I have been reflecting on how far I’ve come since I put down the bottle five years and two months ago. It’s 40 degrees Celsius outside and a good time for quiet thoughts in the shade near the oscillating fan.
What amazes me most is how quiet my thoughts have been in the last few years. Those of us who have fought alcoholism or addiction would know how loud and unhelpful our inner voices can be.
I still have strong emotions but I am better equipped to name those feelings, to wait until the uncomfortable wave subsides and to pause before speaking & acting.
I review each day and think about situations I could have handled better. And I frequently do and say dumb things, get it wrong, and issue far more apologies than I’d like. But the key point is I hold myself personally accountable and strive to be a better person.
When I have a problem that baffles me I ask for advice. While I no longer go to AA, I still call my sponsor regularly to check in as any good friend would. But I rely mostly on family and friends, who have been my North Star all along.
I guess this is what normies experience, but maybe not. Everyone carries baggage, and no one is without their faults. I guess it comes down to whether we are willing to be critically self-reflective and prepared to more closely align our words and actions with our deeply held values.
I had to change my thinking to save my life. Since then I’ve found peace and physical health in trail running and have lost 25 kilograms in the process. I marked my 5th anniversary of sobriety with a 50 kilometre ultra-marathon in hilly terrain. Five years ago I struggled to get off the couch.
I went to a wedding the other week and was reminded, while being splashed with sparkling wine by a party bus buddy who had had several too many and couldn’t keep their glass upright, of the type of drinking I used to do. It’s messy. It must have hurt like hell the next day. And I don’t miss it at all.
I have found that setting healthy boundaries in my relationships with others has been a key part of self care. Setting boundaries is empowering, but can be difficult for those of us (recovering from) low self-esteem. We need to have the courage to stick to our values, respect and look after ourselves, even when we may upset or disappoint others. In doing so, we must always respect the boundaries of other people.
Setting boundaries is how I define the kinds of behaviour I find acceptable or safe in other people, and how I respond when someone crosses the line.
A few helpful things to remember about boundary-setting are:
- remember, it is OK to say no
- be clear with yourself what type of treatment you will accept and what you will not. For example, if you value monogamy in an intimate relationship – make this clear from the beginning. Likewise if you prefer open relationships. The main thing is that each of you has to be clear on what to expect from the other partner(s).
- accept that some people will not respect your boundaries. This goes back to the AA message that we are only responsible for our own words and actions, and cannot control other people, and
- give yourself permission to limit or end contact with people who cross or disrespect your boundaries. Sometimes this is the healthiest thing you can do!
This resource describes different types of boundaries one might set and offers tips for setting those boundaries.
Setting healthy boundaries is all about communication. While I am not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundaries I am setting, I am responsible for
communicating my boundaries in a compassionate and respectful way.
A friend who I greatly respect and admire recently introduced me to the work of Marshall B. Rosenberg on non-violent communication (NVC). I have been listening to the Art of NVC podcasts on Spotify, but you can read Chapter One of his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life here.
NVC is a tool for getting your message across in difficult conversations, while at the same time empathising with the other person’s feelings. I’m just learning the basics at the moment and have realised that it will take practice in order for me to be able to use the technique confidently in the heat of the moment, for example when there is a disagreement with a loved one or work colleague.
The NVC process has four components:
First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like.
[Second], we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated?
And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are.
For example, a mother might express these three pieces to her teenage son by saying, “Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common.”
She would follow immediately with the fourth component—a very specific request: “Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?” This fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.
Thus, part of NVC is to express these four pieces of information very clearly, whether verbally or by other means. The other part of this communication consists of receiving the same four pieces of information from others. We connect with them by first sensing what they are observing, feeling, and needing; then we discover what would enrich their lives by receiving the fourth piece—their request.
As we keep our attention focused on the areas mentioned, and help others do likewise, we establish a flow of communication, back and forth, until compassion manifests naturally: what I am observing, feeling, and needing; what I am requesting to enrich my life; what you are observing, feeling, and needing; what you are requesting to enrich your life.
Recovery – striving to be better
When I had conversations with loved ones about how I could go about making amends for my behaviour when I was drinking, the main feedback I got was ‘keep doing what you are doing’ and ‘staying well is the best thing you can do for me’.
On this basis, I made a commitment to lifelong self-improvement based on what I value about myself and a clear view of the person I want to be. This is not to say I’m unhappy with who I am; rather, I’m proud about who I am becoming, but am wary of complacency.
As a writer and researcher, I communicate best in a written format. However, while I am generally pretty good at talking, I acknowledge that sometimes my verbal communication could be improved, particularly during times of stress.
Learning communication strategies like NVC is as important for me these days as working AA’s 12 steps. It’s all about building a toolkit to use when I really need it.