sober questioning

The Voice in My Head Doesn’t Want Me to Get Sober

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

A few months into my sobriety, and on my way to a job interview, I was struck with the urge to turn into traffic. The voice inside my head — that same voice that had been with me since childhood — was suddenly extremely loud and extremely convincing. “You’re a fuck-up,” it said matter-of-factly. “You’re stupid. You can’t take care of yourself. You’re going to die poor and alone.”

I hadn’t been doing great before that moment. My career had imploded; my dad was paying my rent at the sober house. My first marriage was over. Oh, and my mom was dying. But I’d put my head down and pushed through; I did my chores and went to meetings, talked to my sponsor, and had somehow made it through those brutal early days of not drinking without picking up a drink. Then, driving down the Texas State Highway Loop One, boom. I heard that voice and I agreed. “I’m a piece of shit. Everything would be easier if I was dead.”

I took deep breaths until I pulled into the parking lot of the Tex-Mex place where I was meeting the editor — thankfully, not too far down the road. I was a little early. I called a friend with decades of sobriety from my car, sobbing.

“First of all,” she said, “you’re going to have to stop crying. Normally, crying is fine, but you have a job interview in five minutes. Pull yourself together.”

I sniffled. “Okay.”

“Splash some cold water on your face when you get in. Now, the most important thing: Do you want to drink?”

“No, not really,” I told her. “I want to die.”

“They’re the same thing,” she said.

“You mean, like, drinking will kill me?” Because I knew that was true.

“Sort of,” she said. “But I also mean that thinking about suicide, hating on yourself, listening to and believing the shitty committee” — a 12-step aphorism for one’s self-critical chorus — “you’re as addicted to that as you are booze. So how do you deal with a craving? If you wanted to drink right now, what would you do?”

That I had a whole list for: pray, call someone, do self-care, go to a meeting, meditate

“Maybe meditate a little. And eat, for God’s sake. You probably haven’t eaten.”

My friend was a garrulous native Texan who on that day became the only person to ever instruct me to — in complete earnestness — “put on your big-girl pants.” I guess I did. I also tucked into the chips and salsa immediately. I got offered the job.

Her advice has stuck with me because while it has been a long time since I wanted a drink, I relapse on self-hatred all the time. The biggest challenge of my recovery has been learning how to ignore or quiet self-criticism without drowning it in booze. In early sobriety, that voice would circle around when I was low, and there were a lot of low times.

Negative self-talk was my first drug of choice — I’ve been beating myself up for my various imperfections since grade school. Alcohol and drugs quieted that voice in my head; that’s why I loved them so much, even though the addiction eventually just gave my inner critic more ammunition.

Then, in brutal symmetry, talking shit about myself became another way to not deal with my addiction. By focusing on all the things I believed to be wrong with me, I kept myself in the dark as to how my drinking was actually hurting the people I loved. Wallowing in my regrets about the night before kept me from ever picking up the phone to hear about the consequences of my actions. Waking up naked and alone in a hotel room without any memory of how I got there or how I got naked; waking up fully clothed to find a message from my Uber driver asking if I’m okay; waking up and seeing my car parked crookedly in the driveway with new scratches and a dent. Those things happened, and instead of even trying to find out details — honestly, that dent haunts me to this day — or, even more importantly, taking responsibility for whatever I did, I just took it all as proof that I was a garbage person. I’m worthless, so why not drink some more? That kind of self-pity is as grossly comfortable as any chemical binge. “I’ll just sit here in my own (mental) filth, thank you. It’s what I deserve.”

Multiple therapists over the years tried to help me with that vicious echo. It wasn’t until I was further down recovery that I fully grasped the damage it was doing. A counselor challenged me to keep track of it; literally tick off on a piece of paper every time the self-hate tape loop played and every time I thought about harming myself in response. It turned out to be several times a day; sometimes as many a dozen.

The pervasiveness of my negative self-talk shocked me. She, like other therapists before her, recommended affirmations as a coping mechanism. I told her they wouldn’t work. “I’ll know I’m lying. I won’t believe myself.” Then she asked me if all the negative self-talk I was doing worked. Touché, Laura, touché.

I’m still not overly enamored of affirmations. Looking in the mirror (like you’re supposed to), I tend to practice them ironically, with Biden-esque finger guns (“You’re a champ!”) or David Caruso–style lowering of sunglasses (“And that’s why I am … enough”). Sometimes I imagine I’m walking toward the camera with an explosion behind me (“I am strong and capable”). That method may or may not be enhancing my self-esteem, but it does make me laugh. Laughter disarms most bullies, and the one that lives inside my head is no different.

About five years ago, I began to incorporate a strategy I first read about in The Artist’s Way, which is to give your inner critic a name and personality. I picked the cruelest and most evil person I could think of in the moment: a certain former chancellor of Germany who shall not actually be named. Again, it may not be programmatically improving my sense of self-worth to imagine my inner critic as history’s poster boy for hatred, but when I remember that I have control over that voice in my head — that I can make it sound like anyone, really, or say anything — it is more distant, less believable.

I’ve gotten good at coping with negative self-talk when I’m low. These days, the bigger challenge is going to war with it when I’m doing well, when I’m on the cusp of something great. Last week, I got the first check from my book advance. When I opened my banking app, the voice heckled me: “You don’t deserve it. You can’t be trusted with that kind of money,” that fucker said. “And what are you going to do when it runs out?”

I’ve been at this for long enough that I knew the voice was lying. I also knew that — as with a craving for alcohol — it would be a lot easier to resist indulging if I had company. I started reaching out to friends who I knew would understand and didn’t stop until someone said they could talk for awhile. (Of course I texted before I called. I’m not a monster.)

In the 11 years since pulling into that parking lot, I have created resilience in me I didn’t know I was capable of. Like a lot of despots, my inner critic is essentially a grifter whose power comes from buying the bullshit it’s selling. Why trade away what’s truly valuable: my sense of self, my strength, my power.

These tips might sound inadequate or foolish in the face of that dark tide of the mind that can occasionally pull people under. But similar tricks in the face of my addiction seemed pretty inadequate too. The enemy isn’t sophisticated; it’s just persistent. You can be persistent too.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, contact the following people who want to help: Crisis Text Line (text CRISIS to 741741 for free, confidential crisis counseling); The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255); and The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386).

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