When you're little and things are off at home - when there are secrets to be kept, unstable adults to be managed, abuse to be endured - you learn how to make everything appear pleasant; you learn how to hide. It's a difficult lesson to unlearn, because your whole life is based on a fundamental dishonesty, and you've never had the crucial childhood experience of valuing truth. When other kids are owning up to their childish misdeeds, when your teachers encourage integrity, when you should be building an indelible identity, you're working on the daily task of making everything okay. You struggle and strive to maintain a facade because you know that somehow, if people see what's going on, your world will fall apart, and it will be your fault.
And when you grow up - when the legacy of all those lies eats away at you from the inside - you don't really know how to be a person. How to tell the truth. How to stick up for yourself. The lies poison you even as you smile and assure others that everything is fine.
I'm turning 32 this year, and in a few days I'm also reaching two years of sobriety. A lot of my growing up has happened in these past two years, because active drinking was just another way to hide. I'd mix my craft cocktails and smile and count down the seconds until I wasn't thinking about the lies anymore. Near the end of my alcohol use I'd pour my five o'clock Sazerac - because I stuck firm to my rules of when and what I was allowed to drink - and I would think, I don't even want to remember my name. And that habit was just an extension of the habits I learned when I was small. No one knew that alcohol was becoming a problem for me, just like no one knew that there wasn't enough food in the house, or that I didn't always have clean clothes, or that my first small glass of beer was poured by a parent when I was under ten years old.
In these two years, I've had to face a lot about myself and a lot about the things that happened when I was young. It's been a constant dialogue between the person I want to be and the helpless person I was. I've unlearned so many bad habits, and I've made so much progress, but the urge to make everything look good has remained. That was my first lesson. That was my lodestone, the structure of my existence.
I've spent a lot of time asking myself what my calling is in life. I don't have a normal job, so how do I justify myself? How do I describe what I do? And what I've come back to, again and again, is that I feel called to be honest about my struggles with mental illness. I've hoped that by telling my story I could help someone else, or a handful of someones. I've tried to speak plainly about depression, mania, disordered eating - I've tried to communicate my normal so that others might feel less alone.
But I find myself bumping up against that fundamental dishonesty, because I still live my life as if everything is just fine. Nothing to see but a polished veneer, nothing to be worried about as I dazzle and deflect. Most of the time I get away with it, but I know down to my toes that I can't continue. My life is so beautiful in many respects, but if I don't deal with the hard stuff, the ugly stuff - if I don't admit to myself and to others that I have bad days - I am sober in name only. I am constitutionally incapable of being honest.
When I was small I never learned that there was both value and joy in speaking honestly. I never understood that I might get help if I asked for it. I learned, instead, that I could make adults smile if I were clever and well dressed - I learned that a cutting joke or a vintage gown could distract from the bitterness at home. And I went home, and I drank, and I spun out the evenings in music and conversation, and I came to understand that things weren't too bitter if the vodka was cold enough.
While my father passed from life into death - while I could have, should have felt the pain and sorrow of his illness and of those long irrevocable martini afternoons - I grit my teeth and layered on makeup and didn't let anyone see me cry. I didn't let anyone see I was angry. And I'm still recovering from that denial - I'm tired all the time, world-weary and sore.
As I approach my two year soberversary, I know I have to let go of that tightfisted control over what other people might see. I know I must ask for help when I need it, and that I must set limits to preserve my mental health, and that I cannot simply fake it until I fall apart. And if my calling in life is really to be honest - if I want to speak my truth and help people who are too scared to speak their own - I must actually live up to that ideal.
Dishonesty is its own sickness and its own addiction. If you can fool others, it whispers, you can fool yourself.
So here I am, almost two years sober, and I've been ground down like a river rock and worn smooth like sea glass. I've been blessed in so many ways, and I'm also quietly angry a lot of the time; my anxiety is a significant issue and I get traumatic flashbacks in the bathtub. On days when I can't get past the bad things I struggle to write, paint, play an instrument; on good days I am aware of just how lucky I am. And I worry, rather too much, about making other people uncomfortable - I worry about awkward conversations, or denial from people I love, or rage and resentment as I set limits and stand up for myself - but I'm going to funnel all of my ambition into this new pursuit, honesty. I think it may help others; I know it will help me.
I need to learn this new lesson, the first lesson and the most important -
Always tell the truth. Even when it's hard. Even if it hurts.
It might not look good. But eventually, life will get so much better.