I attended a Billy Joel concert at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey about 30 years ago. When he played one of his biggest hits, “Pressure,” he had two grand pianos on stage. They were carefully positioned with a precise distance between the keyboards. At one point in the song, there is a brief lull between piano notes – just a few seconds. To illustrate the title of the song, he hit the last note before the lull on one of the pianos, sprinted to the other piano, and arrived just in time to pick up the piano part without missing a note.
That’s something alcoholics like me know a lot about.
The concert was good. The performer was, and still is, legendary. One of the only things I remember about a good concert from three decades ago delivered by a legendary performer is that pressure-packed sprint between pianos. He didn’t have to do that. He could have had the pianos placed a few feet closer, and jogged or trotted the distance, and still made his point. But he is a showman with a complicated relationship with pressure – he needs it at the same time as it tears him apart, slowly, insidiously. Of course, I don’t know that. I’ve never asked him. But he has publicly owned his challenges with alcohol, and he didn’t rise to the top of his fickle profession without dealing with, or medicating away, a whole lot of self-inflicted pressure. So maybe?
Also…I thought Christie Brinkley was hot back then, too, and I reluctantly spent a lot of time in New Jersey back then, too, so I feel like we have a lot in common.
A lot has changed since that concert in the early 1990s. The New York Jets are no longer forced to play in a stadium named after their cross-town rivals, Billy Joel went to rehab for alcohol abuse several times, and pressure became more than a stage theatric for me. For me, it became a way of life.
Any good alcoholic who has made an effort in recovery (not just abstaining from drinking, but actually “doing the work” of recovery), has explored his underlying causes. This work can be done through the 12 steps, or, like in my case, it can be done otherwise. I’m not aware of a way to get healthy after alcohol dependence without figuring out why we drank in the first place. Understanding the underlying causes is a necessity for growth. But understanding is one thing. Fixing our underlying causes is another thing entirely.
A lot has changed since I quit drinking alcohol over five years ago. Billy Joel has given into his obsession with Madison Square Garden (he plays there almost exclusively now – I think that’s kinda cool), the Jets are proving that playing in Giants Stadium wasn’t the underlying cause of their suckiness, and I no longer feel cravings for alcohol at all. In fact, I don’t experience major mood swings, I don’t blame my wife for the challenges we face in our marriage, and I have saved over $10k in booze and booze related expenses (like delivery pizza and stuff sold through infomercials at 1am). I am objectively a better human.
But I am still under tremendous pressure.
It is the same pressure that I used alcohol to medicate.
And it is still largely self-inflicted.
I want to overachieve. As far as I can tell, the drive to succeed is as common as a request for “Piano Man” at a Billy Joel concert or the Jets having a losing record. My definition of success has definitely adapted over the years. Before I had kids, I was willing to work obscene hours to make enough money to retire by age 50. I am far from a perfect father (did I mention my alcoholism?), but my life plan changed when my daughter was born. My parenting instincts made me want to find a way to make money which involved less travel and more time at home with my wife and kids. So I found a way to work in the town where I lived, but I still found multiple ways to drive myself beyond that which is healthy or reasonable all in the name of claiming the success that would bring me comfort from the pressure.
Comfort from myself.
Now in sobriety, I’ve done enough work that my definition of success has further shifted and adapted. I legitimately believe in the importance of living in the moment – free from regret for the past or trepidation about the future. I know in my heart and soul that I have enough of everything – money, status, stuff and connection with other humans. There is no where to go. I am here. I’ve arrived. I am far from rich, and my career continues to follow a path that I’m only tangentially influencing. But my family is healthy (I mean, we have braces and glasses and hearing aids, but we can all smell perfectly well without assistance). This is it. I’ve reached the goal.
And by recognizing that, by finding comfort in the present, by acknowledging that I have, always have had, and always will have enough, I have overachieved in comparison to the vast majority of people who never dare step even momentarily off the hamster wheel.
Even knowing what I know, even with the personal growth that would not have been remotely possible without sobriety and a quest for the underlying causes of my alcoholism, even still…
I put debilitating pressure on myself on a regular basis.
Some people call it stress, Some call it anxiety, and others call it depression. Some people recognize their compulsive need to keep going. It is natural, really. Self-inflicted pressure is the only thing that explains the scientific, cultural, industrial, psychological, medical, civic or philosophical progress that we make as a society. It would not be feasible for productivity to be driven solely by an army of cattle prod-wielding henchmen driving us relentlessly forward. We have to drive ourselves. It makes sense, and I get it.
But some of us get it a little too well. And as I said a few paragraphs back, understanding and fixing are two entirely different things.
The things I do to put pressure on myself now are truly ridiculous. Even now as I have accepted a level of contentment on a logical and conscious level, I can still find ways to put myself under illogical pressure simply because under pressure is my baseline. Here are just a few examples from the past several weeks:
Unjustified Deadlines: I used to procrastinate with the best of them. Now, I can set arbitrary deadlines for having the dishwasher unloaded or for making a trip to the hardware store because just letting it take as long as it takes is uncomfortably peaceful.
Work Goals: I am literally the boss of me. And yet, if something doesn’t trend in a positive way, I will conduct a full internal interrogation to determine if I am doing everything I can possibly do. I know how hard I work, and yet, I still have the audacity to question myself, especially for trends that are outside my control (like the price of gas or the war in Ukraine). Negative trends offer delightful potential for self-inflicted pressure.
Family Time: Shortly after returning from a fantastic family vacation this summer, one of my kids said he was bored. I said all the right things, like, “go for a bike ride, call a friend, or go shoot some hoops.” But internally, I also asked myself if I am good enough as a father. What should I be doing to eradicate boredom from my family? My wife is much better at this form of self-inflicted pressure than I am, but I am learning from her…unfortunately.
Relaxation Rejected: I can pop the corn, select a movie, and put on my comfy shorts and a t-shirt, but as soon as I recline my chair into relaxation mode, the pressure starts to mount. What could I be doing instead of sitting lazily on this chair on this Sunday afternoon? Pressure. Sometimes, I feel pressure when I don’t even have an alternative to relaxing in mind. I can beat myself up to be productive in identifying the missed opportunity at productivity. It’s insane.
Insane, yes. But it’s also one of my main underlying causes. And I know I am not alone. Self-inflicted pressure is a common underlying cause for addiction, and it’s also a post-addiction torment that leads to relapse and general dissatisfaction.
So for me, this is the work now. It’s not about alcohol anymore. It’s not about cravings or brain chemistry or cultural infatuation with booze or even repairing damaged relationships. For me, the work is about relieving pressure. Better yet, for me, the work is about not letting arbitrary doubts and insecurities create unjustified and unnecessary pressure in the first place.
For me, the work is about finding a rhythm with my complicated relationship with pressure – I need to need it less in order to keep it from tearing me apart, slowly, insidiously. I’ve got nothing more to prove. Not to you, but especially, I’ve got nothing to prove to me.
It’s time to move the pianos just a little closer together.
If you are ready to do the work and make progress, please consider joining us in our SHOUT Sobriety program for high-functioning alcoholics, both active and sober.