Updated: Jan 1, 2021
Along with knowledge comes the hopeful acquisition of skills. In this case, the coping skills needed to successfully negotiate the inevitable stress accompanied by sobriety. I say inevitable, but if you have followed me at all, you know I don't believe emotional distress is necessary in sobriety. In fact, I talk a lot about not experiencing stress in sobriety, if we approach it with the proper mindset. In my last blog, I talked about how the gathering of knowledge is helpful to prepare us for a journey into and through sobriety. Knowledge, however, is not enough. We need to build skills from the knowledge we have garnered to aid us when life does not go as we have planned. I would venture to guess the majority of posts I have read about relapse are a result of something going wrong in a person's life and their inability to handle it.
As addicts, we began using our addiction as a replacement for coping with difficult feelings and situations. The longer we did this, the longer and more difficult it is to make the change back to utilizing proper coping skills in difficult times. While the change may be difficult, it is not impossible. It is, however, much like everything else in sobriety; it is an individual path meant to be found through intense personal reflection and growth. Building effective coping skills requires vulnerability, honesty, and a true desire for change. I say a true desire for change because not all motivation for change is created equal. Our desire to change has to come from our deepest truth. Otherwise, we are just spinning the wheels of ineffectual change.
Here is a word I believe to be overused in our vernacular language. I hear it used all the time, but what does it actually mean? The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of attack or harm, either emotionally or physically. When I try to use this word in the context of addiction, I cannot get away from the idea that addicts are the least vulnerable people around. While this may sound a little harsh, is it untrue? Here is my truth. I drank, used nicotine, and engaged in unhealthy behaviors as a way to shield myself from the possibility of attack or harm. For thirty-five years, I prevented people and the world from attacking or harming me by constantly drowning any and all awareness through the use of addiction. To be vulnerable means we are exposed to the possibility of harm, not numb to it.
If you are currently in active addiction, you may be asking yourself how vulnerability can help us build coping skills. How does being open to harm help us do anything? Well, it's like anything else. Practice makes perfect. If we are rarely forced to cope with difficulty, when difficulty arrives, and I promise you it will, we will not have the skills necessary to deal with it. I used to teach scuba diving. Whenever someone approached me to instruct their Dive Master qualification (this is the level needed to lead inexperienced divers) I would always ask them the same question. What problems have you encountered while underwater? If they had experienced very few or no problems in their diving career, I would tell them they needed to keep diving and gain more experience before they started leading other divers. The underwater environment is incredibly challenging, and if you are not used to dealing with problems underwater, you are not ready to help others deal with them either.
Sobriety can be like an underwater environment. It can be tumultuous, unsettling, confusing, and disorienting. If we have not allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, we are not ready to deal with the challenges we may have to face. Vulnerability opens us up to harm and attack, but it also opens us up to the potential for growth. When we are faced with problems and we negotiate those problems with a clear and present mind, we learn a little bit about ourselves and our ability to handle stressful environments. Make no mistake, sobriety can be a stressful environment. The more prepared and ready we are to deal with stress, the more successful we will be in our sobriety.
If ever there was a true conundrum of sobriety, this is it. For some programs, this is the first step. Admitting we have a problem requires a certain amount of honesty from ourselves. It doesn't feel good to admit we have a problem, to accept we cannot control our drinking, or to recognize the people we have hurt. Honesty in sobriety is like air underwater; we cannot physically negotiate the underwater environment without air. It's just not possible. Likewise, we cannot negotiate sobriety without honesty. In true sobriety form, this too is incredibly personal and individual. What we have to and need to be honest about is not necessarily the same for everyone.
Here is how I needed to be honest with myself in sobriety. As I have stated, my bottom may not be the same as many others. Nevertheless, bottoms are truly subjective, aren't they? I was maintaining my relationship, job, and home. What I wasn't maintaining was friendships, goals, health, growth, or even a semblance of positivity. I was existing and that was about all. My truth came in the form of asking myself a simple question. What is the one thing I can change for the betterment of my life? There was only one true answer. Alcohol. There were others too, but alcohol was the most physically and emotionally effectual change I could make. I was right.
I will be honest in saying it did not feel good to acknowledge my drinking as the culprit for most of my problems. There is a funny saying out there, "I have 99 problems and sobriety fixed 85 of them." This was true for me as well, but it took a willingness, to be honest with myself, to finally see the truth. Of course, with honesty about our problems also comes the need for honesty about our mistakes. Once we understand what caused us to veer off course, we then need to be honest about the mistakes we have made. Most importantly, we need to be honest about what we need to do to correct those mistakes. This is where sobriety can come full circle. We become vulnerable once again. Remember, with vulnerability comes growth, and with growth comes true change.
A desire to change
Arguably the most subjective aspect of sobriety lies in our desire for change. I have mentioned this before, but I will mention it again because I believe it to be incredibly accurate in the conversation of successful sobriety. If our why's about quitting drinking have anything to do with drinking, we are not on the right path. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. Drinking really isn't the problem. It may have become a problem, but it did not instigate it, in most cases.
We cannot quit drinking by not drinking. It is a short term band-aid for a much larger problem. We can try to grin and bear it or hang on a prayer, but ultimately, the larger problem will eventually surface and we will find ourselves back at square one. One of the truths, in my desire for change, came in the form of understanding the lack of worth I held for myself. I did not believe I deserved to be happy. I did not believe I had anything positive to offer the world. I did not think I deserved to live a happy and fulfilling life. My truth had nothing to do with alcohol. I did, however, use alcohol to suppress the pain associated with my truth. Once I understood my truths, I could effectively address them from a more holistic vantage point. I did not try to stop drinking alcohol to give myself worth. I found where I held worth and focused on cultivating and growing it so I would not have to drink alcohol.
With knowledge comes skills and with skills comes confidence. Success is the acquisition of confidence and skill used in a manner to effectively overcome adversity. Victory does not occur overnight, but it can and does occur every single day, even if only at a small level. It is the culmination of many small victories that ultimately create successful sobriety.
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