My New Skin

Snakes aren’t the only animals who shed their skin.

And adapting to your environment is not a skill limited to chameleons. Humans are shape-shifters. While it’s not in our biology to grow an extra appendage because multi-tasking requires more than two hands, it is in our psychology to change who we appear to be based on the company we’re with. I know this from life experience.

I understand the popularity of role-playing video games. I was very much an avatar in my own life growing up. I had trouble acting on decisions. Decisions were made in a winding spiral of thought, processed through many hyper-sensitive filters, enacted with a silent plea for your approval. My life was the screen, and my thoughts the remote control. There was always a lag time between what I decided to do, and what I actually did.

Whether or not you’re an alcoholic like me, I hope you can relate to that feeling of indecision. It’s been my experience that because I’m an alcoholic, I felt an acute indecision about life. I suffered from what I’ve heard in recovery to be called, “paralysis of analysis.” It’s a state of mind that thinks about the thousand ways what I do will be received before I do a damn thing at all. It is a symptom of intense insecurity, a crisis of identity. In it, I doubt myself enough to believe that what you think of me is what matters most. I think people of this type are more susceptible to peer pressure, like I was. Not only is self-doubt a symptom, but so is the desire to escape, to be or pretend to be someone I’m not.

I remember sitting on a swivel stool by the window of our local delicatessen growing up. I spun on that red cushion waiting for food or friends. I spent much of the time staring at customers or people on the street. My eyes followed them out of the store, around the corner. My imagination followed them back home. To their wives or girlfriends, to their children. I wondered, How do they do it? How do you walk through life so comfortably? How do they know what to say next? Who to be? What to do? Even a panhandler gleaned my envy: Why can’t I just beg for money, buy some food, and repeat? How is it that simple for him? People, anyone, had a natural place in the world.


Life to me felt like a dressing room, where nothing I tried on would fit.”


But not when I drank.

Not when I used. Not when I smoked cigarettes or sneaked out of the house. My buzz was my identity. The chemicals in my veins the main purpose to my life. Nothing was more important. I was cautioned in early recovery about junkie pride. I shared how I went to work while on prolonged benders and sprees. I was obsessed with my tolerance for drugs and alcohol, with getting away with it, with tricking you into thinking I had my shit together, with sounding smart.

I learned to wear whatever skin I had to: the jock, the scholar, the rebel, the clown, the innocent, the guilty, the victim. I could morph from the outside in, responding to the company I kept, undergoing massive overhauls of personality if need be. It was a long road filled with cracks and potholes, detours and congestion. Eventually, I arrived at a destination: “My name is Mark, and I am an alcoholic and an addict.” It was that one admission that made all those bent and broken pieces fit into one identifying principle. I’m not a jock, but an alcoholic who plays sports. I’m not a scholar, but an alcoholic who likes to read. Identifying with my disease became the cornerstone of self-awareness.

Since admitting those words, I have grown into a teacher and coach, a writer, a husband and father. But unlike before, I understand that I am all those things because I am something else first: a man in recovery. Being a man in recovery means that I am not going to change for you or anybody. In fact, the last person who can be held responsible for changing me is me.

I must be changed. I must allow God or, if you like, higher power, or over-soul, or group conscious, to work from the inside out. Recovery is an inside job, a constant process of matching what’s inside with what you see and hear and read and touch on the outside. And while it feels like this new me is wearing his new skin, the more I stick around, the more I realize that it is not new skin I am wearing at all, but the skin that I was born to wear. The closer I stay to my recovery, the more I realize that I do the things I do because I am destined to do them. And that is some empowering shit. To go from doing things because I hope it will make you like me, to doing things because it’s who I am is the same difference between controlling an avatar in a fantasy world, and becoming that character in real life.

If we are, in our recovery or in our dreams or at our work, doing what we are destined to do, who’s to say how far back that guiding influence extends its hand? Did it all start when our mothers met our fathers? Or their fathers met their mothers? Did it all start when our ancestors settled in whatever area ancestry.com tells us our skin originated? Or does the hand extend from deeper back? Does it reach from the mastery of the wheel? Or of fire? Does it reach from the cave? From the primordial ooze? Just how powerful is that stroke of a pen or embrace of a loved one?

What I enjoy thinking about most is if the power of the infinite, the unknown—if the big beautiful mystery can guide us now in whatever we are doing, who can say where our actions will end?—if they’re meant to end at all.

And to think, I once said, “My name is Mark and I’m an alcoholic,” just to get everyone to shut up about it already.

27 Responses to “My New Skin

  • This really resonates. What a lovely piece, thank you. I am so comforted and excited when I recognize myself in someone else’s writing. It makes this all a little less overwhelming somehow. I will come back to it I think as I have been – unintentionally- awake since 4 and my brain is moving through sludge (when is this going to go away??) Also a little distracted by the naked 5 year old on my bed doing some sort of tai chi with a pillow… I hope you have a lovely day!

    • They five year old tai chi! I can picture it. My 4 year old does something a little less technical. It involves flailing arms. I don’t know if you were up that early on purpose or not. Often I’m up that early. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. The other day, I woke up at 2 am, and just stayed up. Hammering away at this story I was writing. I paid the price later though. I’m glad you were busy with things. Nothing worse than being awake and staring at the ceiling from bed. Been there, traumatically, before.

      I’m glad the piece resonated with you! It felt really good to get out. It’s one that I guess has been a long time in the making. I hope you have a good weekend, Mark.

  • I relate so much to this. Very much of my recovery has been admitting that I have never truly tried to live without approval. The change is slow, solid, and worth it fully.

    Great piece, thank you.
    All the best.

    • You’re most welcome. I’m glad you’re finding the freedom to define yourself without the approval of others. It is the greatest freedom I’ve ever experienced.

  • I so struggle to find comfort in being less in control and more on a destined path. Maybe that is one of the reasons I ended up drinking so much in the first place. Even now, as I continue in sobriety, I fight the urge to “be in control” and “make the decisions myself”. Bowing down, being on my knees, and just realizing that I am not in control is so hard for me. Posts like yours show me a serenity that you seem to have with it- that is it capable to let go and trust the HP in this show.

    • I know there are different recoveries for different people, but for me, that’s where it all starts. I only starting getting somewhere in sobriety (meaning feeling happy and usefully whole) when I gave it up. Handed over the wheel. Moved over. Made room for my HP to steer and guide me. I am in a constant state of either taking back that control, or letting it go. It’s rarely in between. One things for sure, I never let go until I got sober.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting! I’m glad you could relate with this struggle we share.

  • Wow. POWERFUL.

  • SoberinKS
    2 months ago

    Wow, reading this really put me through some changes. I ran to get my pen and journal. A gift! I’m realizing deep down, where real change takes place, that it doesn’t really matter why or how it started or how or why I got here. It doesn’t matter if it looks right or even if it feels comfortable. This is where I am now. Me-this is where I am. I want to embrace being where my feet are and who my feet are with. That feels like a relief.
    My name is Carol and I am an alcoholic, addict and eating disorder. I am also a sober mother, daughter, sister, wife, teacher, friend, yogi and so much more.

    • You can be all things if you are Carol the addict first! I hate to sound preachy or dogmatic or whatever, but if it works for me, it will work for you! I believe that. There’s no easy way to get that place of acceptance, but once we get there, I find it becomes easier and easier to return.

  • Fantastic piece, Mark. You are one of the best sober bloggers around. I envy your word prowess and messages. Wonderful.

  • Thank you for this, Mark. I continue to play a lot of video games a year into sobriety. This helped me realize why. I imagine I knew it subconsciously but reading your black and white words made it apparent.

    I continue operating under the belief that if only I would do this or that I will be a changed man. But like you said, “I need to be changed.” Wow.

    I’m going through a transitional period in my life that is completely unrelated to my transition. This post slapped me across the face this morning. It reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing and to continue devoting myself to my purpose.

    Currently that purpose is to stay sober. We’ll see what it is in time. I’ll grow into what I’m meant to be. But right now I’m a man in recovery and that identity will take me places.

    • It will! I believe it will! It has taken me far. Farther than I ever thought. The funny thing is it has taken me anywhere that like, the world would accolade me for. You know? Wife, kids, mortgage stuff. But, also, it’s farther than I ever thought I’d be able to go.

      Elliott, man, you’ve got this thing. Keep running with it. Or walking with it. Better yet, maybe, just sit still with it for a while. All things will come with time, but your taking care of the main thing you can control in life, your recovery.

      You’re getting me all fired up in the process. I appreciate the comment, the read, and the friendship. Mark

  • Since 1998 I have heard many recovering alcoholics say, “That’s my story.” I’ve yet to say that until I read your blog. You just told my story. Beautifully. Eloquently. To a “T”.

    You have a gift, my friend. Not only are you sharing your gift of sobriety, you are sharing your gift as a very talented writer. Keep up the awesome work. And remember, “If we don’t give it away, we can’t keep it.”

    Warmest aloha, Dee

    • Dee-

      This is, without a doubt, the most incredible comment I’ve ever read. I don’t think we can control so much of this fate/destiny business, so obviously this was meant to happen exactly how and when it was meant to happen. That’s amazing. And you could’ve kept it to yourself, I’m so glad you didn’t.

      I’ve heard my story a couple times in the rooms. What an amazing feeling. I don’t know about you, but I was all wrapped up in that terminal uniqueness stuff, like no one else in the world has my problems or anxieties about life. It’s incredibly refreshing to know that my story is your story. WE are always greater than I.

  • Beautiful post Mark! I still have trouble with this in terms of identifying with a disease. I agree wholeheartedly that surrender is necessary and I know I am an addict. I suppose it’s in the way we frame the words in our mind. Are we saying the word ‘alcoholic’ or ‘disease’ as a reminder of how far we’ve come or a reminder of what we have to lose if we don’t maintain our recovery or both. Also if this is coming from a place of strength survival and resilience that is wonderful, I suppose I just don’t want to get stuck in a loop where I am over identifying with a disease in a way where that becomes my identity. I am a million things not just a disease. Sorry for rambling, don’t even know if any of this made sense.

    • It makes great sense. I’ve been on that side of the fence. Where it’s just all recovery all the time. It’s a burn out, a wash. I think you’re right that a balance must be struck somewhere.

      For me, I could do anything, be anyone as long as I am first a sober alcoholic and a clean drug addict. If I forget that, I can’t be anything, or do anything at all. I guess it’s the launching pad of my identity. No matter how high I travel in the rocket, I should always be able to look back down and see where it came from.

  • Mark, as always, written with excellence. I love this analogy; how creative of a title! If you believe in yourself, with the help of your Higher Power, the possibilities are endless.

  • stepsherpa
    2 months ago

    Hmmm Watch? My Rolex is broken again. Stuck at 6:00. I’d be stuck at 6:00 all weekend at the Laconia Motorcycle rally? I’d consider wearing it anyway if not for rear of being noticed. What would they think? I’ll wear my other one with the Gold to match my bracelet. Too flashy..How about the one with the Nautical face. No, this weekend I’m a biker not a boater. I know! My Titanium Swiss mountain climber super light weight wafer thin watch! Yeah..Nope, battery’s dead. Battery’s dead? Again? I just put a battery in that watch uh..last year? 2 yea… Ok then..The 5 lb slab of stainless steel my ex fatherinlaw gave me with the dials and numbers I’ll never figure out..No. Too heavy. Alright forget it! It’s not about the time anyway. If I need to know the time I can ask my assistant, my phone.

    Chain? The silver arrowhead I got from the really stoned Shaman in New Mexico? Eh.. it gets caught up in the hair on my chest. Gold? The Mr T starter kit? No, some crackhead biker wanabe may snatch it. Oh, the trials and tribulations of deciding who or what to be. My stage presentation. My attempt at an assumed mirror image. Like me so I can like myself.

    Comfortable walking around shoes? Well, bikers don’t wear white Nike’s or flip flops so damn! Work boots? Yeah I’ll walk around in the 90* sun with my workboots on. Yup. I’m a old school Biker today. Sweating profusely yet cool.

    Tomorrow though..tomorrow I’m a boater so white sneakers and Guy Harvey tee shirt with fish all over it. Nautical face watch. Gold chain. Yeah! Shorts!

    Yah know what? I’m just going to do some stuff around the house today and blow off Laconia. Fix the pressure washer, clean the garage..No proper dress required. Get ready for the beach tomorrow! Identity is optional swimming around in the surf! Yeah! We’ll find a beautiful spot on Horseneck Beach where nothing matters, everything is as it should be. No people to please. Come as you are, not who you think you should be.

    Life is good!

    • Haha! All that lead up and you didn’t wear any of it! That’s why I like the beach, you don’t have to worry about putting shit on. Only then you have to worry about what you look like in your birthday suit.

      I’m glad you rambled before the bit about staying in to fix the pressure washer though. It’s good to let go of all that what ifs before finding the what is’s. I hope it was a good trip to the beach. Pressure Washer’s are my favorite tool, actually. Only I rent. And the wife gets mad because I take off too much stuff. Oh well. Life is good, right?

      • stepsherpa
        2 months ago

        My “brother by default” was the last to borrow my pressure washer. It was returned as junk so I calmly said? Well, it was time to replace it anyway I guess. Uh huh. Super tolerance right here! Look at me Mr. Tolerant.

        Saved by denial. Just make it go away..I don’t have to admit to myself I’m a bigger fool by lending it to him than he is for breaking it. I can just smile, beat myself quietly for knowing better and doing it anyway….Make others think I’m a adult.

        Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just act like I think an adult would. The old thank you sir may I have another real man thing..

        • I remember when a sober friend–who proved not sober–borrowed all my painting equipment for a month. That month turned into two, and three. I knew to be upset, not with him, but with the illness that keeps him from just showing up and dropping off the stuff. Eventually, though, I had to paint the hallway. I had to chase him down, get it back. He was sorry for taking it for that long and I said, “don’t worry about it.” It’s about progress. And NOT about personalities. We’re all growing in this thing, sometimes quickly sometimes slowly. But the results will always materialize if we work at them!

  • Hi Mark!
    As Paul says, you really are a wonderful sober blogger.
    Such a gift you have.
    I can’t even come up with a good comment, as your post says it all!
    xo
    Wendy

    • Well, thanks Wendy! And thanks for the nice comment welcoming me into summer. You know how that goes! Summers for us teachers are the best!

  • Powerful! It took me a long time to admit I was an addict. Looking back it was the start to this new way of living. I just completed Step 4 and during that transformation I discovered I going back to meet the little me before I took my first drink and smoke. God introduced me to the real me. The mask [or skin…] had to go.
    Isn’t it liberating to be able to be yourself?
    This is a slick and informative blog!

    • I’m so glad you found this blog, Vernon! I just checked out yours. It is on fire, sir! I enjoy the way you describe how God has moved in your life and reshaped you as a man. I can relate so much to it. Your testimony is strong and I’m so glad you created a place to share it.

      It is most liberating just to be me, no strings attached. I’ve had the same experience. Only God can give me that freedom. And no one can take it away.

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