My dad wasn’t a hard-ass when I was growing up. He’d be stern with me every once in a while, but he never got too far above that level. I can count on one hand the number of times he yelled at me (one particular incident involved me not practicing for a recorder test, and when he found out about my lack of preparation, he blew a gasket), and he almost always apologized after. Maybe it was because I never messed up too much when I was younger. My grades were mostly B’s and A’s, and parent-teacher conferences never became contentious. I guess I wasn’t a bad enough kid to warrant disciplinary action.
Dad was always encouraging, and to some degree that left a vacuum in my life. If he wasn’t going to be my harshest critic, I guess I’d have to pick up the slack. It started with a little self-doubt, and blossomed into telling myself things like, “You’re not good enough,” or, “You’re such an idiot.” This didn’t happen too often, though, and I think in some ways this negative reinforcement helped me to be a better student.
About a year and a half ago, I moved home from New York City. In the last month I was there, just about every day I was meeting people for a few beverages. As much as I enjoyed the company of the people I was with, the booze began to take its toll. By the time January 8th rolled around, I was ready to go. As I drove home from New York, my thoughts shifted from this being a homecoming, to a chance to put myself back together. I was feeling tired, groggy, and hollowed out.
After one final weekend of revelry in Boston, I decided to take a hiatus from drinking that lasted four months. I needed to figure out what I wanted from life and who I wanted to be, without the influence or distraction of alcohol. The day I quit, I took a look in the mirror and took some pictures. I wasn’t happy with myself at all: I was unemployed, I had a gut, and the amount of money I had spent on booze in New York was not something I wanted to put on a spreadsheet. There were so many reasons to take time off, but none of them mattered more than what was happening to me mentally.
I’ve heard several people refer to unemployment as “fun-employment,” but it never felt that way to me. My first year in New York, I worked a variety of weird little odd jobs that never panned out, and had I not gotten into school, I would have left. After finishing up grad school, I was once again without a job, and that sinking feeling began to set in. It was then that I started to go out a little more since I had much free time. Alcohol may not be good for your liver, but it was on the way home that I’d do some real damage. That’s when the negative self-talk would begin.
I don’t really want to get into what I’d tell myself when I was in these moments, but it was more or less, “You’re worthless, you’re a waste, you’re an awful person, you don’t deserve to go out and have a good time.” Okay, maybe I was willing to divulge a little bit more than I thought, but the language I would use was often rougher than this. I’d take potshots at myself, and I’d come home just feeling raw. It was as if on the walk home, someone had been right next to me the entire time telling me what a piece of garbage I was. I couldn’t take what I was doing to myself.
“Alcohol is a depressant,” my therapist reminded me.
I knew that, but I guess it hadn’t really hit home, that if I took a break from it and got my head on straight, that maybe I’d feel better about myself. At the very least, maybe it would stop me from getting to that mindset. I’ve only told 2-3 people about the damage I’d inflict in my lowest moments, and it still takes my breath away how easy it was to get to such a negative place.
After listening to a very recent episode of the podcast “With Friends Like These,” in which depression was the covered topic, one of the items discussed was the power of positive self-talk. It sounded really stupid at first, but after a few goes at it, it’s started to feel a little more natural (okay, I still feel absolutely ridiculous, but I know that it’s so much better than the alternative).
It may sound strange, but I’ve stood looking into my bathroom mirror, gripping both sides of the sink, and I’ve told myself that I’m okay, that I’m worthy of happiness and help, should I need it. I’ve told myself that I’m a good person, when I’ve told myself the opposite many more times. I doubt that this tactic works for or appeals to everyone, but I think we could all use that sort of pick-me-up. I know that I do.
In the end, it wasn’t the cost of the nights out, or the gut, or having to leave the comfort of my apartment to venture out to a bar, it was the self-inflicted damage that only got easier after an IPA or two. I’ve been working to correct this, to switch on over to the positive side, and I know that I need to stay with it.
I’ve since returned to drinking, but it’s been much less frequent. I’m careful to keep an eye on my emotions, and I’m trying to be more open about these issues, whether it’s writing about them, or discussing them in person. My mental health has definitely improved, and I’m grateful for that. Sometimes the remedy for your own harshest critic can be a positive pep talk from the very same person.