Not Caring… in a Good Way

By Christopher Dale 04/23/15

My inability to save face led to a depth of embarrassed isolation that addicts know only too well.

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Christopher Dale
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In sobriety, I’m becoming delightfully detached from the judgments of others.

Throughout my pre-alcoholic days, a period spanning from childhood to early adulthood, I was highly concerned, even obsessed, with establishing a lofty stature in the eyes of others. Like many of us latter-day problem drinkers, I had a desperate need to be—depending on the particular company—liked, admired, or considered someone of substance or importance. I was a classic people-pleaser, an easily diagnosable psychiatric cliché. 

As my drinking began its steady creep toward a point of no return, my images—whose plurality exemplifies the differing roles I played for varying audiences, all toward the goal of feeling accepted—became increasingly difficult to maintain. My mental obsession with anesthetizing my mounting sense of disease drove me to cut corners in my personal public relations campaign. In varying circumstances and to differing degrees I was, in turns, awkward, clipped, antsy or preoccupied. And once I treated this uneasiness with the only remedy known to me—alcohol—my physical craving made it such that I cared far more about my next drink than my next image-promoting witticism. 

By the time I descended into full-bore alcoholism, I had largely given up keeping appearances. I could no longer convincingly converse with others so, logically in my diseased mind, I simply chose to avoid them by slowly fading from my social sphere. Toward the end of my drinking career, even life’s barest essential behaviors—professionalism at work, truthfulness and responsibility to my spouse, timely payment of debts—had slipped away. My inability to save face led to a depth of embarrassed isolation that addicts know only too well. 

It was this sort of confused, frustrated humiliation that hung over me as I began my journey in recovery from alcoholism. Following one final, emphatic act of shame—a DUI—I came into Alcoholics Anonymous with self-esteem so shattered that thoughts of suicide were a bit more than fleeting. I was in a dangerous place, and so fearful of the deservedly disparaging judgments of my family, and few remaining friends, that I dared not discuss the matter with anyone. 

Fortunately, that was my bottom and as I gradually improved, so did others’ reactions toward me. Like most recovering alcoholics in very early sobriety, I was still so emotionally raw that I didn’t trust my own feelings. (In fact, I’ve often found the ability to tamp down one’s feelings in lieu of the sound advice of AA veterans to be a determining factor in whether or not a newcomer stays sober; eventually, the less dedicated rookies tend to feel their way to a bar.) The upside of this is that I was open to the suggestions of those with longstanding sobriety. The downside is that I was still basing my own progress on the judgments of others, including many that, though they did so without malice, had no business making such appraisals.  

The result was me taking a lot of bad advice to heart, and a lot of well-intended constructive criticism in offense. I spent a great deal of time misguided, pissed off, or both. 

As I progressed in sobriety—made meetings, took commitments and speaking engagements, worked the 12 steps with a sponsor—that desperate need to be accepted began to diminish. This much-needed toughening up occurred, I think, in direct proportion to the extent that healthy self-esteem started to replace sick self-obsession. By consistently taking the next right actions for the first time in my adult life, I was—if only in my mind, where such phantasmagoric enemies existed—disproving my harshest of critics.  

AA is a program of action, and I was actively discrediting what had, so very recently, been a concrete conviction of my utter worthlessness. Despite still being hypersensitive to the judgments of others, I had shown that, at the very least, I wasn’t all bad. I realize today this was just solid enough a start.

Freedom from Expression

Among the many freedoms attained through Alcoholics Anonymous—freedom from addiction, self-loathing, spiritual (and potentially physical) imprisonment—has been, unpredictably enough, freedom from the words and actions of others. Not freedom from co-existing, communicating and even cherishing others, but rather liberation in the form of a drastic diminishment in the effects of others’ deeds and opinions on my self-esteem and, ultimately, my everyday life.  

My skin will never be impenetrable, of course, but it has grown far thicker in just the few years I’ve been sober.  

The first step in this process was acceptance within a group: Nowhere in my life have I felt a stronger sense of belonging than in the Fellowship of AA. Before discovering the rooms, I was convinced that I was the only person in the world who, despite his best efforts and most solemn vows, simply could not stop drinking to save his own life. From the very first meeting I attended, I realized there were, in fact, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) who not only suffered from such an affliction but, miraculously, had recovered from it.  

At this point in my still-fledgling sobriety, a chasm developed between the acceptance I felt inside the Fellowship of AA and the unease I felt in the world outside of it. These were, it seemed, the only folks who truly understood my condition, my struggles, my insanity. As I came to identify with recovering alcoholics over all others, I also came to place more weight on their ideas, assertions and experiences. Their words mattered more than those of “outsiders” and, as these messages were delivered in a setting of safety and brotherhood, these men and women became the first souls ever to teach me life lessons without me resenting them for it. 

Much like I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that I no longer wanted to drink, I don’t remember the first time that, in calculating what others might think of me for doing or saying something, my internal monologue organically—and honestly—produced the correct answer: 

“Who cares?”

Allow me to qualify that. This isn’t to say that I never care about what anyone outside of AA thinks about me, ever. That would make me, among other things, an inconsiderate jerk. What I mean is that Alcoholics Anonymous—gradually but nonetheless miraculously, as with many of its seemingly limitless gifts—taught me how to stop measuring myself through the eyes of others, most of whose private judgments I’d never be privy to anyway. Obsession with self-image is a symptom of selfishness; as I work to minimize the latter, the former dissipates by association. 

There are, of course, non-alcoholics in my life who I love, who I value, or with whom I simply need to coexist civilly. Here, my newfound “gift of not caring” pays the added benefit of role recognition. For example, I am a better coworker because I don’t feel a desperate need to be loved by my colleagues. Unbelievably given my former state of mind, I’ve become known as a fair-minded, principles-over-personalities professional in my place of business. When enacted morally, role recognition breeds pure intentions: I come to work to work, because work is where I’m supposed to work.  

Similarly, I am a friend to my friends, a husband to my wife, a family member to my family. With the exception of my wife and my boss, though, I really don’t lose sleep about what any of them think of me. And as I’ve grown in AA, the same holds true for my fellow recovering alcoholics; I see value in the opinions of nearly everyone in the rooms but, when push comes to shove, the number of people whose counsel and criticisms really matter to me are but a thoroughly-vetted handful, my sponsor among them.  

Everyone should be lucky enough to have such a grounded, guiding inner circle, one that unwaveringly fulfills our innate human needs for identification and validation. Through mutual pursuit of our shared primary purpose—staying sober, and helping others to achieve sobriety—today I know and trust the people whose opinions matter most. Others are free to admire, like or, I’m sure, dislike me as they see fit. If that makes me sound cold, detached or arrogant… well, who cares? 

Next: “Part 2: Reactions & Relationships”

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues. He is the founder and sole contributor to www.ImperfectMessenger.us, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.

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