Lessons learned from dealing with addiction

Addiction is a bitch. And in the end, I win.

That is what I promise myself.

We were sitting on our terrace today, me and my neighbours, chatting about communication with ancestors and spirits. For Bali, this is not an uncommon thing to talk about. It’s not only the Balinese who worship their ancestors through daily offerings, it’s also a common thing for Westerners to do here. Well, not exactly worshiping them, but to create some sort of connection with them, mostly to create some meaning around the mysterious powers that influence our lives.

I admit, for someone who is educated and socialised in a rationalist world view and especially for someone with a background in science, this is not an easy topic. I myself am open to listening to the stories and concepts and for sure am able to open up to the mere imagination of all of that and its implication. Even though I so far did not integrate the idea of spirits, angels, souls of the dead into my perception of life. There is one area in my life though, where I thought of entities taking over my personality — that is addiction.

While this is not about making a statement of truth or even believe, I find the metaphor of it spot on. Addictive behaviour has something schizophrenic about it. When I find myself in an addictive rush, I certainly feel something is taking over, leaving that part of me that normally is in control helpless and pushed into the background. I feel a power driving me and the rational me becomes nothing more than a helpless and confused little child. I don’t know what’s going on and at times I seem to act out on someone else’s behalf. After I got my kick, whatever that is or was in my life, I tend to look back with astonishment.

The good news is: Addiction can be healed. We (whoever that is) can stay in our power even if it feels like something else takes over. But this definitely needs strength, endurance and an inner warrior.

I have overcome several addictions myself, some more severe than others, and none of them was left behind easily. That doesn’t mean that I cannot be easy. It can, but mostly this is the case when the source of the addiction is healed to a certain degree OR the addictive behaviour itself is not attractive anymore.

I experienced the latter for example with smoking weed. Every time I smoked, and that was very regularly, I got paranoid to a degree that I just couldn’t smoke any more. The pain of the paranoia got bigger than my wish to escape my reality. Even though, I didn’t quit over night it was fairly easy when I did. I missed nothing. Still the source of my addiction was still there and I jumped into the next big thing, which was food and alcohol.

I totally got over food, which took years, and I’m already quite done with alcohol, which again took years.

My current battle ground is smoking, which already haunts me for more than a decade. I’m an on-off smoker since more than 10 years. I must have quit about 100 times by now and I relapsed again and again. I tried to get my head around this in endless conversations, reflections and texts I wrote. I tried everything and a lot worked but nothing so far worked forever. I gave up trying too, but that didn’t work either. At times it seemed like the battle of my life. Though, nothing has taught me more about life and myself than smoking and the urge to smoke.

Maybe it’s your demon, but maybe it’s also your greatest gift?

The last thing I want to get across here is to justify my addiction. I don’t. If there was an easy way for me to get rid of it, I wouldn’t struggle with this issue any more. But it’s about changing the perception of it. Because it brings awareness to my life, I am alert of what is going on inside me, what’s moving, pushing and driving me. I know how life feels when I don’t smoke and how it feels when I feel the need to smoke. I am in touch with myself through the meditator of smoking. It tells me what to do next and shows me aspects of my life where I need support, healing, new coping strategies. Otherwise I’ll smoke again and re-start a cycle of pain. I am awake through that and see my well being not as a giving state that I am to enjoy constantly but as something I need to take care of myself very actively. I’m pretty sure that much of my journey and the things I consider as personal achievement go hand in hand with my desire to overcome my addictions. Therefore there’s a possibility to actually be grateful for them, and this is a huge change of perception.

How a change of perception changes everything

While looking at addictive behaviour as your enemy can create a really painful relationship, seeing it as your buddy in staying present has the potential to heal you. Whatever the reason for our addictions, it’s for sure something that needs healing inside of you. The most common sources are very likely related to self-worth and how we have learned to deal with difficult emotions. There’s a whole lot of research out there that addicts commonly have difficult and traumatic childhoods and weren’t supported in their pain when they first met it. This is significant as it shapes our coping mechanism for the rest of our lives. We need to re-program what we’ve learned. We need to create a new learning environment and loving and supportive relationships and simultanously deal with the pain that we didn’t get what we needed when we really needed it. We need to take time for ourselves to teach us the essentials of life — how to fucking deal with difficult situations and emotions and our own, often weired and confusing reaction patterns that we established. I believe that only then we can successfully overcome addictions.

Softness, gentleness and empathy when it gets difficult

Stopping addictive behaviour can be everything from joyful, ecstatic, fullfilling to frustrating, depressing and doubtful. Doubt is actually fuel for a relapse. I’ve found myself often enough doubting that life can be beautiful with my drug at the time. The thing is we don’t know yet how to live without it, what life holds for us once we’ve overcome the urge. It’s a journey that requires faith and trust especially when it gets hard. We need to treat ourselves with softness, compassion and empathy when everything within screams “Fuck you!! Fuck off!!” — in a persistent manner.

A relapse as a power break

Relapsing often demoralises us completely. I’ve often given up faith and hope that I can ever come out of my shit. Yet I’ve learned that a relapse is not the end of the world. Instead it can be a short break in which I gain my power for the next phase of sobriety (from whatever, really). A life without our addiction is something an addict needs to learn. It’s like a muscle that’s trained. 6 days of non-smoking, then a relapse? Fabulous, then smoke a day, don’t blame yourself that it happened AGAIN but instead cultivate power. You’ve not smoked, binge-eaten, drank, watched porn, lost yourself online, shopped or whatever it is, for 6 days. You broke the chain. Break it again. And again. And again. You’ll end up weakening that pattern and therefore the need to re-engage with your pattern with every break you take, if you only focus on the positive — that you didn’t need it for 6 days or whatever amount of time. That’s a start. Congratulations. Move on.

Cultivate strength

What I’ve observed in my dealing with addiction is that constant weakening through stepping out again and again is the key to actually winning the battle. When I was in the midst of my eating disorder, I could never imagine that I could ever not have a problem with food and weight. Well, it happened. As said before, it was nothing like an instant healing, but a gradual one. But now I can say with full conviction that this is not an issue any more. And it was bad, really bad and painful and twisted.

An important and necessary step for me was to shift my focus and stop the blame game — the “I beat myself up because I did it again”- thing. Become a researcher of the whole thing. Become detached. It’s only as important as you allow it to be. Instead, cultivate strength. Celebrate your little victories. And I mean celebrate them as if you’ve just finished a marathon or some other big achievement in your life. Speaking of achievements:

Find a co-goal

For me it was easier to stop drinking alcohol and quit smoking when I decided to train for a half-marathon. At that time, this was a big goal for me but one that I was very certain that I could make it. Find something similar that keeps you on track. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sport goal, but it certainly helps because we got a lot of endorphins from exercising regularly. Whatever it is, it should be fun, something you like to do. It’s supposed to empower you and make you stronger.

Get support

Addicts have a strong tendency to hide their addiction. They feel shame around it or don’t want to loose their face when they relapse over and over again. Still, more and more research shows that addiction is actually a relationship sickness, and that the opposite of addiction is connection.

The most successful program, the 12 step program, uses social support and embededness in a group as the key component. I have not tried this system but I always was supported by friends, who were incredibly patient, believed in me and held me when I beat myself up for not succeeding yet.

Find those people. Share your journey with them, even though this may be huge for you. You deserve to be supported, you are a social being after all. So many people suffer from addictions. It’s very human.

Humility is key

You will feel when you are healed. Even though, stay alert to a certain degree. I’ve felt very certain that I’m over it many times only to find myself in the middle of it again. It’s more like it eases of slowly. Being humble is an important quality.

Being too care free in the process of change is risky. To me this always was an invitation of a relapse. Stay present, stay faithful and know that addictive behaviour is a sneaky fellow. Don’t open it the door again just because you’re in a state of over-celebrating. It’s all about dosage.

Whatever mess you are in, I know you can make it to get out and live a satisfying and beautiful life! Yes, you can. I wish you the best of luck!

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