“BAD JOB, JENNY!!!”
A parent sitting in the bleachers at a softball field in Wisconsin Dells during a girls 18U travel tournament in the summer of 1996 was so upset about an error that she felt compelled to yell at the pitcher who committed it.
Never mind that this field was basically 100 percent sand and you sank like a foot every time you took a step, and it was torture trying to play in that sh*t. The pitcher really could make no valid excuse for airmailing the ball. It was an easy play. A gimme. But she had a legit chink in her athletic armor that, as it turns out, she never really outgrew.
Hi, my name is Jen(ny), and I have the yips when it comes to throwing to first base.
Somehow I still made it on to a college team, though, where the issue wasn’t so much the old 1-3 putout (I learned to underhand those come-backers; ha-ha!) as it was the 43 feet I had to cover from mound to plate. Not only was pitching from that distance an adjustment, given that high school mounds in Illinois were 40 feet back then, but I was also a freshman walk-on facing seasoned Big Ten hitters, and sometimes (read: often), that skill disparity was brutally obvious.
Before my byline began appearing in the sports pages of the Daily Northwestern, as it would pretty regularly over the following three years, the only time I made the paper was after a particularly gruesome relief appearance in a particularly lopsided loss that the student beat writer was on hand to witness. His recap the next day included the line:
“…AND IN THE FIFTH, JENNI WIELGUS CAME ON AND COULDN’T STOP THE BLEEDING.”
No, this blog is not going to be a complete play-by-play account of my (ahem) Gory Days as an athlete. I bring up those stories only because A) they’re funny; and B) they somehow remain ensnared, more than 20 years and another nickname change later, in my steel trap of a mind that never, ever let go of a single failure.
Maybe some of you can relate to this tendency to focus on negatives, this inherent attachment to every pratfall you perpetrated and every critical word someone said to you in your life, coupled with a willful nonchalance toward any of the countless victories you tallied or compliments they showered.
Maybe this unfortunate flaw didn’t lead you down the path of addiction, but from where I sit, at a day shy of four months living alcohol-free, causation in my case seems so clear.
How I have defined failure all my life has — until now — defined me.
It was my job to accomplish important things. That is what my little-kid brain believed.
Not because my parents said so, or even hinted at it. No, I’m pretty sure I just noticed at an early age what happened when I did something noteworthy — blurted out big words only a short time after learning to walk, won first prize in the library art contest, hit a home run in Little League, brought home straight A’s, landed a solo in the choral concert, blah blah, blah — and I decided that validation was my sole purpose in life. I saw how adults reacted when I performed well, and I felt the feeling it gave me, and I decided I had to feel that all the time. Case closed.
Turns out I was chasing a high, pretty much from the day I was born.
Other People’s Approval = My First Addiction.
That actually sounds kind of cute when you imagine the little girl in the picture running around Brookfield Zoo saying “pachyderm” (that was my first big word, apparently) over and over and getting a buzz off of my grandma’s applause. But, as you probably can imagine, there is a dark side to the achiever mentality. For me, it was the core belief that anything BUT greatness — and by that I mean, doing something that garnered praise — equated to abject failure.
Failure meant I wasn’t doing my job. If I wasn’t doing my job, what was my purpose in life?
In other words, failure was THE scariest thing I could possibly imagine. It was to be avoided, always.
On the flip side, after I tasted some success as a kid, I came to expect awards and achievements. They weren’t special occurrences earned with a mix of talent, hard work and perseverance; they were just what I was supposed to do. That approval drug I was addicted to? After a while, I wasn’t doing it to get high. I had to fix just to feel normal.
I tied my entire identity to the two extreme poles of exaltation and failure, and never even fathomed living somewhere in between. It never occurred to me that just sitting there alone being me, doing nothing but breathing, was enough to make me worthy of taking up space on the Earth.
My mindset can be summed up nicely in this adorable anecdote: My mom asked me one day after school how my day was, and because I didn’t, like, bring home any trophies or blue ribbons, I told her I had a bad day.
Pretty f*cked up. I know.
Like the yips that continued to plague me on the rec league softball fields of adulthood — less frequently, but still — the deeply ingrained idea that I was nothing at all unless others said I was great followed me, far into a future where that kind of thinking gets you nothing but chronic unhappiness.
Of course, I only recognize this stuff now that I’m 41 years old, 119 days into recovery and looking back on all my years stuck in a cycle of addictive behavior patterns. I could go into all the difficult realizations about my personality — like, that I’m a codependent control freak who lacks the emotional toughness to cope when I can’t bend situations to my will — that have flown up and smacked me in the face since I got sober in early July. But all the psychobabble really just comes down to this:
My personality makes me a textbook, boilerplate, straight-from-Central-Casting alcoholic.
…When I sit in rooms with people once considered washed up, I feel at home. I’ve come to think of being an alcoholic as one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
- Sarah Hepola, “Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget.”
Some people might think ending up an alcoholic means you failed in life. Nobody’s family looked at their overachieving honor student and all-conference pitcher and envisioned her in her 40s spending her free time blabbing to the internet about her drunk-life lowlights, and for whom the ultimate success is simply not picking up a drink that day.
And then there’s another way of looking at it. Many of the amazing people I’ve met in recovery — and all the authors whose wonderful books I’ve pored through at breakneck pace (currently reading: “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women And Alcohol” by Ann Dowsett Johnston) — think that being an alcoholic is the greatest gift they ever received.
Because addiction is part of their identity, they’re now, for the first time, actually working on themselves. They’re getting to the bottom of all the shit that has always held them back. They’re untangling their insane ways of thinking and learning the tools to change them. They’re mending relationships with loved ones and treating everyone in their lives — especially themselves — with more empathy, compassion and respect.
Best of all: They’re feeling hopeful.
You can probably discern which camp your old pal Jenny/Jenni/Jen falls into.
What I love the most about this gift of alcoholism is that it is forcing me to overhaul those rigid definitions of failure and success that I held onto, with white knuckles, for 41 years. Because I am in recovery, I now know that “the way I’m wired” is not a prison sentence. I am not doomed to circle the drain of negativity and self-doubt for the rest of my days. I can change!
Changing how you think…I mean, you guys, can you imagine a more amazing miracle?
I’m not close to “there” yet, though, and I’m not even sure where “there” is. Recovery is the hardest challenge I’ve ever tackled, and as a lifelong athlete, the tendency is always to look for the finish line and measure progress by your proximity to that clearly defined goal. And yes, the tendency is to look around for people to notice you made it and say, “GOOD JOB, JEN!”
Recovery forces you to change that mentality, too. Here, progress presents itself in subtle, intangible ways that you might miss unless you’re fully present and working your program. You’re given tiny signs of progress every day, but you have to look for them. It’s in fleeting feelings, details you notice in the world that you didn’t before, situations that only sort of drive you insane instead of sending you into an emotional downward spiral, those moments when you restrain yourself from flipping off oblivious drivers on the Newtown Bypass…
Other people might never notice your progress. Does that render it meaningless? If you take that tack, you’ll stagnate. It’s a learning process. You grow as you go.
As for the finish line, obviously, there is none. The finish line for us all is death, and if I wanted to get there, I would’ve just kept drinking myself into oblivion every time shit got uncomfortable. I would’ve kept hurtling toward those depths of despair I described in my July 3 “rock bottom” blog post.
I wrote that blog when I was drunk, by the way. You want to talk about progress? It’s simply sitting here now, watching the sun rise on Day 120, being me, and breathing. It’s feeling immensely grateful for every single messy and beautiful moment that has led me to this point.
I choose to define myself as a grateful recovering alcoholic. But hey, I’m still the old me, and I still crave a little bit of validation, so I’m going to go draw my hashmark on the whiteboard downstairs, then share this blog all over social media. Feel free to send me encouraging comments. 😂
Have a great Sunday, friends. Oh, and GO BEARS!
2 thoughts on “Failure”
Thanks Jen. Spot on as always. “Gory Days”. Perfect phrase!
Wonder-filled!! There is SO much here in your brave journey to self-discovery. Just for one, the irony of failure. If used to help us, it IS the very path to success we search for. There is no way forward in life without it – life’s great teacher. Learning to use it (no matter of age) is the key. Great work!