It always starts the same way.
Something, some small thing, goes wrong. No alarms go off, no immediate action is needed, but a fuse is lit. Construction has begun. A mole hill will soon become a mountain, and then, in time, a volcano. Anyone nearby would be well served to evacuate the area immediately. It’s just a matter of time before some small problem consumes me, with all of the requisite anxiety, frustration, and despair close behind. An eruption is imminent. Those familiar with this process know to move away from me, and quickly.
I can turn any problem, any issue, any worry, into a disaster. I had a therapist — I use the past tense, as I’ve since fired him for falling asleep on me, which I did take rather personally, but also cannot really blame him for — describe this as “catastrophizing,” and aside from being one hell of a word to play in Scrabble, it’s also perfectly apt. Most of the catastrophes I’ve faced in my life, with very few exceptions, were nothing more than routine problems until I got my hands on them.
I’ve also got an incredible talent for pulling insults out of the ether, which can make me a difficult person to be around if my inclination at the moment’s leaning toward paranoia. Every conversation has the potential to be a minefield, one wrong step, one assumption, one misinterpretation away from turning into an argument because I’ve twisted it so thoroughly in my head.
Someone once asked me if it got tiring being me, which was only half a joke. Yes, yes it does.
I could have tried to find healthy ways to discharge all of that negative energy, but aside from being neurotic, I’m also very lazy, so I always just went with the coping solution I saw people use on television: getting wasted. Soon, I solved every problem that way, even the most mundane. When all you’ve got is a hammer..
That was it for a long time as the consequences started piling up. I moved between drunk, high, both, and asleep, with little or no time in between. Some small part of me, the part of my brain that still lent itself to magical thinking, remained convinced that this would be the day I finally got a new result out of the same old behavior. I’d return to the real world to find fewer problems than I left behind, somehow, as if the reality itself somehow changed in my favor while I was off in a little world of my own.
I wasn’t solving any problems, I was just putting them off, always leaving them for a tomorrow that never came, for a version of me that never existed. I was Charlie Brown lining up for the kick.
I’m at least aware of these behaviors and tendencies now, which is a ton of progress. Just a few years ago, things were looking pretty bleak for me. I’d lost control of my addictions, if I ever had it, and the inevitable loss of everything important to me in my life had commenced. My job was gone, and then my home. My friends soon followed. I ran out of money, and then I ran out of people who were willing to put up with me at all, personally or professionally. My health was next. After that, well, there is no “after that,” is there?
Perhaps I should have been catastrophizing sooner: the end was near.
By my 82nd day of hospitalization or so (but who’s counting), all of the humor and romance I once found in substance abuse had gone, replaced by a desperate need to live. I’d dug quite a hole for myself, and it was time find a way out. My way of doing things was not working, and there weren’t a lot of “yets” left, a concept I learned from a friend here: I’m not broke yet (done); I’m not homeless yet (done); I’m not utterly and totally alone yet (done); I’m not dead yet (pending).
I think it had to be that close — the catastrophe had to be almost total, apocalyptic — or I wouldn’t have made any changes at all. And so I find myself here, today, not doing things my own way but rather co-opting AA’s “design for living,” taking life one day at a time, trying to accept the things I cannot change. Trying, at all, is still new to me. It fits like a cheap suit, but I’m breaking it in.
I still catastrophize, I probably always will. There are problems with the form and function my brain that being clean and sober do not solve. That said, the catastrophes that I create no longer have the ability to snowball out of control and to ruin my life. They don’t escalate into being completely unmanageable. If they do, I have countermeasures. I don’t have to run to a bag or a bottle to find a few hours’ reprieve from the noise inside my head, I don’t have to fill myself with poison. I can go to a meeting, or call a friend. I can meditate, or exercise, or read something educational and constructive, like the Big Book.
One day I hope I’ll find that elusive “serenity” we hear about so much here, or something close to it. It’s possible, I’ve seen it done, and it’s hard work, but I guess it’s supposed to be. If I can stick to my recovery with the same enthusiasm as I did my substance abuse — and I can — I can’t wait to see what the years to come have in store.