When I finally gave up drinking, I found myself researching a lot about addiction. Many questions lingered in my foggy mind. Where did I go wrong? Why did such a horrible disease happen to me?
After all, before I hit rock bottom, I’d spent 15 years in corrections, transitioning chemically addicted offenders out of prison. I was paid to construct their path to substance-free living. And lock them up when they failed. A paradoxical reality of stripping the freedom from those who couldn’t stay clean, all the while enslaving myself to the prison of an addicted mind.
During the first year of abstinence, I struggled with the pain I caused my family as well as regret for what I couldn’t change. I was thankful I wasn’t drinking and striving to build a meaningful life but spent many days focused on the brokenness of my past.
Then on a whim, I submitted my addiction story to an online recovery site. And quite unexpectedly, a timely glimpse of awareness shifted the focus of my life. While my story was appreciated, I was told their site focused on recovery, not the problems of addiction. Inquiries about my motivation to change and how my life was different today helped me realize I had spent enough energy draining out the nightmares of my past.
So began a journey of commitment toward true recovery, which I’ve found to be so much more than abstinence. Here’s what I’ve discovered, words of wisdom I’d heard before but never rang so true as now.
“To love others, we must first love ourselves.” — Leo Buscaglia
When I stopped drinking, I united with a forgotten passion that made it possible to believe I could like myself again. I discovered old journals from the most pivotal time of my life that bridged a connection to my younger self, where innocence and pain were deeply rooted. I began to write again, and this powerful energy fueled a passion to heal from the inside out. Hoping one day to grow brave and reach the ones still suffering in silence. I may not like part of my past, but as I begin to understand and accept it, I can use what I’ve learned to help others with compassion because I’ve had to love myself through the same painful process.
“Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.” — Indira Gandhi
According to psychiatrist Dr. Gabor Maté, the root of all addiction is pain. Hurtful life events that leave us wounded and bitter. Becoming aware of this pain, we allow ourselves to explore forgiveness, a challenging and necessary component for growth. It’s a gift to find the freedom to forgive ourselves and others for our misfortunes. We can’t change the past. But learning and letting go are elements of bravery necessary to overcome and heal.
“We are all creatures of habit.” — Earl Nightingale
Recovery is so much more than no longer consuming our poison. It’s a lifestyle change that requires ongoing practice. If we think about how long it took to become our own worst enemy, we should give at least that much time becoming a better version of ourselves. Early in recovery, I relapsed when I found myself in an unexpected painful situation. I had yet to develop coping skills that would reroute the worn path leading me straight to the bottle. I now engage in activities that promote relaxation to calm my restless mind. A morning meditation, walk in nature and yoga are tools I am purposefully working into my daily schedule.
“It’s in giving that we receive.” — St. Francis of Assisi
The most dangerous place to exist in recovery is isolation. It’s important to stay outside our deeply entrenched negative minds and focus instead on what good our experience can bring to this world. Sharing our story, serving meals at a shelter or smiling at the next person who crosses our path ignites hope in ways we may never know. Everyone else has a story too. It is through our own pain that we understand others who still struggle. And by being the voice for those unable to speak, we receive a blessing of strength from those who will eventually listen.
So how is my life different today? My answer has changed from when I was first asked this question.
I no longer look back for too long. I see my life with an awareness of goodness that brings hope, not shame. I spend my days in gratitude for how far I’ve come. Some days aren’t easy, but I keep moving forward. Keeping my sights on the horizon, where possibilities exists, far from the prison of which I am no longer bound.
If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
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Thinkstock photo by Alina MD