Today. December 31st 2015, New Year’s Eve. The dawn of a new year is always so fresh with possibility, with potential. How many of us vow to change our lives with the start of a new year? This year I will finally get healthy. This year I will work out more. This year I will actively pursue my dreams. Why does it take a new year to finally take the first step? Why do we put off what we want while simultaneously pressuring ourselves with resolutions?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of starting fresh, of starting over. I love the idea of establishing resolutions that will see us through to new, better selves and lives. But I also think, I know (from personal experience), that we can have the tendency of creating a kind of rigidity, a pressure that we put on ourselves, that can render us immobile or frustrated when we do not accomplish what we have set out to do. I have many hopes and aims for this coming new year, excitement for what it has in store, but I do not have a list of “iron-clad” resolutions. There are many things I wish to accomplish in 2016, but I also wish this more than anything: to be gentle with myself.
With my newfound clarity I have come to discover that I have been, and still can be, so very hard on myself. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself and my actions. This pressure is one of the many things that led me to drink in the way that I did. If I “messed up,” there was an excuse to drink. I was always frightened of “messing up,” of doing something “wrong.” This fear made me doubt myself, to doubt my character and my passions, my abilities. Because of this fear, I often caused many fears to come true. Because I was scared of ruining things, I often did.
The fears I had — saying the wrong thing, not doing anything substantial with my life, being a fraud — were often not only manifested, but amplified. Drinking in an attempt to stanch the constant flow of worry and pain rendered me unreliable and obviously more apt to mess up, to act like someone who I knew I wasn’t. I was unable to determine what I really should have been contemplating: how to change. How to be better, how to be okay with myself, how to create the life I wished more than anything to see. I was consumed with potential and real problems, rather than concerning myself with actual, workable solutions. Instead of worrying about “messing up,” I should have been thinking about how to create a life where there wasn’t always a land mine on the path before me.
I am very grateful that I have been able to identify and dismantle my land mine: drinking as a solution to life’s problems. Though my life is not “perfect” because I have quit drinking, it is livable. More than livable; it is wondrous and rich with possibility. I knew that my decision to finally quit drinking was right when I felt an enormous rush of relief wash over me. The relief I felt was warm, inviting, comforting. I realized that if I took alcohol out of the equation, I was lifting an enormous weight of doubt and insecurity from my shoulders. Life itself is filled with doubt, with change, with the unknown. But without alcohol clouding my judgement, doubt of myself was rendered obsolete. I no longer had to worry that I would black out, that I would hurt someone or myself, that I would be an embarrassment. I no longer had to wake up in the morning wondering, What happened last night? Did I embarrass myself? What did I do? The shame, the guilt, all of that soul-depleting worry, could dissipate.
I still feel guilt and shame, but I feel this when I think of the past, of what I have done. And these feelings are indeed awful, but they are no longer based in the present, which is something I am relieved and fortified to experience. I have to remind myself that I cannot change the past, that I shouldn’t even necessarily want to, because if I could change my past actions, I doubt that I would be where I am now, on December 31st, writing these words. It is kind of cliche — I wouldn’t change the past because it made me who I am — but nonetheless true. If not for my mishaps, my mistakes, I would not have finally found the resolve to remove alcohol from my life, I would not have my experiences to share with others in the hopes of cultivating change. I write these words for myself, because writing helps me process my thoughts, but I also write these words for you. You, whoever you are, reading this right now, I am writing this for you. Because I have lived through and done what I have done so that I can reach out into the void and remind you that you are not alone.
I thought I was alone for a long time, and in many ways, this was true. I have had the good fortune of having family and friends whom have never wavered in their support of me, but this beautiful love was never truly felt. I have only just realized this now in the months since quitting drinking. I could not truly absorb this love because I did not love myself. Yes, perhaps this sounds like another cliche, but I don’t care because it is the truest thing I have ever said. It is painful to admit, that I did not love myself, it is sad. But I did not love myself because I did not think I was worthy of my own love, let alone the love of others. I thought that I was a loser, a fraud, a bad person. I thought that because I had slipped and fallen, I deserved it. I felt alone because without love of and for myself, I was.
I was the one who held a bottle up to my lips, no one else did that. I was the one who drank until I couldn’t remember; no one forced me to drink like that. I take full responsibility for hurting others when I was drunk, something I never wished to do, but these past months have taught me that I am not a horrible person because I struggled with alcohol. Quitting drinking did not make me Mother Theresa. But quitting drinking gave me the opportunity to change my own story. To change the voices in my head, to strive to be better, to take each day as it comes. To be gentle with myself. As writer John Cheever said after he quit drinking, “I am not better than the next man, but I am better than I was.”
It is this knowledge that helps me wade through the murk of my past, to trudge through the muddy waters of remembrance. Sometimes I wish I could blank out the past and the things I have done, like my DUI at nineteen, but I there are already so many things that I don’t remember from blacking out. I wish to remember everything now, to feel and experience life, to absorb everything around me, the good and the bad, and to know that it is not about what happens to us in life, but how we decide to react. I need to remember my past in order to forge ahead into my future, to become better.
What I still struggle with, with this remembering, is learning how to forgive myself. That is partly what I mean when I say I wish “to be gentle with myself” in 2016. It is tempting to be hard on myself, to fall back on my old patterns of mentally admonishing myself, to feel bad. It is all too easy to push myself into discomfort, to berate myself if I don’t do yoga five days a week or if I lie on the couch watching TV instead of writing. But who and what does this serve? No one. Nothing. I am learning that I can only be productive if I let myself rest, if I take care of myself. I am learning that if I don’t put myself and my health first, then I cannot truly accomplish anything worthwhile. I have to listen to my body if it needs a day off. I have to listen to myself to decide if I really should go out or if I should just stay home and let myself be.
I have undoubtedly become healthier since I quit drinking; I’ve lost twenty pounds, I do yoga and meditate, I laugh and love with more freedom than I have in a long time. But 2015 has also been a year of my body and my mind trying to tell me that I need to slow down. I have accomplished a lot for myself this year — quitting drinking, graduating college, completing an internship, starting a blog, fortifying relationships — but I haven’t really been taking care of myself like I should be, I know this now.
So 2016 will indeed be a year of more growth, more possibility, more change, more excitement. But it will also be a year of listening to myself, listening to my body, listening to my intuition. If I am tired, I will rest. If I am yearning for someone to talk to, I will ask to be heard. I will continue to say “yes” to the world, to be open and ready and willing, but I will also start saying “no” if something doesn’t feel right for me. I will continue on the arduous path of beginning to forgive myself. I will be gentle with myself. Because I know now that the most important relationship I can have in this life is the one I have with myself.
I wish you a wild, free life (and New Year!).