Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Self help is so cliche

When I walked into the Al-anon meeting a couple of weeks ago I felt like I was going to throw up. The same handful of people were there that I remember from the last time I went to the meeting in January, and they remembered me. The weird thing about first going to these meetings is that people you don't know, who don't know you, are happy to see you and they'll tell you so.

"It's good to see you again," the moderator told me, and she looked genuinely happy.
"Yeah, it's good to be back here," I lied.

Later when it was my time to speak, I took back what I said. I'd been listening to other people talk about what was going on with them and the addicts in their lives and almost all of them had said that they were glad to be there that night, and glad to be talking.

"I don't want to be here," I said. I'd been getting angrier and angrier the longer I listened to them talk and I don't handle anger well at all. My voice was starting to shake. "I don't want to talk about these things because I'm not supposed to talk about them. I can joke about them but not really talk about them. I don't even feel right getting a babysitter to watch my kids so I can be here when I could be writing or going to see a movie."

After the meeting a woman who I didn't know came up and gave me a hug.

"I know just what you're talking about," she said.

I don't think I can name her because of the anonymousness of the group, so I'll just give her a fake name. Her name was Meryl Streep. Meryl was an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (which I will hereby refer to as ACOA because it's hip) and has been in the program since she was a teeanger. She was a little older than me, and she was cool to talk to.

"Just keep coming back," she told me. "Believe me it will get better."

I didn't come back right away. Partly it's fear. I know that the heart of the Al-anon program isn't venting about the addicts you love, but getting to the truth of who you are, letting go of the need to control your addicts, and getting on a spiritual path. Sounds great, right?

This question is going to seem off topic but how many of you have seen the movie "The Never Ending Story?" Do you remember the scene where Atreyu has to look in the mirror and see his true self? Remember when he said something like "Well, that shouldn't be too hard," and an old man says, "It's the most difficult test. Brave men look at themselves and see that they're truly cowards. When forced to face their true selves some men run away screaming!" Then there's that trippy moment when Atreyu looks in the mirror and sees Bastian staring back at him. But I digress, you see my point don't you?

Besides the fear of faces all of my pitchfork-toting demons, I do not come from a place where talking about my problems with my addicts, or any problems that I might have developed as a result of them is acceptable.

"When you talked tonight you said three things that I don't know if you noticed," Meryl said. "Don't talk, don't trust, don't feel. Those are the three rules in a alcoholic household."

I thought back on what I'd said. She must have been paraphrasing. I don't remember saying anything like that, but the other guy who was talking with us agreed with her.

"Meryl's right," said Ted Koppel. "That's the message I got."

One of the things I'm hoping to accomplish is to listen to myself when I talk and hear what I'm really saying to people. That was not the first time someone pointed out a message that I didn't realize I was trying to convey. I think there's a kid trapped in me that's sending out messages in a bottle. I'm serious.

I remember this kid. She's too tall, too emotional, too stupid, too tomboyish, too ugly, and she cries too much, and I don't like her. I'm glad that I grew up and that I don't look like her anymore. But over the last year I've realized that she's still there, and of all the people who have hurt her I am the only one left who's still kicking her in the face.

So after pulling myself together yesterday I dragged myself to a different meeting. This is a good meeting to be in for a couple of reasons. 1) It meets during the week day and with the kids going back to school I won't have to find a babysitter (or avoid finding a sitter), 2) the property is beautiful and if I get there early I can walk around the garden, and 3) it's a step meeting which means they spend each week studying a different step so they're very focused on getting to the heart of their own shit and not just there to bash their addict(s). There are people in there who've been in the program for twenty years. These are good people to study with, I think.

But one of the problems I have with the program is the selfhelp cheesiness. To tie in another movie, remember at the end of Austin Powers 2 when Fat Bastard has his epiphany? "Now it's time for me to face someone [pause to look vaclempt] myself!" Selfhelp seems like such a joke. I think the real joke in the movie was that Fat Bastard was suddenly becoming deep, but still, think about it. It's easy to joke about when you're afraid of taking it seriously. And nothing is more of a target for jokes then the often-repeated cliche lines that 12 step program people toss at you.

"Keep coming back!" "It works if you work it!" "You're in the right place!" "Let go and let God!" "Don't forgot to breathe!" "Hang in there, baby!" "Feel the burn!" Sorry, I got my cliches mixed up. What's another one? Oh, there's the one they hand you when you're trying to get a response from an addict that they're not capable of giving you, or when you expect behavior from them that they're not capable of acting on. "It's like going to the hardware store for groceries." That was a useful line the first couple of times I heard it, but somewhere after 15,000 its effect softens. So I've come up with different ones that communicate the same thing. You're shopping for trail mix at a brothel. You're going to the water fountain for a latte. You're looking for a leprechaun at a Unicorn High Society Club. I might only think these things and not share them, but they ease the blow when I hear lines like, "Easy does it! One day at a time!"

"I don't want to be here," I said at yesterday's meeting. I've decided to say that when I feel it at every meeting. "I hate talking about this stuff. I'm not supposed to talk about this stuff. I'm scared. I'm scared of everything. I'm scared of getting mad, and I'm scared of people being mad at me. I don't want to learn how to take care of myself. It sounded good at first but it doesn't feel right, and I hate this phase of my life more than I think I hated puberty. I'm just going by what functional people keep telling me, that everything will get better when I get more comfident and used to taking care of myself. But I don't feel that way. I feel like I'm stumbling through the dark."

When the meeting ended an old woman who was about two feet shorter than me handed me a cliche.

"Honey, you're in the right place."
"Thanks," I said. "I hope so."
Then she took my face in her hands and said, "You're very pretty."
"Um...thank you."
"You're going to be ok."
I started crying again, and tried to get myself to stop because it was embarassing.
"Smile," she told me, and instictively I did.
"See," she said, as if smiling were proof that I would be fine.

But there is something about a sweet old lady telling you that you'll be all right that's comforting. Perhaps it's a grandmother quality.

Last night, hours after the meeting I called Meryl. I hadn't spoken to her since I'd been to the meeting a couple off weeks ago and her phone number had been floating around my purse. I wans't even sure she'd remember that she gave it to me.

"It's good to hear your voice," she said.
"...It is?" I asked.
"Well, yeah. How are you?"

I told her about the step meeting, and how hard the last couple of weeks have been. Then I asked her if she would be my sponsor, and she said she would. So I've got a sponsor now. This has seriously become serious shit, people. And after talking to Meryl for a while and realizing all that we have in common I started thinking about all the other ACOA's I've met who all share the same problems of crippling guilt and selfhatred. Maybe that's why they all seem to know me when I walk in. Maybe they're looking at me and seeing themselves.

"When confronted with their true selves most men run away screaming," is what the guy in the movie said. But none of those people are looking at me and running away screaming ( many self-deprecating jokes). So hopefully I'll get there soon. Maybe I'll be able to look at myself and see that ugly kid, and become nicer to her. Ugly kids need love too.


biggearhead said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, G!

"It works if you work it."
"One day at a time."
"Be good to yourself."
"Shake before using."
"Keep away from open flame."
"Do not over inflate."
"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"

Genevieve said...

You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.