Category Archives: Compassion for self and others

Alcoholism continues long after you stop drinking: my 15 years sober

This exceptional piece of writing comes courtesy of Tanya Gold featured in The Guardian earlier this year.  Beautiful writing about alcoholism and how for many of us it is but the symptom of much deeper issues.

It is easy to get morphine in University College hospital, London, if you are a good liar. It hurts, you tell the midwife, although you can’t feel anything, being so high on morphine already that someone could hit you with a sledgehammer and you would only laugh: what else you got? It was close to midnight on 13 August 2013, and I was on medical-grade opiates; nothing else can make you forget you are about to give birth. Eleven years without alcohol or drugs, and I fell, complete, into the waiting groove. I loved it. I was having a party in the high-risk maternity ward and they didn’t even know it. I lay back on my pillow and gurned with joy: oh, Morpheus, god of dreams.

When the morphine ran out, I had a baby. He was very small and handsome, and he was an imposition. I could say I was frightened, but that would be self-serving. It is possible, even likely, that I was afraid. I was definitely high.

I stared at him and thought: I am more vulnerable than you, even if you are a baby. Then I told the midwife: my husband is trying to kill me. My evidence was that he had brought me a tin of biscuits. This, then, was the comedown, and I was at the bottom of the curve. I must have said that the baby was not important to me, because my husband became angry and I became angry, and I told him I hated him and had never loved him. I considered walking out into the traffic, or throwing myself under a train, and that was our baby’s first night on Earth. We went home and I locked myself in my bedroom, without the baby, and looked at photographs of him on Facebook, and ate a ham.

Strange things can bring you to a crisis, like realising that you cannot read Dickens out of jealousy. Or more obvious ones, like thinking: the baby should live with my sister, she will do this better than me. Or, when he was two months old: when is he going to university? In my history of alcoholism, I have been at my most healthy when I knew that I was ill. If you remind yourself that you are ill, you can do better. Now, in my son’s room, wishing his childhood away because I did not know how to care for him, I knew I was ill. I was not drinking or using drugs, but I was as lonely and frightened as I had ever been. I was back where I had started.

***

Alcoholism is a strange condition. If you survive the drinking stage, and many don’t, it has relatively little to do with alcohol, which is merely the drug with which the alcoholic treats herself. It is, rather, a way of thinking, and continues long after you have stopped drinking. It is a voice in the head: a malevolent voice that wants you to die. I certainly see it that way: it makes it easier to pick my way through the days if I know what, exactly, I am dealing with. Is this the voice speaking, or not? Which one made a decision, and which one doubted it? To discover the true root of any plan can require forensic vigour, and much time. It is perpetual inner warfare.

The party in the maternity ward aside, I have not taken drugs or alcohol for 15 years. You might think I would be better by now, but for the alcoholic there is nothing as prosaic as “better”. There is only a daily remission, based on how you deal with the voice in your head. (“Hello, monster. Where have you been?”)

One morning in early 2002, at perhaps 5am, which is, as all addicts know, when the night breaks, leaving you with mashed lips and mad eyes, I stood in front of the mirror in my mother’s house. I had been drinking alcoholically – that is, without stopping – for almost nine years, and I was very near the end. I pointed at myself – I remember myself as a very attractive drunk, red-lipped and irresistible, but this is the voice again, for I was nothing of the sort – and I said, very clearly, “I hate you and I wish you would die.” I knew then what the voice in my head wanted, and how powerful it was. It made a mistake by being honest and, because it made a mistake, I lived.

I could no longer blame circumstances or others; I would have to do something about it myself. It is frightening, seeing yourself wish death on yourself in a mirror, and – because you are full of cocaine, as well as alcohol – being able to remember it. Alcohol shrouds itself in blackout, and you wake to a queasy blank; but cocaine is very bright, and pointed – it is almost telescopic. I was frightened enough to attempt one year without alcohol.

I was prepared to be conscious (I loved the WH Auden line “But who can live for long/In an euphoric dream?”) but I was under the delusion I was a literary genius, even though the only job I could get at the time was as a freelance reporter for a now defunct Daily Mail showbusiness column called Wicked Whispers. Wicked Whispers was so awful that, occasionally, the subs forgot to put it in the paper and no one would notice. If the celebrities I stalked stared at me, and asked, kindly, about my pitiful excuse for a career, I was stunned. Looking askance at Gillian Anderson when she, clearly and without malice, pities you, is, for me, a definitive act of insanity.

I was too scared to drink alcohol, but I couldn’t do anything else about a condition I barely understood. I went to self-help groups in gloomy church annexes, which seemed as despairing – though less vivid – as what I had left behind, and heard people talk about “spiritual growth”. I missed my near-death, for it had not been boring. I did not know what they were talking about. I could not hear them. I said I was an alcoholic, because I supposed I must be, but I didn’t really know what it meant.

I did know I needed a new soul, the old one having broken, and I chose to build it with ink. I thought that I should be a famous journalist, so I stood outside the Daily Mail building and offered up a prayer, like Salieri: Lord, make me a great short-form showbusiness columnist, and then, if you think it right, Lord, may I progress to features. I got a job on the features desk, a job I called “Idiot Girl”. I was required to report in fancy dress – Saxon peasant, old woman – and I loved it. It was evidence of my survival: she mugs, she pratfalls, she lives! The voice was impressed, and temporarily silenced. (I believe everyone is a secret Daily Mail reader, even the voice.)

I built a career in journalism but I felt, always, that the person in print had nothing to do with me. She looked like me, but she was my ghost, and she was not reliable. I could never stop working, but I could never stay in any job; as soon as I arrived, I yearned to leave. I became marvellous at being fired and learned to soothe, and even thank, the person who was firing me, the better to start again at the beginning. It was a game I played with myself. I would procrastinate over my work to stoke the fear, but I was not lazy. I met a sensitive, clever man and married him, but I worked on my wedding day. I worked on my honeymoon. I worked in the labour ward, until I was offered the morphine. I was terrified of losing things and I would try to lose them so I could be, momentarily, at peace. My husband, at least, knew that, which is probably why I chose him. I am not a complete idiot.

I was, for a while, a columnist, but that was no good, either. To write a good column, I had to work myself into such a state of rage that the week was empty of anything else. I had a schedule of rage, which I followed dutifully; if I wrote on Wednesday, I would be numb on Thursday and would then stoke the rage over the weekend. On Monday, the rage would ebb, to be replaced by terror, which would reach a pitch on Tuesday night, after which I would write what seemed to me not sentences, but tiny, insistent stabs. That is not a job; it is a condition.

I was still at the mercy of the voice, but she had regressed to sludge. She manifested as a cloud of anxiety that travelled with me and occasionally mutated, helpfully, into dread, and then back to anxiety. I was a cartoon character with a personal cloud, Charlie Brown with a mood disorder.

Late summer in 2013, I was sitting in a self-help group. This one was surrounded by a very fine, old graveyard, like a metaphor, with many famous intellectuals in fabulous tombs; we sat calmly with the dead, as if we belonged there. The baby was at home in the cradle. I always said the same thing at this self-help group, and they were very patient with me. If I had published a good article in the previous 24 hours, I was happy because I existed in a form with which I was comfortable, and which other people could recognise and approve of. If not, I moped, and complained that I was not happy. I avoided self-help groups where they talked about their gratitude. I did not believe them.

I listened and thought about how much, then, I hated being an alcoholic. I mourned the lives I could have lived if I had not been cursed with this condition. I could have been an MEP! I could have been a chef! I wondered, in a broad way, what had happened, and what I could do. I became aware, quite suddenly in the quiet by the graveyard, of the constancy of the voice. I had waited, every day for 15 years, to wake up and find she had gone, and that was my error.

I knew then that she has always been there. When I was five, she told me my parents didn’t love me. I remember repeating, very insistently, to my parents that I knew they did not love me, because she had told me so. Evidence doesn’t matter to the voice; she kicks it away. She cherishes a passing piece of thoughtlessness, nurtures a harm. She lives in the small places beneath my conscious mind.

When I was 10, she said I was friendless at a noisy suburban school. When I was 12, and mooching about the dull streets of Kingston upon Thames, she said I was alone, and probably always would be. For the nine years of my active alcoholism, she told me to drink, first because it wouldn’t harm me – and what else was there? – and then because I couldn’t be saved.

She says only what she can get away with. She could never, for instance, convince me that my sister doesn’t love me; instead, she tormented me, when I was drinking, with the possibility that my sister might die. She wants so much to be believed, this voice, and is almost as pitiful as the other me, which is the one that is writing this story: the one that wants to live. I am quite aware how mad this sounds, but it is the truest narrative of my alcoholism that I can offer. Perhaps in 15 years I will have another one.

We coexist uneasily, today, the voice and I; she tells me to procrastinate over my work, to start fights, to give up. If I am unwary, she can plunge me into the deepest despair, and I have learned to construct an obstacle course to thwart her. It is made only of ordinary human love. Nothing else works.

My son helps me. His is three now, and knows what is important. “I must teach you to play, Mummy,” he says, and invites me, without irony, to pretend to be a monster. Then, of course, the voice whispers, “You have made him a parental child”: a creature who will care for me and not himself. I try to ignore her, because I cannot send her away. But I wonder now if it is she who is afraid, and not I.

As so many of the comments said too – thank you Tanya.

Friday Sober Jukebox: Do The Hustle

So it’s been a while since I’ve had a moment of clarity in my sobriety so it feels like one was way overdue and then it arrived.  Not with a bang but as Laura McKowen said recently to Nicole Antoinette in a podcast, it was a ‘soft click’.  I’ve been doing the hustle again – the hustle for worthiness.

The soft click moment came lying in the bath having listened to 3 podcasts in quick succession; Meadow DeVor with Nicole Antoinette, the Laura McKowen one and then Dan Siegel talking about The Wheel of Awareness which I’ve talked about here.  It’s like they all coalesced in my brain and then I have a realisation.

So Dan talked about our Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score which I also talk about in my attachment, alexithymia & addiction research paper I wrote and I will share soon here, plus Veronica Valli linked to an excellent article about it recently here too.  Mine is 8/10 which meant I was environmentally and genetically primed for addiction.  And Meadow talked about the hustle for worthiness as it relates to professional remuneration, overworking, underearning and overspending – an addiction of another kind in all but substance.

And when I looked back and reflected on different memories it all became clear.  Some clues?  Memories of hearing my parents arguing when I was teenager at being unable to afford the cost of my school fees (I was educated at private boarding school of my mother’s choosing not mine) and how it was wasted on me because he thought I wasn’t intelligent enough – and me thinking ‘I’ll prove you wrong’; having to tenaciously pursuit contacts I’d established to secure an assistant research psychologist post; badgering a manager for a reference to apply to the University of Cambridge and the joy at finding out I’d been accepted; writing the blog and then the tears at people signing up for the London workshops; and most recently approaching agencies as I try to secure a job (and accompanying visa) in Australia.  The soft click of awareness that I was feeling way too comfortable with all of this and how it all felt very familiar – the clenched jaw, breathe holding and giddy rush of the chase.  Good things come to those who hustle right?

And now I have the awareness I have to decide what to do with it and that I haven’t quite figured out yet.  So a musical interlude in the meantime  with Pan’s People no less! 😉

PS Tomorrow is the UK’s 9th Recovery Walk if you would like to join them here are all the details:

Faces And Voices of Recovery UK Blackpool 2017

 

Sober inspiration: Out of the Shadows, Out of the Shame

So another month another book – the final one downloaded onto my kindle relating to recovery before I pause and allow all of this reading to be internalised and processed.  Out of the shadows, out of the shame indeed.

Claudia Black’s book Changing Course is about recovery and as the book is described:

“Claudia Black extends a helping hand to individuals working their way through the painful experience of being raised with addiction. “How do you go from living according to the rules – Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel – to a life where you are free to talk and trust and feel?” Black asks. “You do this through a process that teaches you to go to the source of those rules, to question them, and to create new rules of your own,” she explains. Using charts, exercises, checklists, and real-life stories of adult children of alcoholics, Black carefully and expertly guides readers in healing from the fear, shame, and chaos of addiction.”

This particular section really struck me and so I’m sharing it here:

Recovery is living a life free from shame.  It is recognising that you are not your secret; you are not your family secrets.  You are a person with a myriad of experiences, some of them very painful.  But, the pain of exposing the secret very, very rarely compares to the pain of keeping the secret.  And once the knowledge is shared, the relief feels like the warmth of the summer sun after a very long, cold winter.

The following are some of the reasons people reveal secrets:

  1. It relieves a burden.  You no longer have to continue to lie to others.  The secret has made life more difficult.  It is no longer necessary to spend any more energy keeping it.
  2. It allows you to be true to yourself.  It allows you to be honest with yourself.
  3. It prevents a possible surprise discovery.  Some secrets are shared to lesson the shock or surprise that would be created if a significant other found out.
  4. It enables you to have a more honest relationship with another.  When you share a secret with someone, you are conveying the added message that you trust them with something very important to you.  You are sharing at a more vulnerable level and that often creates in the other person a reciprocal willingness to be open and vulnerable.  The result is that a greater trust develops between the two of you.
  5. It stimulates family change.  When you decide to speak up, other family members are encouraged to make changes in their own lives.
  6. It could be a plea for help.  When the secret you confide still needs to be attended too (for example, if you are drinking too much and not yet in recovery), telling another person is a way for you to begin to move yourself towards getting help.

Recovery does not include secrecy.  It means speaking your truth.  You must end the Don’t Talk rule for yourself.

This is all so true for me and I carried such shame around my drinking.  At approaching 4 years in recovery my shame is almost non-existent.  A friend recently asked me if I was still not drinking.  I said that I wasn’t and that it held absolutely no appeal to me now.  I now know deep in my soul that drinking would not improve or make any situation better.  To be free from the shame is a gift that one drink can never compete with, and that is all it would take to undo it all.  If you’re reading this and think you’re drinking too much, reach out to someone and share your secret.  It could be the most powerful thing you could do for yourself.

Friday Sober Inspiration: Reasons to Stay Alive

So I read the book by Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive quite early on in my recovery.  It was published in December 2015 and it was Bryony’s interview with him on the MadWorld podcast series that reminded me of what a great book this is.

You can read an extract from it here.

And here’s an interview with Matt from The Guardian when it was published:

Why did it take you 15 years to get the courage to write about depression?
I was meant to be writing a blog for the Books Trust, as their writer in residence, about novel writing but ran out of things to say and was starting to repeat myself. So I thought: OK, I’ll write about depression, this thing I had always had inside me and wanted to get out. And I got an incredible response, not because the blog was great but because I’ve noticed when anyone talks honestly about depression, it breeds a warm, sincere response from people. Everybody has a story about depression yet, for decades, we have been silent about it.

Is writing a way out of depression?
Writing is not the way but it helps. In February 2000, I was in the depths of depression. I was 24 and back from Ibiza, living at home in Newark [Nottinghamshire], in my childhood bedroom. I started writing bits and pieces – unreadable, angsty stuff. Articulating what is in your head is therapeutic. Words are a shared thing – depression lends itself to melodrama: you believe you’re going through something no one else has been through. At 31, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “I’m the most miserable person now living.” That is the drama of being a young man. That is the drama of depression.

How did you recover?
I still get bouts of depression but I am a lot better than I was. Staying sane and well is a complicated, never-ending process. The critical thing was that I had people I could talk to around me. My solution was never medical. What ultimately helped me was time. Depression told me I wouldn’t make my 25th birthday, then I made my 25th … and then I made my 30th.

One of the surprises is how speedy you make your experience sound, saying that adding anxiety to depression ‘presses fast-forward’?

Most people have depression with anxiety. They overlap in complicated ways. Mine trickled over into OCD and panic disorder. One of the main symptoms of anxiety is racing thoughts.

Why were you living in Ibiza?
I was a party person at university. I went to Hull, then Leeds. I used to drink a lot. (In one fell swoop, I gave up drinking and smoking. I became scared of anything that could alter my brain chemistry). Anyway, I met my partner, Andrea, early on and we went on holiday to Ibiza. After another winter in Hull, we thought it would be nice – probably against our parents’ wishes – to try and get work in Ibiza. I was selling tickets, doing a bit of PR. Andrea got the good job – running the office for the island’s largest party. Ibiza contributed to depression in that I was run down: we weren’t eating well, there had been heavy drinking, no sleeping, a lot of unhealthiness.

How worried were your parents when depression struck?
It happened suddenly so they had to be aware of that. I wasn’t mad or delusional but I was worrying about things too much. I knew who I was. I could hold a conversation, there was nothing obviously wrong with me. My mother had experienced postnatal depression but that made it harder for her because it brought it all back. Unlike with physical illnesses, there is always with depression, I believe wrongly, guilt and blame attached.

Your dad is quoted telling you to pull yourself together …
I feel guilty about that but you can’t write what is vaguely a memoir without betraying someone. I wanted the main person I betrayed to be myself. My mum has only just read the book…

How did she react?
Long, emotional texts that said it was hard for her to read but she thought it was brilliant and that it made her understand depression better.

Is depression different for each person who experiences it?
I don’t know. I’ve only ever been me.

Is it safe to generalise?
It is dangerous not to – despair is universal.

Is technology a contributing factor?
I became ill in 1999 and didn’t even have a mobile phone. Facebook and Twitter provide a Samaritans culture: people are there to chat to 24/7. That said, the addictive aspects of the internet, comparing yourself against other people, is negative for mental health.

Your most unexpected message is that depression can be a force for good?
If you took away all pain, if everyone lived for ever, everything would be bland, flat and boring, there would be no reason for art, music, newspapers, love because we would all be in a mono state of happiness. You cannot belittle depression yet a lot of people would not undo that side of themselves because it changes your thoughts. It makes you appreciate things you would not have appreciated before: like just being alive. Thinking about death makes you analyse what life is. Anxiety makes you curious and curiosity leads to understanding. I wouldn’t be a writer without depression.

Did becoming a published author boost your self-esteem?
It gave me a sense of identity. I had the confidence to write a novel and send it off which I wouldn’t have had before. We were in debt which gave me this ridiculous drive. I wrote a book about talking dogs – a reworking of Henry IV Part 1 – and ended up in more debt! Being published gave me that sense of: that is what I am here for.

What does Andrea make of your writing about depression and her role in helping you?
She is a shy person and we are both a bit antsy because it is your life and people are going to be disbelieving. She and I used to write side by side. Her books were – she hates the word – “chick lit”. When we had kids [now 5 and 7], she stopped but is now writing again, she has some ideas for children’s books.

Do you worry about your children inheriting the depressive gene?
Yeah. It is a confidence thing – if there is a link between how you raise a child and the adult. We try not to be unreasonably critical but I’m of the grim belief that each generation corrects its parents’ mistakes and then makes new mistakes of its own.

You once worked in a cabbage factory warehouse. That could bring on a depression?
Strangely, I don’t get depression in adverse situations. Hard work can be therapeutic. I hated the cabbage factory but it wasn’t capital D depressing.

You suggest we’re losing sight of what matters in over-affluent lives?
Yes, absolutely. I’d feel worse in shopping centres. Adverts, designed to make you feel bad, depressed me – they create a void. It’s easy to lose your priorities and think: I’ve got to have this sort of job or earn this amount of money. It would be lovely to live in a culture where calmness was the aim.

What is the single most important thing to tell someone depressed?
However much in the foreground depression feels, you are separate to it. This is going to sound cheesy but I’d say: You are the sky. A cloud comes and dominates the sky. But the sky is still the sky. Depression tells you everything is going to get worse but that’s a symptom. Don’t give depression power – constantly discredit it.

Giving up alcohol was a major part of Matt’s recovery in the earlier years and you can hear him talk about it with Bryony here:

https://bryonysmadworld.telegraph.co.uk/e/mad-world-matt-haig/

Like Bryony I loved his lists in the book.  Although this is written about depression it could so easily be about alcohol dependence too (excerpt taken from his blog):

7. Ignore stigma. Every illness had stigma once. Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind.

Sober Inspiration: Stepping away from Self-Improvement

So I seem to be getting the same message from different sources and in different mediums.  I’m guessing I need to take note!  This also mirrors a conversation I had with Prim about how I’d overdone it somewhat in the self-help reading and had emotionally overwhelmed myself in the process 🙁  So in a direct snapback to that I then read the book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze (see image) and then serendipitously listen to a podcast interview with Danielle LaPorte where in discussing her new book White Hot Truth – she hits upon similar themes 🙂

His book’s premise is this:

The pace of modern life is accelerating. To keep up, we must keep on moving and adapting – constantly striving for greater happiness and success. Or so we are told. But the demands of life in the fast lane come at a price: stress, fatigue and depression are at an all-time high, while our social interactions have become increasingly self-serving and opportunistic.
 
How can we resist today’s obsession with introspection and self-improvement? In this witty and bestselling book, Danish philosopher and psychologist Svend Brinkmann argues that we must not be afraid to reject the self-help mantra and ‘stand firm’. The secret to a happier life lies not in finding your inner self but in coming to terms with yourself in order to coexist peacefully with others. By encouraging us to stand firm and get a foothold in life, this vibrant anti-self-help guide offers a compelling alternative to life coaching, positive thinking and the need always to say ‘yes!’

It introduces 7 steps:

  1. Cut out the navel gazing
  2. Focus on the negative in your life
  3. Put on your No hat
  4. Suppress your feelings
  5. Sack your coach
  6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography
  7. Dwell on the past

He espouses the Hellenic tradition of Stoicism:

Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.

“Will-power is like muscle strength, the Stoics believed: the more we exercise it, the better and stronger it becomes.  No matter how silly such innocent examples might sound, it isn’t so stupid to practice turning down a dessert, a glass of wine or a lift in a car.  Self-control is one of the absolutely key virtues for the Stoics, albeit one that encounters a degree of adversity in our accelerating culture, with its penchant for ‘living in the moment’ and its exhortations to ‘Just Do It!’ as the ad says”.

He goes on to say: “As an ‘anti self-help philosophy’ I definitely think it’s useful, partly because it emphasises self-control, a sense of duty, integrity, dignity, peace of mind and a willingness to come to terms with (rather than find) yourself.”

Quite.  Practical pragmatism if you will.

And Danielle is riding the same vibe too it would seem as a reflection of the backlash against the self-improvement movement.  Her book asks:

Has your self-help become self-criticism?

White Hot Truth is a wise and often (hilariously) relatable exploration of the conflicts between spiritual aspiration and our compulsion to improve, from Oprah SuperSoul 100 member, Danielle LaPorte.

Danielle cheerleads seekers to fully own their wisdom by having a good laugh (and maybe a good cry) at all the ways we’ve been trying to improve on our self-improvement.

I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to these and hope you do to 🙂

Friday Sober Jukebox: Humour as a defence (Lit)

humourThere were so many gems in Sally Brampton’s book ‘Shoot the Damn Dog‘ that I have already shared here before.  This is also utterly true and resonated for me – humour as a defence.  I’m a nurse – gallows humour is our professions stock-in-trade.

First Sally’s words:

They don’t like jokes in group therapy.  Humour is a defence.  I am in denial, they say, which is just another word for smart ass.  I use humour to hide behind, because I cannot bear to feel my feelings, cannot face the truth.  I use too many words, they say.  I hide behind language.  I intellectualise my feelings and then explain them away.

‘Stop using your head, Sally.  How do you feel?’.

‘How can I tell you how I feel if I don’t use words?’

They sigh.  I can see the word ‘difficult’ captured in bubbles above their heads.

‘Feel the feelings’ they say, again.

And then what? My feelings are stuck in my throat.  The feelings that I can’t, actually put into words.

Once again, she nails me, completely.  Yes, yes, yes.  Thank you Sally 🙂

And this is what Psychology Today says:

This may explain why some psychologists classify humour as one of the “mature” defense mechanisms we invoke to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety (as compared to the “psychotic,” “immature,” and “neurotic” defense mechanisms). Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn’t cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them.

Perhaps laughter could be most properly considered as a weapon against suffering and despair. If we can joke about a disappointing or traumatic event, we’ll often find ourselves feeling that what’s happened to us isn’t so bad and that we’ll be able to get through it. This expectation serves two vitally important functions:

  1. It diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which
  2. Actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred and flourish once again

So back to gallows humour then.  This is what Wiki says:

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

As the Psychology Today article continues: Laughter is a powerful means by which we can encourage ourselves. That when confronted with setbacks, adversity, trauma, or terrible news, even if it may seem socially inappropriate, we should reach toward humor. We should try to find a way to make light of whatever circumstances make us afraid. Because if instead of focusing on the negative impact of an adverse event or experience we focus on simply laughing about it, actively and consciously pursuing a perspective that makes it funny, we just may be able to activate the most under recognized but powerful weapon we have against suffering.

MrHOF asked for this to be the Friday Sober Jukebox and the video made me laugh 😉

PS Don’t forget that this Sunday London hosts its first Mindful Drinking Festival!

Sober Insights: The Self-Torture Game

So continuing reading Healing the Shame that binds you by John Bradshaw and he talks about a process called the self-torture game.  He says that “it is almost always so habitual that it is unconscious”.  Felt pretty apt so I thought I’d discuss it further here.

It was identified by Fritz Perls as Top Dog-Under Dog Thinking.  Here’s a bit more definition from Wiki:

Topdog vs. underdog is a phrase coined by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt therapy, to describe a self-torture game that people play with themselves in order to avoid the anxiety that they encounter in their environment.

The topdog describes the part of an individual which makes demands based on the idea that the individual should adhere to certain societal norms and standards. These demands are often characterized by “shoulds” and “oughts”.

The underdog describes the part of an individual which makes excuses explaining why these demands should not be met. It is often the case that these excuses act as internal sabotage to ensure that the demands are never met.

Gestalt therapists often guide their patients through an exercise where the patients takes on both of these roles. With the guidance of the therapist, the patients can come to gain insight about themselves which can help them have a healthier relationship with their environment.

I think I engaged in this a great deal when I was drinking and it definitely kept me stuck in shame.  My inner critic was my top dog ‘I shouldn’t drink in the week’ or ‘I ought to be able to have a few nights off without it being a problem’ and my drinking behaviour – the victim or underdog.

It’s been happening again recently but I’ve been noticing it.  I injured my back at work a few weeks ago and it has slowed me down and hobbled my usual activities at home, including running.  In my forced resting state I’ve been doing a huge amount of reading and learning and emotional growth which has been both insightful and overwhelming.  I can recommend three books for emotional recovery work: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, Taming Your Outer Child by Susan Anderson and John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that binds you.  I wouldn’t recommend reading the three back to back as I’ve done as I’ve been the instigator of my own emotional overwhelm because of it.  Tread slowly and gently is what I learned!

I noticed this voice pop up around my reduced activity.  It shows up in my thoughts as anxiety related to gaining weight because I’m not running and about being lazy around the home because I’m resting my back.

Perlz argues that the internal conflict speaks to unfinished business.  What I mean by that is, in this scenario the top dog voice is my internalized early parent figure and the underdog is me as a child being chided for being lazy.  By bringing this into consciousness I get the opportunity to finish the unfinished business by acknowledging the dynamic, become more self-integrating (as this is a defensive split in the human personality) and self-accepting, process the emotions attached and thereby facilitate resolution on this specific personal representation of the ‘self-torture’ game.

Is this something that sounds familiar to you too?  Do you recognise this self-defeating thought pattern?

A Tunnel That Wakes You – Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed)

Dear Sugar

I think (know) I have a serious problem with alcohol.  It freaks me out; it even wakes me up in my sleep because I am terrified of this tunnel I keep going further into.  No one has ever said anything to me about it, because I’ve always been professional, calm, laid-back and in control.  I don’t think I have control anymore, and it seriously scares me.  I drink before work, when I wake up, drinking during lunch, and drink as soon as I get home to fall asleep, when no on can see me doing it.

But I also drink out socially, with my friends, and they are impossible NOT to drink around, and they actually prefer to see me “on”, which is the only state I seem to be comfortable with now.  I don’t think I can give up drinking out socially, because without my friends, I would probably just end up drinking more at home alone.

I know you are not a psychologist, but I would like to get some unbiased advice about this.  I have tried to approach some people about this before (including therapy), but it has proved fruitless, and also really embarrassing.  I guess I am hoping you have the magic, easy solution to this, and I am going to assume there probably isn’t one.

Thanks, Drinker

Dear Drinker,

My unbiased advice is that you know you’re addicted to alcohol and you need help.  You’re right that there is no “magic easy solution” to this, sweet pea, but there is a solution.  It’s that you stop using alcohol.  Privately.  Socially.  Morning.  Noon.  Night.  And probably forever.

You will need to do this when you’re ready to do this.  To be ready you need only the desire to change your life.  To succeed, most people need a community of support.  Alcoholics Anonymous is a good place to begin.  There, you will find those who struggle in the same ways you do; people who once told themselves the same lies about what was “impossible.”

Addiction is a tunnel that wakes you up in the middle of the night.  Everything else happens out here in the light.

Yours, Sugar

Taken from Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

Friday Sober Inspiration: Shame and The Squirrel Cage

So I’ve been reading John Bradshaw’s Healing The Shame That Binds You and oh my goodness when I read the section on Shame as The Core and Fuel of Addiction I almost fell off my chair!  It’s called The Squirrel Cage and is so reminiscent of this post I wrote it is spooky …..

I’m going to quote this section from his book but will share a series of Youtube video’s you can watch where he speaks about shame and this book’s premise.  There are 5 video’s in total and I’ll link the first one below.

Over to John:

Neurotic shame is the root and fuel of all compulsive/addictive behaviours.  My general working definition of compulsive/addictive behaviour is “a pathological relationship to any mood altering experience that has life-damaging consequences.”

The drivenness in any addiction is about the ruptured self, the belief that one is flawed as a person.  The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction, or an activity addiction (such as work, shopping or gambling), is an attempt at an intimate relationship.  The workaholic with his work and the alcoholic with his booze are having a love affair.  Each one alters the mood in order to avoid the feeling of loneliness and hurt in the underbelly of shame.  Each addictive acting out creates life-damaging consequences that create more shame.  The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction.

The image at the top of the post is taken from Dr Pat Carne’s work, giving you a visual picture of how internalized shame fuels the addictive process and addictions create more shame, which sets one up to be more shame-based.  Addicts call this the squirrel cage.

I used to drink to solve the problems caused by drinking.  The more I drank to relieve my shame-based loneliness and hurt, the more I felt ashamed.  Shame begets shame.

The cycle begins with the false belief system shared by all addicts: that no one could want them or love them as they are.  In fact, addicts can’t love themselves.  They are an object of scorn to themselves.  This deep internalized shame gives rise to distorted thinking.  The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief, “I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc.”  The shame turns one into what Kellogg has termed a “human doing” rather than a human being.

Worth is measured on the outside, never on the inside.  The mental obsession about the specific addictive relationship is the first mood alteration, since thinking takes us out of our emotions.  After obsessing for a while, the second mood alteration occurs.  This is the “acting out” or ritual stage of the addiction.  The ritual may involve drinking with the boys, secretly eating in one’ s favourite hiding place or cruising for sex.  The ritual ends in drunkenness, satiation, orgasm, spending all the money or whatever.

What follows is shame over one’s behaviour and life-damaging consequences: the hangover, the infidelity, the demeaning sex, the empty pocketbook.  The meta-shame is a displacement of affect, a transforming of the shame of self into the shame of “acting out” and experiencing life-damaging consequences.  This meta-shame intensifies the shame-based identity: “I’m no good; there’s something wrong with me,” plays like a broken record.  The more it plays, the more one solidifies one’s false belief system.  The toxic shame fuels the addiction and regenerates itself …..

I would really recommend the book but if you’re a visual and auditory learner instead watch here:

Friday Sober Jukebox: I’m Free

So here I am once again reeling from insight after insight triggered happily by reading another Pete Walker book!  Finding that I’m free – or continuing to work myself free from old constraining ways of thinking around my shame from drinking and other perceived weaknesses which is often represented by the voice of our inner critic.  It’s just too good not to share and once again I strongly advise you to go read the whole book! 🙂

14 Common Inner Critic Attacks (He kindly provides a therapeutic thought-correction response with each attack/programme) and these are a great addition to my posts looking at Drinking Thinking errors.

  1. Perfectionism.  This is a self-persecutory myth.  I do not have to be perfect to be safe or loved in the present.  I am letting go of relationships that require perfection.  I have a right to make mistakes,  Mistakes do not make me a mistake.  Every mistake or mishap is an opportunity to practice loving myself in the places I have never been loved.
  2. All-Or-Nothing & Black-and-White Thinking. I reject extreme or over-generalized descriptions, judgements or criticisms.  One negative happenstance does not mean I am stuck in a never-ending pattern of defeat.  Statements that describe me as ‘always’ or ‘never’ this or that, are typically grossly inaccurate.
  3. Self-Hate, Self-Disgust & Toxic Shame. I commit to myself.  I am on my side.  I am a good enough person.  I refuse to trash myself.  I turn shame back into blame and disgust, and externalize it to anyone who shames my normal feelings and foibles.  As long as I am not hurting anyone, I refuse to be shamed for normal emotional responses like anger, sadness, fear and depression.  I especially refuse to attack myself for how hard it is to completely eliminate this self-hate habit.
  4. Micromanagement/Worrying/Obsessing/Looping/Over-Futurizing. I will not repetitively examine details over and over.  I will not jump to negative conclusions.  I will not endlessly second-guess myself.  I cannot change the past.  I forgive all my past mistakes.  I cannot make the future perfectly safe.  I will stop hunting for what could go wrong.  I will not try to control the uncontrollable.  I will not micromanage myself or others.  I work in a way that is ‘good enough’, and I accept the existential fact that my efforts sometimes bring the desired results and sometimes they do not.  A serenity prayer moment 😉
  5. Unfair/Devaluing Comparisons to others or to your most perfect moments. I refuse to compare myself unfavourably to others.  I will not compare ‘my insides to their outsides’.  I will not judge myself for not being at peak performance all the time.  In a society that pressures into acting happy all the time, I will not get down on myself for feeling bad.
  6. Guilt.   Feeling guilty does not mean I am guilty.  I refuse to make my decisions and choices from guilt.  Sometimes I need to feel the guilt and do it anyway.  In the inevitable instances when I inadvertently hurt someone, I will apologize, make amends, and let go of my guilt.  I will not apologize over and over.  I am no longer a victim.  I will not accept unfair blame.  Guilt is sometimes camouflaged fear.
  7. Shoulding‘. I will substitute the words ‘want to’ for ‘should’ and only follow this imperative if it feels like I want to, unless I am under legal, ethical or moral obligation.
  8. Over-productivity/Workaholism/Busyholism. I am a human being not a human doing.  I will not choose to be perpetually productive.  I am more productive in the long run, when I balance work with play and relaxation.  I will not try to perform at 100% all the time.  I subscribe to the normalcy of vacillating along a continuum of efficiency.
  9. Harsh Judgements of Self & Others/Name-Calling. I will not let the bullies and critics of my early life win by joining and agreeing with them.  I refuse to attack myself or abuse others.  I will not displace the criticism and blame that rightfully belongs to my dysfunctional caretakers onto myself or current people in my life.
  10. Drasticizing/Catastrophizing/Hypochondriasizing. I feel afraid but I am not in danger.  I am not ‘in trouble’ with my parents.  I will not blow things out of proportion.  I refuse to scare myself with thoughts and pictures of my life deteriorating.  No more homemade horrors and disaster flicks.  I will not turn every ache and pain into a story about my imminent demise.  I am safe and at peace.
  11. Negative Focus. I renounce over-noticing and dwelling on what might be wrong with me or life around me.  I will not minimize or discount my attributes.  Right now, I notice, visualise and enumerate my accomplishments, talents and qualities, as well as the many gifts that life offers me, e.g., nature, music, film, food, beauty, colour, friends, pets, etc.
  12. Time Urgency. I am not in danger.  I do not need to rush.  I will not hurry unless it is a true emergency.  I am learning to enjoy doing my daily activities at a relaxed pace.
  13. Disabling Performance Anxiety. I reduce procrastination by reminding myself that I will not accept unfair criticism or perfectionist expectations from anyone. Even when afraid, I will defend myself from unfair criticism.  I won’t let fear make my decisions.
  14. Perseverating about Being Attacked. Unless there are clear signs of danger, I will thought-stop my projection of past bullies/critics onto others.  The vast majority of my fellow human beings are peaceful people.  I have legal authorities to aid in my protection if threatened by the few who aren’t.  I invoke thoughts and images of my friends’ love and support.

1 – 9 are what Pete Walker describes as ‘perfectionism attacks, fueled by toxic shame, create chronic self-hate and self-flagellation’ and 10-14 ‘endangerment attacks, fueled by fear, create chronic hyper vigilance and anxiety‘.

Aren’t these just the best?!  What a freeing list to read 🙂

And if you’d like to work on easing your inner critic voice here is a meditation from Melli over at MrsMindfulness