“There’s more food on the stove. Please have more dinner! I’m glad to see you like my cooking.”
One hour passes.
As you take the Tupperware from the refrigerator, you hear, “You’re eating again?”
Sometimes the judgment is so subtle, it is hard to hear. Keep listening.
“When are you going to cut your hair?”
On the surface, that is not a criticism. It is an inquiry. In depth and sentence structure, it is not unlike, “Do you think it’s going to rain?” or, “What’s your favorite color?” But that hair question has teeth.
Imagine two very different mindsets coming into those interactions. First, imagine that you’ve lost a few pounds. Your exercise routine is locked in. In fact, you recently went further, climbed higher, or increased your pace. In addition, you recently received a compliment about your hair. It wasn’t much, just a comment about waviness or highlights or curls or thickness or something inconsequential. In this scenario, you are feeling pretty good about yourself.
So when your eating habits and personal appearance are called passive-aggressively into question, the jabs are hardly noticeable glancing blows. You twirl your hair with your middle finger while you finish off the leftover pie with a smirk.
Now imagine the same interactions with what might be recognized as a more common set of preceding circumstances. You’ve been stressed at work trying to get ready for a week or so out of the office. You are trying to cram in dentist appointments and a piano recital for your kids before the trip for which you haven’t started to pack. You haven’t had time to breathe or sleep, let alone to eat right or exercise, and the vending machine in the office lobby has been the recipient of quite a bit more of your cash than you would care to admit. You can see the carbs you’ve been inhaling in the puffiness in your face, and your long hair looks more like laziness than intent when it accentuates your sprouting second chin.
This time, those same jabs about your food intake and hairstyle choices – the ones you dismissed with ease when you felt good about yourself – are knockout blows to your protruding and unprotected chin. Or chins (I thought I would kick you while you’re down).
My book research and informal case studies about human behavior – compulsive or addictive or otherwise – have made one thing overwhelmingly clear to me: The most important component to mental and physical health is self-esteem. When we feel good about ourselves, we make healthy decisions, interact positively with those around us, perform better at work, don’t rely on medicinal (prescribed or self-administered) chemicals, manage stress and conflict better, prioritize ourselves, and navigate with greater ease all the disruptions that human life brings. And our hair is shinier.
But self-esteem ebbs and flows. Life is hard. Shit happens. Despite the zillions of hours we spend trying to exert control over the world around us, we are ultimately just passengers on the turbulent ride of life. Good stuff happens, and we feel good. But bad stuff happens, too, that sends us careening toward a “fuck it” moment. As a drinker, those moments meant drinking whiskey like life’s solution was glued to the bottom of the inside of a Jack Daniels bottle. Now in my seventh year of sobriety, a “fuck it” moment means no corn chips or tubs of ice cream are safe in a three-county region. Or it means exercise will give way to binge-watching a whole season of 30 Rock. As I am fond of saying: Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. That’s an uplifting motto, no? But it’s true. Sobriety in and of itself is not a solution. It just changes the target of our self-abusive proclivities.
So self-esteem is important. And self-esteem is fluid and variable. So does that make life hopeless?
But I’m not ready to give up, so I keep searching for answers. Searching for answers to life overall makes me feel like I need to take a vow of silence and sit with crossed legs on top of a mountain without eating for a year. I don’t have any of that in me. So I’ll stick to searching for more specific answers with the more limited goal of trying to nudge our self-esteem in the right direction.
Last week, my daughter was trying to park her grandfather’s Wave Runner on its floating plastic perch that is moored to his dock in the lake where my parents retired. The rubber and metal rollers on the plastic ramp had been recently lubricated. The lube made departure quite a bit easier, but it also severely shrunk the window for successful docking. Too light on the throttle, and the little boat rolled back into the water. Too much juice, and the water-rocket landed on the dock doing damage – property or personal injury or both. As my daughter approached, I could feel the tension oozing out from under her life jacket. I considered getting up and walking over to the ramp to “help” my child. What would that look like, me staring at her and issuing words of encouragement? What was I going to do if she came up short? Tell her to try again (as if sitting permanently in the water was an option)? What if she over-cooked it? Was I going to catch the motorized vehicle in mid air?
I decided that me glaring at her as she tried to conquer a challenge that she only faces a couple of times a year would be nothing more than stress and pressure inducing. So I did the most helpful thing I could think of while my child did something hard. I sat calmly staring out at the lake in the opposite direction.
I sat and listened and pretended I wasn’t listening. I didn’t encourage, because encouragement often carries with it an inherent belief that the outcome is in doubt. I didn’t judge, because – even when well intentioned – judgment overflows in family settings. I didn’t second-guess her eating decisions or question her hairstyle. I avoided the futile desire to exert control over the uncontrollable. I basked in the undisputable enlightenment that my participation could only serve to make the situation worse no matter how hard I tried to make it better.
It took her four tries, but she landed that little boat right in that plastic ramp’s sweet spot.
I grinned a little from behind my sunglasses as I heard her footsteps take her across the dock and up to the house.
If you are in active addiction – either as the drinker or the loved one of a drinker – and you are trying like hell to avoid alcohol today and to make this your day one, this is not the message for you. You don’t need to hear me pontificate about how sobriety doesn’t fix anything. However, this message does prove that sobriety is a prerequisite, because you couldn’t understand this message, and I couldn’t deliver this message, without some serious time spent exploring human behavior in relation to sobriety.
This isn’t a message about getting sober. This is a message about understanding what it means to be sober. And this isn’t some profound and all-encompassing answer to the mystery of life. This is a nugget of potentially useful information that can help you manage judgment and avoid judging others. Can you imagine what that might do to our collective level of self-esteem? And if we all felt better about ourselves, maybe those whiskey bottles and ice cream tubs can feel safer in our proximity.
I am proud of my daughter. But that’s not really important. What matters is that she is proud of herself. I can’t make that happen for her, but I sure can destroy her self-esteem with little effort and even less intent.
Nah. I think I’ll just focus on growing my hair a little longer.
If you want to explore sobriety’s big, and little, questions, consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.