1. Accept The Fact That Everything You Did Made Sense

I was once speaking to a brilliant and accomplished woman who had recovered from alcohol abuse. She had been severely emotionally and verbally abused most of her life. Abuse hurts. Sometimes there is only one way to deal with the pain: cover it up in a brain-fog. This woman made a wise statement to me. She said, “Thank God for every drink I ever took or I wouldn’t be here today.”

Now, I know that I am talking heresy from the perspective of the recovery program. How could drinking make sense? they would ask. DrDeb, you’re crazy. Everyone knows drinking destroys brain cells. Everyone knows drinking destroys the liver. Everyone knows that hard drugs are even worse. There is nothing good about drinking, they would say.

Of course they’re right. There is nothing at all good about drinking. Except if it saves you from dying. It is, indeed, better than being dead. And if, as a ten year old or 14 year old or whatever age you started using substances to avoid the pain going on around you, you didn’t know any better, then it was a blessing.

The key words in the above sentence are “to avoid the pain going on around you.” Here is a list, a short list, of the kinds of things that are so painful as to induce a young person to booze it up so they no longer know what is going on:

being verbally abused

    being sexually molested
    watching a sibling being sexually abused
    knowing a sibling is being sexually molested
    being neglected, physically or emotionally
    watching your mother get beaten up
    hearing relentless fighting between your parents
    seeing your mother or father plastered
    getting beaten and blamed for it
    seeing a parade of men walk into your mother’s bedroom

You get the idea.

Now it would be great if a person going through that had other options. Some real savvy kids escape. They just leave. Good for them. They’re called runaways. Smart kids. Unfortunately, they have no clue where to go or what to do. They haven’t seen a happy home and haven’t lived a happy life so they don’t know what either one looks like. Or they have seen it in someone else’s life but don’t believe it could ever happen to them; sometimes they think they don’t deserve better.

It’s that pain, right there, that pain of believing they somehow brought all this horror on themselves that chases them where-ever they go. When they realize they can’t get away from the ache inside, they drink or they drug.

And that makes sense.

We use pain-killers all the time in our society. How would a naive young person see the difference? And is there a difference? I mean, the pharmaceutical industry encourages American consumers to spend billions on (legal) emotional painkillers which, in turn, makes the pharmaceutical industry rich. Like street drugs, neither one cures the problem.

With no other choices substance use by people in pain makes sense.

Of course, there are other choices and that is what this website is prepared to offer. But ironically, in order to let go of the substances, the first step is to recognize the important part they played in your life. They saved you. Salute them. And salute yourself for being a survivor.

2. Decide Not To Be Numb Anymore And Reconnect With Yourself

People who use substances have suffered–or they wouldn’t have used them. Now let’s take a look at exactly what happens in suffering. When the trauma is so painful, you can’t bear it, your beautiful brain, created with brilliant precision, has the capability of zoning out. When you zone out, you’re simply not there, or not completely there. Presto! No more pain. They call that dissociation, and to some degree, we all split off parts of our experience that we’d rather not think of. Here’s an example: A normal kid, no abuse, is in school and some brat makes a hurtful remark to him or her within earshot. If this happens a lot, I’ll guarantee you that kid will zone out, especially in school. Then he literally doesn’t hear the nastiness. [Later on when he grows up and his wife complains he’s not listening, just ask him how his homelife or his school experience were growing up. He simply trained himself–effortlessly–not to listen. And for good reason.]

The problem is that, like the novocaine that the dentist gives us for drilling our teeth, the pain is there, the pain is real. We just don’t feel it. Now, smart as that is for a survival skill, that is not really such a good idea if it goes on too long. I mean, imagine that the only way you could get the dentist to stop is if you felt it and you stated, “Sir, you’re drilling right through my cheek!” Emotional pain is the same way: We lose our ability to protect ourselves if we are in the habit of dissociating. By not feeling any pain, we don’t know when we are in bad company. We don’t know when to run. We don’t know when to take intelligent, evasive action in the face of danger. That is one reason why people stay in very destructive relationships for way too long. And that is one reason why people tolerate their own drinking for way too long. They have totally lost touch with what is happening to them through the drinking.

So the first step is to be willing to feel pain. That means knowing that if you’re sober and someone says something that is hurtful, it will hurt. But the only way to begin working on moving on with your life is to take that first step.

There is a bonus to it. It’s a strange bonus that you will not know what to do with for a while: When you can feel pain, you can feel happiness too. Feeling is feeling. As opposed to numbness.

Reconnecting with yourself begins with acknowledging that because of the drinking–and the pain that led to it–you lost sight of who you are on all levels. You don’t know how to feel pain without numbing it; you don’t know how to feel wonderful–that’s totally alien; you don’t know what you like or what you hate; you don’t know your own opinions, values, tastes, preferences, beliefs. So you have to figure it out. You have to start somewhere. Here’s what I suggest you do: Buy a notebook for a journal. Start writing down in it your feelings, your tastes, opinions and so on. Whenever you have a choice to make and you’re totally confused as to what those opinions, tastes, and values are, just take a guess and then tune in to the feelings. Does it feel good? Does it feel honest? Does it feel right? If it still feels alien, but you like it, you wish it were the real you, make acquiring that taste, value, etc. a real goal.

Let’s take an example. Suppose you have no clue whether your daughter ought to go away with her boyfriend or not. She’s 16. A part of you feels real uncomfortable about what’s in store for her. A part of you says, “But that’s the way of the world. What can I do?” Another part of you, the vicious one, says, “Well, I suffered with men; let her find out for herself.” So now choose the one you wish were the real you even if it feels alien. How about the noble one? The one that wants to protect your daughter from the suffering you had? Try it out. Say “no,” to her and see what happens later on when you stick to it consistently.

That’s called inventing a new you.

The truth is, we all do it. That’s also called growth. Growth is sometimes real hard. I remember the first time I was alone in a therapy room with a client and I had to open my mouth and say something. Yeah, it was hard. But I had to do it, right? You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to go somewhere. Otherwise you remain stagnant.

3. Take Care Of Yourself

Healing begins with learning how to take care of yourself. Do one good thing for yourself every day. You may ask: “Why should I?” And this is the hard part: To learn to love yourself you must begin by acting as if you loved yourself–because no one else did. Those who should have loved and cared for you didn’t, so you have to make up for that yourself.

4. Who Do You Want To Be?
Set goals for who you want to be. What will a recovered you be like? Well, for one thing you will like yourself, even sober. In fact, better sober. But you have no history of that so liking yourself will feel very strange during your recovery period. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because it’s different or weird, it’s impossible to feel comfortable with it. Give yourself time, kind of like breaking in new and very stiff shoes. They do break in after a while, right? Experiment with liking yourself. Do it a little at a time. Don’t push it. Just kind of look for the little things about yourself (sober) that you really do take a cotton to. Enjoy them.

5. Create Realistic Boundaries

Erect boundaries but don’t make them barbed-wire-covered walls. Know the difference between healthy boundaries and running away from life/people because you are scared of your feelings. Boundaries begin with knowing who you are and what is good for you. Thus, the steps above are necessary for healthy boundaries. When you know who you are, you know what you want and don’t, what you like and don’t. When you know what is good for you, you can more easily learn to stay away from what is bad for you. However, all that is just the beginning. Creating boundaries requires:
  • Courage to say, “No.” How does one build courage? That alone is quite an accomplishment. You must, first, be willing to do what you never did before when you know it’s right. That first time is so hard. Next, you must congratulate yourself on doing it. That’s really, really important.

6. Recognizing Signs That Something Is Not Quite Right.

That is really, really important, too. Most people actually do recognize those signs, but they choose to overlook them. They are so unhappy and so lonely that they think they will be happier and not so lonely with this bad person who is not good for them. They know, intellectually, they are wrong, but they do it anyway. However, the better you become at seeing the signs and not brushing them off, the more protected you will be.

7. Overcome The Negative Messages Your Abuser Told You over and over.
This is a real challenge. Those messages are embedded in your mind so thoroughly that they feel like they’re your own ideas. You’ve got to separate out the truth from the lies your abuser told you about yourself.
One way of overcoming these toxic messages is to do affirmations daily, even if they seem weird or untrue. Just do them. The more you do them, the better the electrical connections in your brain for those positive thoughts. Eventually, they will feel real.
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