I am an alcoholic, and, in 1982, I gave up drinking.
I come from a family of alcoholics, and I was the first to recover. I did well in Alcoholics Anonymous for about a year when my father died, and I was overwhelmed by my grief. My sponsor told me that in recovery you have to process your feelings not drink over them.
So I stayed sober, but I did continue to act out. Instead of drinking, I turned to obsessing about a man I met at a meeting. After a tumultuous relationship that went nowhere, my sponsor suggested I leave this man—but I couldn’t. That is when I discovered that I had a new addiction. I was addicted to this man.
When things did finally end between us, I turned to food. I started eating non-stop and gained 100 pounds. I switched to bulimia to control my weight and lost control of that. I ended up anorexic and in the hospital.
When I got out of the hospital, I loved my new slender body and wanted to buy a new wardrobe. I started shopping and could not stop.
Eventually, I opened my eyes to the fact that I was switching from one addiction to another rather than dealing with my underlying issues, which included depression and unresolved feelings from growing up in an alcoholic family.
At some point, I discovered that I was not alone. Most of the people around me had started substituting one bad habit for another and ran the risk of developing a new addiction.
Today, I am in recovery and to help myself and others avoid this trap, I offer the following guidelines to treat our underlying issues.
1. Admit that we have underlying issues. Nothing can change until we acknowledge that we have a problem. This is the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous. Like the step suggests, it helps to admit that we are powerless for now and need help. Take the time to announce this at a meeting. Most of all, we must be fearlessly honest with ourselves and be humble. I believe that “pride goes before a fall,” and after a fall as well. Pride has no place at this crucial time of our life.
2. Identify the underlying issues. If we do not remember our childhood, we can look at photographs, talk to siblings, friends, or our parents—anyone who knew us when we were a child. We can meditate or analyze our dreams. The truth will come out if we want it to. Once I was willing to remember, I started having flashbacks. Here is a list of underlying issues to choose from:
>> chronic insecurity
>> chronic anxiety
>> feelings of alienation
>> a profound hunger for love
>> an exaggerated fear of abandonment and rejection
>> feelings of deprivation
>> feelings of emptiness
>> confusion or fear when love is available
>> anxiety when things are going well
>> some kind of addiction
3. Talk about what we remember. Talk at closed meetings. Talk with our sponsor. Talk to a therapist. Talk to a friend. Find someone we can trust and who can either sympathize or even empathize with what we have gone through. We should not stop talking until we have emptied out our pain. Do not for a minute think we are talking too much or bothering someone. We are in recovery. This exercise is not a conversation. We do not have to ask how our listener is feeling. We have to talk and let things we have forgotten seep up from our unconscious.
4. Write in our journal about what we are discovering. As we write, marvelous things we have forgotten will spill out onto the page. This can be a personal journal, or we can share it with others. My journal, which I started in 1982, became the draft of my first book, Addiction to Love. We must pour our hearts out on to the page and further this process of discovery.
5. Feel all of our emotions as they come up without drinking or using other unhealthy mood-altering experiences. Addicts don’t like to feel painful emotions. We like to self-medicate or distract ourselves. We like to hide our feelings, stuff them, or lash out at others to release them.
We should not let shame stop us from feeling our emotions. There is no emotion that we should be ashamed of. Even if we did something we regret because of our feelings, we can deal with that when we get to the ninth step (making amends). For now, we must just own our emotions. This was the very first thing I heard at my very first meeting in A.A. My sponsor said, “If we want to recover we have to ‘feel our feelings.’” I did, and it hurt, but in hindsight I can see how therapeutic it was.
6. Grieve what we went through. If we can’t do this directly, imagine that our inner child was hurt, and do for him/her what we cannot do for ourselves. Grieving is similar to my suggestion above. We feel the loss of our childhood. We wish we had not suffered so much. We wish we could have had loving parents. We want what we did not have instead of pretending that everything was normal.
7. Get angry for awhile. It is okay if we have spent a lifetime suppressing our emotions. This is an important step in the process. It is part of letting go. When we get angry, we are being honest. We are not making excuses for our parents. We are feeling what all children need to feel to survive and yet were not allowed to feel. For more about anger, see Susan Anderson’s book, The Journey from Abandonment and Healing.
8. Do not get lost in the anger. Anger is a “double-edged sword.” It is part of the process, not the process itself. As soon as we are able, move on and put this all into perspective. Were the people who hurt us abused or neglected? What about their grandparents? If we are a parent, did we pass down the pain to our children to ease our own burden. I did…
9. After we put things into perspective, we should forgive these people. To forgive means to let go of resentment. We do not have to like them, associate with them, or let them continue to hurt us. I know this suggestion is controversial. I talk about this in my book, The Art of Changing. Some professionals say it is not necessary or might even be harmful. A.A. says it is an absolute imperative. I believe it is important. Nothing changed in my life until I forgave my mother. I could not forgive myself before I forgave her. This happened when I discovered that my mother was mentally ill and could not care for me. It took the sting out. I thought she neglected me on purpose. Her time in the mental hospital was kept from me. What John Bradshaw called a “toxic secret.”
10. Accept what happened to us. How do we do this? We can’t do it right away. We can’t do it when we want to. We can’t do it while we are in the angry stage. We will do it when we are ready. We can push ourselves a little, but balance this with patience. Tell ourselves: these were the cards we were dealt. Maybe something good came out of this. (I became a teacher because of what happened to me.)
According to A.A.: “Acceptance is the answer to all our problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.”
11. Move on. This is the fun part. We drop all of this. We create a new life. We embrace our present and dream about the future. We live our life of abundance. Of course, the past will come back to haunt us now and then, because this is the way the brain works, especially when we go home for the holidays—to the scene of the crime. However, as time goes on, the pain of the past will lessen and come up less often to disrupt our new life in recovery.
12. Take care of ourselves. Do for ourselves what our parents could not or would not do. This means a little pampering, forgiving ourselves, and having fun.
13. Be grateful for this process that is going to free us, change us, and bring us a brighter tomorrow. Gratitude, according to my first sponsor, is another A.A. imperative. It takes us out of our own misery. If we don’t feel grateful, “act as if we are,” or, “fake it till we make it.” Once we discover how effective “being” grateful is even when we don’t “feel” grateful, we will never stop.
14. Celebrate our victory and hard work. Do something exciting and meaningful.
15. Pass all of this on to the next poor soul looking for help. This is why I started writing and teaching. It is fun and good for our self-esteem. This is the 12th step, and while touted as a suggestion, it is like suggesting we put on a parachute when we jump out of a plane.
Remember that we cannot do this alone. The steps in A.A use the word “we” for a reason. We can seek help in a 12-step program. We can go to therapy. We can ask a friend to help us. The only requirement is that this person be an enlightened witness—someone who will have compassion and understanding about our addictions and our struggle to get better.
Finally, remember that this is a process and we are on no particular time table. Each of us has our own path to a brighter tomorrow.
Author: Susan Peabody
Image: Unsplash/Chris Barbalis
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron