Thursday, March 31

License to Swill

I've been trying to figure out how to write this post for a while now. My mental health has been a hot topic of discussion for most of my life. If you compiled all of the people I've seen professionally over the last fifteen or so years to collaborate on an agreed upon diagnoses for me, the process may look something like this:

Usually there's no fighting in the war room. But when it comes to a consensus about a diagnoses or nonsense for the emotional turmoil I've experienced, the debate is thick with questions and possible solutions. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy! Celexa! No caffeine! Veganism! Operation Onslaught didn't go well for a number of years because no one was really taking the time to talk with me. They were too concerned with diagnosing me with something rather than learning about how various things were impacting me, many of which I wasn't even aware of until recently. Like four weeks ago recently.

Every time I've seen a mental health professional, they've asked me numerous questions so they can pin a label on me and some sort of treatment so that I can become a functioning adult. This started in 2004. It was "suggested" I had bipolar disorder, depression, ADD, ADHD, anxiety, dysthymia, insomnia, OCD, alcoholism and the like. I was put on a slew of medications to combat these unconfirmed suggestions: Adderall, Concerta, Stratera, Zoloft, Neurontin, Celexa, Ambien, Cymbalta, and Wellbutrin. I chose alcohol over the majority these, mostly because I didn't need to have health insurance to get it, I could monitor my own dosage without the influence of a professional, and I knew for a fact I had alcoholism.

PTSD was something I associated with members of the military and victims of crimes of which we lower our voices to discuss. Horrific black and white photos of the thousand yard stare developed between tours of Afghanistan was what I imagined when veteran suicides or antiwar segments appeared on the nightly news. I am largely removed from anything resembling a military household with the exception of my step-dad playing war games with the little tiny men with other grown men. In short, I thought it wasn't affecting me personally.

What is this, a war for ants?

None of the mental professionals with whom I visited could get a baseline on my mental health because I was drinking for so long. Many symptoms I exhibited were also symptoms of alcoholism or depression. After 412 consecutive days of sobriety, two professionals I meet with on a regular basis were able to provide some accurate insight into my mental health, something which was previously unavailable to me. While I successfully removed the common denominator responsible for a lot of my issues, many facets of PTSD began to arise. In the past, these symptoms were thought to be related to depression or generalized anxiety. Instead, they were the ingredients to a recipe for emotional disaster.

I recently finished my fourth and fifth steps for Alcoholics Anonymous. The fourth step is where a lot of people back out of AA or decide it isn't for them because it forces people to take an honest look, or "inventory" of their lives. In the last few months, my anxiety has been heightened. If I had a terror level, it's almost always orange. Extra insecurities began to compile as soon as I started my fourth step, which entailed listing ALL of my fears, everything from abandonment to submarines, my entire sexual history, and a list of resentments towards people, things, or institutions. After discovering and rediscovering roughly 35 fears, I became hypersensitive as to why I these fears had manifested so harshly, especially after I got sober. Completing my fourth step reawakened me to many memories which I had forgotten, possibly because my memory was destroyed for a long period of time. I regained emotional consciousness, something that was deeply suffering for many years. Once I was able to thoroughly investigate these lost and painful relics of childhood, I realized each particular memory had a particular fear attached to it. Here are some:

Plane crashes/turbulence
Most emergencies that would end up on CNN

Being abandoned
Being left behind
Being cheated on
Being lied to
Not being perfect in the eyes of others
Others seeing my imperfections
Being told what people really think of me
Harsh criticism
Getting heckled
Not being able to defend myself
Really blunt opinions of myself or others
Being taken advantage of
Being manipulated
People not liking me
Failing to make a good first impression
Disappointing others
Being a burdon financially
Not doing enough, or that I'm not enough
Being a failure in the eyes of society, being chastised for not being a cog in the machine
Not finding a job
Having my mental health compromise my commitment to comedy or work
Not looking physically perfect before others see me (only people I know)
Others judging me for being sober
Losing my health insurance
Not having my health insurance cover things that I really need them to cover
Not having access to diabetes medication
Being under the care of incompetent doctors
Doctors not being able to find out what’s wrong with me

There's the lot of it. There are a few physical fears which are really scary within the moment. Earthquakes are scary because you can't see them coming, and you can't outrun them. Submarines are scary because if something goes wrong, you're immediately and ultimately fucked. At least with a plane crash you may have access to a parachute or life vest or a seat cushion or a giant raft or another passenger. I don't like being in large bodies of water, so unless I'm stuck in a riptide from an earthquake, I should be fine. But each of the emotional fears I listed are connected to a memory that infinitely scared me. I harbored these memories for years and they all tie back to a feeling that I couldn't place at the time, and that feeling is fear. I was shaped and molded by shitty things that were said and done, and it took me over 10 years to realize it. I'm hesitant to label myself as someone with PTSD, even though professionals have walked me through the symptoms and the instances that may have provoked the diagnoses. 

Those in AA have told me that I should have this gargantuan sigh of relief after completing my fourth step, a spiritual revelation which would appear out of the depths of the things of which I fear most. I was supposed to achieve a notion of serenity, a glimpse of the light at the end of the rocky road of recovery. But instead, I felt even worse. And then I felt even worse when I had to make a list of my character defects, or everything that was wrong with me. How do people feel so good after such a tumultuous experience?

Doing my AA fourth step caused a lot of things that were peacefully dormant to erupt in a depression fraught with Seinfeld reruns and crying before bed. I realized why I had all of these fears; they were tied to certain events in my life where I felt like I was less than nothing, not good enough, or simply irrelevant. These memories reared their ugly heads as soon as I saw them on paper, staring back at me from in between open mic set lists and appointment reminders. I had awakened these terrible notions of abandonment and self hatred, and for what? To stay sober?

A large part of me still struggles with the aspect of God and why he is such a big part of AA. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was written by a bunch of white dudes in the 1930s. It hasn't been revised to include women, atheists, or other subsets of society. For fuck's sake, we've had an entire World War since the last time this text was seriously revised. Some AA jargon and discussions tell the non-believer to read the chapter titled, "To Agnostics," which in my personal opinion is extremely condescending. Oh if you don't believe in God, don't worry: you will! Just check your preconceived notions at the door and you'll come around sooner or later. Abandoning my belief system was something I was more than uncomfortable with when I joined AA. At almost 14 months sober, I still don't have a higher power. AA asks us to believe in a "God as we understand Him," which is bullshit for two reasons: the capital pronoun and the assumption that we understand God in the first place. I don't believe in God, and therefore, I don't understand him.

Jesus loves you.

This aspect of the program has set me back, and I'm not shy to admit that. When I start hearing people say things like, "I was waiting to hear back on an apartment so I spoke with my higher power. And then the very next day, I got a phone call!" I cringe into my watery coffee at this point, wanting to engage in a dialogue regarding my thoughts even though crosstalk is frowned upon in most meetings. I struggle to believe how some people are able to decipher between coincidence and an act of God. There are people who believe that the call they got about an available apartment was their higher power working for them. My own belief system makes me want to argue this. The universe did not suddenly become cognizant of your needs for an alternative living situation and changed the path of time to appear significant. I am not a militant atheist, most of the time. I respect you have your own beliefs and that they may be incredibly different than my own. You have the right to your beliefs, and I have the right to disagree with them. The Big Book lumps us all into the same category; we must all believe in Sky Santa to remain sober, which I aggressively disagree with. The Big Book could essentially be shortened into four words: DON'T BE A DICK. That's basically it. Just be a better person. Don't do shitty things. If you cause pain, rectify it. If you make a mistake, own up to it.

I understand why AA appears like a cult and can seriously dissuade people from joining and committing. Giant posters of ultimatums appear on the wall. There's handholding at the end of most meetings. Many things are said in unison, almost seemingly rehearsed. Coins are handed out for accomplishments. Off-brand coffee is prepared, much like Flavoraid was in Guyana. It can be a little off-putting for the person who has led a largely non-religious life.

I'm not saying AA is a fanatical experiment by an Elvis sunglasses-wearing reverend from Indiana, but meetings are very ritualistic in regards to guidance and structure, so I can understand why the person new to AA may have an issue with the rudimentary chanting that ends most meetings. The aversion to AA is something I've mostly encountered on the internet, which I'm a big fan of and I'm assuming you are, too. So why do I keep returning to AA if there's so much talk of spirituality, religion, powers higher than ourselves, and cult-like rituals?

It helps me to not feel so alone. I can go to AA knowing there are people attending who are exactly like me, people who can almost 100% agree we became powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable. I look forward to meetings. While the program and its homework occupies a lot of my time, mostly the time when I'm not doing comedy, I feel like I finally have a place of acceptance. The only requirement of AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. AA doesn't turn anyone away unless it will compromise the message and primary goal. I go because I need the unity of people who have also lost many years of their lives to alcoholism. I don't have to go to AA meetings: I want to. Outside help like seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist have helped me in the ways that AA simply cannot. I feel like keeping a schedule of doctors and those who have dedicated their lives to science and the like evens out the spiritual ambivalence I have towards the program. Both ends are a good fit, but I can understand why people do not return to AA, even though many people during the meetings tell them explicitly, "keep coming back."

I believe there is more to staying sober than getting a sponsor, going to meetings, and working the steps, and sometimes it is bothersome to me that many institutions act as if those are the only solutions to curb a severe drinking problem. An article in The Atlantic was published last year which talked about how AA sets up people to fail, and why it is the only option for those seeking refuge from alcoholism ("The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous" if you'd like to peruse the article). I don't think AA has set me up to fail, but the program itself has provided me with various doubts because of outdated texts and completely eliminated ideologies. I have remained quiet in meetings about my personal beliefs because I don't want to out myself among those who have come to accept me, those who are just like me. Maybe I don't want to feel alone in a place where I feel like I really belong.

I've been sitting on this post for some time because I did not want to distance myself, but it's time I spoke up about it. Biting my tongue and letting it fly are two things I'm good at, one of which needed to take precedent today, both of which need to be added to my list of character defects.