When you buy clothes that are hand sewn or hand loomed, you often find this label on the inside of the piece: Imperfections are part of this garment’s charm. That’s all well and good for a tunic I spent too much money on. But, imperfections inside me? No! NO! You can’t see those! You must think that I am perfect. I must act like I am perfect, act like my life is perfect. If you saw what the cloth of my life was made of, the snags that my soul had, or what I thought it had, I wouldn’t deserve being inside the dumpster out back, let alone on a hanger for the world to see. To inspect. To try on. My life couldn’t hold up to that type of scrutiny. The ripped holes and frayed edges of my existence would be uncovered and I would be found completely unacceptable. Torn and worthless.
Feeling imperfect from an early age is certainly not unique. I was born in 1956 with two older brothers that were tall, handsome, athletic, and straight. I was the short, fat, sensitive, gay one. My parents were loving and kind, but they knew I was different from their other boys. They bought me Chatty Cathy and Barbie. I remember the day my dad came in the door with Barbie’s first Dream House! The cardboard one with flat, cardboard throw pillows and Barbie’s black and white face on the cardboard combination TV/stereo record player console. (She was wearing her “Solo in the Spotlight” gown! Black sequins, tulle bottom and opera length gloves. Too Good!) I know this is ancient toy history for some of you. Google it!
I didn’t know that I was all that different at the start of my life, and not much of a stink was made about it at home. But my dream house utopia would soon be spoiled by two eventual realities: I couldn’t stay in my dream house forever, I had to go out and face The World. And, my parents realized that my love of Barbie, among other things, was not a phase. This phase was who I really was, and it was no longer cute. Society told them, and me, that something inside my little kid being was terribly wrong, that there was a part of me that I should hide, be ashamed of. This was a big problem for a little kid who just wanted to be loved oh so much. The solution? I turned into “The Best Little Boy in the World!” I tried to be PERFECT on the outside. I figured that if I tried to please everyone, if I was super nice and sweet to everyone, everyone would love me right back! Right? Uh, no.
The Best Little Boy in the World (BLBITW) Syndrome had a few major flaws from the start. First of all, perfection is impossible. No matter what movies, magazines, advertisements, parents, preachers or teachers shout at us, perfection is not happening. No one, no matter how determined or steadfastly adorable, can be perfect. Human beings, big or little, are not built that way. Perfection, I would learn later, is for Something Bigger than me. Still, we humans grow up blasted with messages that we must be perfect, that we CAN be perfect. So, we unwisely believe that, we try and we fail. Again. And, again. Because we are trying to be something that we can never be. Our humanity cannot be Photoshop’d.
The second flaw of this BLBITW was that so few people bought it. I had one set of grandparents who swallowed it, the cafeteria lady in grade school who took our milk money thought I was precious, and the art teacher from that same school liked me a lot. She was hateful, but I showed art talent even way back then, so I was one of her stars! That’s only four adults who I managed to fool after all that work! And, they weren’t my target audience. None of the kids I knew bought what I was trying to sell. They were merciless most of my school life. You know how every school has three or four REALLY unpopular kids? Yup. One of those was me. “BLBITW” behavior didn’t fool anyone, nor did it shield me from any pain. I was shown most every day that I did not fit in and I was not liked by most of my peers. Trying to conform as a kid just made me feel more different, more wrong inside. This too, is not a unique story.
I grew up, I was a Jesus Freak for several years, I moved to the big city of Pittsburgh to study art and there I came out in 1979! “Gay” became my religion. Peep show booths were my confessionals and sex was my Holy Sacrament. It needs to be pointed out here that somewhere along the way to adulthood I became attractive to other men. Lots of men thought I was cute! I never really believed I was but I needed the attention to validate my worth, not feel so crappy about myself, so who was I to argue? I had countless, nameless, sex-soaked religious experiences. Sometimes several a night if the bathhouse was hopping. I met the love of my life during this time. He managed one of the bathhouses in town. That was handy! We fell in love almost immediately and loving Paul became my religion. It was true love, but it’s never a good idea to put any human being up on a pedestal. Something is bound to go wrong.
No relationship is perfect, but ours was pretty good. We deeply loved and liked each other. We grew next to each other as time passed, not away from each other. My husband was my heart, my best friend, my partner in crime. We had a relationship that other people envied and we knew we were going to be together forever. We were perfect in other people’s eyes. That all ended when Paul died from AIDS months short of our 10-year anniversary. The problem wasn’t that he had sex outside of the relationship, the problem was that he didn’t have safe sex. My nearly perfect life was over, and I was left with an unspeakably painful hole in my heart, in my life, that I needed to fill. With anything.
There were more years of shopping, more sexing, the AIDS crisis, more uncertainty, more gym, more drinking. Creating more debt, more death, more unresolved pain and anger, more self-loathing. Creating more masks and creating a bigger hole in my soul that deepened from the weight of the wrong things being tossed into it! With no meaningful relief in sight, the only answer was to continue to do MORE! Of everything! Especially drink.
Somewhere in this mess I met my last husband, the Doctor. We were both living in Washington, DC. He rented a house and we moved in together. He threw big parties and I was a Doctor’s wife! I went to Florida to meet his family; he came to Western New York to meet mine. This relationship was far from perfect right from the start. But he had travel money, he had great taste in furniture, and our lives looked perfect. That was all I could hope for at this point.
About six months after we moved in together on a rainy weekday, Doctor asked me If I wanted to “get toasted?” I was very naive about meth. I had never done crystal and until that moment, I didn’t know he had either. But something inside of me knew exactly what he was proposing, and I said, “Yes,” without missing a beat. We went up to our bedroom and I let him stick a needle into my willing arm, no questions asked. I would do anything to ease the years of unflinching pain and emptiness. I immediately liked it and I thought I had found something that would make me feel better about life. But it wasn’t long before I was off to the out-of-control, unmanageable races. That caustic relationship lasted for about three years. He kept his house. I kept my addiction.
Speed through years of lonely meth use and drinking. I’m an isolator; my life got smaller and darker. I hid on my small couch in a dark room watching porn alone for days at a time. My soul was as dark and gloomy as my living room was with no lights on and the curtains drawn. Then one day (with a lot of stuff in the middle that I haven’t mentioned), I was in my bathroom, naked, getting ready for work, and I was finally tired of speeding my way to deeper and deeper sadness. I looked up at the ceiling and yelled, “All right! I’m an addict! But I’m not going to any of those fucking meetings!” Less than two weeks later I attended my first fucking meeting. Now, with 13+ years of continuous sobriety, I try to get to at least three fucking CMA meetings a week. I love my fucking meetings. They saved my life. In each fucking meeting I learn to live life as an imperfect addict in recovery. It’s pretty fucking fabulous!
Here’s what has helped me be cool with a life that’s turned from unattainable perfection, to being at peace with myself. As I said earlier, humans aren’t built for perfection. Once I admit that I am not perfect, don’t have to be perfect, and it is not my job to be perfect, my relationship with my Higher Power, whatever I conceive that to be, gets more right-sized. Nature is perfect. For some, their Higher Power is perfect. Humans are simply human. We make mistakes. We learn from mistakes. As I allow myself to be a child of the Universe rather than the emperor with no clue, my endless, shopping list of “Coulda – Woulda – Shouldas” is slowly erased with the heavenly realization that I was striving for something that was not mine to have. Perfection is a lie. An impossible lie. And for some of us, trying to live up to that lie was the thing that kept us using because we kept failing at an unrealistic goal. Perfection? Get over it! Doing our best clean and sober? Totally doable.
Letting go of my perfection helps me see my fellow addicts more clearly too. If I allow myself to be imperfect, how can I expect other people in the rooms to be perfect? That’s just not fair. If I can love myself as I am, I can more easily love the person next to me as they are, at that moment. As I become more patient with my own demons and defects, I can look you in the eye and give you the same comfort. The whole point of this program is one addict helping another. But I can’t help anyone if I’m still on my high horse. I needed to hop off My Big Ego Pony and land in the trenches of life with the rest of my sober tribe. It became easier to love you with your problems because now we were on the same field, exchanging notes as equal players in the daily, glorious, maddening fight for sobriety.
Finally, letting go of perfection allows me to see the miracle that I am. I no longer fail before I start. Some failures are lessons to be learned. And OK, maybe some failures are just failures that stink pretty bad. (With my art, sometimes imperfections turn out to be the most beautiful part of the painting! Other times, no matter how you try to save it, your canvas just turns ugly. It’s time to throw that mess out, clean your brushes and start again.) Now, I allow my life to grow in more reasonable measures. Succeeding often yet challenged as well.
My self-esteem grows as I keep working my program, allowing others to teach me, take chances, and give myself a break along the way. I’m easier on myself in recovery as I become better friends with my authentic self. That guy is smart, creative, loving, funny, and he digs his sober life. He works the Steps, he tries to be of service, and he tries to love himself and others more each day. I’ve replaced perfection with kindness, failure with some lessons, and masks with the real face of a worthy addict, doing his sober best. I keep learning about life as I trudge down the road of recovery. Sometimes, I skip. Or, I disco dance. Sometimes, I crawl in pain, inch by inch. Whatever it takes to get me through the day clean and sober I do it, and I don’t do it alone. I have an amazing recovery family in CMA!
For me, The Twelve Steps address more than numbing my pain with drugs. They address my relationship with my disease, the world around me, my Higher Power, and my relationship with myself. I get real with those relationships when I work the Steps. I see the truth with my sponsor and I get better. Perfection gets thrown out the window and I open the door to honesty. The Third Step says that I am under the care of my Higher Power. That care, that love has nothing to do with me being perfect. It has to do with me accepting everything about my life, improving that life with truth, integrity and humor, and having faith that my Higher Power has my back.
Imperfections are a part of this addict’s charm. This addict has found relief from the pain of addiction, an authentic love for himself, a thriving relationship with a Higher Power, great friends, a desire to grow and be of service, and a recovery community to help me test out the endless possibilities that a life free of alcohol or drugs can offer. Sounds pretty charming to me! Grateful addict and alcoholic.