“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou
Of the many blessings I’m privileged to enjoy, the one that gives me the greatest happiness is witnessing what a beautiful person my son has become. He has a great big beautiful smile, is quick to laugh and he’s kind, considerate and compassionate for others. He’s started his own business and doesn’t shirk from what appears to be “failures”. He’s willing to learn and looks for the positive in all circumstances. He’s simply a delight to be with. And every day I give thanks for my sobriety because without it I wouldn’t be attesting to the lovely person he is.
Close to twenty five years ago I, and my life, was a mess. I had married not because I was in love, but because it was what I felt I should do. A “good man” to marry, who would provide a nice home and family to raise, was my ticket to fitting into the happiness guidelines of my family, clan and community. When the pressure of trying to maintain this facade cracked, the marriage came to a nasty end.
I tried escaping the guilt and shame by relocating, landing a new job and getting involved in a rebound relationship. Well, this tactic wasn’t too successful either – I still felt guilty, inadequate and ashamed. Another job and another relocation, sans the rebound man, this time back to my home town to be closer to my family would no doubt provide the solution I longed for. Not so.
The more I tried to fix my life (according to the rule book others had), the worse I felt and the more my life spun out of control. I was full of anger, resentment, blame and bitterness. Life was unfair and unjust. I was broke and sick and hurting. If only others, the government, my employers, the landlord, friends and family would change then everything would be okay. Oh, and did I mention that I tried to ease all of this pain with alcohol? No? Well, let me just say that the siren’s call of trying to drink away my problems didn’t work either.
Although I tried for a couple of years to moderate, cut back, drink only on weekends and abstain completely, I wasn’t very successful at giving up the bottle. Addictions are so seductive and cunning. They call to us with promises of relief from pain and suffering, offering solutions of false confidence and false hope and they lie to us about fault and blame. And once in their grasp, it can be devastatingly difficult to get free again. In a rather short amount of time, my drinking was as out of control as my life.
The turning point came at a family gathering when I noticed my son trying to get attention by being loud and somewhat obnoxious – behavior that was completely out of character for him.
When we got home that night, I made myself look at what his life would be like if I didn’t change. And the vision that came, of this beautiful boy being full of anger, addicted, blaming others and believing he was unlovable simply broke my heart. I just could not do this to him anymore.
That night I made some decisions that would alter my life, and his, forevermore. I quit drinking, went back to school to change careers and built a new life. I’ve enjoyed artistic expression in work that was exciting and creative, built material wealth and pursued a path of spiritual growth. My sobriety and path of peace has also led to a wonderful, fulfilling relationship, my dream home, good health, good friends and the opportunity to help others who want to change and grow.
And so, if you’re struggling with addictive behavior and want to make some positive, empowering changes, here’s a place for you to start. This process is the result of what I went through in 1990, and in the years since it’s worked pretty well for me and a few others too. I hope you’ll receive some benefit from it.
1. Own your problem(s).
You can’t let go of your addiction until you own it. Your thoughts, feelings and actions are your responsibility and once you accept this, you’re back in the drivers’ seat.
To start, you need to determine what benefit your addiction provides. What’s the emotional reward you receive for this kind of behavior? Does blaming others let you feel innocent? Do you enjoy the satisfaction of self-pity? By being a victim, do you get sympathy or attention? There’s some kind of payoff attached to this behavior, some perceived need is being met – otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing it.
Blame, denial and avoidance won’t get you what you want. That’s only giving your power away. It’s only by taking responsibility will you be able to reclaim the strength necessary to say no to your addiction.
2. Raise your bottom.
It’s often been said that a person needs to “hit bottom” before they’ll actually do anything to let go of addictions. That is, the pain needs to be so extreme it’ll force them to alter their behavior.
You can artificially raise your bottom by using long-term, or consequential, thinking. One of the hallmarks of addiction is the need for gratification as soon as the craving hits. There’s no thought given to the price to be paid for indulging. Without a plan to counteract cravings, once they’ve started the only thing you can focus on is getting what you “need” right now. At that point, all of your attention, energy, thought and emotion goes into fulfilling that need. And once you indulge, the cycle of regret and shame starts – complete with all of its recriminations, guilt and self-loathing.
To avoid this cycle, you need to quickly call to mind what the consequences will be; and not just what will happen today. You need to see what your life will be like in 5 years, 10 years and fifteen… Where will you be living? Will you still have your home? Or your job? Will there be any money left? How are your kids going to turn out with you behaving this way? Will your spouse stick around? How about your friends and family? What’s your health going to be like?
Take the time to really think this through and write it out so you can review it often. This can be a painful and frightening exercise because, if you’re honest, the future will not look bright. In fact, it’ll seem downright dismal and scary. But see it through, as this will be an invaluable tool to call upon when you’re feeling shaky.
3. Let go of your grievances.
Everything we do in life is for the goal of being happy, to feel good. This won’t happen if you hold onto judgements and grievances. Think about it. As soon as you start judging or criticizing someone, you become unhappy. As soon as you let go and forgive, you feel good again. It’s your judgements, not the person, place or thing that makes you feel bad. Be willing to let go of being right in favor of being happy.
4. Give your feelings some space.
Perhaps the primary reason for most addictions is that it changes the way we feel. It takes the edge off of those emotions that make us feel bad: unworthiness, inadequacy, loss, grief, fear… Somehow, we accepted the idea that these emotions define us, as though they’re the sum total of who we are, they become our identity. But they don’t define us; they’re only emotions and they only define a temporary feeling we’re experiencing.
In an effort to avoid these uncomfortable feelings, we try to disown them by stuffing them, projecting them onto others or distracting ourselves from feeling them. But this only delays facing them and in doing so, internal pressure builds until it gets so intense we simply have to release some of it. Indulging then acts as a release valve, often with disastrous results.
A much healthier solution is to allow your feelings to surface. By recognizing them, questioning their validity and allowing them to be, without trying to change or alter them, you can actually process and release them. This might make you squirm at first, but you’ll soon be amazed at how quickly they’ll dissolve if allowed to pass by.
5. What choices are you making?
Every decision we make serves a master. The question is, which master do you choose to serve? Will your choice be for your well-being, recovery and happiness or will it serve to perpetuate your addiction?
Here’s a good practice to become more mindful of the choices we make automatically throughout the day. Before starting or doing anything, ask yourself: “What’s the purpose? What’s it for?” This will bring the choice-making process to your conscious mind, and by doing so, break the pattern of habitual responses. Which then gives you control of where your attention goes.
I know how much being in the grip of addiction sucks; it’s painful and ugly, unfair and unjust and some days you just don’t want to care anymore. But you need to, because others care about you. And you do care for others, even when you try not to. You’re needed and wanted, valued and loved. And if you look closely, you might just find your greatest treasure and strength lies hidden in its murky depths. Aren’t you worth the effort to find out? I think so.
Have you gone through a dark night of the soul, made a decision to change and emerged stronger, happier and with greater freedom? If so, please share your experience so others may borrow your courage to do the same.
Photo by Chiara Cremaschi