My last blog talked about the role of behavior in addiction and more specifically, how choice plays a role in our decisions. The actual behavior is easy to identify, most of the time, but one of the first steps in successful sobriety is recognizing and owning our choices for engaging in the behavior. Chemical addiction and addictive tendencies aside, we still make the choice every day to engage in our addictions. Once we take ownership of our choices, the next step is trying to understand them. Understanding our choices is paramount to understanding the reasons why we engage in our addictions in the first place. It is not enough to want to quit because we feel like shit. We have to want to change holistically. We have to want to change how we think and how we feel. This is intimidating because those are two aspects of our character we have defined our reality by for years. We have to be willing to let go of our emotional comfort blanket and start embracing new and uncomfortable feelings because once we do, we realize the new feelings are only uncomfortable because we are not used to feeling them. Then, we realize how incredibly beautiful and powerful feeling is, and how important feeling is to our overall health and growth.
In the framework of core beliefs and perceptions, the second attribute I mentioned was emotional, or how we feel. This, at first mention, seems to be equally as easy to understand as behavior. I mean, how hard is it to describe and understand our feelings? Well, for the addict, it is damn near impossible because we have engaged in a particular behavior for so long we forgot what feeling felt like. Think about it. What did we do after a day's worth of work and life stresses piled on top of us? We drank. What did we do when a major life event occurred, positive or negative? We drank. What did we do when we made a mistake? We drank. What did we do when someone we loved wronged us? We drank. What did we do when too many responsibilities overwhelmed our sense of control? We drank. How long can I go on talking about the reasons why we drank? I would say indefinitely. What do you say we drastically shorten this list? What if I said, we drank because we didn't want to feel? Or, We drank because we didn't understand our feelings? How accurate are those assessments? I believe if we dig deep enough, we will find them to be on point.
I cannot speak for everyone, but for me, the numbing quality of alcohol attracted me almost immediately. Looking back at my drinking days I remember the feeling associated with the first drink after a long day of work. At the time, it felt as though my mind and body were feeling almost immediately better as the liquid slid down my throat, into my stomach, and quickly into my bloodstream. It felt like an escape. While the effect of alcohol is not immediate, it does begin affecting our brain within five minutes. The interesting piece here is the effect itself. We thought we were feeling better when in reality, we were actually feeling less. The alcohol quickly began to numb our feelings and sensations to the point we no longer felt any of the stress associated with the day, event, or interaction that caused the discomfort in the first place. Not only did the alcohol numb the feelings associated with the stress, but it also erased the thoughts associated with the stress, too. We felt free to enjoy our evening without the constraints associated with the protections our mind and body created in an effort to keep us aware and on edge in times when we needed to be most present and sharp.
Stress is an emotional response to something we deem dangerous to our overall physical or emotional health. It is a defense mechanism meant to alert a person to danger. The body releases chemicals and hormones which subsequently heightens a person's physical and mental awareness. This ultimately allows the person a more robust ability to deal with the perceived danger. If the person feeling stress uses their heightened sense of feeling and awareness to properly deal with the perceived danger, the danger dissipates and so too does the stress. This allows the individual to feel a sense of, not only safety but accomplishment. With each successful negotiation of perceived stress, whether it is real or not, the person's confidence in dealing with stress grows exponentially. I say perceived when talking about stress because stress is an emotion that affects everyone differently. What causes one person to feel stress may not cause another to feel stress, and the levels of stress may differ from person to person and event to event as well. The only thing that really matters is if the feeling of stress is present and how the person deals with that stress.
By numbing our mind and body's natural reaction to stress, we do not allow ourselves to stay present at times when our mind and body perceives it to be paramount to survival. Instead of dealing with the cause of our stress, we disregard it. We let the alcohol take over our system and erase all semblance of control over our feelings associated with our "bad day." We wake up the next day feeling sick, down, low energy, and virtually incapable of properly dealing with the events that caused our stress the day or week or month prior. Our inability to deal with the stress-inducing events causes the events to escalate further which in turn causes our stress levels to increase along with our need to numb those uncomfortable feelings. The merry-go-round of alcohol abuse continues until we finally realize alcohol is not the answer to our problems, it is the cause.
To Feel or Not to Feel, that is the Question
I am happy to say I can speak to this question with ever-increasing confidence and joy. Since quitting alcohol, I have allowed myself to become in touch with my true self and feelings more than I ever have before. I read somewhere recently that sobriety is not trying to get back to where I was, but trying to get somewhere I have never been. I believe this to be incredibly accurate and important in our perceptions of sobriety. What we can achieve by overcoming our addictions is truly endless. Another statement I remember, and I am sorry I do not remember from where it originated, was how we should feel lucky to have an addiction to overcome. While this may sound counter-intuitive, it actually carries some credibility. To overcome an addiction, a person is forced to reach down deep within themselves to truly find who they are and what they want. A person who has never had to do this may never find their true self or strength. We, as unfortunate as it may feel, have had to do this and we emerge stronger because of it.
Recently, I have had the fortunate experience to take on yet another addiction. It was an addiction tied to another addiction that was behavioral in nature. For a while, I disregarded this addiction because I was making so many positive changes in my life I did not think it was necessary. As I continue on my path of personal growth, I realize I want to free myself from all addictions. I took this one on with the same approach I have been writing about and touting as a way to approach any type of addiction. Some people have expressed a severe dislike for my belief that sobriety of any kind can in fact be easy. I am here to say, once again, this can be true, if you want it to be.
To add insult to injury this time around, not only did I take on another addiction, I have had the fortunate experience of adding my returning to work full time, on top of it. The one uncertainty I have had regarding my sobriety has been the fact that I have spent the majority of it in quarantine. This, of course, removes some naturally occurring daily stressors. I wondered if it would make a difference once I returned to the real world. I will add that I am a teacher. Never has my returning to work been this stressful, uncertain, or overwhelming. Entering an environment you have never been trained for while receiving a barrage of negative daily chastisement for actions completely out of your control from people you do not know is a precursor for an overwhelmingly stressful day. I bring this up not to complain about my job, I bring it up because this new environment and stress has taught me something incredibly important about myself and my sobriety. I can and am dealing with life.
I am fully aware of the stress I feel. It is uncomfortable. I don't like it. I want it to go away. However, I feel it and therefore I immediately have the upper hand over how I used to deal with these feelings. I am no longer numbing them, which allows me to properly deal with them. I am more aware and able to react in a calm manner to situations that used to make me angry. My mind is more clear, which allows me to discern more options for solutions to problems. I am able to communicate in an articulate and concise manner, which allows those I am working with to better understand my stance or direction. I am able to listen to those I am working with, which allows me the ability to understand their stance and concerns. As a whole, I am better able to deal with the stressors that used to send me straight to the bottle.
I truly believe the reason I am able to handle life so much better now is that I am beginning to understand my feelings more because I am actually feeling them. This is the second step in a three-step process toward successful sobriety through understanding our core beliefs and perceptions. Monday, I will talk about how understanding the cognitive aspect, or how we think affects our ability to successfully make life-altering positive changes.
Until then, enjoy feeling again.