There’s a popular phrase in Recovery Circles that most Alcoholics and most Introverts can probably identify with: being “Comfortable in your own skin”. It’s a good thing, something to be aimed for in life. It can also sound like a curse or an accusation to the shy, the awkward, the ashamed and the afflicted.
What I knew for sure when I walked into my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous is that I wasn’t. Hell, I didn’t even feel comfortable in most of the clothes I owned, let alone my own skin and as much as I fought the idea, and rationalised, and justified, and blamed, and judged I knew this was part of the problem. You see, I’ll tell you a secret…someone like me – warped and flawed as I secretly was – well I would never be able to be comfortable in my own skin. Mine wasn’t a very comfortable skin to be stuck in.
I walked in wearing my best suit, with a fake smile plastered on and I tried to hide in the back…but something hit home that night. I started to get some hope. Only a slither though. At this point in my life, I had genuinely come to believe that I couldn’t smile; there was something wrong with my face. I really didn’t like happy people, they made me suspicious. Attractive people were not on my Christmas list either. Popular people I just plain looked down on…small talk and gossip, the necessities of casual friendship, were for stupid people. They were dishonest. Pretending to like people you had just met was pretty dishonest too. I had the world sussed out, and I was a man content in my own misery – though you wouldn’t have known it to look at my face.
All of this was an extreme version of me. I had been worn down by years of drinking and it made me cynical. Years of isolating myself, being ashamed of who I thought I was and what I couldn’t remember that I had done. Years of self-defeat and self-destruction. Even so, there was part of me that had always felt this way.
When I first started attending house parties and gatherings at the age of 14 or 15, there was something exciting about them, or at least at the idea of being at them. I was definitely shy, but had a good handful of masks I had developed to cover this up. I believe today in those early times, alcohol treated my Shyness. It took the edge off the nerves and allowed me to sit at the corner of the room without wanting to run out. I could even look calm, relaxed and at ease on the surface at least.
I also believe drinking suited the Introvert in me – and I do believe there is a difference between shyness (anxiety) and introversion (personality). You see, I was perfectly happy watching all the goings on from the corner of the room. Every now and then I would strike up an interesting conversation, but I didn’t want to get up and dance, talk to the girls or act raucous. Besides the nerves, party conversations and goings on tired me…truly drained me. I was always waiting for an opportunity to delve into a more intense one-to-one conversation, that was where I got my energy from and oftentimes I would have to wait until 2 or 3 in the morning when everyone else was coming down and the energy in the room matched my own. Meanwhile, my senses were working overtime just watching the comings and goings and being connected to it all in my own way. I was perfectly happy watching but – and this is the crux – I didn’t think I was supposed to be happy watching. Drinking gave me something to do. It kept me busy. A glass at the mouth was a great way to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. I couldn’t dance because I had a drink. You couldn’t judge me for sitting around doing nothing, because I was Drinking…and man, that was the kind of person I was!
I know now I developed a whole set of unuseful defences around the same time…judgements, opinions, ideas about who I was, who other people were and so on. Or at least they became unuseful later on in life as I held on to them. The same old guys who were always hovering around the same old girls – they were idiots, they were pests. Girls respected a guy who gave them space and respect, and the ones that didn’t – well they were no better than they deserved. Loud talk and gossip were immature and irritating. Intelligent people had some reserve and spoke when they needed to. Real men didn’t dance, but they could hold their drink.
All of these things, when I look at them in the cold light of day, were defences. I told them to myself because I didn’t think I could be something that I thought I was supposed to be. There’s a phrase in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that tells us we need to “Let go of Old Ideas” and situations like this have been fertile ground in my own recovery…learning how these deep-seated beliefs and ideas I have about myself,other people and the world around me took hold and continue to affect me today.
But I want to go back to a phrase in that last paragraph; I didn’t think I could be something that I thought I was supposed to be. That’s the same feeling I had when I walked into that first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in March 2009. It’s a feeling that haunted me even sometime into my recovery. It’s why I said that the phrase ‘comfortable in your own skin’ can sound like an accusation to the awkward and the uncomfortable. If you truly believe a person ‘like you’ can never be comfortable, it’s going to be mighty irritating to hear other people talk about just how damn comfortable they feel. That’s where those defences, and those justifications kick in. I know this, for I have truly been there. The thing I would most like to go back and tell my 15 year old self is that there was absolutely no need for those defences. I am not terminally unique. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with me. There have been many quirks and kinks to iron out, but I am not the fundamentally flawed person I often thought myself to be. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
Shame. That is essentially what it is and I believe that shame is at the core of many addictions and unhelpful behavioural patterns. The belief:
1) That we are essentially lacking or defective in some way
2) That we ought to be some way other than how we are
I had these beliefs when I was younger and they helped to give addiction a running headstart for me. The psychological need was already there, alcohol was just one of the many crutches I leaned on to try and get me to where I thought I should be.
Things are different today. Despite my early cynicism, I know what it means to say I am comfortable in my own skin…despite the occasional bout of anxiety or shyness. I can smile, and I laugh often…sometimes even at myself. I’m connected to the world around me and I am happy with my place in it. I don’t believe I’m the worse thing in the world. It’s true, I think that such an exaggerated sense of defectiveness is the product of an inflated Ego. Low Self Esteem and massive ego, the allegorical “King Baby”, or the “piece of shit at the centre of the universe”.
Gently unpicking these beliefs has been a slow but useful process for me. On the other hand I have become much more comfortable with those parts of myself which are just my basic nature. I am an Introvert. Small talk is tiring, intense conversation is the Manna I live for. I am comfortable speaking to a crowd, or one-to-one, but groups of 3 or 4 leave me floundering. I internalise things. I think a lot, and am often accused of ‘over-thinking’. I need more time alone than most people to recharge my energy, but when I come back to the world I can be a vibrant part of it.
I am comfortable with all of that today. I am comfortable in my own skin. The really odd part is, the more comfortable I get in my own skin, the more I like the look of yours. Not that I would want to live in it, but it suits you. You are exactly how you are supposed to be, as am I. I even like Extroverts these days. They’re not bad people…you just need to take them in small doses 🙂