Sully's Recovery World Today

Following the theme of raising awareness around the negative, unhealthy coping mechanisms, today’s focus is avoidance – a tactic used by all of us at some stage in our lives. To cover this topic, I will turn to A Year Without Substance, and chapter 7… Avoiding the Subject.

‘I don’t know many people who haven’t used avoidance behaviours to protect themselves from having to confront difficult decisions, or to deal with people they don’t like, or to get out of something that is essential but boring. It’s a natural human defense mechanism that is built into all of us to protect us from the core primal emotion of fear. However, if used to extremes or inappropriately it can be incredibly dangerous, and can end up inflicting far more damage in the long run than the thing the defense mechanism was being used to protect you from in the first place.

Addicts commonly report the over use of avoidance during their active using years and, in the main, it is “feelings and emotions” that the individual is trying to escape from. By disconnecting in this way, addicts deny themselves the opportunity of experiencing crucial human emotions that are actually designed to provide us with information to help us behave and act appropriately to any given external stimulus. The world view, therefore, becomes distorted, and feelings become harder and harder to identify as the illness progresses. In the end it is safer to avoid emotions altogether.

The obvious tactic that is so often adopted is the use of other outside influences to help you avoid or control these feelings — drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and shopping for example. But there are also internal psychological methods that addicts use to alter the onset of a particular emotion that they don’t want to face. Having worked hard on understanding myself and how I would avoid “feeling”, I have come to see that I would repress an emotion during sober hours, and then address it more confidently when either drunk or high or both. Other ways I avoid feelings include: intellectualizing a trigger in an attempt to find an answer to the emotion and thus find a false solution which would temporarily appease me; bargaining a feeling against something else in my mind that made me feel a lot better; judging and vocalizing other peoples shortcomings so as to shift the focus away from myself; and using humour as a way to minimize and dilute the onset of a genuine emotion.

It gets to the point that addicts just want to avoid everything, because everything is a trigger. Simple life tasks become overwhelming in addicts’ minds, and fill their bodies with fear: paying bills; sending a business email; receiving or returning a phone call; even having a shower. As the requirement for action becomes more important, the bigger the fear grows, and so addicts will detach still further, drinking and using more to protect themselves. Speaking from my own experience, it is a truly terrifying symptom of being an addict (and the one that is hardest to communicate) because superficially, it is almost impossible to understand. To non-addicts, you are seen as lazy and totally unreliable, which feeds directly into the already rock bottom self-esteem that the addict will be suffering, thus in turn creating new feelings that need to be avoided. As the cycle continues, chronic dishonesty manifests itself, and the sufferer sinks lower and lower until nothing of any value is left in their lives.

In recovery, I have been encouraged to visit these feelings and explore where they are coming from within the security of a fellowship environment, with like-minded individuals on hand to provide direction and empathy. I had no idea how many feelings of sadness, anger, and fear I was carrying around inside me until I somehow found the strength and courage to connect with them, and when I did I soon realized that whatever feeling I experienced (good or bad) it invariably passed without the influence of a drink or narcotic to control it. Feelings are not facts, and by avoiding them I was denying myself any kind of emotional growth, and I have been denying them ever since I was a young boy.

There is no quick-fix solution to reconnecting with emotions. After many years of denying them, it isn’t as simple as just identifying a feeling and moving on. You have to experience and immerse yourself in feelings and get to know them, listen to the messages that they carry, and act appropriately in response. 

Most of the time, in early sobriety, the process is incredibly confusing, and incorrect identification of a feeling happens all the time, which in turn can lead to a somewhat unusual response to a given stimuli. But with time, patience, help, and the new found self-awareness that comes with recovery, you will start to become more familiar with your inner self, and realize just how vital feelings and emotions are to leading a more balanced, and — dare I say — normal life.’ – Andrew Sullivan

A Year Without Substance is now available for download at the Amazon Kindle Store – in case you didn’t already know!

Lots of love

andrew x