A family member reached out to me last night because she is having some difficulties in letting go of her habits with alcohol. She, like many of us, did not drink much for most of her life. However, in her more recent years, she found that alcohol became a friend that helped her deal with situations that were uncomfortable, and as we all know, that never ends well. One of the most salient points she made last night was how she needed alcohol to deal with her stress from work. If you drink, there is not one of you who does not relate to this sentiment. We remember that feeling of taking a drink after a long hard day and immediately feeling better about being us. It "calmed" us down and allowed us to "relax." Little did we know, what was actually happening was we were shutting off our minds and not allowing them to process the stress we had felt during the day. This ultimately allows the stress to build up and become even greater the next day because we never effectively dealt with it. The more the stress builds up, the more we feel the need to suppress it and the merry-go-round of alcohol addiction begins. Alcohol does not help us relax, it ensures we never will.
I thought more about the conversation I had last night and began thinking about a number of friends I have made in sobriety who too are struggling with the idea of letting go of the 'friend.' Of course, for those of us who have eighty-sixed that friend, the hairs on the back of our neck stand up when hearing alcohol referred to in that way, but we understand it as well. Something I remember vividly, before I quit drinking, are all the times when I had those moments of inspiration about quitting that felt so visceral, so real, so personal, and so emotional. I had no doubt that I was ready and that I was going to have my last drink that night. It is important to note that we have those moments while drinking because we are numb and not properly able to process the true meaning of what we were feeling. Consequently, we wake up the next day and immediately regret our decision to quit drinking. The cravings kick in and the desire to have our 'friend' back shifts into overdrive. We have already lost the battle.
Sitting with Discomfort
The most difficult aspect of quitting an addiction is when our minds try to convince us that we either miss our addiction or need it. Either way, as long as we think in that way, our minds will always win. When I quit drinking, I skipped this entire step because I was able, with the thanks of my therapist and Annie Grace's book "This Naked Mind," to effectively change the way I looked at alcohol and therefore no longer 'missed' it or 'needed' it. While I fully believe this is possible for anyone, not everyone will be able to change their view of alcohol, at first. If this is you, then you will inevitably experience some grieving over the loss of your old 'friend.' With grieving comes cravings and with cravings comes discomfort. You have to learn how to manage and deal with the feelings of discomfort that accompany the cessation of alcohol or other addictions.
As many of you know, one of the things I attribute my 'easy' sobriety to is the time I spent in therapy and my incredibly talented therapist. The two most poignant skills I learned in therapy were the ability to acknowledge and shift my core beliefs, and the ability to sit with discomfort. I don't even really know if this is a preferred method for dealing with the anxiety that comes with change but for whatever reason, it was the thing that made the most sense to me at the time. Some people will suggest redirecting your energy when you feel the uncomfortable feelings of craving. I've been told to write, to exercise, to clean, to do something fun, or basically anything other than giving in to the craving. That is all fine and dandy in theory, but if you have ever been in the throes of craving, you know that thinking logically enough to make a decision like going for a run is the furthest thing from your thought processes.
While my views of alcohol afforded me the luxury of living with the absence of cravings, nicotine did not. It is from this experience that I will speak to the idea of sitting with discomfort. Although, if I am completely honest, I had two occasions where this came into play with alcohol as well.
Recognize the Craving/Need/Desire
The first step in sitting with discomfort is one of the most important. If we do not recognize and accept what is happening, we can not effectively deal with it. We will turn to our reactionary survival skills and do what provides the most instant gratification. Use. It's almost involuntary at this point, we have programmed our bodies to believe it needs the substance we have become addicted too. But, guess what? There is a reason we have evolved the way we have. We have the mental capacity to think past our immediate and instinctual desires and needs. We can rationalize our thoughts and therefore our needs. We can compartmentalize and prioritize. We can make judgment calls based on evidence and knowledge. We do not need to act on instinct alone.
What does it mean to recognize the craving or need? It's simple. You know that feeling you have when something really good or pleasurable happens for you? Picture the warmth you feel in your chest, the smile that spreads across your face, the lightness you feel in your body, and the overwhelming sense that you can do no wrong? Remember that feeling? It's visceral, consuming, and overwhelming isn't it? Now, picture the feeling that accompanies craving. Visualize your heartbeat as it escalates. Feel the clamminess of your skin. Remember the difficulty you have taking in a full breath. See the scattered thoughts that swim through your mind. Feel the panic that swells inside your chest. Recognize the irritability that takes over your entire body. Can you picture it? Good, then you can recognize it when it occurs again.
Why is it important to recognize this feeling when it occurs? recognition is the opposite of reaction. When we react to a situation, we are skipping the step of recognition. This step buys us a little time to consider our options. When we skip this step we severely limit our options for action. Try and remember a time when you lashed out at someone or something. Can you remember that feeling of instant reaction? Do you also remember the guilt that followed? Generally, when we react without consideration, we regret the outcome. This is because we did not consider all the consequences of our actions. We simply went with our instincts and in a civilized setting, our instincts do not benefit us the way they did our cave-dwelling ancestors. The same is true with the discomfort that comes with cravings. If we do not recognize them and consider the repercussions of our actions, we will most likely regret our decisions.
To be continued...