Go with me here for a minute down a somewhat tedious road.
I’m writing about this not because I’m an alcoholic. In fact, I wish I could actually tolerate drinking more because in our society, being able to hold down half a glass of wine isn’t seen as particularly sophisticated or glamorous, even among housewives. So, this isn’t a cry for help but an examination of a larger issue, one I can relate to far more than one too many drinks.
For work, I’m reading The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.
I won’t sugar-coat it and tell you I love it; though I certainly thought I would. The author attended the Iowa Writers Workshop (is that even capitalized?), and like most writers who go through Iowa, they tend to write about…you know…going through Iowa.
I don’t tend to love modern fiction to begin with, but then add into it the drama of Iowa and the sort of legacy anyone who attends that program seems to carry with them (legitimate or otherwise), and for me, it’s a recipe for writing dripping with the kind of self-awareness that rides the wave of self-reflection and loses. Bitterly.
I think anyone considering memoir should be at least 50.
Anyway, the book is nonfiction with fictional flair thrown in, which detracts from the nonfictional part of the book (because really, nobody wants to read about a twenty-something making poor choices about bedmates time and again, drunk or otherwise), but I will give Jamison credit for one thing: she got me thinking about the issue of addiction and gender.
If you want the long-winded, literary version wherein Jamison compares herself to Jean Rhys, read the book. Otherwise, the basic takeaway is that male writers with addiction problems are romanticized and female writers with the same addictions are viewed as haggard messes who failed miserably in large part because they were bad mothers and caretakers, and a woman can be pretty much anything in life except a bad mother.
Jamison writes, “If the mythic male drunk a thrilling abandon - the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth - his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandoning, the crime of failing at care. Her drinking has violated central commandment of her gender: Thou shalt care for others” (p. 34).
I thought about this while reading and while doing subsequent chores around the house, driving through town and other fascinating daily life tasks, and I think Jamison has a point. So I made myself a cup of coffee and two pieces of gluten-free toast (dodgy, truly) and flipped open my laptop and began digging.
I found an article in The Atlantic entitled “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism”, and I thought: there is that word again….perfectionism.
Ann Dowsett Johnston writes about her slow and quiet descent into alcohol abuse as a mother trying to juggle a successful career, motherhood and then the quiet when her son went off the college and the kitchen was suddenly, eerily deserted and alcohol took the place of late night conversations with her son or the need to prepare a sit-down dinner for her family.
The entire article is interesting (some of it only mildly so), but the point the author makes that sticks with me is when she writes,
“…women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures.”
Recently, for the magazine, I interviewed a woman who was a pharmacist and became addicted to opioids. Before her full-blown addiction began, however, she used whatever she could get her hands on to “get through the day.” She began this in college when she discovered diet pills could keep her up all night, and she continued using them as a new mother when she realized said diet pills meant she could clean the whole house while her babies slept. This woman told me, “I never had a party phase. I used pills to keep up.”
Twenty-six years later, after flirting with suicide and nearly losing her career, she realized she couldn’t do it all. She had to learn to manage stress, say no, set boundaries and be okay with knowing her limits. Now? She lives the life she can live, and when stress hits (which it always does), she can handle it because she now has skills instead of pills, to get her through.
How many women (and to be fair, men as well) are struggling with this exact scenario? We are trying to keep up with handfuls of friends, a social media presence, home cooked meals, neat and tidy homes, trim figures, eyelash extensions, book clubs, the news, yards, hand-sewn Halloween costumes, the list goes on.
A friend sat with me recently and looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I used to be the Pinterest mom. I cut my kids’ sandwiches out in heart shapes. I packed their lunches in Bento boxes. My house was a museum. Now my life is literally falling apart and I don’t know what to do. I woke up one day and just didn’t give a fuck anymore.”
So there you have it.
You have the trying. The heart-shaped sandwiches. The house in the gym. The llngerie to keep the bedroom spicy. The book club stacks to ensure you’re up-to-date with the latest must-reads. The sexy-kitten-pout lipgloss and Tom Ford eyeglasses and open-toed booties. The layers of delicate gold necklaces strategically places to highlight your collarbone, just so.
Then, you have the flailing. The drinking. The shopping. The bills. The credit cards. The tight smiles and sharp tones and silent retreats to separate parts of the home. The kids on devices and the meals half-eaten and tossed in the garbage bin because it turns out nobody likes Thai Monkfish Curry on a Wednesday night after soccer and ballet.
Then you have the acceptance, and the giving up and the giving in and the moment when maybe you give up on perfectionism, on the ideal image that’s been sitting in your head for a very long time but that exists only on computer screens or magazine pages or the cropped Instagram accounts of people who have people to filter their lives.
What would it look like, really, if you let go of that image? What is that image, for you, and if you let go of it, if nobody was looking and social media blew up forever and your kids were grown and off in far-flung places for a few years, saving the world and being decent humans, what would life look like without expectation?
How would you spend a day so that it brings happy sleep instead of another glass of wine or handful of pills or hitting the buy button on the Nordstrom website for another bottle of skin-firming face cream?
I hope you’re all having a lovely Saturday, after that diatribe. :)
It’s sunny here, post storm (which was not even heavy at all in my parts). I have the day ahead, unfettered, which means reading, walking, yoga, cleaning, studying…..and a hot bath after I’ve finally gotten around to cleaning the tub.
In short: perfection.