In her 1988 New York Times bestselling book, When Society Becomes an Addict, the late author Dr. Anne Wilson Schaef compared western culture to “an active alcoholic.” I was 29 years old and in film school when I discovered this book. Even though I was still employed as the Production Editor of a travel magazine located off Market Street, I was attending night classes in a post graduate program at San Francisco State University. The production job had become monotonous, and left me feeling empty at the end of each day. It only took one semester of splitting my time before I was ready to leave the 9-5 life behind, and gave myself the chance to do what I’d been wanting to do for years: study filmmaking.
I enrolled in numerous classes that first year, including 8mm filmmaking, advanced screenwriting, and one mesmerizing course introducing us to the power of documentary film. One class in particular, however, bridged my fascination with the screen with my unresolved internal goings-on. The female instructor of this one class introduced us thirsty creatives to the filmmaker John Cassavetes, who had died in early 1989 the year after the publication of Schaef’s book on addiction—cause of Cassavetes’ death? Cirrhosis of the liver.
The overlapping of my dip into self-inquiry (I had been a practicing anorexic/bulimic during my teen years and into my early 20s) with this seminar on John Cassavetes didn’t feel like an accident to me. He had been hailed by critics and fans alike for the gritty, real life, as opposed to Hollywood slick, way in which he chose to craft his films. The rough edges that he exposed—the messiness of a marriage, the monotony of 9-5 life, the challenges of intimacy, alcoholism—was his point; the viewer could not get away from experiencing the everyday sufferings of an ordinary life unless they got out of their seat and left the theatre.
I ended up getting a “C” on what I thought was the most brilliant essay I’d ever written—an eight-page exploration comparing the films of Cassavetes to our addict society, a society repulsed by looking at the truth of who we are: addicts who will do anything we can to avoid peering into the horrifying fear of what’s really going on. The grade on this paper shocked, but didn’t deflate me. I convinced myself that the teacher was in all likelihood an addict herself. She couldn’t possibly give me a good grade, because that would mean she would need to admit, “My name is … and I’m an addict.”
We are, as a people living in a western society that strives for no more than wealth and beauty: sick. We are sick with fear … fear of realizing that we really don’t much like who we are. Stuck in a global pandemic, forced into isolation and stillness, this collision of mandated shutdown of our routines with lives lived without introspection has created an impossible situation for those of us trying hard to model rationality in the midst of a totally irrational way of living.
And, as hard as it may be to admit, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
4 Ways to Step up Rationality in the Midst of Irrationality:
1. Admit that you’re feeling out of control—to yourself, to your kids, and explain what that means to you, honestly and boldly. This is not the time to censor yourself. Kids right now deserve to hear the truth of who you are. If you once practiced addictive behaviors, or still do, in as age-appropriate way as possible, share your suffering with your children. This will give them permission to one day share their suffering (confusion, feelings of being out of control, anxiety, etc.) with you. The idea, though, is to model for them self-disclosure, and self-compassion, so that they will avoid becoming an addict of any kind.
2. Express yourself out loud—in safe, contained ways that prove to you, and your kids, that your seemingly out of control emotions are not going to kill you.
3. Sit and listen to calming music, or a guided mediation—in plain view of your family. This will demonstrate that it is possible to stop whatever it is you are doing, and breath. This is not the time to practice any kind of meditation or stillness exercises behind closed doors. Your children need to see you capable of cultivating inner quiet in the midst of the chaos that is our world today.
4. When you lose your cool and blow up, apologize—and make it a genuine, calm, descriptive discussion. Tell your children that you became overwhelmed with the moment, and that you’re disappointed in yourself for not expressing your anger, frustration, anxiety, etc. in a more productive way. Then perhaps, if the space feels right, bring your child into the conversation by asking them for ideas on how better to handle a moment of feeling out of control. Maybe take a few minutes to brainstorm ways to handle a boiling point more creatively. Maybe make a poster and hang on a visible wall in your home.
If our goal in life is to raise kids who become healthy adults, we must first admit we ourselves are not as healthy as we thought we were, or aspire to be. As Dr. Anne Wilson Schaef once said, “Healthy people learn to live with their world.” Using this global pandemic to scrutinize how we react to it is an incredible opportunity, one I hope we all recognize as a fleeting, precious gift.