I am a fraud.
The thought shoved through my front door, late one night, hours after I’d come home from a 12-step meeting where a friend had asked me to pass out the chips.
You know chips. The plastic or metal coins ex-drunks and ex-pillheads carry in their pockets that signify how long it’s been since they last got wasted. This meeting focuses on newcomers, and since newcomers struggle to stay clean, and often end up, after six days of continuous sobriety, forging three or four prescriptions for Oxycontin and stealing their nephew’s Xbox—this meeting keeps its overhead low by passing out the reasonable, cheaper, plastic type. So we carry around poker chips. (What do they hand out at Gamblers Anonymous? – Ed.)
My new friend asked me to pass them out at the end of the meeting because he knew that I’d polished off a handle of whiskey a few nights before, that I was new to the meeting, that I couldn’t seem to win friends and influence ex-drunks in the valley or the rooms of local recovery, and that it would be a good way for them to see me as a member of something. That I might even see it for myself.
Like a kind and considerate friend, he ambushed me three minutes before the meeting started, so I had a good hour to sit there and obsess about standing up and talking in front of a large, bleak church basement filled with 125 straight bros who say things like “wicked smaht.”
Then another thought hurried in, like a criminal rushing though a condo security door that an attractive resident in a miniskirt just unlocked on her way in.
The thought that I’d need to give myself—up there at the front of the room—a newcomer chip.
Those chips stand for 24 hours of sobriety, or are reserved for those who slip into the back row with only a mild and conflicted desire to stop drinking. The teetering, terrified, fog-headed folks who lurch up to take the coin and a hug (or a handshake for the misanthropic) and get the full, thundering applause, because every one of us has been that skinny, trembling squirrel, and because we know that without them, we’d be unable to help them, and helping them is what best guarantees your chances of squeezing past squirrel status.
Problem was, I was the squirrel. Again. After 15 years of sobriety and another four years of failed attempts to claw my way back. I don’t care what anyone says about one day at a time—your ego gets attached to that 15. Or mine did. And my fumble of it made me a dud.
Those thoughts spun through my addled brain during the meeting, and whenever I’d picture myself fishing the newcomer chip out of the plastic box and announcing in a voice loud enough to be heard by 125 straight bros that I couldn’t give the chip to anybody else because I had to give that particular one to myself—every time I pictured it, tears ran down my face.
Because I knew that keeping the secret of my whiskey guzzling only shoved me farther into the dark corner I’d painted myself into. If I wanted to squeeze past squirrel, I had to come clean.
And the end of the meeting came way too quickly, and I went up there and with shaky hands handed out the chips to those with greater lengths of sobriety than I’d lately managed, working my way back down through the months, from 11 to 9 to 6 to 3 to the end. And as I fished out the newcomer chip my voice fucking broke and I fought back fucking tears and said the words I needed to say. And the thundering applause followed me back to my folding chair, where I put my face in my hands as a dozen unseen straight bros slapped my back. Because it had been a very long four years of the loneliest days I’d ever known, and I was fucking tired.
Later, at home alone with the walls down, in the company of a chihuahua, the feeling of fraudulence fell upon me.
Oh, hello, I said. Old friend. Hello, old pal.
I knew fraudulence. For 15 years it had followed me home from every meeting where I’d told my story of transformation. It reflected off my laptop screen every time I posted a blog. The truer the tale, the harder it hit. You just fucking lied your ass off, bro, the voice in my brain sneered.
But it was true, I’d reply with wavering confidence. (Um, when have you ever had anything but wavering confidence? – ed.)
You lied like a motherfucker lying liar who gets paid by the lie, it would reply.
And it said the same the night of the chip. I hated him—the inner critic or bitter queen or belligerent and self-righteous Patriots fan or whatever fucking metaphor works best here. I hated the dude. So I’d always block and ghost him.
But in the days that followed the night of the chip, I caught the barest glimmer of light from the crypt he’d crawled from. And this time, I followed it back, broke in, ate its porridge and slept in its three beds and left in the morning like a guilty trick.
I know where he lives now.
Do me a favor. Think of the spontaneous types of the planet’s citizens. The fun-loving, free-wheeling, I-just-go-where-the-night-and-the-next-Uber-take-me types. Now picture their opposite, and you’ve got my selfie. A pic picked from 75 similar pics and put through a dozen filters.
Naturally, I blame my childhood, but I’d always hated not knowing what was coming around the next corner. So for every interaction of every day of my entire life, I’d rehearse. I’d plan my steps. Repeat my lines until they’d lock in. Run optional scenarios. “And, five, six, seven, eight…” I’d write a dozen drafts before hitting “post.”
And spare myself possible pain and probable humiliation. Because looking like a fool in front of others is the greatest sin of life. Duh.
And I’d done the same the night of the chip, sitting on a flimsy folding chair and plotting my words for an hour. And it was the rehearsal that spoon-fed the dude. It kept him dressed in Dockers and paid the rent on his crypt.
Because if I’d rehearsed my lines, then they were void of spontaneity. Which meant that I was insincere. Because spontaneous expressions were the truest expressions. Everyone knows that.
Rehearsals were blatant attempts at manipulating the better people of the world, you fucking drama queen. Stop auditioning for applause. Sit down and fiddle with your phone like everyone else.
So says the dude.
The dude is not me. Just the drunk in my head. He works hard to cull me from the herd, whines from the backseat of the Honda on my way home from work that it’s bottle-time. “Let’s go home, lock the door, mute the ringer, and binge-watch Who the F#$? Did I Marry?“
I’m all you need, he whispers from the far end of the couch, then passes out, face-first, in his Value Meal.
I can hear myself think then. I’m not the dude. This is the seventh draft. I’ve cut 300 words and replaced hundreds more. I pick them for effect. To manipulate you. To keep from falling flat on my face. And it’s okay. Rehearsed truth is no less true than spontaneous truth. Human connection works. Late-night calls with other lunatics sustain me.
He snores on the couch. I throw the dog’s fleece blanket over his feet. Brush my teeth and wonder if I could kick him out, or if he’s hard-wired to my head. If the bulk of my life was spent hiding my flaws, my little, incestuous flowers in the attic, then maybe now I can unlatch the trap door and let them roam the house. Give the dude the spare room, rent-free. Just wipe down the kitchen counter, I’ll tell him, give me a check every few months for utilities and maintenance, obey the quiet hours, and keep your hands off the chihuahua.