We can weep, whine, or get drunk–or we can learn to accept
OVER AND OVER, through the gaiety of the preholiday season in December 1965, I chanted this litany of despair: “I gave all I had to give, and it wasn’t enough.” And on Christmas night, I made a drunken and almost successful suicide attempt. Consciousness returned in the special-care ward of the local hospital, where doctors waited to determine whether brain damage had occurred during the moments when my heart had stopped beating, thirty-six hours earlier.
It would be nice to be able to say that I promptly joined AA, stopped drinking, reconstructed my collapsing marriage, and never again suffered an attack of the Ploms–the Poor-little-old-me’s. But a divorce was to come and two more drunken years were to elapse before I took my last drink.
This dirty linen might have been washed in the privacy of the Fifth Step if I was not convinced that its obvious message should be passed along: Self-pity can kill.
True, alcohol was the catalyst. It required a combination of alcohol, self-pity, and a bitter quarrel to provide the impetus for my nearly fatal gesture. And it required ignorance of the underlying causes. It became necessary for me to go back to my childhood, to the time when the seeds were planted that had their noxious blooming so many years later.
My mother, doubtless for well-meant reasons, did not believe in coddling me. She used to tell me proudly, “You have to earn my love.”
Too young then, and too unquestioning, I failed to realize the truths that one is not always unlovable and that others are often unloving. That ignorance almost cost me my life.
I went down the potholed, mud-bogged path of the years, struggling against my legitimate anger, excusing the faults of others, though never my own, measuring myself by the yardstick of perfection and despising the gap between, dismissing my virtues as inadequate or condemning my recognition of them as egotism, and nursing each failure with aching pain.
And when it got too bad, when my demands on myself had squeezed the juice from life, I drank. I might have gone on forever, fighting the battle of my disintegrated ego–drinking for release, sobering up amid the wreckage the release created, making impossible demands on myself, then drinking again–had I not finally become convinced that I had achieved my goal. In the midst of a family disaster, I had behaved almost perfectly.
My unbelieving joy was monumental. All the efforts of the years had paid off. I examined my actions for flaws–went over every word I had made, every gesture I had made, every letter I had written, every attitude I had held–bathed them in the clinical, unsparing light of objectivity and justice, and found them valid. Joy-suffused, I turned toward love.
And met hate. I had been wise, and my wisdom was resented. I had been compassionate, and they wanted intolerance. I had been understanding, and they called for condemnation.
Blinded with tears, I headed for the bottle. And drank. And said over and over (though no one listened, having their own problems), “I gave all I had to give, and it wasn’t enough.” And almost died.
Looking back, more than six years later, I still feel that I had behaved exceptionally well. I did deserve, if not love–which depends on the capacity of the giver, rather than the acts of the recipient–at least approval. And I didn’t get it.
Poor little old me. I had the Ploms and almost died from them. Sober, I would probably have recovered with a few new scars on an already badly dented ego, and my life since would have been a different one. Yet I had survived many a maudlin drinking bout without resorting to suicide attempts. It was alcohol plus the Ploms that almost did me in.
Though I no longer use alcohol, I must still guard against self-pity, a defect as “cunning, baffling, powerful” as alcohol. I have wrestled with self-pity many times since joining AA, four years ago. It was a tough fight, but I won–until very recently, when the old “I gave all I had to give, and it wasn’t enough” syndrome rose phoenixlike from the ashes of Christmas 1965. Although my symptoms were identical, I didn’t recognize them. When I first became aware of deep depression, I put it down to the aftermath of moving and getting settled in a new city and in an old house. “I’m just tired from papering and painting,” I told myself firmly. Or “I’m a little depressed because the excitement of shopping is over and the money’s all spent.”
I decided to celebrate Be-Kind-to-Me Week, which is generally helpful in treating mild depression or fatigue. I took long naps–and awoke more tired and disconsolate than when I had gone to sleep. I gorged on sweets–then hated myself for my spreading waistline. Nothing seemed to help.
In fact, things grew worse. I fought tears, and when I had successfully swallowed them, anger and hostility toward everyone and everything welled up in their place. When I forced these back–or, unfortunately, spilled them out to anyone who would listen–despairing loneliness enveloped me.
It was only through the grace of God that I was free of the compulsion to drink during the four or five days that I felt these symptoms with such intensity. The old feeling of “To hell with it! I’ll get drunk” recurred only once, when I had dropped my husband at his office and faced a return to the empty house, which I had come to loathe. AA had given me a weapon to combat that feeling. I hadn’t been around long enough in my new AA group to have acquired any phone numbers for telephone therapy, so I did the only thing I could think of to postpone a return to the house–and to the bottle kept for nonalcoholic guests. I took care of some neglected errands. Not many, not important, but when I returned to the house, forty-five minutes later, I had gained some perspective, been in contact with other people–and completely forgotten any thoughts about bottles for guests. Sometimes, playing for time is all it takes.
I did something else. Though I didn’t believe a word of it with my heart, I knew intellectually that “this, too, shall pass.” I reminded myself constantly that I had been badly depressed in the past and that, if I didn’t drink had always bounced back up–and would this time, too. All I had to do was wait.
Then I started listing in my mind the exact possible causes of this depression. Gradually, the old, tired pattern emerged: I had given all I had to give, and it wasn’t enough. I had moved even farther south, although I am one of those nuts who like cold weather. I had practiced economy in the purchase of the house and its contents, in spite of my predilection toward extravagance. I had cheerfully done backbreaking labor, although I incline toward the horizontal plane if left to my own devices. The list was a long one, but what it boiled down to was that I had been pretty saintly–so where was my laurel wreath?
Poor little old me–same song as before. And I hadn’t had the remotest notion that self-pity was again the root of my problem!
Without knowing what I was fighting, however, I had used another weapon that AA had given me. Never thinking of it as practicing the Tenth Step, I had continued to take personal inventory and when I was wrong, had promptly admitted it. And that Tenth Step, practiced with unsparing honesty, had ended my dry drunk, cured my self-pity, and saved my sobriety.
There are additional weapons that can be used in fighting the Ploms, once the disease is recognized for what it is. First, for me, is to recognize that most of the time when I give all I have to give and even a bit more, I am doing it by my own choice. No one was pointing a gun at me and making me paint walls–I chose to do it for the reward of enjoying the fresh paint. If I overdid it to the point of aching muscles and exhaustion, whose fault was that? What reason did I have to expect paeans of praise?
Second, if I occasionally do not receive what I have earned and have a reasonable right to expect–who ever promised me justice? Often, I do not get my just deserts when I behave badly!
It is my belief that all of us have more control over our feelings than we generally suspect. Once an unhealthy attitude is seen clearly, it can be scrapped. If someone has given me cause for self-pity, I can opt to resent and even try to punish him, ignoring the fact that I might better leave that up to God. But do I want to hurt him? Do I really want, however justifiably, to be bitter, hostile, and judgmental? Do I want to live inside that sort of person? Wouldn’t I rather forgive, make allowances, understand? Is self-pity, feeling abused, so precious that I will not trade it for self-liking?
I can also fight self-pity by considering the lot of others. Whom do I know who always gets what he wants, whose life is so fine that I would eagerly exchange mine for it? And whom do I know who has much less than I?
Last, suppose life deals me one crushing blow after another, none of them deserved. What can I do about it? Well, I can weep and whine. If that doesn’t improve things, I can get drunk. And if that doesn’t work, I can kill myself. Or I can accept the situation and live. Those are my options.
Living appears to be the best; if things should happen to improve, I will be around to benefit. As drinking alcoholics, we all ran from life and toward death. When we join AA, we reverse the process–we give ourselves to life as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. We stop fighting the inevitable and start growing up.
I will never totally overcome self-pity. It will lie in ambush along the road ahead. It will wear many skillful disguises, so that I will not always recognize it immediately. But, with the help of God and AA, it will never cause another night like the one of Christmas 1965.