As an alcohol/drug counselor and an HSP, I’ve become aware of the interesting relationship highly sensitives have to addiction. Initially, I considered that HSP’s may have some degree of innate protection against developing addiction, given our tendency to have powerful adverse reactions to any strong or foreign substance that enters our bodies. Alternately, however, I sense that we may potentially be more vulnerable than non-HSPs to reaching for substances to calm or alter our often over-stimulated state of being, or assuage the viscerality of overwhelming emotions that we can often feel deep at our core. Also, given that we tend to be profoundly spiritual souls, I wondered if we might at times unknowingly be somehow reaching for a greater spiritual in-road by dulling our intellectual anxieties through the use of drugs and alcohol so that heightened insights from the world of the beyond can enter. While we have a deeper need it seems to have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, to experience the Divine in nature and in seemingly ordinary events, and to find the hidden beauty and gifts in otherwise painful experiences, if these spiritual yearnings become thwarted at times when those insights, connections, and inspirations just don’t come, might we be increasingly vulnerable to seeking the false solace of chemicals to unfeel and to fill these voids?
Interestingly, author Scott Peck wrote of the relationship between other unfulfilled spiritual hungers and the genesis of addiction in his book, “Further Along the Road Less Traveled”. While acknowledging addiction to be a complex biopsychosocial disorder, he ultimately stated that those who become addicts and alcoholics may have a deeper spiritual yearning than most “to go back to Eden, reach Paradise, experience heaven”; they seek to enter into that perfect space of warmth and security we once knew or hoped for as “home”. In addition, Peck cleverly pointed out it is not by accident that distilled alcohol was traditionally referred to as “spirits”, and that when all other attempts failed, it was only by way of a spiritual transformation that one man – the founder of AA – was finally able to traverse a path to sobriety and serenity.
I saw my own highly sensitive mother reach for the blissful nectar of the bottle ostensibly to numb the pain of a lifetime of unreconciled losses and a marriage and family life that steadily emptied her day by day. And when she surrendered her use of alcohol through AA , she then reached for bags of jelly beans and spearmint leaves, hiding her sweet affair somewhere between surrender and control and beneath the cushions of the basement sofa.
And while I’ve been fortunate enough to escape the grips of addiction to perhaps the more ominous mind-altering agents, I find myself frequently caught up in similar excesses and compulsions that offer a similar exit from my body, my emotions, my psychic pain – from anything I wish to un-experience. Exercise, work, carbs, media, and men, I can turn any thing into a drug, an obsessional love that seduces me away from my own life, my own power, or the Higher Power that rotates the earth in its perfect, Divine order.
In fact, the world of addiction treatment has come to identify people obsessions as codependency and behavioral excesses as process addictions, and now even brain imaging shows activation of the same dopaminergic pleasure centers of the brain when engaging in many of these addictive-compulsive behaviors.
In the culture of AA, “spiritual bankruptcy” is often thought of as the latest stage of the chronic, progressive disease of addiction, when all sense of meaning, direction, connection, and hope is lost, and one lives only to ensure ongoing access to one’s drug or compulsion of choice, numb to the underbelly of the true problem. Functioning is marginal, resources drained. A crisis ensues in ones life that is merely a mirror of the crisis in one’s soul. It is then when one is often brought to his knees, and either looks up to the skies or deep down into his own being in search of the voice of a Higher Power, humbly beseeching, “I cannot live one more day like this show me a way out and I’ll follow amen.”
This is the place I find myself in today. In fact, the realization is emerging that I’ve been in deep emotional, physical, and spiritual pain increasingly for the past few years , yet by continuing in my ways and rituals I’ve kept awareness of the problems – and likely the solutions – just out of consciousness’s way. My life before “everything” unraveled was filled with meaningful, joy-bringing activities that fed my sensitive soul – church and social connections, adventures in nature, playing piano and seeing favorites in concert, fun exercise, massage, studying alternative health, and work in a helping field. However, as the years passed, work, relationships, exercise, and even my studies in an area I was passionate about, began to steadily empty me more than provide fulfillment. Somewhere along the line I began to let go of the people and activities I used to enjoy, and moved from a state of thriving to barely surviving. I maintained only the minimal necessities to keep a life going – work, shop, clean, doctors, it all became perfunctory. Despite bone deep fatigue, I drank coffee to enable me to continue to exercise and maintain the illusion that I had not lost that part of my healthy formal self. Getting lost in hoards of books and movies about other people’s lives, exercising until I drop, searching for the one perfect food regime that will heal all my physical ailments, and keeping only the distant connections to people that social media allows, I’ve stayed robustly dissociated from myself and from nurturing, meaningful relationships and activities. I’ve ritualized and distracted myself further and further away from hearing that deep desperate cry of pain from within that begs for another life. In the rare moments of resolve that peak through all the busy-ness where I’ve dared to check in with my spiritual compass, I’ve prayed earnestly for divine guidance, wisdom, and new direction in my life. Still, I have not allowed myself to stay in the silence long enough to enable a new path to be revealed to me; I’m too busy on my ritualistic treadmill that nothing can get through.
But rather than punish myself with self-loathing for hiding so long until I’m in so deep, I must take the way of compassion as I try to loosen the grip on these behaviors I’ve often clung to much like an emotional lifeboat through what’s felt like a lifetime of storms, and try now to navigate my way through yet another. For even in addiction treatment or 12-step recovery programs, it is now believed that the shaming confrontational style of old does not lead the way to healing change as effectively as does a focus on compassion and acceptance, and on one’s strengths and gifts in the midst of humbly asking for help.
I’ve also read that when having to confront a major decision, it is helpful to ask self with compassion 2 key questions:
What would love do?
What would I do if I weren’t afraid?
Sometimes these questions lead to spontaneous insights that readily help clarify a direction needed. Other times, like now, there are many possible answers to the above questions, some having the potential to take my life into polar opposite directions, and with risks too great to proceed without greater certainty.
It is then that I need to gently discipline myself to go into that void of silence, to turn to that ethereal concept some call God or Higher Power but for which I still have not quite found a name that most resonates truth for me. As I struggle with the awareness that I simply don’t know how to help myself, yet I don’t know what else I believe in, I love the idea my counselor and mentor shared with me not long ago… It is the image of one sitting facing nature, spreading arms open wide, head tilted as though looking beyond the horizon into the Otherworld, in a gesture of complete surrender and receiving. It is being positioned in a space of utter openness and trust, readied to take in whatever grace is floating in our midst that might call in the exact resources, people, or information needed to reroute my journey, guide my next action steps toward new light, and into a life renewed.
I also love the concept of meditation as discussed by one of my favorite authors and healers, Dr Andrew Weil. He noted that by the simple practice of breath observation, by observing one’s own act of “in-spiring” and “ex-spiring”, one is actually observing Spirit move in and out of one’s being.
Another famed author and healer, Deepak Chopra, reinforced the idea that creative prayer happens only in that space of deep quiet and emptiness, devoid of noise, distraction, and intellectual interferences.
Still, I believe in the powerful concepts of the 12-Step Program, starting with, “Admitted we were powerless over____, that our lives had become unmanageable. Came to believe a Power Greater Than Myself could restore us to sanity. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood HIM…..”
I struggle with understanding what it might look like if I were to completely let go, surrender my life to that Good Orderly Direction and see where it takes me. Does this mean I do nothing? This doesn’t make sense to me, even when I’m aware that the way of the spirit usually circumvents the capacity of the intellect to comprehend.
– Carol Williams LCPC, CADC
Song for Autumn
In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think
of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.
– Mary Oliver
All The Layers Of Me (And You)
Have you ever eaten a baklava and wondered about all those layers? It is amazing the strata of such a honey infused dessert. All those layers seem delicate and tender, but the flavor comes from the core of this delicacy where the substance of chopped nuts and cinnamon reside.
So, why open this writing with talk of baklava? It is a tangible example for a discovery I made about myself with the help of a wise teacher. Like the baklava, I learned that I have layers to my personality.
A recent experience helped me to become more familiar with these personality layers. I wish to share this experience with you, so that I might demonstrate how those facets influence life and the decisions that are made.
I have a dear spiritual friend who reminds me that I am best served by allowing my “fragrant aroma” to surround my aura, especially when among others. This may be the core of my personal baklava. And what exactly does that mean? It means that when I am kind, warm, giving and unselfish towards others, that only then, can I truly connect.
While on a recent vacation with my husband, I learned that a friend delivered her firstborn daughter. I went into an upscale baby clothing store. One look at the price-tags and I knew that I would be best served by looking at the back of the store at the sale rack. I found a dress for the baby and took it to the counter and handed it to the elderly woman managing the register. She didn’t return my greeting and in fact, seemed a little grouchy. I automatically felt defensive.
This woman took my money and was a little put off that I didn’t have the correct change. That made me feel frustrated on top of my defensiveness. I asked her for a box for the dress. She responded, “I don’t have any boxes.”
I found that hard to believe, as a store of that quality would surely carry clothing boxes. I then felt angry. I believed that she wasn’t giving me the box because the item was on sale. My husband gently put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Fragrant aroma.” He was reminding me to practice loving kindness in this incidence.
So there I was, within five minutes, feeling defensive, frustrated and angry. I can assure you, dear reader, that I am not an angry, defensive and frustrated person. I am, at my core, loving, kind, accepting, passionate, warm, joyful and full of peace.
Let’s go back to the baklava. My layers of frustration, anger and defensiveness all comprise “parts or layers,” without being the core of my essence. I am acutely aware of this. So, how could I allow my “fragrant-aroma-core-self” shine?
I asked the lady go to the back room to seek a box for the dress. When she left, I took a couple of deep breaths. I then imagined this woman in a glass room. I then saw myself outside the room observing her. I decided to enter this glass room, but gently asked my anger layer, my frustrated layer and my defensive layer to stay outside of the room, so that I may experience this woman with my core being. As I entered this imaginary room, I felt affection for this woman. I also felt she had sorrows. That was enough to reset my “aroma” and leave the imaginary scenario.
The lady returned with a box for the dress. I leaned towards the woman and asked how she liked working at this store. She answered, “I am new.” I asked her other questions and her eyes met mine. She said, “I had to take this job, as my husband and my mother recently died.” Every layer of me parted giving way to a loving, warms, affectionate and kind core self. I empathized with her and the two of us took a tone with each other as one of old friends.
I left the store with my purchase and felt the emotion of the moment. I would have surely left the store angry and harboring ill feelings for this wounded woman. Because I put energy in trying to allow myself to understand who she was, I was able to leave thinking warmly of her and offered a silent prayer. This interaction involved energy. It didn’t come simply, but sifting through the layers yielded a result that was worthy of being called a Fragrant Aroma.
I challenge anyone reading this to consciously and with effort, try to reach out to another human being that is not easy to get along with; someone who seems to go against your grain. Ask your “layers or parts” to allow your loving core self to assess another with an open heart. Your world may open to many beautiful possibilities.