Truth with Thine Own Self
12-step anniversary medallions are often emblazoned with a bit of Shakespeare: “To Thine Own Self Be True”. It isn’t entirely clear historically-speaking how that wound up being the thing to stamp on medallions, but I’m happy that it is - it captures a lot of how recovery works and it points to a lot more.
The quote itself is from Hamlet, where an old wise man is giving his son some final supportive advice before sending him off to university. The full quote is this:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
I like the full quote a lot, even more than just the punchy first line. Put simply, it gives a bit of insight into how someone might stop lying.
I, like many active addicts, told an awful lot of lies. They were mostly about me, designed to make me look good or avoid looking bad, but sometimes they were about random crap that someone else was interested in. If someone was interested in something, I’d likely pretend to know about it to try and get some of that energy directed my way. Sometimes I just randomly mislead people about trivial matters for the sheer sake of feeling like I was in control of something.
That practice, of lying to try and stay in control of every situation I was in, was a hard one to let go of. It was especially hard to let go of given how it had shaped my character - when all I knew how to do was try to make attractive-sounding noises to get people to like me and do what I want, that left me with no actual idea about who I really was or what I actually wanted in life. I had to go through a lot of painful trial and error to find out who I am, agreeing to do something or to commit to something and then later finding out that I didn’t actually want to do that thing, even though I may have wanted to want that thing.
Recovery has been a slow and painful process of recovering my integrity, in the literal sense of putting myself back together as a human being. When I lie, when I break a promise and don’t acknowledge it, then I dis-integrate at least a little bit. The story I tell about myself to myself and others loses its power, and I have to reclaim that power. When I do have integrity then I get to have one version of myself and one version of reality to keep track of, and I get to put all of my human energy into that version and it gets to be amazing. When I have that integrity, that single amazing version of myself, then I just don’t feel moved to lie! It feels way more motivating to have integrity and risk rejection than to dissolve myself to pursue temporary shallow approval. It’s not just a moral issue, optional in the way that donating to charity is commendable but not strictly necessary to make it. It’s an existential issue, even a mechanical issue - lying means I fall apart and stop working as a human being!
That’s what I like so much about the quote above - it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. If you are true to thine own self then being true to others is a mechanical necessity, necessary on a physical level. If you take care of self-honesty then honesty with others will take care of itself.
Self-honesty, though, is something I’ve needed a lot of help from others to attain. I’ve needed to learn how to accept the things about myself that I don’t want to be true! I’ve failed myself and others in ways that have caused real pain and lasting damage - not in any “I’m worse than everyone else” way, but definitely in a way that isn’t easy to admit. I’ve had to have other people who know how that feels help me make peace with that feeling.
The self I’ve assembled, now, is a composite - an interweaving of my own individuality and the identities of those who have walked the same path before me and alongside me. That, to me, is the meaning and joy of the ritual of introducing myself in meetings as “Hi, I’m Max and I’m an alcoholic” - it points to the community identity I got to pick up when I really needed a new identity of my own.
I got sober because I was at a jumping off point - I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t really want to keep living either. I owe my continued existence to the fact that I could end my own life by getting a lot of help creating a new one.