first published at Sobersitas.com 8.6.2014
Guilty Pleasures By Dave Kneeshaw
You know when things are turning around with the booze because you start to experience emotions that you’ve not felt for some time. You find yourself feeling excited, nervous and anxious – oh yeah, anxious is well up there on the scale of emotions we could all do without, but it rears its head and consequently the worries begin to arrive by the truckload.
The onslaught of these feelings may not be as helpful as we would want. You don’t get to feel a bit different each day until one day you wake up and say “I am back, and I feel like I always wanted and knew I would.” If this was the case then life would be so much easier, that’s for sure. No, those feelings come back in waves, a maelstrom of moods delivered as a tsunami of emotions, lacking context, an invite and apparent purpose, leaving you angry or teary at the most random of places, and frequently fragile and confused.
Drinking at the end of the day is a way of dealing with unpleasant feelings. It is also a very effective mechanism to deal with such emotions, after all if it did not work you would not have spent so much time liberating another oppressed cork from its imprisonment once those numerous downsides of booze became evident, if there were only negative consequences to face from to drinking. It costs money, it takes time away from loved ones, it steals our ability, or at least the inclination, to deal with life on life’s terms and yet….And yet it still seduces, it still corrodes the promises, it still turns good people into deceitful, short-sighted and self-focused servants.
So what is this hypnotic lure of the booze that acts like kryptonite to people in many aspects of their life? It works…it works to make people feel how they want to feel. It works to help people change how they feel. It helps subdue feelings, slow the world down, and turn the shouty voices in our heads down to a muffled, innocuous buzz. It alters how you feel about the world, those you love but more scarily how you feel about yourself and how others feel about you.
The journey back from imprisoned drinking, to a life of living where you are free from alcohol and all the downsides it offers should and really could be a wonderful experience but it is always challenging. Emotions are a sign that life is really happening; robots don’t have them nor do people ensnared in an existence of routine drinking, whether daily or bingeing the drinking subdues and is the focus of life with everything else slotted in to sustain the myth of real happiness.
As you move forward those feelings return and the most potent threat to your progress is guilt, that painful feeling that invites you to relive and re-experience all the lies you told yourself when you were drinking, “I don’t care what people think” “I don’t have regrets” and “I am not bothered.”
In reality, guilt can be a useful tool to keep you driving forwards. It can remind you of what you have done in your life and what you can learn from it. It can also provide you with a list of people you can contact, at the right time, to do what you can to take responsibility for your irresponsibility when you were drinking, but it can also serve to unpick all those great plans.
So what additional purpose other than helping you to move forward does guilt have? If you buy into it, it is there to sabotage all your hard work, and to help reinforce the fallacy and self-fulfilling prophecy that you are less important than any other person on the planet. Using guilt to undermine all your hard work is pretty easy. I am yet to work with anyone who has re-evaluated their relationship with alcohol who hasn’t had to manage guilt and learn to adopt a kinder approach with themselves in order to move forwards. It is the way we sometimes speak to ourselves that is the greatest threat to all our hard work.
As you read this, it is unlikely that you have sidestepped guilt. Hey, the voice in your head is the best judge, best critic and best enemy you can hope to meet. If you allow it, it will regurgitate bad decisions, poorly judged comments and any rubbish behaviour you have ever undertaken, and to make sure that you feel extra guilty it will take everything out of context so that you totally, unrealistically and unfairly blame yourself. Guilt, poorly managed can lead you to think that “I have done some terrible things therefore I am a terrible person”, which is never true. The two things are built on false logic but it does not stop many people on their journey from buying into this myth.
So where do you go from here? Enjoy letting those emotions come back, and after every wave remind yourself that this is the evidence that you are getting better. After physical operations the healing can be painful, temporarily limiting but scars heal and you get to say I have never felt better, just as so many on Soberistas say daily. Consider guilt to be a double-edged sword, a reminder of the things that you can learn from but also as a threat to your recovery.
When the pain from these feelings becomes apparent, talk; talk to loved ones, on Soberistas, to friends. The reality is that you did things that you wish you had not. Use that as a foundation to build from, to share your learning with others so that they do not endure the real pain that you experience.
In therapy guilt is a regular topic. The main question I ask people when we discuss guilt is, “Is it useful?” I have worked with people who have been responsible for a range of behaviours that they bitterly regret and so guilt is a natural occurrence. If it helps someone to change their behaviour it is useful. If it holds the change back it is counter-productive and is not useful. So when you feel guilty, ask yourself “Is this feeling useful?” and “Is it giving me guidance?” If you have guidance from the feeling then act, but otherwise accept you are not the person who did that, and you will keep driving the changes in your life forwards to make that behaviour more and more remote from the person you have become – and who you are becoming.
When dealing with guilt, it is important to remember the reality of change. I am unaware of any post-treatment clients who offend; neither my heroin clients (some of whom have histories of acquisitive crime) nor alcohol clients (some of whom have public order convictions). Most of the situations which people experience guilt about were entirely related to drinking and drinking behaviour, and once a person has changed their behaviour it is important for them to accept they are not perfect, but they are making steps towards being better parents, better partners and better friends.
Dave Kneeshaw is an addictions therapist who has worked for the last twenty years treating people to cope in a complex world. Previously employed by Phoenix Futures (the second largest addiction service provider in the UK) for almost a decade, Dave now has a private practice in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He enjoys running, and completed his first Sheffield Half Marathon in 2013. contact him at Dave@Therapy for change available via Skype anywhere and everywhere or face to face in Sheffield UK