What is it about endings anyway? Why are they so difficult, even when they hold the promise of making our lives better? I’m thinking the end of relationships (romantic or otherwise), marriages, jobs, and, of course, addictions. In particular, I’m thinking of relationships and marriages that aren’t working, jobs that are hell to go to day in and day out, habits that are clearly unhealthy, and, ultimately, addictions that are killing us.
Some would posit that change, in and of itself, is the culprit, especially for those of us who are “prone to addiction.” I’ve been told time and again that “we” don’t like “change”—even if it’s for the better. I buy that. A promotion, for example, can be a tremendous source of fear simply because it raises the specter of the unknown and the possibility of failure. I know what to do in my current job; I know what’s expected of me; and I know how to do what I’m supposed to do well. (That, of course, is why you’re offering to promote me, isn’t it?) Even though a promotion may mean a raise in pay as well as status, it also raises the suddenly very real possibility I will fail, that I will not be as good at my next job as I am at my current job, and once I leave my current job, you may never let me come back to it if I fail at the new job. “What if?”
Changing jobs may also hold the promise of getting away from a co-worker or boss who causes us anguish on a daily basis. But what if people at my current job like me because I complain with them about the annoying boss or coworker— our common enemy? What if there’s no one to complain about (not likely) at my next job and no one has a built-in or automatic reason to like me? Worse still, what if I’m promoted and become “the boss” everyone else complains about. What if I become the enemy? “What if?”
Oh, woe is me. Change categorically sucks; even when the odds are in our favor it will be good for us.
Still others would posit that, ultimately, fear of being alone is the major motivator for staying in bad relationships and bad marriages—for failing to end them. I buy that, too. The end of friendships, love affairs, and worst of all, marriages that aren’t working anymore is fraught with misleading emotions.
First, there is that distracting memory of what was once “good.” Even though things haven’t been good for a long, long time; even though the same behaviors are repeated over and over to the same unhappy end; even though we know it’s insane to stay in the present situation, we think “What if …” Maybe tomorrow the old spark that originally united us will return and the relationship will right itself, right? What if we miss that opportunity, right? Even though that opportunity has been there every day for as long as we can remember, “What if tomorrow …”
And second, even if things don’t change for the better, there is that overwhelming fear that ending the relationship may leave us … alone … forever. Which, of course, is rarely the case. And, even if it is the case, being alone isn’t always or necessarily a “bad” change. Some of us “badly” need to learn how to live well alone so that we can become “livable” partners in our next relationship. I’ve spent some of the healthiest years of my sobriety in relationship solitude. As my one-and-only roommate in sobriety liked to say, “There’s a lot of serenity in being single.”
Endings are difficult, I agree. And there are countless reasons we shy away from making them happen. But I would argue that it’s the “What ifs” more than anything else that prevent us from taking that “first step” toward making the clearly necessary endings happen. It is the “What ifs” that keep us from seeing change and the unknown as an opportunity rather than as a source of paralyzing fear.
Today, whenever I’m seriously contemplating a change in my life—and especially a change that means ending one thing and beginning another—I try to think about the first time I managed to stay sober for an entire week. Bottom line … plain and simple … all other bullshit aside: By the beginning of the fourth day, I felt better than I had felt in YEARS! I broke the bad habit of making myself physically ill by drinking myself into oblivion on a daily basis, and, if nothing else, I felt GOOD. Sure, the first few days were hell—especially in the absence of a program or any support. But I could tell, moment by moment, that I was feeling better. By the seventh day, I actually had HOPE—hope that, rather than running on a treadmill to the gates of insanity or death, my life might actually, one day, improve. Unfortunately, that first time around I didn’t believe I needed support or a “program of recovery” to stay sober, and I ended up drunk shortly afterward. But that’s not the point. The point is that the seed was planted. The point is the memory of that week is probably the single most important reason I have been willing to quiet the “What ifs“ and make other changes in my life since. More important, that memory—that simple source of hope I was given by ending something bad and taking the first step toward change—is probably the biggest reason I’m still alive today.