Mindfulness: The Heart of Recovery
[Note: Typicaly we post topical, third-person articles on subjects related to addiction and recovery. For this article, we make an exception. It was written by one of our colleagues. We think it may help anyone struggling with alcohol or substance use disorders, because it connects the dots between mindfulness and recovery. That;s something we do here at Evolve every day.]
As an individual in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I can say with total confidence that my first step toward recovery was, by far, the hardest. It involved admitting uncomfortable facts about the events and circumstances of my childhood and upbringing, recognizing the many self-destructive modes of behavior that I’d developed in response to those events and circumstances, and accepting that yes, I needed help, and that no, I could not do it alone.
For years, I lived in denial. Deep down, I knew that my addictions were not healthy, that they were holding me back on almost every level, and that I had to address the trauma of my childhood before I could begin to live up to my full potential as a person. Yet I stubbornly refused to do the work. I stifled my awareness, which compounded the pain of my addictions, and I allowed myself to live blindly. Also, I cultivated powerlessness, willingly ignoring that which any outside observer would see as obvious.
I needed help.
I chose to ignore the forest I knew was there, instead preferring to run into trees every day. Then, thankfully, I hit a bottom – a physical, psychological, and emotional bottom – and I experienced what I learned later was called a moment of clarity. I was shocked into awareness. Myriad veils of denial lifted, and suddenly I allowed myself to see the forest I had been stumbling through for years.
Now I understand this moment of clarity as my first encounter with a state which I believe is essential for recovery: mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
In their 2011 article, published in the Journal of The American Psychological Association, Daphne M. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes of the University of Pennsylvania define mindfulness as “…a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” Anyone who has embarked on a path of recovery is intimately familiar with two key words in this definition: “awareness” and “judgment.” My path to awareness without judgment—a.k.a. mindfulness—was difficult. I’ll start at the beginning, and use my personal story as an example of how mindfulness became, in my life, a requirement for progress towards a healthy, addiction-free life.
The year was 1991. I was 22 years old, and I was reeling from the after-effects of the worst hangover I’d ever had. The night that led to the hangover didn’t seem so novel, when it was happening. I didn’t do anything too extreme, didn’t stay out incredibly late, and didn’t drink some epic amount of alcohol. But something about that night was different. Maybe I hadn’t eaten properly that day, or in the days leading up to that evening, or maybe I was dehydrated. I don’t know. What I do know is that when I woke up, I was sick. I’ll spare you the details, but I was so compromised that I stayed in the fetal position until well after dark. I couldn’t hold anything down—liquid or solid—until about ten p.m. that evening.
The Big Decision
At some point during that day I decided I needed to take a week off drinking. That was the beginning of the process that led to my moment of clarity or, my first experience with mindfulness, as defined above. I asked myself, “Why would I voluntarily do something that made me feel so bad? Why would I intentionally make myself sick?” I felt poisoned, so I logically asked myself, “Why would you poison yourself?”
I didn’t have the answers, quite yet. But I knew I needed a period of abstinence. So, I hid at home, and didn’t go out with my friends. I went to work, and that was it. At this point, I need to offer a disclaimer – there are many layers of shame that I’ve had to work through during my recovery, and many things about which I’m deeply embarrassed, but what I’m about to admit is especially tough: instead of going out with my friends, I would sit at home, eat Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, and watch “The Party Machine with Nia Peeples” on television.
For those of you with no clue what I’m talking about, think of a watered-down, 80s version of Soul Train. A very bad, very watered-down version. It’s embarrassing, but there: I admit it. I was powerless before the “The Party Machine.” It came on at 12:30 am, right after “Showtime at The Apollo,” and for the life of me I couldn’t change the channel.
What can I say? It was my first attempt at developing an alternative coping mechanism.
So, there I was. After midnight, alone at home, eating chocolate, watching the cheesiest TV I could find. It was mid-March. My windows were wide open, and outside, spring was in full swing. My street was a riot of color – bright, emerging greens, whites, yellow, and reds – you name a color, and it was there. The smell of fresh-cut grass and tree pollen fused with the oversweet taste of the junk food I indulged. Sitting in a pair of shorts on an old oriental rug, the fibers scratching at my legs, I felt empty. Not happy, not sad. I was in an odd state: blank and neutral.
Into this space came a voice: “Listen,” it said. “For the past couple of years, you haven’t really been yourself. You used to have tons of positive energy. You had a playful attitude toward life that’s been missing. I think you might be a little bit depressed.” This voice was my own, but it spoke with a maturity, a certainty, and a wisdom that was new to me. It went on, “Look at your life. What could you be doing that might be making you depressed? Let’s see. Alcohol is a depressant. You drink alcohol every night. I’m just taking a shot in the dark here, but that might have something to do with it.”
The One Moment
In retrospect, my moment of clarity – that first experience with mindfulness – might also be called, among friends, a total “duh” moment. I mean, really. How hard was all that to suss out? Kinda funny, for something so obvious to be so hard to earn, but that brings me to an important point, which is related to the state of mindfulness as defined by Davis and Hayes: “…a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment”.
Mindfulness not only requires us to have perspective on ourselves, to be able to see the forest despite the trees, but also demands that we free ourselves from self-judgment. This was one of the most difficult things for me to accept, in the lead-up to taking my first step. I did not want to face my issues, my depression, or my addiciton. All that stuff was for other people. In my mind, all that was for broken and weak people. I did not want to admit I was sick, broken, and weak. Mostly because I had so much judgment about those things.
Time and again during recovery, we come across phrases such as “think about your life” and “reflect on your experience” and “without judging them, make a list of…” Therapists and counselors constantly ask us to find perspective on our experience, and to view what we’ve done with empathy and compassion. In other words, we’re asked to be mindful.
That’s why, after over twenty years on this journey of recovery, I now believe that mindfulness – the ability to objectively view my own experience with perspective and compassion – is the true heart of my recovery.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.