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.”

 

Avoidance is Costly

I have spent much of my adult life running away from my pain.  Maybe more accurately is that I buried my pain alive.  Although it helped in the short term, I have paid dearly for it in the long run.

“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering,” according to Carl Jung, the father of analytic psychology.

His words, which I first heard about two years ago, changed my life.   They were an epiphany that powered my journey from avoidance to acceptance of my pain—a journey that has brought me a peace that transcends my trauma.

I grew up in home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  Like many children who later suffer from addiction, I internalized that rage as shame.  And that shame fueled my drinking.

I became an expert at numbing out to anything I perceived as painful.  Recovery experts are aware of the close connection between mental illness and addiction.  They say that addiction is the compulsive avoidance of immediate pain.  Can you hear Jung’s words in those?

In his excellent book, Recovery 2.0, a combination of memoir and sobriety handbook, Tommy Rosen says “feelings left unprocessed are buried alive!  They will act as an energetic blockage to your happiness and health.”

He goes on to say, “Later, these energetic blockages will cause a variety of emotional and physical symptoms, which will get more and more serious unless you shift onto a path of healing.”

It’s little wonder that all addictions are progressive.  They only worsen over time.  Rosen makes the point that since the original trauma never gets dealt with, all subsequent pain gets piled on top.  “It gets to the point where you’re feeling emotions that no longer correspond to what is actually happening in the present moment.”

When I relive in my mind humiliating experiences that occurred before I got sober 10 years ago, I see the insanity of my reactions to friends, family, and colleagues.  Who was that guy who was a master of misinterpretation?

It was the effect of allowing hurts to pile on top of hurts until I wasn’t experiencing reality as it was but as I was.

As I said in an earlier blog, the ultimate addiction is to our thoughts.  This, I believe, is universal.  Everyone, regardless if you consider yourself an addict or not, is addicted to patterns of thinking that cause suffering.

Rosen’s definition of addiction is “any behavior that you continue to do despite the fact that it brings negative consequences into your life.”

It is only through awareness rather than avoidance that we can begin to understand our trauma.  And that doesn’t have to be major trauma.  It can be anything that we have turned away from or buried—any past pains or threats that we have avoided.

We can’t fix what we can’t see.  I hope that this blog and my others give you the courage to look unblinkingly at your own trauma and to drill down to the root of your present suffering. The tears you shed will water the seeds of your joy.

 

10 Reasons to Get Off Your Relationship Badonkadonk

When I was drinking, I would often discount the importance of relationships.  In recovery, I now know why.  I wasn’t good at them.

Relationships are one of the most crucial parts of our lives. We are built for relationship, and we need them to thrive.

Everything is relational.  Nothing exists in isolation.   Look at nature.   The tree that I see from my window has a relationship to the air, to the sun, to the soil, and to itself.  How much more is true for us as complex human beings?

In previous posts, I have shared my own experiences and the wisdom of relationship experts.  Relationships are so critically important that I ask you to put down all the baggage you’re carrying from past relationships so that you can open the door to new possibilities.

Past hurts and fear of rejection can immobilize us.  We often, then, resort to our default setting of isolation, preferring loneliness to the fear of engaging.

Here is a list of the benefits of friendships and partnership.  I provide these in hopes that you will summon the courage to put your fear in the backseat and get out there and live the life that is waiting for you:

  • Relationships satisfy our need for connection.
  • Relationships are the greatest catalyst for growth.
  • Relationships enable us to better give and receive love.
  • Relationships bring fresh perspectives to our lives.
  • Relationships open us to new experiences.
  • Relationships help us see our blind spots.
  • Relationships provide support.
  • Relationships make us better at relationships.
  • Relationships deepen our understanding of ourselves.
  • Relationships are fun,  dammit!                                                                                                                                   Next time, I’ll share about ways to meet other people so that you start enjoying the benefits listed above.

Recurring Painful Experiences

 

One of the greatest spiritual truths I have learned after the 12 Steps is that we will repeatedly experience the same painful situations until we drill down to the root of the problem.

If you are like me, you know that we often see the small stuff we need to work on, yet we remain blind to the big stuff.

Even after eight years of AA, I had not come to terms with my unhappiness with life. I was unaware that my greatest battle was with life itself. Like some Roman gladiator armed with a mace, I swung at life believing I could stand unscathed from its inevitable pain.

Only after learning the futility of trying to control life and learning instead to surrender to it did I finally grasp the Big Book principle of accepting “life on life’s terms.” How foolish I felt not practicing this truth after my 12-step work with my sponsor and then with my sponsees. And I missed the essence of the Serenity Prayer that I had been dutifully reciting with my fellow AAs for years at the opening of meetings. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is ultimately about accepting life as it is.

I realized that I had still been investing my time and energy in an attempt to fix all the externals in my life—my wife, my home, my colleagues, my friends—so that I could feel more comfortable with my everyday life. I failed to understand that the only way I was going to experience true happiness was “to have the courage to change the things I can.” What can I change? Not other people, but only myself. But how? By asking God to allow me to see the things within myself that needed to be changed.

With the same courage it took to complete my 4th Step years ago, I plunged into a “searching and fearless” inventory of all my thoughts and behaviors that repeatedly sabotaged my relationships with other people.

God is a wonderful teacher who won’t allow us to go on to the next lesson in life without learning from the lesson at hand. When we don’t learn the lesson, God keeps offering it in a different context. The entire cast of characters changes, but the same pain keeps recurring. Only when I stopped and looked deeply within to the core of each problem did I experience transcendence from the problem and the pain associated with it. In the next blog, I will focus on why relationships are so crucial for our spiritual growth and why they are so difficult for us AAs.