Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away….
~ William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965)
My dear friend Pierre, a powerful influence on hundreds of people in recovery, is fond of remarking that “the Old Me will drink again.” Old Me — the “man who wasn’t there” — plagues us throughout our early recovery, and is even known to poke his (or her) head out of hiding from time to time when we think we are pretty far along in our journey.
Human beings go through clear stages of emotional development, from prenatal to adult. When we are traumatized — by abuse, unresolved grief, prolonged stress, severe illness, injury, or drug use — our emotional development is interrupted and stalls at whatever point we were when the trauma occurred. Essentially, we stop growing up. That’s when Old Me is born.
As we progress in our addictions, Old Me develops along with them. Old Me is the character who lies when it would be easier to tell the truth, ignores ethics, hurts loved ones and others — the part of us that did what we had to do in order to further our addictions. Old Me is all the bad habits and sick ways of looking at life that we developed as we denied, justified, and tried to ignore the erosion of character that accompanies addiction of all kinds. Old Me is the aspect that throws all those memories and feelings that we couldn’t stand to face into the closet, out of sight.
As much as we might wish it otherwise, Old Me doesn’t just retire and head into the sunset when we get clean and sober. Instead, it hides in the closet too. Since the closet holds all the garbage that we chose not to deal with in our active addiction, it gets putrid in there after a while. If we don’t deal with the closet after we become abstinent, it isn’t long before nasty stuff starts seeping out beneath the door. If we ignore it, we are likely to return to our addiction or transfer our addictive impulses to new pursuits.
We have two choices: we can get some help cleaning the closet, or we can decide we don’t need help, open the door, and let Old Me come out and play with our heads while we try to handle emotions, problems and urges that we were unable to handle to begin with. The easy solution, drinking, drugging or other behavior that relieves the pressure — that turns on our “forgetter” and helps us shore up the closet door — is only a short step away.
We need to be extremely careful that we work on all the old stuff, and that can be terrifying. Those of us who don’t, however, will inevitably discover — perhaps far into our “sobriety” — that we were in fact nowhere near the level of recovery we fooled ourselves into believing we had. It is simply not possible to board up the door and stuff feelings underneath to stop the seepage. One way or another the garbage and Old Me will eventually escape, unless we insure that the closet is cleaned out.
What we are really doing, as we clean the closet and learn to live life on life’s terms, is allowing the emotional development to occur that was stifled by our addictions and other traumas. We are growing up, all over again. Some do a better job than others.