Outside Circumstances

by Henry Y.

From the time I was young, I learned to gauge the wants and needs of those around me and conform my behavior accordingly. Roles of child and parent were often reversed. I didn’t realize that this was not the normal order of things. I grew up with a vague sense that things were always bound to go sour without a moment’s notice.

Afraid to allow myself to feel

Photos by Denys Nevozhai and Andy Dutton

While my sister, my mom and my dad stayed locked in conflict, I was usually outside the immediate line of fire. My role was triage, calmly explaining to individual family members the probable underlying motives and offering the most logical way forward. Part and parcel with this was my performance as the unassailable good child, the golden boy. That role required not only that I overachieve, but that I subvert my emotional needs to those of others. I was afraid that if I allowed myself to feel and to make my feelings known, I would be fired from my role, the only role I really knew. Over time, my solution became split between trying to stay as unaware as possible of the family drama, while still accepting emotional burdens foisted on me when they became impossible to avoid.

The only role I knew

I was unable to say no. I was afraid of being dominated by these outside circumstances. In my personal life, I often had trouble enjoying social situations because social situations didn’t offer me a cut-and-dried role to play. To my dismay, most other people didn’t necessarily expect things from me. What a foreign and unwelcome concept. If I based my self-worth on what I had to offer others, and others weren’t making it obvious what they needed me to do for them, then what was my worth?

As I ventured into young adulthood, the basic rites of passage most people experience as teenagers but which I had fearfully avoided came on with a vengeance: Dating, rebelling against expectations, engaging in any number of immature behaviors. With this came alcohol.

Alcohol, the unreliable friend I kept going back to

Alcohol lowered my internal defenses, allowing my id to run roughshod over my otherwise overbearing superego. Alcohol put me in touch with my emotions, the ugly loneliness that lurked beneath my composed surface, and a desperate desire for connection I believed was fundamentally unattainable.

Alcohol also allowed me to connect with others, to feel a part of, and to be my true, messy self. Alcohol didn’t necessarily provide the fun times, but it allowed the fun inside of me to emerge for brief “windows.” I drank because I believed outside circumstances were causing me to feel uncomfortable, and that alcohol would solve this.

Alcohol was like an unreliable friend that I kept going back to because I felt I had no other options. Trying to stop drinking on my own was motivated by a fear of what others thought of me, a desire to impress by my ability to quit. But I keep coming back to A.A. because of my internal circumstances – a spiritual sickness coupled with a desire for something better. I keep coming back because A.A. helps me to deal with my insides so that I can enjoy all the things on the outside.

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