How Opening the Roadblocks of Perfectionism Helps my Sobriety

While half-lit most days I brought on impossible expectations of myself and others. The hours spent drinking involved lots of dreamy moments waiting for things to materialize, or circumstances to turn in my favor. With a clearer mind now I see that my fabrication of such high standards was not only ironic, as I was in no state to appreciate them, but also futile. My impatience for perfection closed the door to learning new things and accepting the “flaws” that make us human.

For the past several years I’ve been working on humorous thematic illustrations with a view towards creating a stationery line. Somehow I was able to produce work here and there on weekends, before wine o’clock hit everyday at 5 p.m. Others would tell me that I have business potential, there is a market, I should create more, etc. Deep into my wine haze I would skim the internet and gaze at the work of other illustrators and artists, and decide that I am neither up to the task nor am I very good at what I’m trying to do. My drawings were never good enough and the What am I thinking? self-talk quashed any progress. Along with the idea that I wasn’t up to snuff, I piled on excuses as to why I never had the time to think through this idea and produce the work necessary to make it real: My nine-to-five ball and chain, motherhood, and all the time-sucking chores of being a responsible homeowner.

In sobriety my perspective on this self-inflicted “problem” has shifted. The roadblocks of perfectionism and squeezed time are opening slowly, and I can only hope to chip away at their permanent removal. So far, during the four months without my alcohol-addled brain driving the bus, I have worked on illustrations that, frankly, suck. Imperfect doesn’t describe them. In the bin they go! The difference is that now – instead of throwing in the towel and blaming a multitude of factors outside of myself – I see these situations as learning moments. What could I have done differently? I try to figure that out and start again, often producing something decent as a result. Also, since I no longer take up three to four hours each day drinking, there is my “extra” time to draw and work out ideas. I had this time all along, but misused it by letting addiction win.

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs is a Key Step in Sobriety

When I drank it was easy to blame my depression and inertia on other people and my limiting beliefs. Instead of looking inward for a way out, I stopped at the barriers I unwittingly constructed myself. Art was a bust because of my dad’s unwillingness to put me through art school. My writing would never be as good as the literary stars on my map. And why would anyone try to sing and play guitar when there’s Joni Mitchell?

These self-defeating patterns of thought ruled my days all throughout my addiction. Even after just four months of clarity, with my brain slowly coming back to life, I see how this kind of thinking held me back from being myself.

In the book, The 30-Day Sobriety Solution, the chapter on how limiting beliefs can make you stuck resonated with me. A light went off.

Your beliefs determine your decisions and your behavior, which in turn, create your future. A belief can be so powerful that if you are exposed to information that contradicts that belief, your brain will actually filter it out.

The 30-Day Sobriety Solution

For years my limiting beliefs surrounded me, holding me in, bolstered by drink. Instead of painting, because I thought I could never be any good at it, I drank. Why finish that short story when no one will read it? Open a bottle instead. Guitar lessons cost money (but never mind the amount of cash I threw away on wine). These beliefs became so ingrained that any time I mustered up the courage to create something, it wasn’t long before gave up. I did keep trying, however, and I have the scraps and remnants of unfinished ideas everywhere.

It’s time to pick them up, dust them off, discard what doesn’t work, keep the rest, and start new things. I am done waiting for some kind of miracle to land. The change has to come from within, and the first step is to get rid of the weeds (my limiting beliefs) and plant my own damn flowers.

Finding the Spark in the Ashes of Addiction

Talk to any alcoholic about peeling the layers of their personalities, desires, and beliefs, and you will find a lot of regret and denial. Regret over something that was found but then lost, and denial about the something that almost was, but never quite came to fruition. Getting at the heart of this is impossible when drinking. It might enter your head and your heart, but likely will end in tears or an argument, or worse, on to other addictive substances. Addicts are really good at burying the things we don’t have the tools to address.

When I worked in publishing I held sales and marketing positions. I read and sold books, basically. My clique-y colleagues were opinionated, well-read, and often intimidating. Some of them were writers and grad students, hoping one day to become published. During this time I wrote too, but I never said anything to anyone about it. I always wanted to write fiction and had an idea of the sort of work I would produce, and who I would write for. The people I worked with were not my audience. What I wanted to write was too commercial, and certainly not prize-winning or original.

The snob mentality of my peers prevented me from executing what in their minds would be bad stuff; the sort of thing we booksellers scoffed at. This held me back. Instead of saying fuck it I’ll write what I like, I held it closely inside. I didn’t have the tools to navigate through what confidence looks like. Why should I care what anyone else thinks, when, again (I see this all the time now that I’m sober) people really only care about themselves?

Commercial was a bad word. Mass market was considered low-brow; yet, sales of this commercial type of literature is exactly what made the entire enterprise of bricks and mortar bookselling possible. The Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz bestseller profits enabled those authors’ publishing houses to take chances on the lesser-known authors who most likely produced more “literary” work, but would never sell as well.

But, I digress. Now that I am sober I am working on recovering not only my physical health. I need to keep digging a little deeper to find the discarded remnants of the good creative ideas I once had but put away because I lacked the balls to to see them through. I don’t plan on being the next Laurie Colwin or Elizabeth Berg, but there’s no harm in trying.

It's Better to Bloom Late Than Never

Instead of going to art school like I should have, my father wanted me to be a secretary or a hairdresser, the sort of roles outside of motherhood women of his generation settled for. I came very close to being both, until I flew off to England to live an entirely different life altogether (which is a story for other posts). For years, no matter where I lived or how I earned my living, I carried around the desire to pursue the life of the artist, but I held a deep belief that I wasn’t good enough to claim that role.

I buried the desire, never practiced drawing or painting regularly, and convinced myself that writing was my thing instead. I had the mindset that I had to choose one thing and be really, really good at that one thing. Dive in and know everything about it, know all the people who are really good at it, have a network, expose yourself. Well, of course I never applied myself fully to writing, either. Writing and art lay low for years, until now.

When I spent my evenings drinking I was like a tightly-closed bud, waiting for the right moment to open. Waiting some more. And more. The lack of clarity and confidence, the inability to see things positively because of the constant filter of cynicism and self-doubt, held me down and closed-up.

Fueled by my daily wine habit, I maintained this negative environment in my head, where nothing truly productive ever happened. Somehow, I got by, but I wasn’t being true to myself: the artist and writer within. As I grew older, any vision of myself as an artist faded by the day. I convinced myself that my time had passed, I missed my chance, and to bother with it now would be futile. I told myself It’s a young person’s world these days, you are a fool if you think you can compete and dive in now. This constant hammering of negativity wore me down to the point where I convinced myself it was true.

Three months into sobriety I realize now that all of that is bullshit.

The only thing stopping myself from painting, drawing, writing is me. Putting down the drink means lifting up other parts of myself: the art of seeing, of believing, of doing.