Until It Happens To You
"If I could define enlightenment briefly I would say it is the quiet acceptance of what is." – Wayne Dyer
I remember with crystal clarity the day I sat down to write my first post on this blog. It was titled "How Did I Get Here" and was a sad, desperately honest self-reflection and coming-to-terms with the actually real reality of my addiction to alcohol. I was finally acknowledging, but not yet accepting, the reality I had been denying for so long, despite deep down inside knowing it to be painfully true.
Up to that day, it was easier to just keep suffering in impressive, oblivious denial.
To suffer, because I had imagined different.
I suffered and stalled because I refused to accept that my life was unravelling and I was out of control, because addiction happens to other people – until it happens to you.
I suffered and stood on the outside of healing looking in since I couldn't accept I had become so battered, because falling apart happens to other people – until it happens to you.
I suffered and shamed myself for lacking the strength to resist my temptations, because weakness and dependence happens to other people – until it happens to you.
I suffered because I was clinging to my imagined life where troubles were few and far between and landed in other people's backyards, not mine.
Addiction was the thing of talkshows and documentaries, public health posters and high school social studies classes. It was something I walked past quickly and changed channels to elude; these were stories and warnings for other people who were out of control – not me.
I was floundering in flux between the denial of my truth, and the quiet, shame-ridden half-acceptance that arrived with every bottle added to the pile of empties staring me down behind closed doors. That half-acceptance was always there, showing up as the guilt-ridden sadness that came along with the first drink of the day and the beatdown defeat of each subsequent morning.
I was avoiding the truth and hoping it would, in turn, change the facts.
I was living like what Bill Waterson, the cartoonist behind Calvin & Hobbes, once said: "It's not denial. I'm just selective about the reality I choose to accept." And what I called my reality was nothing more than a carefully curated collection of only the most shiny and sparkling parts that matched what I had imagined my life was and would be like.
The more I resisted, the more things persisted.
And it was my resistance against admitting that my reality and my imagined life didn't neatly line up that kept me in place, stuck in the loop. I was effectively the hamster, and denial was my wheel. The longer I rejected and resisted the idea that all the truths of my addiction had indeed happened to me – and not just everybody else – the longer I was stuck there in constant conflict.
Rejecting the truth never changed my reality. It only held me in place and brought more pain.
I had to wrap my head around the idea that by accepting that I was an addict didn't mean that I liked it, chose it, or wanted it. The concept of accepting something for the longest time always felt as though I also had to approve of it, too. I spent a lot of unnecessary time on that wheel running in circles, because I was afraid that by accepting the truth of my addiction and it's impact on my life and relationships also meant that I was somehow embracing and endorsing it.
I was wrong.
The first step of acceptance (and in turn, freedom) simply came down to me making room for my truth.
I didn't have to like it, but I did have to allow it.
I had to give myself permission to be the alcoholic I had become, as much as it conflicted with my imagined life. I needed to just let that reality be, to sit with it and not take on any more shame because of it. I had to remove the imaginary notion I had that only other people became alcoholics. I had to admit to the reality that I was one of those other people, and that it had indeed actually happened to me, and here I was.
This didn't take any of the pain away.
If anything, it brought more – but I suffered less.
I suffered less because I moved into a space where I had given myself permission to own the undeniable fact that I was addicted, and where I was finally able to start comparing what my imaginary life looked like, and what my really real life was actually made of. Giving myself permission to be broken and flawed and confused and addicted started the process of knocking my self-limiting imaginary life to it's knees and began the unstitching of my dependence on alcohol.
My first impressions were underwhelming, after I finally gave myself permission to actually be the addict I had become, part and parcel with all that it meant.
I think I had it in my mind that acceptance was something that just happened, like a supernova exploding in one glorious Ah-Ha! moment. It doesn't. "Accept" is a verb, and requires the ongoing practice of coming-to-terms with reality, as ugly and uncomfortable as it may be. As much as it conflicted with the fantasy world of who I imagined I was, I had to acknowledge that my addiction was as much a part of the real me in that moment as were my arms, my legs, and my deepest fears and desires.
I was lucky enough to also come to realize the impermanence of everything. That just because in that moment it was my "really real reality", at one point it wasn't, and in the future it didn't have to be, either. It was in this realization that the terrifying truth of my predicament became less terrifying, because it meant it wasn't a life sentence.
It meant that it was curable.
I began unearthing a snake pit of realities I had long buried deep with denial. The pile of truths I had to start owning grew tall and towering, and I had to give myself permission to take responsibility for each and every one of them.
To claim them, and sign my name to them.
You know, the things that I would never do, the things I would never say, and the situations I would never put myself in – until I did them, said them, and found myself in them.
It was like arriving at a murder scene, with casualties from my imagined life laying lifeless everywhere.
This is where it would have been easy to stop, or start back-peddling my way to the hamster wheel. To run back to the apron strings of my fantasy life, where I wasn't a dependent alcoholic, where I hadn't hurt the people closest to me, and where I half-heartedly lived a half-life day in and day out in the company of my meek half-acceptance.
I couldn't change what I refused to confront, and so, confront things I did because I wanted to change.
By admitting my truth, I was able to begin exploring solutions that up until that point had never felt intended for me. I was finally able to take the responsibility for my sobriety seriously – because that's what alcoholics need to do. The longer I remained convinced that my problem wasn't as much of a problem as it was, the longer I stood longing for healing, always looking at it from the outside in. I had to begin owning the solutions that were available to addicts like me – because I was one.
Because it had happened to me, and no amount of denial in the world could change that.
I had a long and littered past of failed attempts at sobriety, and I was beginning to see why. I could never seem to push past my first few sober days or hours, despite my burning desire for escape from the cycle. I would take a few timid steps into the scary and uncertain territory of not drinking only to find myself running back to where I started as quickly as I could every single time.
The further in I would go, the more apparent the severity of my predicament became.
I would find myself at the whims of cravings, and unable to overcome the demands of my addiction – but still I believed that surely, I wasn't an alcoholic. It was easier to abandon my attempts at getting rid of alcohol than it was to once and for all accept that I had no control over it anymore. I would try to simply not drink, but I kept tripping over the tricky symptoms of addiction. And since in my imaginary life I wasn't an addict, I would repel and retreat, over and over again because I was unwilling to admit my truth. I bartered, I negotiated, I justified, I lied. I did anything I could to avoid stepping out of my imaginary comfort zone.
Until I came to accept that addiction was part of my very real reality, I denied all the symptoms because they didn't apply to me.
The truth that I was an addict who lacked the self control to moderate, and had at some point lost the ability to choose, was a terrifying truth I was unwilling to come to terms with for a very long time. And so I kept suffering, because I was living in the constant conflict of wanting to stop drinking, not being able to stop drinking, and not being able to admit that this was my reality. I resisted accepting that this was indeed my truth – that I was impossibly addicted, that it had happened to me – and I'd retreat back to my comfort zone and delusional, imaginary life where I wasn't really an alcoholic.
Except that I was.
Comfort zones are caskets where the living lay and practice being less than alive before the body dies. – J. Warren Welch
It was only in the decisive, brave acceptance of my truth, and giving myself permission to have let it happen to me, was I also able to begin exploring the options and solutions that were available for addicts.
Addicts like me.
It was in that slow, creaking approval that I allowed myself to face the symptoms of addiction head on, no longer afraid or shocked by them. I didn't have to like it, but I had to admit that what I was feeling was what addiction feels like. And because I was an addict I needed to deal with it, instead of denying it and running away screaming "But this problem and these feelings don't belong to me!"
It meant dismantling my comfort zone to make room for my truth and all the challenges that came with it. It meant swallowing my pride, it meant brutal, painfully ugly honesty, and it meant freedom from the hamster wheel if I could step out of my imaginary life and into admission. It meant once and for all taking a long look in the steamed-up mirror of my ego, and wiping it clean so I could finally see myself for who I was.
To begin overcoming my addiction successfully, I needed to accept it fully, because half-acceptance only allows for half-success.
In the beginning, overcoming my addiction seemed like an impossible feat – until it happened to me.
The idea of saying, and putting the terrifying phrase "I'm an alcoholic" behind me seemed inconceivable – until it happened to me.
The prospect of not drinking in the face of ten thousand triggers seemed unthinkable – until it happened to me.
The idea of accepting how I allowed the unimaginable to happen to me seemed impossible – until it very much happened to me.
And that's what I'm discovering this beautiful, heartbreaking thing called life is all about. It can't be experienced from the window of your imaginary world, because it happens in the mud, and in the rain, and in the sunny struggles of our really real world – if you're willing to let it happen to you.
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