One of the toughest challenges of battling any addiction is the feeling of isolation you experience in struggling to identify, understand and address the root cause of your behavior.
For years, I struggled with alcohol, binging, purging and cutting as a means of dealing with my underlying feelings of despair, grief and distaste for myself. I justified my addictions by developing rituals to drown out the anxiety, fear and pain that enveloped my soul.
My first such ritual was food, which I embraced at age nine, the year after my father died and mother returned to college. Daddy’s death left an emptiness, a “missingness,” in my heart. I coped by eating huge bowls of ice cream; gorging, as if by stuffing myself I could somehow fill the gaping chasm in my soul.
We had moved to a new town for the summers, so mother could attend classes. I would regularly sneak food from the refrigerator at home, which soon escalated into stops at the local store on my way home from the library, where I would spend my weekly allowance on potato chips, ice cream, candy bars and Coca Cola.
At age 12, I began to experiment with beer; by 15, I had graduated to hard liquor. I longed to drink like the older teenagers in my high school. Except, for me, it wasn’t a fun social activity. It was a way to hide from the grief and the reality that Daddy wasn’t coming home, not ever.
It wasn’t until years later, during my hospitalization at the Menninger Clinic, that I finally faced up to my addictions. After my husband, Larry, left for Vietnam I began to receive the help I needed. I was fortunate to be the clinic when, four months later, I found out Larry had been killed.
My treatment plan included sewing, sculpture, volleyball, piano practice and supervised walks on the grounds. Knowing my eating behaviors were supervised encouraged me to eat healthy until I learned to do it on my own.
As I continued to come to terms with my addictions, writing played a key factor in my recovery. In a notebook, I wrote out the steps I went through and how I felt when I drank, binged and purged.
To help abate my compulsive behaviors, I recited the serenity prayer to break down my recovery into small steps. The process was as specific as threading a needle:
- God grant me the serenity—Heartbroken that Larry was in Vietnam and fearing he would be killed, I needed serenity to realize there was no action I could take beyond praying over and over.
- To accept the things, I cannot change—I needed acceptance to take things one day at a time, hour or minute at a time.
- The courage to accept the things I cannot change–With Larry in Vietnam and me in a mental hospital, I needed courage.
- The wisdom to know the difference—For this step, I made a diagram. I asked, can I do anything about this? If I answered yes, I took action. If I answered no, I accepted it, sitting on my hands, repeating the serenity prayer until it sank in.
If you struggle with addictions, I suggest you try my method. Go through the steps, over and over. Write down the actions you can take and your feelings on paper and, eventually, they will be replaced with a sense of peace and gratitude. For me it took years but, slowly, I began to feel comfortable in my own skin.
With the help of skilled doctors and therapists and my own determination to make a change, I eventually left residential treatment at Menninger. I continued out-patient therapy and began to replace the structured hospital activities with structured home activities.
Writing stayed on the list. I poured out my sadness and grief onto the page. I wrote stories about my daughter Laura and me, so she would have them when she got older.
I yelled at Larry on the page for getting himself killed and, on that same page, I begged him to forgive my anger. I wrote about what our life could have been like if he had lived and, two lines later, I told him how proud I was of his service to his country.
After months of feeling sorry for myself, I finally wrote a letter to Larry, although I knew I couldn’t send it. I wrote about Laura, and kept a log of our rituals and what we did together. I wrote that she had his photo in her room so she’d always know her Daddy.
The music Larry had taped on reel-to-reel tapes in Vietnam was shipped to me. I listened to his music and it inspired my writing. I wondered if there was special meaning in the particular songs he recorded and I began to make up stories about what they meant to him.
That time was the beginning of my journey of writing to heal. During my outpatient sessions with a therapist, I shared my stories, often reading out loud. He told me to keep writing.
Through writing, I have come to a place of acceptance and peace with specific events, relationships, and places from the past and present.
During the creative process I experience aha moments, feelings and even physical and emotional responses that I had not previously recognized or owned. These responses are often amazing and telling; writing creates intense personal moments that allow me to begin to consider other people’s words and emotions.
Rather than focus on my feelings—happy, sad or angry—writing frequently changes my perspective. In my mind’s eye, I see the events in my story more clearly. I see the good, bad and the ugly.
I’m not unique in having lovely and sad stories. I encourage you to write down your memories, feelings and experiences. Find other artistic outlets, too. Our creative talents and expressions can help us discover gems of hope and serenity through difficult times and lift up our gratitude in the hardest of times.
© Tyra Manning 2017