21 years ago, at the young age of 16, I came home after an exhausting, court-ordered, outpatient drug rehabilitation session and decided I needed to unwind. I called an older friend. We went to the liquor store, bought a little keg of beer and proceeded to polish it off.
I walked home that night through a path in the woods, periodically vomiting along the trail. By this time, I had become so used to drinking myself to the point of vomiting, I barely noticed it. There were times I would carry on a conversation with someone, turn my head and vomit, then turn back and continue the conversation as if nothing had happened.
I did notice something else though. I noticed that I wasn’t having fun. It didn’t matter how much I drank, smoked or dropped, I no longer got any pleasure from it. In fact, rarely did I experience any pleasure in life in general. For the first time since the first time I drank myself into a stupor 4 years earlier at 12 years old, I seriously wondered why. Why am I doing this? Why am I hurting everyone who loves me? Why am I trashing my education? Why am I betraying those people who worked so hard to set up a treatment program for me? Why am I betraying myself?
Several weeks before this, the answer would have been “because I don’t know any other way.” (See Addiction & Recovery: My Journey for more.) But, that was no longer true. I was being shown another way. In the meantime, what I was doing was not making me happy. So, why not try something different?
At that moment, I went from a predictable downward spiral which could have easily lead me to an early death (if not physical death, then spiritual and emotional death) to a path of spiritual growth and continuous personal growth that still continues to amaze me today.
A Template For Positive Change
The changes that I initiated in my life at that time were so profound that the experience became a template for many amazing future changes in my life. Not only did I follow this template to successfully stop using alcohol and other drugs and completely turn my life around, but in the following years, I also used it to stop smoking, stop drinking caffeine, practice vegetarianism, eliminate chocolate, change my career and get through college.
Today, this template helps me maintain a raw food diet which has lead to tremendous improvements in my health. I’m not suggesting that these are all goals that everyone needs to achieve, but they were all goals that brought me to the next place I wanted to be in my life.
The template includes the following:
- I changed the people I spent most of my time with to those who were where I wanted to be. It is almost impossible to change anything about ourselves if most of the people we surround ourselves with actively pursue our old habits. This is true with any change you want to make. If you want to predict the future path that a person will take, look at the people they spend most of there time with. By spending time with people who were not using drugs and who were consciously working on personal growth, it became much easier, in fact, practically inevitable that I would pick up on that lifestyle.
- I let go of and grieved for the loss of my old habits and pleasures. It might seem wise to forget about old habits and start a new way of life, but without working through the feelings of loss, a lack of congruence between what we want and what we think we want will eventually hurt our motivation. It’s like the on-again-off-again relationship where one partner angrily walks away swearing to hate the other partner, never to look back, denying any sense of loss. Sooner or later, the unresolved grief brings them back together. For me, getting high was my whole aim and purpose. Even though removing that crutch from my life brought tremendous hope and joy to my life, it also meant giving up something that had a great deal of meaning to me. I had to face that honestly in order to make a conscious, honest decision to sacrifice that for something better. That is not to say we should dwell on what we are giving up, but to simply acknowledge the sadness and apprehension and recognize that better things are on their way.
- I became curious, humble and teachable. It was clear to me that the way I had chosen to live was not working. My intellect and intuition failed me time and time again. Yet for years, I stubbornly refused to acknowledge the fact that maybe someone else has some ideas about how I can live my life that are better than my ideas. As soon as I became open to the fact that maybe – just maybe – my school principal had a valid point, and maybe there are others who have been through what I’ve been through who can teach me a better way, then I could make some changes.
- I practiced self-discipline during times of uncertainty. There were many moments that I questioned the path I was on. Did I really want to give up drugs? Was it really true that I couldn’t just use just a little bit every once in a while? Will I ever have anything to look forward to? When these questions and doubts came up, I chose to stay on my path just for one more day until the doubt passed. Each day, I would choose to stay clean for the day. Now, I have around 7800 of those days behind me. Self discipline is really about trusting our decisions through moments of weakness, one day at a time, one hour at a time or one instant at a time.
- I made a concrete decision! This is huge!One of the biggest mistakes I see people, including myself, make when trying to stick to changes is making vague, wishy-washy goals:
- “I’m going to eat more vegetables.” – How many is more? Are you giving up something else?
- “I’m going to exercise more.” – What is more? What specific routine are you going to commit to?
- “I’m going to be a more compassionate spouse.” – What does that mean? How much more time are you going to spend with your spouse? How are you specifically going to act differently?
My goal when quitting drugs was clear and concrete. “I will put no mood or mind altering substance in my body.” There were some clearly defined exceptions: caffeine and nicotine (which I chose to eliminate a couple years later). But the main idea was that my goal was clearly defined. If I had decided instead to “use drugs less,” without a clear definition, I would have most certainly failed. Obviously, when dealing with drug addiction, abstinence is necessary. But, this is also true for most anything else. If I were to commit to eat fewer sweets, I may as well commit to running around in circles whenever I get the urge. It would be equally effective. If instead, I committed to eating a maximum of one clearly defined serving of sweets each day, I could be quite successful.
As much as I’d like to say that life was great from that day forward, the truth is, there were many ups and downs. It took some time for me to figure out how to live happily without alcohol and other drugs. Rarely is any significant change like this entirely painless.
The good news is, that spring night in 1990, when I stumbled through the woods contemplating my reasons for doing drugs, was the last time I ever put any such substance in my body. There were some tough times along the way, but never again did I experience the extreme pain and loneliness of active drug addiction. The tough times brought many great lessons. I talk about those in the next articles
This article is the second in a series chronicling my story from active drug addiction to a fulfilling, rewarding and productive life. See the other articles below:
- Addiction & Recovery
- A Template For Change (currently reading)
- Self Love
- Lessons Learned As A Professional Helper
- coming soon….