The Last Addictions Memoir (Hopefully): An Evidence-Based Recovery Story Pt. 15

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The Last Addictions Memoir (Hopefully): An Evidence-Based Recovery Story Pt. 15

By Anne Giles 07/18/17

May I have your kind attention? My own kind attention is what seems to be keeping me from relapsing.

Image: 
attention pie chart inside of a pie tin

Alcoholism feels like a meteor from space crash landed in my front yard on top of my beloved cat. I will hate its destruction of me, my world, and what I love forever.

Since I realized I had alcoholism four and a half years ago, I have attempted to destroy it with, first, a belief-based sledgehammer, then with an evidence-based backhoe. I have attempted to excise it, reverse it, heal it, cure it. I just want it to go away. I have been 100% unsuccessful.

I am alcoholism's captive. I was free and now I'm not. I am bright, educated and determined, equipped with extensive personal and financial resources. I can get things done. I cannot, however, make my longing to have a bottle of wine at five o'clock tonight budge. Not one micron.

Against my will, I must co-habitate with the massive, heavy darkness of alcoholism. Before I developed alcoholism, I could think whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Today, a percentage of my attention pleas solidly and perpetually with me to drink. I have to allocate an even greater percentage of my attention to overpower that longing. With what's left of my attention, when I can get it, what might I do to create a little freedom for myself?

I've started thinking of my attention as a pie chart.

The poisoned slice of my attention is my longing to drink. Essentially, it says, "Do!" On one side of that I keep a 24/7 awareness slice. On the other side of the longing I keep an ever-widening slice of evidence-based addiction self-care methods. It says, "Don't, honey!" Next to awareness is a meta slice of "attention to attention." The rest of the slices are devoted to the stuff of a free life: attention to feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations.

I attempt to apportion my attention swiftly, adjust the size of each wedge instantly, and shift my attention nimbly. According to this research, every time I become aware of my attention, disengage it, shift it, and re-engage it, I may well be strengthening parts of my brain atrophied during substance use. Hoping that's the case, I train my attention like an athlete. I can't physically do one-handed push-ups, but I push my ability to sort what has my attention and then strong arm it to my preferences. My attention skills can do some serious reps.

With my awareness slice, I check in on the magnitude of the "Do!" state of my longing to drink. At the side of "Do!" I keep awareness always on, like an Internet server, instantaneously able to allocate additional load resources so we don't crash. The "Do!" wedge determines its own magnitude and varies from moment to moment. No matter how I've attempted to shatter it, the longing continues to define its own nature and quantity. Even during sleep, meditation and sexual intimacy, I dare not let go of this awareness.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the siren song of my longing to drink stays in an average 2-3 range of mewling distress. When I look back at my near-relapses, anguished cries in the 7-8 range for too long resulted in, for me, dissociation and involuntary action. I don't remember driving to the grocery store. Only chance encounters while at the store kept me from buying and drinking a bottle of wine. I simply can't risk getting ramped up that high for long.

To address the portion that longs to drink, I keep the largest wedge of my attention engaged in self-care methods. If my longing to drink says "Do!" more loudly than a 3, my awareness expands the use of my "Don't, honey!" self-care methods to counter the longing.

I pay attention to the state of my attention. I simply ask myself how I'm doing giving attention to things that are my choice, not attention to the choices of alcoholism, trauma, or any force that's not me. If my answer is that I'm doing well, I keep doing what I'm doing. If not, I start doing one-armed push-ups with my attention to shift it back to my choices.

I serve fat wedges in the pie chart of my attention to becoming aware of what I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, and what physical sensations I am experiencing. Most people with substance use disorders have experienced hardships. I've had my share. This manifests in everyday life as intense reactions to things people say or do, or happenstances in one's environment, even neutral ones. Those reactions come on involuntarily, spike sharply, stay elevated for a long time, and are difficult to return to stability. Ruthless self-criticism usually accompanies the ride the whole way up and back.

If I can pause to become quickly aware of what I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, and what physical sensations I'm experiencing, that's data for me. I can sort it based on one criterion: helpfulness. "Given what I'm feeling, thinking, and sensing, what would be next most helpful for me to do right now to help myself return to a more stable state?" I don't ask what would be right, good, or appropriate. I don't ask what my sponsor, counselor, partner, parent or ______ would approve of. No judgment of any kind from any source. Only what I perceive would be helpful to me, personally. My answer will be one or more of my self-care practices and I can immediately start doing them for myself.

For example, if I ask myself right now, "How are you doing giving attention to what you choose?", my answer is, "Not great."

I kick in my attention management system.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, what is the intensity of your longing to drink?" 5

"What are you feeling?" I feel terrified, panicked, horrified, ashamed.

"What are you thinking?" I am thinking that if I were taking care of the kitten I adopted correctly, he would be well. I am thinking this kitten is going to die on my watch and I'm flawed and inadequate because I didn't figure out how to keep him alive. I will, and should, receive scolding, then shunning for my failure.

"What physical sensations are you experiencing?" Waves of panic up and down my body.

"Given what you're feeling, thinking, and sensing, what would be most helpful to do next?"

This is where keeping a bank of self-care methods and having practiced them muscularly is crucial. I'm in the midst of a full-hearted, full-minded, full-bodied upset. When I'm upset, I can't think. It's not my fault. It's human. In the midst of distress, the brain is ready to take action, not deliberate. I need my actions to turn more automatically to my list of self-care practices than to drinking alcohol, a practice my brain has also learned feels like self-care.

I don't analyze or probe what's up with me. That might be useful later. For now, I need to help myself not drink.  

I need the kindest, most tender treatment possible. Confrontation and reprimand, euphemistically termed "tough love" feel like an assault to me. As a result of my history, an automatic pattern of thinking for me is "I am bad, I've done wrong, I'm never enough," so hearing that repeated in some form, especially when I am vulnerable, hurts, not helps.

The self-care practice that is most helpful to me most of the time is gentle talk, based in reason and reality, backed by evidence.

"Ah, Anne, that caring heart of yours! You learned that love is paired with life-and-death responsibility and it's not. Love comes from within. No obligations, no requirements, just because. I know you care for the little kitten and want to give it, not just a good life, but a stellar one! Such an earnest, tender child's heart you have, so easy to love, so easy to break.

"All right, let's think this through a tad. You know from your studies that the thoughts you're having are cognitive distortions and they misstate reality. Just because you think it, dear, doesn't mean it's true. Let's check the data. The kitten remains stable and you're following the vet's treatment recommendations so carefully. Try as we might, we don't have control over life and death. The kitten might die and that would be so very sad. At this point, it's not looking like loss of the kitten is imminent, but we can't know. If you have your expected life span, the kitten will die before you do, regardless, and you did acknowledge that to yourself before you adopted the kitten. You truly have thought all this through thoroughly and respectfully. Spikes in your inner state do happen for you and you're easing them nicely. As hard as losses have been for you - and would be for anyone with a heart such as yours - you have gotten through them before. Everything that's happened so far in your life, you have handled. You're likely to handle this, too."

To the best of my ability to understand the miserable conundrum of addiction for me, that's how, moment-to-moment, I stay abstinent from alcohol. I loathe alcoholism in myself. I've wanted my hate to blast it to dust. But I've learned that only through tender, kind, logical, information-rich conversations with myself can I liberate enough of my attention from the hideous darkness of alcoholism to live what's left of my one, beautiful little life. 

The Last Addictions Memoir below:

Part 1 here  Part 2 here  Part 3 here Part 4 here  Part 5 here Part 6 here Part 7 here 

Part 8 here Part 9 here Part 10 here Part 11 here Part 12 here Part 13 here Part 14 here 

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. She writes about addictions treatment, recovery and policy at annegiles.com. As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder.

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