Life can be tough when you’re a character on a TV show. Fortunately, filmmaker and film teacher Jennifer Peepas — who also blogs as the wise Captain Awkward — is here to help them deal with their drama.
I had a very public alcohol-related breakdown. How do I resume normal life in my small community after rehab?
Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m recently out of rehab and trying to put some semblance of a normal life back together. I’ve done a lot of the work you usually recommend about surrounding myself with supportive family and friends. Also, my relationship with my sisters used to be very tense, as we don’t have a lot in common, but we’ve had each other’s backs under some pretty extreme circumstances and I know now that I can count on them for anything. My relationship with my husband is infinitely better (we’ve worked a lot on using our words lately), and I’ve been able to recognize my addictive behavior for what it is and make real improvements in that direction, too.
My problem comes from my old friend group and a few people I met on my path towards working through my alcoholism. I said and did some things that weren’t great when I was an addict (my ex-friends tried to have an intervention that ended badly, and one of my ex-friends actually ended up gone from my life permanently after). I don’t really want to reconcile with any of these people, but many of them are neighbors so it’s hard to avoid them entirely. Any advice for how to deal with ex-friends who won’t accept that I’m genuinely better now without them? We live in a pretty insular bit of suburbia, our kids have sports together and I see them on the street. I wouldn’t mind being friendly but I don’t want to be friends, if that makes sense? Any scripts or ideas to help me talk to them when the confrontations inevitably begin? (I’m an actress, so scripts are good, but I’m sure I can improve if you point me in the right direction!)
-Not another soccer mom anymore
Dear Not Another Soccer Mom,
Getting out of rehab has a lot in common with getting out of a mental institution or prison, or surviving a tragedy or loss, in that there are a few predictable social situations that you can prepare for in advance. Some of them are:
1. The weirdness of knowing that people have been talking about you, in a weird hushed way, with a strange little pause in front of your name. “Have you seen… Henrietta… lately?” “Did you hear about… Henrietta?”
It’s a skin-crawly thing to contemplate (I especially hate the idea of being discussed with anything resembling pity behind my back), but it’s normal and it’s inevitable. They’re doing it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it. Humans can’t help it. We want to know stuff about people and talk about people, but we know that it’s a sensitive or taboo subject, so we put the little pause in as a sign that we know we’re treading on awkward ground.
You can’t really do anything about this, so try not to think about it too much. Try to think of a time you’ve done the same thing towards someone else and comfort yourself with the knowledge that humans are also highly distractible creatures. They’ll be talking about someone else a week from now.
2. The cringeworthy way people will blurt out the strangest stuff, especially stuff that makes what happened to you into something that happened to them. “My cousin was in rehab once (+ the whole entire story, which has nothing to do with you).” “I heard on NPR the other day that rehab is a place where (+ the whole entire story, which has nothing to do with you).”
Or they will make really inappropriate jokes. “Is it like the Amy Winehouse song? IS IT? IS IT? Do they just play the song over and over again? (sings song) Bet she wishes she’d gone to rehab! Get it? Get it? GET IT? Oh wait, I’m sorry. Too soon?” Someone returning from incarceration or psych hospitalization should probably make bingo cards for all of the horrific, ignorant things so-called normal people will say.
My advice is to treat these like the total non sequiturs they are. They don’t actually have anything to do with you, they are the nervous verbal ejaculations of people who don’t know what to say, but who opened their mouth-hole nonetheless. You can steer around this gracefully, if you want to, by saying “Huh, how about that” and then changing the subject to something else.
If they are telling inappropriate jokes or saying really offensive stuff, and you’re feeling ungraceful, another strategy is to ask them to repeat or explain whatever it is. “I don’t understand, could you explain how that applies to me?” “I don’t follow, was there something specific you were trying to get across?” “Was that a joke? I don’t understand.” It can be like a little game where you see how fast you can get them to change the subject.
3. The weird-pause way people will constantly ask how you are. “How… are you?” “How are you?” “How are you doing… really?”
Some nuance is required here. For example, if you have some amends-making to do as part of your recovery program, this is an opportunity to say “I am well, thank you, and since we are talking I want to apologize for (bad behavior) and thank you for being so kind to me.”
You don’t have to dig deeply into everything, especially if you are not close to the person and don’t want to be, but it is a chance to put something to rest and I think you should take it if you can. If the conversation gets too deep for you, or you feel like the person is probing for gossip, a simple “Thank you for asking, I appreciate it so much, but it’s still hard for me to talk about. Can we talk about something easy, like recipes?” will redirect them.
There is an aspect of American culture that can act as both a shield and a crushing barrier for people who are going through hard times. That aspect is this: We love a good, juicy, hard redemption story as long as the hard stuff is in the past tense — I struggled, but I overcame. These terrible things happened to me, but look how much I learned.
We don’t like the muddle of the middle, and we don’t like to even acknowledge oppression, pain and suffering that has no endgame. We tell our friends who are suffering that they are strong, that they can take it, partly because we believe it, but also partly because we want them to shut up about their pain until they’ve found a solution. Our culture teaches us to automatically answer “Great!” or “Very well, thank you” when people ask how we are doing, and it also teaches us in thousands of tiny ways to hide suffering and only show select, decorous snippets of struggle under carefully controlled circumstances.
Whatever crisis made your neighbors feel like an intervention was necessary made your problems unhide-able, and that scares people. So this is what I mean when I say that this aspect of our culture is both a barrier and a shield. When you desperately need someone to acknowledge your suffering and help you, and everyone seems to ignore it or only want to see a safe, manageable version of it, it can be crushingly lonely. Can no one see that I’m falling apart? Can no one talk to me honestly about what is happening? That refusal to see is a barrier between the hurting person and getting real empathy or help.
But now, when you are out of rehab and you’d like people to give you some space, you will find that the culture is very, very much on your side. If you say you are fine, most people will believe you, because that’s what they want desperately to believe. We helped, they can say to themselves. It’s fixable, they can say with relief. It fits the narrative of self-improvement and redemption that is our unofficial state religion. I’m not saying it’s a healthy way to interact, but it can be useful if you know the unwritten rules and can complete the social circuit in predictable ways.
Knitting your life back together, post-rehab, is going to partly be a process in figuring out who is allowed inside your shields. It’s good that you have people who are very close to you, because you need a place where you can say “I’m not okay, actually” or “Today is really hard” or “Can you help?” If you’re going to meetings, or have a counselor or sponsor of some kind, one of the things they are there for is to give you a safe place where you can selectively lose your shit without messing up the rest of your life. USE THEM.
If you did behave badly when you were using, some people simply won’t forgive, like or trust you again. File that under “accepting the things I cannot change” and give them a wide berth. Focus on the people who are important to you, or the ones you have to interact with for the sake of your kids. In that middle ground, where you want to be friendLY but not friends, there is really no better response than “I’m well, thank you for asking” for keeping people outside your emotional fences. That’s what your neighbors want from you, and if your life maintains a fairly even keel in public, eventually they’ll stop treating you like an unexploded bomb.
On a final, hopefully encouraging note: There are probably a lot of people around you who have survived humiliation and trauma. They’ve figured out how to act “normal” in the wake of what happened, so they are hiding in plain sight. Watch for the people who don’t ask you intrusive questions or say weird stuff or try to act like your new best friend, and instead do kind things for you and your kids without fanfare or step in with a subject change when other people are making it weird. They’re your bridge back to life in your community, and maybe they can make it better than “normal” ever was.
Jennifer Peepas is a Chicago-based filmmaker and film teacher. She answers questions from non-fictional characters at her blog, CaptainAwkward.com.