Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Getting to Recovery: Letting Go of the Past

Statement Nine of the Women for Sobriety "New Life" program is often difficult for women in early sobriety to wrap their minds around.  It holds that the past is gone forever, which many women have a hard time accepting, especially if they are currently dealing with repercussions of past events, such as DUI cases or Child Services involvement. 

Indeed, we are often reminded by others of our past transgressions when we become sober; it is up to us to learn how to respond to these situations without becoming embroiled in self-doubt and self-hatred, as these are states which frequently lead to relapse.  Statement Nine provides us with a framework for this understanding.  The words are simple, but they resonate very deeply with the essence of what it means to be in recovery.

The past is gone forever.

In the literal sense, the past is indeed gone.  We cannot physically return to the past, no matter how much we may want to.  We can, however, remember the past, and it is here that we often find an initial problem accepting the statement.  We can remember our past, and others can too, and frequently we have to deal with the results of our past actions in the all-too-present world.  When I hear women say that they can't understand or accept this part of the statement, it is usually because of this reality.

We cannot change our actions in the past.  They have occurred and there is nothing we can do to erase them.  What we can do is change how we allow them to affect us in the present.  We have the power to control our responses now, and to control our reactions when others bring the past up.  Our actions are in the past, but our dysfunctional ways of dealing with things can be in the past as well.  When we choose to learn new, positive ways of handling situations, we break the link between our old behavior and our new life; we begin to recognize that the past is indeed gone forever.

No longer will I be victimized by the past.

The word victimized throws many women when they read this statement.  Victimized?  What does that mean?  When we are actively drinking, we have a tendency to dwell on past events in a negative way.  We replay embarrassing moments over and over in our heads, usually telling ourselves that this or that action proves we are incompetent, stupid, and that drinking is the only way to deal with our worthlessness.  In other words, we use the past to abuse ourselves in the present.

Rumination, or dwelling on negative memories without attempting to learn from them, is common in those with depression.  Rumination serves to reinforce the negative self-image that depression causes.  Many women in early sobriety suffer from some form of depression as a result of removing alcohol from their lives.  This negative mood state does not have to be clinical to be devastating to our sobriety.  If we focus on past mistakes and past failings in response to present difficulties - such as cravings - we undermine our sobriety by reinforcing a belief that we cannot change.

We shouldn't blame ourselves for these patterns of negativity.  They have been ingrained in us for a very long time.  Blame is just another way of telling ourselves that we cannot succeed.  What we can do is choose to learn new ways of talking to ourselves and learn to interrupt our negative thoughts with positive images.  When we recite a statement or an affirmation during a period of stress, this is what we are doing; we are retraining our brains to look for solutions instead of dwelling in the past.

I am a new woman.

In sobriety, we do indeed become new women.  The list of changes, both physical and emotional, that occur when an individual stops drinking is long.  What we should focus on in early sobriety is accepting that in every moment we have the power to rewrite our script.  Our past behaviors are tied unequivocally to our past drinking.  We now have a choice in our responses to problems.  Drinking is still among those choices, but it is a choice we are not forced to take.  It is up to us to change our thinking so that drinking becomes the least attractive option, not the most.

Accepting that we are a new woman is one key in this change of thought.  You may choose to think of yourself as having been born again, fully formed and with the intellectual capacity to make good decisions when faced with difficulty.  The way you deal with current issues related to your past self will speak loudly to others; the surest way to change the attitudes of those who are affected by your drinking is to demonstrate growth and commitment to recovery.  If you act as a new woman, people will begin to see you as such.

The past is gone forever.  You can choose to eliminate the negative thinking that kept you mired in self-doubt when you were drinking.   You can decide that you will no longer revictimize yourself by dwelling on negative memories.  You can recognize that you are a new woman and that your past actions do not dictate your current ones.  Using the tools of the New Life program will allow you to interrupt those brooding thoughts which seek to undermine your progress, replacing them with positive views of the present. You can refocus your energy on the now, on becoming the woman you are meant to be.  Accept the challenge that Statement Nine offers, embrace recovery, and start creating a new past through positive sober living today.

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