If you get to know me at all, chances are eventually, you’ll learn how much I love ghosts, ghost stories, and anything that has to do with the paranormal. My favorite shows growing up were Are You Afraid of the Dark, Scariest Places on Earth and Ghost Hunters. I loved Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This love has translated into a more adult fondness of the occult, as I easily and effortlessly devour shows like American Horror Story every October while cuddled up in my best ugly sweaters on the couch, and look forward to Halloween season if only for the saturation of ghost stories in the everyday world.
One thing I didn’t ever expect, though, was to be haunted myself, in real life- and I’m not even talking about encountering an actual ghost. What I’m talking about is being haunted by the past – particularly, being haunted by my past drunken mistakes, a sort of eerie collection of broken hearts and nights spent bawling on the aforementioned couch, empty bottle of wine at hand.
In the first few days of being sober, as my brain was attempting to adjust to a reality without alcohol, I experienced what can only be described as the most treacherous form of sober guilt. As I was beginning to feel things again, emotions came flooding into my brain – and not all of them were good. Between days 2 and 6, my mind decided it would a great time to ruminate on every single mistake I made in the past 6 years of my heavy drinking career, particularly when it came to matters of the heart.
This includes sending myself into a tailspin of shame about my most recent failed relationship, the ending of which resulted in a nearly year-long nightmare that was created at least in-part by my hand. This was the most poignant and difficult haunting I’ve had to deal with yet. Without getting into too many of the details, I broke the heart of a man who was head-over-heels in love with me last October – in fact, I was drinking high ABV beers the night that I did it (over the phone, nonetheless, because he lived in another city at the time) – and the fallout was nothing short of extreme.
After all was said and done, and a final blowout between the two of us this past March sealed the “we will never be friends, ever” deal, a man who once worshipped the ground I walked on (I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, here – these are actual sentiments he shared with me) now, for lack of a better word, absolutely hates me. He has gone so far as to say he wishes that he’d never met me – really, he wishes that I had never been born at all.
You see, when I was drinking, it was easy for me to dismiss his pain as childish and immature. He wanted to reach out at first and try to fix what I had broken, and I rejected him. Between sips of wine and beer, I told myself – and others told me – this man had no right keep moaning about losing our relationship. He had no right to make me try to feel his pain. He had to right to voice his heartache. I told myself, fuck, I’ve been through a divorce and had my heart broken, too – why can’t he pull himself together and get over it?
And yet, the thought of him (and more subtly, the thought of what I’d done) kept haunting me. It was unfinished business that I never gave the chance to be resolved.
When I was drinking, I refused to fully accept his heartache as a genuine reaction to my decision to completely cut him out of my life. I told myself, how he reacts is completely on him – it’s not my problem anymore. Which, let’s be honest, is at least partially true. But that wasn’t really the issue – the issue, which my sober brain was trying to cope with in those first few days, was the fact that I acted and reacted in a way that went against the very values I claimed to hold dear: honesty, integrity, compassion, kindness, and empathy. Toward this man, in the face of his broken heart, I displayed none of these values. I didn’t act the way I would have wanted to be treated. I was selfish, cold, distant, and unforgiving.
Sober me was having a really, really hard time reconciling with that. How could I forgive myself for treating someone so poorly, even if I had broken up with him? How could I claim to be the good person I always thought myself to be when clearly, the drinking version of myself was the opposite of every value I wanted to embody?
Suffice it to say, days 2 through 6 of sobriety were particularly difficult, emotionally speaking. I rolled over every misgiving about my character like a dog rolls over dead fish, until my brain reeked of guilt and uncertainty. The thoughts, the questions, the guilt – they kept haunting me. This ghost of the past kept knocking on my mind’s door, and finally, my sober brain was willing to open up just a crack to let them in.
Who the fuck am I? How could I act that way? What was wrong with you? It asked, over and over and over again.
And it didn’t stop there – I went on to think about the other men I dated since my divorce, and even about my ex-husband. Oh, how I failed them! Oh, how mistaken I was in my search for love, so that I sought out men who would simply appease my need for attention, only to leave them behind when I realized I still wasn’t happy with what they were giving me.
The haunt says: These are PEOPLE! These are real, pain-feeling, love-giving-and-receiving, emotional, logical, complex PEOPLE and you fucked with them! Even if it wasn’t fully intentional or conscientious, you FUCKED with them, and you HURT them.
The haunt says: You did to them what others have done to you, even when you promised you never would. Why? Why would you do that?
I don’t know, little ghost. I don’t know.
What I do know now, however, is this:
Just because I behaved poorly when I was drinking, that doesn’t mean that I am a bad person – sober OR drunk. I can exorcise this little ghost through an honest appraisal of myself, forgiveness and kindness toward others going forward. It doesn’t have to be like this forever.
This was a hard thing to wrap my raw, newly sober brain around. Honestly, sometimes, it still is. But I have to keep repeating it to myself until I believe it because excessive guilt, shame and self-loathing are the LAST thing I need when I’m trying to turn my life around.
The guilt I felt on days 2 through 6 was good for me, because it reminded me that I am human. I am alive, I am now.
It shocked me into awareness of what I was capable of becoming if I didn’t clean up my act: a heartless, cold bitch who uses others to get what she wants, regardless of the consequences. It doesn’t matter if it would’ve taken a lifetime of drinking to get me there. The fact of the matter is that when I chose to stop drinking, I chose to open my mind and heart to the possibility that there was something more to me than the person I was slowly becoming. There was a reality beyond drunkenness – it really exists! It’s there!
It allowed me to open my eyes to see that yes, I am capable of regret, and knowing right from wrong, and learning. It reminded me that I am not perfect – not when I’m drunk, and certainly not even when I’m sober – and that’s OKAY. It’s normal. These are good things to know about myself, with the kind of clarity only sobriety can bring.
As for my ex-lover, I am slowly but surely allowing myself to release the pent-up anger, frustration, and pain I felt toward him and that time in my life. I’m allowing myself to accept how I failed him and myself, and allowing myself to understand that my actions hurt someone else who, when it comes down to it, I really did care quite deeply for. I’m allowing myself to feel peace knowing that at the very least, I can choose everyday to keep that failed relationship as a reminder of why I need to be sober, why I need to be better, and the deeply-felt reasons behind my choice to remain clear-headed and aware.
I’m not going to let that little haunt scare me anymore.