One Missing Ingredient in My Recovery and Why I Relapsed

“The Phoenix must burn to emerge.” ~Janet Fitch

Many people were shocked when I relapsed after twenty-three years of recovery. After all, I was the model of doing it right. I did everything I was told: went to treatment, followed instructions, prayed for help, and completed the assignments.

After returning home from treatment, I joined a recovery program and went to therapy. Once again, I followed all the suggestions, which worked when it came to staying sober. I had no desire to drink or do drugs—well, at least for a long while.

When I went to treatment, I was an emotional wreck. I would have done anything to get rid of the pain. But substances only intensified the pain and prevented healing.

The worse I felt, the more I needed to medicate those emotions, but it was only causing the ache in my heart to be prolonged, driving me to suicidal thoughts. The moment I stopped using substances, the pain immediately subsided. I’d gone from struggling to get out of bed to engaging in my life fully.

But going to treatment was only the tip of the iceberg. There was something much deeper underneath my addiction that I wrongly thought a relationship could fix. There was an underlying malaise and sense of shame I couldn’t identify. I knew something was wrong, so I kept searching for answers but couldn’t find the magic formula.

Without the solution, relapse was inevitable.

Most recovery programs address a single addiction, but I had many. After two years of sobriety, I stopped smoking but then started compulsive exercising. I didn’t eat right, spent too much, was codependent with needy people, and went from one addictive relationship to the next, never healthy enough to attract someone who could problem solve with me.

I didn’t realize I was still substituting addictions for love.

I wanted to make up for my troubled childhood, and I thought getting married and having kids would fix the problem, but after several attempts, it only made me feel more inadequate. Worse, I was a therapist and felt like a hypocrite. It wasn’t like I didn’t work at getting better; self-help was like a part-time job

I spent decades in different kinds of therapy, not only as a patient but expanding my education in other modalities. I attended dozens of workshops and seminars doing inner-child work. I fully immersed myself in over twenty years of therapy, including psychoanalysis. My toolbox was overflowing, but I still felt disconnected for some reason.

I didn’t realize those tools weren’t teaching me how to love myself.

My journey took me on a lifelong spiritual quest. I found a higher power in recovery. I attended various churches and did some mission work in Haiti. I went to Brazil to be healed by John of God (later convicted of multiple cases of sexual abuse), on to a spiritual quest in Peru, on a visit to the Holy Land in Israel, and to Fiji to find my destiny but still felt something was missing.

I read every spirituality book I could get my hands on and studied A Course in Miracles, but I was still disconnected from myself and others.

Discouraged, I began to drift further away from all sources of help. I resigned myself to being an unhealed healer.

I didn’t realize that all the therapy and spirituality were simply another form of addiction for me.

Relapse began when I got breast cancer and was prescribed opiates after surgery. I got a taste of that forgotten high and made sure I took all the pills, whether I needed them or not. I also forgot how mood-altering substances affected my judgment.

Instead of facing my fears about being ill and moving forward with my life, I reconciled with my ex-husband. I had little to no regard for how this affected my children. Like a piece of dust suctioned into a vacuum, despite feeling uncomfortable, I allowed my thoughts to suck me back into unhealthy choices—all the while in therapy.

The next seven years were dark. Another divorce was followed by my former husband’s death, though I was grateful to bring him to our home and care for him until he passed. Then, a fire turned our newly renovated home into a mass of black and burnt-out walls, forcing another relocation for myself and youngest. Soon after, one of my businesses suffered severe damage from another fire resulting in six months of work and restoration.

Three devastating hurricanes over two years damaged our home and business. One caused the foyer ceiling to cave in, another landed a large tree on our roof, and the third made our yard look like it had been run through a giant blender. One of my businesses was twice flooded and everything had to be thrown away.

Soon after, our home was ransacked and burglarized. The stress of managing repairs, insurance claims, child-rearing, and working full-time felt like I was repeatedly set on fire and drowned.

I kept trying to get better but felt emotionally shredded from the struggle. Desperate for support, poor decisions kept me in a whirlwind of insanity—more bad relationships. I was tired of trying, sick of hurting, and anger brewed within me.

I stopped therapy, recovery meetings, and my spiritual quest, and decided to throw it all away. I went on a rebellious rampage. I’d been married at age sixteen and had a child, and now I was entirely alone. I decided to return to my pre-recovery lifestyle and live it up.

Looking back, I lived a dual life of selfishness and a thirty-year career of helping others. I was self-will run riot but couldn’t see myself. I’d lived a life of making things happen and simultaneously wondered why my higher power didn’t deliver everything I wanted.

Spirituality is a tricky thing. It’s so easy to think that God or some higher power is in control, but I believe, with free will, it’s a collaborative effort. Do the footwork and wait… if only I’d waited; impatience was my Achilles heel.

My party life added a new heap of problems: disappointed children, bad judgment, and wrecked relationships. It didn’t take long to wind up in the same place that took me to treatment twenty-three years earlier, an emotional bottom. But this time, I was ready for the miracle of change.

I finally found the missing ingredient to a happy life.

The night was pitch black as I drove around emotionally deranged from grief and substances. After a near accident, I pulled into a parking lot and sobbed uncontrollably. I railed, “Whatever you are out there, why did you abandon me? Why haven’t you helped me? Why don’t you love me?”

Immediately, a thought shot through my brain like an arrow through a cloud. “It’s not me that doesn’t love you. You don’t love yourself.” And for the first time in my life, I realized two things: I didn’t love myself and didn’t know what loving myself even meant.

How would I learn to love myself? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. But now, I was armed with the missing ingredient to my happiness, and I intended to figure it out.

Psychoanalysts are taught the importance of an infant’s basic needs for nurturing and bonding, but I’d never applied any of those concepts to myself. There were some missing parts in my childhood, so I had to learn how to provide for my physical, emotional, and spiritual needs,  as well as get proper nutrition, rest, and activity, in addition to responsibilities, play time, creative and quiet time, gratitude and appreciation, and loss of tolerance for unkind behavior (to and from others), all of which places I started the journey to self-love.

I let go of what I wanted and focused on doing the next right thing for myself and others. The results were miraculous; peace engulfed me for the first time. By being the love I’d always wanted, I felt loved.

I was always a doer and thought that spirituality was like getting a degree. Follow the steps, and everything will be okay. Whether or not that’s true, there’s a lot more to staying sober than following a set of directions. It’s important to find a higher power, clean up our act, apologize to those we’ve hurt, and stop using, but that won’t keep us sober if we don’t know how to love ourselves. My higher power became love.

Correct behavior and self-love are not the same. Loving oneself starts with giving thanks to the sunrise and the sunset, cuddling with your pillow and those you love, acknowledging a universal intelligence and trusting guidance from your conscience, discovering and loving your mission, and nourishing your body, mind, and soul.

Feed your body with nontoxic food; feed your mind with positive, stimulating information; and feed your soul with nature, good friends, healthy partners, and a higher power (of your own understanding) that inspires and uplifts you.

If you’ve struggled with staying sober, you probably haven’t learned to love yourself. It’s never too late to start. When I started loving myself like a small child, I lost all substitutes for that godly love, and I finally began to blossom and grow.

It took decades of failure to discover the missing ingredient to staying sober. I had to learn that love isn’t something I get. Love is an action I give to myself and others.

Through being the love that I want, I then receive love. There’s a difference between staying sober and recovering. For all like me, who failed to stay sober, learn how to love yourself and then you will recover from the lack of self-love at the root of this tragic disease.

It’s not enough to just stay sober, and life without happiness makes no sense. You were meant to have a life of love and joy. If you’ve tried everything and something’s still missing, try learning how to love.

About Dr. Donna Marks

Dr. Donna Marks has been a licensed psychotherapist and addictions counselor for over thirty years. In 1989, she developed a chemical dependency training program at Palm Beach Community College, which has grown into a four-year degree and received the Florida Governor’s Council Award. She is also a certified gestalt therapist, psychoanalyst, hypnotist, sex therapist, and teaches A Course in Miracles. Learn more about Dr. Marks, her books, services, and a copy of 101+ Ways to Self-Love at www.DrDonnaMarks.com.

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