I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I’ve a brother sharing the same condition who’s had a relapse recently. We’re both extremely lucky in that there are some wonderful people that love us – and because of my continuing recovery I’ve been able to be someone who’s caring, not just cared about.
During this I’ve found that when talking about the alcoholic mind to non-alcoholics there’s a particular communications barrier when it comes to ‘ego’.
This is hardly surprising, given how hard it was for me to wrap my head around the concept, let alone accept it. And I’m the one living with it 24/7. I had to have it slowly hammered through my thick skull in residential rehab, and it took a bloody big mallet. Expecting someone else to fully comprehend the alcoholic ego, on the basis of a few phrases from me, would be a vast overestimation of my own powers of communication. Which would be a little… egotistical.
Freud long ago made ‘ego’ a cool term that teh Vieneez y00t were splicing into their beats, but since then it’s just become a mainstream part of our modern vocabulary. Most frequently, it’s accompanied by ‘big’. As in “he’s got a really big ego”. Someone who thinks that they’re God’s gift, the bee’s knees, the dog’s bollocks or the otter’s elbows.
Anyone who’s started taking steps towards recovery will be familiar with the spotlight that tends to be shone on their ego. It’s a concept I really struggled with for a very long time. When first confronted with the idea that my ego was the primary problem, it was extremely hard to make any sense of it at all. I was wracked with self-loathing, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a general feeling that everyone I’d ever encountered would have been a damn sight better off if I’d never existed. I was a wretched, broken, pathetic individual. I hated myself – and not just in a hormonal teenage tantrum way; I sincerely believed myself to be total and utter scum. Yet here I was, being told that my ego was the problem. What the hell?
But eventually I understood. This wasn’t about ego inflation, it was about ego control. Being in thrall to your ego doesn’t necessarily mean that your ego makes you think you’re in any way ‘better’ than anyone else, but simply that your ego is in charge. It’s the centre, what you’ve based your personal constellation around. What’s circling your ego core is as likely to be concern for others as concern for self, but it’s still whirring around that central mass. I finally understood – what I heard as accusations of narcissism were nothing of the sort. What appeared to be a paradoxical coexistence of ego and self-loathing, coalesced into a single entity that started to make some sort of sense.
Image: kristian fagerström – CC BY-SA 2.0
Even at the bottom of the pit, you’re convinced that if only you could try hard enough, you can climb out. It hasn’t worked before, but that’s only because you haven’t tried hard enough. It’ll be different this time. You owe it to those who have stuck by you. It’ll be different this time, because you’ll try harder. You’ll just grit your teeth and try harder. Try harder. I’ll try harder.
It doesn’t work. I state this from not only my own experience, but also the experience of every happy and stable recovering alcoholic I’ve ever met – and over my years of tribulations I’ve met a fair few.
Our egos can’t beat this. Our desire can’t beat this. Our guilt and shame can’t beat this. The only thing I’ve seen beat this – in any alcoholic – is an admission that they can’t win and can’t control. An admission that they’re unable to hold sway over not only drink, but also the world around them itself. We can only win by conceding defeat, or rather by not playing the game in the first place.
As I said at the top, my brother recently relapsed. He’s now dry, and I’m thankful for that. But when talking to non-alcoholics on his prospects for remaining that way I’ve mentioned the need to let go of ego, and their reactions have caused me to consider how this word is perceived outside of my cosy bubble of recovering addicts. The word ‘ego’ conjures associations of someone big-headed, self-centred, an egomaniac. Sure, these things are usually true to some extent, as they are in all of us. I’m certain many doctorates have been awarded on the back of it. But it’s not as simple as that.
It’s where God comes in, or whatever higher power works for that person. I’ll not make this about theologies; WordPress doesn’t have enough server space to duck down that rabbit hole. Even for the most staunch atheists with solid recovery though, they’ve handed over the reins. Many of them don’t know what or who they’ve handed them over to – they don’t care; it’s kept them sober and sane.
I know several atheist recovering alcoholics that pray daily. That may not make any sense whatsoever to you, or me, or even them – but that really doesn’t matter as long as it works. In which case, and in the context of recovery, who cares? They keep their life, their kids keep their mum/dad, their… you get the jist, right?
Ego, I believe, is a big challenge to alcoholics. One that we need to manage each day in order to become – and stay – well. But that doesn’t mean we’re narcissists or big headed. In my experience, the contrary tends to be true.
I love my brother very much. He’s rescued me from my own self-created hells on numerous occasions without a single moment’s pause for himself, sometimes putting his own well-being at considerable risk. I have three role-models in this world, and my brother is one of them. This man is not someone who acts all Billy Big-Bollocks. He is, to put it in very plain terms, a far better man than I will ever be. I’m okay with that – I’m just very grateful that I get to have a brother like him. Yet I wish with all my heart that I could forcibly tear his ego from him, and force him to rely entirely on something which is not himself.
From everything I’ve witnessed, an essential part of the recovery of every alcoholic necessitates that they kick their ego to the curb – as I try my damndest to do, every single day. I don’t always succeed. In all honesty, I probably don’t always try. But I do always try to try. And if I fail, I’ll give it another go the next day. Or even the next hour, or minute. Our arbitrary timescales mean nothing – the opportunity is always there.
When it comes down to it, I know that handing my life over is what will keep me alive. That’s what I want for my bro – not just to stay alive, but to live. He’s pretty good at that – far better than I’ll ever be – when he’s got his head on straight.
But with non-alcoholics, it’s very hard to talk about ego without the negative connotations of the word coming in to play.
When it come to alcoholics, the word – ego – perhaps needs redefining.
I’m conscious though, that it took me long enough to just accept that my ego was a big part of the problem, and I certainly don’t understand it fully now. How much harder then, must it be if you’re not a card-carrying mental like me?
Hey y’all. If you’re reading this then I’m assuming that you don’t think the blog is entirely terrible. I’m flattered. Despite the sarcasm usually pervading my writing I genuinely mean that – the positive feedback I’ve received from assumedly unbiased randoms on t’interweb has been very unexpected, and very generous. It’s helped lay a few blocks of self-esteem to build upon.
I write for three reasons, and one of them kinda depends on you guys.
I write partly because I’m a mental. I’ve got a certificate from the doc and everything. Sticking my thoughts down as text helps me make sense of things, and even occasionally rationalise them into what’s generally regarded as a more normal perspective.
I write because I enjoy it. Some would claim that’s the only thing that matters. For me, I disagree.
I disagree, because I write to communicate.
I attempt to craft phrases that are aesthetically pleasing. I hope to make people smile a little, or even offer them a perspective or insight they’d not previously considered. I’m not on a mission or anything, I just hope that people enjoy reading what I’ve written whether they agree with it or not. Without this aspect I may as well just scribble stream of consciousness diatribes on the back of a napkin. I stick my stuff out on the web instead, because that element of communication is important to me.
That being so, it would be great if I couldn’t count the number of people reading it on the fingers of one foot. There’s no material gain to me, I just want to feel that there’s some point to me pounding away at a keyboard until two in the morning. That I’m connecting with someone, somewhere.
I’ll carry on doing it anyway – but my smile would be much broader if you could share it around on Bookface, twitter and whatever. There’s even dinky little buttons to make it easier down the bottom of the page, if you click on the post title itself.