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(1960 - 2002)


Consciousness on overload

A memoirist seeks to untangle the mass of contradictory emotions following the tragedy that changed our lives forever.

By Caroline Knapp

September 20, 2001 | The sense of purposeless exhaustion set in around Day 4, Friday night, a fatigue that seemed both bone-deep and unjustified. Like me, most everyone I saw and spoke to that day was safe, insulated from the disaster, mere spectators: We hadn't lost loved ones, we'd only seen the devastation on TV and in pictures, we weren't involved in rescue efforts and so our weariness felt out of proportion and strange. I walked my dog that afternoon; the people I ran into looked uniformly shell-shocked and felt uniformly guilty about it, as though we hadn't quite earned our despair. Fear and horror -- the dominant sensations earlier in the week -- had given way to a vague heavy-hearted despondency by then. The stories of individual tragedy were beginning, cruelly, to blur. Even language had failed us, leaving most people I know with a single empty fallback word: "stunned." I'm stunned. I don't know what to do with myself, I'm just stunned. I went home that night, watched TV in a teeth-clenched, blank-faced way, and then fell into the darkest sleep.

I am not used to harboring such a wide variety of conflicting emotions at one time. Usually, it's one feeling at a time, maybe two. Anxiety here, contentment there. A dash of melancholy on a bad day; a flash of joy on a good one. By Friday, and persisting well into this week, that simple synaptic system was all out of whack, consciousness on overload. This may be normal, but it's also deeply disorienting. The magnitude of the physical devastation; the fear about what it may unleash; the sense of sudden vulnerability; the reach of the grief, each life lost touching an incalculable number of other lives: This is more than an ordinary brain can process, and so the mind is left to flit from one sensation to another. It cannot land on just one, it cannot absorb them all.

Which is why the neurons seem to be firing from all directions. I feel enveloped in safety, insulated within my own little house and also deeply jittery. A plane flies overhead and I freeze: What is it? Who's on it? Is it about to crash? I feel compelled to watch footage of the towers collapsing over and over and over and then compelled to look away, not sure what's voyeurism and what's an attempt to grasp the ungraspable. One emotion surges only to be supplanted by its opposite.

A blind man tells a CNN reporter how his guide dog, a yellow Labrador retriever with the most noble gaze, led him to safety down 87 flights of stairs, and the heart melts at the miracle, man and his brave attendant. Moments later, an executive breaks down in sobs on camera, 700 of his employees unaccounted for, among them his own brother, and the heart tightens and sinks, a stab of pure sorrow. The most heartening pride at human kindness mixes with despair at human hatred, often in the same instant. A woman I run into tells me she started to weep without warning on a subway train in downtown Boston and that a total stranger, a man sitting beside her, took her hand and held it, simply and firmly, for the duration of the ride. She felt so touched by this display of compassion she cried even harder, but then, when she left the subway station, she saw fresh graffiti on a wall: NUKE ISLAM.

How to reconcile all of this? I, a woman who's never responded to an American flag with anything more stirring than benign indifference, feel deeply, surprisingly, wholly patriotic and also, perhaps less surprisingly, deeply skeptical, mistrustful that our political and military response will be anything but rash, expensive and short-sighted. I feel protective and defensive about the depth of hatred toward America, a mama bear guarding her cub, and I feel humbled, aware that we've played no small part in earning and fomenting that animosity. And I also feel ashamed, embarrassed by the self-constructed cocoon of ignorance and complacency I've been living in: Until last week, I could not have spelled the name Osama bin Laden, let alone told you what degree of threat his organization represented.

Our culture thrives on black-and-white narratives, clearly defined emotions, easy endings, and so this thrust into complexity exhausts. Too many feelings competing for head space, no happy ending in sight, no tacit belief that our minuscule attention spans will protect us this time, and little solace from our ordinary opiates -- movies and sports and computer solitaire. The people I talk to feel an odd, almost adolescent yearning for leadership, craving and mistrusting it in the same breath.

Some of us feel compelled to reach out -- give blood, light candles, sign petitions, anything! -- and simultaneously compelled to retreat, edges of paranoia leaking in, talk of terrorists in the backyard. I feel catapulted from one extreme to another: protected one minute and vulnerable the next, heartsick and then detached, connected and then estranged, so full of goodwill one moment I'd like to hug the guy at Starbucks who pours me my coffee, so irritable the next I'd like to slap the man who cuts in front of me while I'm trying to pour milk. Mostly I feel unmoored, some rock of permanence and safety having given way to shifting sands, the familiar now eerily unfamiliar. Sirens sound different, scary and consoling at the same time. Work feels irrelevant. Normalcy as yet undefined.

I suppose this is what people mean when they talk about being stunned -- this gamut of feeling, which overwhelms the psychic system, leaves you feeling exhausted and powerless and unable to tease out one emotion from the next -- and I think the response is both human and frightening. Surely, it's one of terrorism's intended effects, to literally stun our morale, to blow up strength and will along with buildings, and the reaction is hard to counter.

On Saturday, still feeling blank and enervated, I spent part of the afternoon at a gathering of people who met to talk about caring for a mutual friend, a man who's dying of cancer at the age of 49. The lens shifted suddenly, the unfathomably wide panorama of disaster yielding to a much more personal and individual close-up of tragedy, and it suggested something to me about the numbing effect of emotional overload, which can so easily mutate into a kind of hopeless despair. I did not particularly want to go to this meeting; I drove there feeling fragile and depressed, but I showed up anyway, and sat in a room with 20 other people, and faced a loss in a communal and reflective way. We talked about how we felt about watching our friend die, what we were scared of. We talked about practical things we could do: cooking meals, doing laundry, spending time with him.

Unlike the thousands of lives so hideously obliterated without warning, this man and the people who love him have an opportunity to approach death consciously and with foresight, to say things that need saying, to help one another without the mobilizing impetus of disaster. This, too, is exhausting work, but it's important work, its value immediate and tangible, and it reminded me that the line between feeling stunned and being passive can be very thin. I can give blood. I can send money to relief organizations, I can write letters and sign petitions. I can also be present and active in my own small world, which is a gift that cries out for recognition, even from this stunning roar of mixed emotion.


The Merry Recluse

A single woman chooses a life of solitude in the Land of We.

By Caroline Knapp

July 27, 1998 | Nine forty-five p.m. I am standing in my kitchen preparing my very favorite meal, a zesty blend of wheat flakes, Muslix and raisins that comforts me deeply. It is a Thursday, which means that "ER" is on in 15 minutes, and it is mid-May -- sweeps month -- which means that I am filled with anticipation: yes, a new episode. I feel serene. I am wearing torn leggings, a T-shirt, a bathrobe. The dog is in the living room, curled contentedly (and wordlessly) on the sofa; the phone machine is blinking with several messages, which I've dutifully screened and have no intention of answering until tomorrow. And a thought comes to me, a simple statement of fact that arrives in a fully formed sentence. I hear the words: I am the Merry Recluse.

This, I must say, is a magical, transformative moment; it represents a kaleidoscopic shift of sorts, the kind of sudden internal restructuring that occurs when an established set of facts about the self seems to spontaneously shift, presenting itself in a new order, a surprising new light. An old thought becomes a new thought; a prior definition takes on a twist, a new edge, a new meaning.

Listen to it again: I am the Merry Recluse. Doesn't that sound chipper and grand? Had you asked me to sum up my sense of place in the world a day before -- an hour before, 10 minutes before -- I would have offered something very different: I am a single woman, I might have said. Age 38, a bit of a loner. My voice might have had an apologetic edge, as though I were acknowledging the sad and spinsterish associations behind such words, and I might have shrugged a bit sheepishly, as if to say: Ooops, sorry, this is all an accident; I was supposed to be married by now. But in that instant, poised above my bowl of Wheaties, the psychic kaleidoscope turned a notch, the apology blurred, something new shifted into view, something that looked very much (dare I even say it?) like happiness.

Happy and alone, you say? Reclusive and merry? How oxymoronic! Pas possible! Alas, the concept is lost on so many. A friend, recently divorced but involved with someone new, asked me a question over dinner not long ago: "So," she said, her expression concerned, "how does it feel not to be in a relationship?" I tried to ignore her tone, which was vaguely pitying, and pretended to be kidding when I answered by pointing at the dog: "But I am in a relationship," I said. "I have her." She laughed, a rather halfhearted and dismissive laugh, then resumed the line of questioning: Wasn't I lonely? she wanted to know. Didn't I find it hard to be responsible for all the household details -- the cooking, the shopping, the errands and bills? Didn't I worry about the future, about growing old alone, about whether or not I'll find someone?

I sat there and mused for a moment. The questions are difficult to respond to, not because the answers are complex (which they are) but because we live in a culture that puts such a high premium on romantic intimacy, that uses partnership as a measure of mental health and social normalcy. Answer affirmatively (yes, I get lonely; yes, solitude can be very stressful and worrisome), and you sound sorrowful, the slightly pathetic outsider; answer negatively (nope, I'm quite content, thank you very much) and you sound hermetic, incapable of following the accepted path to human happiness, pathologically disengaged somehow. In fact, 25 percent of the adult population lives alone today -- that's almost double the number that lived alone 35 years ago -- and although plenty of us may end up on our own for unhappy reasons (divorce, fear, geography, any number of quirks of fate and timing and circumstance), it seems both simplistic and erroneous to assume that solitude is an inherently sorry state, something you wouldn't choose if you had a better option.

I said as much to my friend. "Sure there are downsides," I said, "but I really like being alone." I ticked off a little list: the freedom to set my own hours, make my own rules, indulge my own tastes; the relief at not having to interact or negotiate or compromise with another human unless I choose to; the little burst of accomplishment I periodically feel at being the architect of my own space, physical and psychic. "It's a choice," I said, "a style I'm comfortable with."

She listened, nodded soberly; I could tell she didn't believe a word.

Exchanges like this wouldn't bug me if they weren't so common. I often walk my dog in the morning with a friend named Wendy who's been in a relationship for the last 19 years and whose social calendar is packed so tight it makes me dizzy: a constant stream of parties and potluck suppers, movie and theater outings, vacations and visitors from out of town. Every Friday she asks me what I'm doing over the weekend and every Friday I demur: "Oh, not much," or, "The usual: just hanging." The truth is, I rarely make weekend plans, at least not social ones. My recipe for bliss on a Friday night consists of a New York Times crossword puzzle and a new episode of "Homicide"; Saturdays and Sundays are oriented around walks in the woods with the dog, human companion in tow some of the time but not always. This doesn't mean I'm a misanthrope: I have a small, carefully cultivated social life -- a handful of treasured friends; a beloved sister; people whose presence and support mean the world to me -- but Wendy can't quite make the distinction between a quiet life and an empty one, and she finds my style unsettling. A look of veiled discomfort comes over her face when I hem and haw about the weekend, as though she envisions 48 hours of disconnection and sadness, so sometimes I make stuff up to placate her: I tell her there are dinner plans, movies scheduled, a shopping trip with a girlfriend, and she always responds with a little heave of maternal relief, which I find mildly patronizing. "Oh, how nice for you!"

Me, I walk along and feel quietly defensive, a recluse in the Land of We.

That's quite the loaded word, "we."


Not long ago, in the locker room of my gym, I eavesdropped as a woman held forth about her upcoming wedding. We're thinking about a honeymoon in Hawaii, she said. We're registering at Bloomingdale's. We're buying a new car. We're doing A, B and C. We, we, we. I stood there, and I thought about how infrequently I use plural pronouns to describe the events of my life, and I felt a familiar stab of inadequacy, questions about priorities and social worth scratching at the subconscious. On the broad spectrum of solitude, I lean toward the extreme end: I work alone, as well as live alone, so I can pass an entire day without uttering so much as a hello to another human being. Sometimes a day's conversation consists of only five words, uttered at the local Starbucks: "Large coffee with milk, please." I also work out alone, and I grocery shop alone and I cook and eat and watch TV alone, and if you don't count the dog (I do; many don't), I sleep alone at night and wake up alone every morning. Much of the time I don't question this state of affairs -- it just is -- but I listened to this woman in the gym, and I spun out a vivid fantasy about her life (the best friend at the next StairMaster, the colleagues at the office, the fiancι at home, the 200 friends and family members at the wedding reception, the children two or three years hence), and I felt like an alien, a member of some mutant species getting dressed in the locker room before crawling back to her dark, solitary cave.

Why don't I want that? That's what comes up. Why do I find the fantasy -- husband, family, kids -- exhausting instead of alluring? Is there something wrong with me? Do I have a life?

In fact, that woman at the gym, poised as she is at the matrimonial brink, is not necessarily headed for a more "normal" life than the one I lead. For the first time, there are as many single-person households in the United States as there are married couples with children -- 25 percent of the population in each camp -- but moments like that I understand that cultural standards and expectations haven't quite caught up with the numbers. Census figures be damned: If you choose to be alone, you're destined to spend a certain amount of time wondering why.

I suppose the why, at least for me, is internal, temperamental, as deeply personal as sexuality. Like most women, I grew up expecting to marry someday, expecting to have a family, expecting to want babies. And like some women (and men), I've found that the years have passed and passed and passed and those things simply haven't happened, as though some deeper yearning simply failed to kick in. Lots of life decisions are made that way: Choices are revealed by default, answers arrived at far more passively than we might expect. I look up today and realize, with some surprise, that I've spent the bulk of my adult life alone -- 15 of the last 18 years. For much of that time -- indeed, until my merry little epiphany in the kitchen -- I've tended to see my solitary status as a transient state, a product of circumstance instead of a matter of style. In fact, I suspect I've lived this way for a reason, that the degree of solitude I've chosen feeds me in some way, that the fit -- me with me -- is right.

Considered in that light, the "why" -- why spend so much time alone? -- becomes a more interesting question: why not? I've always been drawn to solitude, felt a kind of luxurious relief in its self-generated pace and rhythms. I eat breakfast pretty much 'round the clock -- muffins in the morning, scones for lunch, cereal at night -- which may be odd but is also oddly satisfying, if only because the choice is my own. I am master of my own clutter, king of the television remote, author of every detail, large and quirky: The passenger seat of my car, uninhabited by humans most of the time, will always be a disaster area, a repository of cassette tapes and empty coffee cups and errant dog toys; my alarm clock will always blast National Public Radio at precisely 6:02; my ashtrays (smoking permitted here constantly) will always be blessedly full and stinky. Solitude is a breeding ground for idiosyncrasy, and I relish that about it, the way it liberates whim.

Of course, living alone can make you psycho, too. I often feel deranged in the supermarket, hunting down grazable foodstuffs that don't come in family-size packages, wishing I could buy grapes in bags of 10 so that the other 80 don't rot in the refrigerator, wondering if the check-out clerk has noticed my apparent obsession with wheat flakes. The lack of backup can overwhelm the solitary dweller, especially when you're confronted with life's more fearsome tasks (decoding assembly instructions, killing spiders); the lack of distraction, which alters your core relationship to physical space, can make you think you're nuts. The other night, I caught myself talking to a spoon, which had twice fallen off the counter and clattered onto the tile. "Hey!" I said. "Stop doing that!" And then I stood there and shook my head, aware of that tiny persistent question, the low-level mosquito whine inside: Is this normal? Is it?

For me, the most pressing challenge involves negotiating the line between solitude and isolation, which can be very thin indeed. Social skills are like muscles, subject to atrophy, and I find I have to be as careful about maintaining human contact as I am about maintaining physical health: Drop below a certain level of contact with other humans, and the simplest social activities -- meeting someone for coffee, going out to dinner -- begin to seem monumental and scary and exhausting, the interpersonal equivalent of trying to swim to France. Solitude is often most comforting, most sustaining, when it's enjoyed in relation to other humans; fail to strike the right balance and life gets a little surreal: You start dreaming about TV characters as though they were real people; houseflies start to feel companionable; minor occasions that others find perfectly ordinary (the arrival of a house guest, an event requiring anything dressier than sweat pants) start to feel bizarre and unfathomable.

And yet I'd be hard pressed to leave this little world, singular and self-constructed as it is. I have lived in the Land of We; at times, I have pounded on the door for admission, frantic with worry and need. When the friend at dinner asked me how it felt not to be in a relationship, I remembered all too clearly what it was like to feel despair at the state, to regard my own company as scary and inferior. When I see that look of discomfort come over my friend Wendy as I talk about my unplanned weekends, I remember how horrifying I once found the concept of unstructured time, how much difficulty I've had simply sitting still, giving my own emotions room to surface. And when I hear people pepper their speech with the word "we," like that woman in the gym, I remember a lot of painful years spent struggling to define myself in relation to other people, as though my own existence didn't count unless it was attached to someone else's.

That night in my kitchen, fixing my Kellogg's feast, reveling in the order and quiet of my own home, felt like a gift, a victory of sorts, an awareness that some of those struggles have receded further into the past. I am shy by nature, a person who's always found something burdensome about human interaction and who probably always will, at least to some degree. Accordingly, I have always felt a deep relief in solitude, but I've not always been able to bask in it, to sit alone in a room without getting edgy, to feel that comfort and solace and validation are available outside the paradigm of a romance, to believe that my own resources -- my own company, my own choices -- can power me through the dark corridors of solitude and into the brightness.

I took my cereal bowl into the living room, settled down in front of the TV and thought, so merrily: I'm home.


Sober truths


SALON | March 1, 1999

In the beginning, there was elation. I quit drinking five years ago last month -- Feb. 20, 1994, to be precise -- and for a solid year, I rode a private little wave of victory. Hah! Problem identified, solution found! I felt triumphant and strong and full of promise, as though all the key aspects of my life -- relationships, work, health -- had been given a second chance.

My memoir about that experience, "Drinking: A Love Story," ended on precisely that note of triumph, as well it should have. I was exactly a year sober when I started the book, 18 months sober when I finished it, and that early sense of promise had translated into substantive changes: Within that first year and a half, I'd bought a house, left a burnout job, acquired a puppy. I'd made new friends, grown closer to my sister, ditched a destructive romance and settled more deliberately into a positive one. Of course there were bad moments -- giving up an addiction is not something one sails through without moments of panic and wild disorientation. But that feeling of victory lasted a good two years, an undercurrent of certainty and hope that propelled me through the choppiest seas.

"You were so newly sober when you wrote that book! How did you do it?" I'm often asked that question: People (especially people who've groped their way through the fog of early sobriety themselves) wonder how I had the clarity or distance to make sense of either alcoholism or sobriety, how I could think clearly enough to even try. My stock response is usually that it had something to do with need: the need to set down the experience while it was still fresh and raw, the need to record my own history so as not to repeat it. But I suspect I was driven by some sort of prescience, as well, an understanding that if I'd waited longer -- say, five years -- I might have written a book that was not only less raw but, in the end, a bit less rosy, too.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sobriety is hard. No way around it. Just last night, I dreamed a long, complicated, anxious dream about being betrayed by my boyfriend: He'd gone on a four-day vacation to New Orleans in the dream, telling me he was going with a male friend when in fact he'd snuck away with a woman, someone I understood to be relatively uncomplicated, lighthearted and nonalcoholic (i.e., able to jet off to a place like New Orleans and drink in safety). I was furious and deeply hurt in the dream, and I remember that my gut response was to think: Fuck it -- I'm going to drink. I had beer in mind, many bottles. And there you have it: a little heap of sober fears wrapped in REM; a nocturnal statement about what bubbles up within the sober heart, about what can no longer be washed away with alcohol. There's vulnerability in relationships and difficulty with trust. There's the sense of being inadequate in comparison to nonaddicts, and too damaged to deserve fidelity. There's rage. And -- always, inevitably -- there's the knee-jerk response to emotional pain, which is to anesthetize it, ASAP.

Strictly speaking, of course, these are not "sober" fears or "sober" challenges but ordinary human ones, shared by alcoholics and nonalcoholics alike. It's just that I spent the bulk of my ordinary adult life not dealing with fears, not facing challenges head-on, not feeling much of anything, so I still feel like a bit of a novice on the emotional front -- more like I'm 19 than 39. This embarrasses and confuses me. Feelings? Huh? I'll get angry at someone and not realize it until two days later. I'll have a dark, despondent sensation -- something murky and bleak -- and not be able to name it until long after it's passed. (Oh, I'll think, that was disconnection; or, that was envy.) Drinking creates a chasm between head and heart, and bridging the two takes surprisingly long. Five years into the game, I'm still aware of a central sense of disintegration; I still find myself walking around as though I'm on alien territory, unfamiliar with the language.

The urge to drink is the least of it, really. There are still moments of the sharpest longing -- I'll see a couple sharing a bottle of crisp white wine at a restaurant and I'll want to die, recalling the light, easy intimacy of drinking with others; I'll feel something acutely uncomfortable, like that sense of fury and betrayal in the dream, and I'll remember with great specificity what it was like to obliterate that feeling, to drink one glass of wine, then another, then another, and feel the discomfort dissipate, soften, blur away -- but those moments are relatively few and far between. They're also predictable, short-lived and, in turn, manageable. I know the geographic triggers -- restaurants with elaborate wine lists, bars, liquor stores -- and so I avoid them. This makes my world a somewhat smaller place than it used to be (less fine dining, more take-out Chinese; fewer parties, more TV), but that's not the hard part. The much greater difficulty involves ensuring that this smaller world is in fact a richer one, a place that's more than merely safe.

In the beginning, yes, there was elation -- great surges of strength and hope -- but in its wake, there was fear. I don't remember exactly when that early feeling of euphoria, known in AA circles as a "pink cloud," began to fade -- it must have happened so gradually as to barely be perceptible -- but I do know that for a long time I did a lot of scary things (bought the house, wrote the book, quit the job) and then I did many fewer scary things. I slowed down, backed off from large groups, cultivated a much more solitary style. My first two years, I went to four or five AA meetings a week, befriended a whole gang of sober women, often headed out to dinner with them afterward; my third and fourth years, I stayed home five, six, sometimes seven nights a week. My first two years, I had an almost missionary fervor about confronting complicated feelings -- a feeling of anger or sadness or conflict would come over me and I'd think: OK, come and get me, I'm ready to deal. My third and fourth years, I began to steer clear of complicated feelings, or situations that might generate them, in much the same way I avoided bars and liquor stores. I bailed out of the romance that had felt so healthy and promising in early sobriety; I spent a great deal of time alone with my dog; I watched a phenomenal amount of television.

This impulse toward retreat was not particularly conscious or deliberate on my part; nor was the path entirely linear or the motive behind it entirely clear. A certain amount of attrition goes with the sober territory: Old activities and friendships start to feel less comfortable and gradually fall away; large packs of casual friends -- by nature hard to sustain -- devolve into smaller numbers of close ones; as you grow more conscious of your own feelings and likes and dislikes, you become more selective about how and with whom you spend your time. Forty-six potluck suppers down the road, you find yourself looking up and thinking: "Wait a minute! I don't even like three-bean salad!" And so you stop attending them.

For me, a certain amount of solitude seems to go with the sober territory, too. I spent much of those third and fourth years very slowly feeling my way across the landscape of desire, trying to figure out what degrees of human contact and intimacy felt right to me, how I really wanted to spend my time, what people and activities gave me comfort and a sense of connection. As it turns out, I'm a bit of a loner at heart, a person who requires a certain amount of solitary protected time in order to feel balanced and sane. This is the side of me I've described as the Merry Recluse: I prefer long quiet walks with the dog to dinner parties of 12, I'd rather have one deep friendship than 10 casual ones, I hate crowds. These are important pieces of information, and at times they've given me the sense that I have, in fact, created a smaller but more intimate life for myself, a life with a handful of trusted friends, and a beloved dog, and a lot of walks in the woods. But I also know that the current carrying me along in years three and four shifted over time, that I drifted out of that early river of triumph and headed into a small ocean of fear.

There are so many ways to outrun feelings, so many varieties of numbness. Lock the door, turn on the TV, let the answering machine pick up. People generate very dark and complex feelings -- disappointment, competitiveness, insecurity -- so they keep them at a good safe distance, minimize vulnerability by minimizing contact. Romance is way too scary: Negotiating about needs? Compromising? Contemplating sex without the calming, disinhibiting effects of wine? Forget it; jump ship instead. As for emotion, no problem. Angry? Light a cigarette. Anxious? Go to the gym, swim a mile. Full of existential dread? Lose yourself in work. Above all, stick to activities that are known, predictable, orderly, that don't evoke any unwelcome feelings. No surprises.

To some extent, I followed all those rules. I did take on a few scary -- and very gratifying -- things: cultivated a very close friendship with another sober woman, started a new book. But I also craved solitude and the calm it can bring: order, ritual, quiet, distance from others. Night after night, I'd walk the dog, then come home, bundle myself up in a bathrobe and eat cold cereal in front of "Ally McBeal" or "NYPD Blue" or "Law & Order." For two years, I felt a little lonely, a little bored and very, very safe.

Which is not an entirely bad thing. I have a particular talent for self-deprecation, and I know it would be very easy for me to pathologize that style. But I also know that I needed all that solitude, that in some respects those first two years of major change and activity -- buying the house, quitting the job, gearing up to separate from the boyfriend -- were a semi-conscious way of building myself a little cave, a quiet and gentle place where I could curl up and lick my wounds for a while.

And there were lots of wounds. Both my parents had died in the years before I quit drinking, and I'd never really mourned those losses outside of the fog of drunkenness. Drinking had taken a big personal toll, too, left me unsure of myself, immature in many ways, full of self-hatred and regret: In my last years of drinking, I'd been dishonest, selfish, out of control, horrible not only to myself but also to people who loved me. And then there was early sobriety itself, by nature a profoundly disorienting state. The hardest thing about those first years is that all the stuff that led you to drink in the first place is still there when you put down the alcohol; unchecked and undiluted, it begins to bubble and roil inside, to become more concentrated: Social fears reawaken; so do self-doubts, inhibitions, old sources of rage, feelings of emptiness and longing, whole years of unaddressed Sturm und Drang. Some people react to this by throwing themselves into AA or therapy; some find new ways to self-destruct; some relapse; some choose isolation. Me? The novelty of early sobriety wore off and so did that early victorious thrill and I went underground: an extended adult timeout.

This is one of the surprising truths about sobriety: how damn long it takes to get your feet on the ground. Friends and relatives -- at least some of them -- thought my decision to leave the boyfriend, which I did toward the end of my second year, was a particularly bad move, and speculated secretly (sometimes not so secretly) that I was crazy. My response today is: Well, I was crazy. I was far more foggy and fearful than I thought I was, and I stayed that way for far longer than I would have guessed. I suspect that's par for the course. Several years can pass before you realize just how nuts you were when you first put down alcohol, just how monumental the shift from drinking to nondrinking is, just how much internal muck you have to wade through before you become even remotely clear-headed.

When you quit drinking, what you get is an ordinary life: This is both the good news and the bad news. It can also be the most jarring news, because it can cast you off that early wave of hope and leave you stranded in what Freud called the sea of "ordinary human misery." At the end of my first year, I all but expected a parade: All that hard work, all that focus and resilience and faith; didn't I deserve a reward? Something like -- oh, I don't know -- a perfect life? But no. No pot of gold at the end of the alcoholic rainbow. Sobriety gives you ordinary ups and downs, garden-variety human struggles.

Which, of course, can feel like monumental human struggles, especially when the world of human emotion still feels like relatively uncharted territory. Last April, I finished writing a book, a project that had consumed me for the better part of a year and, in the process, gave me a handy excuse to remain in my quiet cave. (Meet for dinner? Can't. Deadline.) In May, I fell into a depression, a dark and exhausted state I initially attributed to postpartum blues and burnout. I walked around for weeks feeling as though I were moving through molasses, sat at my desk for hours on end during the workday playing computer solitaire. Food tasted like cardboard, sleep was fitful, I thought a lot about suicide.

I'm no stranger to depression, but this was my first dance with it in sobriety -- in my drinking days, despair was always mixed up, and in part attributable to, the general chaos that active alcoholism generates: destructive relationships, dishonesty with self and others, the core understanding that you're living badly. This depression -- an utter emptiness -- had a purer feel, as though it were larger and more core than the alcoholic brand; there was a similar sense of living badly, of getting in my own way, but this time around there was no external substance -- liquor -- to point the finger at. There was just me -- me and the gradual acknowledgment of just how difficult it is to change, how glacial its pace can be.

I have spent a lifetime trying to rein in and deny my own appetites: for food and sustenance, for human contact, for love and affection. My M.O., honed in my 20s during a long stint with anorexia, was elegant in its simplicity: Need nothing, expect nothing, demand nothing; if you don't have any needs, they can't go unmet. Alcohol nicely diluted the fears behind that line of thought -- fears of disappointment and rage and longing -- and it provided me with a new way to cut myself off from my own needs. Liquor itself became the only need, the central and defining one, and the one, ironically enough, that allowed me to indulge all the ancillary longings: If I had enough booze in my system, my fears on all the other fronts -- social, romantic, physical -- were washed away. I could go to parties, make love, eat with abandon.

It is perhaps no surprise that, without alcohol, those central questions about appetite -- what's OK to long for and what's not, what's so scary about needing other people, why it's so hard to feel satisfied, sated -- would reemerge. It is also no surprise that I found new ways to answer them: solitude instead of alcoholic sociability; extreme self-control instead of extreme lack of control; appetites newly proscribed instead of unleashed.

This is not to say I simply traded in one form of destructive behavior for another. In the last two years, I've flirted with old, self-sabotaging strategies -- the anorexic control of a rigid diet, the endorphin highs of compulsive exercise, the distancing effect of isolation -- but I've also developed enough clarity and support to keep myself from entering into full-blown marriages with any of them. I've also given myself lots of time. Solitude can limit, but it can also heal, and slowly -- thanks in no small measure to all that quiet and safety -- I am starting to need a little less self-protection, starting to venture out from my cave with a sense of greater strength. Last summer, I went into group therapy, figuring that venue would provide a more direct way to address some of my interpersonal terrors than individual therapy. I gradually reunited with the boyfriend I'd fled from two years earlier. I am, in all senses of the word, trying to get out more: out of my own head, out into the world.

This is the hardest work of sobriety, I think, far harder than learning to live without alcohol physically, because it requires assuming a much more complicated level of personal responsibility. The issues shift from specific questions about drinking (Will I? Won't I? How will I get by without it?) to much more general questions about living, about self-care and sustenance. What kind of life do I really want to have? What kind of people do I want in it? What can I do to ensure my own well-being? What do I really need and how, within reason, can I get it?

The tendency to blame others for your own unhappiness and distress is almost universal among alcoholics (perhaps it is among most humans); one of the great challenges in sobriety involves recognizing your own role in the dance, looking hard at your own drives and weaknesses and ways of interacting with others, assessing which parts of the self are malleable and accepting those that aren't, defining what steps you can take to change.

So five years after my last drink, I feel a little stronger, a little clearer and very sobered. Life is hard, growth is painful, joy can be elusive. The very best thing I can say about sobriety -- the most promising and also the most daunting -- is that it gives you choices: You can face fears or run away from them; keep slogging through the mire of human relations or steer clear of risk entirely; spend the next 10 years alone in the house watching "ER" or figure out why the world out there is so scary. This is what hit me in the midst of that bleak depression last spring: I'd walk the dog at a local reservoir every afternoon and I'd stare at the ground in front of me and I'd struggle with my own sense of agency.

What gives me hope -- what continues to propel me forward -- is the understanding that in sobriety, I keep putting one foot in front of the other. The march may not always be triumphant, but it's very real.


SALON | March 5, 1999



So my neighbors think I'm a bitch, snooty and cold. Two years ago, at a neighborhood potluck supper, they stood around on the host's patio, right behind my house, and talked about what a snob I was. "She never talks to anyone," they said. "She acts so superior."

I didn't hear any of this directly, of course, because I wasn't there. When the invitation arrived ("Come on over! Have fun! Get to know your neighbors!"), I told the organizers I had plans that night (a family thing, can't get out of it, so sorry), and then, on the night in question, I parked my car around the block, stole back to my house and hid in the living room: lights out, curtains drawn tight.

A year or so later, I became friendly with the woman who lives next door to me, and she told me about the unflattering party chat.

I was aghast.

"They think I'm a snob? Superior? Can't they tell I'm just shy?"

She shrugged. "I guess a lot of people just don't get that. They read shyness as something else." She paused, then added, "I think shy people are pretty confusing."

This conversation stuck with me for many months, plagued me like a mild but persistent itch. I have been shy my entire tongue-tied, self-conscious life. As a kid, my heart would pound every time a teacher called on me and I had to speak in front of the class. As a teenager, the mere presence of an attractive boy would obliterate my voice, send me into a state of mute terror; authority figures -- college professors, therapists, my dad -- could miniaturize me in a flash, simply by making eye contact.

Today, I've outgrown -- or at least learned to hide -- some of the more obvious symptoms of shyness (the dry mouth, the sweaty palms), but I haven't outgrown the central feelings. Put me in a new social situation, ask me to walk into a cocktail party full of strangers, call on me to make a speech and my first, most visceral reaction can be summed up in a word: ACK! The internal audiotape clicks on at high volume (too scary; you won't have anything to say; people will judge you harshly); the internal video shows me looking stiff and uncomfortable, an awkward grin plastered on my face; the gut impulse is to flee: find a way out, make up an excuse, park the car around the block and hide in the living room.

I'm hardly alone in this. In fact, if experts on the subject are correct, I have more and more company. The insulating, sometimes isolating effects of technology have created something of a safe haven for shy people, allowing us to avoid direct contact with colleagues, sales clerks, bank tellers, even friends. Conversational skills be damned -- we can connect via the Internet, e-mail and ATM instead. And (not surprisingly) we seem to feel shyer as a result. In the last two decades, the number of people who describe themselves as chronically shy has increased from 40 percent of the general population to 50 percent. According to Philip Zimbardo, one of the nation's leading researchers on shyness, most of us (55 percent) report that we've considered ourselves to be shy at some point in our lives, or that we become shy in specific situations (romantic and authority figures top the list of shyness-inducers); a scant 5 percent of Americans say they've never been shy at all.

The majority of shy folk tend to be like me -- naturally inhibited, prone to imagining the worst when faced with new social situations, highly self-conscious -- but increasing numbers appear to live on the extreme end of the shy scale. National surveys indicate that social phobia -- shyness so pervasive and intractable it interferes with ordinary daily functioning -- afflicts one out of every eight Americans at some point in their lives, making it the third most common psychiatric condition.

For most of my life, I've lived with shyness the way I've lived with, say, my hair, which is straight and fine and always has been. I might wish I had a thick, curly mane, but the hair gods gave me this stuff instead; likewise, I might wish I were a confident, gregarious extrovert, but the gods of personality (a team, it appears, comprising geneticists, brain chemists and environmentalists) decided to make me quiet and shy. Fact of life, case closed.

On some not-quite-conscious level, I've also expected others to accept that fact, to understand my shyness as a central, immutable part of who I am. If I'm the quiet one at the dinner party, I expect friends to understand it: Cut her some slack; she's shy. If I'm not terribly forthcoming or demonstrative in a new relationship with a friend or lover, I expect the other party to not take it personally: Give her some time; she'll warm up. I suppose this is why that conversation with the woman next door haunted me so: For nearly 40 years, I've seen my shyness as something that really only affects me -- I'm the one who's uncomfortable here, I'm the one struggling with self-consciousness and anxiety, the less shy have it easy and should give me a break. But her statement -- that shy people are confusing -- raised some rather tricky questions about affect; about the particular kind of power a shy person wields, however unknowingly; about how shyness is experienced not just by shy people themselves but also by the people (shy or not) around them.

The shy often speak in code. My mother was a profoundly reserved person, shy to the core, and yet she had a subtle kind of warmth that the important people in her life learned to recognize. Her expressions of love were never obvious or direct. She didn't hug or coo or say, "I love you." Instead, they were manifest in the quietest gestures and cues: a glimmer of eye contact here, a cup of tea there, a tone of voice that could communicate profound concern or pride if your receptors were properly tuned to receive the message. An outsider watching us interact might have described my mother as cold, withholding, detached, but her style seemed entirely normal to me. When I got old enough to spend the night at friends' houses, I always felt astonished by how demonstrative other mothers seemed to be, how they'd tuck their kids in, rub their backs or stroke their hair. Such behavior struck me as alien, even undignified, and although that interpretation may say something about how low my own expectations for affection came to be, it also suggests that I learned to decode my mother early on, to read between the lines of her reserve and tease out the warmth.

It's quite possible -- actually, it's quite likely -- that my own shyness is an inherited condition, passed on from my mother to me as directly as a physical trait, like fair skin or good teeth. Shyness appears to be among the most persistent and durable aspects of human personality, one with deep (and largely intractible) physiological roots. Social anxiety appears to run in families; the first signs of it can be detected even before birth (infants with fast fetal heart rates tend to be whiny and fidgety as kids, predisposed to anxiety and inhibition as adults). And if you're born with a shy personality (what Harvard psychiatrist Jerome Kagan calls a "behaviorally inhibited" temperament), you'll probably lug it around with you your whole life. Kagan, the grandfather of research on shyness, studied children who were classified as either inhibited or uninhibited at 2, then retested the same kids at age 7 and ages 12 to 14; more than 75 percent of the children initially assessed as shy turned into cautious, serious and quiet 7-year-olds; the same behavior patterns were evident in adolescence.

Kagan theorized that a part of the brain called the amygdala, which triggers physiological fear reactions, might be activated more easily in the behaviorally inhibited kids. Other researchers have singled out the right frontal lobe as responsible (that's the part of the brain that seems to be involved in controlling negative emotions; shy kids appear to have higher right frontal lobe activity than bold kids). More often than not these days, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are considered as culprits: the naturally inhibited appear to have lower levels of both, possibly because of a single gene -- the so-called shy gene -- that creates either elevated or depressed amounts.

If personality is a marriage of nature and nurture -- a product of what we're born with and what we're born into -- then I suspect I inherited more than my mother's shy physiology: I also picked up her style of coping with inhibition, her reliance on code and the expectation that others would be both willing and able to decipher me the same way I deciphered her.

Consider the parents of boyfriends, a category that's always ranked high on my list of shy-provoking personalities, always pushed the major fear buttons (fear of being judged badly, fear of failing to fit in, fear of being deemed an inadequate partner). I've tended to compensate for my discomfort and silence by acting the way I did as a shy kid at family gatherings, by reaching into my bag of good-girl tricks and expecting to be seen accordingly: I might not say a word during dinner, but I'll set the table, I'll leap up and clear the dishes when the meal is over, I'll work that smiling-shyly, eager-to-please affect for all it's worth. See how helpful I am? How good-hearted and eager to please?

Astonishingly, this hasn't always worked. In fact, it's almost never worked. Parents of boyfriends have typically found me aloof, standoffish, inscrutable. After a long weekend at his parents' house, a three-day family gathering in which I struggled to compensate for my mute discomfort by making beds, cooking breakfast, even chopping wood, one ex-boyfriend confessed that his mother thought I was downright rude.

The trouble with shyness -- for both the shy and the people they interact with -- is that it doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's but one ingredient in the larger stew of human personality, one element that's blended with -- and often masked by -- other qualities, which is part of the reason it's confusing: Shyness might feel like the dominant and most motivating personality trait to the shy person herself, but it's not always so evident to outsiders. My friend Grace, for example, is deeply shy but also very warm and inquisitive: She's what's known as a "shy extrovert," which means that while she may feel tentative and fearful in new social situations, she covers it extremely well by exuding friendliness, asking questions, maintaining lots of eye contact. She's developed a front, in other words, that puts people at ease. Another friend, Beth, who is sweet and delicate, has a more classically shy affect: She blushes when uncomfortable, turns her gaze downward, comes across as bashful but genuinely nice. My shyness manifests very differently.

Shyness aside, I'm also an essentially composed person, which is to say I've learned how to appear poised even when I don't feel poised; I've learned to shut down the tongue-tied, shaking, quaking part of my shyness and hide behind a rather calm faηade. But shyness and composure are a complicated marriage: Together, they create a certain blankness of affect, a stiffness that's easy to read as detachment. My friend Sandy -- very sensitive, very shy, but physically imposing and rather brusque in affect -- is similarly misread: People tend to find her aloof and scary, which drives her crazy. "The shyness is so obvious to me -- why this scary interpretation?"

Interpretation, of course, is the key here, the gateway to confusion. Hidden behind that cloak of reserve, the shy person becomes a blank screen upon whom others project whatever fears or biases or self-perceptions they themselves bring to connections. If the person you're with worries (as many of us do) about being liked, your self-consciousness can look a lot like disdain; if he or she worries about measuring up or being charming, your discomfort or reserve may come across as boredom. Shyness flings the door to misunderstanding wide open. As a shy friend sums it up, "Silence is a Rorschach."

I moved into my house four years ago, and for a long time I doubt anyone took much notice of me, let alone projected much of anything onto my affect: I came and went, made next to no noise, lived a perfectly invisible shy life. "A quiet girl," the neighbors might have said, "keeps to herself." My reputation as the resident snob didn't seem to emerge until that neighborhood party, which took place shortly after my second book, "Drinking: A Love Story," was published. The book had done well, spent some time on bestsellers lists, generated a lot of ink, and neighbors would occasionally see me walk in and out of my house that summer tailed by camera crews, which I found hugely embarrassing. If I saw anyone watching, I'd kind of grimace and look away. Internally, the sensations were quite clear to me: profound discomfort in the face of that kind of attention, paralyzing shyness. Externally, I guess all that stiff, embarrassed grimacing was read quite differently: My reserve, which might have seemed unremarkable or easy to ignore pre-book, became a blank screen for feelings about notoriety, professional adequacy, success. I came across not as self-conscious or insecure but as snooty and cold. The big-shot author who thinks she's better than the rest of us, who won't even deign to come to our supper.

And yet, I can't say I blame them. Familiar though it may be, I'm not much better at reading shyness, or tolerating it, than the average nonshy Joe. At a party not long ago, I found myself trapped in a conversation with someone even shyer than I am, a young woman writhing with social discomfort. I'd ask her a question -- "What do you do? Where do you live?" -- and she'd grope for an answer, spit it out in as few words as possible ("Um ... I'm still in school"), then look down at the floor, twist her hair around one finger, wait. I found talking to her agonizing, in part because her distress was so deeply familiar but in part because of something more complicated, an odd feeling of irritation, even resentment. I'm no stranger to awkward silences -- I know them, dread them, hate them -- but I'm not accustomed to being the one charged with filling them. And filling silence -- whether by making idle chit-chat or truly connecting -- takes effort. A part of me wanted to shake this young woman by the shoulders and say, "Come on. I know how hard this is, I'm shy, too, but you gotta help me out here."

The cold truth is, shy people can be tough to be with: However unintentionally, they force the people around them to pick up all the social slack, do all the grunt work that precedes connection. What this young woman didn't yet understand -- what I am just coming to understand -- is that although her shyness makes her feel inert and powerless, she is in fact equipped with plenty of power. Simply by being in the room, she has a capacity to elicit feeling in others. As invisible or frightened as she feels, she has an effect. She also has a set of choices: She can either speak or remain mute, let others know who she is or shut down, take up some of the slack or leave the social rope entirely in someone else's hands.

I don't want to be hard on shy people. Indeed, I sometimes wish we lived in a culture that recognized and valued the heightened sensitivity that often accompanies shyness, that didn't so persistently reward more gregarious and assertive sorts. Nor do I want to suggest that shy people simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps, make more of an effort, get over it. It's hard to be shy, hard to feel controlled and crippled by excessive self-consciousness ("chronic emotional constipation," as a friend not-so-delicately puts it). The shy are painfully aware of this, painfully aware of how many doors our shyness closes, how much harder it makes the simplest things: walking into a party, speaking up at a meeting at work.

But I also think shyness has something to teach us about personal responsibility, about how we affect the people around us. Over the past summer, I took to walking my dog at lunch time past the home of a retired couple in my neighborhood, a pair of avid gardeners named Helen and Frank. I resolved, each time I went by, to say something friendly and sweet, to try to dilute my superior-snob image with a good, old-fashioned dose of neighborliness. I'd comment on their roses, ask them a question about their cats, force my way through the awkward moments, chat about the weather. When I returned from a week in New Hampshire at the end of the summer, I brought them a blueberry pie. Gradually, they warmed up to me.

Not long ago, Frank knocked on my door and invited me over to their house for dinner, and in the long moment it took me to respond, I contemplated this business of affect and effect, of personal power and choice. I thought: Here's a chance to do the right thing, to come out from my shy cave and make an effort with my neighbors. I weighed the prospect of small talk, which I dread, against the prospect of connection, which I covet. I thought about how governed I've always been by social anxiety, how limiting it is to live with fear, how hard it is to change.

I took a deep breath.

I heard myself say, "Why, I'd love to. So nice of you to ask!"

And then, after we'd sealed the date and time, I bid Frank goodbye and shut the door. I felt brave and confident, fully aware that I'd done the noble thing, that I'd cast a vote for risk and sociability instead of fear and solitude, and that on the day in question (remember: Change is hard! Biology is destiny!) I'd come down with a horrible, debilitating case of the flu.

I did just that, or pretended to ("Something awful going around, just hit me out of the blue!"). But I was really, really sweet about it.