Several months ago, I was sitting in my office, near the end of my workday. I just sat quietly for a few minutes, reflecting on how much my life had changed over the past year. I had recently started a career with a young, fast-growing company in my industry, and was excited to grow and flourish in this new opportunity. I felt valued at work, and I knew that I had been presented with a unique and potentially life-changing opportunity.
Over many months, I had invested a lot of time and action into re-building myself, through self-work and sobriety from drugs and alcohol. I ended the summer of last year, broken and stripped down, having dramatically crashed and burned in an alcohol and drug-induced meltdown. In retrospect, I had simply repeated what I had already done several times in the past, and what I unknowingly would almost repeat again a year later.
After fully removing all mind-altering substances from my life, I started doing some hard inward-looking, and for the first time, started practicing rigorous honesty with myself and those around me. An extended abstinence from drugs and alcohol allowed me to do these things with a clear mind, and for the first time in my life, I both privately and publicly identified as a person in recovery from substance use disorder.
Not long after settling into this new career and company, a new relationship opportunity presented itself in my life. After a couple years of remaining single, and mostly uninterested in a relationship, someone had unexpectedly been placed in my path. I was instantly drawn to this person, and to the idea of the relationship. I quickly, maybe hastily, committed to this new person with the intention of developing a long-term, healthy and happy relationship.
The door to a new relationship is one that I have often passed over and left closed. Sometimes, I open the door just enough to look inside before retreating and closing it once again. Past failures and self-sabotaging behavior in my relationships sometimes cause me to question the attainability of a healthy relationship, or whether I deserve to receive that gift. When deciding to open this door again, there were strong underlying feelings of insecurity and thoughts of unworthiness, but I felt excited and optimistic about moving forward.
Life was good, and it was about to get a lot better. I was experiencing success and growth in all areas of my life. What I felt was real happiness, and things seemed to be finally coming together in my life; a gift of my recovery.
Reaching my upper limit
After some self-work in sobriety, I had recently reached heights of happiness that I had never previously allowed myself to experience. I was completely unaware of how increased happiness and abundance in my life could bring trouble for me. The pattern of reaching my upper limit of happiness, and subsequently sabotaging myself, has repeated itself several times throughout my life in a clear pattern. I can recognize this today, but it took more than a decade of repeating this pattern to gain an understanding of it.
“Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.” – Dr. Gay Hendricks
I had successfully, and mostly unknowingly, increased my upper limit of happiness over the previous year, but it was still there, waiting for me. I had again bumped my head up against this self-imposed and self-enforced ceiling.
Immediately after reaching my internal upper limit, I started with the self-sabotaging behavior that had manifested several times previously in my life. Once again, I had thoughts that drugs and alcohol seemed like a good solution. A slip of my sobriety is a great way to get back into the place where I had been subconsciously conditioned to believe I belonged.
I recognized that I started to feel disconnected, and was emotionally withdrawing into myself. Instead of being present in my relationship and at work, I was distant and closed off. I knew that I was in a bad place, but I didn’t clearly know what was wrong or the best way to change the path I was on.
Feelings of unworthiness quickly multiplied each day, and I was feeling increasingly insecure in my own skin. Buried somewhere deep in my brain, I knew I was not supposed to be this happy, so I needed to bring myself back down by sabotaging everything I had worked so hard for.
Recognizing the pattern and breaking free
My personal happiness limit was first set at a low threshold when I was a child, shaped by my own early life experiences. Growing up with a father who suffered from Substance Use Disorder, and who later died from his disease, I was taught as a child that it was safe to be unhappy. Any time that I felt genuine happiness, I needed to subdue those feelings and get back down to safety. My childhood experiences had created this tiny box for me to live inside, and I grew up to become my own jailer.
This subconscious habit of lowering my mental state has manifested itself consistently throughout my life. This was first brought to my attention through therapy, but it has taken me several more years of destruction and self-sabotage, to truly process and understand how this has shaped my life.
As someone in recovery, I sometimes have feelings that I don’t deserve certain things in life because of past transgressions. Occasionally, I feel and act as if I have a debt to the universe that needs to be paid off before I’m allowed to be happy. It’s important to recognize past mistakes and learn from them, but I also need to remember to practice self-forgiveness. I need to give myself permission to experience happiness.
Reflecting on the past decade, I can now more clearly see the pattern of self-sabotage and substance use. My entire life I have contained myself safely inside the box built for me as a child, feeling afraid and undeserving of stepping outside. I now recognize and acknowledge the previous high points in my life, where I also reached my upper limit and subsequently sabotaged my happiness.
Recognizing this pattern, and now realizing that I no longer need to repeat it, is the key to moving forward. This does not need to be my pattern, and now that I have acknowledged it, I can change it. I am allowed to have career success. I am allowed to have a healthy relationship. I am allowed to experience happiness.
I think it’s important for me to share these experiences out loud, and I hope you can relate to some of what I write, regardless of your experience with substance use. There should not be a stigma surrounding Substance Use Disorders, or fear about identifying as a person in recovery. It’s time for us to have an honest and open conversation about these issues.