There’s a certain surrender to a criminal background check. Even if I know they won’t find any sexual offenses or violent crimes, I hold my breath when the woman takes my fingerprints. I guess that feeling will never go away.
The woman smiles and says, “That’s it.” I joke about the high-tech way they do it now days, like a mini-copy machine. No ink to wipe off my finger tips. I smile slightly as I reach my car. It’s nice to go free this time, clean fingers and a clean conscience.
The late great comedian George Carlin said, “I get a nice safe feeling when I see a police car and I realize I’m not driving around with a trunk full of cocaine.”
That’s sort of the way I feel these days. When I see a police car, I enjoy the way my heartbeat remains steady. The DUI is too old to be a concern on background checks. No beer cans to hold below the line of sight, no bottles under my seat.
Six and a half years ago, I really had no choice but to surrender. The highway patrolmen, his face about three inches from mine, demanded, “How much have you had to drink, Sir!” I think he already knew the answer well enough for his purposes. When you’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup, you really don’t know how to answer that one. I replied, “I don’t know.”
A few weeks later a group of people listened as I said those words in a different context.
“I don’t know how I got here.”
“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”
It would take a while longer, but they nodded and smiled when I admitted “I don’t seem to know anything.”
I grew up in a culture of self-control. When I failed, I was told to work harder. My teachers, at every parent-teacher conference, said I simply needed to apply myself. I tried and too often failed to “win” the pretty girl. My church told me to suppress my urges. I used to wonder if my good deeds would outweigh the impure thoughts and “self-abuse” when it came to the question of hell. When I developed “nervous tics” in junior high (not until my 30’s would I learn it was Tourette’s), a neurologist told me I was high-strung. Mind over matter. I could will myself to stop.
Surrender, quitting, giving in, was a sign of weakness.
I am not complaining. My childhood was like most. However, there are times in life when self-control, will power, hard work or mind over matter are not the answer.
For me it was drinking. I worked hard, didn’t show up late at the office. I didn’t even get hangovers. I told family and friends I could control it. I think people who are not alcoholics have a superpower. They might as well be able to leap a tall building in a single bound. They don’t have to say, “I can control it” anymore than they would insist that they can control themselves at a water fountain.
I could drink in moderation. Of course my idea of that was four drinks a night. I would stop at four each night until one night I didn’t. I plowed on through to eight, or nine or maybe even 12. I gave it up for periods to show others that I could. Once I gave it up for Lent. It was pretty easy. But on Easter I embarrassed myself. I had willpower. Actually most alcoholics do. Problem was, for the stretches that I wasn’t drinking, all I could think about was that I wasn’t drinking.
I wrestled with this cunning, baffling chemical like Jacob and the angel. It’s been said that alcoholism is a low-level search for God. I believe that. Once in a while I would find that perfect buzz for a few precarious moments. There was a longing in my drinking that felt sacred and traditional.
“If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction,” said author Ann Marlowe, “I’d call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time…addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn’t an innocent one. It’s about stopping your passage to the future, it’s a symptom of fear of death, and the love of predictable experience. And the love of predictable experience, not the drug itself, is the major damage done to users.”
Toward the end of my drinking, I feared I might have ruined a good thing. But I refused to give up. I knew when the time came I would be able to stop.
I grew up understanding surrender as weakness, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. However, nowhere in the dictionary definition is weakness mentioned.
Merriam-Webster: “to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed.”
Jonathan Franzen said, “It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone’s about to break.”
The second definition: “to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.” Alcoholism is a lonely condition. For that matter many of life’s travails are. Rugged individualism is overrated.
An Alcoholic is often described as a person with a huge ego and a tiny self-esteem. The ego said I have this under control. The self esteem said I can’t go on without it. Surrender said, I’m defeated, please help.
Surrender is a great relief in a world that demands that we hold onto life tightly with both hands. Surrender gives us permission to let go. It says we don’t always have to win. Today I can surrender the last word in an argument. Surrender allows me to slow down and let the aggressive driver have his way on the road. Surrender gives me patience. Surrender provides the humility to make amends. Surrender is the wisdom to go through grief rather than around it. Surrender is falling in love.
Perhaps its greatest gift is the ability to acknowledge fears and failure without dwelling on them.
It’s OK to look at the past, but it’s not polite to stare.
Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.
Walt Whitman rejoices at the scientific spirit, “the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”
My background check hasn’t come back yet. There will be a six-year-old DUI on there which could cost me the job.
But on the bright side, I don’t have any cocaine in my trunk.