Everything Going For You

Many addicts describe a persistent history of not feeling right, not feeling like they belong in any group and believing that others dislike them. They generally trace these feelings to an age prior to adolescence or considerable time before they began experimenting with drugs or drinking alcohol.  In one documentary about addiction, a mother was completely taken aback when her daughter, now addicted to heroin, confessed to having these feelings of inadequacy her whole life.  Describing her daughter as well liked by her peers, an excellent student, captain of the cheerleading squad, involved in many activities and very pretty, her mother cannot understand how her daughter could possibly suffer from feelings of inadequacy.  The mother tells her daughter, “you had everything going for you.”  But the fact is, the daughter did have those feelings and they were persistent and painful. What the daughter discovered when she started using drugs was that the unpleasant and consuming feelings of inadequacy went away.  The drugs did what no verbal or social reinforcement could do; they made her feel that she was OK.

What I have observed is that families employ the ‘everything going for you’ test as evidence that their children are not drinking or using drugs. I have heard parents say: “I’m not worried about my son using drugs because he is a dedicated athlete.”  “My daughter would never drink alcohol, she is very conscientious about what she puts in her body.” “My child is involved in so many activities and has lots of friends so I know he isn’t using.” “My child is an excellent student and too smart to use drugs.”  In other words, parents assure themselves that their children are not experimenting with drugs or alcohol by the ‘everything going for them’ standard. But what they don’t realize is that many addicts have a history of ‘everything going for them.’

By definition, the ‘everything going for you’ standard is based on external and observable indicators such as a grade point average, participating in a sport, getting accepted at a good university, etc.  The standard is not based on how a person feels or doesn’t feel.  Being active, athletic, popular or attractive doesn’t correlate with sobriety or, for that matter, cause sobriety. Taking it a step further, keeping your child busy and insisting they do sports or make good grades will not prevent them from experimenting with drugs. In my opinion, the ‘everything going for you’ observations offer a false sense of security for parents and may, in fact, prevent them from recognizing other signs of early drug use.

Let’s return to the daughter who never felt like she was OK.  Where does that feeling come from?  When did it start? How intense were the feelings? What percentage of addicts experienced these types of feelings early on in their lives?  Can these secret feelings of unworthiness be reinforced or minimized by the environment? One thing is clear, external observations of ‘everything going for you’ does little to alter one’s feelings.  Telling your child they are a great athlete or clever or attractive or talented won’t change their inner voice.  And if we equate ‘everything going for you’ with a list of achievements including social success, what is the message?  When we ask someone how their child is doing we are really asking what their child is doing. We are not asking how their child feels. So the question itself reinforces the ‘everything going for you’ world we live in and, unfortunately, that is the message.

The Four Agreements

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s highly acclaimed book, The Four Agreements, a practical guide to personal freedom, there are many words of wisdom. If you have never read The Four Agreements, you might find it helpful.  I’m going to comment on some passages that personally touch me as I continue my journey to know, love and accept myself.

“Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally….Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”

My son doesn’t use drugs, stay sober or relapse because of me.  I am not the cause of his addiction nor am I the solution to his addiction.  What happens around me isn’t always about me. Here is a helpful example of taking something personally just because it happens to you. I am driving somewhere and another car cuts me off. I used to feel offended, maybe even outraged.  I might honk or swear. How dare that person cut me off! But the reality is, had I stayed home, that person would be cutting someone else off.  It was never about me so why respond as though it was?  He or she is a driver who cuts people off.  It’s got nothing to do with me.

“If others say one thing, but do another, you are lying to yourself if you don’t listen to their actions.”

Bingo! If I had a quarter for every time I held on to words like precious gems, I’d be very wealthy.  I love the idea of listening to actions. No matter what my son says, no matter what my husband says, no matter what I say, in the end it only matters what we do.  I vow to not invest in words, only in actions.

“….if you get mad at me, I know you are dealing with yourself. I am the excuse for you to get mad.” 

If I am mad at someone else, It is often because I am actually mad at myself (no matter what I say).  When I am frustrated, I sometimes project my frustration on to someone or something else.  I can’t, in that moment, be honest with myself because being honest might require me to look in the mirror, so to speak. Projecting my anger allows me to avoid taking the rap.  My husband sometimes takes the brunt of my anger. He knows it isn’t about him. He knows I am frustrated and feeling helpless. For this, I am ever grateful.

“If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate……We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” 

I’m so quick to make assumptions, it is embarrassing. Why? Because I actually want my assumptions to be true. I’ve carefully constructed them. You might say I cling to them. I like to think I have it all figured out and therefore dismiss alternative explanations. No one is going to fool me!  So when my son told me he had a positive urinalysis recently, I just knew he had used. I was certain.  I assumed the test results were accurate. I assumed he was being dishonest. I assumed he had relapsed. He contested the results and they came back negative. Oops.

“If someone is not treating you with love and respect, it is a gift if they walk away from you.” 

I cannot demand that someone love or respect me.  I can scream and whine and beg.  I can argue, belittle, threaten and rage. But they can walk away.  And when they walk away, I have a choice.  I can be the indignant victim who screams after them, how can you walk away? How dare you walk away?  Or I can, instead, take a deep breath and be grateful.

“We don’t see the truth because we are blind. What blinds us are all those false beliefs we have in our mind. We have the need to be right and to make others wrong. We trust what we believe, and our beliefs set us up for suffering.” 

There is nothing harder than letting go of a belief.  Saying, “I told you so,”  can, unfortunately, be so very self-satisfying. But it shouldn’t be, should it?  In the play, The Miracle Worker, the parents of six year old Helen Keller, both blind and deaf, praise her teacher, Anne Sullivan, because she has taught Helen how to clean and dress herself properly.  The family believes that Helen can be trained to behave appropriately; they do not believe she can or ever will communicate much less become educated or accomplished.  Anne Sullivan has a completely different set of beliefs; she wants Helen to understand words, to communicate, to learn. She wants Helen to have the opportunity to be human.  The family, despite their own suffering, continue to resist and at times mock Anne’s efforts to reach Helen. I ask myself, when do my beliefs stand in the way of my understanding something? Am I willfully blind? Why do I need to be right? Why do I insist on suffering?

“We must forgive those we feel have wronged us, not because they deserve to be forgiven but because we love ourselves so much we don’t want to keep paying for the injustice…when someone can touch a wound and it no longer hurts you then you know you have truly forgiven.” 

Who has wronged me?  Did my parents wrong me? Did my husband wrong me? Did my son wrong me? I believe that true forgiveness is about letting go and the letting go is something only I can do. Only I can put my mind at ease. Only I can stop the stream of conscience that leads me down a path of old wounds.  How long can I hold on to a lie I was told, an expectation that went unmet, a slight, an embarrassment, a humiliation? Well, I can hold on as long as I want to hold on or I can send it packing.  I can block it, disregard it, even laugh at it. In fact, I think I can even forgive myself for holding on to all the old and tired ‘perceived wrongs’ in my head.

“How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times……..We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves. 

I have been in so many support groups where family members beat themselves up over and over again for some mistake, real or imagined, made in the past.  I can go over and over something I said or did, unable or unwilling to let go of the guilt. In reality, whatever it was that I said or did probably had little or no relationship to how things turned out. Let’s return to an earlier passage, “nothing other people do is because of you.” So then the question is, what do I get out of punishing myself? Well, for one thing, I can spend time wallowing in my own misery, view myself as a bad mother, blather my guilt and shame to all I come in contact with (a good way to cut down on friends), avoid taking constructive steps towards personal growth and enlightenment, and of course, go into the kitchen and eat a pint of ice cream and hate myself for it. Question.  If my memory is so powerful, why don’t I ever sit down and remember all the good things I have done in my life?  Why is that so hard? Why don’t I ever reward myself rather than punish myself?

“Eventually we become someone that we are not. We become a copy of Mamma’s beliefs, Daddy’s beliefs, society’s beliefs, and religion’s beliefs.”

In the beginning, I embraced all the beliefs about addicts, addiction, codependence, treatment, illness, family disfunction and enabling until one day I realized I was becoming someone I’m not. I did not want to lump all addicts together and describe them in the same manner that zombies are described.  I did not want to make assumptions about addicts and addictive behavior and treatment methods. I needed to find out for myself, to read, to listen, to study and be open to new ideas and perspectives. Because most of the beliefs that are out there about addiction and families and treatment are both stereotyped and negative. Every addict, like every patient I took care of in my nursing career, is an individual and a unique human being. And if I believe that addiction is a disease, then what other disease do I engulf in a set of personal characteristics that define the afflicted? All people with heart failure are dishonest?  All people with cancer are manipulative?  All people with diabetes are undisciplined? All people with depression don’t want treatment?  No other disease.  No other disease. I will not allow society’s beliefs to go unchallenged. I will do whatever I can to avoid becoming someone I am not.