Yesterday I spoke to a reader who has been struggling to hang onto her sobriety. She is able to go alcohol-free for weeks at a time but then drinks for reasons she doesn’t understand. Each time it happens she can feel herself make the decision to drink again, but doesn’t know why she does it.
“I am a strong person,” she said. “I have always been strong and can handle anything. Why can’t I get this?”
Here is what I have learned about being a strong person: it’s easy to fool ourselves. We mistakenly think we are being strong when we don’t get upset, don’t let things bother us, and then press on despite discomfort. “Suck it up” we tell ourselves, and then somehow we find a way to keep going.That looks like strength on the outside, but in truth it is denial. True strength is dealing with these things, not stuffing them down and refusing to acknowledge how we really feel.
When we deny reality for the sake of appearing strong, we are destroying ourselves from within. We live with some niggling discomfort we can’t name (refusing to address the real cause), and so look for relief in some acceptable form. This is how it started for me – a glass of wine before bed worked so well at first. It relaxed me, comforted, and brought on sleep. I kicked ass in the world all day, then came home and kicked off my heels and enjoyed a lovely glass of wine – a perfectly reasonable strategy. A glass of wine a day is even said to be healthy so no need for concern.
But over the years….
One glass a night became two or three or more and the wine glasses got larger and the bottles became boxes. I couldn’t quit, or even cut back. Each morning I vowed to quit, but by mid day I’d found a reason why it was important to still drink that day: if something good happened I needed to celebrate, if something bad happened I needed comforting, and if nothing at all happened I drank out of boredom.
I felt the same bewilderment as my friend: I am so strong. Why can’t I stop drinking?
Two reasons: because the illusion of strength I’d cultivated depended on a release valve, and because the addictive nature of alcohol caused it to become the one and only release I wanted. I was caught in a vicious cycle that was camouflaged (and perpetuated) by the outward appearance of achievement and strength.
It is easy to think that life is perfect except for the black mark of the addictive element, and if we can just get rid of the wine (or drugs or roulette or shopping or Chigaco-style popcorn – whatever is being stuffed into the void) then everything will be finally, fully perfect. That’s it, that’s all.
So we quit drinking, or try to quit drinking, but then things go sideways because we no longer have any release valve – the wine goggles destroyed the ability to recognize other pleasures. “What was I thinking? Things aren’t better without alcohol! They’re WORSE! I might as well drink because this sobriety nonsense is screwing up everything.”
First, it helps to recognize that our old ways of doing things were probably not as effective as we thought, or else they wouldn’t have led us to seek ongoing relief. The idea of what strength really is must be revisited and revised. Strength is grounded in honesty, in saying “no” to the things that aren’t serving us well and dealing with painful issues instead of sweeping them under a rug. This is the work of recovery (changing for the better), which takes us past mere sobriety (abstinence from the addictive substance or behaviour). It is possible to get through life without constant discomfort.
The crucial role of self-care then, is to not only nurture ourselves through these changes but most importantly to teach ourselves how to enjoy all of the pleasures that our addiction overshadowed. A walk in the sunshine, a massage or pedicure, a cup of coffee. It is important to plan activities or pleasant actions throughout the day and especially during the “witching hour”, so when cravings for alcohol come we can recognize them as a longing for comfort and offer an alternative. The most difficult part is that in early recovery, we don’t necessarily feel like doing much and little else is appealing. Do it anyway. Try lots of different things and little by little those discoveries will come. The herbal tea I once sneered at has become an indispensable part of my evening routine. The yoga I assumed was stupid is now my favourite way to unwind. Connecting with friends is about conversation, tears or laughter, and not just an excuse to drink. I can even sit still and do nothing, which I avoided before because that’s when all the hurts I had buried in the name of strength would surface and pester.
Be open to approaching things differently and you’ll learn to avoid unnecessary discomfort. Practice self-care and you’ll find new ways to console yourself when needed (and to celebrate the good things, too).
Undo, redo. Unlearn, retrain. Understand, rethink.
Un Un Un. Re Re Re.
This is what recovery is all about.
What are your favourite means of comfort and self-care? How has that changed throughout the course of your recovery?