“You have this tendency to think you are an expert about something you experience, and you think everyone else has it wrong,” my friend tells me.
After a royally failed attempt to relocate from New York to New Mexico—nine months of a mania-filled psychotic break I call“The New Mexico Disaster”—I was back to living with my parents in Northern Virginia, which was my default setting every time my bipolar disorder got the best of me. My friend Tammy came to visit, and we went to the Folk Life Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Fresh from my disastrous experience in New Mexico, I was thrilled that the Southwest was one of the featured parts of the country that year at the festival. There were women
using traditional weaving looms, making beautiful rugs. Food stands selling quesadillas and grilled jalapenos, instruction in tortilla-making. There was an interview with a real life
“Gaucho,” or cowboy, from New Mexico, who didn’t speak a word of English, talking through an interpreter about what it’s like to shepherd cattle and sheep.
I had recently become interested in animal rights, and I fumed in the audience as people asked questions about the seeming idyllic nature of herding animals in the mountains.
“What happens to the cows and sheep when they are loaded onto transport vehicles and led to slaughter?” I wanted to yell out to the Gaucho. But I didn’t have the nerve.
After the interview, I came up to the facilitator, a woman who had introduced herself as having a PhD in Southwest and Native American Culture. I started blabbing about my time in New Mexico, leaving out the part about how my sister had to fly out to rescue me as I became psychotic, fleeing an abusive relationship there.
I spoke of Native New Mexicans as “Spanish,” and she corrected me.
“They aren’t actually Spanish,” she said, annoyed.
“But that’s what they call themselves,” I retorted.
She reluctantly agreed with me, and I felt smart and superior to her, based on my crazy nine months in the desert as opposed to her twenty years of research and study.
After this exchange, my friend Tammy laid a bombshell at my feet.
“You have this tendency to think you are an expert about something you experience, and you think everyone else has it wrong.”
I thought about when I came home from an alcohol and mania-fueled trip to war torn Serbia in 2001, from which I brought home a Croatian man as a souvenir. I lectured people all the time about what was “really” going on there. For years into the war, I told friends and family that the news was getting it wrong. I knew the truth.
I thought about the hike I went on in the Virginia Mountains with a local hiking group. When we stopped for lunch, I ate my beans and rice and preached to all these strangers eating ham sandwiches about animal abuse in the food industry.
I saw that Tammy was right. The hikers weren’t interested in my lecturing and were actually quite turned off to the issue because I was such an amazing know-it-all.
And I’m sure everyone who heard my lectures about the war in the former Yugoslavia were equally annoyed.
But the worst part about my ego was that it kept my mind shut down to new information and experiences.
I had learned nothing from the Gaucho because I was so judgmental and thought I knew more, knew better.
I learned nothing about the war even as the situation there changed. Never mind that I had been wasted drunk the whole time I was there. What truth could I really have learned in that state?
And I missed out on making some new friendships with the hikers because I was so judgmental that they were eating bologna and I thought I was better than them.
But perhaps the worst place I let my ego get the best of me was in the rooms of AA. I have gone through phases in recovery when I thought I had the “real” solution—and that people not working the steps “my way” were doing it wrong, were dry.
How many newcomers did I alienate by my overzealousness to sell the program the way I thought it should be done? How many old-timers did I annoy by my “My way or the highway” attitude?
I realized that whenever my know-it-all-ness came out, I felt gross and angry with myself afterward. I really didn’t want to be a walking giant ego.
It hurt, what Tammy said, but it raised my awareness as to how I processed experiences and related to other people.
I can share my experience, strength, and hope with people in AA, but I should stop myself from assuming to know what they need to do. As one old-timer said to me, “What keeps me sober, might get you drunk.”
Today, I try not to fall into the trap of thinking I know all the answers, or the right way of doing something; that I know better than everyone else, that my experience makes me an expert.
A woman in an Al-Anon meeting the other day was sitting in the front of the room facing the rest of us, speaking. And she said:
“We are all in the same room, but you are looking past me at the window, while I am looking past you at the paneled wall.” Two people in the seeming same situation might bring away very different interpretations of the experience. Read more “the fix”…