There are so many appalling things we while drinking did that our minds are strewn with the litter of chaos and destruction. There are terrible things we did, things we should have done but did not, opportunities lost, aspirations destroyed and terrible harm done to others; all caused by our drinking. These things actually happened and we were responsible for them. They are direct consequences of our addiction and they do not disappear when we stop drinking; they leave a lingering toll.
Some incidents from our past keep coming back into our mind and unless we do something about them they will not simply fade away because a specific function of our brain keeps calling them back. Our brain requires information to be orderly and resolved since lack of certainty causes indecisiveness and this can be disastrous when it comes to survival. So brains evolved to have a mechanism for trying to fix up unsatisfactory information and that process is “worry”. Our brain uses idle time to review unsatisfactory or unresolved information to see if it can be brought to a conclusion, and this is what guarantees that unsatisfactory incidents from our past will keep coming back to haunt us. Another feature of our brain ensures that this review will be uncomfortable, and that is to do with how our emotions are created. Emotions are created in the subconscious part of our brain and in that part of our brain everything is real, everything is personal and everything is now. This means that as we replay an unsatisfactory incident from the past, and we can’t stop that from happening, then our brain recreates emotions as though it is happening now. We get the same distress, anger, frustration, anxiety etc. as we did when the incident first occurred. All of these emotions trigger cravings and fighting them off depletes our resolve. This is why it is so important to attend to our past, otherwise it leaves an undercurrent of distress that initiates self-sabotage and this in turn will corrode resolve and will eventually lead to relapse.
The way we take the distress out of issues in our past is to stop the ideas recurring and the way to do that is to bring them to some sort of resolution. While an issue remains unresolved then worry will bring it back into our mind and we keep looping through it time after time. But if an issue is brought to some kind of closure then it stops being brought back for further consideration. There are different ways of dealing with unresolved issues and these divide the problem into three parts; things I have done that only hurt me, things I have done that hurt others, and things others have done that hurt me. Make three lists of these instances, one for each heading, but make certain that you are listing all the significant events. You aren’t looking for all of the bad thangs that you’ve ever done in your life or all the bad things that have happened to you, you are only recording the ones that as you recall them give you a significant and adverse emotional reaction. You should list the events that both pop up frequently and that make you squirm inside or get angry or frustrated. These will not necessarily all be directly related to drinking. The events that cause the biggest distress are the ones that we least want to expose, but they are also the most important, so make sure that you’re not omitting to record the very events that are the most important to deal with. These lists are for you alone so do not leave off the ones that are the most difficult to mention. Be completely honest with yourself here because what you least want to record are the ones that cause you the most distress and these are the ones that most urgently need addressing. Equally do not distract yourself with every little thing that has ever happened. If it doesn’t keep coming back or doesn’t hurt then there is no need to fix it.
Recording all the things that need to be brought to resolution is hard to do and it is confronting. Do not expect to get all of the problems on paper straight away; expect to add a few over time. But really, do not leave off the ones that are the hardest to acknowledge because these are the ones that most urgently need to be brought to resolution. These are the ones that will most strongly steer you back to drinking.
When you have the lists then rank the events in each list from most to least distressing. Now you are ready to start closing some of these off. But before you do that take a moment to notice that the lists are not without end. The problem is not limitless, it is finite, and one by one we can take the pain from these.
Things we have done that only hurt us
This is the easiest group of issues to deal with and is predominantly linked to the distress we put ourselves under by holding secrets.
Keeping secrets is intellectually demanding. Our mind knows that each secret is an unsatisfactorily resolved issue, so it keeps bringing it back along with its associated emotions. But secrets have an additional emotion associated with them, and that is fear. Guilty secrets carry with them the knowledge that if they are exposed then shame will follow, and it is that burden that we can change. The process is simple, but deeply uncomfortable to perform. Our mind anticipates that we will be judged badly if the secret is exposed and that shame will follow, and this is the source of the fear. But if we tell our secrets and do not receive condemnation then the fear associated with that secret dissipates because shame did not follow. To remove the distress of a secret you simply have to tell it to someone that doesn’t judge you for it. “All you have to do is to tell someone your secrets” is very easy to say but incredibly uncomfortable to do and it will only be successful if the right listener is found.
The person with whom we share these secrets has to be someone that will keep them confidential, but also someone that will hear them without passing judgement. This may seem a tall order but it is easier than might be expected. You will find suitable people in recovery communities and most especially any group that has some sort of 12-Step basis because this is specifically a part of that program. Also any rehab or alcohol counselling will certainly do this in one way or another. But even if we can’t find a way to formally tell our secrets then there are still ways to get them heard, and again, we can use a recovery community to do this. We can use the informal periods at meetings to drop our secrets into conversations one by one or we can use a private conversation with someone we feel comfortable with to unload a bundle of them.
The extent to which this process is successful is dependent on finding the right person hear the secrets and sharing them all. The secrets that most urgently need to be exposed are the ones that cause the most distress when brought to mind and these are the very issues that are the most difficult to admit. But if a secret is withheld then so is relief from its burden. To be effective this task requires completeness and this in turn requires brutal self-honesty. What we withhold will continue to hurt and the burden of what we do not disclose will never go away. This method of reducing distress by telling our secrets is by no means unique to recovery; it is a common practise around the world. Psychologists use it, it is a central tenet of both Buddhism and Catholicism, and it has been popular wisdom for a long time, hence the expressions; “to get it off your chest” and “a problem shared is a problem halved”.
If you have shared your secrets then it is time to get over yourself as far as these issues are concerned. The world has moved on and wasn’t adversely affected by what you did and no-one but yourself suffered any significant consequence. Your pride is hurt but nothing more and nobody else is thinking about this except you.
There is nothing to be done to change these things because they are in the past so put them down and leave them there. If these issues pop into your mind again then to push back with “there’s nothing to see here; move along”. Everyone else has moved on. All that is hurt is your pride and nobody else cares about that. Let it go.
Getting rid of all our secrets doesn’t have an instant uplifting effect, the benefit is felt differently. It is not a moment when the heavens part and heavenly choirs sing, it is more like when a lingering pain ceases. We do not feel a sudden relief, other than that we have got past a very uncomfortable task. The relief is in the time that follows. Once this is done then we remove an undercurrent of anxiety from our lives but it is a bit like not noticing the moment when a headache disappears. We don’t feel it in that moment because we don’t directly notice the benefit when something bad stops happening. But it is there and we get an overall lift in our mood that comes from this relief from continuous and nagging anxiety.
Things we have done that hurt others
The first list dealt with the enduring shame and fear that comes with holding secrets and this list addresses guilt and remorse. The events in this next list happened in the past but our mind keeps bringing them back for consideration because they remain unresolved in one way or another, and in this respect they are still active. What we do with these is bring them to a clear conclusion. We prevent the issues looping relentlessly in our mind by engineering an ending to them. We can’t do the items in this list in a group, we have to attend to them one by one, and while we don’t need the help of an independent person to do this successfully, it is still enormously challenging. And again, like our secrets, the issues we need to address are only the ones that recur frequently and that cause us distress. We don’t need to deal with every bad thing we ever did to anyone else, only the ones that keep coming back into our mind and causing distress.
We attempt to bring each issue in this group to a conclusion one by one and we have to do this directly with the person we have wronged. This is what makes the task so challenging but the relief we gain is huge. There are many different ways that an outstanding wrong can be drawn to closure and here are the three commonest paths: – The person can demand something in compensation for the wrong, the person may never want to talk to us again, or, and this is the best possible outcome, we might be forgiven. Each of these three outcomes brings the matter to an end. If the matter is forgiven then there is nothing left to linger on, if they demand some action in compensation then the matter is forgiven when we do that, and if they never want to talk to us again then there’s nothing further to be done that can change what has happened. In all three cases the issue has found an ending and our mind will stop bringing it back as an issue to worry into conclusion because it now has one.
What we do with each item on the list is to meet the person concerned (in person if this is possible) and raise the matter is such a way that it draws out a conclusion. The way to achieve this is not to simply apologise. This is insufficient and will not bring the ending that we need because the issue remains unresolved and here is why. Suppose that we drop someone’s plate and it breaks. If we apologise then does the plate put itself back together? No, it does not. The remedy is to replace the person’s plate with another, and then we can be forgiven. We need to do the equivalent of this with each of our issues. We arrange to meet or at the very least talk with the person concerned, and we raise the matter directly. There are two sides to every issue but our concern is exclusively with resolving our part in it, not theirs. We talk about our actions that caused the problem, and we apologise without reservation for that; we should not have done that, we regret it terribly and we are sorry. We completely avoid mentioning their part in the problem, and we do not offer any justification or excuse, we stick to what we did and nothing else. Then we ask this crucial question. “Is there anything I can do to put this right?” However they answer this question is how we bring the problem to closure. They might say, “OK, I did things too, let’s leave it there”; this is implicit forgiveness and the issue is concluded. They may say they never want to see or hear from us ever again, and this also concludes the matter because there is nothing to do that will change the position. Or they may ask us to do something in compensation, and when we do that then again we are implicitly forgiven and the matter is ended.
These are enormously challenging confrontations to undertake but the rewards are huge in terms of removing recurring distress. As we complete each one we feel a sense of relief and this relief is enduring. But there are times that we should not attempt such resolution, and there are circumstances for which we should not, or cannot gain such relief. In terms of timing we cannot do this until our words have credibility. This means we need to have a significant run of sobriety before we attempt them otherwise our words cannot be trusted… they’ve heard it all before. There are also circumstances where if we attempt to remove our own pain it will cause distress for the other person. We can’t remove our own distress simply by moving it to someone else because this does not remove the problem; it only moves it to someone else and thereby creates a new one; we can’t save ourselves by causing suffering to others. The last category of occasions for which we should not attempt this is when it is hazardous to do so or it is impossible. There aren’t many occasions where this is the case but it happens. For these occasions we need to determine a suitable compensation and undertake that. This might be an activity that benefits the broader society rather than the specific individual. We need to define for ourselves an appropriate penalty that benefits others and when we conclude that act of service then our due is repaid and the matter closed. Making amends to others brings closure to our past mistakes and while it is incredibly difficult to do it is hugely beneficial. Even though we are reluctant to do this must force ourselves to do so, especially for the items that cause us the most distress. We do not do this simply to relieve our own suffering we do this to clear our path for staying stopped because unaddressed and persistent distress brings us down, erodes resolve, and invites relapse.
Things others have done to us that hurt us
The last list of issues to address is less confronting than the previous two for most people but extremely confronting for some. Events in our past where we have been badly treated by others leave us feeling angry and resentful and of all our emotional issues this is the most irrational. Holding a resentment does nothing at all to change the circumstances of the event and it does nothing at all to the person who caused us the injury. A resentment is like taking poison but expecting the other person to die. We achieve nothing by holding on to them but we persist nonetheless. The worry function of our brain presents them for further consideration in an effort to achieve resolution but that resolution is never coming because the event is in the past and can’t be changed. However, while we can’t change the event we can change how we feel about it and there are several things that will work depending on the depth of the resentment.
The first thing is to do is to test if we can’t dismiss the resentment altogether. There are two sides to most issues and we should look at what our part in this issue was. If I was partly to blame for what happened then why am I harbouring a grudge against the other person? If I can identify that I was responsible in part for what happened then the basis of the resentment collapses and many of them can be disposed of this way. For the resentments that remain we need to change how we view the person involved, and there are several different things we can try.
We want other people to accept our flaws and forgive the mistakes we make. We get things wrong, we have done bad things, and a part of what we need to become well is the acceptance and forgiveness of others. Yet when it comes to resentments we apply a different standard: we do not forgive. Why do we expect other people to perform to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to? It is an unreasonable position. We need to extend the same grace to others that we want from them. We have no idea of the circumstances motivating their actions, we barely understand our own, yet we are fast to judge them for it. We don’t know what circumstances they are struggling with and we don’t hold a monopoly on mental health difficulties. If we expect them to understand that we have challenges then we should acknowledge that they may have too. We need to shift our perception of how we see the individuals we hold resentments against, and view them not with anger but with compassion. When we allow them too to be flawed and make mistakes then our frustration and anger will dissipate. An apology would be nice but that is up to them not us. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for someone else’s failings.
If this is insufficient to deflate a resentment then we can use a less subtle approach: propaganda. It was mentioned earlier how self-sabotaging lies work like propaganda in that if we hear them often enough then we believe them to be true. We can use this feature of how our brain works to deliberately modify how we feel about the person we hold a resentment against. It isn’t pretty, but it works. What we do is write down a short description of wishing this person well: whatever we desire for ourselves we wish for them. Don’t make it long, two or three sentences will do, but make sure it includes their name. Read this out loud once every day for a month. At first it is hard to even speak the words without choking on them but as the days pass you will notice that your sentiment changes and you actually end up meaning it. This may seem like a foolish exercise but at the end of the month the intense animosity you have for that person will be gone.
These techniques will dramatically change or remove most resentments but there are some wrongs that we should not attempt to address like this. The incidence of alcoholism among those raised with childhood abuse is significantly higher than the norm and the same is true for people who have suffered sexual or domestic abuse. Traumatic events like this that cause deep and lasting suffering that needs to be dealt with in a focussed manner and not the generalised ways that have been described here. They must not be ignored. We absolutely must do something to mitigate severe trauma or we leave in place an issue that continues to cause persistent distress and we will eventually drink again to gain relief from it. There are many community support groups to help those suffering the long term consequences of various types of abuse and this help should be engaged. They are places that will help you recover from this trauma and they are places you can go without fear of shame or other consequences. They will help and there is no downside to them. If this is insufficient then professional help should be sought because the chances of achieving a long-term sobriety while still suppressing enduring suffering is small. Ultimately there is this truth. You need to forgive them, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace. You have to find a way to achieve this. Dealing with our past has little to do with stopping drinking, but it has everything to do with staying stopped. Regardless of the sources of our distresses we need to do what we can to reduce them because persistent distress lowers our resolve until the self-sabotaging lies sound convincing and we drink again. We cannot simply try to push these problems to the back of our mind because they will not stay there, worry will keep bringing them back. So, unpleasant as it may be, we need to take the steps to mitigate what we can. The result of doing this work is that we remove tier after tier of background discomfort from our mind and what is left behind is calm. But as with many aspects of addiction we can work on both ends of the problem. We can work to reduce the negative emotions that draw us back towards alcohol and we can work to enhance the positive ones that prevent the need to drink from arising.