Whoosh! Issue 27 - December 1998

WATER BEFORE WHISKEY:
APPLYING THE LESSONS OF DREAMWORKER TO THE FIGHT FOR SOBRIETY

IAXS project #056
By L. Graham
Copyright © 1998 held by author
4260 words



January 17th, 1997 (01-08)
The Alcoholic on XWP (09-15)
DREAMWORKER (16)
     Accepting Others (17-20)
     Accepting the Past (21-25)
     Accepting Herself (26-30)
Reflections by the Lake (31-34)
Biography



Water Before Whiskey:
Applying the Lessons of DREAMWORKER to the Fight for Sobriety



My name is Mesmer, and I want to kill you.


The DREAMWORKER crowd is a toughie.



January 17th, 1997

[1] At 9:25 P.M., in front of a room full of complete strangers, I uttered the most difficult words of my entire life: "I'm an alcoholic. I've tried to quit, but I can't." For a supposedly intelligent doctoral student, well versed in the ancient languages, it had taken me nearly ten years to read the handwriting on the wall. That night, I tried to explain to my roommate that I'd been lying to her for nearly a year and how I had shattered the trust she'd placed in me.

[2] Two days later, on the two year anniversary of the suicide of my dearest friend, I poured out my last bottle of Southern Comfort, watching the light gold liquid slip away down the kitchen drain, then washed the sink out with soap and hot water, just in case the d*mn stuff tried to crawl back up. With my wonderfully patient and very forgiving roommate out of town that holiday weekend, I was alone in an empty apartment with nothing to distract a mind very much in need of distracting. I didn't know much, but the one thing I was certain of was that I didn't want her to return to find that I'd relapsed, or worse yet, gone to join my friend.

[3] I wasted time, lying on my bed and watching Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) on the local independent station. The commercial breaks were filled with ads for an upcoming episode of Xena: Warrior Princess that seemed to be some kind of bizarre takeoff on the Indiana Jones setup. Changing the channel was really out of the question since that would have involved getting up from the horizontal position. Actually, I was intrigued by the episode [THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210)], though it gave me some horribly erroneous impressions about the show in general, such as "Xena is a shy, demure sidekick with bad glasses." Despite the confusion, I loved it. Here was a Southern historical linguist as uptight as I was!

[4] But the most important thing was that I laughed. I laughed more than I had in a very long time, and that night I slept. Exhausted and strung out, but I slept.

[5] At first, I couldn't tell anyone that I had begun watching Xena. I was more closeted about that than I'd ever been about any substance abuse. I didn't care if people thought I was a drunk, but I certainly cared if they thought I was completely nuts! After all, my roommate was overjoyed that I'd stopped randomly destroying the household appliances, and I simply couldn't bear to admit that I was addicted to something new. Did they even have a 12-step program for Xenites?

[6] But staying sober was the most important thing, so I, very quietly, plunged into the show, using everything about it to keep my mind occupied and away from all the old habits and patterns. I read every piece of fanfic I could put my hands on, staying awake by the monitor light. I needed to lose myself in an alternate world for just a few hours, to go some place where women were strong enough to kick their dark pasts and change their lives for the better. This method probably won't ever be officially approved by AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], but it certainly worked for me.

[7] I ran across some of the early Janice and Mel stories and fired off an e-mail to Bat Morda, politely pointing out the wisdom of capitalizing "Southerner." It's a matter of regional pride, after all. Before I could blink twice, I was forcibly appointed her editor-in-chief. Fortunately for her, my brain was fairly clear at that point, though my roommate was now convinced I'd gone completely insane and was beyond all help.

[8] I even started writing my own fiction and posting it, finding that worked even better than reading other people's. Someone pointed out that I tended to write a lot of drunk scenes, which I realized with some consternation was absolutely true. "Write what you know" is standard advice, and apparently I'd taken myself up on that. That got me thinking about how the show itself had dealt with the issue.


The Alcoholic on XWP

I'm not as think as you drunk I am!


Meleager has his own battle with the bottle.


[9] Meleager the Mighty, introduced in THE PRODIGAL (18/118) and returning in THE EXECUTION (41/217), is seen to be an alcoholic within seconds of his first appearance on screen. He is incapable of staying sober even in times of extreme crisis; nothing matters to him as much as finding his next drink. Meleager's primary concern is not helping Poteidaia, but getting his money, primarily to fund his drinking habit. When Damon's men arrive in town, Lila and Gabrielle run to Meleager for help as he stands at the bar, only to have him say: "Well, that's too bad because this [flask] is empty". Aptly, Gabrielle says that this, "Shows a total lack of respect, not just for us but for himself". More importantly though, Gabrielle grasps the deeper dynamic.

GABRIELLE You lost your nerve. That's why you drink. MELEAGER You think of a better reason? GABRIELLE (sadly) No.
[10] Alcoholics drink for a host of reasons, but underlying nearly all is one central flaw: they simply cannot deal with the situation at hand, and they use alcohol as a means to handle it instead. Somewhere along the line, they've lost their nerve to deal with life. Personally, I have extreme troubles sleeping. Drinking was the quickest route to unconsciousness, not to mention a way out of facing the mess I was in.

[11] Meleager is finally inspired to give up drinking in order to help Poteidaia. While this is a nice sentiment and effective for the plotline, it rarely works for long in real life. The desire to change for others can be a powerful driving force in the sobriety of many people as they shape up for a spouse, their children, or even for their job. But ultimately, the changes must originate from within.

[12] When we meet Meleager again in THE EXECUTION (41/217), he has fallen on hard times, now standing accused of a murder he believes he committed while drunk. Worst of all, he has destroyed the faith that Gabrielle placed in him.

GABRIELLE A tavern? Xena, that is the last place we would find Meleager. I did mention his, y'know... small drinking problem? XENA Yes, but he conquered it just in time to save your village. GABRIELLE Yes, he did And think about how much strength that took. XENA It's a hard habit to break. I've seen men ruined by liquor.

This is what I meant when I said to stay out of bars!


Meleager tries to conceal his falling off the wagon from Gabrielle.


[13] An addiction of any kind is tremendously difficult to overcome, particularly without supportive relationships. Meleager, however, traveled alone and eventually fell victim to the age old lie that he could handle "just one". It was while drinking again that Meleager landed himself in trouble with the law. Even he, himself, believed that he was guilty of the murder. Still, that relapse had a positive outcome as it served as a wake-up call, and he hadn't "touched a drop since that night". Sometimes it is possible to scare a person into a moment of sobriety for just long enough to make the necessary decisions.

[14] I did exactly that just a week before my last drink. In the depths of an angry depression, confused and bitter about the loss of my job, I became deeply offended by a Patty Loveless song and decided that the only solution was to eradicate the CD from the face of the earth, though it didn't occur to me to remove it from the stereo first. As the haze cleared from my mind, staring at the wreckage I'd made of the room, a very cold chill began to settle throughout my body. If the rage I had bottled up inside me could do this kind of damage when it leaked out, what must it be doing inside me the other 99 percent of the time? That was the instant I knew I needed help, not for my family, or my non-existent career, but for myself.

[15] Despite his decision to change, this time for himself, Meleager still had to face the consequences of his actions, which meant repairing his relationship with Gabrielle. The look in Gabrielle's eyes when Meleager admitted to her that he'd been drinking again was all too familiar for me. I was very fortunate in that my roommate was as forgiving and gracious as Gabrielle, responding with a tremendous amount of concern for my well-being, even to the point of attending AA meetings with me and acting as my watchdog when we attended social functions.


DREAMWORKER

[16] After further reflection, I realized that Xena had addressed the theme of addiction recovery in a somewhat more metaphorical manner in the episode DREAMWORKER (03/103). While Steven Sears probably didn't have alcoholism in mind when he wrote Xena's trip through the Dream Passage, the challenges that Xena faces are similar to those faced by an alcoholic in the early days of recovery, trying to establish a new identity separate from the dark past. As she progresses with her redemption, Xena, like all alcoholics, must cross three specific hurdles, all of which are clearly seen in DREAMWORKER (03/103): to learn to accept 1) others, 2) the past, and 3) herself.


Accepting Others

Just my luck -- batteries not included!


One of the very few times in the series we see Gabrielle with a sword.


[17] As the episode opens, we see Gabrielle playing at being a warrior. She mimics the moves that she imagines Xena would make, as children often imitate adult behavior. It's sickly humorous, but I distinctly recall "pretending" to drink, even at an early age. I had an old flask I'd salvaged from some rummage sale, and I loved to put iced tea in it, which looks remarkably like a good single malt scotch in the right light. I didn't understand what I was playing with, and I wish someone had given me a talk similar to the one Xena gave Gabrielle, counseling her to put "wisdom before weapons".

[18] Though Xena and Gabrielle have only been traveling together for a very short time, Gabrielle is already having a profound effect on the warrior. Xena cares enough to be bothered that the young woman might be headed down the same unfortunate road that she herself took. Xena has also had to deal with the guilt of having surrendered her son because she knew she couldn't care for him properly, which makes her even more uncomfortable with the idea of a close relationship. She's never had a friend like this before and is unsure as to how their relationship will operate. Gabrielle is the first person to ever trust her implicitly, to believe the best of her, and this puts an enormous burden on Xena to support that faith. She now has a real, concrete reason to be responsible and work for the good of someone other than herself.

[19] Forming a relationship with someone who depends on you for their well-being can be a very important step in the recovery process. Many alcoholics have never been able to sustain their end of any relationship, be it friendly, familial, or romantic, and they often let down their loved ones, or even deliberately hurt them, though that might not have been their conscious intention. The chance to learn how to be a dependable, positive part of a relationship is invaluable to their recovery. For me, a very important step was the editing relationship I formed with Bat Morda. While I was already several months into my sobriety at that point, having this new responsibility was a terrific, and terrifying, thing for me. I distinctly recall sitting down to work on "The Search for Amphipolis" and experiencing a moment of overwhelming panic, wondering if I was going to screw this up like I had so many other things. But knowing that someone had entrusted me with a manuscript and had such complete faith steadied me, and that experience gave me the confidence to eventually return to the academic workplace.

[20] Editing obviously isn't every alcoholic's cup of tea, but I've met many people who found the same benefit in getting a pet and learning to care for it, then receiving unconditional love in return. While Gabrielle has made it quite clear that she is not a pet [HOOVES AND HARLOTS 10/110)], she does function in this capacity for Xena, and logically Xena feels responsible for her well-being. When Gabrielle is kidnaped by the priests of Morpheus, Xena becomes frantic. Realizing she needs help, Xena consults Elkton the mystic who gives her the advice and aid she needs to effectively fight Morpheus. It might be difficult for Xena to accept that she can't handle a situation by herself when she's made a career of self-reliance, but this is a valuable lesson for her. When recovering alcoholics are faced with situations they are incapable of handling alone, they're encouraged to consult other alcoholics who have been sober for longer. This is very difficult for those of us who have spent our lives using alcohol as friend, counselor, and final solution.


Accepting the Past

MESMER Did you know that I had a name? XENA I didn't do this. MESMER My name is Mesmer. XENA I'm sorry... I... MESMER Sorry? Sorry to know my name? Oh that's right. Your victims were always faceless. You never knew much about them did you?

In a rare studio shot, we see a snap of Ray 'short timer' Phelps,
seconds before he's fired as Renee's stand-in


In a foreshadowing of trances to come in later seasons, Xena is out of it in DREAMWORKER.


[21] One of the most painful things for alcoholics in sobriety is to encounter someone that they took money from, slept with, or attacked while drunk. It's quite possible for an alcoholic to not remember the names of these people, even when confronted by them face to face. The guilt of knowing that you've been responsible for horrible things, and, worse yet, ones you can't even remember doing, is overwhelming and the source of many a relapse. I had to come to terms with having done things that were completely out of character for me while under the influence. I embarrassed people publicly, hurt their feelings, was irresponsible in all aspects of my life, and was often physically violent, usually towards myself, but sadly at times towards loved ones. As much as I want to, I can't deny that these things happened and that I was the one responsible.

[22] Xena deals with her past kills just like many alcoholics do their past offenses. At first, she tries to deny that she could've been responsible, then shifts her protest to "I'm not like this any more". True enough, but she had been like that once and the consequences remain.

MESMER You can end this, you know how. You can end it easily. BARUCH Kill us, you know how. Take the sword. XENA Morpheus! I won't do it. It's a trick, you're trying to slow me down. You're using the past of a Xena long dead. I'm not her anymore!
[23] Just as Xena, when confronted by these ghosts of her past, is tempted to turn back to her old way of dealing with them, so it is a constant struggle for the alcoholic to learn new ways of dealing with difficult situations instead of simply getting drunk. Instead of traveling further into denial, Xena acknowledges that she was responsible for these deaths, but ends with the most important truth of all: "I'm not her anymore!"

[24] A bit further on, when confronted with her first and last kill, Xena is even more taken aback. Here are crimes which, because of their nature, she actually remembers. Termin remarks, "Even in your weakened state, you still remember your first". As the two ghosts taunt her, Xena defiantly insists that she can stop them, that she has some control over them because this is still her Dream Passage. Still, the exercise takes an obvious toll on Xena both emotionally and physically as she flees to her final challenge.

[25] Past demons dog the every step of the alcoholic and rarely are so quickly banished, but the underlying truth is the same. Like Xena, alcoholics may not be able to control what they've done in the past, and those events may still have repercussions, but they can control how they allow those events to haunt and control them in the present. Accepting the past is necessary, but that does not mean one must approve of it.


Accepting Herself

Is that a sword in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?


Xena emerges triumphant at the end of her ordeal.


[26] As Xena reaches the end of the Dream Passage, she finds that her greatest challenge has been saved for last. Concern for Gabrielle has served a very important role to this point, but ultimately Xena's battle to free herself from this past will be fought on other terms: facing herself. Nothing is harder for alcoholics than taking a long hard look in the mirror and realizing just how low they've sunk, to do as Dark Xena suggests and "watch as if you had the eyes of your victims". This isn't something that gets any easier with time, as Xena discovers over and over in the course of her redemption, but it's a battle that can't be avoided. To walk away without accepting what she had been in the past would be to leave the splinter embedded, only to fester later into a deadly psychological infection.

DARK XENA You can't defeat me. I'm stronger, I've always been stronger. XENA You're just the dark reminder of a disease I once had. If you were that strong, I would never have left you. But I did.
[27] The self is the most dangerous enemy any person can face. Who can better abuse and destroy the fledgling resolve than the very one who is intimately aware of all the weakness and chinks in the armor? The "you're not strong enough" argument is a classic alcoholic mindset that still echoes through my ears. For nearly ten years I fought to make my family understand I had a problem only to have them believe the best of me even when I was at my worst. After all, I was intelligent and had a good character, how could I possibly be an alcoholic? How could a strong woman be that weak? In the end, all that misplaced confidence backfired, and I obsessively concealed my drinking. There's unspeakable humiliation in admitting that your entire life has been mastered and destroyed by liquid. It's not a wild animal, it has no teeth or any intelligence of its own, though AA literature does characterize it as "cunning, baffling, powerful".

[28] The problem isn't really the alcohol itself though, but the disease that it triggers, a disease which can lie dormant in the strongest of people. The same could be said of Xena. Her defense against Cortese's attack on Amphipolis was properly motivated, but the warfare somehow fed off her soul and eventually transformed her into the evil warlord she faced in DREAMWORKER (03/103). For whatever reason, a predisposition existed within Xena that was set off by external events. But in the end, she was stronger than the disease, left her old way of life, and began to slowly fight her way back toward redemption.

DARK XENA You take for granted all your gifts and talents. Me. Everything you are today came from me. Every spark of noble quality that make you a great leader? It all came from me. You understand? XENA I understand. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't exist... You're the key to my nightmares. No matter what part of me you think you are, I control you.
[29] While this dark side might have led Xena to commit the crimes she is now working so hard to atone for, it also helped her develop some of her greatest skills. Without that darkness, Xena never would have gained the tools to do the tremendous good to which her life is now devoted. This is one of the most important lessons that an alcoholic could ever learn. "We will not reject the past nor wish to shut the door on it" is recited at some point in nearly every AA meeting. By studying those past mistakes, an alcoholic can learn to how to avoid them again in the future and how to chart a course in the opposite direction. It's only when a person turns their back on the past that it can sneak up and attack. There are days when I forget that I have a volatile, violent temper, and it seizes control, as it did recently when I punched out my own windshield over a frustrating day. I can never, ever afford to forget that I'm an alcoholic.

[30] Xena learns here that she can't amputate her own personal history, but rather she has to accept that she learned lessons from that time, and those can serve her well as she strives to establish herself as a different person. She may have changed now, but she is ultimately responsible for all her actions, both good and bad. It is in accepting that and literally using her own dark side that she is able to break through the end of the Dream Passage.


Reflections by the Lake

Not the fishing story again!


Gabrielle and Xena have a heart-to-heart.


GABRIELLE Xena, I could've killed someone. I mean, I was capable of it. XENA We're all capable of it. The point is that you didn't cross that line. GABRIELLE But I got close enough to peek over and what I saw scared me.
[31] Not everyone who picks up a drink will become an alcoholic, just as not everyone who kills in battle will become a murderous warlord. Many people are perfectly capable of enjoying their liquor without any consequences, and I wish them all the best. Still, no one ever died for lack of a vodka gimlet. There really is an appropriate place for a person to consider the necessity of an action and to ponder if the risks they might expose themselves to are truly necessary. There was no reason for Gabrielle to kill when she had other options that served just as well. There might come some future time [especially post-DELIVERER (50/304)] when she would be put in a position where she had no other choice but to take a life. Until then, the safest course would be to practice restraint.

XENA See how calm the surface of the water is? That was me once. And then... (throws stone) The water ripples and churns. That's what I became. GABRIELLE But if we sit here long enough, it'll go back to being still again. It'll go back to being calm. XENA But the stone's still under there. It's now part of the lake. It might look as it did before, but it is forever changed.
[32] Xena has learned all too well that she can repent and even be forgiven for her crimes, but the effects will remain with her always. Gabrielle has a valid point in that no one is beyond saving, but after picking up that sword - or a drink - for the first time, there's no way to regain the state of pure innocence. Though the experiences, both bad and good, will always remain a part of her, by learning to form relationships with others, by accepting past actions, and then accepting the worst parts of herself, Xena has taken the most vital steps toward redemption. Make no mistake that the faith of a devoted friend also plays a vital role.

[33] I don't pretend that my recovery from alcoholism depends on a television show (which is good considering how the third season went), but I do know that being involved with the community surrounding Xena has been a resoundingly positive thing for me. The trust and respect that writers such as Bat have placed in me, as well as the unwavering support of my roommate, have been essential to my recovery.

[34] There are times when I wish I could rewind my life to a point before my first drink, to put water before whiskey as it were. But as hard as the experiences have been, they've shaped me and defined who I am, and I wouldn't trade the insights for anything. They'll remain a part of me now, like the rock beneath the calm surface of the lake, forever changed, hopefully for the better. For good.



Biography

L. Graham L. Graham
L. Graham is a native Southerner (where most people think 12-stepping is a folk dance) and is working on her dissertation in historical linguistics. She wants to grow up and be just like Melinda Pappas, but with better glasses. Hobbies include writing fanfic (because itís cheaper than therapy), pretending to be Robin Hood, and staying sober. Her main goal in life is to one day make enough money to replace all the household appliances that were destroyed during the winter of 1996.
Favorite episode: REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202)
Favorite line: Xena: "You're just the dark reminder of a disease I once had". DREAMWORKER (03/103)
Favorite fanfic line: "Actually, Fred, I'm hungover. Granted, it looks a lot like fearless, but there are subtle differences". -Bat Morda, The Search for Amphipolis
First episode seen: THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210)
Least favorite episode: KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308)

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