What exactly does it mean to find the “essential you” in long term addiction recovery? What does the essential part mean anyway?
When we talk about finding our “essential self,” what we are really talking about is the stripped down, essential part of who we really are as a person, rather than all of the baggage and extra stuff that we carry around and present to both ourselves and to others.
In other words, this has to do with the spiritual journey and finding out who we really are in recovery.
This is a critical task because when the struggling addict or alcoholic first gets into surrender and recovery, they have been abusing their drug of choice for a long time now. Because they have been self medicating for so long, they have not really been feeling their real emotions and processing them the way that “normal” people do. As a result, they don’t really have a firm grasp of the person that they have become, because they have been masking their emotions for so long due to their addiction.
Now you might be saying “hey wait a minute here….what do your emotions have to do with who you really are?” And the truth is, they have everything to do with it. This is a difficult truth that I did not want to accept when I was first getting clean and sober in my own journey.
I was living in a facility for recovery with a bunch of other men, and we did not want to even admit that we had feelings at all! We wanted to act tough and macho and brave. But the truth was that we were all vulnerable in various ways, and the reason that we were vulnerable was because we had feelings and emotions buried within us somewhere, and if we let those emotions get the better of us then it could cause us to relapse.
I wanted to deny this fact. I argued with a therapist that my emotions were not even real, that my feelings were just thoughts in my brain, and that I should be able to control them. Meanwhile, this therapist was trying to get each of us to share something in group therapy that would cause us to break down and show some real emotion. And of course, none of us wanted to do that, because we were afraid of appearing weak in front of our peers.
But here is what I learned: That therapist was right! The truth was that all of the intellectual stuff that was running around in my brain was never going to save me from a relapse situation. When some real drama goes down in your life and you are on the ropes and emotionally upset, none of that intellectual stuff can really help you.
When I was dating in my recovery journey and went through a tough breakup, I had all sorts of emotions that threatened my sobriety. I could not “reason” my way through that. The key was that I was hurting, and I was hurting badly, and I had to share those emotions with other people–people who could relate to me, who had been through my struggle, who could reassure me that I was going to be okay. People who could show me that I did not have to drink over those emotions.
This is what finding the essential you is all about. The core of who you really are is not the intellectual arguments that we make up in our heads and tell ourselves. That is just the surface level stuff.
No, the real core of who you are is what happens to you and how you react when something seriously emotional happens in your life. How you deal with emotional upheaval is what really defines you in terms of your recovery journey.
So what can we learn from this? What can be done about these cold, hard facts? The fact is that our emotions and feelings exist, that they are very powerful, and that they can make or break our sobriety if we let them.
One of my suggestions is that you find support in your recovery, and I think that you need at least two different levels of support. The first level is the surface level stuff, maybe what you typically would share in an AA meeting. You can get real feedback and advice, you can share some somewhat heavy stuff that is going on with you, but you don’t necessarily put all of your deepest and rawest emotions out for everyone to judge.
Instead, you would want to have another level of support in your recovery journey, a therapist, a sponsor, or a mentor with whom you can share the “essential you.” Someone who you can go to and break down emotionally and show them where you are really at, what is really going on, especially in a time of need.
If you do not have this second level of support then you are going to struggle with your sobriety one the “crap finally hits the fan” in your life. We all go through ups and downs in life, so eventually we will all face some sort of emotional crisis situation.
I know so many newcomers in recovery who struggle to make the transition into “long term sobriety” because they never got a sponsor, they never got a mentor, they never actively sought someone who they could confide in and trust with their innermost thoughts and feelings.
This is a huge mistake and I take it as a major warning sign when a newcomer tells me “I don’t have a sponsor yet.” This seems to be a very strong predictor of future relapse.
I have two more suggestions for helping you to find out who you really are. The first of these is to find some sort of meditation practice in your life. When I first started out in recovery I tried to get into seated meditation at the suggestion of my sponsor, but it did not really “click” for me at the time.
So what happened is that I kept seeking and searching and eventually I took another suggestion, which was to get some physical exercise. I started jogging and eventually I got into the routine of distance running on a very consistent basis. At the time I thought that I was just trying to be healthy physically, but looking back now I realize that jogging through the countryside and being alone with my thoughts was very much a form of meditation. And when it comes to processing and dealing with unwanted emotions, physical exercise was a huge key for me in my recovery, and I would argue that jogging actually saved me from relapse in a very direct way.
My point is that I had to seek this out, I had to explore and experiment based on the suggestions of others. I had to listen to my mentors, my therapist, my sponsor–and apply what they were telling me. I had to take action and I had to take advice. This is what allowed me to discover the things that worked for me in my recovery journey.
My second suggestion to you would be that when you get emotionally upset–whether it is anger, fear, hurt, guilt, shame, self pity–take the time to talk about those emotions with your mentors in recovery and process them. Don’t just sweep those under the rug and chalk them up to a bad day. You have an opportunity to learn about the “real you” if you talk to your mentors in recovery and find out how they process those emotions.
This is really the path to freedom in recovery. If you have unwanted negative emotions then you are not truly free. So take the time to learn about yourself and process those unwanted feelings.