Relephant Read: The Coronavirus is already feeding these Bad Things. Let’s use it for Good. ~ Waylon
The December 22nd blizzard of 2006 was a crushing blow to our small business.
We relied on the days just before Christmas to make our year. Like a tire with a slow leak, we limped along for 11 months just waiting for the holiday season to get into profitable territory. Two feet of snow and howling winds brought the wheels of commerce grinding to a halt, and kept us firmly in the red.
As I finished up at work on December 22nd, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could drink to ease the stress. I deserved to drink, and drink hard. An unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstance had dashed my optimistic hopes that the year would end as a mild success. Instead, I could not avoid the tarnish of small business failure. The idea that the weather dealt the blow offered little comfort. There would be no “W.” I was taking a loss, and the reason seemed somewhat immaterial.
I drank away the feelings of failure, and in doing so, made the whole situation much worse. I caused conflict with my wife, I dug my hole of depression much deeper than it needed to be, and wallowed in self-pity rather than making plans for future success. Stress relief is what I called it. I deserved it. At the time, no one would have dared deny me my societally-endorsed self-medication. Drinking to relieve stress is the American way.
But by labeling what I felt that December, and so many times before and since, “stress,” I think I missed the mark. Stress is basically universal, and drinking to alleviate it is equally well accepted. What I really felt was failure—a total lack of self-esteem. Those words were wimpy and to be avoided at all costs. Stress is rugged and tough. Drinking to manage stress is adult-like and mature. Feeling a lack of self-worth is weak and inadequate. Drinking while feeling worthless is a problem. One might actually call it alcoholic.
The distinction between stress and a lack of self-esteem might seem unimportant—like I’m picking at something insignificant and trying to make a point that isn’t there. But I believe it is there, and I feel like it is a big deal.
Now that I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism for over three years, I am far more in tune with my feelings. As a man, that’s hardly a bragging point, but it is an inevitability of sobriety. When we stop drinking, we are faced with the stark reality of our emotions, like it or not—with our favorite medication no longer available to make them go away.
What I’ve come to realize is that my life is just a constantly shifting battle to feel good about myself. My self-esteem ebbs and flows like water sloshing around in a playful four-year-old’s bathtub. I need constant reassurance and little indicators of success, or I dip into a funk of self-loathing and questioning all of my life’s decisions. It’s not a pleasant way to live, but I fear it is as common to the human condition as breathing oxygen.
And it is why so many of us drink.
Are you drinking to take the edge off and ease the stress of a busy life and challenging employment, or are you drinking because you feel like sh*t about yourself and you can’t believe how stupid you are? One of those descriptions carries with it slogans like, “Work hard, play hard,” and, “It’s five-o-clock somewhere,” while the other worries friends and family, and earns you interventions and ultimatums. After living on both sides of the dogmas, I argue the underlying condition is the same, and we are fooling ourselves with these two dramatically opposing descriptors.
No discussion about humankind’s potentially universal lack of self-esteem would be complete without consideration of the things we find esteemable. Wealth, power, fame, and prestigious office are all admirable and goal-worthy in our society. And even moderate success in attaining any of these goals provides the little wins to keep us going.
How often does our president mention his wealth, the success of his business, or how well he’s handling a particular situation? I’m not here to argue politics. Love him or hate him, though, it is crystal clear that he has a drastically lower-than-average self-esteem and needs constant reminders that he isn’t just a piece of sh*t. Calling him a narcissist makes him sound evil, and just like I don’t think it should be so acceptable to drink to relieve stress, I think narcissism misses the mark.
Describing him as having low self-esteem accurately makes him sound weak (why do you think he uses the word “strong” so often, even when it doesn’t fit in the sentence?) Either way, his condition—narcissism or weakness—makes perfect sense to me. He doesn’t drink. Where else can he get relief from the demons of self-doubt and his sad need for constant reassurance?
I’ve got the same low self-esteem (okay, maybe not to that degree), and I’m always looking for little wins to make me feel better about myself. The funny thing is, so do most of the rich, famous, and powerful people. When we achieve society’s indicators of success, there is no relief. We just set the bar higher.
I often write about comedians for two reasons. First, I like to laugh, so comedians are the most interesting of the famous people to me. Second, they often employ self-deprecating humor. They are willing to discuss their own maladies. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Comedians will make fun of their own self-esteem as long as it gets a laugh, because laughter is the commodity that makes them feel better, even if only for fleeting moments. Comedians like Robin Williams, Patton Oswald, and Richard Pryor are among the many who have explained that they only feel comfortable in one of two situations: on stage garnering laughs and under the influence of their self-medication of choice. In any other condition, they feel worthless. And I get it.
I coach high school soccer, and the psychologist at our school is constantly reminding students and staff that mental health is health. Mental health is not some rare, hard-to-diagnose deviance from which a fraction of the population suffers. We all suffer, to varying degrees, from challenges to our mental health. If someone catches a cold, we don’t consider him weak. If one of my soccer players turns an ankle, we don’t think of her as less-than. So why does a person battling low self-esteem earn the label of weak or pathetic? If mental health is health (and it is), doesn’t that mean feeling bad about myself is just part of being a human being?
Here’s why this distinction is so important right now: My little blizzard of December of 2006 is like a dusting of snow compared to the obliteration of our economy taking place currently at the hands of the Coronavirus. Roughly half of our economy is made up of small businesses like the one that I used to hold onto by my fingernails. Many of them won’t survive this, no matter how rosy a picture the talking heads paint about the stimulus package and trillions of dollars they’ll inject into the U.S. economy. They just won’t. And to me, that’s not even the saddest part. Not even close.
Small business owners are taking a big “L” right now. Not just to the P&L, but they take a huge loss in self-worth as they watch the accumulation of years and decades of hard work get washed down the drain. No little incremental victories are available no matter how hard they work, so many of them will resort to the only other form of self-medication they know.
They will drink away the stress, and society will encourage it as acceptable during these uncertain times. High-functioning alcoholics will show their true colors. Drinkers who have not yet tripped over the invisible line that separates acceptable stress-relief from addiction will stumble forward unabated. Occasional drinkers will fill the void and quench the sadness by taking up a new affinity for the drink in the most socially acceptable of possible circumstances.
All of them will be in a valley of low self-esteem and abuse one of the world’s most addictive drugs in a vain effort to cope. But we won’t see that. We will see them relieving stress in a rugged, adult-like manner.
I take a lot of “L’s,” and they seem to sting a lot more than the “W’s” deliver relief. I wish I could control my self-esteem, but I can’t. “I have seen enough to know I have seen too much,” (movie quote from “A League of Their Own”).
Money, power, fame—those are goals unworthy of my effort because I know there are a ton of rich and influential celebrities living miserable lives. And now that I don’t drink, I can’t make the pain go away when I feel bad about myself. It is just an unsavory part of life.
Knowing this, understanding this wrinkle in the human condition doesn’t make the worthless feelings go away, but it beats the alternative. The shame and debilitating depression of alcoholism is far worse. I’ll never go back there, no matter how bad I feel about myself.
Maybe there is no solution. Life is full of seasonal colds and twisted ankles and the occasional bouts of low self-esteem. That’s just how it works. We readily accept illness and sprains. If mental health is health, shouldn’t we accept that we can’t always feel like winners, and drinking the losses away is a terrible way to try to heal?
If you’d like to learn more about how I stopped self-medicating and found the courage to roll with the ups and downs of life, please download and read my: Guide to Early Sobriety. And listen to my podcast here.
For more, check out some of Elephant’s most mindful, helpful COVID-19 articles:
How to Enjoy Life Amidst the Coronavirus Fear: Your Go-To Guide from Books to Podcasts & Wellness Practices.
What the Coronavirus is Teaching Me: 5 Lessons from Uncertain Times.
The Artist’s Stay-at-Home & Stay Sane Guide.
10 Simple Ways to Boost your Immunity without Leaving the House.