Backing Yourself Into A Corner
Personal change doesn’t always happen by the merit of your own efforts. Sometimes, it happens by default, because you’ve run out of other options. This is particularly true for people new to the process, and those avoiding the process altogether.
It was certainly true for me. Before I embarked on a conscious process of positive change, I often found myself stuck–in situations, relationships, jobs–with only two alternatives: total, self-destructive giving up, or changing my circumstances for the better. I called this “backing myself into a corner.”
I would routinely bring myself to the brink of self-annihilation, but never quite go over the edge. (Okay, there were a few times I went over the edge and got lucky.) With drugs, I would never get to the complete “fuck it” stage of not caring about anything else in my life (although I came very close a couple of times). With relationships, I would go full bore into one with someone who I knew was a poor match, only to pull out as soon as there was talk of cohabitation or some other form of more permanent commitment. Or sometimes I would go ahead with the commitment, then begin sabotaging the relationship until he wanted nothing more than for it to be over. I would hang out with bad influences, but never let them all the way into my life. I would get involved in bar scenes, but never really become a regular. I always kind of kept myself on the fringes, an outsider who would never be terribly missed once I was gone–because somehow, I always knew I’d be gone eventually.
It was as though I subconsciously knew I was taking the wrong paths, but I only knew how to put the brakes on; I didn’t know how to actually change the path.
Along with this, I would make bargains with myself. For example, I’d say, “Well, I smoke pot, but I’ll never do anything harder.” Then it was, “Well, I smoke pot and I’ve done some speed, but I’ll never do anything harder.” Then it was, “Well, I smoke pot and do speed and cocaine once in awhile, but I’ll never do heroin.” Then it was, “Well, I snort coke and smoke coke, but I’ll never use a needle.” As far as my job, I would reason with myself like this: “Well, I’ve always made it to work so I’m doing alright.” And “I want to finish college someday, but this job is fine for now.” And about life in general, I’d say, “I’ve never been fired from a job and I’ve paid my own way in the world, so nobody can tell me what to do.” Notice it wasn’t “so I must not have a problem;” because I knew I had a problem. But as long as I had it “under control,” I didn’t see a good reason to change.
Looking back, I feel tremendously sad that I’d set such low standards for myself. But I suppose having any standards at all was what kept me alive and, in an odd way, hopeful that I could change. The bargains I made with myself kept crossing over into more and more hopeless territory. But each time I did this, I knew that that corner was getting closer, and that I would have to change.
After I got sober and had embarked on a conscious program of change, I continued with this pattern. I rarely did things because I saw the merit of them; I did them because my sponsor or my therapist told me to, or because I knew I had no other choice. Early sobriety was one long string of corners I had to work my way out of, because I didn’t want to do any of it. I didn’t want to go to meetings. I didn’t want to get a sponsor. I didn’t want to do those steps. I didn’t want to make sober friends. I didn’t want to see my life change so drastically. And yet, I knew, just like I knew that I didn’t want to belong to the life of drinking, drugs, and depression, that if I didn’t do these things, I wasn’t going to stay sober, and I wasn’t going to get better. And I had to admit that when I did do these things, I felt better. Not every single meeting or therapy session was roses and sunshine; sometimes they brought up shame and grief that I’d been trying to avoid all my life, emotions that could take me days and occasionally weeks to work through. But even when this happened, it was okay, because I knew with a deep, unwavering certainty I was on the right path, and that kept me going forward. (This is what I meant by The Insignificance of Feeling Better.)
And I think that knowing I was on the right path was the biggest corner of all. If I tried to get out of this one, it meant leaping off the precipice to a certain death. Maybe not an immediate one, but certainly a death of spirit. I knew I could not go back to my old life without losing all hope. So in a very real way, I was stuck–stuck on the path of recovery and healing. And it was this mentality, this sense of having no other way to go, that’s kept me on this path all these years. Oh, yes, there’s the feeling better and self-discovery and spiritual awakening and all the other good stuff, too, and that’s all certainly been incentive. But if I’m totally honest, I know how capable I am of self-destructive behavior. I know how easily I can slip back into it. I know how easy it is to saunter over to the dark side. And I know how easy it would be to stay there if I didn’t have this sense of having to stay the course of self-love, of having to keep trying even on those days when I just want to give up.
So growth doesn’t always have to be consciously chosen, and you can’t always take credit for how far you’ve gotten. Even so, you can always feel good about how far you’ve come. Because it doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you do.