When I first decided to get rid of alcohol, all I knew was that it had to happen. No matter what. My spirit was so soggy and bruised all I wanted was to wrap it in a big, sober bandage and give it time to heal and dry up. I searched for that bandage for a long time – “in the rooms” and in the books, always somewhere outside of myself.
Waiting for someone or something to come along and fix you is absolute torture, and you’ll be waiting a very long time. I tried everything from counselling to pills and kept coming back to the same place, stuck and sinking.
It wasn’t until I realized I had to be my own nurse, that was I finally able to move forward and into recovery. Until then, it was as though I was just standing outside the hospital needing and wanting in, but all the doors were locked.
My brain was one big, messy connect-the-dots puzzle. My thoughts were all over the place and the dots were so scattered, all I was drawing was a scribbled, confusing mess. I’d grown so tired of chasing dots from one corner of the page to the other, ignoring some and overlooking others, I was terrified of all the new dots that would appear when I did, finally, indeed, one day, eventually, you know…stop drinking.
You see, we have this monkey mind that swings from limb to limb and tree to tree, all across the forest, back and forth, up and down, day in, day out.
Unsettled and restless, inconstant and confused, indecisive and uncontrollable.
Alcohol does nothing to help calm that already crazy monkey, hopping from thought to thought and never actually getting anywhere.
If anything, drinking only adds more branches to jump to and vines to fall from. In the early days of sobriety my poor drunken monkey wasn’t only crazed and confused but completely overwhelmed.
I drank because I wanted to put the damned monkey to bed.
Drinking was like a sedative I could feed it to slow it’s swinging from limb to limb. Drinking became the earplugs I’d wear to drown out the screeching of the jungle inside my head. It was the blindfold I’d put on to stop the dizzying, relentless jumping from tree to tree.
Addiction brought me to a point where all I dreamt of and wanted was less. Less worry, less regret, less shame, less debt, less hangovers, less sadness, less grief, less obsession, less feeling out of control, less confusion, less indifference and less anger. My mind was full. The forest was overgrown and my poor little monkey was not only exhausted – he was absolutely and utterly lost.
The day I left for rehab was the first day I had gone from a multi-decade, 4-bottles-of-wine-a-day habit to complete abstinence. You may as well have stitched my mouth shut: it felt like my oxygen supply had been cut off. My monkey mind went into overdrive and I’m pretty sure he found a stash of speed somewhere up in those trees, because I couldn’t keep up or make sense of the chaos that was starting to unfold in the forest.
Do you know what they did when I first arrived at rehab?
They left me absolutely alone. I was given 3 days of detox to “adjust” – without therapy, counselling or advice, while my body did what it does and started to evict the poison from my bloodstream like a squatter that had overstayed their welcome. But what I really needed was immediate help with the poison in my head. There was a full-on revolt happening up there and the monkeys were getting angry.
The everyday, wasteful chaos of my addicts mind had turned into the island from Lord of the Flies and there was a beast on the prowl and a war about to erupt.
Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.
― William Golding,
Drinking allowed me to numb and drown out my feelings, and now, with nothing left to drink, I had no other choice but to start dealing with them. Before, when I could just slip that monkey mind of mine some sedative, he’d get drowsy and pass out. But now, he was in withdrawal and had grown to King Kong proportions, and was screaming in my face.
Rehab was okay, but I can’t say they really gave us any tools to help deal with the mental anguish or overgrown jungle of tangled thoughts. It was from this frustration and desperation to tame that now very angry gorilla in my head that I sought out alternatives to the AA conveyor belt they stuck us on. And it was by doing so that I stumbled across Thich Nhat Hanh and mindfulness. After reading just the first few pages of Thich’s Being Peace it was as though the King Kong in my mind finally came down from the Empire State Building, raised an eyebrow and pulled up a seat right next to me.
I won’t go at length to explain what mindfulness is, or how to introduce it into your life as the internet is saturated with this already. But in a nutshell, mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
In other words, telling your monkey mind to slow the hell down and pick a damned tree already.
This was foreign to me. Whenever I felt or thought anything remotely uncomfortable, my unconscious and automatic reaction was to always just drink those feelings away and lock them up in the liquor cabinet. Now, I had no other option than to deal with and acknowledge them as I didn’t have any other choice. By removing all the liquor from the cabinet, all those ugly feelings I had stashed away there came spilling out all over the floor.
All the ugly feelings were now louder than ever. You know – all the ones I used to drink to shut up. Well, now they were the equivalent of a room full of screaming newborns and I had no experience with comforting babies, and they had no language to be able to explain to me what was wrong. I had to sit with each one and soothe it as best I could, instead of slamming the door shut and walking away like old Shawn always would, covering his ears and muttering “blah blah blah I can’t hear you” under his breath.
Instead of pushing the discomfort away as I always had, denying that the ugly parts were as much a part of me as anything, I now had to learn how to introduce myself to them. And there they all were, waiting in line, still wet and dripping from all the years I kept them drenched and drowned in wine.
Hello fear, anxiety, and insecurity. How are you today?
My slowly waking awareness and acceptance that I was made up of all kinds of different parts and emotions – some equally as gorgeous as others were offensive – allowed me to start to calm them just by sitting with them.
Just like a screaming newborn can be comforted by their mother holding them, all the feels I was feeling began to settle the more I just held their hand.
Mindfulness is the mother that cares for your feelings. She may not at first understand why her baby is crying but when she takes him in her arms and accepts him, screaming, crying and absolutely as-is, eventually, they calm down. And once they’re calm, you can begin to look deeper and begin to discover the cause of their crying.
I had to learn how to be a mother with superhero hearing, so I could listen for when my feelings started to stir. I had to learn how to stop telling them to be quiet, and how to stop closing the door and just walking away. I had to learn how to embrace them, and allow them to just let it all out without expecting them to change.
I had to accept my feelings as a part of me, no different from how a child is a part of his mother. An extension of myself that by wishing them away would leave me incomplete.
Wishing that certain feelings would just go away is no different than wishing someone would come along and take away one of your legs.
I’ve spent a good majority of my life reacting and avoiding – two super-skills that come free with purchase when you flash your frequent drinker card. Problem is, when I wasn’t avoiding things altogether, I was reacting really poorly to them. I began to learn that my feelings reacted in relation to my reactions to them. Through the slow and gentle transformation that came through 1) sobriety and 2) mindfulness, I was able to start mindfully reacting to my feelings – shifting my condition from being mind full to simply mindful.
I stopped blaming, and started owning.
I stopped projecting, and starting reflecting.
I stopped avoiding, and started engaging.
I stopped pushing, and started embracing.
I stopped controlling, and started observing.
And, I began to watch that monkey mind of mine start to slow down. King Kong had finally left the building and my sweet little monkey was happily hanging out, content in just being, and no longer swinging from vine to vine chasing something impossible to catch.
What I learned in this newfound space between being mind full and mindful is that the magic – and my power – lies in releasing the ingrained impulse to control everything. I had to stop trying to control my feelings, by trying to make them go away, or to wish they would change. Afterall, it was that lack of control in the first place that drove me to drink, and all it returned was – you guessed it – even more feelings of being out of control.
I had to learn to stop reacting to my feelings (feelings that were freshly bubbling to the surface now that I was sober enough to allow them to) and to accept them simply as parts of myself, no different than how clouds are just part of the sky.
And, just like clouds, all feelings pass.
Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?
― William Golding,
When I was mind full, my monkey was constantly swinging from the past to the future, always looking for the next tree to jump to and leaving a hot mess in his path. All the vines were in knots and everything was tangled. He was always looking ahead to the next tree, or at the trees he left behind.
He was never just okay being in the tree he was in.
When I began practicing being mindful on the other hand, that little monkey started to learn how to simply be okay where he is, sober and satisfied, content in his canopy. Happy to simply be present, without a drink in his hand and a vine in the other, flying from limb to limb avoiding the feelings that drove me to the bottom of endless bottles.
I’m still connecting dots, but the lines are getting straighter. The picture is growing clearer, and the pages full of scribbled messy chaos have been turned.
The jungle in my head is growing quieter every day, now that I’m shifting from mind full to mindful.
It’s amazing what a little space can do.