I have had a couple what I would refer to as profound experiences in my life since beginning this journey of mine almost 8 years ago. The first one, as I have talked about before was the Indiana Dunes Great Banquet. During this experience, I witnessed what was referred to, to me as a “crash course in Christianity. It was truly beautiful. I heard testimonies, and stories from other men who had struggled in their own lives, I experienced true fellowship, I felt real mature acceptance, and I experienced Grace as I have come to understand it. And when it comes to Grace, why, we all experience it in different ways. I am sure if we were all to look back on our lives we could easily point out moments and even seasons when we received Grace. Remember, justice is getting what we deserve, mercy is not getting what we deserve, and grace is getting what we don’t deserve.
During my time going through this 4 day retreat that is the great banquet, I remember really being blown away at how “flawed and faulty” all of us are, and how openly some of us are and can be to admit it. And I remember as the weekend progressed on, this overwhelmingly “full” feeling. Like spiritually full. The whole “my cup runneth over feeling”. It was magical. I felt accepted, I felt cared and provided for, and I felt loved, just the way that I was. I experienced forgiveness from God, as I understand him, and I experienced what I can only describe as pardon. I felt loved and accepted just as I was, and that was a truly powerful experience for me, because I had some serious baggage and bondage. It was a beautiful experience in my life.
What does the word “Recover” actually mean though? The first definition I found when Googling this word is this: return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. Sounds good right? It does. But looking at my own life journey, what was “normal” for me, if to recover was to return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength? Well, in my opinion, “normal” as I understood it was not good. In here lies a conundrum, for if “to recover” were to return me back to a “normal” then that would mean to return back to what was normal for me. Follow me here, I am going somewhere. I know, I know, my definition of normal is not the same as “John Q. Public’s” I get that. So take away the using, and what was normal for me? Trauma? Chaos? Jail? Turmoil?
I read somewhere in some recovery literature, that “We are not simply looking to ‘recover’ our lives back to how they were, before using drugs took over”; because for many of us, that would be just as ugly as our lives were when we were all strung out living like crazy people. I know for me it would. Take away the chemicals, and I am still a trauma riddled, broken spirited, ill minded, scarred and faulty human being. I don’t know if it is “recovery” so much that many of us have been after all along. And perhaps that is why so many of us, myself included have relapsed many times over. So, if its not ‘to recover’, is it ‘to restore’? To restore back to a prior state? No, that is too similar to ‘to recover’. You see, Throughout all of this, I have been striving to fully and finally conquer “this thing”. But what was it that I was really trying to conquer? Drugs? Alcohol? No. I have been striving to conquer the thing or things that drove me back to the drugs and alcohol time and time again.
And I think that that is why people relapse with so much sobriety time under their belts. Their “thing” hasn’t been discovered, addressed, confronted, and conquered. And when we are still unhealed, our mind is still capable of functioning on the harmful patterns and pathways that have always been there. Sure, we may have a great support system, we may go to meetings, we may have lots of reasons to stay sober, but if those pathways in our minds are still open for traffic, and the right set of circumstances occur, it is all the easier to “divert traffic” back into those pathways that were once used to protect us. To provide relief. To ease pain. To increase pleasure. Does this make sense? Think about it as a short cut through the woods, as a child. If that short cut is still available as a quicker way to get to our destination (and that destination is relief) and it starts to rain while we are out playing, are we going to take the long way home, or hop on the short cut?
And I use this example, “short cut through the woods when we are children” as an example, because that’s exactly when we start to develop our paths, our techniques, and our survival skills- as children. Unknowingly, subconsciously, however it happens, that is when they begin. And we rely on these same skill sets and mechanisms, whether we want to admit it or not, right on through our adult lives. “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as the old adage goes. But what if we can? Teach old dogs new tricks that is.
We find our paths, our skills, our mechanisms early in life, they work, and then we rely on them for decades to come. What once used to be a barely visible deer path through the woods behind our house, is now a full blown dirt road, rutted out and cleared enough for us to fly through it as fast as we can on our Huffy to beat the rain. And we can hop on that path with very little effort, we know each and every bump and hump, twist and turn, we have it memorized. We have used it a thousand times. And we use it so much, that we begin using it even when it’s not raining out, just because its faster and more convenient. This is the same thing we do with our brains, from an early age, without even knowing it.
So, if the shortcuts, the pathways, the operating systems, and mechanisms in our brains from an early age are what made us into addicts/alcoholics to begin with, then why would we be longing to simply “recover” ourselves back to such a place? Is this making sense?
I think what we are actually longing for, at least I was, was to “Heal, Unlearn, and Recreate” ourselves. To make new, like never before. To progress and heal in such a way that it was as if those old pathways never existed, closing them for traffic once and for all.
To heal, what? To unlearn what? To recreate how?
To heal, for me meant to fully examine my life with the guidance of a professional. To unearth those ugly, shameful, horrible secret places inside of me. Risking complete vulnerability and throwing myself all the way out there. “To get naked” I call it. And to go through my childhood, upbringing, relationships, examples that were set, and so on. To identify major events, to identify and recognize harmful patterns, and to connect the dots and data points in my current life and relationships with others and myself- back to the time the precedent for these thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns was set. It was during this time; the digging up and examining of what makes me tick, what makes me think, feel, and act the way I do that I was able to point out the positive and negative patterns and mechanisms that were still in my employ today. And it was also during this time that there were some things that really needed to be addressed; resentment, anger, bitterness, victim mentality, spite, insecurities, shame, guilt, fear, and traumas. All of these things went into my brain’s chemical makeup, which then led me to seeing the world through these lenses, which in turn brought about more pain, and led me to living life with a hostile heart. I had brick walls built up around me 10 miles high. Throughout this process, we took them down, brick by brick. And I was slowly able to find something that I didn’t know that I was looking for: Forgiveness.
Once the digging, unearthing, and examination portion was complete, it was time to perform a professional audit on those findings. What about these things was constructive, destructive, useful, practical, positive, or negative? We now had cause, effect, and practicalities. We were reverse engineering my life, we were taking everything about me apart, to find out how we could put me back together in a more beneficial way. We were looking at “what we have, what we haven’t got, what we needed, and what needed to go” as Father Martin Ashley puts it. It was in this process that the “unlearning” took place. Realizing that certain ideas, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were causing unmanageability in my life, and causing pain and distress in the lives around me. Once we established and understood my “blue print”, we were able to make corrections and revisions, make updates if you will. We put together something that would be more beneficial in my life and in my relationships. In order to learn new, we had to unlearn old.
And it was in these two processes, that we were able to find to most effective replacements for old harmful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We were then able to slowly implement and practice new insights, perspectives, and beliefs. It was kind of like trying on clothes, challenging myself to think, feel, believe, and behave new ways. To see how this might be a benefit for myself and my loved ones. This is something that I have come to know as Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). The more challenges I went through, the more my mind opened, and the more growth and healing took place. I was indeed putting myself back together, bit by bit. I was healing, and I was recreating myself. I was learning that the old ways of thinking were not the only ways of thinking. Not only did those old beliefs, thoughts, and feelings get me to a point of misery, they were also obsolete and outdated. I was hitting “ctrl + alt + delete” on my mind, core beliefs, and spirit. Just because I had come from a really ugly place, didn’t mean I had to return there.
And that is what my second profound experience was since beginning my journey. The sharp laser cut clarity that I do not have to be who the world, my traumas, and my pains made me to be. That I do have a tremendous power in this world. The power of choice. By stripping myself down completely, I was able to find out what I was really made of, and what to do about it. I was freeing up, I was slowing down, I was allowing myself some space to be re planted in more fertile soil. And one of the things that I realized throughout that process, was that on a very deep, subtle, and almost subconscious level, I was actively choosing my hostile heart, my anger, my resentment, my bitterness, and my victim mentality. Those things gave me some semblance of control. When you grow up in a world full of chaos, a world that is so out of control, to hold on to anything that gives you a sense of manageability, provides comfort- I was hanging on to anger and bitterness. I had held on long enough. It was no longer serving me. I was now able to let it all go. I had never felt more refreshed, replenished, light, or quenched in my life.
Dig. Examine. Audit. Relinquish.
This was how my healing commenced.
I didn’t want to “recover” something lost or “recover” a previously existing state of being or frame of mind. I wanted to recreate, renew, and rebegin.
“And I’ve got love to fill me in, I’ve got family to help me re-begin”
“Old Barns” by Greensky Bluegrass