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Ask Polly: I Finally Got Sober, But I’m Losing Faith!

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Dear Polly,

I’m closer to 30 than 25, bipolar (type II), and, most important, six days away from being six months sober.

I am still learning what drinking three bottles of wine a night and passing out to reruns on Netflix for the last six years has done to me: I’ve given up my integrity; my health; lots of money that I now desperately need; loving, deep friendships and possibilities for romantic relationships; and the ability to know how to — and to want to — concentrate and work deeply and make incremental progress toward something (anything).

I’ve been so lucky that it’s made me entitled and lazy. I have gotten scholarship after scholarship, job after job, and am now in graduate school at a prestigious East Coast school.

I have the goddamn precious and miraculous gift of AA (can I nominate this fellowship for a Nobel Peace Prize?!) and a fantastic sponsor; I get enough sleep; I have a therapist and meds; I am slowly learning how to eat better again (this might be hard for you and your readership to believe, but I only heard of “emotional eating” a few months ago and realized that this, too, was a really problematic coping mechanism). Exercise happens occasionally, as do meditation and Mass, as does meeting with friends. I even make the occasional spontaneous trip out into the world.

One way of phrasing my question would be: How do I get my drive back? My therapist says I have a lot of repressed anger, but I can’t find it. Is my lack of connection to my anger why I still have no initiative to take my life in my own hands? My parents grew up in broken homes and, materially, have made a lot out of their lives, but I fear they are dead in certain ways inside. My therapist has made me aware that I am following in their footsteps. I don’t know what other peoples’ internal lives look like (who does, really), but I trust that they have them and I’m not sure I do. AA teaches me not to compare my insides with peoples’ outsides, but I’m not really talking about other people: I just need to want to live a fulfilling life bad enough that I actually start doing the work to get there.

Or I could ask: How do I care about my life? How do I figure out what I want after spending so long trying to reach oblivion — through booze, the internet, Netflix, porn, overeating, compulsive purchases online, being sedentary, isolated, and bewildered that no one was directing my life for me? I know I need to stop being a victim and start rejoicing in life. It’s just that right now the gap between where I am and even wanting to want to live life boldly seems impossible to bridge.

I’m not suicidal at all. In fact, my mood is fairly good. I just can’t seem to commit or to follow through. Every good piece of news, no matter how provisional, makes me feel like everything will work out somehow and that makes me even more passive than I was before. I still expect someone or something to swoop in and save me. I have no sense of agency or urgency.

Days are long and life is short. I want to get the most out of both, and I know that a strong desire to address all of the areas of my life that are crying out for some commitment and work is the only thing that will help me move forward. But if I really wanted to become my true self and live my life, wouldn’t I be doing it? Wouldn’t I be doing the work that needs to happen? The best I can muster is wanting to want a desire to do this grueling work.

Remember that you’re dealing with an addict here, a dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic who still believes that feelings are facts and that the only reality I have a connection to is the one that is right here, right here in front of me, right here and right at this moment. Remember that I still have a hard time remembering other people and situations exist unless they are stirring up fear, anxiety, or guilt in me. Then I can’t forget them and I also have a hard time acting in a way that will relieve me of those feelings.

The most wise, wounded, humble, and loving people I’ve ever met are all recovering alcoholics and as articulate as they are about living sober, most can only ever shake their heads, give me a hug, say that the first year is tough. There’s a lot I am trying to do for my program (right now, I am praying to a higher power I don’t believe in to help me believe in one), and I believe that step work really will free me. I’ll have six months — God willing — on December 20, though, and I am just losing faith I will ever be able to live a life that is in relation with others, that is of service, and that is somehow lived wisely or skillfully. Or at least lovingly.

I know I’m sick and I want to get better, but I have to really want to want to get better first. How?

Losing Faith

Dear Losing Faith,

Your current religion is built on an abiding lack of faith — in yourself, and in the wider world outside of you. You try to learn and you try to make yourself vulnerable to the truth but you suspect, underneath it all, that you don’t truly believe in anything. That’s your most fundamental belief. You suspect that you must be missing what it takes to believe in anything or to want anything passionately.

You’re wrong. You have exactly what it takes. People who drink three bottles of wine a night and then quit doing that are pretty goddamn passionate people, some of the most passionate people you’ll meet. You say you have to really want to want to get better, but you already do. It’s obvious in your letter. You believe in what you’re doing. You want this.

The only things standing in the way are the sounds your head makes. Your head repeats the same words, like a prayer: “I am too lazy and entitled to work hard at anything.” “I am too worthless to truly want something.” “I have no real desire. I am destined to fail. I am lost. I never want anything enough.” With this as your prayer, you mold your reality. You make “I don’t want anything” and “I am worthless” the only things that are right here, right here in front of you, right here and right at this moment.

In order to feel your way to a new path, you have to FEEL your way there, starting right here. You don’t need a new idea or a new guiding principle. You need to ease yourself into a new feeling — right here, right now.

First, though, let’s clear away some of the noise in your head. You ask, “But if I really wanted to become my true self and live my life, wouldn’t I be doing it? Wouldn’t I be doing the work that needs to happen?” The answer is no. It takes a lot of time and work to become your true self. It’s not a small thing. Believing that you’re supposed to be experiencing desire in some different, overpowering, inescapable way — the wanting-to-want problem — is a totally paralyzing delusion. You can’t assume that other people want things more than you do, therefore they have no choice but to go out and pursue them. Those other people are just making choices and committing, just like you have to do.

I’m totally committed to the things I do, but my head still makes bad sounds. When I’m presented with big challenges, some part of me starts backing away. A voice inside tells me I can’t do it. The conditions aren’t right. There is something wrong with me. I don’t have the drive to follow through on anything. I will give up. I will cave in. I will disappoint everyone. And even though I’m old enough and successful enough that I have many different examples of times when I pushed through this feeling and did the work anyway, my head still tells the same story, sometimes: I’m not up for this. I can’t swing this.

It feels embarrassing to admit that. That’s how I know it’s important: When I’m embarrassed, that’s a sign that I’m getting nearer to the center of things.

Lately, I can’t write. I know work will save me from the state I’m in, save me from this mood of despair that comes and goes, save me from how ashamed of myself I am sometimes, just for growing older and being largely powerless and for not being heroic enough. I have deadlines that seem unimportant, so they come and go and I do nothing. I am supposed to be reading one book and starting to write another one. But the world outside seems off-balance and sick to me, and when I take that in, I have trouble not blaming myself for all of it. The news is bad, and it’s getting worse, therefore I must be bad, therefore I must do better. But how?

I know I could exercise more, and that would help. I could try to spend more time with my kids. I could talk to my husband or my friends about how I feel. But these things don’t always bring a real breakthrough, and sometimes no one is available to talk. To work my way through this feeling, I have to slow down time.

I have to close my eyes and admit that I feel broken and that I blame myself for that broken feeling. I have to admit that I always suspect that things will fall apart at some point in the future and that it will be my fault when that happens. People will say, “See, I was right about her. She’s a fucking joke.” And other people will nod along. My future misfortunes always include a jeering Greek chorus.

I’m guessing you have the same bullshit in your head, Losing Faith. Maybe we both suspect that we aren’t good enough for our lives. Maybe we believe that we lucked into this. We think we didn’t do anything to deserve all of the good things we have. And the people who don’t like us? They see right through us. They know what we’re hiding.

And why do other people know the way and we don’t? Why are we designed to flail? We blame ourselves for that, too.

So this is where I enter the here and now. In order to believe (right here, right now), in order to want something, in order to move at all, I have to forgive myself for being so broken. I have to forgive myself for being such a fumbling, inexact imitation of something much more lively and pure. I have to forgive myself for feeling tired, for growing old, for not giving enough to the people around me. Sure, I know how to do grueling work, but sometimes I still resist it. I don’t want to work hard. I want to eat and sleep and escape. I want to be soothed. The really hard work requires facing myself and not looking away. It requires embarrassing myself. It feels impossible to be enough, to try harder, to overcome my fears. And once I face the truth, it isn’t just a matter of saying, “There it is: I don’t like myself sometimes. I feel ashamed. Very well, then. Time to forge ahead!” I have to give it time. I have to take in whatever I find. I have to breathe it in.

Losing Faith, that’s the important part: Making some space for the truth and making some time for it, too. Feeling it. The only way to work through your lack of faith is by cultivating a deep knowledge and acceptance of your lack of faith.

Once you realize how little faith you have, and all you have left is just a shell of a person who can’t get up and doesn’t believe in anything, that’s when you ask for some light in the darkness.

That probably sounds familiar to you from working the steps. I haven’t been through AA, but there’s something about acknowledging just how low you are that helps. I try to feel my way to the bottom of things. I try to see the truth with clear eyes. And then I ask for the world to show me, again, what is left when I clear away my broken pieces. Show me what is divine. Show me what’s left, what still feels hopeful. Show me how to proceed. What part of me will lead this broken ship forward? What part of me is strong enough to heed this call?

I don’t want to lie to you. The world feels so cold today. I want to go back to bed. And when I look for something divine, there is nothing there. Today, rage and death are in the papers. I don’t see how I can help anyone.

But here I am, typing out words, because you and I are very much alike. We are defined by our doubts. Our doubt is our faith. Hiding is our ritual. And when we can’t find the center, when we want the DESIRE to show itself and it doesn’t, you know what we have to do? Get up and move anyway. When we look for inspiration and it’s not there, you know what we can do instead? Pick up the work. Let inadequate words fill the page. Run in the bitter cold. Type a letter to a friend. Listen to sad music. Buy the ingredients to a lasagna, and make the goddamn lasagna, because it is one good thing you can do in spite of all of the hatred and the pointless battles and the people dying for no fucking reason at all.

Don’t look for desire where there is no desire. Just admit that you have no desire, but open your heart. Be vulnerable. Show yourself. Refuse to pretend. Refuse to tell yourself that old story that goes like this: “I will be strong and I will win, or I will be weak and I will lose.” You will be weak and faithless and broken and you will win, day after day, by dragging out your broken pieces and saying, “This is part of who I am.” You will take a step by living out in the open, pathetic, resistant to other people’s norms, embarrassed, disheveled, worn down. You will reach out and eventually some path will show itself through your acts of surrender, through your unexpected tears, through your quiet rage at yourself, through your regrets. You will make this world safer for broken things.

Sometimes just standing still is revolutionary, if it includes forgiveness. While the self-assured, confident-sounding world blunders its way toward self-destruction, maybe your faithless moment and mine form a kind of communal solitude of broken souls. Together we form a light.

Humility is a start.

Standing still is a start.

Your head will always make bad noises. But you won’t retreat. You are as passionate as it gets. That’s what you don’t know yet. You will say that out loud, like a prayer, even as your head gives you bad news. And some day you’ll wake up, and you’ll look back and see the truth: You had passion all along. Your circular thoughts were drowning out your truest desires. Your faith in your own faithlessness was blocking your view. You thought everyone else was stronger than you, but you were wrong. You never saw how strong you were. We are lucky to have you.

Hold that in your heart. You will doubt it, over and over. Expect to doubt it, over and over. Forgive yourself for the years of doubt to come. You are here, right now, and you want this. Do you feel it? This is how it feels to believe. You can come back here anytime you want. This spark will be here, waiting for you. Slow down and look for it, without questioning.

I would stop there, but I suspect that you’re also wondering: “Will they laugh at me? When I find that spark, when I show that I do care, when I reveal my fragile heart, when I am vulnerable, when I finally believe, when I want more than I can possibly stand, will they laugh?”

Yes, they will laugh at you. That’s how you’ll know you’re onto something.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: I Finally Got Sober, but I’m Losing Faith!