From The Fix: Negative Self-Talk: Dealing with the Demons
By Christopher Smith
As the fog begins to lift, you can see with clear eyes some of the terrible things you have likely done while using, and it’s easy to fall into a trap of despair and self-loathing.
Woman with eyes closed sitting on a curb and against a wall.
Our inner monologue exerts a powerful force on how we view ourselves. Unsplash
I am a Liar and a Thief. I am a Fraud. I never shy away from malice in pursuit of my wants. I will hurt you. My sense of morality is fleeting and tenuous at best; present only when it serves a higher purpose. That higher purpose, of course, being to feed my needs. I need to appear moral and good and wholesome to get what I want from you and nourish the monkey digging its powerful claws into my back. I am cold and empty on the inside, and constantly desire being filled with something so that I can feel anything. I am not comfortable in my own skin, and hate what I see in the mirror. I am a Drug Addict, and I am the King of Relapse.
I sang that song a thousand times without realizing it. Anyone in recovery from addiction knows the importance of recognizing cues in one’s behavior that may indicate a relapse is in the immediate future, but we don’t often speak of just how difficult it is to identify those cues—even when we are actively hunting for them. I abhor admitting that reprehensible stream-of-consciousness which opened this article generally runs through my head when things are beginning to go a little too well for me. Because, as an artist and addict (and I use the former term loosely; it nauseates me), I have recently realized I suffer from Imposter Syndrome. And it’s only after many nights trying to figure out my own broken brain that I’ve concluded that the negative self-talk stems from some bullshit underlying subconscious fear that I don’t deserve the success that I am trying to achieve, because my sick mind tells me I am a fake and a fraud. It tells me that if everyone really, truly knew what goes on behind my eyes, they would turn and run screaming, or realize that I am a stupid, vapid charlatan not worth wasting time on.
This, more than any other extenuating, horrible, out-of-control circumstance, has led to many a relapse. Just as things are starting to go well in my life, as I am picking up the pieces from the previous fuck-ups, those voices enter my head—often without my realization. They’re sly; if they begin shouting “You’re a worthless piece of shit!” out of nowhere, they know that they’re not likely to elicit a response. It’s just too easy to ignore. The whispering starts seductively and subtly: “You deserve a treat! Look, you don’t have a problem after all. You’re able to recover yet again from this last mess you made. It didn’t even take that much effort. No harm no foul, right? No one will ever know. Just this once won’t hurt…”
It’s only after I have tasted my drug of choice that once, when I have lapsed but not completely relapsed, that the battle begins. The voices know that I’m in a weakened state and much more suggestible at that point. They stop whispering and begin shouting. “You’ve used once and already fucked up everything! All that clean time? Out the window! What’s your wife going to say when she knows you’ve fucked up yet again? Go back to it; there’s no reason not to. You’re a failure—you always have been and always will be.” From there, it’s on, because I fall for it every single time. After reading what I’ve just written, it makes me question if maybe I really am stupid, because this all seems so obvious on paper. A toddler could see through it. And from there, the negative self-talk is reinforced, and the cycle begins anew.
As people with addiction, we all struggle with fostering positive self-identification and esteem. We use some external vice to repair or mask something broken on our insides—whether you want to call it our self-esteem, our spirit, or our mind is irrelevant. There is a part of all of us that we simply don’t like, and drugs, or sex, or food, or gambling—whatever our preferred method of self-destruction—is what we reach for when those glaringly obvious flaws resurface. I suffered a lot of abuses from my addicted father when I was a child, and unfortunately was tied to him well into adulthood. The hits hurt, but what hurt more were the unending venomous diatribes; “you’re useless, you little faggot. I should have splurged and wore a condom that night I fucked your whore mother,” and so on. They cut like a knife. I never thought that I believed those words; I felt I could shake them off and be no worse for wear, but I am realizing now that I have internalized them on some darker level I was once unaware of.
I have known other people with addiction whom at first glance seem to have had perfectly normal childhoods, and whose current lives look comfortable and admirable on the surface. But when digging a bit deeper, the cracks in the façade begin to appear. And some people whose use is what led to the scars they are carrying; they use to forget the shame they brought on themselves during their last use. Ultimately, the reason for their use doesn’t matter; what matters is that the problematic substance use is tied directly to the negative self-talk running through their minds.
A large part of combatting relapse for me has been learning to identify the negative self-talk early. When the voices are still whispers they are easier stifled—if you know what to listen for. I have put together a few guidelines for myself that have generally helped me identify when I may not be thinking the most clearly, and—while they are not comprehensive nor foolproof—they do seem to helpd with some struggles.
I don’t trust myself with extreme emotions, whether good or bad. Accepting this truth for myself has been a difficult pill to swallow. I have been clean long enough now that on a day-to-day basis, I am comfortable making decisions, and even deferring some thoughts to trusted confidantes if I have any questions. It’s when I hit an extreme natural high or bottom that I most need to be cautious; I tend to want to celebrate recklessly and impulsively when things are going great, and destructively isolate when things aren’t going so hot. Most recently, it has been while riding on natural highs that I have had to be the most cautious. I am very susceptible to and easily persuaded by the voices when they’re offering what at first glance seems like an exciting time if I am already floating on cloud nine and looking to party.
I also need to be on the look-out for when I may be developing a case of the “fuck-its.” When life keeps kicking me in the shins time after time and I want to shut down and numb out the world by any means, typically my first course of action is to hole up in my apartment and not speak to anyone if I don’t absolutely have to. No one needs to know what is running through my mind, because I have everything figured out and under control and others don’t understand my special-little-snowflake thought patterns anyway. What I am doing to cope with the world works for me, and if you don’t understand it, then you can leave me alone.
This is an especially dangerous place for me to be. Although I am telling myself that I am coping with what is going on around me—and may even generally believe it—I am not. I am alone, in the dark, listening to voices that do not have my best interest in mind, and more inclined to believe whatever they are whispering because I am already in a desperate fugue. The dope is always just a phone call away at this point, and if I am not careful, I will pick up the phone.
It’s been said a thousand times, but is important enough that it bears saying again: as people who have struggled with addiction, we cannot isolate. Accepting that we cannot trust our own minds, especially in the earliest stages of recovery, is a horribly humbling, humiliating concept. It’s necessary though, because it begins to break down those isolating barriers we have put up all around us. Those times that we’re down in the trenches highlights why it’s so important. If someone we care about is around to listen to what’s running through our minds, they can talk us off that ledge before we take the plunge.
I am exceedingly fortunate in that I have a wife and one close friend to be my voices of reason, when I choose to listen. Many have burned so many bridges in their active addiction that they are not so fortunate. This is where the effectiveness of meetings truly shines: you can walk in and share whatever crazy shit is running through that poisoned mind of yours, and someone will relate. There will likely be no judgment, and if there is, it is coming from an outlier in the group, not someone who truly carries the spirit off the message. A good therapist is also a great outlet. We are all blessed that in present times, we are never far from connecting with someone who will listen and understand. The internet is a vital resource, full of chat rooms and message boards that can be found with no more than a quick search, and it provides an extra layer of anonymity for those in fear of scrutiny and stigma.
We must all learn to be kind to ourselves. Doing so is difficult, especially in the beginning. As the fog begins to lift from your brain, you can see with clear eyes some of the terrible things you have likely done in your using, and it’s easy to fall into a trap of despair and self-loathing when the numbing blanket of intoxication is no longer available. Old wounds will feel fresh, new, and salted at first. It seems so easy to run back to the security of the blanket, hiding in the hole you have dug. The negative self-talk running through your mind will tell you to. Addiction truly is a disease of isolation; therefore, it is paramount to come out of the dark and expose your vulnerable, beautiful self to the world. Then you can begin to heal.