“The Phoenix must burn to emerge.” ~Janet Fitch
After twenty-three years in recovery, many people were shocked to see me relapse. I was the poster child for doing things right. I followed all the instructions: I went to treatment, I followed the instructions, I prayed for assistance, and I completed my assignments.
After I got home from the treatment center, I joined a program for recovery and started going to therapy. Again, I followed the advice, and it worked. I had no desire to drink or do drugs—well, at least for a long while.
When I first went for treatment, I was in a state of emotional turmoil. I would do anything to stop the pain. The substances I used only increased the pain, and did not promote healing.
The worse I felt the more I wanted to medicate my emotions. However, this only prolonged the pain and led me to have suicidal feelings. As soon as I stopped taking substances, my pain disappeared. I’d gone from struggling to get out of bed to engaging in my life fully.
Going to treatment is only the tip. It was something deeper that I had been ignoring. I believed a relationship would fix it, but this was not the case. There was an underlying malaise and sense of shame I couldn’t identify. I knew something was wrong, so I kept searching for answers but couldn’t find the magic formula.
Relapse is inevitable without a solution.
Most recovery programs only address one addiction. But I had multiple. After two years sobriety I quit smoking, but began compulsive exercise. I didn’t eat right, spent too much, was codependent with needy people, and went from one addictive relationship to the next, never healthy enough to attract someone who could problem solve with me.
I didn’t realize I was still substituting addictions for love.
After several failed attempts to fix my troubled past, I felt even more inadequate. Even worse, I felt hypocritical as a therapist. It wasn’t like I didn’t work at getting better; self-help was like a part-time job
I have spent many decades in various types of therapy. Not only as a client, but also to expand my knowledge in other modalities. I attended dozens workshops and seminars where inner-child work was done. I spent over 20 years in therapy, including psychoanalysis. Despite having a full toolbox, I felt disconnected.
I didn’t realize those tools weren’t teaching me how to love myself.
My spiritual journey has been a lifelong quest. In recovery, I discovered a higher power. I went to different churches and performed some mission work in Haiti. I went to Brazil for healing by John the God (later found guilty of sexual abuse in multiple cases), then to Peru on a quest to find myself, then to Israel to visit the Holy Land and Fiji in search of my destiny. But something was still missing.
I read and studied every book on spirituality I could. A Course in MagicBut I still felt disconnected from myself, and others.
Discouraged I started to drift away from all help sources. I accepted that I would never be a healed healer.
I didn’t realize that all the therapy and spirituality were simply another form of addiction for me.
The relapse started when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and prescribed opiates following surgery. I tasted that high I had forgotten and took the pills whether I was in need of them or not. I forgot that mood-altering drugs affected my judgement.
I chose to reconcile my relationship with my ex husband rather than face my fears and move on with my life. I didn’t care about the impact this had on my children. Like a piece of dust suctioned into a vacuum, despite feeling uncomfortable, I allowed my thoughts to suck me back into unhealthy choices—all the while in therapy.
The following seven years were dark. Another divorce was followed by my former husband’s death, though I was grateful to bring him to our home and care for him until he passed. After a fire, our newly renovated home was reduced to a mass black and burnt out walls. I and my youngest had to relocate again. My business suffered major damage in a fire that occurred shortly after. This caused six months of repairs and renovations.
Three hurricanes in two years caused damage to our business and home. Three hurricanes in two years caused damage to our home and business. One collapsed the ceiling of our foyer, another dropped a large branch on our roof, while the third turned our yard into a giant blender. Two of my businesses were flooded, and I had to throw away everything.
Our home was soon ransacked and broken into. It felt like I had been repeatedly set on fire, drowned, and flooded with the stress of handling repairs, insurance claims and child-rearing while working full-time.
I fought to be better, but my emotions were shredded by the effort. Desperate for support, poor decisions kept me in a whirlwind of insanity—more bad relationships. I was sick and tired of hurting. Anger brewed in me.
I decided to stop therapy, my recovery meetings and my spiritual journey and throw them all out. I went on an uncontrollable rebellious spree. I’d been married at age sixteen and had a child, and now I was entirely alone. I decided to go back to my old lifestyle before recovery and enjoy it.
In retrospect, I can see that I led a life of selfishness while also pursuing a career for thirty years of service to others. I was self-will run riot but couldn’t see myself. I’d lived a life of making things happen and simultaneously wondered why my higher power didn’t deliver everything I wanted.
Spirituality is tricky. It’s so easy to think that God or some higher power is in control, but I believe, with free will, it’s a collaborative effort. Do the footwork and wait… if only I’d waited; impatience was my Achilles heel.
I had a lot of new problems after my partying days: disappointed kids, bad judgement, and destroyed relationships. It didn’t take long to wind up in the same place that took me to treatment twenty-three years earlier, an emotional bottom. This time, however, I was prepared for the miracle of a change.
I found the missing element to a joyful life.
It was pitch-black as I drove around, emotionally deranged by grief and drugs. After almost being in an accident, I pulled over into a lot and began to sob uncontrollably. I railed, “Whatever you are out there, why did you abandon me? Why haven’t you helped me? Why don’t you love me?”
Instantly, I had a thought that shot through my mind like an arrow in a cloud. “It’s not me that doesn’t love you. You don’t love yourself.” And for the first time in my life, I realized two things: I didn’t love myself and didn’t know what loving myself even meant.
How can I love myself? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. The missing ingredient for my happiness was now in front of me, and I had a plan to find it.
Psychoanalysts are taught the importance of an infant’s basic needs for nurturing and bonding, but I’d never applied any of those concepts to myself. There were some missing parts in my childhood, so I had to learn how to provide for my physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, as well as get proper nutrition, rest, and activity, in addition to responsibilities, play time, creative and quiet time, gratitude and appreciation, and loss of tolerance for unkind behavior (to and from others), all of which places I started the journey to self-love.
I let go of my desires and focused on what was best for me and others. Peace enveloped me for the very first time. By being the love I’d always wanted, I felt loved.
I have always been a doer, and spirituality seemed like a degree. You can do it. Whether or not that’s true, there’s a lot more to staying sober than following a set of directions. It’s important to find a higher power, clean up our act, apologize to those we’ve hurt, and stop using, but that won’t keep us sober if we don’t know how to love ourselves. My higher power was love.
The two are not synonymous. It begins with giving thanks to sunrises and sunsets, cuddling up with your pillow or loved ones, recognizing and following the guidance of your conscience, discovering your purpose, loving yourself, and nurturing your body, mind and soul.
Feed your mind and body with stimulating, positive information. And feed your soul by surrounding yourself with good friends, healthy partners and nature.
If you’ve struggled with staying sober, you probably haven’t learned to love yourself. It’s never too late to start. Once I began to love myself as a child, all other substitutes for this godly love disappeared, and I was able to grow and blossom.
After decades of failing, I finally found the key to sobriety. I had to learn that love isn’t something I get. Love is something I do for myself and others.
When I am the love I want to receive, then I will also be loved. There’s a difference between staying sober and recovering. If you’re like me and failed to stay clean, then learn to love yourself. Then, you can recover from the lack self-love that lies at the heart of this disease.
It’s not enough to just stay sober, and life without happiness makes no sense. You were born to live a happy and loving life. If you’ve tried everything and something’s still missing, try learning how to love.
Dr. Donna Marks
Dr. Donna Marks has been a licensed psychotherapist and addictions counselor for over thirty years. In 1989, she developed a chemical dependency training program at Palm Beach Community College, which has grown into a four-year degree and received the Florida Governor’s Council Award. She is a certified gestalt psychoanalyst and sex therapist. A Course in Magic. Find out more about Dr. Marks and her services. You can also order a copy 101 Ways to Love Yourself at www.DrDonnaMarks.com.
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Tiny Buddha published the article One missing ingredient in my recovery and why I relapsed.