‘Young Lady in Green’, Tamara de Lempicka, 1927

a poster of this painting used to hang on the wall of the studio I visited regularly several years ago for Pilates classes. often while taking the classes I was severely hungover and remonstrating with myself under this woman’s baleful eye, whose mocking sideways glance seemed to see right through my attempts to deny my nauseous state to myself, and of course to others.

I have been reading a long post (filed under ‘Does alcoholism stunt maturity?’ here: lots of other good stuff there too) about how denial acts upon us in our drinking, affecting our ability to validly experience and undergo emotions. please do read the whole article, as there are some really thought-provoking topics covered. (trigger warning – there is reference to non-consensual sex.)

here are some extracts:

People talk of denial being a kind of forgetting.  Most of us have had moments in which we swore (or promised someone else) we’d never drink again.  Most of us seemed to strangely forget that vow within a matter of minutes, days, or months.  But it’s a particular breed of forgetfulness; we don’t necessarily forget our own phone numbers or where we grew up as a kid.  We don’t forget our husband’s birthday.  But we forget how awful sick we were, or how deeply ashamed, or how terrified.

Think about it.  Without denial, alcoholism wouldn’t work.  We’d have these terrible consequences, know what happened, and desire to stop.  Without the denial coming in, we’d just stop.  There wouldn’t be a problem.  But we do deny, and denial allows the cycle or pattern to repeat itself.

Once we’ve denied, we’re also involved in a lie.  Once denial kicks in, the truth gets fuzzy and relative and uncertain.  Naturally, lies, truth, and behaviors affect our emotions.  Put denial and emotions together and you get very confused, broken people.  That’s exactly what alcoholics are.

Denial was the mechanism by which we lose the ability to learn from our experience.  It’s also the mechanism that starts isolating us from every other human being on the planet.  It’s the denial that makes the relationships sick, the behaviors strange, and recovery difficult.

When that lie became imprinted in our soul’s pocket, we change.  There isn’t any bigger picture.  We know in our hearts I’m in this all alone. We do learn some things.  We master some things.  Oftentimes, pushed perhaps by a nagging desire to make up for shortcomings, we drive ourselves ruthlessly.  Alcoholics are frequently highly ambitious, leaders in their fields, highly competitive, deeply perfectionist.  But because we are simply unable to integrate some of our experiences, we remain half formed, partial souls, unfinished people.  We’re emotional cripples.

Recovery is terrifying because it means learning to feel, to acknowledge our immaturity, and to put all the pieces together.  That means we have a backlog of emotions to go through, and the process can be daunting.  If your goldfish died thirty-seven years ago, you’ll have to grieve it.  Recovery is also threatening because it shakes our core belief and forces us, all vulnerable and unprepared, to grow up.

But this is also why recovery is so amazing.  This is what recovery IS.  A person whose very gut knows he’s alone and doesn’t matter becomes a person whose core knowledge is one of belief, purpose, rightness of it all and strength. Strength strong as bedrock.  Alcoholism is tragic and painful because it gives us half selves, sick souls, unfinished human beings.  But once we see our partial selves, we know the fragile and sad version of life as we know it isn’t everything: there is more.  Denial breaks and we’re forced, a bit belatedly, to go through the stages of human development like a normie. 

Maybe that’s why recovery can look so drastic, so compelling, so believable to people even outside of it: it’s the human story, writ large.  What an alcoholic needs to figure out is what we all need to figure out.  We’ve got to figure out who it is we are.  Who we are, right now.

Acceptance is the beginning of the 12 steps, the moment of clarity when we know we are sick.  Acceptance is a sledgehammer to denial, and we are able to see how lopsided and crippled we are.  Acceptance is the moment of recognition in which we see our half-souls, realize we are not people of integrity, but wish we were.

Denial is alcoholism, and it leaves us with half-lives.  Recovery is acceptance.  And acceptance, then, is maturity.  Acceptance is also that glimpse of hope: if I’m only half, than there is more.  If I’m an alcoholic, I can recover.

in The Hunger Games, when discussing how to repress the rebellious Districts, President Snow says,

“Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.”

let’s head out into the world, armed with acceptance and dangerous levels of hope.

let’s change. let’s recover.