“Please help me” were the most important three words I ever spoke and those words were the key to my recovery from drugs and alcohol. That 3 word mantra took down all the protection barriers I had put around myself that prevented me from allowing people in but also stopped me from getting out, and the key that unlocked all the doors.
We desperately struggled for self-esteem as kids. It seemed nobody listened to us or took us seriously. We felt like we were considered a disappointment because we didn’t live up to someone else’s expectations, with their constant negative comparison of us to others. Some of us were the “runt of the litter” and brushed aside in favor of siblings who seemed to do everything right, while we seemed to do everything wrong. We often reacted by acting out, in desperation of someone paying attention to us, even if it was negative attention. We started to become the “black sheep” of the family.
The low self-esteem we had as children, coupled with a black sheep stigma, became a recipe for disaster as adults. Many of us ended up in relationships with people who continued to keep us down, because that’s what we were accustomed to as children. Our feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and failure grew, picking up baggage of shame heaped on us by others and by life, which started to over-inflate a balloon of sadness and isolation. We found relief with alcohol or drugs, which we were drawn to like sad moths to a black light. Inevitably our substance abuse blossomed into full blown addiction, which just seemed to fulfill the destiny we felt that we were given as children. The crushing weight of addiction got added to the black sheep stigma stamp from childhood and soul-sucking people and events of our adult lives. When our self-esteem sunk to some low critical mass of isolation and despair, we collapsed, crushed under an oppressive blanket of failure and fault. And the balloon of our life exploded.
Euphoria from alcohol/drugs is magical instantaneous relief, and the creation of addiction to it goes from 0 to 100 mph overnight. But becoming non-addicted often feels like a slow, physically and mentally excruciating and draining exercise. It takes courage, resolve and strength to overcome it, much greater than normal people possess. A fuel of propulsion for recovery and self-esteem comes from the realization of how strong and courageous we are as recovering alcoholics and addicts. Retracing our steps back into childhood gives knowledge and understanding of what happened, and why we became what we became. All of this provides the necessary armor and ammunition to win the great battles between what we know and what we might feel. Every battle we win gives us increasing strength of character, which strengthens hope and creates or recreates the self-esteem we lost, or never had.
Every single person who goes into recovery from substance abuse, gains and maintains sobriety, is truly deserving of self-respect and high self-esteem. To carry a heavy weight from childhood, through the storms of adulthood, swim with it across an ocean of despair from addiction, and stand up on the other side is a miraculous achievement, worthy of high praise and self-love. As far as being the black sheep – consider that every single person out there is a black sheep who went astray – the ones who appear white are those who are good at pretending to appear white, and are content with their life of illusion.
But as black sheep in recovery, we are the real deal, admitting our mistakes and working to correct them. We have genuine sympathetic and empathetic hearts that truly care about other people. So when we show our true shades of white, it’s authentic and something that’s unique to all of us “black sheep”.
“You are such an ugly pig – you’re fat, you disgust me and nobody wants you” – how many people would stay with a spouse or partner who said that to them from sunrise to sunset? How about a best friend who said to you, when you’re feeling down, “Nobody likes you and everybody talks shit about you behind your back” – would you keep that friend? What about a boss who always said to you, from the time you started in the morning until you went home, “You are an idiot – you never do anything right!” – would that motivate you to do better? Maybe some of us actually have people like this in our lives. But unless someone is a glutton for punishment, not many people would want to be around anyone who constantly puts them down, humiliates and insults them in every way like this. Yet that’s how many people, particularly those in recovery, tend to treat themselves. It’s always this constant, judgmental voice, always accusing and forever criticizing. We would NEVER treat someone we loved the way we treat ourselves. We would NEVER be that insulting or demanding.
When I first got into recovery, my self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect were at zero. I was carrying around 100 pounds of shame on one shoulder, 100 pounds of guilt on the other and another 100 pounds of blame on my back. I would engage in humiliating self-deprecation immediately followed by self-pity and despair. I started in recovery with learning to treat myself in a positive and uplifting way with any situation in life that arose. To encourage myself the way a loving parent would talk to a child who is sad. To counsel and support myself the way I would a best friend who is feeling down and struggling. Doing all this with reactions to my thoughts that were positive and interactive instead of just feeling sorry for myself. This really worked. It started to change my attitude towards myself, and life in general, and rapidly created positive growth.
There is enough pressure and demands put on us by other people, we don’t need to turn around and kick our own ass, especially when we’re down. Life can be enough of a bitch as it is, we don’t need to be a bitch to ourselves. We DO NOT deserve that. It’s easy to learn to be a comfort and a friend to ourselves, because that friend is always going to be with us. We need to be our own best friend – we DO deserve that!
When we were kids, we just wanted to be liked. We just wanted to be accepted. We needed to be included in the group. We felt the need for approval from others and developed a fear of being embarrassed and shunned from the herd. We had the desire to be noticed, but we still wanted to sit in the back of the room because we were afraid of being in the spotlight. We felt the need to be relevant, but we didn’t want to be called on, out of fear of humiliation. Some of us may have originally been made to feel inferior by a narcissistic parent or siblings, cruel teachers or classmates, or some other trauma. We still wanted to be accepted, but because of this trauma, we wanted to push everyone away so we couldn’t be harmed any more. The social anxiety caused by this was very real and was often paralyzing. Equally real was our scars and the toxic stew of internal battles inside our heads that went along with it.
These childhood struggles and social anxiety stayed with us in adulthood. “Cognitive Dissonance” is an internal conflict of beliefs of ideas. Or it can be called the ‘war within’. All of this struggling and chaos in our heads creates it’s own anxiety and adds to whatever other burden of anxiety we may have been saddled with. The greatest prison we put ourselves in is the fear of what other people think of us because we have that innate need to be accepted. The greatest battles we often face are between what we know and what we feel – between what is perceived and what is real. If we feel inferior from childhood or adulthood trauma, we start to believe we are inferior, and then we start to believe that other people think of us as inferior. That makes us want to push everyone away and isolate, but yet we still want to feel accepted and approved of. So we end up in constant conflict with ourselves. We get stuck in the indecision of fight or flight. Then when we feel we’re fighting a losing battle within our minds and elsewhere, we give in to despair and become self-destructive.
As a child, I was the only one I knew who didn’t have my real parents, since I was abandoned at birth and eventually adopted by a foster family. They had their own mountains of mental illnesses and split their time between physically and mentally abusing me or being dismissive. I didn’t see other kids treated by their parents the way I was, so I already felt different and inferior. I was always at war with myself, because I wanted to be approved of, but I was in constant fear of being further humiliated and/or abandoned. I found I could escape these conflicts and that reality through imagination (reverie) of being somewhere else, someone else or both. These conflicts in my head continued on into adulthood, so did that desire to escape. Once alcohol and drugs entered my life, I had a perfect vehicle for my mind to escape these conflicts and their anxiety. Eventually my self-destructive substance abuse completely destroyed my life. I asked for, and accepted help to obtain and maintain sobriety. However, the war within continued.
The conflict of wanting to isolate or run, but still be accepted, kept going until I sought therapy. I learned to understand what was driving the battles. I gained an understanding of myself, the childhood trauma that originally created these internal conflicts, and how that trauma drove so many of the bad decisions later in life. I learned how to change my mind by resolving these internal conflicts, one at a time, so my mind was in sync with itself instead of at war. I also gained an appreciation of myself for battling through these horrible wars in my head and still functioning in life. Most importantly, I actually learned to like myself, developed an admiration for my resolve and an approval of myself, which was the key. I then used that same knowledge to gain understanding of other people and realized most were also struggling with similar things, being driven by their inherited genes, personality traits they were born with and whatever the events of their childhoods created. Even the born beautiful people struggle with these issues. Everybody and their situations are different, so comparing myself to other people as a means of self-approval was wasting my time and energy. So with the understanding and realization that other people struggled with being liked and accepted as well, I no longer felt my survival depended on the validation of others, since they were just trying to survive as well.
One small step of understanding at a time, we can resolve these internal conflicts, learn to approve of ourselves, escape from that prison of other people’s opinion of us, and the need for their validation. If we approve of ourselves, we don’t need to obtain the approval of other people any more, nor do we need to escape. We can create a peace within our mind, instead of a war.
In the movie “Castaway”, the main character is the sole survivor of a plane crash and ends up stranded on a deserted island, where he is the only other living thing on the island. He ends up creating a friend out of a volleyball that he names “Wilson”. It takes him over a year, but he finally figures out a way to construct a raft and use the wind and the tide to get him off the island. But as he’s leaving the island, he looks back on the horrible place he’d been stranded on. Rather than joy about leaving, he’s filled with intense sadness. He was going away from the place he had called home for such a long time and he was sad and distraught to leave that life behind. He could have easily given in to his sadness and returned to his island home. But his desire to get the life back, that he had before the plane crash, was greater than his desire to stay in the place he had become attached to. He also ends up losing Wilson, his fake friend, which was devastating to him. Once he was rescued and given his life back, he found that his past life and all the people had changed. But regardless of that, he learned he now had joy in the simple things in his life, like just being able to drive, and having appreciation for the small things he used to take for granted, like just having an ample supply of drinkable water.
When I first attempted sobriety, I was afraid to leave that life and completely close the door to the alcohol and drugs that I called ‘friend’. Somewhere in my mind, I always wanted to keep the escape hatch open for returning to using, so that I wasn’t saying goodbye forever. I kept looking back, which made it impossible for me to completely give it up, so I always ended up relapsing and returning to alcohol and drugs. Once I did finally decide to really say goodbye to my deserted island of alcohol and drugs, sail into sobriety and leave that life behind, I was filled with sadness and emptiness. My alcoholism and addiction had isolated myself from everyone, alcohol/drugs had become my pretend friend, and using had become my home. So there I was, saying goodbye to my drug/alcohol friend, leaving the using that made me feel safe, losing my alcohol/drug support system, and giving up my escape route. It felt like I was losing everything, even though I really had nothing left. I could have given in and returned to my ‘home’ , but the desire to get my life back, that I had before alcoholism and addiction, became greater than the desire to remain on my island of using. I think that was ultimately one of the main catalysts for my recovery. That, and I could no longer stand being stranded and alone on that miserable deserted island hell of alcoholism and addiction. So I was finally willing to put pride aside, ask for and accept rescue. Most importantly, to accept the help that was offered, not just on my terms, in my way and how I felt it should be, but in the way and on the terms of the people who were offering me rescue.
Once I reached out for help, allowed myself to be rescued, got sober, and got my life back, I felt that the people in my life had changed. In reality, the people were all still the same, but my outlook on life, and how I viewed everybody in my life, had changed. I found that I now had a deep appreciation for the small things in the present moment, especially vis a vis my life on the deserted island of addiction and alcoholism that I had left behind. There was no longer regret about leaving that life, no agonizing over what I had done in the past, and no worrying about the future. I was just happy for all the things I had in life, not what I wished I would have or could have had, but what I actually did have right now. I now appreciated all the people in my life, happy to just be alive, in the here and now. I set down all the weight of shame, blame, resentments and guilt I had been carrying around, and started walking. I was delighted to be on the solid land of sobriety, with the return of all the possibilities and freedoms I had lost, but which I now had back again.
Many of us had childhoods that were permanently stained from numerous events of humiliation or abuse at the hands of parents, siblings, classmates, or others. Adulthood brought more disintegration of our self-esteem because of toxic, abusive relationships or other events that forced us into viewing ourselves as failures. We became saddled with shame and ridden by blame. We felt unworthy and undeserving of anything good in life. We also became dependent on the validation and/or approval of other people to try and prop up our fragile, fractured self-worth.
We found sudden comfort and immediate relief in the arms of something we could drink, swallow, smoke or snort. It was magic. It made all the pain disappear, and provided us with momentary visions of self-worth and escape from the reality of our lives. The desire for relief and escape became habitual, which then morphed into full-blown addiction. Once that happened, the heavy weight of shame and guilt, that we were carrying around from our broken childhoods and adulthood, tripled and became back-breaking.
I was abandoned at birth and abused as a child, and those events permanently scarred me. When adulthood came, I was drawn to alcohol and drugs like a moth to a light. It made the hurt stop and made me feel better about myself, but also started a pattern of isolation. Within a short period of time, I became a full-blown alcoholic and drug addict, which continued for years. I kept isolating myself more, adding to my shame and guilt. Eventually my life crashed and burned because of alcoholism and addiction and I almost lost my life to both.
Once I got into recovery, I didn’t start growing until I learned to forgive myself, which was one of the first and most important keys. I never pitied myself, but I learned to forgive and be kind and compassionate to myself. I stopped judging and condemning myself – in short, I made amends with myself. I started talking to myself the way I would encourage a best friend who was feeling down. I began to accept what and who I was, and to understand what got me to where I was. Once I understood and accepted myself, I could begin to like myself. Just starting to take care of myself, in the most basic ways, began a journey of self-love, which does not mean some kind of narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-worship. It was simply having enough self-respect to want to care about myself.
I never allowed myself to use excuses, because making excuses for the past was just making excuses for the future. I also didn’t play the blame game, because assigning blame just creates resentments that did nothing but eat me alive from the inside out, and did nothing to the people who I had resented in the past. But most importantly, I stopped blaming myself. I did not deserve that. What I did deserve was self-love and self-respect, just like everybody else. Without elaboration, because I never want to be disrespectful or insensitive to people who don’t share my beliefs, faith and spirituality has been a crucial piece to my recovery. There is an underlying thread that goes through avenues of faith, which is that that I am loved and I am forgiven. That allowed me to learn to love and forgive myself as well.
We cannot move forward and upward if we’re still carrying around the heavy baggage and life-sucking weight of shame and guilt. It’s hard to grow if we’ve put ourselves into life without parole in the prison of blaming and shaming ourselves and fear about what other people think of us. Why should we blame ourselves for not knowing what we didn’t know before we learned it? Why worry about whether someone approves of us or not? We can be proud that we are growing and improving because the majority of the world will never be anything better than their inherited genes, inherent personality traits, childhood and adulthood experiences. But those of us in recovery rise above these things and become better people than we have ever been!
We did the best we were able to do, with the hand we were dealt, and with what we did not know at the time. Instead of reviewing our past with regret and shame, we can be proud of how much we’ve battled through and survived. All of us, who have fought through addiction to alcohol/drugs, deserve to have good things happen to us in our lives. We all deserve these good things because we are resolved resilient, courageous and we can respect and love ourselves for it.
Trauma from abuse suffered at the hands of someone in our lives, either as a child or an adult, can create a dislike of ourselves and even self-hatred. For years we were put down and kept down, humiliated or worse. This creates a deep, negative rut that our minds get stuck in. “Why don’t people like me? Why would they? There’s not much to like. I really don’t like me either.” These obsessive thoughts can haunt us mercilessly. When there is no real evidence to support the perception that other people dislike us, we find ourselves doing things that we know are terribly wrong so there is something real to back up the imagined dislike. Or we just create perceptions, in our minds, of other people’s dislike of us to support our own dislike. So, in our minds, we feel that if other people dislike us the way we dislike ourselves, things feel in sync. Things like career successes, love from others and even just compliments make us want to push people away and isolate, because it creates an internal battle. It goes completely against the grain of the dislike of ourselves.
I was the great pretender, acting as if I had complete confidence. Nobody ever knew. But inside? Complete and utter turmoil. All of this created not only general anxiety, but intense social anxiety. Then along came alcohol and drugs. Suddenly, there was a magic euphoric escape from all this. But not just an escape. Alcohol/drugs either supplied false confidence, or if I was a drunken/drugged out fool, people would either love me as the life of the party, or they would dislike me as much as I disliked myself. So I had everything covered. The dislike of myself became a self-fulfilling prophecy as my life, of course, crashed and burned because of the alcoholism and drug abuse, as it is virtually guaranteed to do. When that happened, I was swimming in an ocean of self-hatred, disdain and complete isolation and devastation.
The happy ending to all this is that sobriety and therapy (in that order) finally allowed me to untwist that giant tangled knot of messed up neural pathways and get out of the prison of the mind ruts I was stuck in. I was able to learn the origins of the dislike of myself and what had created it (much of it from the trauma of being a foster child and abused physically and mentally throughout childhood by a narcissistic parent). I gained the power to examine these thoughts as they come in, easily and quickly brush them away like flies, or let them float past like scenery on a train. But every once in awhile, I can feel my thoughts slipping into those old mind ruts of self-dislike and worrying that other people dislike me. Those thoughts try to stick to me like a barnacle. But I immediately stop and pull my thoughts up onto the high ground of reality and win that battle between what I know and what I feel and between created perceptions and reality. Knowledge rocks! For any of you that can relate to any of this, I am absolutely nothing special – if I can do this, literally ANYBODY can and that’s the great news. But none of this would have happened without sobriety first.
We’ve always felt different from everyone. It might be because of trauma suffered as a child. It might be because of trauma suffered as an adult. Or it could be because of something physically, where we feel we look different. Whatever the case, we’ve suffered from a general feeling of being alone in the world, it seems like forever. This feeling of being alone generates both anxiety and depression in us. Because we feel different, we want to isolate ourselves. But the more we isolate ourselves, the more we feel alone. The more we feel alone, the more anxious and depressed we become, and we isolate even more.
Alcohol and drugs provide the great escape. When we’re using, all the feelings of being different and alone disappear – replaced with a feeling of euphoria in the moment. Suddenly we feel great about ourselves. We can escape into reverie and imagine we are someone else, somewhere else or in some other situation. The voice in our head, telling us we’re a reject goes silent, and is replaced by a voice telling us we’re amazing. We’re no longer stabbed by the spears from the voices of family or friends who have said bad things about us or done bad things to us. But once the alcohol/drugs start to wear off, we’re left feeling even more alone and isolated. The depression and anxiety we felt before comes back twice as bad, with a vengeance. We are so overcome with anxiety and depression, isolation and loneliness, that we desperately want it to go away immediately and the only relief seems to be with more alcohol/drugs.
Without even realizing what we’ve done, we find that we’ve completely pushed everyone out of our lives. We look around and find that we have lost everything to getting relief through alcohol/drugs. We’ve lost all our relationships, our jobs, homes, money, dignity, self-respect and our bodies. The feelings of being alone and being different are not just feelings now – they are reality. Everything and everybody is gone. It seems it’s that particular moment when successful recovery begins for many people. It was for me.
I had lost my marriage, family, friends, job and money to alcohol and drugs. In that moment, my feelings of wanting to isolate disappeared for the first time in my life. I was desperate to open my arms to literally anybody who would reach back. Although spawned by despair, it was liberating to no longer want to isolate. It was freeing to suddenly want other people. It felt amazing to find other people who had similar experiences and were also reaching out for the same reasons. For me that was the start of successful recovery.