The only fistfight I’ve ever been in was with myself, and it was during a commute.
I was driving home from work, shades on to head west into the setting sun, when the depression that had been dogging me all day finally caught up and started making noise.
“You’re worthless, you know,” I told myself.
“I don’t have to believe you,” I replied out loud.
“OK, don’t believe me,” I responded coldly, knowing just where to gouge to cause maximum damage, “but she left you for a reason.”
Hot tears slipped from under my sunglasses and my hands were sweaty on the steering wheel, the ring finger on my left hand feeling naked without my wedding band; my arms flexed almost of their own volition, my body physically bracing itself against the battle roaring in my mind.
“You’re not an accurate narrator,” I said.
“And you couldn’t even keep someone who made a promise in front of hundreds of people that she’d stay with you,” I said back.
“Fuck YOU, you’re the idiot who made this possible after you gave in and believed someone, trusted someone, allowed her in your soft and intimate places and now she’s gone.”
The light turned green, and I turned redder, tears falling and shame rising. I tried to remember everything I’d learned in years of therapy, that part of opening yourself up to the biggest and best emotions like love means you’re left vulnerable to the harder ones, like earth-shattering heartbreak. But that was a small comfort in a shame spiral, where, ironically I’m the most comfortable of all.
If I can put the blame on my own shoulders, even if it squarely belongs elsewhere, I’ll do it, because that means I can control the pain. Why do I hurt? Because I left myself vulnerable, this is what you get, what did you expect?
“You should open a bottle of whiskey about it,” I told myself. “Anyone would understand if you gave up four-plus years of sobriety because your wife left you. It’s basically in the divorcee handbook.”
I felt the idea land and immediately sink its hooks into me, and I knew then drastic action was necessary, because booze hadn’t been a go-to coping mechanism for me for years. But I also wasn’t thinking very clearly, because when the next idea hit – that instead of drinking, I should probably punch myself if I really wanted self-punishment – I didn’t think it through.
My left fist smashed into my left cheekbone, a solid jab I’d have been proud of it there was anything happening worth pride. The collision rattled my head, and I was automatically embarrassed that I’d punched my own goddamn face.
“You’re really stupid,” I said out loud, gingerly touching my cheek as I continued driving. It occurred to me then that other drivers could’ve seen it, and that I should also be shamefaced about that.
It was a low point, one of my lowest since giving up alcohol years ago because it had been my only coping skill. It had been a time of turmoil, when I got drunk and vomited emotions (and actual vomit), when I didn’t think I was reason enough to stop, but she was. My then-future-wife was a big part of why I stopped, because hurting myself with bad alcohol decisions didn’t matter to me, but when I knew it hurt her, something had to give, and it was going to be losing the thing I loved the most in order to keep the person I loved the most.
So years later when the center dropped out of my world and she told me she wanted out, that this marriage was over, it rattled my foundations.
“This is why you’ll fail,” I said to myself. “You depended on her to quit, and you needed her help to stay sober. Without her, you’ll end up drunk again. No one would blame you, hell, they probably even expect it from you.”
When I gave up booze, one way I relieved some of the pressure on myself was to imagine all the outs I had, reasons for which I could conceivably start drinking again, ranging from death to divorce. If my wife ever left me, I thought, I’ll just drive to Vancouver Island, where I’ll drink myself into a stupor. That seemed rational, a normal response to such trauma, and I wouldn’t really lose face with everyone who knew I’d stopped boozing.
Because really, that was the impetus back then. Telling people what I was doing kept me accountable to myself, because I didn’t know if telling myself would be enough. I didn’t know if I could have the strength of conviction for myself that I had for my friends and family, but I did know that I found shame very motivating and would do pretty much anything to avoid it.
But nearly five years into my sobriety, that reasoning rang hollow; it didn’t have the fire of righteousness the way it did before. Now facing the very situation I’d spent hours fantasizing about in those first few months, I knew that somewhere along the way, I stopped being sober for her and had started doing it for me.
And that realization hit me harder than my own fist.
I hadn’t noticed that my backbone had grown in, strong and unbowed. It had happened incrementally, in tiny victories like choosing seltzer instead of a beer after work; and in larger ones, when I’d reached out to other people to help me deal with my depression and anxiety instead of holing up with a bottle and my tattered ego for company.
For the first time in a long while, the mean voice that had harassed me as long as I could remember started to falter.
“Well you’re still a fuck-up,” I said, even though I could already feel the disbelief spreading through me. “You don’t deserve anything or anyone good, and if you find them, you better keep up your guard because they’re going to destroy you like she did.”
I sat with that thought for a while, unsure if I was right or if I just couldn’t see beyond my own fear. Then I understood that both ideas couldn’t be true, that I couldn’t be both worthless and worth saving. Such a stringent dichotomy didn’t make sense, and I knew from living in it that the world wasn’t black and white. Gray areas are where we find grace, or should anyway, from ourselves. My backbone might be titanium but there’s a whole human wrapped around it, and that human deserved to be treated kindly, to be given some leeway for not knowing all of the answers right away.
When I finally made it home from my commute, and parked in the garage, my fingers probed my cheekbone. I flipped down the visor to check in the mirror if I had bruised myself; it was angry and red, just like I’d been when I’d done it.
“OK,” I told myself. “Look, that was embarrassing-“
“Very,” I interjected.
“Shut up, OK, that was embarrassing, and honestly punching myself is destructive and hurtful and not a good coping skill.”
“And I’m worth good coping skills. I don’t know why, because it doesn’t seem particularly rational at this moment, but I just know it’s true.”
“Wouldn’t hold up in court.”
“And,” I continued, “if I’m worth all that, then I’m probably worthy of forgiveness, especially for punching myself.”
“Forgiving myself and knowing I’m doing my best in a bad situation, that I’m actually the victorious one right now because I’m not drunk, that’s what matters right now.”
“Being gentle with myself when I’d rather be harsh or violent is the actual show of strength, and putting myself ahead of a desire for self-destruction is harder than giving in. Wild moment of punching aside, I might actually be ready for this.”
Quiet filled my mind as I felt the nasty side of me weakening, the arguments and self-hatred and shame beginning to fall apart. By this time, I’d made it inside the house; I shed my clothes and stood in front of the bathroom mirror while the shower warmed up. I examined the nascent bruise on my cheek and knew that if asked generally about it I’d lie and say I smacked heads with my dog or ran into a door. But I also knew that if someone who loved me asked about it, I’d tell the truth because accountability still mattered, since I still mattered.
Leaning back, I looked into my own eyes, the edges puffy from crying but the centers deep brown and clear with the knowledge that I would pull through this, that my backbone was stronger than my heartache.
“You’re a fool,” I said to my reflection, not unkindly. “And I love you.”
Today is Molly’s fifth anniversary without booze. She plans to celebrate by getting a new tattoo.