It's funny how your late twenties can be such a confusing time. Confusing for me, at least, in a way that my teen years never were. Being the zany kid who liked to read, who brought whoopie cushions to school and devoted weekends to watching awful horror movies with girlfriends, that was easy. That I knew how to do. I earned good grades, then retreated to a warm cocoon secure in the knowledge that I was securing my comfortably distant future. I knew how to be seventeen. And sure, in retrospect there was actually a lot of darkness, even horror, lingering under the surface during that time, and because of my parents' alternating abuse and neglect my childhood was undergirded with a foundational insecurity that no childhood should have. But still, the expectations were clear and simple. And I was clear and simple. At seventeen.
Somewhere along the way, things got a lot more complicated. It's a decade later now, and I approach the end of twenty-seven still not quite knowing what it means to be the age I am. Am I young? Am I old? I'm not yet thirty, but I walk through high school hallways as a student-teacher and consciously present myself as a source of guidance and adult stability. I'm months away from the completion of a master's degree, something I don't even quite believe, but outside of work I'm happy to jump into a fantasy novel for a whole day, or giggle with my twelve-year-old sister over the most mundane and stupid things. I still laugh at bawdy fart humor. That part of me might not even be gay, if we're being honest. I want to be an adult, self-sufficient and prescient and skilled. But I don't want to be old before my time. I want to rise to my responsibilities, but still have the enthusiasm and brightness of my youth. I'm trying on different clothes and can't tell which ones fit. And sometimes I feel so impossibly tired.
This year has been and will be a milestone. I've grappled with the onset of an autoimmune disease and its attendant problems: chronic fatigue, bouts of cognitive impairment, a digestive system turning on itself and a body going into panic mode. No one can agree exactly what's causing this, but in test after test the same thing keeps showing itself: autoantibodies lurking in my blood. Somehow, in some way we haven't determined yet, my own immune system is trying to kill something inside of me. But it's not all bad.
Sometimes I can have as much as a week with no symptoms at all, and I've learned to appreciate smaller things and put problems in perspective. When I first started showing serious symptoms last fall I responded with private hysteria, but now I'm exhausted of thinking about it, exhausted of the countless doctors' offices, yet another of which I must go to today. They'll find it, whatever it is. And I'll be okay.
This year I've also confronted difficult truths about myself. I have been undisciplined and lazy, inconsiderate of others, though in mostly minor ways. I work now to hold myself to higher standards. And I have finally come to understand that I can no longer drink. Alcohol and I started off well; my very first beer at age eighteen resulted in a dizzying rush of giggles and exuberance, and through to my very early twenties I made sparing use of that liquid courage to marvelous effect in social gatherings. BB at twenty-one was a light drinker who could become the life of the party when he wanted to. And those parties were great, and that company sparkling. Does anything ever seem as magical as it does when we're young?
But BB at twenty-three started to head to a very different place. BB at twenty-three began to drink not to enjoy, but to escape--not to commiserate with lovely people, but to forget horrible ones. BB at twenty-four continued drinking, even alone, because he just liked the feeling, even if so often he went to a very sad place while indulging. BB at twenty-five hit critical mass, losing friends and nearly his life. BB at twenty-six put the reins on the partying. And then BB at twenty-seven dropped the ball.
I have a drinking problem. And it's so funny, because in my earlier years I was always the good boy, the pure boy, the one who had his head on so straight. But I can see now that I've had a drinking problem for about five years, and that the most distant whispers of it were blowing softly into the wind even before that. Many of us form a conceptualization of ourselves in our formative years, and then that is always our "true" self, even if we deviate from it for most of our lives. So I really am still in disbelief that I, innocent and trustworthy BB, wound up here. But I have to deal with reality as it is, not as I would wish it to be.
And in my reality, I choose to be thankful for the forgiveness of a friend on whom I imposed in a terrible way. I choose to be thankful that my indefensible decisions did not cause my own or someone else's death, did not ruin a career I've worked so hard to get. And I choose to end this. I choose to be a better person than the person I have been.
The day after, when I was drunk until after noon and still hungover when I went to bed for the evening, I nursed an unsettled stomach and unsettled conscience. A pounding headache and pounding guilt. So I made the declaration that countless drunks have made: never again. I've seen many of those people throughout my life, and "this time" is always the last time. It's an exhausting game of pretend that gradually robs its players of self-respect and dignity. But in my case the thing had been building for a while; I'd worked hard to impose limits on my drinking, but found myself cheating around the edges. For months I'd vowed that if I couldn't keep it together I'd abstain, and when in late February I failed in so fantastic a fashion to maintain control of myself I knew the time had come. That was twenty-six days ago.
I'm not saying I'll never drink again. But at least for the rest of this year, it's best for me to do what I haven't done in a full decade: see what kind of person I am for an extended period without alcohol. I can go to the open of 2017 and assess from there. Nearly a full month in, the results are positive. Do I miss having a drink at social occasions when everyone else is imbibing? Sure. But I don't miss the consequences. I don't miss what came after.
To be clear, my drinking was acceptable and healthy probably 95% of the time. That other 5% packed one hell of a punch, though. And even when I held myself back, there was always that insidious desire for more and more and more. Which does not seem to be present, by the way, when I just totally abstain. I did have cravings about two weeks in, but in general I've not thought about drinking that much now that I know it's just not a possibility. It was moderation I had trouble with. And that makes me wonder how much of this was psychological.
This morning I'm sitting in a bright room, staring out a sunny window and into a warm day. It's my second day student-teaching at a local high school, and because of observations that are taking place my host teacher just gave me the run of the school. I've spent time in the empty teachers' lounge, writing this. This morning I wandered through the library, chatting with the delightful librarian about her college experiences in Germany and Russia before heading over to get lost in the fiction section. Countless hours spent diving into books during my own high school lunch breaks came back to me. I felt like my old self again.
Parts of that old self weren't praiseworthy, of course. I am more nuanced, more empathetic, more outgoing and less judgmental than I was a decade ago, in large part because of my missteps. In that critical way, I've done a lot of growing up. But there's much seventeen-year-old BB had to offer. He was inquisitive, kind, imaginative, and motivated. He was devoted to his faith. If Old BB and New BB can get together to combine some of their best qualities, then the BB who comes out of conference committee will be in pretty good shape.
This year could take me in a thousand different directions. I don't know for sure that I'll go right into teaching, but come August I will have that option for the rest of my life. And however uncertain I am about outcomes, I am absolutely sure that I'm moving in the right direction.