Zero Coping Skills: How Jackie Monahan Found Peace of Mind for the First Time
By Jackie Monahan 03/28/19
Contrast in life is inevitable, but I'm learning that I don't have to have conflict. I don't have to flip out because I got in the wrong line; I don’t need to make my poor planning everyone else's emergency.
I grew up being told over and over, “We are only given what we can handle.” I took that to mean, “If I flip out about the little things, nothing really bad can ever happen to me.”
It has been said that if you have an alcoholic parent, the odds are good you will become an alcoholic. I had two. They say if you start drinking at 21, you might be okay. I did the inverse and started drinking at 12. I had a long run. I was surrounded by enablers. My mom still wants me to drink; she and my ex say things like “You weren't this temperamental when you drank.”
I want to be the best example of the program anyone has ever seen, but I am far from there yet. I have always been easily frustrated, and have always had zero coping skills, other than alcohol.
My soul wanted to solve problems without alcohol, but I didn't even know where to begin. If I got anxious for a second, everyone rushed to put a drink in my hand. It worked. I remember the one day in college that I didn't drink. I was mad and yelling at all my roommates, wanting them to be as quiet as a mouse because I wasn't drinking. Meanwhile, every other night I came home either with a party or from one, loudly.
I entered parties saying, “You can start now, I am here.” I would black out and then yell at everyone the next day for letting me drink so much. They would say they had no idea I was blacked out; I was so funny and fun, they didn’t see what the problem was. I did. My life was getting really busy with stuff I wanted to do, and when I did have free time I wanted to enjoy the moment and remember it.
My parents were functioning alcoholics. I say “were” because they are no longer functioning very well. My dad was far worse than my mother, but both are shells of what they could have been. They couldn't get rigorously honest if someone paid them all the money in the world. I had to accept that at a very young age.
There was never a way to know what I did to set my parents off. When either of them went into a rage, it was brutal. They were cheerful, cheerful, cheerful… then rage! They mostly raged when they were sober and it would come out of nowhere. I watched their tantrums work for them: with one another, with me, and with the unfortunate people who got my mother on the phone. You would think Colleen from Time Warner had stabbed her in the face. My mom unloaded all her marriage frustrations, alternately screaming at and belittling the customer service rep. And it worked every time — instead of getting overcharged, she got money off and reduced rates. She flew off the handle at everyone and got her way, then bragged about it.
My parents would always say, “God made whiskey so the Irish could not rule the world.” Then they would laugh and laugh like they had something over on the rest of us. Meanwhile, I remember thinking, “Rule the world? How about trying to get through the week without throwing a plate?”
With all this and more, it never even occurred to me not to drink. Of course I would drink, but I vowed to never be an alcoholic like you see on TV, or even a semi-functioning one like my parents. I could clearly see how their thinking was backwards, so backwards that my messed-up perception went undetected. They may have been successful financially, but their morals and values were out in space.
In 2011 I made an independent movie and was too busy to drink. My wife at the time pointed out that I didn't drink for two weeks. She was impressed with my work ethic. I was working 12-hour days because it took so long to put on and take off a bald cap for my role as an an alien. I couldn't be hungover, so I wasn't.
A few years later I thought, “I wish another 12-hour a day project would come along to quit drinking for.” Now I know this should have been a red flag. But nope, instead I had an idea: “Wait, why don’t I make me the project. I will be sober for a while for me.” I was just going to do 11 days, until the Independent Spirit Awards. I would have to drink then. There would be free expensive wine and celebrity parties.
The awards show came and went and I still didn't want to drink. I felt almost addicted to being clear-headed. It felt euphoric. Then I was determined to tape Last Comic Standing sober. I was 33 days sober and I did great, but I just wasn’t myself. I wasn't loose. I told a comic backstage who had five years sober that I didn’t feel comfortable. He said I was crazy, that he didn't feel normal on stage until he had a year sober, and that I should have just had a drink. Looking back, he was right and I knew it. But I couldn't drink. I liked being in my body so much. I hated blacking out.
And I refused to do AA: I 100 percent thought it was run by the Catholic Church and I couldn’t go back there. I was a member of the CIA: Catholic Irish Alcoholic. I survived 12 years of Catholic school: priests living in a mansion with gorgeous antique furniture and driving fancy sports cars while the nuns lived in poverty, in what were basically jail cells. One nun siphoned gas—so she could sell the 20-year-old station wagon she had just filled—and accidently swallowed some of the gas. That same day, Father Zino threw a lit cigarette out of his brand-new Porsche and it hit me. It got caught in my coat.
I had no intention of going back to the Catholic Church and saying yes to things I knew to be wrong. They told us not to lie, then made us lie.
I had friends in AA, but they all seemed miserable and unhappy. I would rather drink than be miserable. And I had quit drinking on my own before: once for 90 days (I was proud because I hadn't intended to go that long), and then for 200 days (I was disappointed I hadn’t made it to a year). Both times, when I finally drank, it was because of things happening that I couldn't bear to feel. I called my friends and said, “I don't want to drink but I can't bear the pain anymore.” They said, “Just drink. Drink and don't beat yourself up about it.” So I drank. I didn’t have a choice.
Then I made a new friend who was in AA and thriving. She seemed genuinely happy. When I told her I could quit on my own but couldn't stay quit, she said that happens to a lot of alcoholics. That was the first time I thought “Hey, maybe I am an alcoholic.” She also said “You don't have coping skills.” Coping skills!?! I must have said those two words a million times since then. Coping skills sounded like exactly what I needed. I didn’t have coping skills. I’d never even heard of them.
I said I wanted to give it a try. I really wanted to make it to a year without drinking, and I was willing to do anything. Once I made that commitment to myself, I gave myself over to the program and my higher power. That was a critical tipping point, and my life changed. I got a sponsor who I knew would kick my butt: she knew when I was lying. I wanted what she had—not the dream car, home, partner, killer style, and beauty (all impressive, considering she had been living on the street). I didn't need any of those things. I did not have the same goals at all.
What I did want was her close relationship with her higher power, her program, and her unquestioning belief in both. These qualities make her absolutely, positively unflappable and a force to be reckoned with. She gets annoyed by things, but as soon as she feels an ounce of anger, she takes a breath and realigns with her higher power and the solution.
My sponsor knows I had major resentments, and that I had a lot to be resentful about, but she showed me how to let go of them, for myself. I am now two years sober and I have peace in my mind for the first time in my life. I wouldn't trade this gift of sobriety and serenity for anything in the world. I treat it like a gem that I hold safe. I guard that gem with my life.
Contrast in life is inevitable, but I'm learning that I do not have to have conflict. I don't have to flip out because I got in the wrong line somewhere; I don’t need to make my poor planning everyone else's emergency. I didn't even know how anxiety-riddled I was. I thought I had ADD, and doctors were treating it as such, with Adderall. What I actually have is PTSD and chronic anxiety. That medication combined with those diagnoses was like treating schizophrenia with acid.
All my life, I never wanted to be like other people. Even though my life was messed-up, I loved being me. I always wanted to live, but I really didn’t know how. I felt like I was improvising constantly, while everyone else had a script. It made me a great improviser, but I now have the ability to turn that side of me off. I feel like I am getting a new, revised version of my script every day. If something happens, I no longer go into fight or flight mode. I get upset, of course, but now I respond instead of react. I am proactive instead of reactive. I can have contrast without conflict. I can go into solution mode and stop focusing on and feeding the problem.
I made a decision to be the change I want to see in the world—which is peace. To see peace, I first must be peace. Alcoholics do not have the luxury of a negative thought. A resentment can kill us. If someone hates me, that is on them. I cannot control how someone feels about me, but I can control how I feel about them.
I feel safe for the first time. For a long time I hid my fear from everyone, even myself. Feeling safe, in the moment, in control, is better than any feeling in this world. I wouldn’t trade the solution for anything.