As Much As You Can

Once on a bus trip I met a recovering alcoholic named Hank. I knew he was a recovering alcoholic because that was practically the first thing he said.

I didn’t know whether to be fascinated by this kind of haphazard self-disclosure, or put off by it. I recorded the incident in my journal; I was about twenty-one and in the middle of a very romantically-conceived bus-and-train trip around the country, and I filled my journal with what I considered to be brilliant, penetrating, and above all poignant observations about my experiences and my fellow travellers.

Hank struck me at the time as very humble; you would have to be humble, wouldn’t you, to go around telling your wounds and weaknesses to some guy you just met on a bus? It was certainly the last thing I would have ever done, concerned as I was with keeping my armor in place at all times, managing my image obsessively; something I still struggle with.

He seemed different from most people: his journey out of alcoholism defined him the way some people seem defined by their conversion stories, maybe even the way the Jews were defined by being liberated from slavery in Egypt.

And well it might define him. I’m not and never have been an alcoholic (if I’m down, booze makes me too weepy to be anything resembling an escape), but I’ve always identified with them: the self-destructive patterns, the feeling of entrapment, the knowledge of your own condition combined with an utter helpnessness to drag yourself out of it.

It is a strange way to look at yourself: always seeing the good thing that you are in terms of the bad thing that you used to be. It reminds me of THE ONLY GOOD passage in a TERRIBLE, NOT RECOMMENDED novel by Chuck Palahniuk, when a recovering sex addict says something like: “My life has to be about something besides not jerking off.”

Of course there is something like this in Christian tradition — aren’t the Psalmists constantly praising God for having pulled them out of this or that pit? Hank kept saying how blessed he was to be out, but I wondered if this was what it looks like to be out of something: if you’re out of it, do you still talk about it all the time? The first part is being freed from something; the second part is being freed to do, or to be, something else.

I once said something imprudent and uncharitable to my friend A., who made a habit of exposing the darkest corners of his soul on LiveJournal.1 It was awful stuff, full of false grandeur and barely-masked self-pity. I didn’t think it was worthy of him, so I posted on his page this poem2 by Cavafy:

As Much As You Can

And if you cannot make your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can: do not disgrace it
in the crowding contact with the world,
in the many movements and all the talk.

Do not disgrace it by taking it,
dragging it around often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationship and associations,
till it becomes like an alien, burdensome life.

I love that phrase: “an alien, burdensome life.” Think too much about your life, talk too much about it, and it becomes a dead weight, something to be dragged around.

But just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to say it to your friend. Seven or eight years later, I still remember his exact reply, because of how it stung:3 “What am I to think of a friend who says to me, ‘Stop, this is too much of you’?”

I’m thinking of all this because of the way, for my three or four months of turmoil,4 I buttonholed anyone and everyone who might listen and might help, and spilled out my grief, as much of it as I could dredge up. It was the only way I knew to try to get rid of it. It was okay, I don’t mind, I’m glad I did it, it helped. If my friends wearied of my moaning, they didn’t show it, and if for a short while I turned into an emotional black hole, they don’t seem to hold it against me now. But now that that time is more or less over, I’ve got to be sure I break the habit.

It’s okay to be the center of everyone’s attention when you’re sick, but when you’re on the mend, it’s business as usual. You don’t go on laying on the couch and waiting for people to bring you chicken broth.

1 You can tell this happened a longish time ago, because, LiveJournal??
2 I know this poem because of my father, who once gave me Cavafy’s collected works and said with some kind of half-glint in his eye, “This my favorite homosexual poet.”
3 And because, even when it’s barbed and directed at me, I can’t help appreciating a phrase as well-turned as this one.
4 those months / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

9 Comments on “As Much As You Can”

  1. Christina says:

    Beautiful post, Steve! The whole dragging-around-the-dead-weight-of-your-life idea really resonates with me. I can always tell if I’m still suffering (vs. actually healing) if I still want to tell everyone about it all. the. time.

    Also, I really appreciate footnote #3, especially since it’s GMH’s birthday today. 🙂

  2. Theresa Zoe says:

    Poignant, as usual. Hit home with me because I used to respond quite as you describe Hank responding to his sobriety. In fact, you inspired me to write my own blog post.

  3. Paige says:

    What a great post… Reminds me of a quote I heard recently that humility doesn’t mean thinking less of ourselves, it means thinking about ourselves less… There can be an inordinate amount of *pride* wrapped up in our suffering. I’m glad you posted it all too in these past months, but the way you constantly press on to the next thing God is teaching you gives me courage to do the same…

  4. TN says:

    This is very good – thanks.

  5. Gabriel says:

    Good stuff. A bit convicting, too, as lately I have — for lots of reasons, both bad and good, I suspect — been reevaluating my habit (heretofore) of living out of the closet. I certainly don’t think it wrong to do so, but I feel like I have this need to talk about being gay all the time, and it’s really boring and annoying *to me,* so maybe I need to take stock of my narcissism at any rate.

  6. Danya says:

    Brilliant! This is so applicable to so many situations. When I was suffering with infertility I had a friend that said “well, you’ll stop feeling bad when you decide to stop feeling bad.” At the time I thought it was so callous, but later, I realized that I was, in fact, so very tired of feeling bad. We went on to adopt but that one poignant moment of actually deciding not to let the pain define me was a pinnacle in my conversion.

  7. KK says:

    Can’t help but think of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The “alien, burdensome life” becomes an albatross, and after your ordeal it was as though you held people with a “glittering eye” to tell your story. Maybe when it is more confessional than cautionary the “glittering eye” phase must be just a phase. The wonderful “half-glint” in your father’s eye is something else altogether, I suspect:)

  8. Aubrey says:

    Thanks for your post.
    I am not an alcoholic, but I was affected by alcoholism, as one of my parents is an alcoholic, and I grew up around it.
    For “adult children of alcoholics” who are in recovery from the effects of alcoholism, there is a progression from “hurting” to “healing” to “helping.” Some have been hurt very deeply and take a long time to heal. As we heal, we become liberated from “the burden of self.” We no longer need to protect our false self as much as we gain more confidence and become more in touch with our true self.
    I think this relates to the process of coming to terms with one’s sexuality also. For a lot of persons, there is an initial phase of acting out, playing a role, which is followed by an awakening to the true self.
    Anyway, thanks again for your post.

  9. Lyle says:

    Happy the man blessed with friends who listened to him rage and weep and love him still.

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