When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect.
– Don Draper, Mad Men
If you are familiar with the series – the quote above is from the Mad Men episode Summer Man – one of my favorites. Up to that point in the series, I genuinely wondered if Don was troubled by any of the things he had done – or just annoyed with the consequences. But in this episode, through journaling, the audience can hear his internal dialogue and we learn just how self aware he is.
I am a huge fan of Mad Men. And although I am a woman, the character I understand the most is Don Draper. We have a lot in common – both orphans, born in the Midwest who moved to New York City in the hopes of becoming someone different. But that’s just surface stuff. I understand him because he is so deeply flawed and he knows it, because he wants to be better, and because he wins some battles and he loses some battles but he keeps fighting the war within himself. I have no idea if the series will end with Don in a gutter, in a casket or reigning as king but I keep rooting for him. I suppose because I see myself in him.
I had a Draper-esque moment last month in the Easter candy isle. A moment that I will probably keep having until I die. At least, I hope I will.
I was not having the best week. It’s not really very important why, it’s just life and as an adult who lives in the world I have to deal with it. I was running errands and passed the newly appointed Easter candy isle at my local super store. I really like peanut butter stuffed chocolate eggs. Always have. And since I wasn’t having the best week – hell let’s just call it what it is, a bad week – I stood there with my cart thinking, “You could buy that giant egg and eat it. It would taste good!” While trying to convince myself not to buy the giant egg, my eyes wandered to the bag of the mini peanut butter eggs. “Oh, even better. You could buy the whole bag. You won’t have to eat them all at once!” (That’s a lie, I totally would eat the whole bag at once). “Only $2.88, and they will make you so happy!” (Another lie.) “Buy them now!” So I stood there, probably looking slightly crazy, one side of my brain willing my arm to grab the bag, the other willing my arm to stay at my side. Spiritual Tug-of-War: The Candy Isle Chronicles.
It might not seem like a big deal, but in my world, whether or not I take that bag of candy home and eat it is a very big deal. Because what I choose is indicative of so many other things.
I have eluded to it in previous posts, but I’ll just say it clearly now: I’m an addict – that is to say, I have an addictive personality, just like Don. For most of my life, my binge of choice has been food, but for a solid 6 years starting at age 19/college my binge of choice was alcohol. In my mid-twenties, I worked very hard to overcome that – but not until after I nearly failed out of college, destroyed friendships and quit jobs. Not until after (just like Don) I did things that were cruel, selfish and undignified, things which I will always regret and cannot change. But all actions have consequences and the consequences of burying yourself in excess are usually ugly.
Now that I know myself better, I can recognize when I am sliding back into feeding this weakness in my personality. It’s when I start to solve my problems with substances.
Actually, that’s a misuse of phrase. You can’t ever solve problems with substances. You can avoid problems, and the negative feelings they create, and that’s easier to do with substances or distractions. And easier usually feels better in the short term. Dealing with your shit is a lot more work, a lot more painful, a lot more time consuming. And you can’t just buy it.
In Summer Man, Don is trying to “gain a modicum if control over how he feels.” So he starts swimming and tries to ‘cut back’ on his drinking. I think he does this rather than try to quit because I think he knows that saying he will ‘never’ do something again would only ensure his failure. And I can relate to that.
I can actually remember one of the first times EVER I didn’t drink to deal with emotional pain. I was at a party and a guy I liked brought his new girlfriend. I smiled, I shook her hand, I was polite. This party had open bar. Fantastic. Almost every bit of me wanted to stay and get wasted. Except for the small part of me that desperately wanted to handle this situation with dignity and not shots. I mingled with people. I said my hellos. I was there for 2 hours. I had 2 beers. It was all my heart could take. I remember making the conscious decision: you are going to go home now. Under your own control. And I did. I listened to my heels click on the pavement all the way to the subway. I didn’t feel happy, I can tell you that. Or even satisfied. I was a little proud, but mostly just sad and hurt. That’s a weird thing to learn – pride and happiness don’t always go hand in hand. Not immediately any way. When I got to the subway car and sat down, I remember thinking: “This is what this feels like. To not do something you want to do. To make the choice that’s hard. To choose the thing that you know is right, healthy, productive. Remember how this feels. Remember today. Today you were different.”
Different meaning better. For years, when things would go wrong or I was hurt to upset, I would drink (or eat). It crippled me – it meant I was incapable of being my best. I stayed angry and immature – basically, all the worse qualities of adolescence. Oh, and self-indulgent. I couldn’t become a better person because I wasn’t dealing with my faults. I was too hungover and too unhappy and too lazy.
It took a long time for me to learn how to drink in moderation because in general I’m not good at exercising moderation as a concept. When I was trying to learn how to do this, I would go long periods of drinking very little, of doing well, then I would have nights or weeks where I would drink a lot. Like Don Draper. But I kept trying, determined to gain control over it. Years later, I have good boundaries when it comes to alcohol. I live by some pretty simple rules – basically, I don’t use alcohol as a coping mechanism. If I am having a bad day or week, then I don’t drink. I used to have to think about that a lot – it used to take a lot of self control. But now, I don’t think about it so much. While there are some people that cannot and should not drink at all, I have learned that drinking itself is fine for me as long as my emotions are in check. But drinking because I feel a certain way, and I want to avoid those feelings, is absolutly never a good idea.
Which brings me back to the candy isle. Eating because I feel a certain way is also never a good idea. I’m not as good at controlling this as I am at controlling my drinking. Yet. I’m aware of it. I’m working on it. And that is why, on that day, after picking up that bag and putting it down about 4 times, I managed to put down the candy and walk away. Not because I think I can never eat candy. Because the only reason I wanted to eat the candy is eating would be easier than actually dealing with why I was having a crappy week.
People medicate themselves in all sorts of ways. Some ways (like exercise) can be more healthy than others. But all methods are ways of avoiding emotions that are hard to deal with. I recommend trying to deal with them. Even if it’s hard.
Here is the most hilarious irony: all of those things that I avoided dealing with – that I covered up with booze and calories – well, once I stopped pouring on the booze and calories it got harder, lots harder, because I actually had to feel those things and face them, and they weren’t pretty – not just the stuff I’d tried to cover up in the first place, but all the other mistakes I’d made because of drinking and the health consequences of eating my feelings. But once I got through the facing it part and started fixing that part – it’s so much easier to not want the booze or the calories. You deal with things, actually deal with the space they occupy in your heart and soul, and when you do that, they stop casting shadows on you. You realize holding onto that stuff that makes you want to eat a bag of peanut butter cups – the holding on part is your choice and then you don’t need or want the stuff any more. Because you realize by holding onto it, the stuff has begun to define the way you see yourself. So you put the stuff down, you leave it on the side of the road, and you continue your journey – lighter, more smoothly and gracefully. You define yourself in other ways, starting with the triumph of putting down those things.
And you know what better is, because you have seen worse and survived it.
Don still has to put down those things. He’s trying to, but he hasn’t yet. I guess that’s what makes us different.
It is not very glamorous for me to publicly admit any of these things. But I decided to speak about them because I hope that if anyone reads this and knows what I’m talking about, it can give them hope that change is possible. It’s work, but it’s possible, and when you succeed you will know freedom like you have never felt before. And you can’t buy that in the candy isle or the liquor store.
I think often about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words:
“I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over again.”
I am reminded that anyone at anytime can change the course of their life. They just have to be brave enough. To make that decision. And then to actually do it.
And while you won’t get to have a totally clean slate, be happy for that. All the things you know will go with you – even the stuff you wish you didn’t. That’s wisdom. And if you have it, it means you have truly lived and truly learned.