When I stopped drinking back in October 2014. I felt reborn. Through Yoga, I had discovered a whole new way of living, that felt so much more peaceful. I had tools to help me manage the stressful moments in life so that I didn’t need to obliterate my brain to survive. It was strange to get used to at first, but it felt good.
Even during the difficult moments in life, I was able to keep my thoughts away from drinking. I discovered this most powerfully in June 2016. Sober for over a year and a half, I noticed that I hadn’t had any thoughts of drinking away my rage, confusion and fear at the result of the Brexit referendum. Realising that I hadn’t even thought about drinking gave me renewed strength and security in my recovery. It gave me a spark of hope for my life on a day when that spark had seemed to vanish.
But although I am happy that I don’t turn to drink when life gets hard, there is a dark side that it has taken me a long time to acknowledge.
This is something I know a lot of people struggle with when conquering addictions.
Alcohol had, or so I believed, been the cause of all my problems for a long time. I would often struggle to deal with the fact that life still feels hard without it. This is a common problem. We know that the substance or behaviour of choice caused suffering, yet without it we still suffer. Life is still hard. In fact, it often feels a lot harder because there are fewer places to hide.
I felt like life should have become easy once I was no longer drinking. But I do not have an easy life, and I often feel like I am struggling.
As a self-employed yoga teacher, money is not easy to come by. Yoga is not a way to earn a great living, so money is a constant source of stress to me. I am a single mother. I have had significant issues with my ex, as well as the day to day trials of motherhood to manage. As a woman in recovery, I have the shadowy areas of my own mind to deal with. It took me a long time to truly understand that I drank because of the darkness in me, that it was there first. The drinking may have turned out some of the lights, but there was already a lot of darkness.
Recovery is not simply a matter of giving up a substance. It is a spiritual journey of rediscovering, and reconnecting with, the person you truly are now. Not going back to who you used to be. That is never possible. It is an accepting of the past and becoming present to who you are now.
It is no surprise to me, knowing what I know now, that Yoga provided me with the path I needed to recovery. Yoga is so much more than the physical exercise it seems to be so often in the modern Western world. Yoga is a path to spiritual awakening. It is a journey of rediscovering, and reconnecting with, the person you truly are now. Yoga, like recovery, invites you to look at your past and make peace with it, learn to be present and accepting in the present moment, and create a better future.
While I was training I noticed similarity between the path of spiritual awakening that Yoga offers, and the path of recovery from addiction. They are both about shedding layers of self delusion and hiding from the truth. Both demand that we look hard at ourselves and our lives with honesty and compassion. Both journeys often have similar catalysts, a sense that life as we are living it isn’t working.
Some call it a rock bottom. I think of it as the moment we realise we are sleepwalking, and decide to wake up.
Spiritual awakening, whether it is in pursuit of recovery from addiction, or seeking inner peace, is never easy and comfortable. You get through one layer of problems and healing, and more emerge. I have discovered this on my own journey. After more than 4 years, I am comfortable in my sobriety but have recently started to admit to myself that my mental health is still not good. I struggled with this for a while, feeling that as a Yoga teacher, and a person in recovery, I should be ok. Thankfully, I have come to understand that I am not, and it is ok and vital that I admit that.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that
‘Latent, unconscious habits spring up once we have dealt with the conscious ones’.
This can be hard to deal with. It feels a bit like fighting the Hydra of Greek mythology. You cut off one head, and two more spring up to replace it. It is exhausting, and you can feel like you are never going to win.
Many people discover that they develop powerful sugar cravings. There may be other, more ‘socially acceptable’ but equally powerful addictions in the absence of the ‘one’. These can become as hard to break, if not harder, than the original addiction. As well as seeking solace from feelings we don’t want to feel, the brain is also looking for the dopamine hit that the original substance of choice provided. Sugar will do this. Shopping, sex, even notifications on Facebook all do this. Especially notifications on Facebook! We are surrounded by ways to get that hit and feed the addiction demons. This is one of the reasons that 12 Step programmes advise against forming romantic relationships in early recovery. Other people, especially new sexual partners, can be as addictive as any drug.
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I have personally struggled with all these since becoming sober. They were there while I was drinking as well, but now I see them for what they are. In the last few months, I have been really struggling. Discovering I have ADHD several months ago felt at first like liberation as finally, I had an answer for most, if not all, of the struggles I have had in life. But in time, it started to feel like a very distractable monkey on my back, and I started to feel overwhelmed by it. A brief relationship, my first since getting sober, highlighted some old ‘love addiction‘ patterns. For the last few months I have felt as though I am on the slippery slope to depression.
This might have all triggered me back into relapse. It feels overwhelming and scary enough sometimes, when the dark shadows and dragons in my mind seem to overpower the healing parts. But luckily I have enough self awareness to see what was happening, and I spoke to my doctor about getting help. I am now being referred to mental health services to get support for ADHD and anything else I might need support with.
A couple of years ago I might have seen this as a complete failure, and a sign that I wasn’t doing my yoga right. I know now that it is ok that I am a Yoga teacher who still has mental health issues. Yoga helps a lot, and will almost certainly be the most significant part of my treatment. But I need to be sure that if there is any other support I need, I can get it. It is really important, in fact, that I do this. Even if only because it means that I am finally ok with admitting that I am not always ok.
I am no longer steeped in shame and self-loathing, thinking that it is all proof that I am a failure and a terrible person. Yoga gave me that gift when I did the Step by Step course that formed a big part of my teacher training, and my recovery.
On Monday, I am revisiting this course, beginning another year of study under the guidance of my wonderful teacher. This is, I know, going to help me make sense of my mind and will help me heal a lot. Heck, if it was able to be part of what got me sober without even trying in 2014, I have faith that it will be a great help now.
Yoga is a powerful tool that has helped me get through some spectacularly stressful times in the last 4 and a half years. I still turn to my breath when I feel overwhelmed, and it always helps. I can feel completely crappy and feel like I want to cancel my class some evenings, and feel a million times better within 10 minutes of the class starting. When I feel overwhelmed at home, I can turn to my mat, and I can feel peace.
Asking for help doesn’t mean that the Yoga isn’t working. The fact that I am able to is proof that it is.
It is ok not to be ok. Even if, and especially if, you are a teacher who loves to help others to feel ok. If I am not comfortable with my own demons, how can I help you soothe yours?