The Perfect Metaphor for Addiction

One thing I keep reading about in my sobriety quest here is to watch out for the ways in which addiction can manifest itself in new ways. Master the alcohol thing, and whoops: something else pops in to the picture. My thing these days seems to be sugar: sugar, sugar, sugar. Bring on the sugar!!! That one is pretty common, apparently. Other “food issues,” may occur, or you find yourself drinking way more coffee, or smoking, or maybe you even swap out another drug – say weed – for your alcohol.

The prospect of cross-addiction is discouraging for those of us in early sobriety, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the same mindfulness and tools you use to stay sober can be applied to anything else in your life that seems to be claiming your attention in an obsessive way.

Obsessive craving can have any object. When drinking isn’t the object of my craving, it might be something else: Chocolate. Going for a run. Slow-cooked short-ribs. Another book I don’t have time to read. Another shirt I don’t need. So, the trick has got to be looking past the object of one’s craving and mull what the eff is going on when that craving is taking over your head and your body.

What is it with we human beings that we’re so damn needy? I’m convinced that the things most of us are after aren’t “things” at all, but feelings of belonging, recognition, and purpose. When we don’t get this, we go chasing after stupid stuff that feels like what we need, but isn’t. We want relief from the suffering that comes with feeling deprived, even when we don’t get what it is we’re really feeling deprived of.

Hungry Ghosts

hungry ghostsIn Buddhist cosmology (worldview), the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is one of six human realms on the wheel of life. Each of these realms represents a human tendency in each of us that must be understood if we are to be liberated from suffering. Hungry ghosts are gory. This picture is typical. They look miserable, and they usually have these big swollen bellies because they are sooooo hungry. But the deal is they can’t eat. They try and try and try but the food bursts into flames when it goes down, or they have teeny tiny mouths or throats that won’t let the food down.

In traditional Buddhist/Hindu versions, hungry ghosts are getting their karmic comeuppance for being assholes in a previous life, but I’ve never bought the reincarnation aspect of Buddhism in any literal kind of way. Nor does Dr. Gabor Maté, who wrote In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He’s all about compassion rather than judgement, and I like that.

Maté draws on the hungry ghost metaphor to describe the suffering of the many patients he has worked with in Vancouver’s east downtown: probably the most notorious catchment of poverty and addiction in Canada. The main message in Maté’s book is that addiction isn’t punishment for past misdeeds, nor the outcome of individual moral failings. Addictions are the outcome of unmet needs like that belonging, safety and purpose I mentioned above. The hungry ghosts are “ghosts” because they are trapped in past, trying to “feed” the gnawing emptiness of unresolved pain in their lives.

Maté’s patients are hard cases, and their unmet needs are obvious. Many are Indigenous Canadians who grew up under the worst of circumstances.[1] But this doesn’t stop Maté, an educated and comfortably well off white guy, from seeing himself reflected in the eyes of street alcoholics and heroin junkies. Cause he’s a junkie too. But his “fix” is classical music CDs. Yup. You just never know what your thing is going to be, right?

In one particular story that really stuck with me, he describes keeping his nine-year old son waiting for half an hour because he just has to go buy this one CD at his favourite classical music store. It really struck me because I thought about all the times when my kids were little that I’d pushed them beyond their limits of patience, hunger, or fatigue for just a little bit more shopping. All the times that some mindless hunger, that craving for something led me to make stupid, selfish choices.

We’ve all got a little or a lot of hungry ghost in us, don’t we? I’ve never been able to relate to the idea that I might be “drinking to numb,” which I know resonates with many. But when I think about alcohol addiction as the product of the wanderings of this sad, hungry human being with needs that feel insatiable: well, I see myself there. I still don’t know what to do about that, entirely. But I see the hungry ghost inside of me with some clarity now, and that recognition does help me to head that poor little sucker off at the pass. At least until I figure out what kind of nourishment she really needs.

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[1] I want to note here that here in Canada we treat our Indigenous people like shit. Always have. So, the high rates of addiction and poverty in Indigenous communities are the outcomes of intergenerational trauma. Maté’s work illustrates this sharply.

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Right Now, It’s Like This

I’ve mentioned in the past that Buddhism and recovery are intimately linked for me. I can’t remember how I stumbled upon podcasts from Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. I didn’t even know at first that its founders had come to Buddhism through addiction and recovery, and when I first started listening to the podcasts, recovery wasn’t even on my mind. Who knows. Maybe that was what planted the seeds for me that quitting drinking was desirable and possible.

Noah Levine, started Refuge Recovery as a Buddhist alternative for recovery. Another founding member, Mary Stancavage, is a recovering/recovered alcoholic, and is, I think still my favourite speaker. One of the first things she said that really stuck with me was “Right now it’s like this.”

Well what’s that supposed to mean? Without a context it sounds stupid, right up there with the banal tautology, “it is what it is.” But it actually contains an important Buddhist insight for recovery, which is that you have to learn to sit with your unpleasant feelings, without judging them, and without going off all half-cocked trying to fix them.

Part of Buddhist philosophy is recognizing that shitty things are going to happen, and that the pain that comes from shitty things happening is just part of the human experience. Which sounds like a total bummer, I know. Who wants to hang out in a faith where the first noble truth is “All life is suffering?”

But the big paradox is that we suffer way, way more when we fight what hurts in life by denying it, numbing it, trying to beat it up, trying to fix it, or otherwise get rid of the pain. So, the challenge is to instead observe what makes you feel hurt, uncomfortable or angry, and just let yourself feel your feelings.

I need to stress that this doesn’t mean inaction. You don’t just go “Oh well, life sucks,” and give up. It’s just that you don’t take action until you are calm, and you’ve made some peace with the fact that something in your life is hurting.

Anyway, if you are someone like me who goes all reptile brain when confronted with shitty feelings, every fibre of your being screams “Do something!”[1] For me in the past “doing something” has included, among other bright ideas, running away from home, burning furniture, attempting suicide, and in less drama-fuelled instances, impulse buying and drinking.

Freaking out in response to my own pain has always been in part out of panic: “I’m going to feel like this forever!” That panic has been amplified by the extreme and instant reactions of my body to emotional stress. I just want the bad feelings to stop. So, you do stuff. Stupid stuff. Which, in the words of David Bowie, amounts to putting out the fire with gasoline.

Right Now, It’s Like This. But Not Forever.

The hardest thing in the world when you are in the throes of “do something!” is to sit and, as Stancavage describes, repeat “Right now its like this.” The “right now” part is a gentle reminder that you are not, in fact going to feel this way forever, no matter what your amygdala is screaming. The “it’s like this” part is recognizing that you’re not doing so great, and bringing some compassion to that. You acknowledge your own pain, and notice the tendency in your head to make it bloody worse by feeding it.

You know this thing? Say something simple where someone cuts you off in traffic or has thirty items in the 16-item express line. And you go off on this monologue in your head about what an asshole the person is. And by then you have a bunch of cortisol in your system and you feel like shit. And you wouldn’t have felt like shit now, fifteen minutes later, if you hadn’t fed the beast of your own annoyance imagining the person probably also beats her kids or cheats on his taxes, and it just isn’t fair and what is wrong with some people and…uggggggh.

Now think about how we do that stuff with our relationships and with “big problems.” The monologues are even worse. Buddhism helps adherents to recognize that we actually grow our own suffering when we dig into our pain, create stories around it, justify it, punish ourselves for it, punish others for it, or play the blame game. You feel worse. And you further elaborate on why you feel worse. Hence drinking, or your pathology of choice.

“Right now it’s like this” is a way to turn off the mental gymnastics. You acknowledge that you’re hurt or angry or anxious or scared, but you also try to stay with the recognition that in our lives, all of our feelings, good and bad, are in constant motion. You can stop panicking, and stop trying to fix and explain things when you are least equipped to deal with them. Honestly, you start to figure out that most of the feelings do in fact pass, and most weren’t half as big a deal as they felt in the moment.

For the tough stuff that doesn’t pass right away, you can call a truce with the fact that you are going to feel pain in your life. You just are. And that’s not fun but if you just breathe a bit and give yourself some space, you can deal with it like a grown up. Over time, you forge faith that you’ll figure out what to do about the pain once you’ve got yourself calmed down and your heart and mind are back at full capacity.

I’ve been learning that most of my awful feelings do pass. Really. My cravings for alcohol pass. My sadness passes. My anger passes. My anxiety passes. Every time I let myself just sit and feel those feelings without succumbing to “do something!” I feel a little less panic-struck the next time:

“Remember that thing and how you didn’t react, and if you’d reacted in that way you wanted to it would have been ten times worse?”

That. It’s a learning process. And I can safely say that every time I handle my pain – great or small – with calm dignity, I feel just a tiny bit better about myself.

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Endnotes

[1] It’s worth noting that the compartmentalization of brain functions has been critiqued as overly simplistic, and hence misleading. There’s a brief summary of this critique and an account of the origins of the “three brain” model via Wikipedia.

Self-Compassion

Okay I think I have this diagnosed, sort of. I’ve been having a really hard time lately with my Drinking Voice, which still sounds like woe-is-me. And I hate feeling sorry for myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I just hate it when I do do it.

Hate is a strong word. And I’m hating on myself. I kind of figured this out last Sunday at my meeting because someone came in with another self-compassion reading — this one from Brene Brown — and I had another viscerally angry reaction to the idea that I’m supposed to be all “accepting of myself just the way that I am.” Like people go around the circle saying “I liked the reading and here’s why.” And I’m thinking, “I hated the reading. Can I say that? Why do I hate the reading?”

Uggghhhhh. Hate, hate, hate. And all the feelings that come with that. I always think I’m too grown up now to have feelings of self-loathing. But I realized that the readings were pissing me off because I don’t want to be nice to myself. There is no self-compassion going on here. Somewhere along the way I rejected the core idea — and I mean core to both recovery and my Buddhist practice — that self-compassion is critical to healing both ourselves and the world.

So why can’t I muster self-compassion? I think it boils down to my chronic resentment of the world that I can’t get a permanent, full-time job. I don’t like feeling resentful. I don’t like feeling bitter. These feelings make me not like myself, so I get pissed off at myself for feeling these feelings. It’s like this: “If you are feeling resentment and bitterness it is because you are a loser and you should get over yourself. Lots of people have it worse than you do.”

I’m not sure what to do with this. I started in on Kirsten Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and just “bringing awareness” to moments like when she says it is okay to physically hug and stroke yourself to show yourself compassion, which makes me want to thrown the book across the room. But that reaction is the problem, right?

I am just going to keep going and try to keep myself open to the message that self-compassion is good. In my head I know that is true, but my heart isn’t listening yet.

 

Sometimes You Just Suck It Up

Out for dinner a couple of nights ago, and boy was it EVER one of those nights. Wine on the table at the cottage has settled in to a mild distraction/annoyance that quickly passes. I did most of the cooking the nights we were there with family, so this is always a great distraction for me. Being physically busy really helps me to stay grounded in all kinds of ways, including staying sober.

This time, though, we were in a restaurant. It was a beautiful summery night, and everyone at the table (except my ten year old niece) was drinking beer or wine. I was so agitated, and missing my best defense: the ability to move around. It was really tough. I suppose  I could have gone for a little walk, but this was a last resort. I just pretty much decided I’d have to suck it up. It was not fun. But it passed, as I kept reminding myself it would.

Meditation has helped a lot. When you’re meditating and cultivating mindfulness, one of the aims of it is to observe and accept your feelings as things that your mind comes up with. But Your feelings aren’t “you.” They are things you can acknowledge without letting them define you. You get the gist of this in meditation, and then in a very weird and wonderful way, it starts to pop up on other areas of your life where you aren’t thinking at all about meditation. How cool is that?

So let’s say your craving is like an annoying office colleague. You have to work with this person and you don’t like her very much, but hey — she’s there and you have to cooperate with her to get shit done. So when you have to meet, you acknowledge her politely, and have necessary conversations. You don’t get all pissy, or aggressive, or passive aggressive. You just stick with business, and think about something pleasant you’ll get to do later. In other words, you have to have the interaction, but you don’t get all emotionally invested in it because you don’t want a few difficult moments to wreck the rest of your day.

So I had an annoying, unpleasant, annoying interaction with craving. Sometimes it is just like that. Some days suck. Some moods suck. Intense cravings really suck. But you really can just sit with those things and not invest a pile of emotional energy in to them. You don’t have to dwell. You can acknowledge the suckyness is there, but still stick with business. This is a really hard thing to learn if you are someone like me who has spent a lifetime reacting sharply to every feeling that’s ever entered your body or head. I’m a work in progress for sure. But the little victories feel good.

 

 

Cottage Cravings! Ugh.

It is Day 40 today. Last night was sooooo hard. I thought at first with this whole not drinking thing that I would be most at risk at home, because that’s where the daily habits are most entrenched. However, this hasn’t really been the case. If I’m alone and happen to be feeling sorry for myself, I might fantasize about drinking, but the audience for my fantasy is a skeptical, Sober Me going “Really, genius? And then what?” Maybe there have just been too many times in the past that I’ve self-medicated and… well… it never actually works.

Last night I was not alone. I am with folks at the family cottage. The cottage is very cottage-y: one swims, naps, reads, cooks and drinks. So G&Ts and beers come out around 5:00, followed by copious amounts of wine with dinner. The dedicated (myself formerly among them) would carry on with one or two more drinks after supper during “everyone sits around reading” time before bed.

Around 5:00, I was starting supper while cheerful people around me bustled back and forth fixing cocktails and pouring cold pints. I thought I was going to have an aneurysm, I wanted a drink so badly. It’s alarming how something that is psychological can feel like a physical thing that is taking over your whole body! I mean I wasn’t twitching on the floor or anything, but it was really uncomfortable. “If I just… do it, everything will be easy and normal again,” I thought. I wanted relief. I wanted to stop trying. I wanted a fucking drink!

I’ve got nothing here but waiting it out. “This will pass,” I kept reminding myself. One thing I’ve found useful from Buddhism is recognizing that there are two kinds of suffering: primary suffering – the “shit that happens because you are a human being” – and secondary suffering, which is the extra shit you pile on by trying to wrestle down the primary suffering, if that makes any sense.

The short of it is that when we feel uncomfortable, stressed, anxious or otherwise miserable, we scrounge around trying to make those feelings go away – to fix them, or drown them, or distract ourselves from them. To make them go away and never come back. Paradoxically, all this struggling can just compound the problem.

So, the idea is that, instead, you look that primary suffering squarely in the eye, and do nothing. You go: “Hello craving. You kind of suck.” And you just sit with it. You don’t screw yourself in to the ground analyzing it (my personal favourite); you don’t fight it; you don’t give in to it either. You just sit with it. And it does pass.

Last night’s craving moments passed. About midway through supper I was still noticing the wine on the table, but I wasn’t salivating for it anymore. Supper was good and my strawberry, basil and balsamic drink was good. And there was ice-cream and strawberries after, and those were good. I got to wake up this morning sober, which so far has not gotten old. It’s awesome.

Hopefully every craving you survive makes you stronger?

 

Dem Precepts

If you really want to be a good Buddhist you take the five precepts: you agree to

  1. refrain from killing (I’m still not a vegetarian. Sigh.);
  2. refrain from taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you (This isn’t just material “stuff.” It can include others’ time, attention and labour.);
  3. refrain from inappropriate, exploitive, or harmful sexual relationships;
  4. refrain from false speech (like not lying, which is of course harder than it ought to be); and
  5. refraining from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind.

I will say that not drinking gives me a fighting chance of living according to the precepts. It’s always bugged me that I haven’t been on board with number five.

Lots of the precepts seem like “well duh,” but like most religious stuff, it is much more complicated and subtle once you dig in to it. The gist in basic Buddhist terms is to live your life in a way that minimizes your own suffering, and that of others.

So a little more on number five there, for obvious reasons: Buddhists don’t tell you drinking and drugs are immoral in and of themselves; rather, intoxication is more likely to lead to you screwing up the other precepts. (You know. I know. We’ve all been there.)

The “clouding the mind” thing is super important too. One thing I’m struck by when I listen to other recovery stories — I’ve been doing a ton of that on the Bubble Hour — is how people describe coming to see themselves and the world more clearly. They don’t always love everything they see, but there is a freedom and peace that comes with knowing that you aren’t bullshitting yourself day in and day out about your alcohol use.

But its more than that. People talk about getting their heads out of their own arses — about how drinking leads to self-absorption, and sobriety helps them to re-evaluate and work on their relationships with others. Community is really important for most people in achieving and maintaining sobriety because we need to give and receive love to feel whole as human beings.

Maya, in Eastern faith traditions, names the veil of ignorance that we live under when we cannot see ourselves and the world clearly. And one of the biggest deceptions we live under is that we are separate from others. You can’t achieve enlightenment without grasping, fundamentally, that we are interconnected, and you really have little hope of seeing this when you are chronically under the influence. I think that Maya is kind of synonymous with using alcohol for “numbing,” because we just don’t want to see things clearly! It is, or has become, too painful.

I’m still a long way off from achieving enlightenment! On good days I have catches of light — tiny spaces where I feel the kindness and compassion toward others that one tries to cultivate as a Buddhist. On bad days, I walk around lost in the noise in my own head. But sobriety may be turning down the volume a bit, and at least I’m feeling less stuck. And I can finally *nail* that fifth precept. Yeah!