The start of a New Year always seems like a good time to re-evaluate how we are living and have renewed energy to really pay attention to our health. For the past couple of years, for me, this has looked like giving up alcohol for the month of January. I find that over the holidays my nightly glass of wine or 2 has increased in quantity and frequency. Parties, family dinners, more eating out (and of course family survival! Just kidding-kind of….). Last year during dry January I made it 10 days. I was in the middle of my divorce and was very aware that I was using alcohol to cope. I was kind to myself and said ‘It’s OK’, I will try again next year. So here I am again, and as always, it has brought up a lot of different things for me that I would love to share with you.
The truth is we all use something to cope with our feelings. One of my mentors in the field of addiction, Chip Dodd, often says “we all are addicts”. In that we all use something to numb our pain, feelings, and thoughts. For the purpose of this blog, I am using the word ‘addiction’ and ‘drug’ not necessarily in the classical sense but to describe anything we use to numb us from the reality of our lives and/or our pain. Alcohol, weed, shopping/spending money, religion, food, sex, pills, work, control, attention from men/women, exercise, pornography, screens (i.e. phones, iPad, TV), codependency (dedication of our time, energy, resources in order to control or manage the feeling of others) just to name a few. Obviously, some of these addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We often look up to those who are incredibly dedicated to exercise. Those who are addicted to control often are lauded as so organized, driven and successful. There are drugs on this list that are good things in and of themselves but can become maladaptive when they are used impulsively and to excess in order to numb our feelings. In my life, I have used alcohol, spending, and control as some of my favorite drugs. And let’s be honest, I have made codependency a virtual part-time job. But when I focus on abstaining from alcohol, I notice that feelings start ‘leaking’ out of me. I am so thankful when this happens even though it doesn’t always ‘feel’ good because it shows me I have been carrying feelings that have not been processed and need to come out.
Some opposites of the word numb are lively, responsive, and sensitive. As I abstain from the various things I use to numb, I notice I become more ALIVE. I feel more present. I feel more engaged in my life and I get a lot more done. With alcohol especially, I sleep better at night, so I end up waking with more energy. Not that I am ‘drunk’ all the time previously, but even with the first drink of wine, my feelings become dulled. I am also more aware of my sadness, my fear and my anger. Yet if we don’t have and feel our feelings, simply, we don’t grow. We don’t change. We don’t heal. We don’t move toward acceptance. Incidentally, this creates greater emotional impairment, which usually leads to a greater need to numb. We must have our feelings to live a full life.
But the reality is that we live in an ‘extreme’ culture. We so often find ourselves in an all or nothing frame of mind. This is NOT what dry January is about-going to the extreme of ‘I will never drink again’. I feel sure alcohol will become a part of my life again. But taking a break relieves the places in my life where alcohol has become habitual or even dependent. If we go to the extreme place of ‘I will NEVER again,’ that sets us up to more than likely fail. Which creates a ton of shame that we couldn’t quit. Then to deal with that shame, we often go back to the same thing we were trying to quit or another substance and plunge back in trying to numb the shame. Additionally, we usually escalate and end up needing more to numb. What is the alternative? The concept of recovery. Instead of trying harder, what if we surrender to our powerlessness? The first of the twelve steps. This is where we have to start. We must admit in our attempts to numb our feelings by impulsive activity with something or someone, our lives have become unmanageable. We need God. We need community. We need to take a personal inventory. To look inside ourselves. We may find that we need to make amends to our self or others. That is where freedom exists. Recovery provides great principles with which to live our everyday lives.
Alongside that, secrets, lies, hiding, and broken promises are all part of a life of impairment. Something I see every single day is the reality that secrets are toxic. Many people are ‘using drugs’ to cover some secret we carry. Secrets make us sick. All of us are going to struggle to live life soberly. We are going to fail. We will mess up. We will slide back into dependency on a substance, need to look inside ourselves and have to enter our recovery again. The most important action to make a part of your everyday life is transparency and authenticity. Tell the truth about your insides to a couple of safe people EVERY DAY. Notice I say SAFE people. Do not keep secrets. Secrets will literally kill you. Watch for where you lie to others to hide your use of your ‘drugs’.
So my invitation to all of you is the same as I have issued myself – would you consider where you are numbing? With what do you numb? Are you willing to surrender that numbing person or thing for a season to see what feelings are there so you can have greater freedom and grow and heal? Seek accountability as you enter this process. Find a buddy to participate with you. Find alternative, healthier options to allow us to cope with our pain. I usually exercise a lot more, walk my dogs more, drink a TON of hot tea, do yoga more, play more, and cry more. I have noticed that the hardest part of the day for me in this dry season is at the end of my last session of the day. I spend my day sitting in really heavy emotion with people and setting my own emotion aside, so it would make sense that I would gravitate to numbing at the end of my day. But I am learning to create alternative and healthier ways of taking care of myself in that moment.
I also want to mention that if there is something you can’t ‘quit’ for 30 days, I invite you to consider that your dependence or habitual use has escalated into addiction. Addiction always escalates. We will need more and more to numb to cover our increasing pain of whatever we are trying to escape. If that is the case, seek the help of a therapist, addiction specialist, tell your religious leader, or even a friend. Find a 12-step meeting and GO! If you love someone who seems addicted to something, get out of your denial and enabling and DO SOMETHING. Something that is in line with taking care of yourself and your kids (if you have them) as opposed to protecting and care taking the addict. You need to know I ought to be the best addict in the world. I come from a long line of codependents, alcoholics, cocaine addicts, sex addicts, work addicts and control addicts. By the grace of God, I have not ended up there. YET! But I am aware of my propensity to live impaired for the rest of my days. However, I have had a taste of something that is incomparable- FULL LIVING. Getting up in the morning and going through my day with a heart that is full of feelings- the mess and the beauty of life. The thrill of knowing I feel and I am alive. It is well with my soul. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. (Deut 30)