Once again, I find myself compelled to write about something I never thought I would discuss publicly. Today, amidst massive headaches and looking for a way to fall asleep, I asked a friend to give me an image to focus on, something to make me feel good about myself. She advised:
"Try to remember something from your early childhood when you had to summon up incredible courage to do something and ended up triumphant. An oral report? Water skiing? Finding your way home?"
I am surprised at how little I can come up with. From a very early age, I wouldn't say I had a big ego (as many probably assume), but rather I had created a public version of myself that never failed. This "safe me" was supremely confident while my private self knew I was basically worthless. So, at once I knew I was never going to be good at anything but at the same time I knew I would never fail. In other words, there was never a time where I felt like a challenge lay "in between" where anything was at stake. If I succeeded, the public version of me was right, beaming and sarcastic. If I failed, the private version of me was right, futile once again. I had very few moments where anything was at risk.
I can think of only one time, and I have never spoken of this.
Ninth grade. Michigan. I sat in our living room, discussing my latest (good) report card with my father. There was a crystal decanter in our bar containing a dark liqueur. My father got up and poured some of this into a small stemmed liqueur glass and sipped it as we discussed my success. The way he savored the liqueur (he almost never drank, only a single beer once in a while) made it seem like this was a special way to reward oneself.
I wanted to try it.
I knew this was wrong, that I was underage. Nevertheless, I took a sip from his unfinished glass once our discussion was over. It was sweet, like cough syrup, and it made me sleepy. I liked it, but I also knew I was done with homework for the night. I went to bed early and slept like a baby.
Every time I went in the living room after that I saw the crystal decanter. I didn't crave it terribly, but on the other hand I wanted to try it just one more time. But I also knew if I sipped from it my parents might see the level go down.
I asked my father something vague about addiction, under the guise that I had a school project to do. He told me about smoking a cigarette once in a movie theater, how his own father had seen him do this, and how his father never brought it up (which, to him, was the worst punishment). I went to my mother and asked her something vague about addiction too. She (as always) was more blunt. She was watching a TV movie, tears in her eyes (a "mommy movie" as she called them). She lifted her cocktail off the counter and jiggled the crystal glass at me, the ice cubes inside jangling like a chorus of handbells.
"What do you think this is?" she asked.
I went straight to the living room, took the top off the decanter, and took a swig. I felt ill for a while, and I slept all night. The next morning my head hurt and I was groggy for my fist few classes. I didn't think about the decanter for another week.
The next time I passed by the decanter, I knew I was at a crossroads. I wanted to try it "just one more time" again. I thought hard. There was no spirit animal to guide me, no "sign from above." The sun didn't shine in right then, cutting through the clouds in such a way that it spelled "Don't do it" on the bar. It was just me, a promising ninth grade student with everything in front of him, staring at a crystal decanter containing sweet liquid that made me feel good for a few minutes. I imagined the moment like a showdown in a cowboy movie, just me at one end of a dusty street and the decanter at the other, both of us waiting to draw our guns.
There are few times in my early life where I had to go that deep in order to make the right choice. In so many words, I told myself right then, "This decanter will always be there. Always. Wherever you go. For the rest of your life. Everywhere you turn, a decanter will be available to you. Either stop this right now, or you will be throwing everything away. Alexander Miller, STOP THIS RIGHT NOW AND DON'T LOOK BACK."
So I did.
And that was that. I was surprised with how strong I was, and how completely I shut the door with such inner confidence, never looking back once as a high schooler (or even that much in college). I have failed a few times as an adult, on and off, I would say, nothing too serious, but the purity of my resolve as a ninth grader has forever given me the inner strength I need when I really do need it.