Thirty years ago, I expected to die from alcoholism. Suicidal ideation gave way to a complacency that I would just drink myself to death. Mired in hopelessness, I went through the motions of life, pretending to teach, pretending to do research. Despite my every instinct, I managed to ask for help. Today, I am a happy, successful member of Alcoholics Anonymous with a lively career in mathematics. I share my story hoping to help even one person who is now in the place I was all those years ago.
In school, I was that student who could solve all the problems quickly and showed a natural gift for mathematics. How poorly that prepared me for the actual practice of mathematics, where we must learn to spend most of our time feeling confused. Indeed, in college, I think that my strongest motivation for doing mathematics was to earn praise and make myself look good, rather than a sincere love for the subject. As I started drinking and smoking marijuana more and more, my life started to break in two: an outer persona who won academic prizes and an inner one who became increasingly insecure. However, for a few years, it was all great fun.
Going off to a top-tier graduate school opened my eyes to the reality that having a knack for mathematics was just one possible starting point for study, not a free ticket to success. Among my colleagues were people who knew how to face challenges and work hard when things did not come easily. I felt increasingly out of place and turned to self-medication to avoid the reality of my situation.
My gift got me through a PhD, but without distinction. I took a post-doctoral job that I felt I didn’t deserve. My drinking became heavier and I started to accumulate the subsequent embarrassments that I will leave you to imagine. Suicide started to seem like my best choice. Hanging on by my fingernails, I started a tenure-track job at a nice university. As my outer façade became increasingly difficult to maintain, I squeaked through the tenure process.
One summer, I supervised a brilliant student’s summer research. It made me cry to realize that I had once been just that promising, but my prospects for success in mathematics were now few. I encouraged others to think that I was just a mediocre mathematician who spent too much time working on teaching (I didn’t), which was better than being known as the drunk that I was. It was during this period that thoughts of suicide gave way to the idea that I could simply keep drinking and be dead in some small number of years.
Some part of me did not want to die. For those last years of my drinking, I would make plans to stop, try to stop, pray and beg to stop, but not stop. My health started a serious decline. After about ten years of heavy drinking, I finally called my health care provider to say that I thought I had a problem with alcohol.
When the voice on the phone told me, “We have a drop-in meeting that you could attend today,” I said something akin to, “Don’t you know who I am?” Alcoholics build up narratives of sweeping grandiosity and unreasoned pride. I was no exception. I drank for two more weeks while awaiting a one-on-one intake appointment. The doctor helped me learn about alcoholism, explaining the difference between abstinence and recovery. I knew that I wanted to recover, but did not believe it possible. I asked, “How can I go home and not do the thing that I have done every day for ten years?” He answered with a question: “Do you think you could go to an AA meeting?”
Primed by the doctor’s information, I thought I could give it a try. The people in the meeting seemed energetic. They read through a lot of stuff that I didn’t understand. Then a woman at the podium addressed the whole crowd and said, “I don’t know you, but I love you.” This is not any famous cornerstone of AA, but that was what broke through my shell. I was desperate for help, ashamed of myself, and all but certain I did not belong in that room; here was someone willing to say that she loved me just for being there.
Through that crack poured the light of recovery, though very, very slowly. I was extremely reluctant to embrace what I was told. Don’t mathematicians, with our pride in rigorous proof, always think that we know best? Over time, I’ve learned to listen for a match between the voice of my best inner self and the voice of the loving community of people in recovery. That combined wisdom leads me to discern my next right action, the most basic of which is not to pick up the next drink.
By grace (identified by Francis Su in his wonderful writings as “good things you didn’t earn or deserve, but you’re getting them anyway”), I’ve been sober since my first AA meeting. Relapse is very common and I don’t look down on people who experience it; my continuous sobriety is a reflection of the depth of my desperation when I finally was able to ask for help.
What has all this to do with being a mathematician? For one thing, I would have been helped by a different mathematical education that was less about my talent and more about the things I did not understand. It seems to me that we invite young people into mathematics only when they measure up by the same old yardsticks of speed and innate comprehension. It seems to me that we reward people who chase after mathematics, the way I used to do, solely to show themselves powerful and bright. Can’t we encourage that student who’s good at explaining something to a friend; who thinks about ideas after the test is over; who enjoys drawing a picture to illustrate ideas? Rewarding innate talent set me up in a game I was destined to fail. I’m sad to think that others are being taught the same way.
My greatest gift in sobriety comes on the days when I feel what a friend taught me to call “right sized.” I am not puffed up by a paper that I’ve written nor driven to self-abasement by a mathematical error that I’ve made in public. I am not riding on an imaginary wave of brilliant accomplishment, nor led to wallow in suicidal ideation because I have not measured up. I am just me, one of many, participating in a mathematical community that more and more values the variety of our members. If you are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, please ask for help. Mathematics can become much, much more fun.
This story was written by Anonymous. Why do I write anonymously? In Alcoholics Anonymous, we say that “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” In order to maintain my own practice of this simple program, it is better if I do not step forward as myself, but rather as one of many whose stories are like my own. This story is not really about me, but about the help available to anyone who, like me, has experienced “incomprehensible demoralization” from drugs or alcohol.