On a quiet walk in the woods of Qualicum Beach this morning, I saw a tree growing on top of an old stump.
I reflected on the ability of one life to fuel the next. Again and again it appeared, new growth sprouting from the decaying past.
Some of us push away our past, hoping to deny or overcome the things we’d rather forget. But maybe we can instead embrace it, not erase it, and use it to fuel our futures.
Oh the simple life. Crawling into our cozy van-bed with a book, quickly drifting to sleep and clocking a miraculous ten hours of deep rest, night after night. Amazing! I rarely sleep longer than seven hours a night at home. How is this even possible?
Our daily adventures look something like this: a gorgeous drive, a good meal, a pretty campsite, a nice walk, a deep sleep, morning coffee, repeat.
A cartwheel on the beach…and a hike through the forest at Porpoise Bay…No make up for days on end! I literally have not gone a week without makeup since I started wearing it (hiding behind it) in the 7th grade.
There is a lot to be said for breaking routine and doing things differently. I realize how stuck in my ways I am at home – from morning coffee to bedtime tea. Being overly entrenched in routine is how I got stuck in the wine loop, and then I leveraged routine to break free.
I’m far from a “Free Spirit” (as our van boasts) but I am embracing this version of freedom on our vacation. It’s nice to know I can do this, to just *be* and just *enjoy*.
Remember six months ago when I broke my leg skiing? Today I walked 25km – the most difficult portion of our week-long walking tour through England’s Cotswolds. Hills, muddy trails, fields of sheep, steps, I did it all. I’m so grateful to be healed and strong again.
Remember six years ago when I quit drinking and thought vacations would be a drag? We have been smiling and laughing this whole trip.
Remember six hours ago when my flat iron refuse to work on a converter? Welp, that’s not even bothering me. Look at this picture, wonky hair, no make up, sweaty and full of JOY!!
If you’re struggling today, keep going. Do the next right thing, and then the next, and then do it some more. Things will get better. I promise.
PS – We were overtaken by no less than 5 elderly couples today. I’m talking, WHOOSH! Brits are serious walkers, they don’t mess around. As I watched yet another pair of silver heads bob past us and into the distance, I remembered “COMPARISON IS THE THEIF OF JOY” and giggled.
I was about to post the following quote on the UnPickled Facebook page but stopped short for fear of backlash:
I love this saying and I use it all the time when I am talking to people who are struggling, but it can sound like a cop-out to someone who doesn’t understand addiction.
Addiction comes from using, so how can it not be the addict’s fault? If someone chooses to use, shouldn’t they accept the blame for what comes next?
Well that’s the thing, you see, it’s not necessarily a choice to keep using.
Casual drinkers experience alcohol in a way that is social and fun, but they have the ability to stop drinking. They can take it or leave it. It’s a treat, and they know not to over-do on treats. From a casual drinkers perspective it can appear that people who drink too much are choosing the pleasant treat too frequently and need to use more self-control.
If you scroll through the 6000+ comments on the pages of this blog (holy shit!), you will find virtually no one who says, “I should quit drinking but I am just having so much fun.”
Addiction is not fun. Addiction is not a life anyone wants.
Addiction means drinking (or using) to feel normal. Addiction means that without the substance, withdrawals start in the form of pain, anxiety or obsessive thoughts or more obvious symptoms like shaking or sweating.
The thing to blame for addiction is the fact that alcohol is addictive and yet people are expected to use it without consequence. We know not to start smoking if we don’t want to get addicted. We know that drinking coffee every morning will get us hooked on caffeine. Addiction is the normal course of action for using addictive substances. To drink or use drugs WITHOUT becoming addicted is abnormal.
Why why why why do we expect alcohol to be anything other than it is?
The other tricky thing about addiction is that it creeps in slowly and alters self-perception, so it can take a long time to become aware it has developed. Even then, so much shame and stigma exists around addiction that the first reaction can be denial out of self-preservation.
To be fair, it should also be said that people in the throes of addiction can be mighty assholes who defend indefensible behaviour by blaming others. How painful and frustrating it can be for those living with an addict who appears to be having a great time at their expense while taking zero responsibility. How infuriating it must be to see a quote saying “addiction is not your fault…” when you see the same pattern repeating again and again. Fair enough, that is hard, but please understand: addiction isn’t anyone’s fault.
Forget fault. Forget blame, shame, and guilt.
Addiction is a reality, and realities must be dealt with. Trade blame for acceptance and responsibility. Yes, this falls squarely on the shoulders of the addict, who can only assume responsibility by accepting the reality of their own addiction.
Blame lives in the past, hope lies in the future, but recovery happens in each present moment where acceptance and responsibility are found.
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.
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?
I recently changed my hair colour from (monthly-salon-visit) blonde to (do-it-myself) red. The change was mostly motivated by convenience, and perhaps Julianne Moore played a role, too. When I had an actual hair colour of my own it was strawberry blonde, so neither one feels to foreign to me.
The thing about hair is that others see it constantly while the person under the crop forgets about it by breakfast. For the first few days, I was a bit startled each time I passed a mirror, but otherwise I felt like myself. Others, though, seem to be having a harder time adjusting to the new look. After four months of redheadedness, I still hear “Wow, I didn’t recognize you!” on a regular basis.
One of my husband’s friends asked him “Who was the red head I saw you with?” after spotting us from afar on the golf course. A friend I met for lunch said, “Wow, it’s like RED red,” which I interpreted as neither a compliment nor a criticism – just a reaction to change.
My feeling is that I messed with others’ perception of me by altering my looks, and no one has been shy about mentioning it. I don’t feel offended by any feedback because I love my red hair – it is on-trend, flattering, age appropriate, lower maintenance, an a small fraction of the cost of those cute blonde salon highlights.
It occurred to me the other day that people have been much more vocal about my hair colour than they have about the even bigger change in my life: becoming a non-drinker. When I gave up alcohol, I worried mightily about what others would think and say about it. I had none of the confidence about my sobriety that I have about my hair, and felt overly awkward and vulnerable.
If people said the things about my sobriety that they have said about my hair, would it be such a big deal?
Wow, I didn’t recognize you without a glass of wine in your hand!
Hey, who was that sober chick I saw you with?
Wow, you’re like SOBER sober.
It makes me smile just to play the game in my mind. No one says those things, but so what if they did? No one notices or really cares that much what’s in my glass. Still, I’ve worried SO MUCH what people might think about my sobriety and SO LITTLE if they liked a change in my appearance.
These days, I am very open about being a non-drinker and answer (fairly) easily if asked why. But truly, it’s mostly a non-issue for other people.
If you are newly sober and feel self-conscious around others, take heart. Wear something fabulous, learn a couple of new jokes, or change your hair colour. People are easily distracted.
Recovery from addiction requires more than simply giving up “X”. The most significant changes come from learning why we ever needed “X” in the first place and then rethinking how we operate. This almost always involves addressing interpersonal relationships. For me, one tool that has been extremely useful in changing my approach is the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Dr. Stephen Karpman developed this simple concept in 1968 to illustrate that three types of roles emerge from every conflict: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.
When a situation upsets me, I look at the it with above image in mind and take responsibility for my role.
Do you have a favourite position on the triangle? Saying, “Hey, this isn’t my fault. Don’t blame me” means identifying as a victim. The persecutor role is not necessarily evil; it often the person who says, “I’m just doing what I think is right. Sorry but you will have to deal with it.” Then comes the hero, who says, “This is awful, poor you!” to the victim and, “Look what you’ve done!” to the persecutor, rescuing one from the other.
We are drawn to roles by subtle motivations. The victim is motivated by safety, the persecutor by power, and the hero feels a need for admiration.
Manipulators are very good at assigning roles. You might relate a benign experience about work to a friend whose reaction takes you aback: “You’re kidding! I can’t believe they did that to you!” Before you know it, you start seeing the circumstances differently and feeling resentful about a situation that wasn’t bothering you originally. You might feel like this friend cares about you more than your coworkers, and confide in her more often to get the comforting feedback that paints you as blameless. Your friend is really manipulating herself into the “hero” role by convincing you that you’ve been victimized. You might even think you are lucky to have this great friend, the only one who “really cares about you”. Chances are the problems at work will escalate because you become entrenched in a pattern unknowingly.
Martyrs, on the other hand, love the victim role and no matter what happens, they make certain it is theirs to keep. Everyone else is either a hero or a villain. They are always explaining at length how they’ve been HURT by others, or how WONDERFUL some people are for saving them. We might wonder why martyrs have friends, but it is likely because the rescuers love to be the hero. If the martyr feels safe and the hero feels admired, who cares about the bad guy?
Type A personalities are easily cast as the persecutors, but they can also be good at rotating the triangle underneath everyone to reassign themselves into the hero or victim role. If you have ever been in a meeting or an argument where suddenly the “tables were turned” on you, that is likely how it happened.
For example, I once walked into an industry planning session and faced a hostile group. Unbeknownst to me, one of my competitors had called everyone ahead of time and told them I would be presenting something that was harmful to the association, and that he would protect the industry by confronting me at the meeting. This
peckerhead fellow set up a drama triangle in which I was the persecutor, the group was the victim, and he the rescuer. The “reality” of my presentation morphed into a “problem” under this dynamic.
I felt (rightfully) ambushed and tried to explain that I was acting in the group’s best interest, that I was really a victim here, and that this guy was manipulating us all. All of this made me look defensive and only dug me deeper into my “villain” corner. In retrospect, I felt wronged (hello, victim!) and then wanted to play the hero by exposing this guy’s tactics (rescuer!) – none of which was satisfying or productive. I didn’t even know about the damn triangle but I hopped all over it unsuccessfully that day.
Now that I know about this tool, here is how I use it when caught up in a situation. The first step is to honestly assess what role I have fallen into and take responsibility for it. Then I am able to disable the triangle by stepping out of that role entirely – not by rotating the triangle but by refusing to participate.
There can be no drama if the victim extends compassion or sympathy to the persecutor, if the persecutor apologizes, or if the rescuer validates the persecutors position. Removing one corner of the triangle diffuses the drama and changes the “problem” back into a “reality”.
If you have one of those families that like to talk about each other behind their backs (*raises hand*), it is likely because they are trying to either assign roles or protect themselves. These conversations can be stopped instantly by politely rejecting the situation as a “problem” and only acknowledge it as a “reality”. “That’s between the two of them,” is a nice way to prevent triangulation.
If we don’t acknowledge the dynamics of the triangle, then we are left with simple reality. It only becomes a drama when we take up our corners.
There is no winning position in a triangle dynamic. Even the hero/rescuer is ultimately vulnerable because each position is subject to the force of the other two. No one is empowered under these circumstances –they only exist by virtue of the problem. If the motivating factors are power, safety and admiration, we should instead seek to achieve all three through healthy self-esteem and self-advocacy.
This is my simple understanding of the “drama triangle” tool and I hope you find it useful. Please comment to add your perspectives, insights, and experiences with as they relate to your personal growth in recovery.