Once upon a time everyone lived happily ever after

Little Girl, who is at that beautiful chrysalis age, likes to read me a bedtime story.  She pats the chair commandingly, and when I am settled to her satisfaction, clears her throat and begins.

“Once ‘pon a time, dere was bootiful pwecious pwincess, an’ she lived in the sky.  In castle.  And was happy.  De end”.

It’s a bit lacking in narrative structure, but I enjoy her eagerness to skip over the conflict and get straight to the happy resolution.  Big Girl does the same thing, albeit with slightly more nuance; her preferred stories are those where nothing bad ever happens, and the heroine merely skips on down a country road forever with her brown paper bag of aniseed sweets clutched in her hand.

I, too, have a tendency to want to skip to the happy ending, no matter how fantastical that happy ending may be.  In the first couple of weeks of getting sober, I decided to get a new hobby, and spent an hour and $50 in a speciality fabric store buying carefully chosen bits and pieces to make a beautiful lined tote bag with an intricate patchwork outer and pink polka dot lining.  This was for my daughter to take to school on Library Day.  While driving home with my swag, I envisioned spending evenings lovingly crafting it.  I foresaw that she would fall in love with it, that the other school mums would catch sight of it and gasp in admiration, that from there I would go on to more ambitious projects such as a full sized quilt for each of my daughters, both of which would become heirlooms.  My grandchildren would each ask for their own in due course.  When I got my den fixed up – this being an unused room under the main house which has bare concrete walls, a damp concrete floor, and a single, dusty, exposed electric wire dangling from the ceiling – I would install a long workbench on one wall to spread fabric on, and hanging racks on the side to drape long ironed pieces in between projects.  I would spend long evenings in there, peacefully quilting my unique artistic designs.

It is probably relevant at this point to mention that I don’t sew, nor do I possess a sewing machine.  And that this was three months ago.  So far, I have cut out four 1.5″ squares.  I was pretty proud of myself that day, I can tell you.

This is something I do all the time. If I started a diet last week, I take ‘before’ shots and mentally compose my answers to all the people who will be awed by my transformation in [...] months, explaining that it was simply a matter of a little discipline and the right attitude <tinkling laugh>.  If I’ve kept it up for two weeks, I revise my original weight target down by another 10 lbs, because after all if I can lose 10lb, I can definitely achieve the same weight that I was when I was 18 (and chose nicotine over nutrition (and did not have children) (or access to a kitchen of my own)), right?  RIGHT?

And of course, I do this with sobriety as well.  Three weeks into starting this blog, I was seeing myself as a sort of combination of Mrs D (television exposure, memoirs), Belle (running sobriety courses and affliated merchandise) and probably also some Augusten Burroughs (definitively the funniest alcoholic of all time, also an international best selling author; my version would obviously be without the screwed up family history and dead boyfriend bits).  But humble with it, you know.  Humble.  Also very thin, with an international quilting business.

Anyway.  This morning I got to thinking about the problem with alcoholic narratives, which is that the narrative focus is on the alcoholic abuse.  Our heroine has her first taste of alcohol, the drinking worsens, various horror stories ensue, there is a dramatic rock bottom forcing a resolution of the conflict.  And if one is lucky – and by their very nature, memoirs do tend to be written by the still-living – there is the happily-ever-after.  Which is more of a coda, really.

So when you get sober, however rocky your life was beforehand…then what?  You just … keep … not picking up a drink?  That’s not a story.  Once upon a time there was a princess and she lived a lovely life in a castle and she was always happy and she was never sad, the end.

Stories have to be about change.  They have conflict and resolution, they are about journeys and trials and redemption.  We tell stories to weave connection, to reinforce norms, to issue warnings and deliver hope.  They are how we understand ourselves.  But they don’t just describe us; stories are a powerful prescriptive tool.  Good barristers are excellent storytellers, because what they are doing is framing part of an infinite landscape of humanity to convey a particular message.  They pick out the elements that fit a particular framework, they choose a timeline, they construct a narrative that takes the jury along on an emotional journey.  By choosing the elements they do, they build up a particular picture, which is intended to be so convincing that it ‘beats out’ the rival version of elements by opposing counsel.  The power of story means that we, as listeners, internalise a series of events and make sense of them better if they are presented as a narrative.  A good narrative arc is almost magnetic; it pulls events into itself, sticking them together to form a unified whole.

Why does this matter?  It matters because it works both ways.  Not only do we better process external events if they are presented to us in a narrative format, but we both understand ourselves better and galvanise ourselves better if we feel that we are in a narrative arc.  We deal better with times of adversity if those times are leading towards a triumph.  Religious narrative, which has underpinning the entirety of human history, serves this purpose; to feel that one is part of a greater design, that there is a divine reason for the things that happen, lends depth and meaning to the sequence of events that make up everyone’s life.

So what do we do when we are no longer part of a narrative?  Once our resolution has occurred and we are in our happily ever after?  There’s an awful lot of life left over with no story arc to guide us.  Do we, perhaps, relapse partially in order to become part of our own story again?

We need a new story.  It’s not enough to live a happy ending; we need a new story, a new narrative, complete with new challenges and changes and conflicts and joys.  Preferably with a handsome prince thrown in for good measure.

How do we do that?  Ah, my child.  That’s a story for another day.

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14 thoughts on “Once upon a time everyone lived happily ever after

  1. the best part is that story just keeps on unfolding because the simple narrative of “I need a drink. drink. drunk..bed”, has ended.
    The story arc has really just begun.
    anything can happen.

  2. I get ya on this. There’s one mrs D and one belle, so I guess those are taken…lol. How about just you? That’s a question I ask myself, as I too feel that what little air in the balloon is gone and it’s just, you know…those little squares uncut and unsewn and that’s about it. The glitter gun is in a box somewhere and things are both unglued and glued. so what’s next? I guess we don’t know. I am like you in that I want a narrative, and yet I have very little. I am sober. That’s about it! And yet it’s a lot. And not much. Such push and pull. We won’t have that forceful pitch that some others will, and yet without us knowing, we are that pitch preciscely.

    I am rambling, but I wanted to let you know that I get what you are talking about. i am very much in that boat, even though I have a few years now. I actually feel like I am a newcomer again, except without the desperation I had. Just more questions and an unstructured narrative.

    But we turn the pages and see what happens….

  3. I agree and yep I made sober cushions! I think we have to change the narrative of stopping drinking to not be the end but the beginning. I think it isn’t a story about drink but a story about recovery and that recovery can lead us to where ever we want to be (with said fairy story happy ending). When there are more people, like said lovely Mrs D, sharing their story publicly who are further along the path and we can see the happy ending for them the narrative will slowly change xx

  4. That did make me laugh!! Ubersoberblogger! An unholy mixture of Belle, Augusten & Mrs D ….). As did your sewing project. Perhaps I can interest you in the actual sewing machine I bought when my eldest was born, picturing myself crafting handmade, 1940s style smocked dresses that were part of her very individual personal boho vintage style. She ended up in Babygap like every other child – and I still haven’t learnt how to thread the blimmin’ machine.

    I think you’re right about the story being our new beginning. The problem (for me) with spending mental energy like this “and then I will, and then I will,….” is that I rarely live in the present. Part of my hope for recovery, is that I enjoy NOW. Rather than yearning for some future time when I have dropped 10 pounds, become a chess grand master, learnt Spanish.

  5. ‘humble, very thin, with an international quilting business’ :) :) :)

    what a great post. leaving me snorting with laughter but with lots to chew over. we are so goal oriented in our culture. reach a goal? get another one. fix ‘er up. extend, improve, re-invent.

    and our blogs do provide the opportunity to create our own narrative arc for ourselves. to lay out the coloured squares of our lives into the most gorgeous quilt you ever did see.

    I am a quilter, btw. not an international one, though. and my favourite quilts are those made from recycled fabrics – the stripes and florals of my childrens’ childhood pyjamas. my husband’s shirts. because those scraps recall moments in time. they recall the process of our family. process not product, as I used to intone grimly to myself as the children devastated the kitchen yet again while producing a batch of deformed, charred animal biscuits. team not task. read somewhere recently that stopping drinking is only 20% of getting sober. the other 80% is figuring out where the story goes next.

    love reading your story…. looking forward to the future instalments! xx

  6. You get to write your story. I’m sure you said that in one of your posts – so will quote it back at you :) You will write your own story and it will be marvellous, and out of the ordinary. xx

  7. Ha! Last year over 3 weeks in June we got a ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, drove to St Malo, La Rochelle, Carcassonne, Cannes, up the Route Napoleon to Grenoble, Dijon, Lille and back via the Eurotunnel from Calais. We stopped in a few motels but mostly camped by rivers and lakes and coast and mountains, visiting fabulous historic towns with a small child and a dog, singing as we went with the windows open…

    Only two of us didn’t have passports yet, I am the only driver in the house, it turns out it’s five hours drive just across the top of France, the cost of the petrol alone was hundreds of pounds and a ferry costs a fortune and we would paying for the child not to be at nursery even when she was due to go to school in September when we’d have to give notice anyway…

    In the end we did get dog and child passports. But we decided to save on nursery fees and go in August when it’s hot and expensive. So we took our tent to Devon. We lasted 6 nights in said tent before we realised home is quieter and more comfortable and although we like each other very much, maybe not so much in 5m x 3m for any longer than that and definitely not so near a main road. I’d still like to go to Carcassonne. In an aeroplane. And a hotel. Without the dog.

  8. I love this. I feel like parts of this could have been plucked right from my brain. I am the queen of creating an entire story complete with happy ending for each new “thing” that I’m into. I guess I have a flare for the dramatic. I always look forward to your posts. Keep up the good work.

  9. I worry sometimes about what will happen when the initial drama of getting sober has worn off. When that happens I take a step back and try to imagine this point in my life as something if that changes the story entirely, but it isn’t necessarily noticeable until later on…maybe even until the end. I also loooove to start projects, imagine them making me so happy and fulfilled, and then discard them once they become too difficult. I promised my husband that I would stop making them about me, but would rather turn my ideas into characters for a book or a short story or something. It relieves much of the pressure! Hugs!

  10. I am so enjoying your blog, not only for the courage and details of your journey, but the extraordinary prose! I have to chime in here: we do need new stories. Recovery stories generally reproduce the dramas of ‘disease,’ whether it’s the emaciated anorexic or falling-down alcoholic, we’re subject to the details of illness in a somewhat voyeuristic way. Then there’s generally a “hey I got better” moment –and I mean moment, as in 5 pages out of a 300 page memoir — and a jump to the ending at how life is now. Recovery stories aren’t really about recovery as much as distancing ourselves from the disease. The stories (particularly in AA where one confesses over and over) set out ‘disease’ as separate from ourselves where we examine it and recoil, pray to never go there again. But there’s so seldom a day-by-day, heart-to-heart, minute-by-minute analysis of how people actually change and get better, grow into the best people we can be. That’s why these sober blogs are so amazing to me and why they’re successful (I think). We see the minutiae of rebuilding the self. I just love it and think you post nicely captures something important!

    • Yes, I said something about the voyeuristic aspect and then deleted it, because I know that a lot of us read alcoholic memoirs almost obsessively in early sobriety or when we are working up to putting down the drink, and I don’t want to disparage that. But the car crash aspect does really bother me, so thanks for pointing it out.

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