The burden of the might-have-beens

Might-have-beens are a bitch. They make you wonder about and sometimes regret many of the decisions you’ve made.

Might-have-beens can be constructive, yes, but less so later in life. Earlier on, and assuming one has an active learning curve, might-have-beens can remind you of the bumps on the road so you don’t drive over them again.

Later in life, though, might-have-beens can feel fruitless and even disheartening, hindering rather than aiding one’s ability to deal with present challenges. They can be a distraction as well as an opportunity.

After a ten-year lapse, I recently started attending A.A. meetings once a week. In a strangely counterintuitive way, going back to meetings is akin to rekindling one’s toxic love affair with booze. I don’t know precisely why I decided to go to meetings again, but I did bring a certain smugness into the room, feeling as if I were repeating high school English composition or some other subject I thought I’d mastered years ago.

Yep, this the a fork in the road. 

Instead, attending meetings again has been a whack to the side of the head, a reminder of how little I have changed even though I haven’t touched alcohol or cigarettes for over thirty years. Listening to others talk about their daily struggles to stay sober—while reciting the all-too-familiar A.A. slogans, jingles and bumper stickers—took me back to my first meeting, immediately after I quit drinking.

I don’t drink anymore but I’m still burdened by some of the circular patterns that led me to alcohol in the first place. Might I be in a different place today had I stuck to meetings all along and paid more attention, instead of abandoning that project earlier on because I “didn’t need meetings” any more? Maybe, even probably. All I can say is that at least I don’t drink or smoke today and that much must qualify as progress. And I’m still open to suggestions I hear from other recovering alcoholics.

An unexpected visit recently from a friend I’d met in my first job right out of graduate school in 1972, a year after Stew and I got together, led me to more second-guessing, mostly about my zig-zaggy career in journalism.

I actually didn’t start working in magazines and newspapers until 1978, after I’d quit a cozy but stultifying stint deep in the federal bureaucracy—at the long-gone U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, of all places—and enrolled at Northwestern University.

Along with leaving Cuba and coming to the U.S. alone at age fourteen, quitting the feds was one of the most drastic decisions in my life. It wasn’t just thinking outside the box, but going at the box with a chainsaw and starting over, with no job security or even job prospects in sight.

Even in the best of circumstances writing is a precarious way to make a living and yet the only way to get ahead is to keep taking chances. If your last novel bombs, you have to write another one, and if the best newspaper job you can land is in Carthage, Miss., or a relatively obscure publication in a big city, you go there and hope in a couple of years you discover a better gig or someone discovers you. It’s the opposite of a job at the post office.

I’d always dreamed of joining the foreign service or getting a gig as a foreign reporter: There’s a certain buzz I still get from landing in strange places and trying to figure out how people there live and work, and how they’ve developed their own versions if not of happiness, at least of reconciliation or resignation with their circumstances. Even today for me traveling is equal parts mindless sightseeing and a chance for a first-hand, albeit fleeting immersion in the politics, history and culture that has brought a country to where it is.

I was offered several opportunities to move to foreign places for various jobs and actually have travelled to numerous countries. Haiti was the one that intrigued me the most because of its intoxicating and unique brew of African and Western cultures, even its peculiar patois. Haiti was as fascinating and inexplicable as voodoo itself.

But every time an opportunity to pursue my foreign dreams arose, fear and endless what-ifs got in the way. My occasional foreign ventures ended up only whetting an appetite never quite fulfilled.

None of this says that by any means my career in journalism was failure. On the contrary, I have quite a collection of awards for my work that used to hang on a wall of my office until I got tired of looking at them: They reminded me of both my successes and my might-have-beens.

But the biggest of my might-have-beens—one I don’t recall explicitly discussing with Stew—
is what it would have been like for us to raise a couple of kids. I’m quite certain they would have received as much love and attention as any child raised by a “normal” straight couple, perhaps too much so. I probably would have spent endless night trying to avoid the mistakes my parents made with me. The most attentive, insomniac parent in the world; that would have been me.

It’s another might-have-been, which as all the rest cannot be relived. Life is video with no rewind button that allows you go back and edit—or redo—the scenes that didn’t quite work out. All you can do is try to plan your next shoot a little better.

Before anyone think I’m on the edge of despair, worry not. I’m quite conscious of my good fortune, most of all having a loving husband and companion for forty-four years even if we weren’t allowed to formally marry until three years ago, when the powers that be decided it was alright for us to get married, and no longer live marginalized in some second-class limbo called “domestic partnership.”

We’re comfortable; we live in what people keep telling us is beautiful home, and for the moment we have no financial or health worries.

So why do might-have-beens keep coming up? Maybe they are just markers, some times upsetting, other times inspiring, to remind us of where we are, where we came from—and what we need to do to best use the time ahead.


11 thoughts on “The burden of the might-have-beens

  1. Anonymous

    We all have to make choices in this world. Then we have live with those choices. When I look back on my life, I think of those that didn't get this far. Things that looked great to them turned out pretty bad. Be thankful that you are healthy and have some one that loves you and that you love back.Best wishes!Robert GillPhoenix, AZ


  2. What a beautiful story Al. And I believe you're right in that all those might-have-been's just make us appreciate where we are at the moment. We're right here with you and Stew, just trying to put one foot in front of the other without tumbling over the edge. And most of the time getting it right.RonSan Miguel de Allende


  3. Anonymous

    How fitting to read this as I struggle with “issues” in my own long-term recovery. I've continued to attend meetings for 26 years, sometimes only once a week. I had the same wonderful sponsor for 15 years until she passed, and I'm still married to the man I met at a Saturday “date night” speaker meeting 23 years ago. But moving to British Columbia 3 years ago has been unsettling. The AA fellowship we found here has not been as tolerant of those like myself who also identify as addicted to drugs. I've been attending NA meetings and am active in that fellowship, but I miss my “tribe” and all of the shared vocabulary I built up over 20+ years.As you say, you are sober today, and so there is always the possibility of moving on to that “different place” you seek. Whether returning to meetings alone can accomplish that, I can't say. My own recovery today is a mash-up of AA, NA, Alanon, and “generic” spiritual practice. It works for me most days.As for children, my husband and I agree that wild dogs could have raised children better than we could have, and we have no regrets. I get to spoil my nieces as if they were grandchildren, and that is enough.Deborah S.


  4. A very poignant and open post. Thanks for sharing. I think my only “might have beens” were not marrying one of the men that asked me to do so. I tend to think my life would have been easier, but, then on the other hand, maybe not! You and Stew would have been incredible parents! I have not doubt at all.


  5. Wow. Yours is an interesting story. I've never run into it but my husband Stew, while at a treatment center for addiction, remembers druggies (most of them Chicago policemen and firemen) tended to sneer at those who were dealing with alcohol addiction. For some reason these druggies considered themselves a superior type of addict. Say what?I can appreciate how one would miss a home group after attending 20+ years. I went through a similar process when we moved to Mexico. In Chicago, where there were hundreds of “specialized” meetings, I had settled on a few attended mostly by gay men. I got to know a lot of good people there with whom, unfortunately, I've not kept in touch. When I arrived in Mexico I attended a few meetings that I didn't really like. Now I think we've found a good meeting here on Thursdays. Really welcoming veterans of recovery. Children, what can I say? We never had any, but listening to stories about parents from children, and children about parents, I've given up on the Ozzie and Harriet illusion of a perfect home rearing perfect children. Thanks for your comment


  6. Barb: Thanks for your vote of confidence. I too think we would have been pretty good parents, mostly because we've become aware of some of the problems involved in raising kids (mostly thinking about our own misshapen upbringing. There are still men out there looking for partners. Don't give up yet.


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