Learning the Hard Way

When I was a kid, my teeth were pretty messed up, and my parents were aware. At the time I wasn’t particularly concerned, but my mother knew that without some corrective measures, high school was probably going to be a little rough. So she did what concerned parents do when their children’s teeth are pointing in the wrong directions: she tortured me.

That sounds exaggerated because it is, but when you’re eight years old that’s exactly how it feels. I didn’t only have braces, though they were a feature of my orthodontist’s plot to ruin my life, I also had the “rubber bands.” Aside from being painfully obvious to friends, teachers, and (ugh) girls in class (they let you choose the color in a twisted attempt to make torture festive), they provided a never-ending low-level throbbing as they pulled my mouth slowly but surely into the shape it was supposed to be.

Obviously I’d remove them the second I wasn’t under adult supervision.

I’d end up paying for that small act of rebellion with a device far more horrid. If you went to school during the 80s, 90s or perhaps a little later, I’m sure you’ve seen it. A semicircle of thick metal wire like a football helmet’s facemask across the front of the head, a thick canvas strap anchoring it firmly behind the ears. Bane of suburban pre-pubescents for decades, the arbiter of who went to school dances and who stayed home playing Metroid: headgear.

In retrospect, I’m glad I had braces, I’m glad for the rubber bands, and I deserved the headgear. If I’d left the rubber bands alone, I wouldn’t have needed it. If I hadn’t kept taking it off, they wouldn’t have cemented it into my face. If I’d just been a little more responsible and forward-thinking during that seven-year trial of my constitution, it wouldn’t have been such an ordeal. And this is where things tie into recovery (I was getting there).

Like alcoholism, it wasn’t a problem I could take care of on my own. Even if I wanted to ignore it at the time it was bound to catch up with me. Like an addict, I resisted all corrective measures. I self-sabotaged, suffered for it, and protested when stronger measures were taken. I fought back every step of the way, even though it was the best thing for me, and having come through it as a better person (and having a chin) I’m glad I experienced seven years of discomfort instead of a lifetime of pain and embarrassment.

When I first realized I was an alcoholic, I didn’t really do anything about it. I’d quit using drugs, after all, so what was the harm in having a few drinks in the evenings to calm my nerves? Or a few in the morning to coast through until I had a few at lunch? It’s not like I was using drugs, after all. They sold it at the grocery store, they advertised it during football games, it was the central plot device in most movies about college, parties, or college parties.

Other people did, of course, notice that I had a problem. Much like my horrid teeth as a child, my drinking started to have obvious external indicators. I gained weight, I isolated myself, I slept more, and I lost interest in doing much of anything that didn’t involve sitting in a chair with a bottle on my desk. My work performance began to suffer, my personal relationships were, at best, contentious, and things broke around the house if they happened to be in the way of my stumbling.

My mental health declined as well; I became more stubborn, more opinionated, and more impulsive. If someone criticized the way I was living my life, I didn’t need them in it. I was self-sufficient, and working from home nobody actually saw me anyway, so if there was a problem with my drinking it was between me and my dog to settle it. Eventually, I started giving in to the depression I’d struggled with for most of my life.

I’m a bit of stickler for definitions, so I’m not going to claim that a CNS depressant acts on your moods directly; it’s a bit of an old wives’ tale to say that drinking makes you depressed. It does, however, exacerbate existing tendencies and lower inhibitions. If you’re already depressed, you may lose control of it, and if you’re putting yourself into a depressing lifestyle of isolation and ill health, that’s not going to help.

People tried to help me. I found myself in jail, but just as I did with my orthodontist as a child, I saw the justice system as unfair and overbearing. I ended up in a few institutions and would feel better for a week or two, thinking that I just needed to dry out for a while and everything would be fine. I’d return to drinking in moderation for a day or two, and the cycle would repeat. Every corrective measure was like those royal blue rubber bands (Leonardo being the best Ninja Turtle) that were strapped to my teeth: I’d go along at first, but lacking supervision, off they came eventually.

I’m not sure when it clicked, but I do know that AA and other 12 step recovery programs certainly helped. I started to realize I was just one of many suffering through what turned out to be a fairly common set of problems. I wasn’t unique, I wasn’t breaking new ground, and at some point I finally stopped being quietly offended by that and started connecting with other people who’d been where I was — and offering an ear (or sometimes a shoulder) to people who were just now coming to the same realization.

I don’t think I’ll ever be cured of my addictive personality or its associated alcoholism; I don’t believe that I’ll ever be able to drink again without falling into the same circumstances. As the (not Einstein) quote sort of goes, “insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.”

You have to be a little crazy to put your hand into the fire over and over again thinking this time you’re not going to get burned, so I can live with being moderately insane. But with the help of AA, a healthier lifestyle and a more mindful approach to the things going on in my life, at least I’ve got headgear on.

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