Will I ever be free from this suffering??!? When will I finally be able to leave my addictions, my compulsive thoughts, and my compulsive behaviors behind once and for all?!?
These thoughts often swirled in my head. Over the years I have found myself irritated, annoyed, and ANGRY that despite my best intentions, I was stuck in my suffering and stuck with the issues that I so desperately wanted to be free from. I couldn’t understand why I was trapped in this cycle of wanting to change but not being able to take the steps necessary to make a change. Furthermore, once I was finally able to initiate change I would be dismayed when I found myself once again back in the behavior and addiction that I so desperately wanted to leave behind.
I was caught in the idea that progress should be linear, but the reality is, progress is not linear.
The metaphor of the labyrinth comes to mind. Just when you think you’re getting to the center, the labyrinth takes you back out again.
The process of healing is inherent in this metaphor; it is circular, not linear. Once I came to understand and accept this I was able to work with my suffering and with my self-proclaimed ‘stuckness’ with loving-kindness and compassion.
Christine Caldwell documents this phenomenon in her book Getting Our Bodies Back: Recovery, Healing, and Transformation through Body-Centered Psychotherapy. She discusses The Healing/Moving Cycle, which is not linear, but rather is process oriented and circular in nature (despite the fact that we often wish otherwise!).
The Healing Cycle
The cycle begins with Awareness.
We become aware of our suffering, aware of our desire to make a change, and we identify our habits. We can spend hours, days, weeks, months, even YEARS in this stage—knowing and identifying the nature of our dis-ease but not quite at the point of moving to the next phase.
The hard truth is that we are not ready, until we are ready.
The next stage of the cycle is Owning. This is an important, yet difficult stage. It is here that we identify and take ownership of our choices. We must own the issue at hand and take personal responsibility for it, otherwise we tend to externalize the problem. We will place blame elsewhere. We will make excuses based on our external circumstances. We will rationalize our behavior, which in the end only robs us of our power. If we believe the problem is outside of us, then ultimately we have no control—an incredibly disempowering place to be standing in.
I found myself stuck in the Awareness stage for YEARS. I knew at 19 years old that drinking was problematic for me. But I always rationalized it and tried to regulate it.
As I reflect on why this was the case I can see that the reason is because I told myself I couldn’t quit because school was too stressful, then work was too stressful, then marriage and kids were too stressful. Until I could finally own that the problem was INSIDE of me, and not outside, only then was I finally able to move onto the next stage.
I came to realize that there will always be external problems and if I continued to blame my drinking on these external problems, I would never get out of the pain and suffering I was experiencing.
In other words, I had to own it.
The next stage in The Healing Cycle is Acceptance. This is where we whole-heartedly accept where we are at, without shaming, judging, or blaming. It is at this stage that we must lean into curiosity.
We get curious about the nature of our suffering. We get curious about our thoughts and behaviors. We get curious about our body’s reaction to our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
In recovery, tuning into the sensations of the body is vital, and yet it is so often left out of the recovery process.
Take a moment to tune into your body’s sensations and ask yourself, what does acceptance feel like in my body? When you accept yourself exactly where you are at in this moment, what sensation arises? What is your breath like? Where are you holding tension? Where in your body are you relaxed? Also, play with the opposite; when you reject your experience, reject your suffering what sensations arise then? Next, turn your attention back to lovingly accepting your experience. Allow yourself to breathe into any sensations that emerge.
The key here is non-attachment and let me tell you this is fucking hard. When we are stuck in our suffering, or stuck in a craving it can be so difficult to witness the body and stay with sensation and witness the emotions and thoughts. But this is imperative.
If we allow ourselves to stay with sensation, we will start to find evidence that thoughts and emotions always pass.
Can you witness your thoughts and emotions as something separate from you? Can you observe that your thoughts and emotions are not you, but rather, just an experience that is passing through?
I have found this practice immensely helpful. To view my thoughts and emotions as a scared small child, for example. How would you comfort a child that was incredibly afraid or stuck in a tormented emotion? We often have great compassion for children that we don’t extend to ourselves. We would hold the child, comfort the child, tell the child that this will pass. We need to extend this same loving-kindness to our own experience if we are to move forward in The Healing Cycle.
After moving through Awareness, Owning, and Acceptance we find ourselves in a profoundly powerful place, the place where we can begin to take action. It is here that we make the commitment to change, to try something different.
Ultimately, what we have to understand is that The Healing Cycle is process oriented, just like recovery.
Recovery is not an outcome, not a destination, but a PROCESS.
Caldwell compassionately reminds us (often to our dismay) that The Healing Cycle ultimately never ends and that we are in multiple cycles in varying stages at various times. A full cycle can take “three minutes or three years.” Or even longer.
In other words, we may commit to action and that action could be lasting, or it could not. We may find ourselves back in our old habits and addictions and often our immediate response is to get angry, frustrated, and feel ashamed. But instead of getting stuck there, we must hop back into Awareness and move through the cycle once again—with loving kindness and compassion.
Conversely, it’s important to acknowledge that we will spend as much time as we need in each stage until we are ready to move onto the next. What must be accepted is that what your soul, what your psyche NEEDS is often quite different from what you WANT. As previously, stated, in my healing cycle around addiction to alcohol, I spent 13 years in the awareness stage before I finally moved on to Owning. Then I spent another four years moving through the cycle again and again until I was able to find lasting sobriety.
It must be emphasized that we cannot approach this process in haste, despite our deep desire to be over and done with it. In Climbing the Alchemical Mountain, Betsy Perluss teaches that “in its original meaning, the word haste refers to violence, fury, struggle, and strife.” If we approach our process with haste, we may find ourselves in a violent struggle.
Healing from addiction is similar to the process of pregnancy and birth, in that it always unfolds on its own time schedule, despite our haste, despite our impatience. No amount impatience is going to cause that baby to be born any sooner than it is ready; the same holds true in the healing of addiction. In working to move beyond addiction, you are giving birth to a new life. Knowing that this process will unfold in its own time, is a way to lean into self-compassion.
However, there is paradox to be found here—as in all things with life. The more I am aware of my experience, the more I deeply embrace and understand paradox. It’s an idea that can’t be intellectualized, but rather it has to be felt and experienced to be understood and known.
Perluss says that the paradox with haste is that “although haste results in struggle and strife, one cannot expect to reach the peaks without some element of haste.” Meaning, we can’t sit around and do nothing, otherwise we find ourselves stuck in Awareness, Owning, and Acceptance for ever. We must take action, we must follow the longing of our soul, but also hold this longing lightly, knowing and trusting that healing occurs on its own time schedule, despite our valiant efforts.
When we sit with the paradox, when we don’t allow haste and impatience to drive the boat, rather we allow them to accompany us on the journey, directing us to take action and steer ourselves towards the shore that we seek, it is then that we create the space for GRACE to enter into the process.
Perluss says, “grace is divine intervention, bestowed at the crucial moment of defeat and despair. Grace is given freely and is not based on merit. It cannot be earned, and thus, it transcends the ego. Simply put, grace makes no rational sense. It just is.”
It is important work you are doing, and if you are reading this, then you are most definitely in the cycle of healing. The work of transforming your trials into triumphs is nothing short of the most important work you can do. Perluss as well as many others, teach that “individual healing is linked with universal healing—the microcosm and the macrocosm are interdependent.”
May you find grace, wisdom, and peace as you navigate The Healing Cycle. Even if you don’t believe it right now, you truly are a warrior, on the path to not only your individual healing, but your work is supporting our collective healing as well.