Today’s blog entry is from Amanda McLean, who has been a member of Café RE since November 2019. Amanda has been alcohol free since March 26, 2019 and is very active within her Café RE GO community.
“Another day one, I’m such a loser.”
“I’ve ruined everything.”
“I’ll never get sobriety to stick.”
In my journey with alcohol abuse and recovery, these are just a few common mantras that run through my mind. I am someone who chronically struggles with self-judgment and negative self-talk. I know that my inner critic can be harsh and unforgiving. Since our thoughts drive our emotions, this unrelenting internal talk leads to painful feelings including anxiety, sadness, and low self-esteem. For many people, this self-hatred inner monologue and the associated feelings can lead to relapse or other forms of damaging behaviors. In my personal recovery journey, I have learned that being kind and supportive to myself during times of suffering is critical in maintaining my sobriety in recovery.
Avoidance is the Enemy
As Paul states in Recovery Elevator Episode 274 – I Feel Your Pain “In order to shift stagnant energy inside of us, we have to talk about our emotions.” Avoiding our thoughts and feelings never ends the way that we hope it will. And experts agree that one of the contributing factors to addiction is avoidance. As a person in recovery, I am guilty of minimizing, invalidating, and negating my feelings. But the more we avoid distress or attempt to suppress it, the worse it becomes. The more energy we use to push emotions like anxiety or anger away, the more powerfully those emotions come back toward us.
Another disadvantage of avoidance is that our bodies interpret avoidance as proof of danger, and this signals our internal alarm system. When my internal alarm system is activated, I often crave something to soothe my nervous system. Historically, I used and abused alcohol to calm my painful emotions. Although this solution proved to be immediate, it came with long term undesirable consequences including more painful emotions and negative self-talk. And thus, the cycle continued.
Start with Validation
Rather than avoiding negative self-talk and painful feelings that we would rather not face, we need to make a shift. We need to remember that the thought and the feeling are not the enemy. We need to remind ourselves that our thoughts and feelings are allowed to be here. We can tolerate discomfort. This starts with noticing the thought and/or the feeling and then providing validation.
Validation is useful for addressing any uncomfortable thought or feeling. It starts with acknowledging or labeling the feeling. For example, “I feel like I fail at everything, and this feels rough” or “I feel like I can’t do anything right and my entire body is tense” or “My chest feels tight and I feel so anxious”.
Once we acknowledge what we are feeling, we can then tell ourselves why it makes sense that we feel this way. In other words, tell yourself the story about why it makes sense that you feel the way that you feel. For example, “It makes sense that this feels rough because I worked a long day and now I am cooking dinner for my family while my kids argue”, or “It makes sense that I feel like I can’t do anything right and I am tense because my boss just snapped at me”, or “It makes sense that I am feeling anxious because this is my daughter’s first day at her new school and I am scared she won’t make friends”.
I know that feeling. That feeling of shame. When I was abusing alcohol, I didn’t want anyone else to know the things I had done. This is exactly when we need self-compassion. Self-compassion reminds me that I made a mistake but that does not mean that I am fundamentally a bad person. I can separate my worth as a person from my behavior.
When I fail to validate and hold my feelings, when I shame myself, I cannot learn from my mistakes. Shaming myself through self-judgement and self-criticism shuts down the learning receptors in the brain. Shame freezes a person. Self-compassion allows me to acknowledge and validate my thoughts and feelings, commit to not making the mistake again, and then forgive myself.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, states that self-compassion is acting toward yourself the way you would act toward a cherished friend when you are having a difficult time, when you fail, or when you notice something that you don’t like about yourself. When something goes wrong or we have a difficult moment, avoiding or fighting against the suffering in that moment will only increase our anxiety, distress, and self-criticism. Self-compassion is a method for soothing or comforting our nervous system.
The 3 steps of Self-Compassion
When I was at the height of my alcohol abuse, waking up each morning feeling like a failure, the most common self-criticism that I heard in my head was, “I am such a loser”. More often than not, self-criticism caused me significant distress which led me to soothe my system with alcohol. In recovery, I have learned the value of self-compassion: giving myself kindness, care, and support.
Self-compassion involves three steps. First, I must hold the pain of my mistakes. This takes a lot of courage because I must acknowledge the pain I have caused myself and others. Second, I remember that pain and suffering are a part of being human and therefore other people have felt this way as well. I am not alone. Third, I must be kind to myself. Self-kindness means that I treat myself with sympathy, warmth, and patience.
Practicing these three steps may sound like, “I drank again and I was not present for my children and my husband. Other people struggle with repeated mistakes, and I am not the only person who has felt and experienced this pain. I have been through a lot this year and quitting alcohol is hard. AND I can do hard things.” From that space of openheartedness, I can do everything I can to commit to doing it differently in the future. This allows me to soothe my nervous system without using or abusing a harmful substance.
***By Amanda McLean; Café RE Go Group
In our Dry January course, REstore, Paul teaches a class covering the different recovery modalities. The good news is that In 2023, there are more ways to ditch the booze than ever before. Even just 10 years ago recovery took place in church basements with bad coffee and shitty donuts, but today the landscape is much different.
**Side note, Paul still goes to an AA meeting, in a church basement with bad coffee. He’s not dawging that way of recovery, he loves his Tuesday night AA meeting, but there are so many more methods, programs, techniques…you name it…available today.
So which pathway is right for you?
A couple caveats before we begin.
Caveat 1. If you are READY then ANY pathway is going to work for you. If you’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired, then any of these programs will work. In addition, you HAVE to give them a solid try.
Caveat 2 – There is no right or wrong way to quit drinking. We’re going to give some recommendations, but it’s up to you to figure out what works best for you.
When building your recovery portfolio you want this work to be 50% external – 50% internal. At first, the internal work may be too big of an ask, but as your nervous system settles down, you want to aim for a balanced split.
Here are some quick examples of what external vs internal is:
- Driving to an AA meeting, or hopping on a Café RE zoom chat
- Phoning a sober friend
- Working with a sponsor
- Reading quit lit
When building out your recovery pathway Paul recommends this 5 tiered approach. .
5 Tiered Approach
- Inner Peace
- Community – Let’s talk programs that are community focused.
A.A., Smart Recovery, Dharma Recovery, Life Ring, Women for Recovery, Café RE, The Lucky Club, Meetup.com, online sober communities, Reddit, talkingsober.com, our sober Ukulele Course, Dry January and Photo courses, phoning a sober friend, 1:1 Interaction within another person in recovery. Meeting with a counselor or therapist falls under this community approach.
All of these tiers are important but this one is a BIG ONE. In order for you to get the most out of this, you have to first burn the ships, with yourself, then with your community. Burning the ships = Accountability which then = Community.
Yoga, dance, music, ecstatic dance, hiking, stretching, running, swimming, drumming on your desk. Your body is meant to move. Chemicals of wellbeing, endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin are released when we move. 3x a week, for 20 min is a good starting point.
- Inner Peace/Creation
Meditation, breathwork, sunrises, sunsets, time spent in nature, time spent with animals, float tank, relaxing, chanting, journaling, inner child work, singing, playing music, painting, writing poetry. This is where you create your new life that no longer requires alcohol. One reason why pen to paper is so effective is you can’t write as fast as the mind can think, so it slows down the thinking mind.
About animals – their nervous systems are much more intact, or less frenzied than ours. Animals live life from the hearts opposed to their human counterparts who live mostly in thought. A recent study shows that similar amount of oxytocin is released when we hug a dog compared to when we hug a human. And flip side to that, oxytocin, or the love molecule is released in dogs, when we pet them. If you’re feeling fraught, visit a petting zoo or kick it with a pet. Human nervous systems can attune themselves to more stable nervous systems, even those of animals.
This is learning. This is empowering yourself with information. Podcasts, quit lit books, audiobooks, learn about healthy diets, learn about how the mind works. No you cannot read or listen yourself out of an addiction, but this is an important tier. Under this umbrella includes medicines both from the east and west. Perhaps Naltrexone, or the Sinclair method is something you may want to try. Naltrexone is a medication that blocks the euphoria response when we drink alcohol. Perhaps more shamanic approaches with medicines such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, San Pedro or Ibogaine may be right for you.
- The Universe
Lets get clear, this is not religion, but it is the spirituality component of recovery. One of the beautiful purposes of an addiction is it can flex the layers of the ego so much that they eventually snap…letting in what some will call their higher power.
When you say lines to yourself like, “I can’t live like this anymore.” The Universe is right there with you saying, “no problem, let me show you the way.”
Now go slow with the universe. This was the last of the five tiers to implement itself in Paul’s sobriety journey. This one most likely is on the universe’s clock and not yours. But be open, pay attention to the breadcrumbs of life and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance or guidance from the universe at any time.
There’s a well remixed line that has been floating around for several thousand years. Ask and you shall receive.
To recap, 50% internal, 50% external and hit a couple things from the five tiers ,and you’ll be just fine.
Remember, your recovery is always changing, because you are. It should change. What you’re doing now should look different than what you were doing a month or year ago.
***Taken from Recovery Elevator Podcast, Episode 425, host Paul Churchill***
Recovery Elevator is excited to offer a new type of blog experience to our readers! We are reaching out to our Café RE members and giving those that are interested the opportunity to be guest bloggers for our site. Think of it as a podcast interview in written form. You will get parts of their story along with tips and tools that they have found beneficial in their own recovery journey. Please let us know what you think, or perhaps topics you would like to see covered, in the comments.
I’m excited to bring our first guest blog submission to you today! Stephanie McCarroll has been a member of Café RE since August 2020, has been alcohol free since January 12, 2020 and is very active within the community. You can often find her on one of our daily ZOOM chats, if not hosting it, offering support and accountability to our members. Thank you Steph!!
Benefits of Service in Recovery
By Stephanie McCarroll
One of the most important aspects of long term recovery is being of service to others. At the early stages of sobriety, my focus was to get through the day sober. While sobriety continues to be my most valuable thing I have, my life moved past just getting through the day without a drink. A greater need arose in myself to heal and thrive in all areas of my life: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually.
Like the disease we have, recovery is also progressive.
True recovery is a path beyond simple abstinence. Rather, it is a journey by which we build strength to face the wounds that may have led to addiction and create a flourishing sober life. Being a helpful and valuable part of my recovery community is an integral part of such a life, and it is deeply nourishing to our social and spiritual wellbeing.
Alcohol isolated us.
It demanded we put our substance abuse above all others in our lives. Some of us feel a great deal of guilt for the time lost to our addiction. Although we cannot go back and erase our mistakes, our addiction gave us insight of what slavery to alcohol looked like. Hearing that other alcoholics could stop and recover was something that inspired us to keep fighting. We were no longer alone. We had evidence we could recover.
For those who have shared their stories, they chose to be of service, giving powerful testimony of the benefits of living an alcohol free life. In recovery, the idea of service could be a new, daunting thought. Yet, giving back to our communities provides us with so many benefits.
Science has proven that being of service positively affects your brain and mental health. According to research, when you give your time and resources to people in need, your brain activates pleasure sensors, giving you a feeling of wellbeing. In this way, being of service in recovery is a form of self-care and lifts our spirits. It also helps us to manage stress.
It also helps us rediscover our self-worth. It means being part of something bigger. At Cafe RE, members are encouraged to find ways to be of service wherever possible. Because Cafe RE is an intimate community, members volunteer to host chats and participate in community service projects.
In recovery, my art of writing has been rediscovered. Like those who had a fondness for music and photography, I wanted to reach out to the writers. This prompted me to inquire about the possibility of forming a members-driven Guest Blog for Recovery Elevator. Paul said YES!
In finding the right service opportunity for you, it can be helpful to tune into your passions and what makes you come alive. Being in recovery is a beautiful gift that gives you the chance to pursue the things you love most about life, things that may have been robbed from you during your addiction.
If you would like to give back to the recovery community and guest blog, please contact email@example.com. We know our members have a lot to say and want to be of service. We are excited for this new endeavor and know it will help a lot of people.
Today is the day! Today is the day we are going to find out if you have a drinking problem…or not. Are you ready?
For Paul, when it finally sunk in that he did indeed have a drinking problem (and a good one at that!) two things happened.
First…he was like, “Oh F&#K!”
Then…immediately after, as this truth spread into his body, to his bones, to his conscious, his unconscious, to the heart, to the liver, something neat happened. An incredible amount of energy was instantly liberated.
For two reasons.
- The stigma or label of an alcoholic didn’t change who he was. He was still alive.
- But more importantly…all the energy, the incessant thinking he had of…
- Do I drink, or not?
- Do I have a problem, or not?
- How am I going to control my next session of drinking?
- How am I going to hide it?
- Let’s do our best not to black out before 8 pm.
- Do I have enough shitty box wine back home?
- Let’s not let people know we’ve already had 9 drinks before meeting up at the bar.
ALL of that went away instantly.
In fact the worst place a person can be with a drinking problem is in limbo. The do I or don’t I phase. (Paul covers this in Episode 417).
So for this diagnostic, we are going to use the test listed in the DSM 5, or the diagnostically statical manual which is what most psychologists and/or therapists have somewhere on their shelves.
There’s 11 YES or NO questions. If you answer YES to 2 of the questions, if you meet 2 of the 11 criteria, within the past 12 months, they call it an Alcohol Use Disorder.
- Do you sometimes have difficulty controlling how much you drink or for how long you drink alcohol?
- Have you made unsuccessful attempts to cut down your drinking?
- Do you sometimes spend a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from drinking?
- Has your alcohol use had any negative consequences at home, school, or work? (Have you ever lost time off work because of your drinking?)
- Has your alcohol use had any negative consequences to your relationships or social life? (Have you ever concealed how much you drink? Has anyone ever commented on your drinking?)
- Have you continued to use despite any negative consequences?
- Have you put off things or neglected to do things because of your alcohol use? (Have you ever disappointed your family or friends? Have you ever missed a family event?)
- Do you occasionally have strong cravings for alcohol?
- Has your tolerance for alcohol increased? Are you able to drink more than you did before?
- Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms the next day after drinking? (Have you ever been shaky or sweaty that evening or the next day?)
- Has your alcohol use led to any dangerous situations? (Have you ever been charged with impaired driving?)
Paul has always strived to be a good student, and was “happy” to report a score of 100%. 11/11. For shits and giggles, let’s’ cover what it means if you didn’t ace this like he did.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
The presence of at least two of these symptoms means you have an AUD. If you have two to three symptoms, it’s considered mild; four to five symptoms is considered moderate; six or more symptoms is considered severe. (If you don’t fall into the severe category, a mild diagnosis can still warrant concern, as it may be the start of a larger problem.)
A couple things before we wrap this up. If you have a drinking problem, life isn’t over…in fact, it’s just beginning.
Some of you may have just learned you have a drinking problem. If this is devastating to you, go to Episode 411 where Paul talks about the grateful alcoholic.
Paul had one more bit of info in his notes from Episode 428 If you find yourself listening to a sobriety podcast (or reading this blog), and you’re not a therapist, a doctor, or listening so that you can support a loved one, then YOU have a drinking problem. If you question whether or not you have a drinking problem, you just answered that question. The bigger question is…what are you going to do about it?
***Taken from Recovery Elevator Podcast, Episode 428, host Paul Churchill***
Let’s talk about dopamine!
If we are to properly discuss alcohol addiction we will soon come to the molecule dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter commonly coined as the pleasure molecule, but that’s not entirely correct. Dopamine is more accurately described as the learning molecule. However, it’s definitely a combination of both. Dopamine is the molecule that has kept us alive for thousands of years. It’s the chemical that drives us to eat, to find warmth, shelter, to find a mate, and puts a smile on our faces when we high five or hug another human being.
Another neat fact about dopamine is once we take action towards a goal, we get a little blast of dopamine. The human dopamine system is like a see-saw, as a dopamine hit brings about pleasure, and then is quickly followed by pain or a lack of dopamine. What goes up, must come down. This is to keep us motivated and it worked great when we were hunters and gatherers and we had to constantly search for our basic needs – food, water, and shelter.
But, in the modern world we live in a world of abundance rather than scarcity, and our brains have not evolved for the “fire hose of dopamine” of sugar, social media, TV, sex, drugs, ALCOHOL, or any number of dopamine-triggering stimuli so easily available.
In short, it could be said that in the modern era, we are all addicts running from fix to fix, which is a reason why on average people open their smartphones around 100 times per day averaging 2,600 swipes, taps, or touches.
Many of us reached a phase in our drinking when we no longer drank to feel good, instead we drank to feel “normal”. I know there are some heads nodding right now.
This is 100% tied to dopamine.
When we drink we open the flood gates to the dopamine system, and then the dopamine system tries to reset itself by creating a deficit the next day, or next couple of days. We then are even more motivated to reach for that drink to offset the treacherous feelings of the dopamine deficit. Think merry-go-round. 🎠
When people do cold plunges, or ice baths, it has the same effect on the dopamine system..but backwards. You experience the pain of the cold water first, then you get a rush of feel good dopamine. Cold plungers are chasing dopamine just like alcoholics.
Countless books have been written on what addition is and its causes. Most would agree it isn’t any one thing, but many things. One reason why some are more susceptible for addiction is based on the makeup of their dopamine system. We have nearly 8 billion humans on the planet and there are 8 billion different dopamine systems. We don’t all experience pleasure and pain the same. When we put our hands in front of a fire, we don’t all feel the warmth equally
It’s quite possible that those who struggle with addiction have enhanced dopamine receptors. Does everyone have the same experience when they take their first drink? Absolutely not. But one commonality that Paul has noticed after interviewing hundreds on the Recovery Elevator podcast is that when those of us that struggle with alcohol take our first drink there’s a light show going off in our dopamine system.
On the flip side, Paul has asked many normal drinkers what their first drink was like, and the common response was eh, it was okay.
This lends truth to the idea that those with enhanced dopamine receptors are more prone to addiction.
Let’s get real. We need that dopamine hit. As human beings after all, it’s what keeps us going, it’s what keeps us alive.
So what are healthy, or healthier, ways to get that dopamine hit? What is the best form of dopamine? Or perhaps the safest?
Well here’s a couple of ideas…
Intimate connection with other human beings. “We know that when we make intimate human connections, oxytocin binds dopamine, releasing neurons in the reward pathway and dopamine is released and it feels really good.”
The opposite of addiction is connection.
Radical honesty – Dopamine is released when we are radically honest with ourselves and others. Studies show that when we are honest about who we are, what we can and can’t control, a healthy amount of dopamine is released. (To be fair, dopamine is also released when we are dishonest.)
Here’s another thing to remember with dopamine. Neurologically, neurons that fire together wire together. When we drink we reinforce dopamine pathways related to alcohol making it harder for us to release dopamine in healthier ways.
If you’re looking for more info on Dopamine, I highly recommend the book Dopamine Nation, by Anna Lembke.
***Taken from Recovery Elevator Podcast, episode 415, host Paul Churchill***
Let’s talk about the order of healing when you quit drinking. We’ll also put a time frame on it…more or less place holders for what you can expect. As with everything in recovery…your time frame may not exactly match up with what is outlined here…but should be close! 🤏🏼
When we ditch the booze the healing happens in the reverse order as the destruction.
When we slide down the chasm of addiction we are afflicted spiritually first, as that is the first connection that becomes severed. Next up is our mental health, and then the physical body fails. The body can’t keep up with the amount of poison entering it and organs begin to fail, think liver and pancreas.
So the destruction happens spiritually, mentally and then physically.
The healing happens in reverse.
We heal physically, mentally and then spiritually. It’s a triage of sorts. Keep in mind there is always overlap. You won’t say, okay, I’m physically strong, now let’s work on the mind. In addition, the three will always be a work in progress.
Good news here, you don’t need to initiate the steps of this healing process. As long as you do the following, the intelligence of the body will take over.
Here is what you need to do.
1️⃣. Ditch the booze
2️⃣. Fuel the body with healthy fuel. Food that is alive..aka: greens, veggies, fruits, and try to cut down on meat. At least for a bit.
3️⃣. Cut back on sugar and caffeine intake. Here at RE we love our ice cream…so green light on the ice cream in the first 15-30 days, but try to cut back to 1-3x per week. Caffeine, 1 cup per day. This is mostly to help with relaxation and sleep.
4️⃣. Moderate movement. Walk, hike, jog, stretch, yoga, weights…for 20 min, 3x per week.
5️⃣. Here’s the fun part – Recovery! This could be AA, we have Café RE, Smart Recovery, Treatment, IOP, etc.
On day 1 we begin healing physically. The cells in the back of the mouth, the throat, the stomach, liver and pancreas are the first to say, thank you!!
Let’s talk about weight. If you lose weight, great! But there’s a good chance you’re going to gain weight. Beer, wine, spirits are basically empty calories, or the same as a moldy gummy worm. You may see your body expanding in your first 30 days, which is beautiful. There is more of you to love. A book Paul recommends to help fuel your body properly is The All Day Energy Diet by Yuri Elkaim.
The physical restoration component is anywhere from 3-12 months depending on how far you rode the shit storm of addiction.
Then begins the real fun stuff…the mental work, which is anywhere from 6 mo -1.5 years. In active addiction there is chaos internally. There is no coherence with the body and the mind. After we find our footing physically, the brain seemingly is going to go haywire. You won’t naturally find yourself in the present moment, but this is the time to really focus on every task at hand. Washing the dishes is our recovery work.
A big part of the mental healing is letting the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal axis settle down. These three organs control the stress response. Cravings and moments where you’re triggered begin to smooth out once this stress mechanism comes back down to earth.
The mind and body will thank you for getting off the rollercoaster of emotions and rock bottoms. Those are stressful and wreak havoc on our inner peace. At the tail end of the mental healing is when something neat happens.
In fact, it’s extraordinary.
This is when we have the capacity to recognize we are not the thoughts, but the one who experiences them. Or as Eckhart Tolle says, life is the dancer, and we are the dance. This is the bridge to the spirituality component of our healing.
As the Swiss, 20th century analytical psychologist Carl Jung says – we enter a spiritual dimension when we begin experiencing synchronicities in life. Or we almost see the bread crumbs confirming we are on the right path. Jung was a firm believer that there are no such things as coincidences and everything is connected. Or interdependent. Both in the physical and the dream world. According to Jung, this metaphysical state of living occurs when we are in balance.
When we are in a healthy dance with time and congruent with the natural flow of life, this is when those seemingly synchronistic events take place. They are quite powerful to be honest. They make you feel connected to something for sure. Paul says, to be fair, he did experience these synchronistic events before quitting drinking, but it was like once every couple of years and nowadays, it’s weekly and sometimes daily.
One reason why healing spiritually comes last is because it helps to make this connection in times of repose, sitting, meditating or focusing on the breath.
Paul says, “I don’t know about you, but there was 0% chance I was sitting in lotus position to connect with a higher power in my first 2-6 months. Probably not even the first two years. Meditating for me at first, was absolutely brutal. But as I progressed, I began to enjoy it, and with some meditations, I would feel euphoria in parts of my body and once I think the best word to describe what happened was astral travel.” – (He knows it sounds strange. 😜)
So…that’s the most common pathway when it comes to healing from a drinking problem.
There is a concept to describe the initial phases of this which is PAWS. Short for Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. This is your body, mind, heart, organs, and soul, recalibrating – finding a new homeostasis. Please don’t hit the eject button if you have a rough day or 20. After chaos, calm is always on the horizon. This is a universal law. PAWS lasts anywhere from 3 months to a year or two…. Yea it can be uncomfortable, but it’s preferable to the perilous road of addiction.
***Taken from Recovery Elevator Podcast, episode 404, host Paul Churchill***