Online Writing for the Alcoholic

Online Writing for the Alcoholic

By Taylor Ellsworth 12/09/12

There's a constant stream of negativity coming at me—and I don't mean the critical voice of my own addiction. I'm talking about Internet commenters.

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If only they could all be this kind Photo via

Sobriety has taught me to seek self-esteem internally rather than externally. This works well when practicing new skills that I didn’t have the ambition to attempt drunk—say, running. Starting my day with a sweaty four-miler allows me to take pride in what my legs are capable of in exchange for old behavior like going out at night dressed like a Jersey Shore reject to get attention and catcalls from skeevy dudes.

And yet every time an essay I’ve written for the Internet goes live, the public response to my work takes me back to the quivering bundle of insecure nerves that dominated my emotions pre-and early-sobriety. Perhaps newly sober teachers with heckling students or retail salespeople who deal with angry, entitled customers can relate or maybe this is an experience limited solely to other people who deal with the loud, angry, critical mob of Internet negativity (which I have come to believe is worse than any internal alcoholic voice in existence). 

The great ego paradox that nearly every addict deals with is feeling like “the piece of shit that the world revolves around.” When I was active in my addictions, vodka, coke, food and weight loss could momentarily silence the piece-of-shit part of my brain but it could never be obliterated entirely. In sobriety, I’ve found that the 12 steps can supplicate some of the soothing effects of boozing and using, if I’m patient and keep my expectations low. But if you throw the comments section that accompanies writing for the Internet into the mix, the self-loathing that recovery attempts to eradicate comes right back. 

The structure of the Internet writing-feedback loop certainly wasn’t designed with the fragile feelings of an alcoholic in mind.

A harsh attack can take the wind out of me, slicing my pride with a knife while kicking my alcoholic cry baby feelings in the shins. The comments that hurt the worst aren’t about my writing skills, either. They’re about me. They range from the AA watchdog’s reaction (“I wish she would learn the traditions!”) to criticism of my personal pathology (“I do not see the perspective or understanding that I would expect to see from an alcoholic”/”I don’t understand being a sponsor to other newcomers in AA when it’s pretty obvious this lady still has quite a bit of work to still to do on her own program”) to just plain mean (“Grow up. You are not that important.”) They dismiss me, it seems, for being just a little too human. 

If I tried to fashion myself—and my writing—to meet the terms of each criticism and request, I would surely break. Luckily, my writing is somehow something separate from the living, breathing, imperfect me that spends her days behind a computer screen, and my confidence in my talent is less penetrable by the comments section—only critiques of my personality can truly destroy me. This is ironic, considering that my writing doesn’t compose the entirety of me or even really tell the reader who I am; it’s confessional, yes, but it reveals only what I choose to reveal. An attack doesn’t even have to be well-worded or well-thought out, either; all it takes is the knowledge that someone, somewhere in the world, doesn’t like me to launch me into self-doubt. The structure of the Internet writing-feedback loop certainly wasn’t designed with the fragile feelings of an alcoholic in mind; it’s for those who can laugh in the face of deconstructive criticism while absorbing the constructive criticism—mere moments after publication. It’s for those who wholeheartedly believe in the insignificance of so-called haters in relation to their self-worth and talents. I don’t know if Perez Hilton manages to never get his Internet-toughened feelings hurt by a nasty two-paragraph Disqus-powered personal attack. But I believe that void-filling self-esteem battles are simply more intense for alcoholics than for the general population.

Before I began writing for the Internet, I already knew that I was the type of person who, when faced with a group of 10 that are excited to see me, would always lend more meaning to the one person in the back who seemed to be avoiding me. Recovery slammed this self-knowledge home; after my first fourth step, I realized how frequently and easily I’d categorized people as enemies. The cause was typically an imaginary conversation we’d had in my head or a judgment I was sure they’d cast upon me, because I thought I could somehow read the hateful messages of their body language. Similarly, upon reading a string of 20 kind and praising comments, I’ll focus on the single negative one. With each fifth step, I’ve continued to reiterate “I resent blank because I think he/she doesn’t like me” more frequently than I’d like to admit. Simply put, how I’m perceived matters greatly to me and the overactive imagination and hypersensitivity that I attribute to my alcoholic mind tend to read the tiniest bit of shade thrown my way as pure, unadulterated hatred. When someone writes, “Lots of people want you to be someone else,” my mind’s multiplication machine turns it into “We all wish you would just kill yourself already.” 

If anything in sobriety has come close to replicating the warm internal glow that the first drink brings, it’s the validation brought upon by the flood of praise, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers that accompany the publication of an especially resonant piece. In the seven months since my first piece was published, I’ve grown to crave that feeling, perhaps because the exhilaration of accomplishment and approval is vaguely reminiscent of the deliciously esophagus-burning heat of that first drink. Nothing compares to the combination of gratitude and pride I feel when I read a comment like the one I got when I wrote about the effects of being raised on a steady diet of MTV, Cosmo, and alcohol which read, “I am seriously amazed that every time I read one of your articles I find myself thinking halfway through, ‘This is my life, exactly.’ And then every time I finish the article and see that you are the author. Thank you so much for writing the articles that you do. I'm still in very early sobriety and every time I read something by you it makes me feel a little less alone.”  Maybe the thrill stems from the sheer implausibility of my situation: like acting, modeling or painting, writing always seemed more like an immature pipe dream than a viable career path. Having spent most of my life in a state of profound terror of inadequacy, validation of any kind is like a drug. I’m greatly appreciative that anyone reads my writing so I try to keep in mind that a flood of comments, even when they’re negative, indicates thought-provoking work. But it often takes a day or two of heartbreak before I can attain that kind of removed perspective.