In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, the idea of silence came up in regard to sobriety. My friend mentioned how she struggles with the silence of spending time alone, and how she used alcohol to help her deal with it. After hearing her example of using alcohol to cope with silence and loneliness, I immediately related. I spent some time contemplating how quiet has negatively affected me in the past too. It took virtually no time to realize silence was always a big problem for me, and I used alcohol and other addictions in very much the same way. To better understand how quiet may negatively affect us, we need to understand what is happening in our minds during these periods of silence. Since I obviously cannot speak for everyone, I will speak from my experience in the hopes my experience will resonate with some of you. When trapped in a moment of quiet, I found myself obsessing over my inadequacies, my mistakes, and the amount of time I have wasted in my life. Sometimes, all three of these obsessive thoughts bombarded me at the same time, and all I could hear was noise. While alcohol did effectively dull the noise temporarily, I did not know at the time, it also dulled me.
A person in active addiction got there from a myriad of different directions. Every person is different and every person has to uncover and understand their own reasons before they can adequately take on the task of removing themselves from addiction. The three examples of noise I referred to may be different for you, but how we approach them is not. The most important commonalities are awareness and willingness to change. As long as these two attributes are present, we can begin to turn down the noise they create so we can do what we are meant to do in silence; enjoy it.
One of the why's I uncovered while trying to understand my drinking revolved around my feeling unworthy or inadequate. I wish I knew when and why these kinds of thoughts take over our emotions, but I do know how absolutely demoralizing they are when they occur. Feeling unworthy is like having the feeling we are without purpose. Without purpose, we have nothing driving us forward. We remain stagnant and essentially wait to die. In silence, this thought is blaring, overwhelming, and almost impossible not to hear. It overtakes our entire being and does not allow anything else to penetrate the membrane covering our unworthy core belief. Drinking was the only thing I knew, at the time, that would quiet the shrieking screams of inadequacy in my thoughts. What I did not know, at the time, was alcohol did not actually quiet the sound. It only diverted my attention away from it temporarily. The sound was still there, and as long as I ignored it, it only got louder and more intense.
There is no one in the world who does not suffer from some form of guilt regarding a mistake or mistakes they have made in their lifetime. It is part of being human. We are fallible. The difference, for me, was how I dealt with my mistakes. Often, I wallowed in them without actively taking a role in learning from them. If we do not learn from our mistakes, we cannot grow. We end up like those suffering from inadequacy. We are stuck and simply awaiting the end to come. One of the reasons I think learning from mistakes is difficult is the fact we do not, as a species, like to admit we are wrong. It kind of goes against our survival instincts. Back in the day, if we were wrong, we died. End of story. We still hang on to this belief we have to make the right decisions to survive. Luckily, we are in a different time now, and the time we live in allows for a certain amount of error. When we make a mistake, learn from it, and change our behavior, we afford ourselves the opportunity to begin anew, to start over, to be better. Ironically, the only way to do this is to first admit we were wrong.
In silence, the noise created by our mistakes is equally as loud as our inadequacies. We can spend hours upon hours ruminating on the mistakes of our pasts. Sometimes, this is rightfully so. Nevertheless, even when this is true, we do ourselves no favors by not learning from our mistakes and changing our behaviors moving forward. When we use alcohol to silence the noise made by not learning from our mistakes, we do not afford ourselves the ability to learn from them. We simply carry on with our insanity by continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again.
One of the most profound issues I continue to deal with is the issue of wasted time. If I am honest, the sound of wasted time is the loudest and hardest to ignore when I am alone and quiet. As a forty-nine-year-old man who drank for the majority of my life, I have an enormous amount of time for which I cannot account. It's just gone and there is nothing I can do to reclaim it. This lost time has created tremendous guilt, and the more I thought about it the more guilty I felt. Unfortunately, I never actually thought about it for very long. Instead, I drank and drowned out the invasive sound, temporarily. Again, what I did not know, at the time, was my drinking only muffled the sound and kept me from ever really dealing with the feelings associated with my wasted time. The guilt compounds, the anxiety worsens, and the stress reaches new heights. All of this occurs as a result of my decision to try and lessen the severity of my initial guilt by drinking alcohol.
One of the most profound things I have learned in sobriety is understanding it is not only normal but expected to have bad days. A bad day is not wasted time if we allow ourselves the time to feel it and not react to it with negative behavior. A bad day can, in fact, be quite informing and on some level enlightening. Our minds and bodies are often trying to tell us something. It may be to take a break, focus on something specific, or simply to do nothing at all. A bad day or feeling does not require numbing to combat it. It only requires awareness and the willingness to feel without a negative and unwarranted reaction. Bad days are okay. There is nothing wrong with us. We are human. The moment we try to silence the sound of wasted time, we create even more wasted time and end up feeling worse and more guilty. It is a never-ending cycle until we finally give ourselves permission to feel.
Learning to Enjoy the Silence
From the alcoholic's mindset, the idea of enjoying silence is as foreign as a gardener enjoying weeds. It goes against everything we know at the deepest level of our core. It is a true core belief. We believe alcohol helps us deal with the noise associated with silence. Now that we know, or are trying to understand, this is one of the most fabricated lies ever told, it is time to start rethinking how we think about silence. For each of the issues, I wrote about above, the potential for change lies in our awareness and willingness to change. In order for us to make a change, we have to take the time to understand the issue. The only way we can understand the issue is to give the issue its due time. We got ourselves into our mess, it's time we get ourselves out.
Sitting in silence and truly listening to the noise we have created can be uncomfortable and seemingly downright unbearable. Rest assured, the only reason we feel this way is because we have not yet learned how to accurately listen to ourselves. Like everything, it takes practice. At first, the noise will overpower our thoughts. Over time, the noise will begin to form individual sounds. The sounds will form coherent thoughts. Our coherent thoughts will form memories. Our memories will allow us to reflect. Finally, it is in our reflection we will, at last, give ourselves the long-awaited opportunity to learn. When we do, the specific noise will dissolve and we will be able to move on to the next noise distracting us from our ultimate goal. Now, you may ask yourself, what is our ultimate goal? Well, it may look different for everyone, but I guarantee you the end result is the same if we truly remove ourselves from addiction
Rather than having the need to drown out the noise created by silence, we instead use silence to drown out the noise created by the world. It is in this place we leave our addiction behind.