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The Alcoholic Alphabet

"Don't define your world in black and white. There is so much beauty hiding amongst the greys."

- Unknown

The other day my cellphone rang and as I went to pick it up I saw that it was one of my kids’ schools calling. Immediately I started to panic. I felt myself get incinerator hot and then clammy cold as my heart rate soared dramatically. In under 10 seconds I brought myself to tears. I saw that school's phone number and my mind went into overdrive, helpfully offering me these suggestions as to why the school was calling me:

1. My son had an accident and I was to rush immediately to the nearest trauma center.

2. My daughter was getting kicked out of school - for no other reason than that I was her mother.

3. A white mini-van full of people-traffickers had descended on the school and taken all the children to sell on the black market as young healthy American organ donors. Top bidder gets them all!

Those were my options. I was so terrified that I let the call just ring and ring and eventually it went to voice mail. Sitting in a taxi, wiping tears from my eyes and trying to catch my breath I pushed listen in my voice mailbox. And what I heard from the school astonished me. My youngest son had borrowed a book about dinosaurs from the library over a week ago and "no rush, but could he please bring it back, this week or next?”

That about sums it up. What I like to call the Alcoholic Alphabet. This A straight to Z with nothing in between. As if it's all one word. Ayzee!!! Spit out, fast and furious. No space at all. What about all the B through Y options? Can I see those please? Nope, my mind will tell me. We don't play that B through Y game here, lady. You get the A or the Z and you'll like it. Case closed. When I was addicted to drugs and alcohol my thinking was polarized, swinging wildly between extremes. I'm the biggest loser ever, or I am the most fabulous empress of the universe, adored by all. I've heard this line over and over again in A.A. "I am the piece of shit around which the universe revolves" which pretty well sums up my daily thought process, even well into my sober journey.

According to the the interweb, living within the confines of the AZ alphabet is called "splitting" and it is described in this way: Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person's thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism. The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual's actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).

I would have kept reading about this "splitting disorder" but damn Wikipedia started babbling on about how people that think this way are prone to a whole host of mental illnesses - from severe bipolar disorder to catatonic depression. As far as I'm aware I'm not suffering either of those maladies but I can still get caught spinning endlessly on the "all or nothing" Habitrail.

I cough once? It's lung cancer. I get a call from the school? It's some terrible disaster. I make a minor mistake at work? I'll never work again. I'm upset with someone? It's suddenly "so help me God I'll never speak to them again”. This last one is especially absurd because it most often happens with my immediate family members. These thoughts haunt me and if you'll notice, they’re almost NEVER happy. It's not like, I have a cough because the gorgeous cherry trees (my favorite) are in bloom and the pollen tickles my throat. The school is calling because one of my kids has made the team they wanted to. The work gaffe that I thought would end my career? Not a soul noticed but me. The relative that didn't answer the email? It slipped through the cracks. No big deal. Living this way, where the thoughts all come to disastrous ends is exhausting. But I think it might help explain my pull towards drugs and alcohol at a young age. Maybe I was born "splitting". This thinking disorder seems to have been with me always, for as long as I can remember. And it's not that I eventually outgrew this split way of thinking. I had it as a child, an adolescent, a young adult, an adult. It never stopped. But starting at around age 14 if I could get drunk or high enough I just didn't care. "Say what you will, mind” I would declare. "Polarize the shit out of all situations, I honestly don't care. I'm getting wasted and I'll be just fine." But now I don't get drunk or high anymore. What's a girl to do?

I "do" what was suggested to me ad nauseam by my A.A. friends. I meditate. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even try meditating until I was over a decade into the program. "I'm too busy", "I don't know how" or "I just can't" which is ridiculous. That's like me saying "I just can't make sushi." You know why I can't make sushi? Because it looks daunting and I've never tried. That's why. Just like meditation. But this rigid way of thinking is draining me. It does not allow for other options, flexibility, openness. It feels limiting, claustrophobic, like I'm drowning. I've lived this way for so long, even into sobriety, and now I want out. I need out. That's where meditation helps. By sitting quietly and looking within I'm learning that it's actually not so scary in there. I mean it's probably terrifying for the average Joe, but not for me. By now I'm used to the 24/7 horror movie repeats that play on my mind's screen. In meditation I can clearly see that I invent this self-generated terror as nothing but a smokescreen, a distraction, a defense mechanism used by my mind to try and have some control over the roller coaster-y vicissitudes of human existence. I feel compelled to go deeper. To explore my mind in the hope that by understanding it better we can co-exist happily. I think I'm more than halfway through my life journey today so if I can't broker a peace settlement with my mind now, then when? That black and white perspective doesn't suit me anymore. Everything and everyone is a mixed bag. Nothing is ever truly black or white.

In A.A. I can share this inner world and realize that I'm not alone with this relentless split monologue. All good or all bad. I've met loads of people who thought this way for years into sobriety too. By going within, by sitting still, I'm beginning to see that all my thoughts are just passing clouds. All of them. They feel real. My body reacts to these thoughts as if they are real. Thoughts of anger and betrayal, fear of the future, regrets from the past. These thoughts can really suck me in. But with meditation I can lean back. Lean away from the destructive habit of over-thinking and polarizing everything. Through a meditation practice I am just beginning to understand that my thoughts are just harmless invisible vapor. It's also become clear to me that contrary to my own belief, life has most often worked out for me, not conspired against me.

I know for a fact that if I was able to stop drinking and taking drugs then I can quit any bad habit. I can learn how not to get sucked into those addictive churning thoughts. Thoughts that I chew on over and over again, sometimes for years! Like a piece of misery-inducing and indestructible beef jerky. Through meditation I'm learning to relax and let go. I’m learning to stop having those ridiculous theatrical arguments in my mind with people who aren’t there. Usually these people are not in the same state or country as me. Sometimes they are even dead. And I'm still arguing with them! I want to free myself from letting people live rent-free in my head. I want to be liberated from those swinging judgements and harsh criticisms, of myself and of others. Those “it’s A or it's Z” thoughts. I can let them all go. I want to rest in a space that allows for all the letters and all the expansiveness that this new way of thinking might bring me. So I'm meditating daily and I hope I will keep it up. For in this short time of sitting still and going within I see that it is true, there really is so much beauty hiding amongst the greys.


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