Surviving tragedy & trauma. An unspeakable, unbearable tragedy shattered my world on July 2, 2011. Then, the shockwaves of that horrid tragedy reverberated back and forth. Backward, to a decade earlier, stirring up and shaking loose unresolved family dysfunction; and, forward, to the present day, causing further tragic consequences of that fatal day. As many trauma victims do, I had turned to drugs and alcohol to numb my pain. I thought that was the way to take the edge off. But, after many years, I became aware that numbing myself only prolonged my agony.
Breaking Bad Habits. Bad habits die hard. Just ask Doug MacLeod and his son, Jesse, who decided to sing about breaking their family curse of domestic violence. As Doug MacLeod’s Break The Chain recording, winner of the 2018 Blues Music Awards Acoustic Album of the Year, proclaims: you’ve got the power to break that chain … free your spirit, set your soul free. They’re referring to the inter-generational chain of domestic abuse that exists within far too many families. But, hey, each of us has our own chain to break, don’t we? Behavior patterns persist within ourselves, within our families, and across generations, until we break the chain.
Enough is enough. As I struggled to recover from almost two decades of trauma, I found that I awakened to a spiritual place within myself. But, before I explain the how and the why of my awakening, that led to my decision, on September 18, 2018, to stop relying on any drugs or alcohol, permit me to make several observations …
When I first started smoking pot in the late ’60’s, a lid of Mexican pot was $20. Back then, it was fun. It made me laugh. Today, at $500+ per ounce, some hydroponic varieties of marijuana have 100x the THC (psychoactive ingredient). Such potency levels result in pot that packs a much more powerful punch than it did fifty years ago. Especially for young people, whose brains are still developing, research demonstrates that current levels of THC potency can put our nation’s youth at risk of impaired brain development. There’s no fun in that. Here’s what I tell young members of my own family: “just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you!”
Today, the opioid epidemic, fueled by greedy, self-interested pharmaceutical companies, has created an epidemic that cost the United States about $700 billion in 2018 and more than $2.5 trillion from 2015 to 2018. More devastating is the loss of one million American lives due to drug overdoses, over the past decade alone. While it’s easy to point a well-deserved finger at big pharma, remember, they can’t force us to put drugs in our mouths or needles in our arms. They can only tempt us. So, ultimately, the choice is ours. According to Ben Sasse, as explained in his bestselling book, THEM: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, it’s a loneliness crisis that’s behind our opioid epidemic. Can we change our destiny by changing our behavior? I hope so. Beyond our self-control and self-regulation, we need to continue to mobilize a revolution against big pharma. And, I’m glad to report, judging from the growing number of lawsuits waged against pharmaceutical companies, that revolt is well underway. Clearly, we’ve been kowtowing to the needs of pharmaceutical companies that place their need for profits over our need to save American lives, for far too long.
Here’s the brutal truth: we can’t depend on our government to legislate our safety through their policies or programs. And, clearly, we can’t depend on our criminal justice system to protect us either. Just consider these enormous failures of the War on Drugs over the past four decades: 1) the ever-escalating and alarming increase in deaths due to drug overdoses (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported slightly more than 1 death per 100,000 people in the United States due to drug overdose in 1971; 3.4 overdose-related deaths per 100,000 people by 1990; 12 overdose-related deaths per 100,000 people by 2008; 14.7 overdose-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2014; and, climbing); 2) the overrepresentation of minorities in drug offenses and incarcerations; and, 3) failure to effectively target drug cartels and incarcerate drug dealers rather than individual users (i.e., according to drugwarfacts.org‘s Drug War Facts report, in 2018, 86.4% of arrests were for mere possession of a controlled substance; 40.1% of arrests were for marijuana possession alone; and13.6% of arrests were for sale or manufacturing of illicit drugs). So, you see, if we choose to wage a war on drugs, we must wage it by ourselves and for ourselves.
It’s not that I’m flat-out against occasional, recreational alcohol or drug use, in moderation. It’s just that I realized that it no longer suits me. It no longer fits into my world. It gets in my way of experiencing how well designed I am to care for myself and how capable I am of “getting through” life’s ups and downs. By choice, and not because drugs and alcohol brought me to my knees, I’ve replaced drug use with spirituality.
Drugs and alcohol were responsible for the deaths of three of my family members! In 2011, my older step-son stabbed his mother (my wife) to death. At that same moment, he existentially died, too. And, in 2013, my younger step-son committed suicide.
Here’s how (and more of the why, too)…
I am enough. In the wake of personal tragedy, I awoke to my own strength. I realized that, during the decade preceding my wife’s tragic death, my brain had slowly and subtly began to rely on drugs and alcohol to regulate my emotions, in the face of life-threatening family dysfunction. And, get this … before I met Barbara, I had never relied on prescription meds to control my emotions. Yet, my wife’s psychiatrist was quick to address the problems caused by having to cope with her sons’ mental illnesses and chemical addictions by prescribing drugs to heighten my alertness and drugs to put me to sleep; and, drugs to control dysthemia and anxiety, too.
Eighteen months after my wife’s death, in December, 2012 , I decided to embark on a journey into personal development. I attended Hoffman Institute, described on their website, hoffmaninstitute.org, as a “week-long healing retreat of transformation and development for people who feel stuck in one or more important areas of their life.” At the Hoffman program retreat, there was no alcohol, no sex, no cell phones, and no access to news or entertainment. Prescribed meds were permitted when sanctioned by a doctor. Following the advice of my therapist, I decided to take my meds with me “just in case I needed them.” Well, here’s what happened when I chose to stop taking all my meds … nothing. Nothing bad happened to me as a result of being without the drugs or alcohol!!! (Note: I’m not suggesting you do the same without consulting your physician.) I returned from the Hoffman Institute’s program, AKA the Hoffman Process, forever changed for the better.
After Hoffman, I decided to continue not taking meds. But, I continued to drink occasionally. Then, years later, when PTSD “triggers” caused my anxiety to escalate, my family doctor prescribed 1/4 mg. Xanax, as needed (that’s 1/4 the dose of what had been previously prescribed). But, on September 18, 2018, I decided to stop all alcohol and meds. My personal journey had finally led me to discover that I am enough. I went inside my self to find my serenity. Stopping wasn’t difficult for me, once I realized that I no longer needed outside influences to find my peace. And, especially amid the global coronavirus pandemic, I’m glad to be my healthiest self.
Along my journey of healing from tragedy, I began to explore who I was, without the drugs and alcohol. I realized that, for a long time, my brain had relied upon drugs and alcohol to modify my emotions. Especially after my post-traumatic experiences, I began to believe that it would be best to muster the strength to endure, without external chemical interventions. I began to trust the Universe. I began to rely on my self to get through life. You see, after tragedy hit, I didn’t expect to survive life. And, then, I did. I found that to be truly amazing! I realized that I am amazing. I am a miracle of life; just as you are. I was filled with faith, gratitude, and awe. And, in that new place, I trusted my brain chemistry and my biological and neurological systems to provide me with the very best living experiences possible. Once I saw that light, I simply flipped a switch from poor me to powerful me; from impossible to I’m possible.; from victim to victor.
Creatures of habit. The good news is that we get to choose our habits. Love over hate. Kindness over selfishness. Compassion over cruelty. Selflessness over selfishness. Gratitude over self-pity. Forgiveness over anger. Star-gazing over porn-gazing. Eating healthy over unhealthy eating. Moderation over excess. Human connection over isolation. Focusing on the present over ruminating on the past. Healthy relationships over toxic relationships. Courage over cowardice. Altruism over greed. Smiling over frowning.
We don’t have to go through life on autopilot. We get to change outcomes by changing ourselves. As the chinese proverb, attributed to Lao Tzu, cautions us: “watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
In order to be our own best self-care advocates, first and foremost, we must be willing to take responsibility for our actions. Then, we must recognize the relationship between causes and effects. Finally, we must believe that we are in control of our lives — perhaps, not in all ways, but in more ways than we may choose to readily admit. In today’s world, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the relationship between smoking and lung disease; between obesity and high blood pressure, amongst other serious medical conditions; between bad foods and high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL-C); and, between high levels of bad cholesterol and increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Self-Empowerment. You’ve got to own your actions; take responsibility. It’s what’s definitions.net refers to as “the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is I who is presently executing bodily movement or thinking thoughts.” So, while we may be drawn to addiction on biological and/or psychological levels, we get to choose our habits. Healthy or unhealthy; safe or dangerous; violent or non-violent. And, while mental blocks and dysfunctional family/inter-generational behavior patterns may make it challenging for us to act in our own best interests, we are capable of breaking the chains.
I am reminded of one of my favorite cartoons called THE QUEST, an American comic strip written and drawn by Hilary B. Price and distributed by King Features Syndicate (see rhymeswithorange.com). The Rhymes with Orange cartoon depicts a ZEN CENTER storefront. There’s a sign in the window that reads: “SEEKING ENLIGHTENMENT? INQUIRE WITHIN.” A passerby turns to an apparently enlightened person, seated on the sidewalk in a cross-legged yoga position, in front of the sign. She inquires: “WHERE’S THE DOOR?” He responds: “NO DOOR.” That sums up my main point in a nutshell, doesn’t it? We need to go inside ourselves to change our lives! And, yes, we can!