Pain happens, starting when we’re young. In our efforts to evade it, we suppress a whole array of feelings, turning away and denying them. But like an ignored roommate sharing the small apartment of our psyches, the pain lives on. It doesn’t grow up. It stays the age we were when the trauma happened. Countless negative beliefs systems sprout to position it – that we’re not good enough, that others will reject our true selves, so we need to strategize to please them. We try. Again we miss the mark and endure more pain, the rabble of negativity within us creating a ceaseless inner shitstorm.
It sucks – the shitstorm does. Our psyches can become a hellhole. In AA, we speak of the shitty committee.
What Alcohol Did for Me
The first time I got wasted, alcohol shrank that entire tornado of pain and fear so small it could fit inside a harmless little bubble and float off somewhere in my mind’s periphery – totally irrelevant. Hey! I was fine, you were fine, and if someone didn’t like us, fuck ‘em. My psyche’s protective walls fell away so the world opened up as a land of plenty, beautiful and safe. Life was so damn easy! Cocaine tripled that effect*, adding an intense interest and delight in all things.
I wanted that feeling again. And again. Addiction promises a shortcut, an escape from ourselves. It’s that hope, that sweet anticipation of GOOD STUFF that lures us every time to jump on it again. Something as simple as a red notification number on Facebook can trigger a spurt of anticipatory endorphins in our minds – this is gonna be good! This cheesecake, this big sale, this cocaine porn winning horse remodel facelift romance booze is gonna lift me right out of the bad stuff, set me on top, make being me so smooth! Dopamine levels surge, causing us to “forget” all the pain in our lives.
“Thus addiction… arises in a brain system that governs the most powerful emotional dynamic in human existence: the attachment instinct. Love.” Gabor Maté is writing here of opiates, but the same principle applies to all drugs that impact our dopamine levels – including alcohol.
That first perfect, blissful high is, in my opinion, reminiscent of heaven. Literally. Hear the story of anyone who’s had a Near Death Experience (NDE) in which they went to the Light, and they’ll tell you they were permeated by an ovewhelming Love, a brilliance so powerful it left no room for anything bad. The Light is the unfiltered energy of Love that is not incarnate, not trapped in a limiting body; it is whence we originate, what powers us here, and what we’ll return to. And it’s a memory of bliss for which we hunger desperately as we trudge through the difficulties of being human.
So what am I saying? That consciousness from a brain artificially flooded with dopamine resembles consciousness in heaven? Yep. ‘Fraid so. That’s why many addicts sacrifice their lives in pursuit of it. Un/fortunately, our brains respond to such bombardment by curtailing both production of and receptors for dopamine, so life without using more becomes increasingly hellish – and that change persists for years.
What god Does for Me
…is not as fast or dramatic, but it works: god gives me the self-compassion to heal my own wounds. The message of the Big Book is love. In the rooms we’re surrounded with it as we dare to take that First Step, to admit openly, “You guys, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!!” From that humility, we tap an “an inner resource” – god as we understand it – which begins to edge out ego as our guide for living. The more love we accept from god, the more we have to offer others, and vice versa. For the first time, we can love imperfect people from the standpoint of our own imperfection. In other words, as working the steps gradually teaches us compassion for others, we also develop it for ourselves. We become conduits of the Light.
“You have to feel it to heal it,” my cousin and I like to say. In meditation I go in looking for that little 9-year-old Louisa who was so blighted by shame, and I ask her to tell me where it still hurts. I feel it, too; I grieve with her; I comfort her. You don’t have to do anything, I tell her. You can just be you, and I’ll love you. I can promise her this because my god has promised it to me. At the core of Al-Anon, ACA, and SLAA, named either directly or indirectly, is the healing power of self-parenting. That’s the nexus of change. We can play both roles, loving and healing our past selves.
Today my inner little girl is pretty happy. She got banged up rather badly in my recent break-up, but she’s convalescing well. We share an open world infused with goodness – because I perceive god in all I encounter. At times I do experience bliss – basking in the beauty of the mountains, laughing myself loopy with sober friends, or witnessing the miracle of my sweet son. It’s not a cheap bliss, either: it’s the real McCoy, earned through hard spiritual work – that freedom I once faked temporarily with alcohol and drugs. And like heaven, it’s all about love.
Here’s a simple animation that depicts volumes about addiction in a brief 4.5 minutes. Strangely, watching it makes me cry.
I’m guessing Andreas Hykade, the film’s German creator, knew addiction well. It’s not by coincidence that our protagonist is a kiwi, a flightless bird. We all feel like that – denied the soaring others pull off. Neither is the grating step-by-step sound effect accidental. Real life is one step at a time and arduously incremental compared to the smooth bliss of intoxication. Even the images’ barren simplicity reflects the stark focus of addiction. An animation teacher at Harvard, Hykade chose a simple line drawing over every state-of-the-art visual effect at his disposal.
So many of us never escape that final darkness. If you have, take a moment for gratitude.
* Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, p.153