It is said that those of us who suffer from alcoholism froze our emotional maturity at the age at which we started to drink regularly. I am living proof of the voracity of that statement as I lived decades of my life, well into my early sobriety, with the emotional maturity of a teenager.
Impatience is a cornerstone attribute of emotional immaturity, and my ability to calmly wait for anything was as undeveloped as that skill can be in a human. I learned early in my recovery that patience was a tool I needed to master if I hoped to make it over the elusive hump to permanent sobriety.
My own history of attempts at sobriety, and subsequent relapses, provided ample necessary proof that my impatience wasn’t serving me. I made it to six months of sobriety twice, and to nine months once, only to start drinking again because I still felt depression and anxiety, and joy had not yet returned to my life.
There was no big temptation.
The cravings did not get the best of me.
I just ran out of patience for the process of healing my hijacked brain.
So I started drinking again. I expected months of sobriety to accomplish changes that take years to make. I lacked both the knowledge, and the stamina, to reach the finish line.
So far, nothing I’ve shared in these first few paragraphs is likely to be news to you. If you have invested even minimal time in your recovery from your drinking or the drinking of someone you love, you’ve probably heard dozens of times about the importance of patience in the process.
But here’s something new – something I didn’t understand myself until a couple of weeks ago.
Patience is not just a skill. Patience is a destination.
Alcoholism is full of counterintuitive thinking. We drink to relieve stress and anxiety, not realizing the alcohol is responsible for the anxiety in the first place. We drink for pleasure and to lift us from sadness because we don’t understand the brain chemistry impact of addiction, and the damage drinking does to our pleasure neurotransmitters.
Here’s another one: We drink to find a sort of unnatural contentment because we are completely uncomfortable in a naturally peaceful state of mind.
Boredom is a top-five relapse trigger according to surveys of the high-functioning alcoholics with whom we work. And it was true for me, too, I just didn’t know it. I worked so hard to tend to all of my responsibilities – both work and family – so that I could relax and drink. I had no concept of relaxation without a beverage in my hand. Weekends, holidays, vacations – any situation that involved unwinding and freeing my mind from responsibilities included lots of booze. Always.
I called it relaxing. Some people call it boredom. No matter what we name it, time spent free from active thinking, talking, acting or doing is time spent consuming alcohol for us alcoholics. So in sobriety, time spent patiently existing, unoccupied, is dangerous. It makes us want to drink because that’s all we know.
There is so much talk from all corners of the recovery community about filling the void that alcohol leaves behind that even people who have never experienced addiction understand the concept. Some try to fill it with spirituality. Others fill the void with exercise or connection with other humans. For me, in early sobriety, I filled the void with reading memoirs of the alcoholics who came before me.
Filling the void in these positive ways is good. We need to replace all of those hours spent drinking with something, and spirituality, exercise, connection and reading are great replacements.
But what about the gaps in between? The boredom. The peaceful, unscheduled, unplanned times when we don’t feel like praying or exercising or connecting or reading. What then? What do we do with that unassigned chunk of lingering void?
Patience must become a desired destination.
Until recently, I have thought of patience as a tool I’m learning to use to let negative emotions, like sadness and grief, wash over me while I’m waiting for more desirable emotions to naturally return. Now, however, I’m starting to recognize patience as more than a developing skill.
Patience is becoming a defining characteristic that brings me a joy of its own. It’s not just a bridge I use to pass safely over troubled waters. It’s a feeling of being right where I belong because I am content in the moment. That might sound subtle, but the effect it has on my growth and healing is profound and freeing.
I have spent a lot of time listening lately. I’ve been listening to the stories of friends, neighbors, family and strangers. In the past, especially when I was drinking, listening was an exercise of painful endurance. With very few exceptions, I really didn’t give a shit what anyone else had to say. I conversed by preparing for my next charming statement while I stared through you ignoring what you were saying. Listening was time wasted that could otherwise be spent being productive.
And it all came down to this: Every minute I wasted listening to others was a minute that I was deterred from my goal of getting my shit done so I could relax with a drink.
Now I listen because I enjoy stories, and I know all of mine, so anyone with new material easily earns my attention.
But patiently listening is not the only new-found pleasurable destination. I go for walks – not just for exercise or to process some challenge. Sometimes, I just walk for no particular reason. I watch funny stuff on TV. I read books that aren’t teaching me anything. I play board games with my kids. I listen to music and stare out the window.
What I experience now is not boredom. It is not alcohol-induced relaxation. It is patience. It is contentment. It is peace with the fact that doing nothing has a healthy place in my activity rotation.
It is what’s left over of the void, and it holds no power over me to make me drink. It is kind of like making a friend out of the enemy. I’ve learned to embrace the void because a life without stillness is the equivalent of being discontent with peace and stirring up trouble because the quiet is deafening. That sounds like the insanity of alcoholism, and I’m glad I don’t do that anymore.
This concept of patience as a destination developed from conversations within our SHOUT Sobriety program for alcoholics in early sobriety. I share what I know with the group, but I learn a lot from them, too. If you are looking for connection related to exploration and discover that it takes more than twelve steps, please check us out. And if you are the loved one of an alcoholic, you deserve to connect and discover, too. For you, check out our Echoes of Recovery program. Either way, you’ve got this, and we’ve got you.