Many people who try to overcome alcoholism or drug addiction end up struggling with their past.
It’s a very common problem due to the nature of alcoholism. Our behavior is seriously compromised because of the fact that we are constantly over medicating. That’s not an excuse, nor is it fair to the world–it’s just simply the way it is. Alcohol destroys lives, relationships, creates chaos, and so on. It makes a mess.
So when you first get clean and sober, it can be difficult to deal with your past at times. Most alcoholics just continue to run away from their problems by drinking more and more, so that they never really have to face reality, face the truth, or face themselves. But when you get clean and sober you stop running away from it all, and you have to deal with it. And that can be tough.
Eliminating your triggers and dangerous environments
First and foremost you want to be in a safe environment, both physically and mentally, when you are going through early sobriety.
First is your physical environment. This includes both the fact that you may walk to work every day past the old corner bar where you used to drink every night (not good), and also the fact that you may be associating every day with a group of people who may or may not be a negative influence on you in this regard (“Hey Bob, let’s grab a beer after work.”)
To some extent you have to consider these environmental factors when you are sobering up. Of course you can rely on this too much if you believe that simply running away physically will allow you to get sober without any problems whatsoever, but there is still something to be said for avoiding “people, places, and things” that can trigger you in recovery.
Relationships in particular can be a huge influence on your recovery journey. Sometimes, simply being around the right people can make all the difference in the world when it comes to how easy it is for you to remain sober.
I like to say that I got very lucky in early recovery, in that I decided to move into a long term rehab center and quit my job, all at the same time. I went to rehab, walked away from my old life almost completely, and then I lived in a treatment center for 20 months while attending groups, lectures, therapy, AA meetings, and so on.
That is really an ideal situation. I was pretty young when I did this at 25 years old (and quite immature) so it was really tough for me to walk away from all of my drinking buddies and friends that I got high with. Believe it or not, some of those people really were my friends. But obviously it would never work out in the long run if I was really going to get sober, so I had to walk away from all of that. I had to walk away from my job where I drank or used drugs with almost all of my coworkers. And I had to walk away from a significant other who had no intention of quitting drugs at the time.
Not to mention, I had to do all of this at the same time. I couldn’t pick and choose. I couldn’t just ease out of the job, but keep the drinking buddies around. It was all or nothing. And that is part of what makes sobriety such a scary proposition I think–it is all or nothing. It is like walking off a cliff, and having the faith that maybe your life will get better, but not really believing that it is possible. Because I honestly had no confidence that I would ever be happy in sobriety. I was just sick and tired of drinking so much that I was willing to try anything. It couldn’t get much worse. So I made that leap of faith, and went to rehab, and agreed to live in long term recovery.
When you live in rehab long term, you really have no excuses. I had peer support from the people I was living with 24/7, 365. If I really wanted to stay sober (and I did) then there was no excuse for me to relapse and try to blame it on anything other than the fact that “I just wanted to drink.” Because when you have that level of support, there is just no excuse for relapse. You had so many tools and so much support that was willing to help you and obviously you made a selfish decision to self medicate anyway. To run away instead of facing reality.
What was shocking to me when living in long term treatment was just how many people actually did relapse. Turns out it was nearly all of them. To be quite frank, the success rate was not that much different when compared to shorter programs, such as 28 days. And that is why I encourage people to just get to rehab. Don’t think that you need to live in a recovery home for 6 months or longer, just because that is what helped me. We all have a different path and longer treatment stays are not necessarily going to give better results. You are either ready to surrender or you are not.
Eliminating old behaviors
So one way to avoid getting stuck in your past is to severe those unhealthy ties. Don’t go back to old toxic relationships. Don’t hang out at slippery places, old bars that you drank at, and so on.
But another thing that you have to watch out for are your behaviors. The way that you act. Because in many cases these are the things that drive us to drink in the first place. Not what happens to us, but in how we react to it.
This is more and more obvious to someone who has been successful in sobriety. Life keeps showing up and happening in recovery, but you learn to deal with it differently now that you no longer using alcohol as a solution. Instead you are using a new set of skills, not just reacting blindly to life, but taking a more measured approach. You have learned to ask for help, get feedback, seek advice.
Let me give you an example of an old behavior of mine that I needed to change in recovery.
When I was still drinking, I had to have a way to justify my drinking to myself. This is really important. Every alcoholic and drug addict has to justify their intake to themselves. If they cannot justify it then they cannot continue to do it. It has to be OK in their mind, somehow. The mind finds a way to make it seem alright to the user.
So my mind choose the path of self pity. I would actively seek out reasons to feel sorry for myself. I would actually enjoy it when I turned out to be the victim of something, no matter how small it may be, so that I had a mental excuse to justify my drinking.
Just stop and think for a moment how sick that is.
I actually got excited and enjoyed it when I was genuinely victimized in any way. When something truly bad happened to me and it was not my fault at all (I did not deserve it), I actually enjoyed the moment because it gave me an excuse to drink.
I did not even realize that this was happening during my alcoholism. I wasn’t even honest enough with myself back then to realize that this was happening.
Instead, I realized it when I got clean and sober. Because the behavior was still happening. I was still doing it in my mind on a daily basis–finding ways that I was the victim, and giving myself plenty of reasons and excuses to self medicate. My mind did this as a matter of habit. It was always seeking excuses, automatically.
And so I had to eliminate this old behavior. I had to find a way to stop it, to prevent it from happening again, because it was unwanted misery. When I was drinking it was great, I liked the misery, because it gave me a reason to medicate. But in recovery the self pity was not helping me any more, it was just showing up, and I had no outlet for it. And I had this moment of realization where I figured out just how crazy it was to let my mind continue to find reasons to be sad. What is the point of actually choosing sadness in sobriety? There is no point. But my mind and my brain did not know that yet, because it was so used to doing this for me in addiction, so that I had an excuse.
Eliminating self pity was a journey. I had to learn some things and I had to take some suggestions. First of all I realized just how insane it was, and I made a decision to never tolerate self pity again, so long as I was aware of it.
But that was part of the key right there–I had to be aware that I was doing it! And sometimes you are not aware of your character defects, because they are so automatic. And for me, self pity was definitely like that. It would sneak up on me. I was all of a sudden realize that I was doing it again, I was feeling sorry for myself, and I did not even know how or when it got started.
Therefore I had to raise my awareness. I had to pay attention. I had to learn how to watch my mind, how to watch my thoughts.
I did this in 3 ways. Some of these were suggested to me by other people. Others I figured out on my own.
One was, I started to meditate. I would sit quietly and do nothing, for just a few minutes per day, and this allowed me to watch my thoughts. Nothing fancy required. Just sitting, eyes closed, noticing thoughts. That alone is powerful. And it helped me to become the watcher of my own mind.
Two, I started to write about my thoughts and feelings every day in a journal. This was a huge revelation after I had done it for a year or so. It is amazing to look back and read through old journal entries. If you want to see how much you have grown in recovery then I highly recommend doing this. Otherwise you won’t get a real feel for how far you have come. And when you journal every day it forces you to organize your thoughts a bit more and recognize if you might be slipping into anger, fear, resentment, self pity, or whatever you are trying to avoid.
And three, I tried to get honest with my friends, family, and peers in recovery about how I was doing and what was going on with me. There is a saying in Narcotics Anonymous, that “we are each other’s eyes and ears in recovery.” So if you are isolated in your recovery journey then it is so much harder to catch it when your mind may be getting you into trouble. But if you connect with others and you get honest with them and you share your thoughts and feelings then they can help you to diagnose any problems that you might be running into.
Learning to forgive others is a skill requiring practice and willingness
When we talk about living in the past, a lot of time we are talking about resentment.
Anger and resentment is typically a huge issue for alcoholics and recovering addicts. Often our disease is fueled by anger.
So a lot of the work that people may do in their recovery journey is learning how to let go of this anger. Forgiveness is a huge part of this process.
A lot of people have the wrong impression about forgiveness. They believe that when they forgive someone who treated them badly, that they are then letting that person off of the hook.
They have this backwards. The hook is actually sunk into your own body. So when you forgive someone who hurt you, you are actually letting YOURSELF off the hook. This is almost never clear to someone who is stuck in resentment and anger and has never been able to let go. They cannot understand how forgiving the person will help them. They just can’t see it, unless they finally do it. But it really is the path to freedom.
It is not necessary to be religious or spiritual to forgive someone, but it certainly will help. Because one of the ways to let go of that judgement is to hand that judgement over to your higher power. Someone hurt you in the past but you do not have to be the judge of that. If you can use religion or your higher power to let go of that need to judge them then this can help to set you free.
Another powerful technique if you are religious is to pray for the person that you are trying to forgive. Again, this seems backwards to a lot of people. Why would you pray for them and wish them well, when they hurt you so badly? But it works, if you can force yourself to do it. If you can go through the motions and pray for them, wishing them well, and keep doing it, then eventually you start to believe it. Your mind and heart start to believe it. And when you do this sort of work you are transforming your anger, you are releasing it.
This isn’t something that you can just master it in an afternoon, for the most part. Forgiving others and moving beyond your resentments can be quite a journey and involve a long learning process. Given this, you may need to ask for help.
And give yourself a break! Do not beat yourself up over the fact that you have anger and resentments. Many people in recovery take years before they figure this stuff out. It is not an easy thing to do and it requires willingness and real work. So do not be hard on yourself. On the other hand, don’t ignore it either. Ask for help and find a sponsor, therapist, or peers who can help you to work through your resentments. You can even get an AA sponsor and work through them as suggested in the big book of AA. There are many ways to release those resentments and move on with your life. The important thing is that you get specific about it and do the work. Take action.
Overcoming resentment takes work
No matter what path you choose in recovery, moving past your resentments takes work. Releasing anger, overcoming self pity, or moving beyond fear takes real willingness and dedication.
It is so much easier to kick your feet up and do nothing. It is so much easier to pretend that you are OK, and that you don’t really want to make yourself uncomfortable and revisit all of those old emotions.
Don’t fall into this trap. People get sober and then they see what is suggested to them (sometimes through AA) and they decide that they don’t want to do the work. It is too uncomfortable. It scares them. Who wants to drag up old emotions, pass transgressions, negative feelings, and so on? Who wants to think about all of that stuff, write about it, try to process it, talk about it with others?
No one wants to do that stuff. It is uncomfortable and it can be real work. So it is easy to just say “I’m OK in my recovery, I don’t need to do all of that stuff.”
But if you talk to people in long term recovery, if you talk to people in AA who have relapsed and then come back to the program, they will often tell a similar story. And that story is very often about someone who was not willing to dive in and do the hard work, to look at their character defects and do the work to eliminate them, and then eventually this caused them to relapse. And then maybe they came back to recovery (if they were lucky enough to live) and they did the work this time and now their life is amazing. A complete transformation.
If you go to enough AA meetings you will hear that basic story over and over again. I can tell it myself, actually–I went to 3 rehabs. At the first two I simply wasn’t willing to do the work required. I wasn’t willing to face my fears, to get uncomfortable. And so I relapsed. The third time around I was ready to face the music. I was ready for real change.
If you want to avoid getting stuck in your past then you need to be willing to let go absolutely, as they say in AA. Not just let go of your past, but to let go of yourself, of your old behaviors, of your mental defenses. We put up walls, we get scared, we live in fear during our addiction, and we have to let go of all of that protection. When you surrender and decide to get sober, it is like walking into rehab and saying “show me how to live. I will follow directions, I promise.” And you have to really mean it. You can’t just be saying that, or manipulating. You have to be at your true bottom, ready to listen, ready to learn, ready to do what you are told.
And this is how you start to build a new future. This is how you are able to rise up out of your past, because you will be creating a strong life, a strong recovery, and new relationships that are based on real trust.
What about you, have you been able to let go of your past? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!