Perfectionism: The Path to the Addictive Cycle of a Prolonged Adolescence...
I am an addict. The things that I am addicted to differ in magnitude and form. Current addictions: Vanilla Coke Zero, Orange Lifesavers, Chips and Guacamole. These are not things that I have OCD about - that is a whole other subject. But these are things that I do compulsively because they make me feel a certain way...better than I do without them.
I used to have much worse addictions: cigarettes, Pepsi with all the sugar, alcohol, unavailable men that treated me like shit, fast food.
I also know that I am addicted to things that I haven’t ever tried: heroin, cocaine, meth - I know this because I have a personality that perseverates on things outside of myself that initially make me feel better. Having never tried cocaine, heroin or meth, I know from the experience of others that these things were pleasurable the first time they were tried. I know, from all of my prior experiences, that if it was pleasurable the first time, I did it again and again and again until such time that I no longer had choice in the matter. I did it even when I had good reason not to, when I didn’t want to, when I knew better, when I knew that doing the thing was going to mess up my future, relationships, career and life. I did it anyway because the power of choice was no longer mine. I gave it away the first time that I did the thing that I would later become addicted to. By the time I knew better, it was too late. I was a goner.
Looking back, I can see that I had this one persistent and unrelenting idea as a kid that really greased the skids into addiction: Perfectionism. I looked at my face and compared myself to the super models in the magazines. When I saw a deficiency, I felt like shit and less than. I looked at my body in comparison to other girls and, since I was a late bloomer, I failed there too. I hated trying new things because I could not endure the pain and discomfort I would feel learning to do the new thing. What I can see now that I could not see then was that this perfectionism set me up perfectly for addiction. It gave me millions of moments to feel inadequate and need of an easy exit. Enter addiction.
Childhood is fraught with situations that, by definition, are novel. You don’t have a lot of life experience to draw off of so pretty much everything is new continually. Kids are amazing to watch because they seem to love life, being present in the moment and just enjoying the easy flow that life can have when you don’t think you know better. But enter the adolescent ego and all of that changes. I could no longer play softball because I sucked at it. I was so self conscious at tennis, that I only enjoyed it when I played alone against myself...playing others left me feeling so nerve wracked that it was no longer fun. It wasn’t long for me until the time came where nothing I did was enjoyable. School, hanging with friends, shopping, sports, family time. All of it sucked majorly because there I was hopelessly inadequate for all to see. Enter perfectionism.
Now this may seem like a weird time for perfectionism to take over but it is true and is true of almost any addict I know. My solution for my inadequacies was to over do everything. If I got an A, it should have been an A+. If I won a tennis match or diving meet, I should have gotten a better score even if I ended up winning my division. Perfectionism gave me something to do all the time. I could always be better. I could always do more. But what I did not understand and could not understand was that what perfectionism was really giving me was an excuse to use. There was no way that one person could get straight As, be the most popular, be an amazing athlete, work three or four jobs, date, be a good daughter. Sooner or later, I got tired. I got super exhausted from my head always telling me that I was not enough, that I had to be and do more. It wasn’t long before I needed to stop the incessant internal critique. Enter alcohol.
Mind numbing...just what I needed. When I was drinking, I didn’t care about the grades, the friends, the jobs, the sports, or the dates. They could all go fuck themselves thank you very much! It felt great to not give a shit anymore after a lifetime of giving and caring way too much. However, I would eventually sober up and then I would have to work five times as hard to get my shit straightened out. Shit that was just fine (albeit not perfect) until I went on that bender. Post intoxication clean up started off ok but within twelve years it is what occupied all of my time. I was either getting ready to get drunk, getting drunk, recovering from being drunk or cleaning up the carnage from the night before’s drunk. EXHAUSTING!
I can see now that what I very successfully did was create a paradigm where I never had to grow up. My life was always someone else’s fault. I didn’t really have to do anything or try hard anymore because I was going to fail so why bother? It was easy to push it all aside and just drink myself into a stupor. It never once occurred to me that it was in my escaping that I created all the wreckage. If I just could have stayed present in the moment to live through whatever it was that I was feeling or dealing with, I would be ok. However, my perfectionistic head told me that I had to do twice as much to feel half as good. And so the cycle went. Live life, feel inadequate at life, try harder to be perfect (whatever the fuck I thought that was), head chew on me because despite the superhero effort, I could not get it right, need a drink to escape from all the pressure and lofty demands I placed on myself, drink, over do it, cause wreckage, realize that I was a total screw up and have good cause to start the whole fucking disaster over again....for years.
What resulted was me prolonging the period of time in my life that was most painful - adolescence. I do not know one person on this earth that would choose to stay in those years for longer. Most of us barely got out of the teen years alive but I chose a course of conduct that actually prolonged and increased the severity of suffering in those years. What resulted was my downward spiral to the bottom which was actually good news.
However, I did not realize how much perfectionism got it all kicked off in the first place. I had an Ah-Ha moment the other day talking to a sponsee. She was lambasting herself for a variety of perceived missteps and imperfections and while I listened to her recite her inadequacies one after another, I realized that if I was her and my head was telling me all this shit, I would want a drink. Then it hit me - that is EXACTLY what I did. Set completely unreasonable expectations of myself and everyone else so that I would have an excuse to use! Which was exactly what she was doing as well! I pointed it out to her and she was less than thrilled with my brilliant revelation...but she listened and she could not not see that I was right. Her laundry list of things about herself and her life that were all kinds of fucked up and her incessant and relentless need to make all of those things perfect RIGHT FUCKING NOW was the foundation of her using.
So my perfectionistic tendencies days are numbered because I see they will never lead me down a path to a satisfying life. Instead, those demands that I place on myself and others will always lead me exactly where they have always led me - into a downward spiral where I can make my insides match my outsides in some sort of new land speed record. It goes without saying (almost) that it also makes me an asshole. Who wants to be around someone who requires perfection all the damn time? What a killjoy! Then I realized that the whole fucking thought process is a complete set up...I know no perfect people because perfectionism is subjective. It applies only to me and my perspective. So no one is ever going to think that I am perfect because they are using their own subjective criteria which fundamentally differs from my own. Even if I am only applying it to me, it has never gotten me anywhere good. It got me drunk and unhappy a lot. I mean a lot. And it can still take me down that well known path of restlessness, irritability and discontented even when I don’t really want to go.
I am committing to ending my prolonged adolescence (its is about fucking time at 49!) - it is time to grow up and join everyone else who is doing this life imperfectly...