Words That Would Have Made a Difference
Part one of a two-part series
I struggled with addiction for more than a decade, losing what should have been some of the greatest years of my life to drugs and alcohol. With each drink, each pill, and each line, I dug myself in deeper, and became more firmly entrenched in my addiction. The substances I was abusing had me enslaved, but there was something else that was keeping me trapped as well: my own thoughts.
While I was in the midst of my addiction, my inner monologue was incredibly dark and chaotic, and my self-perception was completely negative. Rather than having healthy remorse for the wrong decisions I had made, I was carrying an unhealthy amount of shame and fear. It was like walking everywhere with two suitcases full of concrete. It quickly became completely unbearable, and instead of persuading me to change my behavior, it only tore me down further.
“I’m a horrible person. I have completely wasted my life. I have failed. There is no coming back from this place. Too much damage has been done. Once people know the truth about me, they’ll want nothing to do with me. In fact, I think most of them already want nothing to do with me.” These thoughts were untrue, but at that time in my life I believed them as if they were fact. They had an incredible amount of power over me, and they played over and over in my mind. Each time I thought these things, I felt even more disconnected from everyone around me.
Perhaps the most damaging result of these thoughts is that they pushed me even deeper into drinking and using. In my clouded addict mindset, it made perfect sense that the way to escape from the pain caused by these thoughts was to numb my feelings with alcohol and drugs. Looking back with a sober mind, it is completely clear to me how flawed my logic was at the time. It was drinking and using that were fueling the behaviors and poor choices that were causing me to carry such shame. Meanwhile, that shame was leading me back to drinking and using. It was a seemingly endless cycle that perpetuated itself.
It is important to note that this whole situation was a result of the choices I had made. I chose to drink and use the first time, and I chose to continue along that path. I chose to not speak up and ask for help at various points along the way. Responsibility for my situation fell squarely on my shoulders.
Having said that, I had reached a point where I felt no longer capable of making rational decisions and I needed a healthy person to help me. Addiction can take an otherwise strong, vibrant, and independent mind and render it essentially useless. I liken it to a strong swimmer who ventures too far into a dangerous ocean current. When the waves become overwhelming, the ability to swim means very little and outside help becomes essential.
Any number of people around me could have acted as a proverbial lifeguard. However, the words that would have served to keep me afloat were very specific. During my recovery, I have spoken to a number of other recovering addicts and alcoholics, who have told me that the words which would have helped them during their struggle are nearly identical to the words that I needed to hear.
The words that would have made a difference to me:
1. “You are not a horrible person. Yes, you have made poor choices, and your behavior absolutely needs to change. However, you are not worthless. You have value. Your mistakes do not define who you are.”
Hearing this would have reminded me that I had worth as a person, without excusing my behavior. It would have separated my mistakes from my identity as a person. At the time, I was unable to differentiate between the two.
2. “You can come back from this. Many people like you have come back from similar situations. It’s going to take a lot of work and 100% commitment on your part, but it can be done. This is not the end.”
Hearing this would have given me hope, something I had little to none of during my lowest points. But it would have also let me know that I needed to put in the necessary work to see results. It would have had even more gravity coming from someone who had personally gone through the same struggles, or even someone who could cite specific examples of others who overcame similar obstacles.
3. “Not only can you come back from this, you can turn this into something positive and use it to help other people.”
Hearing this would have given me the beginning of a sense of purpose, something I had completely lost during my addiction. It would have also let me know that I didn’t need to be ashamed of my past or fear people finding out about it. I could be honest, and fear would no longer have control over me. I could get back to telling the truth instead of being buried under a lifestyle based on lies.
These words would have made a huge difference in my life. They may seem so simple and basic, because they are. However, I assure you they would have had a tremendous effect. To a person struggling with the weight of addiction and the burden of shame, words such as these can have the power to mean the difference between life and death.
A person struggling with alcohol or drugs has to want to change, and has to be willing to commit to that change. The desire and willingness have to come from within. But it is hard for someone with no self-respect, no feelings of worth, no sense of purpose, and no hope to generate that desire and willingness. That’s where the gentle, but firm words of a healthy, caring person can make all the difference in the world.