The really weird thing about almost all of my problems — from despair to anger to booze — is that I’ve never been able to solve them by myself. It’s weird because it runs counter to how I want it to be — I want to solve them alone, as if my solving them alone would somehow give the solutions some sort of merit they wouldn’t otherwise have — but the fact is that I’m almost singularly unqualified to solve my own problems. It’s terrifying that this is the case, but as far as I can tell, it’s true. I have had to have the courage to be embarrassed and look weak and to go to someone else, hat in hand, and ask for help. And then a funny thing happens and people say, sure, I would be happy to help you, what an honor for you to ask.

A therapist in a rehab once had me go through a list of human rights that was a page and a half long of mostly platitudes about what we deserved as individuals, and the therapist (his name was John) asked me to make a note of whether I disagreed with any of them. I disagreed with exactly one. “Nobody has an inherent right to be happy,” I said. “Happiness is something that you earn. Shitty people don’t have a right to be happy, and I really hope that some of them aren’t.”

He kind of let this go, and if he’d argued with me I would have argued with him and it would have been a whole scene, but the point is that I don’t know if I was right, or if I was just being difficult because happiness seemed like such a chimera a week out of detox with nowhere left to live and all out of fucks to give. I don’t know if I was right because I don’t know if a thing like happiness is transactional, or really if we should think of anything so particular as a feeling as simply the upshot of debts repaid or boxes ticked off on our way to moral rectitude. Sometimes shitty people are happy and sometimes righteous ones are not. It happens.

I talked to a psychiatrist today and I said, “Hey,” and she said, “Hey,” and I said, “Look, I don’t think I’m depressed and when I was really trying to figure out if I was depressed at a rehab my psychiatrist told me I wasn’t depressed, but I figured I would ask for a second opinion.” And she said, what’s going on? And I said, “This is stupid and I can intellectualize all of this and I know what you’re going to ask, and because I know what you’re going to ask I’m not sure if I can trust myself to be honest, and I don’t have any of the classic physical symptoms of depression, and what I really have is this deep abiding existential despair, and my last psychiatrist basically said I’ve gotta just carry that shit.” And she said, go on. And I was like, “Look, I get that my problems are super not important and that other people are dealing with some real shit, and part of me feels like this is a waste of time or like I’m using resources that could be better deployed elsewhere, but the fact is that I am still having them and I’m not looking for a silver bullet and I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, but in AA” — she is an addiction specialist, and that’s why I chose her — “in AA, I have plenty of people to talk to about problems. But I don’t want this overriding framework of ‘alcoholism’ to be the way we talk about them. Because it’s not the totality of my existence or whatever.” She asked me how long I’ve been sober and I said two years a week from today, and she said congratulations.

And then she said, “I want you to know that it takes courage to ask for help, and that you’re not wasting my time.” I said I know. She said, “Everyone deserves to have some sort of chance at happiness,” and instead of bristling or fighting back like I did with the therapist at rehab, I kind of had this moment where I believed her, where the lights went on and I thought, “Maybe it would be okay to be some version of happy.” Maybe I don’t need to want to be eternally dissatisfied and filled with dread and unfathomably fucking angry. Maybe I can stop pretending that there is something wrong with wanting to be happy. Maybe happiness doesn’t mean what I’ve always thought it meant.

In AA we don’t pray for happiness, we pray for serenity. The serenity, I think, is supposed to come through the service, the helping of another alcoholic. The little goals we set for ourselves come in 24-hour increments, and there’s something very tangible and good about those small goals — the kind of goals you can touch when your head hits the pillow at the end of the day. There is something sacred about honoring the fulfillment of those goals in ritualized form. There is something very basic and true about AA’s fundamental mission, which you’ll hear repeated a thousand times if you ever need to go: “Don’t drink, go to meetings, ask for help.”

But I don’t pray, really, unless mouthing the words is prayer, which they say it can be, the people who pray, if you do it enough. “Fake it till you make it” is, at least apocryphally, an AA-ism, and it’s probably true when they say that you have to be careful who you pretend to be. And so I have prayed to God sparingly in order to avoid becoming a person who prays, for reasons that probably have much more to do with me than they do with God.

A thing that I have almost never admitted is that when I finally got sober, after six years of trying in and out of AA, after six medical detoxes and the second rehab, and after four months in a halfway house — when I moved out of the sober house to a cabin in Bath, Maine, by myself, with no one around to keep an eye on me, I spent the first night thinking I wasn’t going to make it. And when I had a fire going in the wood stove that first night, and all of the crazy unwelcome alcoholic thoughts about how ‘one drink wouldn’t hurt’ were just bombarding me, I got on my knees and I begged for God’s help. I begged for God’s help to make those thoughts stop, and I got through the night. The next day I found out that Jimbo had died, and when I got back to the cabin I had another fire and wept, and I swear to you those thoughts have never come back.

2 responses to “mercy

  1. maryannbrandt

    Dear Tom, thank you for writing and publishing this piece. Remember Hide-and-Seek and “Come out, come out, wherever you are” at the end of the game. I see you now coming out of the bushes, coming into the light. I love you, dear Tom.

  2. Good for you, Tom! Keep it up!

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