Having been devotedly involved in my own recovery program—and being an active part of the recovery network of many others’—over the past 23 years, I’ve learned a few things about the concept of ‘freedom.’
I’ve learned that, as far as recovery from a substance use disorder (aka addiction or chemical dependency) is concerned, the sooner we can become willing to take off the masks we’ve been wearing and dropping the stories we’ve been telling ourselves and others, the sooner we can begin enjoying all of the benefits that come from living free of the obsession and compulsion to drink or use drugs.
“What masks? What stories are you talking about?”
If you’re new to recovery or are in treatment for the first time, you may be asking these questions. I know I was, when I first heard someone describing how common it was for those addicted to alcohol or drugs to live behind masks and believe their own stories.
A mask of armor. In order to protect yourself from being hurt or to hide any actual fear or inner pain, you hold up a mask of being “tough” or “I can handle it.” Your mask proclaims you’re self-contained, confident and assured, independent and quite capable of not needing others.
A mask that allows you to fit in. When you act like other people or behave as others do, it’s easier to be part of a group (e.g., a gang, a crew, a clique) from whom you get acceptance, attention or acknowledgement. Adopting similar behaviors or beliefs as the people in the group—even if those actions and beliefs aren’t in alignment with your true values—allows you to fit in and avoid rejection.
A mask that reassures others. The people at work, your family and friends, all of them care about you, but because you’ve been secretly drinking or using drugs, you put up an image that says to them, “Everything’s fine” or “I’ve got things under control”… even if ‘everything’ isn’t and no, you don’t (i.e., many, many things are actually out of control).
And then what are the kind of ‘stories’ I’m referring to? What sort of story is someone often believing and needing to drop when they’re new to recovery or just getting into treatment?
A story that says you’re a victim. “I was traumatized/neglected/abandoned as a child” or “I was abused”… and so drinking (and/or using) is how I cope.
A story that puts the blame on others. “If my father (or mother or sibling or relative or family friend) wouldn’t have been so horrible to me, I wouldn’t have been pushed into the amounts of alcohol (and/or drugs) I’ve consumed.
A story that’s a lie. “I can quit anytime I want” or “Addiction happens to other people, and I’m no alcoholic (or ‘dope fiend’).”
The real problem with the masks and lies is this: You’re denying and manipulating and squashing and stuffing your true self!! Holding masks up to hide what’s actually going on with you or perpetuating stories that just aren’t true keeps you from what you’re really experiencing, keeps you from healing or reaching out for help, and keeps you locked up, unable to freely express your authentic self.
And this is what we begin recovering when we get into treatment and earnestly start a recovery program: our authentic selves.
By throwing away the masks we’ve used for so long, we slowly but surely start to “show up” as the person we truly are, complete with all the feelings we’ve pent up inside or locked away from the sight of others.
And we learn new beliefs about ourselves and others, with the caring, supportive guidance of treatment staff members and the people in our growing recovery network. We learn that experiencing our feelings won’t destroy us or make us weak or horrible people – we can actually heal what had previously remained wounded within us, and begin to lead more balanced lives because we’re no longer numbing ourselves from such truly important dimensions of who we are.
If we want lasting freedom from addiction, we must be open and willing to remove the masks we’ve held up to others, and drop the stories we’ve believed and told to others. By doing so, the likelihood increases exponentially that our true nature will emerge and we’ll be living our lives in freedom.