There’s a saying that’s so familiar yet one most addicts and alcoholics in recovery continually forget. “Pain is optional”.
How many times do we have to hit the same wall before we start doing things differently? The answer varies from one recovering addict to the next. In early recovery, we blindly make choices that lead us toward pain. Often it ‘s because we haven’t yet acquired a deeper personal insight into how the disease of addiction manifests. Pain still masquerades as a familiar friend, a constant gnawing, a sense that all is not well or that the other shoe is about to drop. It’s fighting for territory against the threat that recovery might actually take hold. That’s why in early recovery we stick super close to our support group. We hang onto, “This too shall pass” (which it does) and we start to taste freedom. We gain tools for living and for coping with our emotions. This is recovery. Life gets better and we start to feel good.
Then something interesting seems to happen to everyone once we put together some clean time: we make choices that lead us back to emotional pain. Sometimes we can look back and pinpoint our choice and see that is happened when difficult feelings surfaced around fearful situations or insecurities. Other times, we can’t explain what the hell we were thinking. There are even times when we knew there’d be a price for acting out and we simply didn’t care and headed toward our desires with complete abandon. We may have even claimed that we were willing to pay the price for it.
The first time I consciously chose to act out was around the six or seven year clean mark. I wasn’t completely satisfied with where my life was at. Though I could easily say it was better than it had ever been, it wasn’t aligning to where I wanted it to be. A lifestyle of healthy activities and self-care had become the fabric of my routine and no longer felt like individual achievements that excited me. I was bored. That was the crime – boredom. I remember telling my therapist that I just wanted to feel euphoria. It was springtime and I was restless. For me, that meant I wanted to make love, romance, or a sexual adventure happen. I even said to her that I knew there’d be a price and I was willing to pay it. Several weeks later I was back in her office crying that I felt empty. I may have even said “godless”. It was a familiar existential yearning and despair that reminded me of how I felt coming off a coke run. I didn’t like it. Her response stuck with me. She said that when I was telling her I was willing to pay the price, she knew that I had absolutely no recollection of what the price felt like. When I was feeling it though, it was all too familiar. A time travel of sorts to an emotional place I’d worked hard to get away from.
The disease of addiction is like that. Call it denial or call it amnesia, the disease is always going to resurface and lead us toward pain if we allow it. In recovery we have a choice most of the time. It’s found in the pause and patience we practice before acting.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend who’s been in recovery for over thirty years. For 16 of them she worked vigilantly to find peace, unaware that she was also being undermined by an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. Later she experienced the long slow death of her mother and several years after that her life was upended by one of her kids becoming addicted to meth. She navigated these minefields by staying deeply engaged in her recovery process. Yesterday she was telling me how fantastic she felt and how happy she was with her life. For a steady period of time now it’s been blossoming. The fruits of her labors include a successful business, drug-free children, a reinvigorated sex life with her husband, and an upcoming dream vacation. Next she admitted to sending several emails to someone who’d caused her years of emotional turmoil and her disappointment that he hadn’t responded and how she was now thinking of inviting another former relationship back into her life. Of course as she casually mentioned both of these people, she wasn’t remembering the turmoil or emotional abuse that comes with them. Until she spoke her plans out loud to someone, she had been unable to see what these tentative actions could bring. We wondered why sometimes it’s so hard to allow ourselves to be happy. After philosophizing for several minutes we remembered the disease. Of yes, it may be decades later, but it’s still there trying to orchestrate pain back into our lives IF we allow it.
It can be argued that this experience isn’t exclusive to addicts and alcoholics but for us the consequences are greater. If we feel bad long enough our brains are wired to remind us that there is a solution – if only temporary – to our pain, The long game is for that solution to be found in drugs and alcohol. This is why we learn to pause, to share our secrets, and to recognize that we always have a choice. The road does get narrower. We learn that when we act out in certain ways, we volunteer for the inevitable soul-emptiness we experience when we surrender our serenity. The trick is to be able to remember this truth.