Late at night, I research and write by myself so I can avoid confronting the fact that I am alone, typically until I pass out from exhaustion. Gradually through the evening, as sources for my stories and colleagues I’m collaborating with over long-term projects go to bed themselves, I’m left alone at my computer, occasionally Googling a fact that I’m curious about; tonight, I learned about the history of Prussia.
Thoughts randomly piece themselves together until a great idea hits me, I write it down, and then my aimless reading continues. Sometimes, I’m chasing a lead and poring over ethics complaints and campaign finance disclosure forms. Other times, I’m refreshing my knowledge of American or military history. And, tonight, I purposefully watched the digital clock on my computer until 12:00 AM hit to reach another year of sobriety from alcohol; today, May 6, is the day that I decided years ago that I was finally done with drinking.
At one point in my life, I had a good job serving my community, a good partner whose boundless compassion and understanding was remarkable, a quaint suburban home, and a good network of friends with reputable backgrounds and even more respectable jobs. Yet, during that very same period of my life, and for years prior, I had generally functioned as an alcoholic.
Somehow, I had always managed to apologize away the missteps, the rare flashes of rage, and the endless sadness, literally bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, that inevitably ensued when I became drunk. At some inexact point years ago, however, the functioning component of my alcoholism started to disintegrate and more of my work was sloppy, more dinners with my husband were missed, more hangovers caused more missed trains, and, eventually, I lost the very thing that I so desperately wanted my entire life: love.
Jung said that we do not wish to hear someone say “I love you” but, instead, “I understand you.” And, for me, this is a truth that I have found only once in my life and that was because it was coupled with love. Sometimes, I will hear someone inexperienced with long-term relationships wax poetically about the perfect nature of his newest adventure; candidly, I indulge myself in these sophomoric romps to, feel, at least for a short while, capricious and giddy. Indeed, there is a fleeting joy in being, for all intents and purposes, idiotically infatuated. But, the one thing that I rarely hear and have never uttered in years is the sincere, and quiet, appreciation of imperfection inherent in love and understanding between two human beings: the pensive tics, the bedhead cowlicks, the sometimes terrible sense of humor, the earnest goodwill found in whomever you truly love.
These imperfections are the essence of the love that we truly seek, whether we know this or not is irrelevant because it is true. And, at one point in my life, I had this love. Though, being an alcoholic, and a particularly nasty, narcissistic one at that, I threw that all away in exchange for doing whatever I wanted to do. This is, indeed, the surest way to destroy a relationship.
Let no maudlin drunk or repentant (at least today) sinner convince you otherwise: we do things as human beings not because we are compelled by nature or illness but, instead, because we choose to do these things.
We cheat on our wives because we are lustful and, for some reason, decide to not have a candid conversation about a non-monogamous yet loving relationship. We steal from public coffers because we desire greater wealth and material instead of appreciating the things we have and choosing to live within our means. We belittle others because we have the power to do so and can feel better about ourselves in the process, and there is no complexity in our motivation anymore than there is complexity in the fact that we must sleep every night as it is our biological function. Whether or not we choose to resist these motivations, to instead cultivate the noblest components we are endowed with is entirely our decision. We are not powerless nor are we weak. On the contrary, we are empowered to deliberately make decisions that have inevitable consequences, be they good or bad.
And this is the most frightening part of being human.
If we are not compelled by force to behave in a terrible way, then we have chosen to deliberately defy our ethics and the better parts of our innate characters and have opted, instead, to give in to the most repugnant and damaging aspects of our animal nature. We become drunkards, drug addicts, narcissists, mean-spirited misanthropes, or, as is typical, whiny, weak-kneed explainers who would rather use these very tools of manipulation, drink for instance, to excuse away our behavior disingenuously rather than confront the fact that our characters are, at least for some of us, inherently predisposed toward unethical acts. This predisposition is not immutable; we can change how we behave and how we cope with life in order to focus our energies in more socially acceptable and rewarding ways. Some folks call this cognitive behavioral therapy; others call it Alcoholics Anonymous. Personally, I call it ethics.
As the years go by and the length of time between the last time I was drunk and “now” continues to increase, I realize that I know very little considering I have experienced so much. Oddly, my knowledge seems to have an inverse proportional relationship to my age and experience; and, this is unnerving. For if part of getting older is recognizing that you are fully responsible for your mistakes, then you must logically realize that you are where you are because of, mostly, your own actions combined with a small number of lucky encounters.
These small chances, these opportunities presented by chance, fate, or God himself, are often hard to identify, but they exist and your actions in response propel your own trajectory down one of many different paths presented to you.
Personally, I chose an unhappy path for a very long period of time, a path that unfairly involved others to a tragic degree. And, I cannot change this, nor can I possibly ever find redemption for these actions and words. Rather, I can simply try harder and hope that those opportunities I once had will present themselves again only in a more recognizable fashion with, I assume, a different set of characters. Hopefully, I will recognize these opportunities more perceptively than I did when I was an active drunk, otherwise I am destined to repeat my mistakes and the idea of happiness, of that love, will always be the dream that I put off every evening, opting instead to read about history or write about politics until I fall asleep.
Today, I am still sober. And, I am still putting off going to bed. Even so, it is much easier being alone sober than it is drunkenly sobbing. And, for that, I am glad I made the choice to continue my sobriety today. I expect that this will continue for some time; after all, you get quite used to not drinking and, interestingly enough, are sort of puzzled after a while why people drink at all, or why you did it in the first place. Then again, there is no puzzle to it.
We do these things because we want to do them.
This article first appeared on Josh's own blog here.