Failure. Such a loaded term.
So gloom and doom:
You are a FAILURE.
That’s it, you’ve FAILED.
You have earned a FAILING GRADE.
I can’t do this, I’ve FAILED.
I’ve decided I hate this term, FAILURE. (Okay, HATE is also a very intense word…so let’s just say that I’m not so fond of it.)
I think I probably considered myself a FAILURE for most of my early adult life. Like, not in every way, but as a whole, I pretty much felt like I was failing at life…and most of this had something (everything?) to do with drinking.
You know, it’s funny, because ‘on paper,’ as they say, it would have appeared that I was doing just fine: I graduated from college, got a nice salaried job as an engineer, got married, went to graduate school, had lots of friends, and went on vacations.
Yet during all that time, over all those years of seeming to check the boxes on expectations of adulting, I was in a constant cycle of self-destruction and self-flagellation.
I’d been drinking to excess (and beyond) since college. I used to say that I had ‘no governor’ (that’s the part of an engine that regulates fuel input and speed – hey, I went to an engineering school so I was a nerd like that). I would drink and drink and drink – vodka, wine, beer, rum and coke – and there was no ‘off switch’ in my brain telling me I’d had enough.
(SIDE NOTE: I have since learned through my studies with This Naked Mind, that this is how alcohol works in our bodies and brains. The unnaturally high dopamine, or pleasure, spike in our brains only lasts about 20 minutes; the next few hours we experience a decline in pleasure. We seek out more alcohol to keep that good sensation alive and hold the depressed feeling at bay. This chemical process happens to everyone, which is why the more drinks you have, the more drinks you want to keep having. While there is no such thing as ‘addictive genes’ or ‘alcohol allergy’ that makes some people more susceptible to overdoing it, factors such as personality, societal pressures, etc., all play a part in contributing to excessive alcohol use. And since my toddler years, I have always been an extrovert who appreciates a good party.)
My heavy drinking created many obstacles in my life that I had to work around, or choose to accept, in order to hang on to my addiction. I read a lot of ‘quit lit,’ or stories from other people who eventually found sobriety, and they usually talk about their many (FAILED) attempts at quitting before it finally stuck. But I never really tried to quit drinking. I knew that alcohol was making my life harder, but I rarely considered giving it the boot.
I did find a journal entry from 2003, when I was married to my first husband and entertaining the idea of ‘settling down,’ that stated my desire to cut back on partying. I remember this time in my life – at 26, I was getting into spirituality and environmental sustainability, trying to find the something that was missing from my existence. This was the year it first crossed my mind that I might want to have kids.
My then-husband’s alcohol abuse was causing a problem in our relationship (he was one of the few people I knew who could out-pace me on a night out… his nickname was Dick Whiskey, after all). Divorcing him was liberating, empowering, and absolutely the right decision to shift my life at the time, but it also felt like a major FAILURE.
When I got married to him at age 25, I had envisioned some kind of hazy future of picket fences and normalcy – a life free of constant hangovers and blacked out shame-spaces. I mean, really, we likely got married because that’s what everyone else seemed to be doing at the time. It was a terrible idea from the start – we were both too young and too lost, and mostly drawn to each other by need and desperation rather than love. But still, our DIVORCE was like a guillotine to the neck of my future plans. I had FAILED at marriage; I had FAILED at choosing a mate; I had FAILED at following the right path. And as with all things FAILURE, I felt small and wrong, outcast and shamed.
While I did feel incredibly free after that divorce was final, I also couldn’t shake the cloak of failure. And to add a gut punch to that heaviness, it was during my ‘Divorce Party’ that I was sexually assaulted by my neighbor (as described in my recent poem ‘To Drown a Crow’).
After that series of events, I dug my heels so hard into the idea that I was a strong, liberated woman. I suppose I believed owning that identity could protect me from falling to pieces. Even though the law had failed to serve me justice, I was a survivor, an independent, proud female who was flipping off the patriarchy with my bold behavior. I had fought off my attacker, I had left a man who was holding me back, I was taking graduate classes, I was mowing my own grass and changing my own light bulbs.
And I was partying. I was numbing every fiber of deep feeling that tried to find its way to the surface. I was proving my independence with shots of Makers Mark and one-night stands. I didn’t care – I was tough, loud, wild, and brave.
When I woke up in the morning, shame would creep in between my eyelids even before the sunlight, and I would glued to the bottom of that crater of sadness… unable to feel anything beyond how much I sucked at this life-thing, and how disappointed my parents would be if they really knew how miserably I was failing at everything they had hoped for me. (Or maybe it was me that was disappointed in my-failure-of-a-self for fucking this up.) I couldn’t possible fathom how to change any of it.
So I would get up, toughen up, pull up my bad-ass-bitch façade and keep going. More whiskey, please, I need to forget I hate myself.
But what if none of that was FAILURE?
What if that time in my life was just a crazy, twisty, shadowed leg of my journey? What if I don’t have to hate myself for those so-called mistakes anymore?
Not everything goes as planned; sometimes we end up looking back at where we veered off the highway, pat ourselves down and feel glad we’re still alive. Next time, I’ll slow down before I hit that hairpin turn.
In This Naked Mind, we use the term “Data Point” to identify an instance where someone who is trying not to drink has a drink (or more). I freaking love this. As a scientist, I very much resonate with the concept of data as an essential part of the process of discovery. It is necessary and inevitable.
In the addiction/recovery community, RELAPSE (having a drink when you are supposed to be sober) is the ultimate FAIL. You have proven yourself unsuccessful at recovering and are doomed to return to the beginning. Time for another Day One, as they say.
This way of thinking is at best disillusioning; and at worst, it can completely kill the motivation to keep going. All the work and effort someone has put in thus far to change their beliefs and behaviors is reduced to zero. They must hang their head and slink back to the starting block.
These words – FAILURE and RELAPSE – they are disempowering. They are full of fear, like a looming beast over the already fragile newly-hatched sober person. (Read about my personal experience ‘collecting data’ on my recovery journey in “Let’s Talk About Sober, Baby”.)
Annie Grace’s rebranding of ‘relapse’ into ‘data’ is so brilliant because it completely reframes a drinking experience (whether planned or accidental) as a tool for growth rather than an end of an unsuccessful attempt to quit.
Failure implies an end. That’s it; you’ve failed. But I believe these experiences are opportunities. They are opportunities to learn, reevaluate, change direction perhaps, and start anew.
We hear all the time sayings like “The road to success is paved with failure;” (anonymous) “I have not failed; I have found 10,000 ways that don’t work;” (Thomas Edison) or “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again;” (Henry Ford).
Why not look at recovery the same way?
In anything we set out to accomplish, whether it’s to face life after divorce or quit drinking, there will be moments of stumbling, sliding backwards, falling on our face.
But when we reframe failure in our minds as a TOOL, it becomes a game-changer. This is the art of altering subconscious beliefs.
I am learning to look back at all the mistakes and so-called failures in my life and see them as data points, as tools towards my growth.
© Skye Nicholson 2021
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