Overcoming Fear and Addiction
When I tell people that I've been sober for more than 20 years, they usually offer congratulations with a comment such as “we admire your strength”. I acknowledge the compliment and reply that it was not strength but fear that saved me. I suppose this blog is a bit about "fight or flight" but it’s actually much more than that.
Alcoholics in recovery often talk reflectively about how fear was partly driving their behaviour. What they mean by this is that drinking to excess was a way of masking or coping with some basic feeling of insecurity or discomfort in their lives. They usually speak about the following causes and manifestations of fear, in no particular order:
First, fear of failure – this might be indicative of low self-esteem. Drinking to excess then becomes a way of summoning up what we sometimes call “Dutch courage” to cope with whatever situation confronts us in life – perhaps at work or in social situations.
Second, more generally, fear of “something always going wrong” – we might fear losing a partner or losing a job, for example. There could be a tendency to “catastrophize”, indicative of an underlying insecurity. Drinking to excess provides something like a “comfort blanket”.
Third, “fear of missing out” (FOMO) – this could again be a manifestation of low self-esteem. Some drink heavily to be part of the supposed “in-crowd” because they want to be seen as the same as others. They believe, falsely, that this is what is required to win the admiration of others.
Fourth, fear of others – this could be the result of bullying in the workplace, for example, or perhaps some form of “domestic violence”. Alcohol is then used to relieve suffering.
Fifth, perhaps fear of repeating some past experience – this might be trauma in early life or losing a loved one, for example. Again, abusing alcohol or drugs is a form of self-medication to block out the memory or prevent its repetition in the mind.
Fear sometimes may appear quite trivial. We probably all recall experiences in our childhood involving “fear of the dark”, for example, or “fear of something under the bed”. These instances are relatively easy to deal with. We leave the bedside light on or have a good look around the room to be reassured that nobody else is there. The more serious cases listed above are, of course, far more complicated to deal with.
Whenever I listen to the stories of others in fellowship meetings, I always respond with the observation that my own experience of fear means something different to me. In a sense, it was fear that saved me or, more accurately, it was fear that marked my own “rock bottom” or turning point on the path to recovery. In that sense, arguably, fear played a positive role for me.
My perception of raw fear in action came through the panic attacks brought on by years of binge drinking. The onset of severe panic attacks marked my first referral to treatment. The treatment took the form of a psychiatric assessment, attendance as an outpatient at an alcohol treatment unit and several months of therapy.
My memory of this period of my life is that it was horrific. The initial collapse involved fear of dying. This was followed by fear of anything that might provide a “trigger” of a panic attack. Fear of leaving the house and going back to work, fear of being in tall buildings, fear of walking across a bridge, fear of flying were just some of the experiences.
I couldn’t join the others climbing to the top of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney on a business trip to Australia (I took a ferry to Manly on my own, instead). I declined an office excursion to the London Eye (the “Millennium Wheel”) one summer’s evening.
I couldn’t live any longer like that. It was my rock bottom. I knew that drinking to excess brought on the panic attacks and I had to get well. Having undergone intensive therapy, I came to believe that something more was required to sustain recovery.
Something like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will help to address some of the causes of fear discussed above. You can be taught to challenge your so-called “core beliefs” about yourself and the world. It’s not true that you are always a failure or that everything always goes wrong. It’s not true that you are unloved.
In a way, therapy is about “fight or flight” – confront the triggers of fear in a rational manner, deal with them and learn to cope rather than fleeing into a form of self-destructive behaviour. In this way, apprehension can be used positively to instil courage and enhance performance.
This is all well and good but what about “existential fear”? Who will help you with that?
Here, we are talking about something much deeper. Philosophers and theologians talk about the sense of anxiety, or dread, when we consider the meaning of life. When we contemplate our existence, we are always heading towards death. But we also fear life. This fear leads us to hang on to something. We falsely think this will help. We cling to things but attach false significance to them. For some, this culminates in “substance use disorder”.
We have the freedom of possibility. At one level, we can seemingly do whatever we want. On the other hand, however, we are caught by the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves – where we were born, how we were brought up and educated, what responsibilities we have for others, and so on. The anxiety arises because of the tension that exists between the “what might be” and the “what is” in our day to day lives.
We avoid confronting our deepest desires and exhibit unwillingness or fear to make the leap into unknown freedom. Some avoid this existential conflict by retreating into what is perceived to be “safety” but never resolve the underlying problem.
What are the lessons, particularly for those suffering from addiction? First we need to address the fears most commonly experienced in our lives, such as those listed above. Recognise and confess the source of distress. Share with others. Engage in therapy, and perhaps use medication if needed.
Second, more fundamentally, we need to re-orient our attitude to life. We need to find a sense of ulterior meaning and purpose beyond our mundane lives. Decide what makes you happy. Do it with others. Then we can face life with hope, fortitude and resilience, recognising that the proper response to life is how to respond to challenges and not to regard them as sources of fear.
Don’t flee. Choose the path of recovery in addiction treatment and find freedom through sobriety!