(As before my ‘lightbulb moments’ will be in red. Time will also skip forward as we go on – because this particular lesson was learned in segments.)
Chronologically to start with we are in March 2016. At this point I’m a month into my journey (It started when I gave up drinking on January 26th) and little has visually changed.
This is how I looked.
After almost completely screwing up by handing in my resignation at a job I’d held down for 16 years my manager allowed me to take some time out to deal with my alcohol issues. At the time I was regularly bursting into tears without warning and couldn’t understand why.
I wouldn’t miss my mother (who had passed away a month before) and I couldn’t explain the phenomenon – which was something I’d never experienced previously.
I didn’t feel like I was grieving.
Yet years and years of emotion seemed to be arriving all at once without any warning and it was scaring me. I felt out of control and needed to understand why.
With an agreement from my employer that I could take some time out of work I enrolled in a four week daily course in addiction recovery. I soon found myself in the cold and grim light of a March Monday morning in a bland meeting room surrounded by men and women in a circle.
They too had problems and all were nervously bouncing up and down in neutrally coloured Ikea Poang armchairs. They looked like they needed something badly.
This selection of people were dealing with alcoholism, heroin addiction and the far more visible and arresting effects of years of cutting, burning and self harm. Some were there under a court order to attend or had been compelled to join by the terms of their parole.
Others (such as myself) were voluntary participants with no criminal history.
I felt metaphorically and physically apart from all of them. Firstly, unlike them I didn’t identify with the label of ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addict’ (I preferred alcohol dependant back then) and secondly because I was relegated to a conventional seat – and sitting higher up.
At 35 stone I was too heavy to sit in the comfortable Swedish Poang simplicity enjoyed by the others and felt exposed.
Initially I also felt like a fraud.
I didn’t deserve to be there because I didn’t have the severity of problems that they had.
These people seemed to be way further down the rabbit hole than me. I’d stopped drinking – whereas others were either cutting down, using methadone or sporting fresh bandages from A&E the night before.
Many had also shoplifted, cheated, lied and brutalised their way though life and I felt that I was nothing like them.
Until we started the mindfulness exercises and examined triggers.
These (it turned out) were common to ALL of us.
During these we sat in the dark, slowed down our breathing and went through some guided meditation. The point was to just experience the moment and filter out the mental noise caused by the chaos of addiction.
Most days I felt that this was just a method of relaxing before difficult discussions – and I simply enjoyed it on an abstract level – interested in how mindfulness seemed capable of slowing time down. Until the second week I just enjoyed the sensation of peace that it brought – but then one day the group leader quite unexpectedly said something along the lines of ‘now imagine that you want a drink.’
I did as I was told and imagined it.
I suddenly wanted a drink for the first time in weeks and felt instantly stressed.
‘Now follow the feeling.’ He said.
‘Where is it in your body?’
Amazingly I felt it! I could trace the actual thought moving through my body!
It was in my chest – right in the centre, behind my breast bone. As I zeroed in on it the sensation moved and began to flow upwards, through my neck, until it stopped and hung there – tingling in my cheeks.
I was absolutely gobsmacked. I’d known this feeling all my life. It was as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror – but I’d never noticed it before.
The difference was that this time it was paused under a microscope for examination. I’d been able to delay its progress for a brief moment and while it was slowly moving I could track the sensation and resulting thought process that trailed in its wake.
It was fascinating!
When I’d experienced this in the past I realised that it happened at the speed of thought. My mind had been reacting to happiness, sadness or anything in between and my body had experienced a corresponding physiological reaction. This had in turn triggered a quietly waiting mental process and I had instantly moved from the flush of adrenalin to a fully formed ‘I need a drink’ feeling.
By then the choice was made and I always acted upon it.
How had I missed this for so long? More to the point how did I deal with it if it happened again?
Well – there was some help at hand to manage cravings in the form of the ‘Three D’s’ which we discussed shortly afterwards (link)
Delay, Distract, Decide.
- Delay the decision to give in to the craving for a set time. This could be 15-30 mins or an hour. Usually by this time you’ve forgotten about it.
- Do something that will occupy your thoughts and grab your attention. Perhaps do something physical to use the energy of the craving or read a book.
- After the set time decide what you want to do (there are no right or wrong answers, just balanced choices) – but in order to answer consider the following:
- Advantages of not doing it
- Disadvantages of doing it
- Reasons I want to stop
- My life goals
Like many things in life you take what you need from what you experience, and often leave behind what you don’t. In my case these two lessons were my ‘wins’ from attending that group.
At the time I felt that I’d been filled with wisdom and understanding. I thought I’d finally cracked it. I understood things about myself that beforehand had been invisible to the naked mind – and furthermore I now had a coping mechanism!
There was nothing I couldn’t do!
However – the only thing that you can know for certain is that you don’t know everything.
I hadn’t realised back then that what I’d failed to ask myself was why that thought process existed in the first place. I was content to simply acknowledge that it was there.
It wouldn’t be until over a year later that I found a deeper insight into the reason it happened. This was thanks to a book lent to me by a lady that I met in my Slimming World group (link).
By this point I was definitely making progress. Externally and internally I was a very different person.
The book was called ‘Living like you mean it’ by Ronald J Frederick link.
Honestly it wasn’t my kind of thing (it still isn’t) and at the time I only opened it up because this lady had become a friend and I respected her opinion. She had been kind enough to think of me in the first place and it was rude not to investigate something so freely given with the best of intentions – so I started reading the first chapter.
It irritated me.
I mean it really irritated me.
It was all about allowing yourself to feel things.
In my opinion I was more than capable of dealing with my feelings and I wasn’t afraid of talking about them. I wrote a blog for flip’s sake. I knew the value of exploring my emotions and I talked about them with anyone who wanted to listen.
It was kind of my thing. Always had been. I didn’t get why anyone wouldn’t. Even if I didn’t understand why I had them I wanted to talk to my friends about mine and theirs.
Initially I walked away from the book simply with an agreement that I would try to let myself feel down a bit more – and that in itself proved to be very helpful.
I’d not really accepted that it was OK to feel crappy and let it temporarily consume you. This was actually natural and normal – and it was the precursor to healing. If you denied the need to experience pain and sadness by relentlessly smiling through the bad times then all you did was defer it’s arrival – and when it finally hit (and it would) the force that it had gathered by that time would be of a much bigger magnitude.
Some thoughts are slow burners however – and the really good realisations – the ones that matter often take you a while to reach.
I still wasn’t there yet.
Sure. I talked about emotion. I wrote about it. I enjoyed pulling it apart and understanding why I felt what I did.
But why did I do that?
I realised out of the blue – some time after reading the book that I did all of my emotional investigation after the fact.
Every time I got round to talking about how I felt it was a historical analysis. I was dispassionately looking backwards at a moment in time and examining how something had happened, intellectualising the feelings associated with it and chewing through their constituent parts.
I never ever talked about a feeing while it was happening – but oddly this fact had always escaped me.
Out of the blue I recognised that as soon as a thought capable of provoking strong emotion had entered my head it then instantly caused a physical reaction. This immediately resulted in my mind moving to one of several well practiced remedies – depending on what I was using at the time.
In these moments I would do one or more of the following:
- Eat to excess
- Get drunk
- Have a cigarette
- (Insert whatever poison springs to mind here)
What I’d never realised was that all of these activities were actually me moving to immediately suppress emotion – and I’d been doing it since I was a child.
But how had this happened?
Then I remembered a conversation with my Dad when I was very young relating to my mother. After a particularly abusive day where we’d both come under fire from her and I was in tears he had shared his own method of coping in such situations.
It went something like this:
‘Imagine that you’re inside yourself, and then curl up like a little ball and don’t listen. Nothing can hurt you if you withdraw. After a while you don’t feel a thing.’
I’d taken this advice on board and began to use it to deal with her behaviour.
It worked because it typically just made things worse if you reacted when she was on the attack. The verbal beatings just extended from 30-40 minutes to hours. Sometimes if you fought back they would meander into the early hours of the morning – even if you’d surrendered and tried to go to bed.
She would frequently wake me up in the middle of the night, filled with rage, stinking of stale cigarettes, spitting in my face as she shouted at me – adding ‘and another thing‘ (her favourite phrase) to the argument – whether it was related to the initial explosion or not.
A member of my family once woke up with her sitting on top of him, and she was punching him in the face.
It was better not to feel.
It was better not to react.
During the day I could eat a huge mountain of mashed potato and sausages – but at night I had to find another way to cope, and I retreated a little deeper each time. Over the years the mechanism ceased to be conscious and became so practiced that it moved to one that was completely unconscious.
In my later teens (after some experimentation) I learned that I was a placid and happy drunk. When I consumed alcohol it helped me to not react to my mother, and initially I even consciously started to use it to help manage my interactions with her.
When I was drunk time passed quicker and things hurt less.
This was just the start of it though. I realised that I hadn’t just been suppressing pain – eventually I was suppressing happiness too – because the physiological reactions associated with any extremes of emotion were so strikingly similar.
Over time I’d created a situation where if I thought bad thoughts and felt bad emotions then I immediately moved to suppress them by self medicating. By 2016 I’d been doing it for so long that I’d ceased to recognised it for what it was.
I was eating, drinking and smoking my pain AND HAPPINESS away.
Feeling sad? Have a (insert crutch here). It will make you feel better!
Feeling happy? Celebrate with a (insert crutch here). It will make things even better still!
Incredibly it had taken me 45 years to understand this about myself – but one by one the dominoes were falling. Each time I wrote something new down in my blog it gained a sense of permanence – and as time progressed (and I discovered more about myself) the dots were becoming connected.
I was building a picture of who I was – and gaining a deeper insight what my motivations were than I’d ever done before in my life. I no longer just forget something after a revelation and moved on.
Instead I could refer back to them, build upon them and consolidate my gains.
However – back in March of 2016 I was only a sober man.
It wasn’t until April that the real work started….