By: Keith Berger, Coordinator of Family Integrated Services at Transformations Treatment Center

 

Breathe. 

It’s the first thing we do when we get here and begin our human experience.  One deep breath – inhale, exhale – and we’re off and crawling… then walking… then running.  It can be argued that everything begins with breath.

Breathe.

Studies show that the average human being takes somewhere between 600-800 million breaths per lifetime.  Anything we do that many times in our lives must be important!

Breathe.

It’s the last thing we do as we leave this life.  One final inhalation and exhalation and then… who knows?  All we can be sure of is that we each take and release one last breath before moving on into the unknown.

Breathe.

It’s the first thing we forget to do – or do effectively – when we’re afraid.  Fear enters the mind, brought on by some worrisome thought that may or may not have validity (“Is he ok?”, “Did she relapse?”, “”Was that alcohol I smelled?””, “Why haven’t I heard from him?”), and our body responds with changes in our breathing patterns.  Calm, deep breaths become quick and shallow, anxiety increases and we find ourselves somewhere on the continuum between fight, flight and freeze.

Breathe.

As Coordinator of Family Integrated Services at Transformations (just call me the Family Guy), I have the honor and pleasure of providing direct support to the families and loved ones of our clients both past and present.  I often hear those fearfully anxious and sometimes tearful voices on the other end of the phone and find myself reminding those individuals to breathe.  “Don’t gasp”, I tell them.  “Breathe.  Inhale…  Exhale…  Repeat.”  Once they’ve gotten some oxygen back into their bodies and brains, the stage is set for clearer thinking and a return to serenity.  Having lived most of my life surrounded by active addiction in my family and having found my own path to recovery from the effects of that toxicity, I have been right where many of our families have been – lonely, frustrated, frightened and in need of reassurance.  My three addicted family members have been in treatment and all are currently sober (some for over 20 years!), so I have seen firsthand that treatment and recovery work.  I have also learned in my 23 years of working in substance abuse treatment that relapses happen.  I understand today that alcoholism/addiction is a disease that resists its own recovery, and that I can find contentment and even happiness whether my loved ones are drinking/using or not.  My serenity is no longer contingent upon someone else’s spiritual condition; rather, it is a priceless gift I receive through maintaining my own emotional sobriety.

Breathe.

“Our thinking becomes distorted by trying to force solutions, and we become irritable and unreasonable without knowing it.” – Suggested Al-Anon Welcome, Al-Anon Family Groups

For those of us with loved ones who struggle with the disease of alcoholism/addiction, fear can be a frequent (if unwanted) companion, one that wrestles us for control of the steering wheel as we attempt to navigate through life.  When we allow it, fear can take us hostage, distorting our thinking and compelling us to behave in ways that run contrary to our better judgment, leading us to worry, obsess and enable our loved ones’ addictive behaviors in an effort to control the uncontrollable and manage the unmanageable.  In this way, fear becomes our Higher Power and the cycle of addiction continues and strengthens with our energy now added into the mix.  When we remember to slow down, breathe and properly oxygenate ourselves, our distorted thinking becomes clearer, we begin to see our problem in its true perspective and fear begins to dissipate.  We are then free to choose a more benevolent and nurturing Higher Power, whatever that may mean to each of us.  I have found this to be one solution that leads to serenity and I can practice it at any time.

Breathe.

Alcoholism/addiction is like a hurricane inside the home – everyone gets hit, everyone is affected and everyone needs to recover from those affects.  Just as it is critical that our clients find local support to help them maintain sobriety from mood-and-mind altering chemicals, it is equally critical that families find local support to help them maintain emotional sobriety.  Since this truly is a family disease, one suggestion I always make to our Transformations families is that they embrace their own recovery by involving themselves in 12-Step programs such as Al-Anon/Alateen.  I find that many of them are resistant this suggestion (again, this is a disease that resists its own recovery) and reinforce the idea as often as seems sensible.  I have been told that “you don’t have to drink alcohol (or use other drugs) to die from the disease of alcoholism/addiction” and have seen too many family members of addicts lose their serenity, their sanity and their lives to the effects of this disease to believe otherwise.  For this reason, I continue to point our families toward the sources of support and solutions that exist to help with the exact problem they are facing.

“If you try to keep an open mind, you will find help.” – Suggested Al-Anon Closing, Al-Anon Family Groups

Breathe.

I once had the opportunity to have a conversation with a flight attendant who explained that, at 35,000 feet, a loss of cabin pressure leaves fliers with “30 seconds of useful consciousness,” hence the suggestion is always to put one’s own oxygen mask on before attempting to help others.  That’s a handy suggestion to anyone who wishes to survive such a traumatic experience, and it’s also a handy metaphor for dealing with the effects of alcoholism/addiction in the family as the following passage from one of Al-Anon’s daily readers makes clear:

“I find the lessons of Al-Anon appearing in the most unexpected places — for example, in preflight safety instructions.  Along with the details of how to fasten the seat belt and where to find the nearest emergency exit, the instructions always advise how to deal with a loss of cabin pressure. The suggestion is that I apply my own oxygen mask, thus ensuring my survival, before attempting to help others.

For me, growing up with the disease of alcoholism was like suffering from oxygen deprivation.  Because my parents didn’t have “masks” to wear, I didn’t get many of the things I need to thrive emotionally and spiritually.  Things like consistency, structure, encouragement, and acceptance of my feelings were missing, so I certainly didn’t have them to pass on to anyone else.  In Al-Anon, however, I learn these things and more.  Practicing the Al-Anon program is akin to putting on an oxygen mask.  I’m encouraged to do the things needed for my health, stability, and growth. These include eating well, getting enough rest, examining my behavior and correcting it when necessary, sharing my thoughts and feelings with others, asking for help, praying and meditating, and getting involved with my Al-Anon community.  Only then, when I have taken care of these responsibilities to myself, am I strong and stable enough to help others.” –  Hope for Today June 10, Al-Anon Family Groups

Breathe.

“The family situation is bound to improve as we apply the Al-Anon ideas.” – Suggested Al-Anon Welcome, Al-Anon Family Groups

Many of us spend years asking, begging, pleading and sometimes demanding that our addicted loved ones get sober and stay sober.  We go beyond simply being concerned and become consumed with their well-being to the detriment and neglect of our own minds, bodies and spirits.  We lose the capacity to enjoy life on life’s terms in a desperate attempt to “make everything better” and “save” those we love from slow self-destruction.  We find, time and again, that our best efforts are never good enough.  We continue trying to find the perfect words or actions to pull those we love out of the abyss of their addiction only to find ourselves exhausted and at the end of our rope.  We remain attached in fear rather than risk learning to detach with love.  Don’t we owe it to ourselves – and them – to embrace a path of recovery that will help us to find and maintain our own emotional sobriety for our own sake as well as the sake of all our relationships?

For me, the answer is yes, so I encourage our families to do the same.  Until they are ready, I ask them to do one thing:

Breathe.

Breathe deeply, breathe often.  Since we’ve all got a few million breaths left to take, let’s make them count!!!

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