Andrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor
The Quest for Peace
All of us, presumably, would like to be at peace. Most alcoholics and drug users are restless. They can’t sit still. They’re not comfortable in their own skin, for whatever reason. Put simply, they are not at peace. What can we understand and do about this?
One motivation for drinking to get drunk is that life somehow lacks meaning. What we have is not enough. We need a feeling of exultation or euphoria. The opposite end of the spectrum is the desire to block something out. In either case, reliance on alcohol to address life’s problems is not the answer. Ultimately, the result for many is loss of control, blackouts and dependency. This fractures relationships, and causes lasting damage.
I used to drink to get drunk. The initial motivation was happiness but the ultimate desire was oblivion.
If somebody were to ask me, is there any one thing that you have been looking for in life, I would answer immediately, Peace. I’ve always said that. I felt it when young when I started drinking to get drunk. I felt it through my descent into alcoholism and I’ve often felt it since. Why did I feel like that? I suppose part of it was personal circumstances. Another part of it was that I put myself under a lot of pressure and still do from time to time.
I’d returned to work after my first collapse. I’d entered therapy and was not drinking but I had to cope with the panic attacks. I’m not sure whether I attempted to return too soon but I persuaded myself that I didn’t want to develop something like agoraphobia. At any rate, my senior manager entered the room. I couldn’t speak. He sat down and said, “Take your time”. I replied, “I know that I have to change”. And he said, “No, you need to accept”.
There were some things I needed to change, of course, but his point was a more fundamental one. He explained that I was achieving success in my career because I set high standards for myself and was always trying to improve. But it came at a cost. Instead, what I needed to do was to accept the person I am and the circumstances around me. There was no point in drinking to block things out or somehow cope with the stress.
This brings to mind the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s concept of acquiescentia in se ipso – or “acquiescence in oneself”. When we talk about acquiescence, we usually have in mind a sort of reluctant giving in. Instead, what Spinoza was saying, oversimplifying, is that we are at rest in self-contentment when we accept ourselves as we truly are in relation to others and to the world around us. That is because we let go of illusions and attachments.
Is Peace out there to be discovered? It’s a bit like the old question – can the Truth be learned? These questions are asking, at least in part, whether there is something about our fundamental existence as human beings that we are missing or needing to learn. Much of the debate in philosophy (and theology) is whether we can ever discover this for ourselves.
One of the key insights of Buddhism is that suffering results from forming wrong impressions of others and the world around us. This gives rise to false attachments, which result in wrong behaviours including our emotional responses. Attachment leads to craving, which results in suffering. Spiritual practise, including meditation or contemplation, aims to calm the mind and restore right ways of thinking and behaving.
There is something appealing about sitting on top of a mountain in quiet contemplation of the world – at least there is to me. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea of being an ascetic - somebody who practises self-denial in seclusion. Withdrawal is surely not the answer. Life is for living. Surely, instead, we need to re-engage with others and the world but with a different sense of meaning and purpose.
When we come back to earth, in the life of the alcoholic and the drug user, much of this seems irrelevant or too far-fetched. There may be no mountains nearby – we may live in an inner city flat! We have to work to pay the bills, deal with the “cost of living crisis", and get through the suffering that results from the many trials of life.
I still feel the need for Peace after more than twenty years of sobriety. Is that so surprising? Surely, you might say, you are supposed to be the one who is advocating a spiritual approach to recovery? If you are still searching for Peace, then where does it leave the rest of us who are still going through the painful cycles of relapse, rehab and recovery?
Well, it’s not quite like that. I’m still a human being. I still experience fragility, anxiety, and the need to withdraw and take a deep breath. But I recognise the signs and the triggers, and I know how to respond. That does help to bring about peace, at least in some measure.
The restlessness and the emotional swings come from within. It’s how we react to circumstances and people. So here are some practical strategies to cope:
First, don’t catastrophize. Just stop and think about it for one moment. There are some bad things that can and will happen in all of our lives. But it’s not true that things “always go wrong”. Bring to mind similar circumstances from the past and recall how they often worked out better than feared.
Second, switch off the news media. We now live in a world of 24-hours news coverage, which tries to find drama and crisis around every corner. Rarely do we hear about good news. Instead, we are often presented with people who claim to know better than we do, shouting each other down.
Third, don’t engage with the toxic aspects of social media. To be sure, the latter has positive elements. But don’t pay any attention to supposed adults spitting vitriol and throwing abuse at each other. Don’t look at those who are constantly showing off and seeking approval. Let them take care of themselves. Have confidence and trust in your own ability.
Fourth, don’t rise to the bait. Anger comes from within. Take ownership and a deep breath. Don’t be too quick to respond in a way that will only inflame the situation.
Finally, and most importantly, be self-aware. Take a temperature check, as it were. I’m very aware of when I’m starting to experience emotional swings and, as an alcoholic in recovery, it makes me feel unhappy and vulnerable. I put the steps listed above into action; meditate, take stock and share with others. I (usually) return to “normal” after a while.
Alcohol is not the source of peace and contentment!