Monthly Archives: November 2015
I’m guilty of saying “I’ve got this” to myself as affirmation and “you’ve got this” to others as encouragement, but those words should be used with caution. There is a natural progression from inspiration (“I can do it”) to astonishment (“I am really doing it!”) that can easily slide into complacency (“Easy peasy, no big deal.”) if we aren’t careful. Thinking “I’ve got this” shows the positivity and confidence we aspire to, yet it doesn’t mean we can let our guard down entirely.
I am not saying we have to stay hyper vigilant and afraid for ourselves long into sobriety, but rather that it is important to continue prioritizing our own wellness. Keep growing and learning, keep checking in on ourselves.
Thanksgiving weekend has just drawn to a close for readers in the U.S., and many of you may be breathing a huge sigh of relief for successfully navigating the tricky business of family dinners, large gatherings, and all the stress that can accompany the holidays. Oddly, the quiet times can be just as challenging as the great trials.
Even though you didn’t drink, if afterwards you continually replay conversations that annoyed you, or call up one family member to discuss another, or worry what people thought, or what exactly so and so meant, then you could be burbling away with growing resentments that can put you at risk of reaching for a drink – the familiar solution to familiar pain.
Another phenomenon that many readers write to me about is the feeling that making it through a big family dinner (or other event) without drinking must mean that there isn’t such a problem after all, and ideas of moderation emerge. This never works out well, and many people are thrown right back into the same awful mess with alarming speed. Those who have experienced this say that quitting after a relapse is harder.
Holiday weekends throw many curveballs – everything from misery to joy to plain old habit can be triggering. If you made it through unscathed I salute you. If you stumbled, I send love and encourage you to get back up and move forward. If you stayed sober and had fun, wow that is awesome. If you stayed sober but were kind of miserable to be around, ah well that’s okay too.
Whatever went down this weekend, tomorrow is a new day. Even if it feels easy, let’s all remember to greet each day with gratitude and fresh resolve to continue honouring ourselves and our recovery.
Raise your hand if you’ve taken an online drinking assessment.
Raise your other hand if you took the same assessment more than once, trying different variations of answers in order to get a better result. (Jazz hands if you switched to a different country’s website to see if they had looser guidelines.)
Nod your head if you then took those results and tried to work them backwards, in order to figure out how much you should cut back in order to drop into a lower risk category.
Rub your belly and pat your head if you then tried to moderate to those levels, failed, took the test again, and got an even higher score.
Yah, me too. You are not alone.
The one phrase that really stuck in my mind was, “No more than 10 drinks per week, no more than 2 drinks most days, and no more than 3 drinks on any single occasion.” (Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines) The gears in my head began to whir as I read those numbers, trying to comprehend what living within those guidelines might entail. My mental computations resulted in one-word: IMPOSSIBLE.
Impossible is exactly what moderating proved to be for me – I was well past the point of drinking within the guidelines. Living alcohol-free has not always been easy but it is certainly simpler than that hellish cycle of calculations, bargains, failure and regret.
What’s worse, the guidelines are based on a 5 oz serving of wine, something I considered to be a half-glass. I expect my average was an 8 oz pour, meaning what I called 3 drinks was closer to 5.
When I take that assessment now with complete honesty, my end habits were in the “Severe Risk” category – and no one even knew I had a problem!
I am grateful for these guidelines and assessments because they were an important wake-up call for me. There is a lot of rhetoric and nonsense out there that implies no one can tell if someone else needs to quit drinking. I feel that’s a misinterpretation of that fact that the will to change must come from within. But the numbers don’t lie and high-risk drinking is self-evident based on patterns and numbers alone.
So if you’re struggling with alcohol, pay attention to those assessments and guidelines. Share them. Talk about them.
Remember that many of us seemed to be functioning just fine but still fell into the “High Risk” and “Severe Risk” zones. Forget the stereotype of what we all think addiction looks like and trust the evidence.
When sober people gather, we often start to speak a different language.
“He’s one of us” means someone is an alcoholic, whether or not in recovery. Someone who “went back out” has relapsed. “Normies” are drinkers who are not addicted.
There are dialects to this language, depending on program influences. For example, people in AA often refer to themselves as “friends of Bill W”, and call quitting without a program “white knuckling”. Meanwhile, people in SMART Recovery use a lot of acronyms such as CBA (cost-benefit analysis), DIBs (disruptive irrational beliefs), and REBT (rational emotive behavioural therapy). AA uses acronyms too, but they are more to remember helpful cliches rather than therapy tools (“YET: You’re Eligible Too”, “KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid”, “ODAAT: One Day at a Time”.
Usually these phrases, words, acronyms and cliches are clear and helpful. One word, however, can give us some trouble: EGO.
Most people (normies, that is) equate ego with vanity and narcissism, considering it to be a negative quality. Recovery puts a more complicated twist on those three little letters: e, g, o. Given that the main difference between AA and SMART recovery is powerlessness vs empowerment, respectively, it only makes sense that each would have a different take on the concept of ego.
AA offers another acronym to illustrate its perspective on ego: Edging God Out. Ego is that part of us that is deeply affected by addiction – pushing God away by simultaneous feelings of pride (“I can handle things just fine on my own”) and shame (“I don’t deserve help from God”). The program is based on this chasm between us and God as being the void we try to fill with alcohol – a spiritual sickness that our addiction leverages to sustain itself. The 12 steps work to address the ego, admitting powerlessness and handing things over to a Higher Power – a process that brings healing and insight.
On the other hand, SMART Recovery looks at ego in more psychoanalytical terms. It is our self-awareness and identity, something we can harness and use to drive change. Ego is who we are, not what we do. This program focuses understanding the connection between thoughts and behaviours, working to understand why we have over-invested in maladaptive coping strategies and creating new ways to respond to our environment. Making these changes means using the ego rather than overcoming it, while assessing whether the self is being influenced by irrational beliefs or fears.
My goal here isn’t to show one perspective as being better than the other, but rather that we have to understand the very different premise of both pathways in order to make sense of what sometimes feels like mixed messages. Both programs champion abstinence and connecting with community. They have the same goals but take different routes to arrive. Each has something to offer and some find one fits better than the other for them. Many, like myself, make use of both as resources and have friends in both programs. This is where the language can overlap, where patience and understanding must come into play.
Ego kept me drinking, it’s true. I felt too proud to ask for help, and believed I couldn’t possibly be addicted to alcohol – that was for “other” people. That is the ego that AA speaks of, the prideful mind that causes destruction by attempting to hold power.
Yet it was also ego that got me sober by whispering, “I can change, I can make this happen!” It was self-awareness and self-respect that helped me press on – something SMART Recovery advocates identify as an “internal locus of control”. Ego served me well, in that case.
I admit that sometimes the ego-cliches frustrate me. It can be a “garbage can” phrase that serves as a catch-all for aspects of willfulness, arrogance, pride. But we have to remember that things aren’t always as they seem. If someone is offended by criticism, what appears as injured pride could easily be self-protection from the opening of an old wound – such as a painful childhood memory resurfacing. To brush that off as mere ego would be a missed opportunity to heal and grow.
So do we feed the ego or annihilate it? I think the answer lies in being gentle with ourselves and others. Understanding the many facets of and uses for ego helps us know ourselves better. The question I am learning to ask, regardless of recovery pathway embraced, is “what’s really going on here?” The acronyms, cliches, theories, and memes are simply tools to help us better answer that essential question.
Back up, reassess, move forward differently. That is recovery.