My Fugitive Ways

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I was taken aback by the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

 

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

 

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

 

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

 

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

 

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

 

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our Selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our Selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

 

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

 

Kind Regards,

 

RJ Handley

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

Ways to Socialize Soberly

I’m going to make a fool of myself.  I’ll feel out of place.  People will see how anxious I am.  If I don’t say much, people won’t know how boring I am.

 

These are the things that I would tell myself when I thought of social situations involving more than just a couple people.  If you can relate to this, then welcome to the world of social anxiety.  And, yes, it can be a huge burden and, yes, there are ways to overcome it.

 

Amazingly, it has taken me a lifetime to come to terms with my own social anxiety.  Many people shield themselves behind friends in social situations. Others become wall flowers.  Still others avoid socializing at all costs and, sadly, live a very lonely life.  For me, I discovered a cheat for social anxiety in my junior year of high school.  And that was alcohol. Unfortunately, when we continually use any coping behavior, we never address the issue—we only hide from it.  Soon I was drinking whenever I socialized…and then when I was alone as well.

 

The fact that nearly all people experience social anxiety should be an assuring thought to anyone.  But it wasn’t for me.  When I looked around at parties, I saw everyone else appearing so relaxed and so confident with others.  Why couldn’t I be like that?  Then I discovered pre-party drinking and embraced the magic of alcohol.  When I drank, I became the person I wanted to meet.  The more I relied on this social crutch, the more weight I put on it.

 

Dinner parties with guests sitting around a dining room table gave me the greatest social jitters.  In these situations, people could too easily see just how much I was drinking. I felt that I had to limit my drinking which reduced the effectiveness of my coping behavior.  Eventually, all my decisions about social situations boiled down to this:  If I couldn’t drink freely, I wouldn’t attend.

 

That crutch, however, became as heavy as a boat anchor, and it plunged me into the abyss of alcoholism. From the clarity of recovery, I clearly see that social anxiety was one of the most powerful forces that drove my drinking. I had a living problem and a drinking solution.  Now, in my tenth year of sobriety, I still push myself to more frequently attend social gatherings. It’s amazing how confronting our problems reduces their power over us.  Does social anxiety still haunt me?  For the most part, no.

 

But that old phantom returned this week.  I have a fairly big dinner party I promised my girlfriend that I would attend with her this coming weekend.  These situations are my Achilles heal.  With the invitation came a rush of anxious thoughts and a tightening in my stomach.  Yes, I have made progress with social anxiety in my recovery, but I’m still not immune to it.

 

This time I finally decided to seek out the advice of professionals.  This time I would take a different approach. This time I decided to confront my social anxiety head on, armed with new techniques rather than just ignoring the issue.

 

In his wonderful article “7 Techniques for Overcoming Social Phobia,” therapist Mark Tyrrell provides easy to implement ways of relieving social anxiety.

Here are his suggestions:

  1. Prepare to relax

Tyrrell says worrying is self-programming.  When we worry about an upcoming social situation, we are projecting ourselves into that situation and seeing ourselves failing once again.  Little wonder we experience anxiety when we are actually in that social setting.  Instead, he recommends that we take a warm bath or sit in a comfortable chair and visualize ourselves in that situation looking relaxed and confident.  Repeatedly doing this will create positive associations with socializing.

 

  1. Seek out social situations

The more we avoid something the more we send the message to the unconscious mind that it is dangerous and should be avoided.  This is true of socializing.  The solution is to actively put ourselves in social situations both in our imaginations (visualizations) and in person.   Soon, Tyrrell says, our conscious minds will begin to see socializing as safe and normal for us—even something to look forward to.

  1. Look at your surroundings

Oftentimes, when we are socializing, it is like we are walking around with a mirror in front of us, continually viewing how anxious we imagine ourselves looking and telling ourselves negative messages like “I’m boring.”  Tyrrell recommends moving our focus outward to the people in the room and to the room itself.  Notice the color of the walls, the room décor, and what other people are wearing.  After all, social situations are about focusing our attention away from ourselves.

 

  1. Ask questions

Tyrrell says that social phobia is all about worrying what other people think of us.  So shift the focus to other people by asking them questions that go beyond “yes” and “no” answers.  Google “Forty Fun Icebreakers.”

 

  1. Switch off your imagination

Imagination is one of our greatest assets but not when it comes to imagining what people are thinking of us.  When we find ourselves trying to mind read, we need to shut it down.  Yes, we can influence what others think of us, but we can’t control it, so why try, Tyrrell says.

 

  1. What do you want?

Our minds need positive instructions.  Tyrrell suggests asking ourselves, “How do I want to feel in these situations?”  He recommends closing our eyes and feeling how we feel when we were in the company of our loved ones.  Now, in social situations, bring those warm feelings with you and make a habit of sending them out to everyone.

 

  1. On being yourself

When we try to present ourselves as perfect, we come off cold and stilted. People who are willing to allow themselves to be a bit of a fool, Tyrrell says, are more socially confident.  People actually connect with us better when we are willing to show ourselves as flawed.  We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t.

 

 

And here is one of my own.  I have a habit of looking away immediately after someone asks me a question.  People can associate that with lying.  So lately I have been standing in front of a mirror and asking myself common questions I would be asked at a party.  I work on keeping eye contact with myself while answering.

 

All people suffer some degree of social anxiety. For alcoholics, we have relied on alcohol to provide us with the social “grease” to help us relax in social situations.  Other people become addicted to their own coping behaviors.  After the 12 Steps, we face the challenge of socializing cleanly. But if we take on this challenge with the same courage as we did our 4th Steps, and we apply these seven techniques, we can overcome our social anxieties.  We then look forward to socializing rather than dreading it. And what a feeling of accomplishment that will be!