Acceptance is an often misunderstood word. Many people think acceptance means agreeing or complying with, giving into or even liking what is troubling them. Therefore, most people reject the idea of accepting that someone they love has died, something unfair has happened to them or that an injury has forever changed their life.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what is commonly referred to as “The Serenity Prayer” which reads in part: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
I remember reading that prayer many, many times during my initial recovery from drug and alcohol addiction nearly a decade ago. Long before attending graduate school to become a psychotherapist, a starting point to learn about acceptance began in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program. This was done by writing nightly, personal inventories and engaging in many activities encouraged in the AA program including: prayer, meditation, daily meetings, working the 12-steps several times through with a sponsor and then sponsoring other men. These actions began to shift the relationship I had with my pain.
For a time, I experienced the promises of AA, which read, “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development (working the 12-steps), we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.”
As I have written elsewhere, I have had a lifelong struggle with anxiety and panic symptoms. Drinking and using drugs would temporarily rid me of this problem, yet this ultimately led to the symptoms intensifying in the long term. My journey in AA initially led to a reduction in my anxiety, but I noticed that I felt like a spring was slowly being wound no matter how dogmatically and vigorously I worked on ridding myself of these feelings. This list included diligently participating in AA recovery activities, going to traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), applying and being accepted to graduate school and other self-help remedies available to me at that time.
This smoldering problem I had with anxiety throughout my journey of addiction recovery erupted at four-and-a-half years sober when my former wife asked me for a divorce in the middle of my graduate-school training. I felt a combination of sadness, fear, panic, hopelessness and suicidality that gradually intensified.
In an attempt to cope, I feverishly went to more AA and Al-Anon meetings over the next weeks and months, called my sponsor multiple times per day, prayed and meditated constantly, completed service for others, talked to my traditional CBT therapist weekly and completed his assignments. I even found a psychiatrist who knew about my addiction struggles to get on new medication. In all this, I watched my depression intensify, my hopelessness increase, and anxiety and panic became my constant companion.
A few weeks after my wife asked me for a divorce, I remember sitting in a crowded graduate school classroom as my heart began to pound in my chest. I tried to focus on my instructor’s lecture, but noticed that my left arm was going numb. I started having thoughts that this is what a heart attack feels like and I felt my vision blur. I thought perhaps I should call an ambulance and wondered if I was dying. I got out of class and went to an empty corridor. Tears streamed down my cheeks as the overwhelming feelings of panic and terror passed through me.
Connecting with deeper values
I recognized that I was trying to manage my relationship with pain by making it go dormant for a time. The problem, however, is that it would always come back again. This pain was instrumental in motivating me to eventually find and deeply value Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
To hear the rest of my journey, check back next week to learn how I moved into a new understanding of acceptance and my struggle with pain.
For more information about therapy using ACT processes, email or call me today.
Wishing you love, hope and prosperity on your journey.
Chase Wickersham, LCSW
Read part 2 of this post.