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May 5, 2020

Beating Addictions & Bad Habits is about Facing our Fears, not Numbing Them.

Life was way easier when I was a drinker.

I got up and showered every morning. I worked hard all day at a job I could tolerate. I came home, had a few drinks, ate dinner with my family, went to bed hoping to have sex with my wife, and went to sleep either satisfied or mildly disappointed.

I got up the next day, and did it all over again. On the weekends, I mowed the lawn, went to church, and drank a little more than I did during the week. I had enough money to pay the mortgage and take a family vacation every year. I was living the American dream, right?

Then something happened. The well-oiled machine began to chug and lurch. My smooth and typical existence got the hiccups. I crossed the invisible line into alcohol addiction. I suffered. My wife suffered. My family suffered, and I had to stop drinking.

My alcoholism was a whole big thing. I’ve written lots about it, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. This is about how my world opened up, and my life evolved, when I stopped drinking.

Last weekend was supposed to be the Kentucky Derby, and I started thinking about race horses on Saturday afternoon. They run around a track, semi-willingly, as fast as they can. Sure, they are being whipped, but it’s also all they know how to do. They have blinders on to keep them focused, and if they run fast enough, they get unlimited oats and the adoration of their handlers. It’s kind of the equine version of the American dream, isn’t it?

Did you notice the similarities between the horses running for the roses and my days as a proud drinking American? We both plow ahead, unsure where we are going, and quite unaware of the finish line, receiving a little incentive and a commensurate amount of reward, blinders on and focused on our limited perspective on life. Today looks like yesterday, and tomorrow’s got sameness written all over it.

Blinders aren’t just an equestrian fashion statement anymore. Most of us humans are wearing them in one form or another. My blinders were made of hops and barley. For others, relentless pursuit of money, surgically modified physical appearances, weekend warrior athletic accomplishments, or exerting some level of control over the people around them keeps the bigger picture steadily out of focus.

For the talented multitaskers among us, maybe it’s some combination of it all. In every case, it is about trying to find internal satisfaction through external limitations. Just like the horses, we wear our blinders on the outside.

When I stopped drinking, I took the blinders off. Not right away, of course. I was a hot mess for a couple of years while I tried to figure out sobriety, but, again, that’s not what this is about. This is about what happened next.

This is about evolution. It’s about being able to see life on the periphery without the limitation of blinders. Let me tell you something, the reward of circumferential vision comes with a whole lot of questions.

Let me say right up front that I don’t have it all figured out yet. Neither do you, or you wouldn’t be searching for answers in places like this. We truth seekers read articles that induce head scratching in publications like this one. Those who have it all figured out look to Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow to snort and shout about the things they already believe. That’s called confirmation bias, and it’s for people who still have their blinders on. You’re different. You can see the limitations to only knowing what you already know.

Knowing we don’t know what we don’t know is exhilarating, but it has major challenges, too. For one thing, internal peace and contentment is wildly elusive. It comes in fleeting moments of calm, ushered away by panic, uncertainty, and insecurity just as easily as it came.

Insecurities, in one form or another, are really the shackles that bind us when we try to live life without our blinders. Do you know what makes insecurity go away? Alcohol, food, money, power, shopping, sex, or a tummy tuck. Those are all of the externals that make us feel better, for a few minutes, anyway, about our internals. But the older we get, the more seasoned we are, the more external we require to keep the internals at bay.

We don’t want to hear that we are doing it wrong. We don’t want to believe that wealth and power won’t solve all of our problems. We drink a little and make the questions stop repeating themselves. The questions come back, and they are louder the next time. We have to drink a little more to shut them up. Or get a chin lift or fire someone or buy a sports car. It doesn’t matter, really. They are blinders—all of them. As long as we don’t have to look at what’s around us.

When our external limitations are taken away, we have only two choices. We can transfer our fixation to another external distraction, or we can evolve into a person who is as sensitive on the outside as we are on the inside—weak, vulnerable, timid, and scared as hell.

I knew alcohol couldn’t protect me, and I was just barely open-minded enough to know transferring my addiction to an 80-hour work week or a promiscuous younger woman or a quart of rocky road every night wasn’t going to fill the void. The void is there for a reason, and jamming externals into it will never fill it up. You can wear blinders your whole life. Just because you can’t see the bigger picture doesn’t mean the world revolves around you.

I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I’m quite sure we’re all running like whipped horses in the wrong direction. We use the externals, like alcohol in my case, as signs of success and accomplishment even as they limit our abilities. We medicate away the parts of life that keep us human. We develop patterns that revolve around our externals to keep our internals quiet. We keep running down the track, chasing the things we hope will make us happy, while the true joy is in embracing the unknown all around us. Living life open and in the moment, without our blinders to keep us pushing forward—that’s hard, scary stuff. That’s the human condition.

Our lives are boundless, if only we’ll let them be. This isn’t me telling you that you can be anything you want to be when you grow up. Quite to the contrary, actually. This is me telling you that you don’t really control who you’ll grow up to be. Figuring out how to be cool with that—man, that’s the tricky part.

Sobriety doesn’t fix anything. Neither does relinquishing our grip on any of our externals. But doing so is a necessary first step. We can’t see what’s around us until we take off our blinders and face our fears.

I don’t have this all figured out. I don’t have all the answers yet. Maybe that’s the point of living life without blinders. Maybe there’s joy in knowing I never will.

~ If you’d like to learn how I took the prerequisite first step—learn how I took the blinders off—please read my free ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety.

 

 

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Matthew Salis  |  Contribution: 20,990

author: Matthew Salis

Image: Gregorio Puga Bailón / Flickr

Editor: Julie Balsiger