13. Habits That Hinder Our Healing (Part 2 of 3)
Today's episode is the 2nd of a 3-part series; discussing the habits and addictions we find ourselves utilizing in order to cope with life. As alienated parents, I think that the behaviors associated with addiction have their own unique set of motivating factors, as well as it's own set of potential consequences. I also begin the conversation with you about my non-traditional way of addressing your habit. So, whether youre drinking more alcohol than you'd like, smoking marijuana, overeating, or partaking in another habit, these episodes are going to be a MUST, if you want to kick the habit for good.
I discovered that I could keep my own spirits up by drinking.
In a group of people I don’t know? Have a beer.
(Note to self: Surround yourself with people who drink as much as you do).
Pain of a failed relationship? Grab a glass of wine with the girls.
Did something regrettable while drinking? Well, have a drink to forget it, silly!
Result? I lived in an altered reality.
No surprise that this way of thinking eventually created difficulties. But because I viewed the behavior as my refuge, I couldn’t bring myself to address it.
Result? I lived in an altered reality.
When I had my daughter, everything changed. As moms do, I put all of my love, thoughts and energy into her. She was my purpose. I was never more sure of anything than when she was in my arms. She was the one thing that I knew I was made to do. She was what I was good at; she brought out the inspiration in me. She made me a better human.
So when the custody battle ensued, my world began to tremble. The nastier the case became, the more it affected me at my core. The anxiety I felt was unbearable when my daughter would go to her father's. She was still only a young toddler; I thought I was going to die when I wasn’t able to do her bath and bedtime routine.
So, after unsuccessful attempts to fill my daughter-less nights with competition training and other things, I eventually turned back to drinking. I made new friends at the gym where I was teaching, and started to take them up on their Happy Hour invites. Happy Hour turned into dancing downtown. And that turned into hanging out with a group of people who I didn’t necessarily want to model my life after.
I had two lives. The one with my daughter, my gym, and our dogs at home, and the life I existed in on Wednesdays and every other weekend… numbed.
And then, one of those numb nights, the inevitable happened. I got pulled over for a DUI. And there it was. I gave my ex an "in". Of course he pounced.
I was consumed by the injustices being done. My ex was slinging accusations at me, yet he was a heavy drinker. He was suggesting to others that I was an absent and irresponsible mother. He was instilling fear in my daughter by creating the impression that I was unsafe and unfit. He had been calling the DA and insisting that my DUI case be enhanced. He sent dozens and dozens of berating and belittling emails to me, my family, and friends.
Drinking was the only way I knew that could calm the tidal waves of anxiety that overtook my physical body. It was the only thing that quieted the noise.
I’d become a serial victim to my own circumstances.
My fear was that by admitting it, then I was somehow also taking the blame for losing my daughter. And what would that say about me as a mother? As a woman? No way. So I stuck to my guns.
My coping mechanism was not helping me. Instead, it was completely working against me, actually rendering me helpless in many cases.
But I was petrified to admit this.
So, I remained steadfast in my denial until I finally ran myself into the ground trying to prove it wrong. It makes sense tho…
- I would experience an undesired feeling.
- That feeling would cause discomfort...
When I was a child, I would go play, or color, or simply cry. 💥 Boom.💥 Feelings processed. Efficient.
But as I grew, those actions did not seem as efficient. I learned that alcohol could be used as a tool to decompress; a way to “escape” my problems.
The act of drinking became a learned response.
Just as Pavlov’s dogs learned, so did I. Although I didn’t actually salivate, through repetition, motivation, and reinforcement of the act, a neuropathway was created.
So those times when I said I wasn’t going to, and then found myself drinking? Well, I felt completely out of control — powerless. I would judge and beat myself up for doing it, creating a lot of shame.
What I didn’t know was, my brain was responding in a completely functional way. It was conditioned to respond in this exact manner… performing the job it was designed to do!
The only way to unlearn this response to disrupt it. But how?
If you’ve tried to quit, you’re painfully aware of how many things are working against you.
(Until you learn the tools to treat the behavior at it’s source.)
Quitting, asking for help, taking a break.. any of those options always seemed to come with such stigma. And every time I tried, I failed.
Sometimes I would make it 3 weeks, 3 months — one time even 3 1/2 years! But, I was doing it with willpower. And wrestling with the thought that I was powerless over it.
Our society says that drinking is normal.
TV commercials suggest that if we drink that refreshing beer, all of our problems disappear.
People who drink tend to feel uncomfortable around those who don’t drink.
"Just have one.” “Wine is good for you!” “It’s impolite to refuse.” “Are you gonna make me drink alone?” “I don’t see a drink in Dave’s hand… I wonder if he has a problem?” Sound familiar?
Alcohol is everywhere. It’s at most restaurants. It’s at your neighbor’s BBQ. Sold in almost every store. These days we can find it at movie theaters and theme parks. It’s entirely convenient. And, because it’s a money maker, it’s encouraged.
So drinkers everywhere continue to drink.
Whether we like it or not, there’s still a stigma attached to asking for help — especially with alcohol and drugs. We’re taught that alcohol is an acceptable way to escape, but if we drink too much, we have a problem. If we’re brave enough to admit we want help? Well then we are the problem. Sound backwards?
We are taught to avoid negative emotions
We have been conditioned to believe that:
1.) We’re not responsible for our own emotions (i.e. “it’s not nice to make Johnny feel sad”)
It boiled down to my coach asking me one simple question: Which specific emotion do you think drinking is saving you from feeling?
2.) “bad” feelings need to be fixed (i.e. “Aww, don’t cry honey. How ‘bout an ice cream?”).
From the time we are babies, this message is reinforced in our homes, our schools, and in social situations. Nowadays, it’s completely normal and accepted to avoid feelings by scrolling through social media, overeating, and/or drinking alcohol.
Think about it: how many moms do you know that pop a Xanax when the hint of anxiety approaches?? How many times have you heard someone proclaim that they “need a drink” to deal with the stress?
It makes sense that we do this. The Xanax numbs. The drink provides a dopamine hit (well technically, they both provide both). But this comes at a price.
Our children watch us. They hear us. And the ideas are reinforced in them. And the cycle continues.
I remember the day that I heard my coach talk about her approach to stop over-drinking. She was quick to point out that her philosophy was not based on the “AA” way. I thought, well she is just full of shit then.
If you remember from part one, I grew up surrounded by the 12 step mindset.
I’d been conditioned to believe that:
- if you can’t manage to say “no” to a drink, you must be an alcoholic.
- That it is an inherited disease with a hopeless outcome — you were either on the winning side (sober), or you were bound for jails, institutions, and/or death.
- Other than a lifetime sentence of attending (some pretty cringe-worthy) meetings and sitting in expressway diners for hours on end, there was no cure.
When I was in these meeting rooms as a kid, I had almost no relationship to alcohol, other than the fact that I did not like how it seemed to affect my home life. But I believed it must be who I was… why else would my mother be so convinced of it?
If you hang around McDonalds long enough, you’re bound to eat a burger
I believe the same applies here: after spending years of my time living their principles and traditions (which, I’m not knocking, BTW. AA has helped many people, and I do believe it serves a purpose), I was bound to adopt at least some of their beliefs, right?
Still, the idea that humans could be powerless over alcohol seemed silly to me. And if you read the link up there (here it is again), you can imagine that, at 14 years old, this prognosis sat about as well as a couple dozen Krispy Kremes chased with a bucket of sand. Not an inspiring outlook. It just took me five or six more years to begin testing it.
When I finally did decide to explore my relationship with drinking, I placed all the info I’d collected in the AA meetings and put it in a box. I wasn’t burying it, or hiding it, rather, I placed it neatly on a shelf, with a lid on it. I imagine if it had a note, it might’ve read: to refer back to at a later date.
Funny how the brain works tho — on one hand, I didn’t buy in to their powerlessness and doom stories, and on the other, I believed I was this person who was born with the inability to control my drinking. The only way to control drinking was by saying I couldn’t control it!
So when my coach said her way was different, and that people could learn to drink responsibly, I immediately reached for the volume button and turned her off. Bullshit, I thought. Who does she think she is? How irresponsible of her. I dropped my membership right then and there.
Over the next six months, I pondered how this could even be possible. I mean, AA was the only way that studies have shown worked, right? So I did some digging. I listened to a few books, read some really promising studies/medical reports, and even found 2-3 really great podcasts devoted to the topic.
To this point, I’d been mostly alcohol-free. I was doing a great deal of work on myself, so the intent was definitely there, but every so often, I’d have these “slip-ups”. The slips turned into ginormous shame cycles (or maybe it was the other way around..?).
I swallowed my pride and got back in touch with my coach. Skeptical, but intrigued, I analyzed and cross-checked every word she uttered on the concept. I wanted to collect my own data in order to prove or disprove her findings. Sure as shit, I found evidence supporting each and every concept she taught. And it wasn’t difficult to find.
Ho-ly HECK. This actually works! An entire year went by, and, thanks to these concepts, I didn’t miss drinking. Not one bit. Now, I’m not gonna lie to you, now and then, I did (almost) fall for some of the ridiculousness my primitive brain tried to serve up. Thoughts like:
- Oh, you had such a shitty day, Shelb. You deserve to have a glass of wine!
- Why should I be the one to do the quitting?
- But we are locked down. What harm could a few beers at home really do?
It made sense to me. Most importantly, it actually worked.
Clearly, I found an answer other than AA, and it was backed by science. So, how is it that so many lives and families are still being destroyed by alcohol addiction??
to a lack of understanding their own brain??More importantly,
1.) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
I learned how to have an urge and not answer it. Get curious about why the urge is there. Notice how the urge physically feels in your body.
2.) Recruit Your Higher Brain
When you learn how to activate your prefrontal cortex, you’re utilizing the part of the brain which is responsible for reasoning and goal-oriented cognition, rather than relying on an in-the-moment reaction from the primitive brain. You’re able to make all decisions around your habit consciously.
3.) Manage Your Mind
Learning how to manage your thoughts around your habit is a critical skill. In doing so, with repetition, you are essentially unlearning an automated response that your brain has been trained to think is necessary for survival.
The thing is, we’re all taught that negative emotions are undesirable. And.. we’re taught to find a distraction (ice cream, cookies, etc as children, as adults it’s completely acceptable to have a drink to "take the edge off”), or something to make us feel happy.
But most of us never learn how to have an urge and not answer it.
So we begin to rely on alcohol (or whatever habit we’re using) to carry us through the undesirable moments of our life.
I realized this one day during a session with my coach.
Oh, this question was easy to answer. “Discomfort”, I said.
“Discomfort from what?”
I rolled my eyes on the inside, as I recalled everything that’d happened (to me) over the last decade or so… “Grief, sadness, anger, awkwardness, feeling betrayed, disappointment, shame, fear, helplessness, fatigue, not being enough, boredom…”, I rattled off almost effortlessly. “I can go on.”
“So, literally all of the negative emotions”, Brooke said, completely amused.
I didn’t see it at the time (in fact, pretty sure I was pissed), but now I too think it’s pretty funny. I was trying — and epically failing — to circumvent a completely essential part of the human experience. By drinking to avoid my feelings, I was actually only delaying them, and in most cases, perpetuating more of what I didn’t want.
My original thought (or fear, rather): “What’s life going to be like if I stop drinking?” was almost instantly deflated when my coach rephrased it to ask “What’s life going to be like if you keep drinking? We took a few minutes to play the second one out. She then followed up with “What might be a possibility then that isn’t one now?
The internal conflict and upset caused my brain to desire the dopamine hit I received from alcohol.. And so a learned habit was formed, and the cycle continued.
Of course, because acting on any addiction (sugar, alcohol, drugs, gambling, porn, food, even Facebook or Instagram) provides a dopamine hit and lights up the pleasure center of the mind, it’s an instant bandaid for any problem.