Here’s what I’m struggling with: As someone who grew up in alcoholism and has dated people whose drinking bothered me, I have many self-destructive ways of coping with discomfort, chaos, fear, and grief. Workaholism/obsessive to-do listing. Bingeing and compulsive overeating. Rage. Negative self-talk. And yes, drinking. I guess you could say that I have a general tendency to be as hard on myself as possible.
This has all gotten much better in the last four years, courtesy of regular therapy and then Al-Anon and then actually working with a sponsor. I’m doing each of these behaviors less and less — and now if one of them crops up, I spot it quickly and know it’s a sign that something is going on that needs attention. But I’m still drinking more than the experts say an American woman should, courtesy, in part, of my 34-year-old and childless social life in Los Angeles.
I’m torn between knowing that my top priority right now is to be gentler with myself and trust in the recovery process and the guilt of knowing that I’m regularly drinking while also recovering from the effects of someone(s) else’s drinking. My therapist has told me she isn’t concerned about my alcohol intake, and my live-in partner isn’t either. I know that it’s ultimately whether it bothers me that matters most. But I guess my deeper question is this: Is it possible I’m over-shaming myself for my drinking because of my overwrought perfectionism, or is sobriety something I need to consider? Is there a way to discern between the two?
Dear Perfect Storm,
Hey, samesies. I also struggle with the tendency to perfect myself into misery. Because I share that pattern, I don’t think it’s strange to approach sobriety (which is, by definition, all or nothing) with a concern that it might set off a downward spiral of self-criticism and self-destruction.
It’s a testament to the work you’ve already done that you’re so aware of your maladaptive patterns. That’s why I think you’ll puzzle this out too: What exactly do you want to get out of sobriety? Do you want to stop drinking because you believe that your alcohol use has a negative impact on your life? Or do you want to stop drinking because you think it’s going to get you closer to some ideal version of yourself?
To be very clear, I don’t believe there is a bad reason to stop drinking for a little while. As I wrote in my first column, I think people should consider sampling sobriety like they might try breath work or foreign travel or sea urchin: not for everyone, but an adventure worth going on at least once. However you get there, you’ll still find it a powerful experience.
But as those of us in Al-Anon know better than others, sobriety is a lot more fulfilling (and more sustainable) when the drinker chooses it freely. It’s great that your therapist and partner aren’t the ones pushing you; still, that perfectionist tendency is itself a kind of outside force. Since perfection is impossible, striving for it can never really be about pleasing yourself. When I pursue an achievement because I think it will get me closer to that elusive ideal (as opposed to simply wanting to make a go of it), no level of success feels truly satisfying.
My perfectionism will sometimes tell me that not drinking is itself not enough to live up to my own high expectations; I am tempted to push myself into a new all-or-nothing practice that will really prove I deserve to take up space on this earth. So far I’ve stayed sober through such bouts of ridiculous striving through the positive self-reflection and gentleness you’ve also learned to practice. I can catch myself in the middle of judging myself, slow down, and do whatever I have to do to remind myself that I am worthy of love if all I ever do with my life is exist.
Growing up in an alcoholic family or loving an addict is destabilizing. We don’t trust ourselves; seeking external validation compensates for a firm sense of inner direction. Then, in recovery, we learn to let go of those outside metrics — sometimes before the inside compass is fully functioning. We are ridding ourselves of unhealthy motivations, but we haven’t yet found the healthy ones. That sounds to me like where you are when it comes to sobriety. That’s where I am with a lot of things today.
So I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling myself: Not knowing what or why I want is okay! Part of my growth is getting comfortable with however much time it takes for the needle to find my true north.
Now, as a practical matter, I have found it almost impossible to untangle what I think I should do from what I want or need to do if I’ve been drinking. So I suspect being sober for some period would be helpful when it comes to figuring your motivations for staying that way. But don’t listen to the advice columnist too closely. Only you know what’s right for you.
Whatever you do, I believe that you’ll figure it out. You may not trust yourself yet, but I trust you.
More From This Series
- Tom Holland Says He’s Been Sober for Over a Year
- Hear Me Out: Don’t Get Sober on January 1
- Alone and Sober on Thanksgiving