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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor

Awakening and Transformation

One of the books I read very early in my studies is The New Man (1961) by Thomas Merton. In this book, Merton writes about spiritual transformation. Leaving aside any religious considerations, we can consider something similar in the lives of those recovering from alcoholism. We can think of this as casting off the old and putting on the new. This transformation is both an event and a process.

We can often identify a turning point in the lives of those recovering from addiction, at least with hindsight. This might not be a “flash of blinding light”. It could be something simple – an act of kindness or something said in a fellowship meeting. On the other hand, it might be the personal experience of “rock bottom” in suffering. The Greek term for this turning point is metanoia, which denotes a repentant transformation of the mind.

When an alcoholic in long-term recovery shares his or her experience with others, a contrast is usually made between the former life of heavy drinking and the new life of sobriety. The purpose is to pass on the wisdom of experience to the sufferer. The story will include warnings and encouragement, highlighting what worked in setting the alcoholic on the path to recovery, and what marks the new life.

The former life is usually described as one of chaos. This will include struggles with work or in personal relationships. The descent into addiction might also sometimes have been marked by more dramatic events. These might have included family breakups, homelessness, referrals to hospital, or perhaps sentence to prison. The alcoholic will often look back and describe this period of their life as one of “madness”.

I can relate to some of this, though less dramatic. I was already drinking in my early teens. I then had to cope with the aftermath of my brother’s death when I was only fifteen. Subsequently, between the ages of twenty one and thirty two, I got married, had two children, changed jobs seven times and moved house four times. During this period, my drinking escalated out of control until I finally collapsed with panic attacks and was referred to an alcohol treatment unit.

Was the drinking a way of coping with stress in my personal life or were both a manifestation of deeper problems? Was I chasing after perfection to resolve a deeper source of unhappiness in my life? I’ve previously discussed some of this in The Divided Mind and will no doubt return to these topics.

The new life, by contrast, is described as one of order. The sober person develops new interests and relationships. Free of substance abuse, more attention is paid to the world around us and we find more purpose and enjoyment in what we are doing. Greater emotional intelligence is developed. Fundamentally, there is a greater ability to cope with whatever life throws at us and we want actively to share with others how we have got well.

The transformation is not immediate, however, and sometimes, in my opinion, this is not properly understood by those newly entering recovery. Instead, although we can often identify the turning point, the journey is ongoing.

In my own case, when I was referred to a treatment unit, I spent months in intensive therapy and remained sober for five years. But I didn’t really understand what was needed to continue on this recovery journey. I relapsed, plunged back into chaos, descended again into panic attacks and got a second referral to treatment.

I knew the theory about what was needed to get well. It had been instilled in me, not just through therapy but also through study. This time I started to put it into practise. I started engaging with fellow sufferers for the first time. I was nervous about doing this in face-to- face meetings. I didn’t feel that I had much in common with the others. These feelings are common enough in those reluctant to engage. So I joined online chatrooms where I felt genuinely anonymous– I read what others were talking about, added a few comments of my own, and so on. Eventually, I started to participate properly in group meetings.

Finally, I arrived at wanting properly to give something back by working as a mentor alongside those providing formal treatment for addiction to alcohol and other substances.

What marks this journey as we cast off the old and put on the new? We are taught how to understand ourselves better and interpret how past experiences have contributed to the person we have become. We learn what it means to say that we are body, mind and spirit, and how we need to keep well in each of these categories. We are taught “the art of living well” and how to cope better. Rather than reach for the bottle, we reach acceptance and build resilience.

Again, I can relate to this. For example, the past four years have thrown up a lot of challenges. I found the period of lockdowns during the pandemic to be extremely challenging, as did many other people. I have personally encountered a significant number of people whose drinking cascaded out of control during this period. In addition, I suffered other health issues and family problems.

There were times when I sat with my head in my hands. But I coped – ultimately – and the thought of drinking never seriously entered my head. There was one occasion actually, during lockdown, when I walked down a quiet road in the centre of London after another set of scans feeling rather emotional. I briefly thought to myself – “I could really sink some vodka now”. It was like a small voice in my head but it quickly disappeared. Looking back, perhaps it was a warning that the temptation will always be there in certain circumstances.

The reason I was able to cope is twofold. First, I have a long period of sobriety under my belt. Second, I know the techniques to cope. I was reminded of this recently when watching a discussion about mental health by ex-Special Forces. Somebody said – “when the going gets tough, it’s not so much that you rise to the occasion but that you fall back to your training. That’s why the training needs to be to the highest level”.

Let’s try to sum some of this up. There is fundamentally a difference between the old and the new. Recovery is transformative but it’s ongoing. We are not perfect. Life is not perfect. We don’t become mini-Sages or Buddha-like. But the new life of sobriety is one of freedom and we (hopefully) arrive at what the ancients called ataraxia – calmness or serenity.


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