alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and ate brownies to change the
way I felt. If I didn't like the way I felt,
I did all that to feel better. If I liked the way I felt,
I did all that to enhance the feeling. Without the tools, I'd either drink, smoke, and eat crap
again, or I'd be miserable. These tools lead me to peace
without my addictions.
During my years of addiction to alcohol,
nicotine, and sloth, I had many good times, enjoyed my family,
and had professional success. At the same time, life was
pure hell – a paradox. My life now is very different.
I revel in awakening and, even more incredibly, going to
bed at night. I now fall asleep easily. I treasure each
of life’s moments and am full of gratitude. Now, I
want to tell you about some of the things I’ve learned
to make that happen. Think of this as a sampler. I’m
not writing a textbook. I’m just trying to let you
know that change is possible and tell you about some of
the tools I use keep getting better.
Bad things have happened since my last drink of alcohol,
my last cigarette, and my last Snickers binge, I’ve
been diagnosed with heart disease, had another potentially
fatal heart condition called long q-t syndrome confirmed,
burned my house while trying to grill chicken, dealt with
my wife’s suicide attempt, worried about my daughters’
life decisions, dealt with my mother's death, led the move
of my mother-in-law who is suffering form dementia into
assisted living when she didn’t want to go, worked
with several families whose children have been killed in
automobile accidents – just to name a few difficulties
that have arisen. The difference between my life before
sobriety and now is that the bad stuff doesn’t define
me anymore. Bad stuff happens; I use what I’ve learned
in sobriety to deal with it, and move on – all the
while still relishing life.
You'll recognize some of these tools as those alcoholics
use and you'll think they don't apply to you. Don't think
that. Listen to this: They work for anything. I
use them when I want to smoke a cigarette, when I want to
eat something I shouldn't, and when I'm just plain feeling
down. I didn't make up any of these. I apply my own perspective
on them, but I learned these things from others.
- Willingness to Act: You must find the willingness to take action to make changes in your life. Wanting to change is not enough. In fact, wanting to change may be counterproductive because you feel like you're doing something just because you want it. That won't help. To change things, you have to take action and that requires willingness.
- The Importance of Now Psychiatrist Richard Abell wrote, "Anxiety is the space between then and now." If we live in the present, one day at a time, anxiety will leave us. If we focus on losing seventy pounds, that seems impossible, but if we decide not to eat that brownie just for today, our odds for success are much better.
- Serenity: For me, a key to being happy when alcohol, nicotine, and fat food are gone is serenity. When I'm serene, I'm calm, unruffled, and at peace. It's like lying on a float in a barely moving ocean during a beautiful day at the beach and dozing with nothing preying on my mind or in my belly.
And, the key to finding serenity is to embrace acceptance.
- Perspective: One of the greatest gifts I've received in my new life is growing a new perspective. All those things that used to seem so important in the past aren't anymore. I've learned that few things in life are big deals. A big deal is when a child dies. A big deal is when the doctor says, "You've got six months to live." If somebody's mad at me– not a big deal. If I can't buy that car I want – not a big deal. If my car breaks down and I have to take the bus—not a big deal. If I spill coffee on my shirt—not a big deal.
- Handing It Over: Now, we come to a hard one for a lot of people. This gets into the metaphysical stuff like God, Zen, or, maybe, the Force of the Jedi knights. I have no interest in getting into a theological discussion here. As for me, I don't believe I'm the be-all and end-all of existence. For me, there's more out there than my existence and I think it's something fundamentally good. Given that belief, when faced with difficult circumstances that I can't change, I find it comforting to hand it over to that force of good out there.
If you can't believe in a higher power, I think it's still possible to "hand it over," even if it's to nothing more than the unknown. Handing your angst over to nothing is far preferable to getting rid of it by drinking, smoking, eating, or sleeping.
- Lose Your Self: That heading's not a typo. I deliberately wrote two words: your self. All human beings are self-centered. That's a part of the requirements for our survival. But, those of us addicted to alcohol, nicotine, and saturated fat carry it to the extreme. If we want to get better, we need to get out of our selves because, really, that space is often not pleasant.
- Lose Your Anger: Put a "d" on anger and you've got danger. That's appropriate. There's no emotion more dangerous than anger for an alcoholic, drug addict (including nicotine), or anyone who's powerless over double-fudge ice cream. We drink, smoke, and eat to change feelings we don't like, and nobody likes what anger feels like.
And the most dangerous anger of all is the justified kind.
If you want to keep your healthy lifestyle going, you must lose your anger.
- Accountability: I have alcohol buddies, cigarette buddies, food buddies, and exercise buddies. When I'm facing surgery and the possibility of taking pain medication, I frame that up with my alcohol buddies. Pat gets the pills and I don't know where they are. I spend time talking to my cigarette buddies about how the cravings still pop up years after my last nicotine fix. I know Dr. Johnson's going to see my lipid numbers every few months. When I don't feel like running, I know I'll have to confess to my running buddy. You need to find some buddies, too. Be accountable. If you engage in self-service accountability, the odds are great that you will self-serve yourself right back to where you were.
- Anticipate Your Bottom: Change is hard. We don't do it easily. I couldn't imagine life without alcohol and cigarettes. I dearly love French bread slathered with butter. Exercise hurts and is boring and I didn't want to do it. I had to hit my alcohol bottom to quit drinking and smoking. I had to hit my heart disease bottom to get serious about diet and exercise. I had to hit those bottoms to find the willingness to change.
- Relapse: Over the years, I've watched a good many alcoholics and addicts relapse. Some decided that if they've been able to keep from drinking or drugging for a while, they must be able to control it. So far, none of them could. Not one.
Others tried to keep from drinking, but didn't change their lifestyles. They still hung around in bars and kept the same friends. They drank again. Some tried to white knuckle it without doing anything to change the way they respond to life. When bad things happened, they had no defense against them. The misery, anxiety, fear, or any other feeling they tried to change by drinking or drugging never went away. Eventually the continuing misery led them to say, "To hell with it." They drank or did drugs again.
So how do you avoid relapse? More