Having a Skull on Your Desk Is Good for You

Posted: January 22, 2013 in Tuesday Reflections
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been speaking on and off again recently to someone very new to recovery–only days in, barely weeks. She is angry, beyond angry, and cynical and frustrated and resentful and…well, you get the point. Mostly, I think she’s looking for someone/something to blame and looking even harder for a way out. In short, it’s like looking in a mirror.

I don’t have to dig very far in my past to find the Me who was a walking defense mechanism. I don’t even have to look that far into my psychology to find these feelings, simmering like a black hot spring under the good earth I’ve been planting over top. I don’t count it as humility to be able to recognize these things in myself. It’s just a measure of my grasp on an unpleasant reality. On the one hand, I like to think I’ve traveled very far past the days when I lived as one, gigantic red nerve just waiting to cry or lash out. On the other, I live in the knowledge that, in some ways, it would take very little to get back there. One drink, of course.

I don’t believe in a “cure” for alcoholism, simply because I have not found a cure for stress or bad days or accidents or despair. As the phraseology goes: treatements, but no cure. Spending time, even very little time, with someone just days or weeks into her or his recovery is one form of treatment that is almost universally acknowledged among recovering addicts. When I ventured back into recovery circles in 2010, I didn’t realize I was a walking, talking memento mori–but that is probably the newcomer’s most important function in recovery circles. The newly recovering addict is a skull on the desk, the painting of the skeleton, the “remembrance of death.”

Hundreds of years ago, the pious kept these objects in full sight–particularly in their private rooms–to remind them of the inevitability, the closeness of death. In my twenties, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around this medieval/Renaissance habit of scholars and theologians. At best, it seemed like a quaint, foreign custom. At worst, fetishistic. I identified more easily with Hamlet, whose reaction to a skull is just a commonsensical freak out, followed by a little ego trip and nausea. Skulls belong in graves, not on top of the furniture.

Raised a good protestant, I still don’t quite get the power of the fully physical representation of Our Last End. (Southern Baptism will teach anyone that the scariest place to be is your own head. No need to decorate the lobby with Halloween enthusiasms.) Now that I am some years (and many close calls) nearer to my own death, it’s somewhat easier to understand the practice. I also understand the memento in its complexity a little better: these were not blunt objects designed to conjure simply the last gasp and the shroud, but were to remind the owner too that we can hasten death; we can live in it. For the medieval miind (and those religious folks who essentially keep the medieval world alive today), sin is a form of death. John Milton went so far to allegorize Sin as the daughter of Satan and Death as their incestuous offspring. (Paradise Lost gets serious kink points for this one in my opinion.) To live in sin is to live in death. For anyone coming out of addiction, it is easy enough to acknowledge that there are ways of living that more closely resemble death than life, ways of being that bring on a wish for death rather than survival.

At the very beginning of my recovery, I was encouraged to write a list of all the things my drinking had done that had led to suffering for me and other people. I realized quickly that this could be a very short list (“It destroyed everything”) or a very long one (if I decided to name all the things my addiction ruined). What one winds up with will hardly be comprehensive–because addiction’s losses are hardly comprehensible–but effective, just as the scholar did not have to look at every skull in the world to know he’d die eventually. One was plenty. I was told to look at this list any time I felt like drinking or any time it occurred to me that I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic.

I never look at this list, by the way. I just know it’s there, just as the scholar knew the skull was there without having to look at it, perhaps having even forgotten it a little. These mementos of my addiction–whether represented in my own hand in a journal or freshly from the experience of someone new to sobriety–will occasionally catch me off-guard, however. Listening to them, I am emotionally transported to the pain and rawness of addiction and the hard scrabble work of early weeks in recovery. I do not want to go back there, but it is good to go back there. It is psychologically good, if a little painful, and warns me against complacency. It’s also less conspicuous than keeping a skull on my desk, which would be weird and I think, somehow, less effective, though I don’t ever rule anything out.

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Comments
  1. gfnj says:

    Ok another reason for this 43 old father of two to keep cranking the Heavy Metal. The other day we were driving to “die, die, die” and I’m thinking to myself “I truly love being alive, sober and raising my family. Should I really keep listening to this even though I still love it?”

  2. soberfornow says:

    I say, crank the metal! We’re allowed innocent vices now, right?

    Thanks for reading!

    • gfnj says:

      I put away the Halloween decorations this year but kept out my favorite blinking light skull; remembering this post. Hope you’re doing ok. I’m on 14 months of my new life.

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