“Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. Whatever the substance you are addicted to – alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person – you are using something or somebody to cover up your pain.” – Eckhart Tolle
I had always struggled with vices. Binge drinking, daily cannabis use and chain-smoking were central parts of my life for well over a decade. Starting in my late teens and recovering in my early thirties meant my twenties took the greatest hit.
I didn’t call them addictions back then, as far as I was concerned I had some bad habits coupled with the misfortune of being born with weak willpower, rendering me firmly in the domain of victimhood. I often thought about quitting one of my three substance addictions but after careful consideration realised that each one was too closely linked to the other. I wouldn’t be able to get drunk without reaching for a cigarette, I couldn’t smoke a joint without tobacco and I couldn’t sleep without smoking weed so the only way to quit one was to quit all three and as far as my weak willpower and I were concerned, that was totally inconceivable.
Fast forward to my early thirties, after a decade of mornings after, feeling nauseas with shame as I pieced together hazy segments of the night before, I had finally learned to control my “vices”, somewhat. I was getting better at avoiding social situations, which might result in me getting so drunk that half the night would be obliterated from memory and I’d even managed to quit smoking for three whole years, which would have continued if it weren’t for the “one” cigarette I had at a New Year’s Eve party which re-started my twenty-a-day habit. I’d also managed to kick my cannabis addiction and even found myself in training for the London Marathon, a far cry from my twenties. I was living a healthier life and I had a blossoming career in project management but I was still miserable.
The drama of my drunken antics had been replaced by the on-going drama of my love life and at 33 I hit rock bottom following the failure of yet another relationship. This time, rather than absolve myself of responsibility by heaping all the blame onto my ex, I accepted my part and promptly had a mini-breakdown resulting in a trip to a local therapist.
Not seeing a link between my addictive personality and my inability to have healthy, functional relationships with men, I had instead self-diagnosed myself as bi-polar or some other condition that could explain away the mood swings and aggressive outbursts that had destroyed one relationship after another. How desperate I was for a diagnosis and then hopefully a cure, ideally in pill form.
“You are codependent”, he said.
It wasn’t the diagnosis I’d been hoping for, there were no famous co-dependents as far as I knew of and what the hell was codependency anyway? But despite this initial disappointment, my overriding feeling was one of relief, finally it looked like I might have the answer to the question that I’d been asking all my life “what is wrong with me?” and I felt excited at the prospect of being saved.
What followed was a book that turned my world upside down, weekly 12-step meetings that helped me put my life back together and two years of therapy sessions to assess my stuttering progress. Recovery was both at once the most painful and the best thing that has ever happened to me. I learned in detail about the link between the abuses I suffered as a child and the self-destructive behaviours of my adulthood, I learned to forgive my care-takers and myself, I learned how to let go of being a victim and finally take responsibility for my life and my own happiness, I learned to stop trying to control everything around me, I learned the ways in which I sought to rescue, manipulate and care-take others (because it made me feel needed) and most of all I saw that my addictions weren’t just to substances but to people, places and things. I learned that I had been looking for love in all the wrong places and after letting go of all the toxic relationships in my life, I learned what healthy love actually looks like. Starting first with my relationship with myself.
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” – J.K. Rowling
The first six months of my recovery were one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, it was a purging of all that I had known to date, a falling away of all my crutches and quick fixes. It was a dark and lonely time and just as I thought that perhaps I couldn’t take it anymore, it started to get easier. I started to like myself more, I no longer felt gripped by feelings of shame, I quit my substance addictions and I stopped looking to others for my sense of self-worth. I was learning to become my own best friend and learning to respect myself.
I remember well my therapist telling me that people in recovery are often the healthiest people you’ll ever meet and now nearly five years into my own recovery, I think I know what he meant. Just as Tolle says, if addiction arises from an unconscious removal to face and move through your own pain then surely it follows that overcoming addiction means the conscious decision to face and move through your own pain.
Overcoming addictions is hard. It requires that you dig deep on your courage and face fear and shame with love. Love for yourself and love for your incredible journey. If I could go back in time and change everything, would I? Absolutely not. Going through my journey as an addict was the best thing that ever happened to me. How about you? I’d love to hear in the comments below about your experiences with addiction.
Book: Facing Codependence: What it is, where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives by Pia Mellody.
Photo by Maëlle Caborderie