When you’re buried in an avalanche, the weight of the snow squeezing the air out of you, you carve out some breathing space and use your mind to stay calm while you wait for the rescue team. You need professional assistance to break free. You know they’re out there looking for you. Meanwhile you do something effective to conserve your oxygen supply.
Someone buried in addiction has the advantage of knowing that in today’s world the rescue team is as close as your cellphone. Skilled professionals are ready to dig you out. But what can you do now, on your own, to give yourself some breathing room and begin your liberation from the weight of addiction?
The first thing is to realize that even though stuck may feel like forever, it is temporary. In fact, the concept of “stuck” is itself a bit of an illusion. Life is not static, it’s always moving, but sometimes the movement is not noticeable. But things are either getting better or getting worse. As you realize this you begin to notice your own direction and then take effective action to create “better and better every day.”
When people come to see me they have a fairly clear idea of what they don’t want. They don’t want the pain, the suffering, the despair. But they rarely have a clear idea of what they desire. The past and present have overshadowed their view of the future. So the first step is to begin to conceive of the desired future. Create a vision of the life you want to live, make that vision detailed and specific. Doing this is a huge step in getting unstuck.
When you’re stuck it can seem hopeless, impossible. Jim, let’s call him, sat across from me and with a tone of despair in his voice said “Drinking is all I know. It’s who I am. When I get up in the morning the first thing I think about is a drink. I can’t stop.” Jim is stuck, depressed and feeling hopeless. But what’s been keeping him stuck is not so much the chemistry of addiction, but his way of thinking and that is revealed in his language. First of all, he’s making the error of thinking that “the way it has been is the way it always will be.” This is a very prevalent view and IT’S WRONG! It’s like a toddler thinking “I’ve always peed in my diaper-there’s no way I’ll ever use a toilet.” Let’s translate Jim’s statement into an unstuck version: Drinking is all I’ve known. It’s felt like who I am. I’ve gotten up every day thinking about drinking. I haven’t been able to stop. “Do you see the difference? Put the past in the past tense. It will change your thinking.
The second thing keeping Jim stuck is his view of who he is, his view of his IDENTITY. If one thinks of his addiction as who he is, it makes breaking free much more difficult. Identity is something fixed and unchanging; it’s who we are at our very core. And our beliefs about ourselves are a big deal because they largely determine what we think is possible. So let’s be clear: behavior is not identity, thoughts are not identity, feelings are not identity, your body is not who you are, and you certainly are not what you eat. Let’s adopt a view of who you really are that’s more useful: You are, at your very core, at the quantum level, pure energy, pure consciousness. You are a child of the universe. You are, as astronomer Carl Sagan pointed out long ago, Starstuff. You have within you atomic particles that come from the Big Bang, the cosmic event that started our Universe. As pure consciousness, pure energy, you are infinite. Try on this view of yourself. What does it feel like to think of your identity this way?
Everyone knows that disturbing or traumatic events affect people. But the common view is that events cause emotions directly. Let’s think another way: Events affect the mind and t’s the mind that causes emotion. Prove this to yourself by realizing that people who experienced the same event often have completely different reactions. For example, a soldier who loses a leg may feel great relief in knowing he’s going home alive, but a man the same age that has the same injury from a car crash may be emotionally devastated. Same physiology, different emotionality.
If it’s the mind that causes the emotion resulting from a traumatic event then if we adjust the mind we can adjust the emotion. If someone is disturbed by the memory of an event, then we know for sure the event is finished. Because memories are always about stuff that’s not happening. So the first thing to realize is that the event is over, done, not happening, and not in existence. Just knowing this brings some relief. You got through it, and the worse that it was then, the better it is now that it’s finished. A trained mental health professional can assist in getting this awareness to the deepest levels of the mind. But begin now yourself to know that it’s finished, you got through it, and you gained wisdom from it, painful as it was when it was happening.
Secondly, the MEANING of the painful event must be noticed and if the meaning itself is causing pain, that meaning must be challenged. Because it’s just a meaning, an invention of the mind, and therefore distorted and an illusion. The mind of a wolf, lion, or tiger doesn’t attach meaning to events. When the pack of hyenas chases the lion off its kill, the lion is not thinking he’s a coward for not standing up to them. He’s not feeling humiliated and ashamed. The event has no particular meaning, just something that happened that was disturbing when it happened. But now, just a few minutes later, his mind is completely focused on getting more food. He’s fully present. Wouldn’t it be useful if the human mind worked this way? Try it on. Think of events as having no particular meaning, like for example, a tornado. We don’t like the tornado, it’s really disturbing, but what does it mean? We can view events involving humans the same way we think about a tornado. He did that to me, it was painful. But it doesn’t mean anything about me or even about life itself. It’s something that happened that’s finished.
Try one these ways of thinking like you might try on a new pair of shoes. Walk in them for a while and you might find them getting more and more comfortable.
By: Douglas Schooler, Ph.DDr.
Doug Schooler is a Licensed Psychologist and Certified Master Practitioner of Rapid Resolution Therapy. He maintains an independent practice of psychology in Boca Raton, providing treatment to all ages since 1985 (www.DouglasSchooler.com). Before coming to Florida he taught psychology at Eastern Michigan University. He graduated from Queens College in 1964 and received his PhD in psychology from the University of Rhode Island in 1976.