You Are Your Choices, Not Your Baser Instincts

By Ashley Chupp 04/04/18

It hurts to actually try to be balanced, positive and stable, and to come up short sometimes. It can be more painful than not trying at all.

woman on a beach looking at a sunset
Your chaotic impulses don't define you; your choices do.

It’s always when it grows quiet that my anxiety kicks in. When my problems are my own creation, I can feel some semblance of control even as they spiral into madness. In the stillness, I have no idea what great scare is coming next. For ages, I tried to get ahead of the jump by creating one myself. No one should need a storm raging around them to feel comfortable, safe and freed. But what if you do?

I grew up saturated by emotional abuse and turbulence, and I carried these patterns with me in adulthood as I fell into alcohol addiction. When this is your only history, your instincts become all survival. And survival is inherently selfish. For better or worse, it must be. For me, a huge part of getting sober was the conscious decision to live more ethically—something I realized I could not do if I continued to drink and use. However, my instincts were still forged in the fire of chaos. Self-preservation was my priority for so long, still nothing else comes as naturally to me.

As my life stands in the present, I am not really a mess anymore. I mean I definitely don’t have it together in the large-scale, long-term way, but I’m not actively a mess, you know? That’s been far more terrifying to me than the self-conjured hurricane I lived in while I was drinking and using. If my new life falls apart, it will likely be due to something I didn’t create or ask for this time. To try your best to succeed means that when you fail, you can’t fix it. You can’t say “if only I had been better” because you were already your best. The world just didn’t have your back. Or, god forbid, your best just didn’t cut it.

It is fascinating to watch people who never needed to fight for survival. Many (though certainly not all) of them instinctively center stability and harmony. This is foreign to me. It seems so simple for them to choose the right thing. Meanwhile, at least once a week I find myself sitting on my bed with my eyes screwed shut, ceaselessly repeating the motto I chose for myself when I got sober: “I will do the right thing every time, because that is the person I have chosen to be.” My life has become one of constant self-regulation.

Someone should have warned me. Recovery isn’t just quitting your drug of choice. It’s reprogramming your behavior. Perhaps it’s even re-aligning your moral compass. The learning and the unlearning go deeper than just “not using.” When you make the choice to hold yourself responsible for your own actions, it requires fighting your survivalist and escapist reflexes every step of the way.

To go from dodging accountability by drowning yourself in the alternate reality that drugs provide to forcing yourself to stare down the consequences of every move you make is overwhelming. So you quiet down your life, go to bed at a reasonable hour, stop picking fights, stop behaving as if you are free from cause-and-effect. You generate less noise. You attract less chaos. Honestly? It’s boring. It’s tedious. Before you get to see that true fulfillment comes slowly, following extensive and difficult work, you have to put in extensive and difficult work.

When I look back at where I was in the throes of alcohol dependency, trapped in abusive relationships, objectively I am in a much better place. I have friends I have yet to alienate by roping into constant drama and problems. I’m making steps toward the life I want for myself, instead of keeping an open 32-pack by my bed and crawling into my house through an unlocked window because I am too embarrassed to tell my roommate I lost my keys on a bender, again. But life is not easy. I am still often unhappy. It hurts to actually try to be balanced, positive and stable, and to come up short sometimes. It can be more painful than not trying at all.

I was prepared for alcohol withdrawal. I knew what I stood to go through. It was hell, but I was warned that it would be. Withdrawal from my own chaos— that I did not anticipate. My first few months of sobriety were a constant task. Every second of every day I had to will myself not to give in to chemical escapism. It’s the same with chaos. Every second of every day, I have to fight it.

It’s still a constant battle not to send a wild text message to a friend, just to see what kind of blowup would ensue. It’s a constant battle not to initiate emotional affairs with married men, just to feel dangerous and desired. It’s a constant battle not to try to get a coworker I dislike fired, just to know that I could. Sometimes I feel like my current friends have no idea who I actually am. They only see who I currently choose to be.

But I am who I choose to be. I made a choice to free myself from toxic people, from toxic addictions and from toxic behaviors. And you know what? I didn’t do it to be happy. I didn’t do it to be comfortable. I did it because it was the right thing to do, and that is the kind of person I have chosen to be, whether or not it pays off down the line. Life may not be fun or easy or rewarding just because I decided this, but nothing has more power over me than me.

I’ve been sober for about two years, and I can see that my life is still rich and and stimulating even when I choose restraint and respect over impulsivity and self-interest. I couldn’t see it for a while, though, and if I could impress one thing on those new to recovery it would be that you will adjust to a quieter and deeper life. Choosing accountability and rewiring your behavior accordingly will begin as an unbearable slog, but it will be worth it as you start to develop genuine, caring relationships predicated on mutual trust and consideration. It will be worth it when you look at everything you have and know that you earned it, that you deserve it.

Remember that you have chosen recovery. You have chosen the right thing. And you are your choices, not your baser instincts.

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Ashley Chupp is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer based in Chicago who writes about recovery, trauma and identity. She loves watching live comedy, listening to Ariana Grande and reading about Watergate. You can follow her on Twitter or Linkedin.