I never would have imagined how deep the changes that have occurred during this AF journey would be. When I decided to sign up for the 3 month OYNB challenge and give up alcohol for “a bit”, I expected to experience some initial frustration and withdrawal, some emotional turmoil at the beginning, and then some physical benefits: improved skin, hopefully lose some weight, that kind of thing.
I never suspected that there would be such a massive overhaul in my internal constitution, on a deep, deep, identity level. Now that I have a little bit of hindsight, I can see that going AF was not a decision I made in a vacuum. I can see now how it fits in to a larger dynamic of growth that I have been committed to in the last year, and which includes: being kind to myself, practicing self care religiously, letting go of unhealthy emotional and behavioral patterns as much as possible (which I used to think were necessary to establish my identity as an interesting/special person, to compensate for my complete lack of self-worth and self esteem), meditating every day, practicing yoga several times a week, going to therapy, choosing a partner who (despite his imperfections and own neurotic patterns/trauma) is just as committed to growth as I am. Some of these choices felt painful and difficult at times. Now they have become a second nature, and I am grateful to have so many tools in my “internal box”. From this “higher” perspective of trying to become a healthier and happier person, quitting cigarettes and alcohol —my two “remaining crutches”— seemed like the last step to take. Interestingly, they were also the most difficult —because familiar— addictions to let go of. I had more or less been smoking and drinking for over 15 years on a daily basis. When I quit smoking on two different occasions, I did it because my partner(s) wanted to. I used their desire to grow as motivation for my own growth (which is not healthy). This explains why this time around, I reverted to smoking as soon as my current partner and I broke up. It took a renewed and greater commitment towards my OWN health to quit again last week. This time the decision was somewhat easy (thank you Wellbutrin!), because I now value my wellbeing more than I need immediate relief via x or y substance.
Once I stopped smoking, only the drinking remained. Aaaaaah, alcohol. My core addiction, the one that runs in the family. The one that destroyed the family. The one that was deeply intertwined with my own neurosis and trauma, with my relation to my mother. How could it not have occurred to me before age 31 that giving alcohol a break and creating a life without it, would be so profoundly healing and important in the constitution of my own identity — in carving out my own path, separate from my mother, beyond the limiting beliefs about my “addictive personality” that I grew up with? How could I not see that giving up alcohol would mean cutting the cord, breaking away, growing beyond the behaviors and survival strategies that I was taught? Because I was afraid, and clinging to the comfort of “familiar misery”.
I have this notification on my phone that pops up every day at 5:00 pm. 5pm used to be the time I would associate with the strongest cravings. I used to think that I needed a drink to “wind down after a long day” of work and effort. But since I got real with myself (zero bullshit zero filters), I have learnt to understand that 5:00 pm was in fact the time when the feelings of loneliness and abandonment would begin to creep up, no matter how full my life was. Alcohol helped quiet down that voice that kept whispering “you are unloved, unlovable, alone. Your life is sad”. I would drink to fill the “me shaped hole” in the universe (credit Arundhati Roy). In doing so, I would push myself farther and farther away from what I was paradoxically searching for: the ability to know and love myself.
Every day at 5pm for the last 62 days, my phone beeps and says: “Hang in there. This is a discovery!!”. And it really is. It turns out that for me, giving up alcohol has had nothing to do with losing something. It has everything to do with unveiling, unmasking (dis-covering) what was there all along but kept out of sight, numbed by the blurry edges of inebriation. Giving up alcohol meant that for the first time ever, I would be confronted with the scary and yet absolute, thrilling, vertiginous blank canvas of who I am. Shitty aspects included 🙂
Who am I without alcohol? This question I am still working on trying to answer, step by step. In Buddhist philosophy, there is no solid “self” to discover – only fleeting, changing, impermanent phenomena. Still, discovering “myself” [in the sense of discovering or (re)defining my core values and beliefs, which in turn determine my actions and relations to others and myself] was the original motivation for this blog. More and more I find this also entails creating, constructing myself — rather than simply discovering. I am working these questions out with every post, with every comment, with every day that passes.
And just when I thought I had shed all of my crutches, I received one, last, precious gift from the universe. This gift, I had to discover through experiencing (and surviving) the intense pain of loosing a relationship with a person whom I loved deeply and who loved me back just as deeply. The gift under all the pain was (re)discovering my strength, and using the pain as an opportunity to keep digging further in my self-exploration. The new question –enabled by sobriety– had now refined itself into who am I outside of my romantic relationships?
So, if I set aside my two-week long smoking relapse (which I 100% forgive myself for), for the past month, I have been living with myself, stripped of all imaginable extra layers (addictions, distractions, relationships) that I had been relying on so deeply to feel ok, i.e. to avoid the unbearable pain of loneliness and infantile feelings of abandonment. This month, it was me, myself and I. No safety net, no crutch, no parachute, no raft, no buoy to cling to. And here is the blessing: by surrendering to the pain, I was able to face and gradually conquer the loneliness, holding space for feelings of intense grief when they appeared, learning to enjoy and treasure my own company in calmer moments. Through this experience, I discovered that I survived every second of it (and with grace!), that there is no need to find salvation outside of the self: if I need something to “hold” on to, I have my inner strength and internal resources. They have, and will, carry me through.
These two months without alcohol have taught me to surrender and trust, both myself and — let’s call it “the world/the universe” (AA’s HP). I am more and more able to take this giant leap of faith whereby I ultimately believe in my ability to take care of myself, and trust the world to teach me what I have to learn. On the more hopeful days, I am even beginning to trust the universe to “take care” of me. In any case, I know that I will be ok.
Last but definitely not least, I am developing a sense of inherent self-worth, i.e. OUTSIDE of my romantic relationships, my trophies and achievements. This paradoxically makes one more generous towards others (thanks Buddhism!). I am learning how to feel —even accept— that I am whole, content. Even when the pangs of missing my (ex) partner take me by surprise. Now, I accept —rather than fight— the unpleasant, sometimes unbearable feelings. More and more, I see the continuity of existence beyond the individual ups and downs. I finally get a glimpse of the ocean which makes and is made by the individual waves. (Interestingly, this feels like the exact same capacity that I would have to find inside myself to “survive” the various psychedelic trips that I have been on in the past. But back in the day, I had a lot less faith in my inner strength. Most times, it was a very difficult and scary experience to navigate. A part of me wonders how I would navigate such intensity these days. But now is not the time for psychedelics. I have other things to tend to 🙂 ).
All that I have written here today would have been dismissed as a giant bunch of platitudes by my former, judgmental, terrified, over-intellectual self. [I wonder if the French friends of mine reading this think I have gone all New Age coo-coo in the head^^]
Today, I am grateful, so fucking incredibly grateful to have come this far and be able to FEEL these things from the inside, experiencing them as truths. Today, I am able to celebrate the present moment and my life as a whole, in all of its imperfect beauty. I am grateful to feel and affirm that despite all of its painful aspects, I would not change a single fucking thing.
For me, giving up alcohol for two months was just the surface.
Letting it go has allowed me to take the tight lid off of what I thought would be pandora’s box, but has turned out to be a big, beautiful, dark and mysterious trunk, full of unfamiliar stuff, which I know constitutes the most precious treasure that anyone can find. I hope everyone gets to take a look into their own chest and finds what is precious to them.
Hang in there everyone!