Because I have lived so much of my life caught in a cycle of addiction, recovery, relapse, repeat, a quote from Zen master Ikkyū Sojun—Sometimes all I am is a dark emptiness—sums up and shades much of my experience. I’m no stranger to relapsing and the pain, shame, guilt, confusion, and heartbreak that come along with it. Nor am I a stranger to detoxes, rehabs, emergency rooms, jail cells, and psych hospitals. What is strange for me is that after my last relapse, I began to care about relapsing. In the past, when I found myself in a place where I was willing to pick up a bottle of vodka or succumb to depression, I didn’t give a damn about the consequences. Fights, handcuffs, lies, withdrawals, self-cutting, hospitals, vomiting, and pissing blood—none of it mattered. I meant nothing to me.
Today things are different. Over the past several years, I have worked incredibly hard on my sobriety, my spiritual life, and my physical and mental health. That said, I am not here to make excuses. I have fucked up, recovered, staggered, stumbled, and recovered again in countless ways, and not just with drugs and alcohol. My introversion has made it hard for me to reach out for help when I needed it most. For years, books and music, words and the computer were my only sources of comfort during times of isolation and hopelessness. In them, I sought solace and connection, something I couldn’t find with another living being. I know that wasn’t healthy; nothing about me during those times was. I did all I could to hang on, to survive. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you know the feeling.
“Cunning, baffling, powerful”—these are the words used to describe addiction in the twelve-step fellowships, but we don’t need to be addicted to drugs or alcohol to have experienced the impact of these adjectives on our lives. There are all sorts of self-destructive behaviors we deal with as human beings that are cunning, baffling, and powerful. Food addictions; meaningless sex; countless hours spent in front of the television, playing video games; unhealthy eating—all means of dropping out for a while, avoiding unpleasant feelings and emotions.
In my case, it’s been predominantly drugs and alcohol, although I could just as easily put a check mark next to pretty much all the addictions and behaviors I listed above. Throughout the years, I’ve found myself returning to the place of brokenness that results from using substances to numb out, but the question that resounds is Why?
As I dedicated more attention to this question, I began thinking about all the talks and workshops I’ve given on addiction, recovery, and healing over the last several years, and all the beautiful people I’ve connected with along the way. Some of them were more than just beautiful; they were what I would call tragically beautiful, barely able to string together more than a couple of days of sobriety or to consider an act of self-care. Their pain, despair, and frustration resonated for me—not only did I know them, I was them.
It was in that resonance with tragic beauty after my last relapse that I wondered why I, and so many others like me, return to things we know will ultimately destroy us—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Why do we put the bottle to our lips, the unhealthy food in our mouth, the powder up our nose, the chips on the blackjack table, the needle in our arm, or engage in risky sexual behavior when we absolutely know better? I didn’t have an answer then, nor do I have a definitive one now, but I understand the question. After speaking with friends and colleagues in various fields of psychology, spirituality, and neuroscience, I realized it’s okay to not have one single answer, because the number of right answers is equal to the number of people who engage in self-destructive behaviors. We each have a set of circumstances in our lives that shape who we are, filter our experiences, and motivate our actions.
I’ve learned a lot about myself throughout years of recovery, and while I don’t recommend relapsing, I can say that I have gratitude for the lessons those experiences have taught me. That, and the somewhat deeper understanding I have of this triumphantly fucking weird thing called life (which is basically just that it’s triumphantly f___ing weird, but hey, at least I understand that now). If we make the effort, we can learn how to navigate our paths with greater skillfulness, composure, and ease.
It’s not simple. To create significant and lasting change, you will need to engage in plenty of practices and take a number of action steps, but if you’re reading these words right now, that in and of itself means you can do it. It means that you’re alive and breathing, which leads me to believe that you’ve got to be a goddamn f__ing warrior for having made it this far in life. So being your warrior self, you can find true recovery. You’ve found hell on numerous occasions, right? The healing process, while not easy, is a piece of cake compared to that. I say that with confidence because I’ve done it—in fact, more than once—and I know for damn sure there’s nothing special about me. I just did it.
That’s how it gets done: Show up and do the f__ing work. Period.
No matter how deep your experience of pain, despair, and emptiness is (or has been), I get it. I’ve wanted to fucking die. I’ve tried to fucking die. I’ve been hopeless and broken beyond what I believed I could (or would) ever return from, but with time, patience, anger, acceptance, heartbreak, and persistence, I’m still here, and I’m a stronger, better person today because of it. I’ve shared this quote from Henry Rollins many times, but f__ it, I’m going to repeat it once more: “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength, move on.” That’s what we do. We show up, find what strength we can in this moment (and sometimes that means leaning on someone else to begin with), and move on.
Chris Grosso invites us to sit in on conversations with beloved luminaries and bestselling authors such as Ram Dass, Lissa Rankin, Noah Levine, Gabor Mate, and Sharon Salzberg to discover why people return to self-defeating behaviors—drugs, alcohol, unhealthy eating, sex, media—and how they can recover, heal, and thrive.
by Chris Grosso