I am reading an interesting book called the Business of Belief by Tom Asacker. He talks about (pp. 47-48) the well-known experiments at Yale University where volunteers thought they were administering electric shocks with increased intensity to individuals who could be heard but not seen. Despite the verbal protests from those being shocked the volunteers were prodded to continue the process by the director of the experiments. The director issued four instructions in sequence:
“Please go on.”
“The experiment requires that you continue.”
“It’s absolutely essential that you continue.”
“You have no other choice, you must go on.”
Asacker relates that “Despite expressing feelings that it was wrong, 65% of the volunteers inflicted the maximum voltage. Even when subjects were screaming in agony. . . But something happened at the final prod. When the experimenter would say, “You have no other choice, you must go on,” no one did. Not one single volunteer. They were willing to inflict, and endure, suffering for what they were led to believe was a worthy cause. But only when they felt they had control. The minute they were issued an order, they stopped. . . No one can be forced to believe. Belief depends upon the freedom to choose.”
This story really resonates with me. When told I cannot not drink, smoke, overeat, or whatever other addictive behavior, my ability to remain sober or abstinent is not long-lasting – I will relapse. I have found that knowing I have a choice to either live into the solution or live into the problem, live into recovery or live into my addiction, or quite simply, choose to live versus committing a slow, or not slow suicide, has led me to long-term recovery, one day at a time.
A few years ago I was completely stressed out and frustrated by a job situation. Something was not working after 20 years of sobriety. I had completed various personality/career tests over the years. My interpretation of the results had always been “oh, I like this aspect of my personality” or “I need to control this one more” and so forth. I had been in weekly therapy for the previous two years and was curious if my personality traits had changed at all. I took the same test again (Myers-Briggs). The results were the same INFP – but I looked at the results differently this time around. First, I saw the results less as “I like this or that about me” but more “this is who I am.” Second, the results also provided a list of favored and disfavored career choices for my personality type. I am certain these choices were always listed when I reviewed the previous test results, but I had simply never been aware of them. This time, I took notice. All of disfavored career choices for my personality type involved everything that comprised my job at the time. All of my favored career choices involved career directions that I longed to do, had done in the past, or worked on in my free time. I realized the problem was not my job at that time, but that I was trying to stick a square peg into a round hole. Another gift of sobriety – simply having the insights to look outside the box, or expand the box of perception. During my active alcoholism, I would have desperately tried to arrange all the players on the stage of my previous job to fit my perceived needs. With sobriety, I came to see that I was on the wrong stage. What an incredible gift! I am now on a different stage and am once again challenged and fulfilled in my career direction.
Early on in sobriety I came to a host of revelations. After bowling one Saturday night, I was driving home about 11:00 PM, and I reflected on the fact that I was sober. I was ecstatic. I had a complete feeling of liberation. I could go home, sleep, wake up in the morning and count on having a whole day to enjoy before going back to work on Monday. There would not be a hangover, remorse, excuses, promises, broken promises, suicide fantasies as the only logical way out. Somewhat similarly, I was driving one evening through the inner city when I noticed a police car about one block behind. Instinct took over and I turned right at the next corner to avoid the officer getting close enough to see my plates and check for outstanding tickets, or worse, the possibility of a DUI. But then reality kicked in – I no longer had any outstanding tickets, I had an insurance card, neither my plates nor driver’s license were expired, and I would welcome a breathalyzer test. Another piece of my knee-jerk insane behavior could be put to rest, permanently – it was my choice. Perhaps the greatest “aha” moments for me in sobriety that marked a true turning point was when my thinking went from “I can’t drink today” to “I don’t have to drink today.” I did not have to walk into a bar try to have the three beers and go home, something I had likely done once or twice at some point in the distant past, but had not done successfully for years. I no longer had to delve into the physical, mental, and emotional insanity of drunken body and mind. Today I had choice.
The “falling off the pink cloud/mountain top” view has never resonated with me after the earliest stages of recovery. None of this knowledge could be taken away from me. This was mine to keep. I could never again be taken down into the depths of despair, simply because I had been to the mountain top and on the pink cloud. Those experiences could not be taken away. In recovery, I have never known the depths of depression and despair and the complete lack of solution or the ability to even begin to articulate a way to resolve a problem. As well, in my active stages of alcoholism, I never experienced the clarity, the joy, the pleasure in simple things that I have experienced in recovery.
I know that depression, sadness, misfortune, will continue to be experienced in recovery. In fact, I have truly grieved in sobriety for the first time. In the past, my grief was always medicated away with alcohol. I actually experience sadness, depression, more in sobriety than while drinking. The operative word is to truly experience the emotion as opposed to wallowing in a cesspool of alcohol induced haze, trying to avoid feeling at all expenses. Through living sober, I have come to understand and believe that there is always hope. In my experience in hearing others, and living the process myself, I see solutions in sobriety. After a time I begin to see more of those experiences in myself.
Perhaps one of the greatest incentives toward staying sober is that I have yet to experience the “this is it” and there is not way out from here. Rather, I understand both the highs and the lows are transitional, but that the mountain top is always in view. I thoroughly enjoy that when I am sliding down the slopes of the mountain top, that there are experiences along the way to break the fall, so that I do not need to go so far from the mountain top before turning around to come back up.
In an Overeaters daily reflection for today I read that abstaining is actually easier than overeating. This statement did not sit right with me immediately. But as I read on, I came to appreciate that this aspect of my food addiction is quite similar to my alcohol addiction. Long ago I had the “aha” moment when “I can’t drink today” changed to “I don’t have to drink today” in my thought processes. I was able to give up the anxiety of being in a bondage to not being able to drink to embrace the liberation that comes with being freed from the slavery to alcohol. That understanding has been very key in my recovery.
As I read on in the Overeater daily reflection I understood that in the beginning of abstinence, not overeating does appear the more difficult choice. Rationalizing getting just one more pint of ice cream to eat in a single sitting, or finding a good excuse why the eight-piece meal of fried chicken is really okay seems the easier decision. But at the same time, when I overeat, I am bloated, feel physically miserable and mentally defeated. I think of how I now carry the equivalent of two 20-pound sacks of potatoes when I am biking and everywhere else I go. Freedom from those impediments certainly results in an easier way of life.
So this dealing with reality and not living in my addictions seems a difficult decision at the start, yet ultimately, it truly is the easier, softer way.
At yesterday’s meeting we talked about feeling disconnected or feeling a bit out of touch even though doing all of the right things for recovery. I was reminded of a line I heard in detox that went something like – ‘addicts are not good at accepting both the high and lows of recovery or of life in general – what they are seeking is a static even existence – however, the only time one truly has such flat-line experiences is when you are dead.’
I appreciate that in recovery I know the steps to take to stay connected and believe strongly that “this too shall pass” whether a high or a low. What I find as well is that many times I must simply sit still and be mindful and intentional in seeking the solution. I often reflect that some of my greatest life lessons come from interacting with my dogs. My dogs are always there, but too often, I get too busy to pay attention to them. That seems true for many of the simple aspects of recovery.
I have been working through the “My New Gender Workbook” by Kate Bornstein. This book is pointing me in some good directions of self discovery and understanding. Although I am a heterosexual male, I have never been comfortable with the presumed associated gender role. For example, at the ripe old age of 61, I can say that I have never watched a professional football game from beginning to end and I find most sports. I am somewhat surprised that in the graduate level classes I teach, over 90% of the students in the field of study are female. Over the years I have often found myself in book studies where I was the only male. At first, I was hesitant to join feeling too much the odd person out. I found myself thinking “I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to come off in my presumed male gender role and dominate the discussion.” And then I thought “I don’t want to say too little because I don’t want to appear dismissive or aloof since I am the only male in the group.” At a certain point, I just said screw it – this is an interesting book or area of study for me and I am going to participate.
At the same time, I know many heterosexual women who love football, would not be caught dead in a Carl Jung discussion group, and so forth.
What I like about the Bornstein Workbook is that she celebrates the ambiguous, that which does not fit into a nice neat category. Whereas biological sex may be more set by natural traits (though not that simple or straight forward either), cultures create gender roles.
I have taken great comfort and direction in the saying “To Thine Own Self Be True” printed on the AA anniversary coins/medallions. I enjoy that in recovery I do not have to figure out to conform to someone else’s expectations but to discover or uncover my own true self and direction in life. That true self comes from nurturing and celebrating a person who is not anesthetized with addictions. Perhaps one of the greatest things I enjoy about recovery is that at any point in time, if I were to look back say 5 years, there is no way I could have predicted where my recovery path would have taken me. That is a real trip!