some degree, this desperate seeking? I didn’t believe him, but even more, it sounded kind of…boring.
I’ve thought about this exchange many times over the years, and I brought it up to my boyfriend earlier this week as we were walking through the North End of Boston before a concert. We’d just passed by the office of that agency, the one where I worked with Grant, and every time I’m in that area of the city, it feels like I’ve stuck my finger in a light socket because the memories are so intense. I told him about that conversation with Grant and that now, eleven years later, I get it. I’m not in existential pain anymore; I haven’t been for quite a while.
I told him about my reaction then—that I thought what Grant said sounded dull and boring and how nonsensical that was because I was in a pretty hellish place. But this is what I understand now that I didn’t then: I needed chaos. It was what I knew and where I thrived, so I created it, consciously and subconsciously, because it kept me distracted, vacillating between excitement and despair, construction and deconstruction. I wouldn’t have known what to do, or who I was, if I wasn’t struggling, or chasing, or hustling to clean up messes and avoid near-disasters.
Some of this is age, to be sure. You’re kind of supposed to mess around and make messes and try things out and burn hot when you’re younger, while you still believe you have infinite do-overs and an endless runway of time and choices. You’re supposed to chase the wrong things and then feel lost and disenchanted when they don’t provide what you were told they would. How else would we grow or learn what’s real?
It was more than that for me, though. It was the freight train of active addiction gaining steam. It was an inability to be with myself or tell the truth. It was unaddressed trauma; a God-sized hole I tried to fill with anything and everything. It was mistaking intensity and dysfunction and chaos for love, for living.
I’ve been thinking about this constantly for the past few days, trying to pull it apart. It’s not that I don’t have any problems or painful experiences anymore, obviously. I worry about my daughter all the time, and I miss her more every time she goes to stay with her dad. There are some things going on in my family that aren’t great. My anxiety has been pretty bad since September, and I feel like I’m grinding my teeth down to nothing at night. I worry about the world, about my friends, about what feels like a surefire recession coming. The last two years left a hell of a mark on all of us, and I’m still feeling that, as most of us are. I know there are things that could annihilate me: if something happened to my boyfriend, or to Alma, for example. Many things. There is pain, and there is sure to be pain down the line, but I don’t live in pain. I don’t thrive on chaos as an identity. Not at all; not even close.
Why does it feel subversive to say this? Why does it feel risky, or like a betrayal, to say I’m genuinely, and deeply, okay?
I asked one of my friends yesterday, someone with twenty years of sobriety. She said it’s because people don’t want to hear that we recover.
I find that fascinating, but it does feel somewhat true.
I know professionally so much of my work has been built on documenting the struggle and the darkness and relating to people in that way. I often feel like I have less to say these days because I’m not in that space like I was (or that whatever I have to say isn’t what people want to hear?). I sure as hell don’t want to sound like I have the answers or make people feel they’re doing life wrong if they don’t feel okay; we’ve got enough Prosperity Gospel-esque B.S. running through the system as it is, and I’m deathly afraid of approaching that territory, or anywhere that remotely resembles it.
But still. The truth is that my life, specifically my inner life, is night and day from what it was in 2011. I’m not consumed by my own pain and suffering to the point that it’s all I can deal with, day in and day out. Instead, I get to simply live, to enjoy the miracle of gloriously normal days. I’m pretty darn joyful most of the time, even when stuff goes sideways. And I want that to be good, hopeful news. Because what is the promise of recovery, if not that? What’s it all for, if not to become more solid, more okay, more peaceful inside no matter what? (I’m not talking about recovery from addiction; I’m talking about learning how to work with the human state of suffering.) Why bother at all if it doesn’t get better?