Years ago, I came across an article that claimed that most alcoholics have perfectionist tendencies.
Ha! That seemed like such a joke at the time. As I looked around the chaos that had become my home, I thought about how little evidence of perfection there was. In fact, a quick glance showed outright dysfunction and chaos. Mail unopened, dishes from the night before, an answering machine with blinking messages. Always a dog needing to go outside. (Had he been fed lately?) TV blaring inappropriate shows somewhere in the house.
There was no one in charge even, much less keeping up appearances. But the appearances were so important. A taped together life to present to the public. Decent clothes. A job. Breath mints.
I used to love the show “Keeping Up Appearances” with wacky Hyacinth Bucket clawing her way up the social ladder in her little British town. As an example, she told everyone her last name was pronounced “Bouquet.” She answered the phone with “This is the Bouquet residence. Lady of the house speaking!” The more I watched it, the more I realized this truth:
I was Hyacinth Bucket.
I was a perfectionist when it came to appearances. I cared more about appearances than what was actually going on. And appearances became my reality.
But where, I wondered, did this tendency start?
As a child, I first learned the word popular by watching the Brady Bunch, and knew that it was something important to achieve. I dressed just like Jan Brady and copied her mannerisms.(Marsha was out of reach — a real teenager, while I, at 10 years old, was clearly not.) I even had the hated freckles Jan tried to get rid of. No higher compliment could be paid me in the fourth grade than “You look just like Jan Brady.”
Fast forward a few decades (you will be relieved to read), and the habit of keeping up appearances continued. I appeared to have an ideal family — two kids, husband with a good job — but already, with the college habit of drinking beer still flowing, the image was beginning to spring leaks. As a mismatched couple, betrothed while drinking, we had an unhappy marriage, full of tension and unmet expectations. Beer, which later became wine, covered over the hostile undertow, and united us on at least one front. That worked for a while.
But the ominous rumble of reality was just over the horizon, like a thunderstorm ready to break.
What happened next was tragic, like it always is with heavy drinking. And once the storm picked up steam, it was downright scary — like watching a car crash in slow motion. Divorce. Custody suits. Lawyers. Financial problems. Damaged children. Escalating drinking, to cope with the ruins of a life led by drink. I never knew it could get this bad. The truth burst like dam, flooding everything in sight, nearly drowning us all.
Appearances, once you’re really falling apart, no longer matter. Raw with pain, I found myself blurting out the truth to random people, even strangers. I could no longer hold up the image of a person who even remotely had it together. I quit trying. Still, I kept going to work … doing the minimum to keep afloat. Appearances had to give way to survival. And even survival now seemed questionable, as the will to survive was replaced with apathy.
Somewhere, deep down, I began to make the connection between the chaos of my life and the alcohol. The shit storm life had become, and which I had dragged other people into, was not just the result of choosing an ill-suited mate … of circumstance beyond my control. The drinking caused the destruction. It didn’t add to it, or exacerbate it, or help me survive it. It caused the destruction. And there was only one way to stop it from continuing.
Having humility is not a socially advantageous trait. Neither is admitting your faults and sneaking into church basements to stand up and say, “Hi. My name is ….” In fact, it might seem like the depth of disgrace, if you’re hung up on such things.
Getting un-hung up on such things has been an ongoing and freeing process. I am a work in progress. After dozens of stops and starts, over time I have put together another life, except this one is based on the truth. And now that I have some of the trappings of the life I once craved, the trappings don’t bring me the joy and peace that I thought they would. I am grateful, but called to do so much more than just look good on the surface. I’m surrounded by love, and people I cherish, and I don’t care what that looks like from the outside. I want to reach out to those who were where I was — as far down the wrong side of the tracks as I fell. I have the need to lift somebody else up, with the hope that it’s possible to heal. And to be beautiful in a way that has nothing to do with what you’re wearing and everything to do with becoming who you really are, stunning and awe-inspiring in your brokenness, and divine in your willingness to finally rise.