Read part 1 of this post.
In the last post, I was sharing about my first panic attack in graduate school after my ex-wife asked for a divorce. I tried desperately to hang on through the pain. After continued panic attacks in the following days and weeks, I vividly remember thinking, “I am following the advice I have learned in alcoholics anonymous (AA): I have a sponsor, I sponsor others, I attend meetings, I pray, meditate, serve, and have worked the steps multiple times. I complete personal inventories. I have been in therapy for the last year-and-a-half with a therapist who has been sober for 30 years. I have a psychiatrist who has me on a new medication. I can’t think of anything else I can possibly do. This is not “knowing a new freedom and new happiness” as promised in AA.
More questions than answers
I wondered if everything I had ever done to recover from addiction was at worst a lie, or at least, a flawed and broken model that was meaningless and not worth pursuing. This realization led to further suicidal ideation and an eventual relapse with alcohol and drugs that landed me into my second treatment episode, largely with the same 12-step and second-wave cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model (or said more simply “change/challenge/dispute your thinking”) that I had learned when I first entered recovery.
One crucial difference to previous treatment episodes was the authentic and loving relationship I had with my therapist and his introduction of Viktor Frankl’s model of meaning and purpose. He also helped me develop a more holistic focus on health, rather than primarily treating illness. This planted a seed that would be harvested later in my journey in mental health and addiction recovery.
After attending treatment for several months, I returned to recovery from addiction for a time. Somewhere in my mind and heart, I was still carrying the story that “eventually something painful will happen in your life, you will become overwhelmed and will either relapse or become suicidal.” This story was dormant as I worked full-time as a psychotherapist in the addiction treatment field. But the following year, I injured my lower back and that story came back with a vengeance.
The same struggle with emotional pain returned, joined by a renewed physical pain as a result of ruptured discs in my lower back. This uncovered a new dimension of suffering. I struggled for about a year until I returned to treatment a third time.
I now have an awareness that there are credible alternatives to my life being consumed with … finding ways to avoid pain.
Once again, treatment consisted of the same 12-step and second-wave CBT model I had used to originally get sober. I completely followed the direction of my therapist, my recovery coach, peers in long-term recovery and principles of other mutual aid support groups, such as Refuge Recovery, as well as AA. The story of, “eventually something painful will happen in your life, you will become overwhelmed and will either relapse or become suicidal” was dormant once again.
A new perspective
I still had no confidence that anything I had learned in three rounds of treatment, in completing graduate school, or in years of therapy, would help me to cope with the implications of that story of unavoidable pain and then relapse. However, as I eventually found and dove into learning, practicing and training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that story lost it’s hold on me.
I now recognize that the story about pain returning in my life and overwhelming my ability to cope is not going anywhere. It is here to stay. I will often notice my mind doing a great job of worrying about that pain resurfacing. I now have an awareness that there are credible alternatives to my life being consumed with making the story go away or finding ways to avoid pain.
As I practice acceptance skills through ACT, I can make room for the difficult feelings, thoughts and stories that present themselves in my life periodically. This doesn’t mean I enjoy having painful thoughts and feelings, it means I aim to drop the struggle with them more often than I have in the past.
Primary pain and secondary pain
I have learned that there are two kinds of pain in life: primary pain and secondary pain. Primary or original pain is pain that happens naturally as a result of living and loving—losing someone we care about, experiencing an illness, being betrayed.
Then there is secondary pain which arises from the struggle we inevitably become consumed by while trying to run, hide or fight with our primary pain. We do this in an effort to make it disappear. Paradoxically, when I practice noticing and holding lightly (accepting) my primary pain—become curious about the pain, see the meaning, purpose and message connected to the other side of pain—something profound happens. Both the secondary suffering related to my struggle, as well as the suffering of the original pain, often dissipates.
ACT teaches that when we experience a reduction in pain, it is a fortunate bonus, but not the point of acceptance. As soon as we try to use ACT skills to reduce or eliminate pain, we are playing the same rigged game of avoiding pain. Avoiding pain is a game that never ends as long as we are alive and one in which we will always lose. Acceptance skills have been life-changing for me. Once we stop fighting, running or hiding from our pain, we can redirect that energy into building a life that is meaningful. My life experience now is often more about how to live in service of meaning rather than running or fighting with pain.
In ACT-consistent therapy, we focus acceptance skills on things we cannot change. We focus values-based committed action skills on the things we can change. We focus transcendent- sense-of-self skills on knowing the difference.
For more information about therapy using ACT processes, schedule an appointment today.
Wishing you love, hope and prosperity on your journey.
Chase Wickersham, LCSW