Well. I think I made it. I think I finally got to the center of what causes this whole stinking mess of addiction and self-destruction. I think I can now finally see and feel what it is that has driven me for so many years to harm myself and sometimes others. Read on…
I work well with storytelling and all of the images, symbols, and metaphors that accompany great tales. It helps me to see this process of recovery as a “journey to the center of my being.” On the way there I have had to continuously fight off monsters and demons, clear away debris, believe I have arrived to the place, only to realize I’m stuck in some other land. All along I have been guided by a benevolent force (no way I could have made it otherwise) that has loved me and told me, keep going. This force does not magically fix things for me, but it grants me the courage and faith to not give up, even when staring the most frightening and painful experiences in the face.
There are some who claim that the troubling root of addiction is selfishness and self-centeredness and that the only way out of suffering is to focus on serving others. This is partly true, but I believe abounding recovery lies in understanding and healing the self, not running away from it or relying on distracting our “sickened minds” in order to have relief. Most experts agree today that alcoholism is an illness that centers in the mind and drives one to obsessive thinking and lack of control. Because the body eventually crosses a line and becomes physically addicted and sick, once the substance is ingested, the addict is unable to moderate or stop by willpower alone. This is part of the equation, especially when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, but it isn’t the whole picture. Luckily, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were on to something when they didn’t merely stop at the mental and physical aspects of the illness but included this idea of a “spiritual malady” as an essential part of the equation. And it absolutely is. Spiritual malady, to me, is what I mean when I say the core. It is the soul sickness. It is the darkest place deep inside of us where we carry a belief that encourages death, not life.
I thought for a long time that my destructive core belief was that I was not good enough and therefore unlovable. Many people walk around with this notion – maybe everyone to some extent. It can be extremely difficult to feel adequate and whole, especially living in cultures that tend to send messages that we are incomplete as we are. As I moved along my journey, discovering this belief was essential. It showed up when I stopped drinking and abusing drugs. It is what I thought was still driving me to over and under eat, to smoke, to engage in unhealthy and toxic relationships, to discount my efforts and abilities at work, to act as if people didn’t like me, to live in fear on a daily basis.
As I moved through addressing many other factors beyond just substance abuse (namely eating disorders and codependent behaviors), I knew some Higher Power force was with me. I was learning for the first time that I had worth and value. Much of the time I had to convince myself I believed this – “acting as if,” as it is often called. It was certainly better than nothing. Though I didn’t often feel good enough, I started to behave in a way that demonstrated to myself and others that I was worth taking care of and nurturing. Healing from codependency is giving ourselves permission to take complete care of ourselves, regardless of how others might (or might not) feel about it. It also means having boundaries and finding healthy ways to express our thoughts and feelings. It is about taking responsibility for our lives. Though I often still felt deep within that I was flawed and inadequate, I did not regularly behave in ways that confirmed this belief. I had begun to take responsibility for my life. I thought this was the sole solution, and it was for some time. I no longer was self-destructive with my behavior and much of my thinking. I didn’t rely on other people to meet my basic needs. I was aware that more and more solution would come from trusting that I was good enough and lovable.
Then I made some big life changes, which I believe I did intuitively or was somehow guided to, knowing there was far more work for me to do. I only thought I had arrived at the core. The truth was, I was very much still on the outskirts. (Have I mentioned that recovery is a process? A journey? Jeez.) In just a few months I quit my steady (all encompassing) job, moved out of my apartment and back into my father’s house, and started dating a fellow alcoholic/love addict/codependent/wounded kid like me. Quitting the job was an immense life change. I had been teaching at the same school for a few years, and it was work that both changed me and drained me. It is where I got my teacher legs and where I learned that I was still incredibly fearful and dysfunctional in relationships with others. I knew I wanted to quit for a myriad of reasons of which I won’t go into, but mostly I believe that my whole system needed a break from such distracting and engulfing work in order to have room for these deep core feelings to come into view. I had saved some money and was privileged to be able to live for a while rent-free. My plan was that I was going to travel for a few months, come home, and then start looking for a new job. Looking back, I think I just wanted a socially acceptable excuse to quit so that my conversations didn’t look like this:
“You’re quitting? What are you going to do?”
“Oh, you know. Hit an emotional bottom after a relationship. Have some space to go into the depths of my wounded soul.”
You get the idea. I did “travel,” for several not enjoyable days, and that is a whole other piece. When I returned from Thailand, everything changed. And thus began what I believe I was actually looking for and destined to experience when I first left teaching. Thus began a new leg of the journey that would help me arrive at the core.
I believe my career was a great distraction from looking at and feeling the deeper layers. (Workaholism is real.) At first, it was the perfect place to notice my codependency and practice taking care of myself. But there was only so much I could do. Teaching is a job where you often take care of everyone else’s feelings (whether it’s students, parents, or colleagues) and barely have time for yourself. It is a job that certainly left me depleted and exhausted at the end of most days, and my weekends were spent in quiet solitude, recharging. My self-care kept me afloat and free from acting out in other addictions (although food issues were still sometimes at play), but it was more like maintenance than actual repair. And it was great for a time. The connections I made with many students will be with me forever. I love those kids. I learned a lot about myself and how I relate to others. I saw with wide eyes how much I still felt like a bad person and incapable of doing a good job. I saw how much I lived in fear, took other people’s behavior personally, had a tendency to judge and sometimes hate everyone and everything. I also saw how capable I was of loving and helping and caring.
It was a transformative time in many ways, but it was also a blockade. When I decided to quit, I knew (subconsciously) that it was necessary if I was going to progress in my recovery and overall healing. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I knew it was somewhere that would grant me a new level of awareness and repair. It didn’t matter that I had a Master’s degree and great health insurance, or that I was loved by students and respected by the head of school – those things can reflect hard work, sure, or some level of growth and maturity, but they don’t actually heal anything.
When I stepped away from such full-time, distracting work, a few things started to shift in me. The food issues that had never seemed to completely cease, completely did. I wasn’t hungry anymore in my mind, only in my belly, and I didn’t care about food. It had completely ceased working like a drug. There was more space to feel and reflect. Stopping such a consuming job was very much like quitting drinking – there was finally a window to look at what was really going on. But first, there was space for failing at travel, and for failing at a relationship:
I fell in love with someone who could not love me back. And I’m not saying he treated me like dirt or slept with tons of women while we were together or only called me once a week. No. He was sweet, kind, and good-natured. In many ways, he was devoted and caring. He meant well in all that he did. But he’s a wounded kid like me. We were drawn to each other like two classic love addicts, enacting the dance of addiction and avoidance, both afraid of intimacy and abandonment, both unable to actually have an authentic relationship. I didn’t realize at the time how much I wanted someone to help me not have to look at and heal this core issue (that had yet to reveal itself.) I thought because I had so much recovery in Al-Anon that there was nothing broken in me anymore. But the fact that I was wildly attracted to someone who was deeply broken himself said something about work that I still needed to do. It helped me wake up (once again!) to the fact that the outsides of me don’t matter and that denial runs deep. The outsides can sometimes be a reflection of a healthy inside, but they are usually just a distraction, especially if the deepest work has yet to be done.
When this relationship ended it brought up intense feelings, and because I was going to lots of meetings again and immersing myself in recovery, I became very aware of them. I did not run. In the past, when my turbulent relationships would end, I usually just got into another relationship or starting acting out with substances or plain denial. This time was very different. Reality was staring me down. There, too, was space for reading, getting back into writing, and finally committing again to a yoga practice, all of which increase awareness. I was willing to see the truth. And here is what finally came up. Here is what I discovered: the core is not the belief that I am not good enough and therefore unlovable. The core is this: I have no right to exist. I have no right to exist, and I am unfit for reality, therefore I deserve bad things. I deserve to die. The core. A tall order. This dark soup of sickness would obviously lead to self-destruction vis a vis addiction in all its ugly forms.
This might seem dramatic, but I promise I am not being hyperbolic. Or this might seem like not much of a revelation, but it very much was for me. It is a real, albeit very old belief, deep down inside of my lowest self, a bubbling swamp of putrid sludge. It is not about being not good enough – it is about dehumanization. Being a monster. I am certain it is this core belief that drives people to kill themselves. I have an idea of where this core stuff comes from, but I can’t be totally sure. I believe some of it is learned from the abuse and trauma of childhood. Some of it is carried over emotions from the family and what they carried. It might be an inevitable part of alcoholism. It is strongly related to what John Bradshaw calls “toxic shame.” Whatever it is, it is a real experience, and those who have been shaped by it understand the pain of living. It is a real experience, and yet I know that its message is false. It simply isn’t true. And that is the way out. When we are willing to get close enough to a monster, we often see his fangs aren’t so sharp. The Great and Powerful Oz was just an insecure man behind a curtain, trying to appear intimidating. I used to believe it, I used to function from that place, and I used to try to die all the time. Today I want to live, and that means on some level, some higher level, that I feel I deserve to live. That I deserve good things and have a right to exist. Thankfully, I discovered this core belief with enough recovery to recognize it is not rooted in any sort of reality, and I don’t have to give it the power to destroy me.
I find that the more I investigate the darkness and let it tell its story, the brighter my life becomes. We go into the swamp, because the swamp is there, but we don’t have to stay. I have to witness and befriend the core (without letting it take me over) or it and all that goes with it will never leave me alone. It will show up in every job, every relationship. It will drive me to choose that which reflects back this false belief system. It will try to sabotage authentic joy. It is the other shoe, waiting to drop. This swamp, this core, just wants my attention. It has it. But not too much.