In a very real sense, early recovery is a chemical and psychological rollercoaster. You’ve got your peaks and valleys. Your raw, burning deserts of hell. And your glorious mountaintops of pristine joy. Both – and every pothole in between – will strike you with a force hitherto unimaginable.
I did a lot of things that, looking back, look like maudlin drama encrusted blather. They were. But they were also very, very real. I simply needed to do what I needed to do to get through.
Do whatever it is you need to get through. Just don’t drink. Just keep going forward. Even if going forward is doing nothing at all in sixty minute chunks.
I smoked an awful lot of cigarettes. Went for insanely long walks. Then I started driving around in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I drove all over Minnesota, into the Dakotas, and around Wisconsin. I still had too much cultural prejudice to slip into Iowa, but there were times I came close.
First of all, an alcoholic is a person who has been running away for a very long time. When you stop, the train wreck catches up with you. This brings up emotions, often times emotions we have spent a long time repressing. Not only the immediate past, but sometimes things from very long ago may appear without warning, demanding your attention. They don’t necessarily need to be dealt with in the moment, but they damned well insist on being felt in the moment.
Secondly, an alcoholic new to sobriety has a very high sensitivity to stress. Things that normal people, or even yourself in a different time and place, would handle without breaking a sweat, become stressful. Things like phone calls, laundry, getting the oil changed. Changing diapers or dealing with your job. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s stress inducing. And the stress is real.
Stalk up on your soothing tools, whatever they may be.
Thirdly, not only has the trainwreck tracked you down and ferreted you out, life will continue to happen, hour by hour, and with it, more stress will come. More feelings. More thoughts. More life.
And for the first time, you are facing them without your old coping skills.
It can be a maddening, at times terrifying, place to be.
The chemicals in your brain are going haywire in those first weeks. The neurotransmitters in charge of things like pleasure, relaxation, anger, sadness, and tranquility are going to be alternately too much or too little. It will take time for those chemicals – and your personal behavioral patterns – to level out.
Knowledge is power. Knowing this is true will make it one one millionth of a bit easier to deal with when it happens. The Serenity Prayer drills me home to sanity when all the oxygen seems sucked out of the air.
First, it’s a mantra. The word mantra means over or out of the mind. The simple recitation will alter your brain waves and, with practice, instill a sense of calm and poise, no matter what storms are happening around you. It’s a way to hijack your thought patterns; rather than letting yourself ruminate your way into a ditch, or create chaos out of a dust bunny, focusing on the words of the mantra is a gentle way to get out of the grooves in your brain and onto a different track.
Secondly, it’s a logical discretionary too. Most of the time, the things we tend to worry about, obsess over, or fear are the things we can do nothing about. Once we realize this, we realize the incredible waste of emotional energy we’re giving the thing.
Further, it moves us to a place of pro-activity. It asks us to look for the things we can do, and find the motivation to do them, one step at a time. This may be as simple as walking away, taking a deep breath, drinking a glass of water, calling a sponsor. It may be asking for a time out, or making the decision to not make any decision right now but watch a movie or read a novel instead. We can see when things are beyond us, and maybe have the guts to go work out with our time, or hit a meeting, rather than focusing on these things we can’t budge.
Thirdly, it’s a token or totem. It will remind us of our sobriety, of our support network, of how far we’ve already come. This happens on both the conscious and the unconscious levels. We learn by experience. Once we have experienced – on our own or through the stories of others – a few successes in dealing with moods and stress, it becomes possible for us to repeat those successes subconsciously. That’s what learning is. The serenity prayer is a luck stone, a rosary, or a rabbits foot that you can have at any time.
Indeed, this is one of the paradoxes of recovery. We experience intense stress and unprecedented mood swings. But we’re also learning the skills and habits of serenity, tranquility, and the capacity to pass through fire without getting singed to the nosehairs.
There is a secret to being human that alcoholics don’t learn until they get a little sobriety. Steadiness of mind is one of the most practical of skills. It is the bench mark of successful people. It is the way to emotional intelligence and self mastery, as well as anything like being able to move through the world with any kind of facility. Nothing in the world is more vital than learning to face turmoil with courage, confidence, and compassion.
The secret is that those capacities are human. They are ours by birthright and the simple mechanics of our bodies, minds, souls or what have you. They exist in every human being. We just get banged up along the way and no body tells us the secret, or we forget the things we once upon a time knew full well.
Sobriety is the pathway back into those capacities of steadiness, grace, courage, and compassion. The fact is we can’t very well have them until we get sober. Once we make a commitment to get sober, the change is pretty much a given, a done deal.
The secret of course (of course, it’s goddamned elementary, but so hard to learn it’s like nuclear physics) is the mind. The secret is that we can have only a limited effect on the world, ourselves, our life. But we do have some access to the mind. And the mind, turns out, proves a doorway to tremendous resources. Call it heart. Call it god. Call it subconscious. Whatever it is, it is a well spring that will not dry up. It’s there, always.
We already have the resources to meet and even thrive on challenges. We don’t need to learn these skills somewhere or master them, we just need to tap into them. Calming the mind allows us to do that. Calming the mind allows us to draw from our resources – or god’s, or the universal, or the innate capacity – of strength, endurance, love, wisdom, and creativity.
That process is recovery – and spirituality – in short code. The serenity prayer is like a cliff notes version of Moby Dick. The capacity to be still, to accept, to remain calm even in challenging situations is the secret of every single path to self-mastery and spiritual enlightenment there is.
The serenity prayer, which I’ll stick with for now since I’m on it, but feel free to use whatever mantram or totem or prayer or affirmation works for you – works to calm you down, whether you are facing a minor irritation or a major trauma. It stops you from reacting too quickly or saying or doing a thing you may later regret. It halts rising anger, fear, and panic. It gives a breathing space – what some call a sacred pause. Once you’ve got that space, you are in a much better position to choose your next move and to choose wisely.
That kind of calm, whether you find it through the serenity prayer, your own prayer, a yoga mat, a long walk or a hot bath, is not only a mechanical tool that works really well.
It’s also an experience. It’s a thing you come to trust, once you’ve used it and felt it work a few times. Those peeks into calm, into facing a raging bull and not dying, can feel like epiphanies in early sobriety.
They are epiphanies.
The promise is that it only gets deeper, only gets better, with time. The beauty is, you do get glimpses of it from the very first day of sobriety. The hard stuff will continue to come. And they may seem so overwhelming they immediately blot out the memory of that calm. They may make it seem like it was fake. They may seem more ‘real’ than any vague spiritual promise or even the possibility of plain old physical abstinence. Practice patience. The calm will always come back.