There’s no argument that alcohol and drugs are effective pain killers. The problem, of course, is that when you stop using them, the pain comes back.
But knowing that the habitual use of either drugs or alcohol will eventually destroy your relationships, your career, and your life, you also know that somehow you must break the cycle and deal with the underlying pain driving your drug or alcohol abuse. The problem is further complicated by the fact that as addiction progresses, it starts to be the cause of more pain (damage to self esteem, health, relationships, work, etc). Now the anesthetic is the cause of the pain.
The question is how are you going to break that cycle without falling back on the easy, anesthetic, temporary numbing solutions of drugs and alcohol? Why is it so tempting to simply abandon sobriety and give in to relapse?
When we’re in pain, a boundary has been crossed, either physically, as in a cut or injury, or emotionally, as in being lied to or losing something or someone we care about. The body’s first reaction is somatic, releasing adrenaline and endorphins, motivating us to withdraw from what is causing the pain and to protect ourselves. We then go into flight/fear (getting away from the source of the pain) or fight/anger (attacking the cause of the pain to defend ourselves or those we cherish). If we are angry we become tense, ready to do battle with the cause of the pain. But when we don’t know how to deal with the source of the pain—either physical or emotional—we can panic. In that panic, we may take a drug or drink to numb the fear or anger or pain.
When the drug or alcohol becomes the cause of the pain as well as the reliever, we get confused. If we need the alcohol or drug to calm the panic or the pain, we can’t give it up. We start to feel anger when the drug is criticized. We feel a need to defend it and hence more anger.
Anger is a powerful emotion that in nature gives the animal the strength and courage to overcome the fear of a fight in order to protect its territory, mate, young and food. Anger gives us a surge of aggression, strength, and power on both the physical and emotional levels. Being afraid and avoiding a source of pain is fairly simple. But how we enforce our anger is a complicated process, since it has to be adjusted to the situation. If a 30-year old breaks our china, we hopefully react differently than when a 5 year old does the same thing. But when we’re under the influence of alcohol and drugs, our ability to discriminate between appropriate anger responses is greatly diminished. Worse, it can allow rage to become our reaction when we are no longer thinking. And, as the alcohol or drug becomes the thing to be protected, the rage can be directed at those who love us in order to defend the drug.
It is important to remember anger is an emotion, but rage is a weapon. The rage is used to frighten whomever we feel is threatening us away or into submission.
When we suppress feelings or avoid dealing with their source, we do so out of the fear of confronting them or because we lack the ability to properly deal with them or because we worry about the shame that we anticipate feeling. We say that confronting those feelings makes us feel anxious. But keeping unexpressed anger inside, or staying in a hypervigilant state to try to stay safe, actually increases our pain and sense of panic.
The anxiety mechanism may be effective in the short run; we don’t need to deal with the problem if our anxiety works so well to suppress it. But that mechanism is soon involuntary and we lose control of the anxiety. There is no “off” switch. We may develop pain in parts of our body as the anger or anxiety build. We may panic when we feel the threat getting closer , use rage to get people to back off, or take alcohol or other drugs to suppress the anxiety itself.
Emotional pain is the product of certain unresolved psychic injuries, griefs, losses, shame, guilt, etc. We don’t know how to respect ourselves with what has happened. When we avoid dealing with the causes of those injuries, when we resist resolving undesirable feelings or memories, those injuries can mature into full-blown resentments. Left on their own, our resentments will depress and paralyze us; we’re unable to function, constantly faced with the baggage of those unresolved problems, threats, and injuries as subconscious impediments to our productivity, happiness, and mental health. We expend large amounts of emotional energy either as anxiety, seeking to avoid the feelings, or as anger, attacking what we perceive as the cause of the problems and defending our fragile ego. Anger becomes our daily coping mechanism as our adrenaline levels spike and our endorphin levels fall. As anxiety increases even further, we step up our well-practiced anger and avoidance behaviors, find ourselves emotionally depleted and exhausted, and turn toward our compulsions to stop the pain. This unfortunately adds more pain, and the viscous cycle continues.
Our problems don’t go away just because we’re so artful at ignoring them or suppressing them. They continue to affect our lives in every way. When we avoid dealing with our problems, when our resentments erupt as anger, they continue to sabotage our recovery, our relationships, and the happiness we deserve.
With sobriety at stake, and with resentments, pain, anxiety, and anger as reliable precursors to relapse, it’s essential to take the first steps toward acknowledging the sources of pain and toward accepting them for what they are. Often, we don’t know how to do this on our own, or the drugs and alcohol have so confused the picture that none of the emotions make sense. We can either live in a state of anxiety, anger, and adrenaline overload in order to suppress our pain…or we can get in touch with the sources of the pain, become aware of them on a conscious level, and accept them for what they are.
This is what a good recovery program helps the recovering addict to do.
We can either live with our resentments or we can break free from them and practice the real key to our mental health and sobriety: learning to connect and communicate with all the parts of ourselves and of others with respect.