My life is filling up with friends who are at various stages of getting sober. Which is a wonderful thing and helps me stay sober and grateful. The night before last, somebody living on the other side of this vast country rang me up. We had been emailing back and forth and I had thought she was doing fairly well. She called me at 10pm and I could tell right away she was drunk as a skunk.
Unsober Cynthia: Oh Mary I just wanted to talk to you. You have done so much to help me. Oh Mary well I just wanted to you know say hi.
Mary (in a friendly but exasperated tone): You’re drunk, damn it. Get some sleep and call me tomorrow if you want to get sober.
Unsober Cynthia: I slipped! I had a small glass of wine! And then a bottle! How could I do this to you, you’ve done so much and I never meant to hurt you like this, how could I do this, what is wrong with me, why do I always, life is so messy and unpredictable, etc etc
Mary: It’s fine Cynthia, I’m sober and life makes perfect sense to me. Put the phone down and get some sleep.
Of course she wouldn’t put the phone down, so I did. Then I shook my head ruefully and had a hot bath and forgot all about the conversation. Not my problem. And I’ve been there myself, yammering on and on full of phony remorse and exaggerated feelings and far too much gin. It took me almost 30 years to sober up after realising there was something horribly wrong with my drinking. You’re not ready until you’re ready. And I have learned through long experience not to argue with drunks.
At 7am the next morning Cynthia’s husband called me. I shall call him Cedric because I have always liked that name, all manly and Olde English.
Cedric: Mary, what are we going to do about Cynthia? She looks like hell this morning. I’m not much better, sat up all night going over things in my head. God, what a mess. Just called her employer to say she’s back on the booze again. He’s at his wit’s end too, was nearly in tears on the phone. He told me that if Cyn was his wife, he’d have killed himself years ago. Doesn’t know how I keep going. She won’t listen to reason, never has. I’m taking the week off work to sort out finances and make sure she feels supported, but I know it won’t do any good. So devious! You’re our last hope.
Mary (under my breath): Oh Cedric I do wish you were an alcoholic. (Aloud) Have you tried Alanon? You need to detach. We didn’t cause it, we can’t control it, we certainly can’t cure it.
But when I put the phone down, my own inner Cedric surfaces like Banquo’s ghost. I grew up trying to save and protect and care for an alcoholic mother. I grew up in a household with a man who had a desperate need or compulsion to have sex with children. If you want a revealing but pessimistic overview of sexual addiction, just ask the daughter of a paedophile.
Years ago, when I was 19 years old and doing well at university, I entered a short story competition. My story was carefully crafted and all my friends admired it. It was about infidelity, a kind of borrowing from Madame Bovary, set in a dreamlike landscape with a few thoughts on the disappointments of marriage and a surprise ending. My story didn’t win any prizes. I didn’t get even a mention and was bitterly disappointed. We could get feedback from the judges and I went along, feeling genuinely puzzled. What was so wrong with my story?
The judge was a retired teacher, a very gifted man who was a published writer himself. I sat down in his office with immense trepidation and some curiosity. What was wrong with my story? The judge looked at me and there was a long silence. Then he told me something that went like this:
‘You see,’ he said slowly and quietly, ‘there is a big problem, a bigger problem than you might realise. Deep down you think writing is some kind of game, a way of pleasing and impressing others, a way of showing off. You wrote this little fiction with the judges in mind, you wanted to please everyone who read you. A remarkable attunement to what you feel would be required of you. I suspect you think that life is a shabby unfair sort of muddle and needs to be made appealing and delightful by writing. You think that by producing a palatable version of reality, you can convince others you know something about relationships and conflicts of which you have no experience. There isn’t a truthful word in this little piece of nonsense. You are not going to take your own writing seriously until you learn to take life itself seriously.’
I was too stunned to say anything and I walked back through the university town in a state of shock. Attunement. Because I lived with reactive and chaotic parents I had grown up second-guessing them and pretending my home life wasn’t as frightening and dangerous as it was. I had developed great empathy with others: I knew what teachers wanted from me, I could placate bullies, I was a born mediator. I could mimick maturity and all those warm fuzzy feelings I didn’t really have. Attunement. I had no voice of my own, I didn’t trust my own intuitions and feelings. I wasn’t sure I had feelings and intuitions because I had just survived by my wits for so long.
I had never understood that there is a relationship between writing and reality. I had thought I could invent and make up stories and that would be enough. I didn’t realise that the writing life is grounded in accountability. That truth matters. That readers do not want to read a bright shining lie.
When I sobered up, this is the angel in the house I had to kill. The part of myself that keeps insisting that everything is fine and I can sort out things all by myself without bothering anyone else. The part of me that wants to reassure others and let them think I am someone to be admired and able to cope. That soothing, calming, comforting part of myself that wants to make things all right for everyone else. The part of me that wants nothing to change because I can just keep faking it, saying lovely misleading things that fool some of the people some of the time. The part of me that persists in believing I can do for others what they will not do for themselves.
The part of me that wants to control the story at the expense of truth. And has to stand back and let Cedric find his own way forward.