I'm sober for 62 days and still struggling!

Shouldn't I be further along by now? Shouldn't I be out of survival mode?

Published January 22, 2009 11:35AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I write to you after years of reading your column, of digesting the details of people's personal lives, and of thinking myself somehow superior in the process. How very wrong I was.

I am a recovering addict and alcoholic fresh out of rehab and still counting days; a single mother who got pregnant at 16 and now has an almost-teenager; a woman who has for the past 28 years tried to prove to herself by proving to other people that she was intelligent, capable, lovable. I ran with my kid to one of the biggest cities in the world to escape the limited opportunities a rural town and an alcoholic, verbally abusive family had to offer.

I proceeded to become a parasite out of survival. My child and I moved in with a man that I loved for a short time but for four years sucked dry. He was an alcoholic as well, but I feel that my lack of love for him caused his alcoholism more than I care to acknowledge. The minute I received my tax refund and a full scholarship to graduate school I left him.

Five more years of "what can I take from you?" relationships -- one three-year stint and a series of small ones -- and here I am. Tired, beaten, "spiritually bankrupt," as they say, and feeling totally alone. I am uncomfortable with who I am, afraid of rejection, afraid of exposing my vulnerabilities to another person -- because vulnerability, as I've been taught, is a sign of weakness, and weakness leaves me open to being taken advantage of, and being taken advantage of threatens my very existence and the well-being of my child. It's the "gotta get them before they get me" mantra that we who raised ourselves out of necessity often carry into adulthood.

And Cary, I'm sick of it. I should be out of survival mode by now. I've had moderate success in my field and a promising future ahead. My child is an absolute pleasure to be around. My sobriety is a blessing and the support system of friends I've cultivated over the years is rock solid. But I'm broke, unemployable, and still using relationships to define who I am and to meet needs that I ought to be capable of providing for myself. I lack even an ounce of self-esteem and hate the people who love me because the idea that I might have something other than sex to offer another person doesn't seem possible.

I guess I'm looking for words of wisdom. Perhaps you have a few.

Day 62 and Counting

Dear Day 62,

Well, it's good to hear from you. Here, have a seat. Here's an old chair. Don't you hate the metal folding kind? I always like to get one that's at least got some padding. Have a seat -- here, take mine; I sit too much anyway. Wait here with me.

Some days are like this. Look around the room at these old-timers. That one is a research biologist for a prominent university. That one lives in an SRO hotel room and picks up trash. That one is a writer but you've never heard of her. I know how it is. You get 62 days and you figure things ought to be going a little better than they are.

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. By now you're probably at Day 80 or something. I remember this guy, when he first quit, he started building shelves. He built shelves in every corner of his house. I'm like that, too. If I have an idle moment the terror comes. So I keep creating these projects for myself. I really overdo it. I get behind. I think I'm trying to make up for some wasted years, or years of being wasted. So, again, sorry it took me so long.

Days. They accumulate. I guess I'll be coming up on Day 7,300 pretty soon. Kind of ridiculous, really. As of today it's 7219. That's a lot of days to just be messing around not knowing what you're doing. But that's how it goes. We stop living on the surface and then we find infinite layers. We keep descending. We keep walking through illusion after illusion, and frankly I don't think it ever stops. I imagine it probably doesn't even stop when you die. You think, finally, I've reached the end, for real. Death! Ha. You go through that door and somebody says, "Stop squirming. That only makes it worse."

So come on, take your seat. Don't leave. The movie's going to start soon.

I'm serious. I got up before dawn; I woke up with the terror as usual and walked along the beautiful, majestic Pacific, perversely hating the waves, staring at the immaculate, resplendent beauty of the Northern California coastline, Mount Tamalpais to the north, the Cliff House where I married my beautiful, beautiful wife 15 years ago, watching a lone surfer idiotically paddling out in an unsurfable break, and you know, I could do this day in and day out. I could outlast anybody; I was born to do this; I was born to grind my skin off in cold, unfeeling layers, astounding the circus crowds with my numbness to pain.

I go to the cafe and sit on the bench outside. I get $100 from the cash machine. I sit. After a while somebody sits next to me and pleasantly jabbers on about Santa Claus. Another fellow comes along and waters the geraniums with a bright yellow watering can.

So it goes.

What I mean is, I don't think we get somewhere. We're just on the road. So there's no hurry.

At the same time, the imagined destination is always available. We never arrive at it, but we can always visit it. Whenever you feel that we've been walking too long and you wish you were there, you can be there. You can choose to start over, or sit still and let the sound of birds enter your mind, let your hands and your eyelids stop fluttering long enough to sense what is around you.

It doesn't matter where you start. There are all kinds of books for all kinds of people. You will get somewhere. You will get something. If you need structure, you can ask somebody to guide you.

But you will never get it all. It goes on like this, day after day after day, miraculous and moronic, indescribably beautiful and indescribably mundane, a complexity beyond description, an infinity of possible worlds and possible constructions. You could read about it for centuries; everyone who encounters it seems to feel the need to try to write it down, capture it, paint it, sing it, play it, teach it, convey it, dance it, climb it, wander it, swim it, navigate it, camp in it, freeze it, perfect it.

It is a vast canyon of vanity. You will never get it all. But it keeps us busy. If we're contemplating the immensity, we're not out robbing convenience stores.

Sit. Have some mediocre coffee. Watch the people come and go. Something will happen soon. It's about to begin.

In recovery? See pp. 67, 93, 107, 209, 233, 242, 246, etc.

Makes great reading. Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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