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The Present That is Your Past

The view from our window. Metaphorically beautiful, the big “stay” sign, amidst the fog. Some of us need really obvious signs.

Sometimes you don’t realize how close behind you your past is, until you turn around and are staring it smack in the beady little eyes. But it’s always there. Sometimes it gets you in a strangle-hold, sometimes it needles you, but it is there, like a shadow. I ran into mine this weekend, in ways that I never would have expected, but it made so many things make sense. Thanks, past. You’re a gift that keeps on giving me a better future.

It started with a drink. Actually many drinks, that have been consumed by most of the most important people in my life. In abundance, such that I can barely stand being around drunk people. Even people who consume just a moderate amount of alcohol, but on a daily basis, give me pause and my eyes get beady themselves, as I look for signs of impending doom.

Both of my primary parents drank too much when I was growing up. (Still do, if you ask me, though as an adult it bothers me less, mostly because I can remove myself.) Their tempers would change dramatically and unpredictably – both with each other and with me. As such, alcohol, at a young age, became a precursor of instability, and in some cases danger.

I later married a man, who I love and respect to this day, who turned out to be an alcoholic. I found this out, in part, by getting a call that he was in jail, still the most gut-wrenching call I’ve ever gotten. In the throes of his addiction, and general mood issues, he has also been in countless fender benders (non DUI related!) and as such I was always on guard, waiting for the next round of bad news. (To this day, as much as I love him and love talking to him, when I see his name on the caller ID, my initial impulse is “what happened now?”) Again, alcohol became this thing that was wrapped up in a state of perpetual crisis. Unlike my parents, however, he drank in secret, so there was an added element that alcohol, when mixed with distance, equaled impending crisis.

The next “great love” (or so I thought at the time) was addicted to both alcohol and pot. Though the end of that relationship is still something of a mystery to me, I have no doubt that the personality issues that led to substance abuse also led to his sudden disappearance from my life without explanation. So you have substance abuse and distance leading to abandonment.

Although all of these things are different – and each comes with greater context – it is clear why I get so anxious around people who drink or use drugs to excess or as a lifestyle. In my life, alcohol has been the harbinger of danger, deceit and desertion.

And I began to realize that I lump “drunk” into one giant anthropomorphized concept of “scary.” “That drunk man” is all of the men who have hurt me and left me vulnerable. It is not individual people with individual issues, it is “that drunk man.” All drunk men (and probably women, but I date men, so bear with the gender identity) are “that drunk man.” It’s like the Hulk or a werewolf, it doesn’t matter who you were before the rage hit or the moon rose, it’s what you become that frightens me. Or what I assume you will become.

Enter my current boyfriend, the man with whom I am certain I will spend the rest of my life. He is sober. Stone-cold sober. And I love it. I realize now that it is one of my favorite things about him. But that sobriety came with a caveat that I knew from day one. He will, very rarely and only on vacation out-of-state, decide to just “go crazy.” He plans it in advance to make sure everything is safe and sane.

It is worth noting that this is a man who is, barre none, the most responsible, generous, kind, supportive human being that I know. He is the kind of guy who not only does dishes and cleans bathrooms, but communicates about his feelings, helps you without being asked, genuinely supports my strong independence and success. (He also has 6-pack abs and fucks like the dreamy offspring of a porn star and a mad scientist.) He loves and supports my daughter as if she were his own, and lets me do the same with his. He does everything he says he will, and I have never heard him raise his voice or lose his temper. To say that I scored is an understatement of embarrassing proportions. This guy is the opposite of everything I have come to expect from relationships.

So we went away for the weekend. He told me for weeks that he was ready to go on a tear. I was nervous, and I told him that. I didn’t know how nervous I was, or exactly why, but I was nervous. That said, we had tons of fun. Indeed, we drank a lot and were generally silly and free. It was mostly okay, though I did, at one point, tell him it was enough, and we just called it a night.

Until the last night. It was our last night on vacation and he just wanted to tear it up. I was tired and didn’t want to. He wanted to keep drinking and go dancing. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. We were walking, there really wasn’t a problem, on any objective level. Except that I didn’t want to, and I actually wanted him to not want to.

I chose those words on purpose. It’s not that I wanted him to stay in with me, it’s that I WANTED HIM TO WANT TO stay in with me. But that’s not what he wanted, he wanted to drink and dance.

He went dancing. Alone, on foot, in a city that is not home to either one of us. I sat in the hotel room telling myself that it was fine. That it was THIS AMAZING man, and that he was doing nothing wrong. Indeed, I’m totally the type of chick that would encourage my partner to go do all sorts of things without me. But man, as I sat in that hotel room, I just started spinning. Spinning led to resentment. Resentment led to fear. Fear led to anger.

It all led to Xanax. Which didn’t work and led to Ambien.

In that time, he became not the man of my love, but “that drunk man.” He was an amalgam of other people, none of whom were him.

Before the Zanax and Ambien kicked in, I did fire off a series of text-messages to him. Nothing bad (I re-read them and still feel good about them,) telling him that I was spinning. Then that I was preemptively issuing my “safeword” that I did NOT want to fool around when he got back. Then asking him outright to come home. None of which he got because he was dancing.

He was surprised (and a bit angry) that I was so worked up – it is THAT out of my character. I was surprised too. We tried to talk about it when he got back, and again in the morning. Both conversations were productive, but neither were pleasant, and it took a while to land at the core problems:

1) Communication

We had used soft words about our expectations. “I want to go on a tear” as opposed to defining what  “a tear” is. My version of a tear looks really different than his. So I was expecting an “Alyssa tear,” (which is so pathetically restrained as to be puritanical.) His was “drunk all day, every day.” We didn’t define that. We should have.

It’s a good lesson. Each of us – which means all of you also, not just he and I – can ONLY define things according to our own perspectives unless we are given concrete definitions. “Go Crazy” for Mother Theresa is really different than “Go Crazy” for Prince. You MUST define that stuff explicitly.

Likewise, “I’m nervous” doesn’t necessarily translate into “I’m going to need to take anti-anxiety meds,  then stay up pacing until I cave and send neurotic text messages and wait for the Ambien to kick in.” Had he known that’s what it meant, he would have made different decisions. Had I known, I would have told him.

However, you can only be as prepared as you can based on your own experience and expectations. So when we both realized that we had failed to communicate accurately, we had to stay open and present and accept that a lot of what was wrong was a difference of definition. We had done the best we could in advance, but it wasn’t enough. Honest mistake.  Given that we couldn’t change what had happened (and both wish we had made different decisions,) we had to figure out how to use solid definitions going forward, so that it didn’t happen again.

THAT had to be the point of the conversation. Not rehashing the past to find a victor, but rather dissecting it to understand the components and build a strategy for the future.

2) My past

Man, I didn’t realize how scarred I was by all the alcohol in my life. But I am. Deeply. I’d almost go so far as to call it PTSD. I just get triggered. And what it triggers are all my defenses against danger, deceit and desertion. I practically assume it’s coming as soon as I see more than 2 drinks go down.

And it hurts physically. I tighten up. My heart races. Everything looks like a threat. It is very very real. I become someone I don’t recognize as the me of now, but very much recognize as a child, and then an overly-angry and defensive young woman. I cannot think like the woman I am now, as I literally become the youth that I was then.

I didn’t know that until this weekend. With this man, who is the most dependable, trustworthy, considerate, responsible and generous person I have ever known. But I could only see his actions through the lens of my past. Which was unfair to both of us.

But real.

So thank-you, past, for offering me the opportunity to learn that about myself. For forcing the dialog between me and this amazing man. For helping me realize that although I still hate drunkenness, he is not “that drunk man.” And that I have to take apart the fear and identify its components, and realize that none of those are him, and none of those are in my life right now.

Likewise, thank you for offering him the opportunity to learn how deep my scars are, so that he can react differently – whether or not I manage to find the words for that awesome solid communication about things we don’t know.

It was a rough night. But the gifts that it left behind were amazing. More clarity and future promise than any diamond ring.

Ironically, just having been able to look at it all, through the fog of booze and fear, and come out the other side to stay present will do more to prevent its recurrence than any list of “rules and expectations.”

Make sure, when you are reacting IN the present, that you are reacting TO the present, not to your past. Your past may inform you, but it cannot pull you back. It’s what delivered you to your present. Stay there, in the present, and everything that brought you there seems like a gift.


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