When it comes to relapse, we are all sitting ducks. It's like driving on a narrow windy mountain road with no guard rail. Even the best driver sometimes....
So what is relapse?
I can tell you this, it is NOT about will power!
Whatever drives us into addiction in the first place, also drives us into relapse. And absolutely yes, I can never blame what drives me. I ultimately take responsibility for my choices even when I have lost the awareness that I have choices.
What drives every addiction and relapse is PAIN and typically OLD PAIN. We all walk around with old pain. It is stored in a part of our brain that we do not have conscious access to. That place is called the amygdala.
How does that happen? Well, when we survive an over-the-top experience, the chemistry necessary to weave the experience (both the emotions and the story line) into our memory is neutralized by all the stress hormones flowing at the time, so the emotions associated with the experience never get processed into our explicit memory, but instead sit in their raw form in our amygdala, just waiting to be fired off in response to anything that even remotely reminds the brain of the original pain.
When old pain gets fired off, we have no way of knowing it is old pain because it feels very very present, and the pain is real. Yes, all pain is in our head. What else is new? It still hurts!
Is there a way to get that old pain out of the amygdala and processed into our explicit memory? Absolutely. First of all, I have to begin recognizing it is old pain. I want to take note of those certain emotions that keep getting triggered over and over again, like anger or feelings of worthlessness or shame or guilt. I have to begin telling myself, “I am just too reactive here. This must be old pain.”
So once I identify old pain, then I create a story line to weave with the pain. And what if I don’t remember or know the story line? Well, you can ask relatives and family friends what they know about your “story.” And if they refuse to tell you, you can pretty much make up a story based upon the nature of the pain. I mean there are only so many stories that fit particular kinds of pain. And it doesn’t matter if you are correct. You don’t have to have all the facts. We’re not going to court here. We simply want to weave the pain together with a story line, any story line, so the emotion and the story can be laid to rest in our memory, and we are no longer reactive or vulnerable to being triggered.
O my God, you are concerned about truth! Get a grip. There is only one truth. You are walking around with old pain which eventually is going to kill you or someone else. That is the most important truth. So weave it together however you can.
You know what is really crazy? Some of us do remember the painful events. We remember them quite quite clearly which is a miracle in and of itself because it is more likely that the stress hormones pumping at the time of the event would have neutralized the brain chemistry necessary for memory. So yes, we remember, and if we could make a story out of what we remember, the weaving process could take place, and again, the painful event could be laid to rest in our memory in a way that it is no longer a trigger.
But when we try to tell our story, when we try to check out our story, what does everyone tell us? They tell us we are remembering incorrectly. We are told that what happened to us happens to everyone, so no big deal. We are told to stop crying over the past. We are told that if we had any sense, we would let this painful event make a better man or woman out of us. When it comes to soldiers and first responders, we tell them NOT TO TALK, but to simply BURY THIS SHIT. That is what we tell them. Yes, those are the very words a World War Two Veteran told his son, a Viet Nam Vet, who was literally dying to talk about his experiences in Nam.
So it is like we have unwritten rules that tell us it is better to walk around with old pain and triggers than it is to find a way to lay the old pain to rest.
So the flavor of our discussion so far sort of implies that old pain comes from really over-the-top events like childhood abandonment and abuse, lack of early attachment experiences, some kind of terrifying accident or act of Nature, medical procedures, deaths of loved ones, being in the midst of a war, living in poverty, living in subhuman conditions, and so on.
But much of our old pain comes from equally disturbing events but of a different kind. They are wounds that erupt ironically from “stories” that people make up about our character, our heart, our ambitions, and our dreams and unfortunately, we buy into these character assassinations hook, line, and sinker.
So, like what, you ask? Well, for example, being told that I do not measure up or that I will never measure up. Getting the clear message that whatever I accomplish is never good enough or basically that I am not good enough. Being told directly or indirectly that I will never be as good as my sister or my brother or I will never be the man my father is or the woman my mother is. Being told either directly or by implication that I am not very pretty or handsome or that I am fat (even when I am not), awkward, stupid, crazy, defiant, mentally ill, selfish, without talent (picked last for everything). Being told, at a moment I am genuinely apologizing and making amends, that I have never been sorry for anything in my life. Being told, after a large audience congratulates me on an inspiring presentation, that I was inappropriate in my language and delivery by one or two people into whose hands, for whatever reason, I have surrendered my self worth. These are the events, some of them occurring and reoccurring, that we never diagnose as deep deep wounds.
When we hear these death sentences from a very early age and then again and again in our adult life, we walk around with a kind of low grade anxiety that whispers and warns us that we cannot accomplish what we set out to or when we do, this low grade anxiety literally challenges the reality of our accomplishments. Then we slip into an undefinable depression which we nor anyone else can make sense out of. So we find refuge in concluding that we must have a chemical imbalance.
So I win an Oscar for my performance, but it’s not enough for the little voice, and so I assume it must not be enough for anyone else, and then that pervasive sense of not being good enough surges like a tidal wave.
Unless we can find a way to look these “pains” and these voices in the eye, so to speak, they will haunt us for the rest of our lives and always beckon us toward addiction and relapse.
There is something else, perhaps even more insidious, that invites relapse. When we are successful, that same little voice taunts us that the success will not last. The little voice drives us to find a way to make the accomplished feeling last, so we turn to our addiction to keep the high of the accomplishment going. It is a devastating way to celebrate our accomplish-ment.
It is amazing when old pain gets triggered. I, for one, cannot believe that pain, that is so old, and that I thought I had already woven into the fabric of my being, can still get triggered and leave me feeling sad, I mean SAD, depressed, like a complete failure, like I am worthless, unlovable, unlikable, ugly, fat, and every other negative descriptor in the Thesaurus.
So there is one more critical piece for recovery and avoiding relapse that is important for us to look at and explore. Just like I was willing to venture into the bottle (of pills or booze), into the syringe, into the smoke, into the food, into the craps table, into compulsive sex, into religion even, I must be willing to venture forth into the realm of the spiritual.
So here’s what I am talking about. When I write a short story or professional book, a poem, when I compose a song, I am more and more amazed at what comes out onto the page or onto the staff. It becomes clearer and clearer that I am not the author or the composer. I know there is an Author or Composer much greater than me that is sending the inspiration through my brain, through my musical ear, through my fingers on to the computer screen. Yes, I am a small part of life (with a small “l”), and there is a Life out there with a capital “L.” For me, I call that Life, God or sometimes my Senior Partner or sometimes, Love. When I journal in the morning, for example, I begin with “Dear Love.”
So almost every day, I come to places in my life where I hit the wall. When I hit that wall, old pain is immediately triggered, triggered in relationships, triggered in both business successes and failures, triggered dealing with my aging body, triggered in my fears, my disappointments, my dreams that seem dashed or far away. I consider everything I know to do myself. Blow up the wall, walk away from the relationships, push through, envision a miracle happening in my body but I do the envisioning with so much stress that I undermine my own miracle. If I am lucky, I tap myself on the shoulder. If I am really lucky, a friend or loved one taps me on the shoulder. If I am really aware, I stop. I stop trying to get passed that wall. I stop trying to get over it. I stop trying to go through it. I literally surrender to my own efforts and reach, reach, reach to Life, to God, to my Senior Partner, to Love, to what some folks refer to as their Higher Power or to God as they understand God. And I let myself have faith that my Senior Partner will reach back. And my Senior Partner always does.
When I lose that connection with my Senior Partner in my daily life, in my daily recovery, I am a sitting duck for relapse. And I have to humbly tell you, and I hope you can humbly acknowledge for yourself, I am and we are all sitting ducks. Just like any relationship, staying connected spiritually takes daily commitment and work.
So embrace your old pain. Create a story about it. Don’t let anyone critique your story. It is your story. And reach out to Life, to God. Let your Senior Partner take your hand and walk with you and carry you just like in the poem Footprints.
This surrendering costs you nothing. You lose nothing, not your personal power, not your will, not your ambition, not your dreams, not your abilities or talents. You lose nothing. Ironically, you gain it all including a Senior Partner. How cool is that?
And you know how I get passed that part of myself that refuses to surrender? It is not in solitude or meditation. It isn’t something I learned on my own. I learned and relearn to surrender by humbly sitting in a gathering of other sitting ducks, humbly listening, humbly sharing, and becoming aware that I truly am not alone on my journey. My Senior Partner has a billion hands.
THANK YOU FOR READING.