I know, it’s a bad title. It suggests that contentment is out there somewhere. Passively waiting to be discovered like the deluded dreams of the wannabe next throwaway popstar. And like throwaway celebrities, my pursuit of contentment was steeped in a throwaway mindset. As the dopamine subsided from the last hit of chemical correction I would be searching for the next source of escape dressed up as momentary stability. The irony is that I was seeking calm amongst the chaos. My “Work hard play hard” mantra should have carried the caveat and “frightened of contentment.” I was often disappointed and less often elated. My mindset was one of a self-induced bipolar disorder. Peaks and troughs. In the hopes of finding level ground. It wasn’t sustainable. I had to find another way.
Ask people what they want and many will say “to be happy.” Ask them how they become happy and they would likely name something that would make them happy; car, more money, perfect spouse, etc etc. I was looking in the wrong place and was often disappointed to not have found the right answer. I sought happiness through escapism and external stimuli. It only worked for so long. Eventually, I had to put the work in.
Since quitting drinking, the anxiety has abated. The chaos has diminished. Stability has been discovered. Thanks to this level ground, I have had time to reflect on the reasons why. Why did I live like that? I was running. From life and myself. From the feeling of inferiority and the fear that attempting to prove it wrong would only serve to confirm it. My only solution was creating a barrier between my problems in the hope they would disappear. This chemical correction was a short cut to momentary escape.
Why did I feel like that? Many reasons I guess. Weight problems when I was younger. Being painfully shy. Feeling inferior. A broken interpretation of what it was to be a man. Avoiding emotions. I was all mixed up. It took a lot of effort trying to be someone I wasn’t. Alcohol just made it easy for an evening, week, month, year.
That was the biggest fear when I quit drinking; facing all that shit. Dealing with all the bollocks I had created yet dared not deal with. The warped perception of myself that I’d carried for years needed to be addressed. I had to, with the help of others, try to find some calm. I had sought external escape for most of my life. I had to try another way.
Last September I was lucky enough to travel to the places I had dreamed about. It was a reward for five years of sobriety. A trip of a lifetime made possible by the greatest decision of my life. I saved and sacrificed to make it happen. It was worth every ounce of the effort. I came back in February, amongst the early murmurs of the pandemic. It wasn’t so bad then but was starting to take hold in Northern Italy. By March it was a different story, the panic was setting in and countries began going into lockdown. I returned to work on the 2nd March and by 16th March I was working from home. Why am I saying this? Well, I have realised that those two situations back to back are starkly different. One was dream-like freedom. Great places. Great food. Great people. And the other I was imprisoned, like everyone else, in my home. These two situations should have had a different impact on my mental well being but barring a little bump I have been reasonably content. How can this be?
In both instances, I had a moment of despair that subsided. I couple of moments of “what the fuck is going on?” that lessened. Overall I was comfortable. I was happy in my own skin whether I was in Jordan or Lockdown. On the beach or on my bed. I cannot emphasize enough how much of a big deal that is. That I spent most of my adult life HATING myself. Disgusted with who I was. If I was in alone then I had to drink to stop the thinking. I could not imagine being in my own company without a chemical umpire.
Just before I went travelling, someone in AA said to me they would “love to travel but couldn’t be too far away from the program.” That to me sounded like co-dependence. Why would anyone want to give up an addiction, gain freedom and then willfully hand that freedom over to another? I always wanted independence. Freedom. Clarity. I wanted to be comfortable in any setting whilst not drinking. I didn’t want to relive the misery and be chained to the past. It didn’t and doesn’t define my future. In order to maintain sobriety, I had to find things that would allow that to happen. I created an Adhoc program of sobriety that wasn’t location dependant. I wanted freedom but had to accept that there were things I needed to do to stay sane. I’ll be honest drinking isn’t on my agenda and hasn’t been for years. The thinking patterns that lead me to the mental state to want to escape are very real. I can keep them under control by doing the following things;
I have to be aware of my inner world. Through the rough and smooth. I have to feel the feelings and let life take its course. Whilst travelling and in lockdown, I felt isolated and lonely, so I picked up the phone. I reached out to people and had a chat. I also have to be aware of the inner chatter and make sure I am not giving myself an unnecessarily hard time. I can compare sometimes. I can flick through social media and make sweeping judgements that everybody is infinitely happier than me. This, in turn, makes me feel inferior and then sad. I have to remind myself that reality is a lot different than the pursuit of “likes”!
I have to treat myself as if I was caring for another. Especially, another who I love. When I had no self-esteem I didn’t care what I did to myself. I didn’t care what I ate. I didn’t care what I drank. I just cared about not caring. When I quit drinking I slowly began to care about myself. I began to look at my body as an important thing. I began to realise, what I ate impacts on how I feel. Especially if I have an unstable relationship with food that results in guilt trips. So I thought about how would I treat a pet. How would I care for a dog? I would give it love and affection. I would feed it. I would give it a treat. I would play with it. I would take it for walks to give it exercise. So if I would do those things for a dog, why the fuck wouldn’t I do those things for myself? For years, I treated myself worse than I would treat a dog. I at least deserved to be treated as well as a dog. So I began to give myself love. I am worthy of that. I began being nice to myself.
I used to neglect myself physically and mentally. No wonder I was cowering from life. Have you ever seen a dog that gets shouted at all the time? That’s what I was doing to myself psychologically. I slowly learned to be nice to myself. I took myself for a walk and rewarded good behaviour. I stopped pissing against lamposts though. Over time I began to feel good about myself.
I have to remember things have been and could be, a lot worse. No matter where I am in life I know that there are people far worse off than I am. There are hundreds of millions of people without food, water and electricity in the world. There are children in wars and terrible situations that I dare not think about. I can try to help as much as I can but I cannot change the world. I know that I am very very lucky to not be one of those people. As such, I practice gratitude everywhere I go. Whilst travelling I thanked the people who helped me in recovery and my parents who motivated me when I was younger. I was grateful for the option to do what I did. I appreciated it isn’t a possibility for everyone. When I came back, I was unhappy to have stopped travelling but that soon turned to gratitude as the pandemic unfolded. I was lucky to have a job, a roof over my head, running water and access to food. It is easy sometimes to forget about how hard life is for people. It is easy to take things for granted and as a result, create a mindset of self-entitlement but it is a miserable existence. To sit and expect life to serve up my dreams is a bad idea. I know. I did it for long enough.
Without the people who stood by me when I was struggling, I wouldn’t have made it. Without the people who walked the path of sobriety before me and shared their stories, I wouldn’t have hope. Without the open-minded view of life that I adopted from my parents, I wouldn’t have attempted the things such as meditation, yoga and self-reflection that have allowed me to get to this point. I am eternally grateful.
All the things I learned that keep me on the straight and narrow I can take anywhere. I just need space to exercise. Time to reflect. Access to balanced food. Whilst I was travelling I went for a run in most cities I visited. Not far. Just enough to keep me balanced. I didn’t give myself a hard time for eating things but I limited the amount of bad food I ate. Just because of the crashing from the sugar makes me feel lethargic. I spent time just watching the world go by and realised that life got lost in the chaos when I was drinking. What I was looking for was with me all the time. Contentment resides in my realisation that nothing can fill the void I create internally. Even if something does fill the void it may be fleeting. The self-care and love I sought for years can be artificially induced but it cannot be replaced. In the chaotic pursuit of peace, it is easy to lose everything. In the pursuit of “sobriety” (whatever that is), it is easy to create unnecessary pressure. In life and sobriety, simplicity has been key for me.
Two thousand years ago, Epicurus theorised that happiness is built on three things; “Friendship, Freedom and Self-Sufficiency.” The three things I have listed are not a million miles away from that. They are “connection, gratitude and self-care.” I need a connection to myself and others. I have to stay grounded by remembering that life could be a lot worse. Finally, I have to treat myself with love, both mentally and physically. I have to treat myself as well as I would a pet. That’s not too much to ask, is it?