Honor Thy Vice

By Samantha Mann 04/13/17

Every vice has a purpose. I had to revisit the humble beginnings of my relationship with alcohol in order to understand myself.

Flower growing out of cracks in the earth.

It's been about three months since many of us made, attempted and failed our New Year's resolutions. I personally haven't made one in years. New Year's resolutions typically set me up to feel great for a week, and then I end up on a binder of sorts feeling miserable for the rest of the month.

These resolutions may work for some, but for many of us, especially those with chronic mental health issues, they never hold and leave us feeling worse. How many times have we stated that we will drink less, smoke less, eat less, be better, etc.?

If we could have simply stopped the thing to begin with then we wouldn’t need to make a resolution. 

Recently, I've been trying this new thing. It’s sort of the anti-resolution, and it seems to be slowly working. It feels deeply radical and strange. I didn’t need to buy special equipment or to register for a $300, five-hour-long seminar. I didn’t even have to leave my couch! I “simply” started having more compassion for myself. It feels outrageously uncomfortable at first. My instinct when I mess up (messing up for me is drinking too much, eating the "wrong" things, not exercising enough, etc.) is to compliantly agree with the voice in my head telling me I'm not good enough, and I’ll never get it right. This voice has been here a long time, so it must know what it’s talking about, right?

The flip side of this involves me not allowing myself credit for doing well.

I want to lose.

In January 2016, after making a total ass of myself at my parents' New Year's Eve party, I decided I needed to reel in my drinking, for real this time. I needed to form a new relationship with alcohol, but I wasn’t sure how. I've been mad at myself hundreds of times, let my wife down on too many occasions, but the sadness and anxiety I felt from these instances has never made me change my behavior. Beating myself up wasn’t working either. 

Most recovered addicts start their stories at the end, their rock bottom. Typically, these tales are cringe-worthy and conjure up images of emergency rooms and near-death experiences. I don’t know if addicts and people who misuse drugs and alcohol are told to tell these stories because people think hearing them will help others stay on the straight and narrow, or because saying them out loud is a reminder of how bad off they once were. While rock bottom stories may serve a valid purpose, I’ve realized in my own process of letting go of self-destructive behaviors that it’s more beneficial to share stories of the beginning. Learning why you picked up a specific “bad” behavior to begin with leads to more compassion and understanding. 

I’ve found with compassion and understanding it becomes easier to honor the vice and acknowledge its past purpose. We try so hard to rid ourselves of our addictions and misuses without appreciating them for what they accomplished. I want people to start sharing their beginnings. I think in doing this we see each other and ourselves more clearly.

By the time we hit our bottom we’ve reduced the image of ourselves to a person who simply behaves badly. As a behavior analyst, one thing I know for sure is that no behavior is inherently “bad.” All behavior is communication, and all behavior has a function. We should spend some more time figuring out what exactly we are trying to communicate to ourselves, or more likely, what exactly are we trying to block ourselves from hearing?

The first time I got drunk was at my best friend’s house at a sleepover in eighth grade. We had managed to steal a bottle of vodka from her brother and were looking forward to a night of boozing and cutting loose. Neither one of us had ever drank more than a few sips of a wine cooler before, so we bounced with excitement knowing we were about to get our first real buzz on together.

I remember hardly being able to swallow the stuff, but eventually figured out how to gag it down with the tried and true method of immediately chasing the liquor with a large gulp of soda. My insides warmed and I felt elated. We laughed endlessly; my jaw ached. A few drinks were good, so I assumed more were better.

The next morning, I woke up in my friend’s bed in a t-shirt that I didn’t remember putting on the night before. I had no recollection of going to sleep for the evening. My last memory flashed with us dancing around her room listening to the new Jennifer Lopez album. I recalled doing a twirl and smashing my face into a lamp which caused my friend to hit the floor howling with laugher. I felt a momentary sense of relief as I touched my face realizing nothing had been bruised or scratched. I had blacked out. I puked all over my friend’s bathroom. She had to bathe me like a toddler. My hair felt sticky and smelled of vomit. My friend had spent the entire night checking on me every half hour or so to make sure I continued breathing. She was a little pissed and keep saying how out-of-control I had acted. My body felt horrible in a way that I would later grow accustomed to in college. I threw up bile all morning. I couldn’t understand why the same thing didn’t happen to my friend.

I didn’t drink again for another year. 

I was 15 and making out with my boyfriend. My parents both worked so I had the house to myself between the hours of three and six every afternoon. I had made out with Daniel countless times before; usually at his locker between classes, or while on walks around my neighborhood. This was the first time, however, he had been in my bed.

I began to feel apprehensive as his hand left my back and snaked around to the front of my shirt. He paused with his hand on top of my stomach. I could feel my breaths shallowing out against his palm. He then slipped his hand under my shirt and touched my skin. Slowly his hand moved up to touch the top of my bra. Without thinking I jumped up as if I had been electrocuted. I was dizzy and panicked. I couldn’t breathe. I sat down on the floor with my back against my bed and my head between my knees hyperventilating.

Daniel was sweet. He rubbed my shoulders and told me it was okay. He said it was probably just nerves since I had never done anything with a guy before. Nerves were what happened before a big test or what I felt before the music started at a dance competition. This felt suffocating and raw panic, but I nodded and steadied myself.

On the floor of bedroom, I experienced my first panic attack. I felt embarrassed and didn’t tell anyone about it. Daniel brought me a surprise the next day, four beers. He said it would help me relax. We split them and I immediately felt calmer. I became silly and cozy in my skin. I wanted to be touched. We made out carelessly all afternoon. This was it. I had a figured out a way to feel comfortable within myself, and be the girlfriend I was supposed to be. This is where my story starts. A girl trying to feel at ease and avoid everything her body was trying desperately to tell her.

It will take 14 years of misusing alcohol and one unfortunate event for me to fully realize that this relationship isn’t working. I tried to just stop. I thought I was weak, and badly behaved. I even thought maybe I was someone who wanted to make poor choices. It wasn’t until I went back to the beginning and was able to feel compassion for myself that I was able to see that I created and used an ineffective coping mechanism. This knowledge has helped me to practice being kinder to myself. At the time, I didn’t know how to deal with my body, sexuality or general sense of self.

Drinking is what I used when I didn’t have anything else. Learning to deal with issues in a more effective way is my next step. I’m starting to do this, but some days I still want to have eights drink and numb out. Also, while I have a rock bottom story, and it’s an important part of my journey, it’s not the place where I find compassion. Rock bottom stories separate us from one another. I would never blow a guy I hardly know for Adderall, I would never steal money from my grandmother for drugs, I would never. This thinking doesn’t help anyone. It makes addicts and misusers alike feel more disconnected from each other and the sober people around them. Everyone knows what it feels like to be in an uncomfortable place, have no help, and be desperate for an answer.

It’s easier to understand a 14-year-old girl wanting to feel comfortable in her own skin than it is to sympathize with a 27-year-old women who occasionally binge drinks and starts verbal fights for no reason other than she is suddenly overflowing with anger. Go back to the beginning and take care of your initial experience. Tell the story. Honor your vice. Then slowly and kindly form a new relationship with it. You might find that it has a space in your world, or maybe you can set it free because you realize you no longer need it at all.

Samantha Mann is a behavior analyst and occasional writer. She has contributed to Bustle, XO Jane, Washington Post Magazine, and various other publications, She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife and their dog.

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Samantha Mann is a behavior analyst, working at Proud Moments,  and occasional writer. She has contributed to Bustle, XO Jane, Washington Post Magazine, and various other publications, She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife and their dog. You can find her on Linkedin.