In life everyone must choose one of two pains: The pain of discipline or the pain of regret.
I struggled for years, flip-flopping between the pain of discipline (trying valiantly to drink and drug less - or not at all) and then the pain of regret when I would give in to cravings and drink or use drugs. But now I am sober. I am an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous and I’m living a life which is heavy on discipline and wonderfully light on regret. So what does the pain of this particular discipline look like? The discipline of not drinking? The initial pain of accepting defeat? The pain of realizing that I am an alcoholic and that as such I should not ingest alcohol…ever again!?
Stopping drinking is easy enough. Most people, alcoholics included, can stop drinking for a predetermined period of time. As long as they know, somewhere in the background of their alcohol-dependent minds, that there is a drink waiting for them at the finish line. A nice stiff one, to reward them for their however-long period of grim abstinence. It's the staying stopped that is hard. It's the staying stopped that requires us to dig deep, hang on tight, and relax into a disciplined way of living.
Here are some of the pains that I have suffered while choosing not to drink:
The deep initial pain of feeling different from “everyone else”. The pain of feeling lonely and isolated in my early sobriety when I was at a dinner, party, wedding, funeral, brunch, concert, at the beach, in the woods, in the mountains, on a plane, at a friend's house, anywhere, really, where “everyone” was drinking but me. The pain of missing what for years had been a truly excellent best friend, life anesthetic and psychic relaxant - alcohol. Until it turned on me. The pain of walking into that first A.A. meeting and bursting into tears in front of a group of strangers. The pain of being different, an outsider, an anomaly amongst the “normies” who can drink. The pain of feeling like a freak because I can no longer drink or drug safely or socially. The pain of watching others drink and drug with seemingly complete impunity and immunity from disaster. The pain of mouthing the words over and over and over again (literally hundreds of times by now) “no thank you?” when offered a glass of wine or an alcoholic beverage - when inside my mind and body are yapping “YES!!! Yes I want that drink!!! Please can I have just this one?” Knowing that of course it may be just one tonight but eventually I will once again be overwhelmed by that peculiar obsession of the mind and allergy of the body that is active alcoholism. I have experienced, many times over, the excruciatingly painful discipline of sitting through a craving. A craving that can feel, if not acted upon, as if it might kill me.
Then there is the initially painful, and yet quite amazing discipline of training myself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I drank the way I did because I was essentially uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in my skin, with other people, in this world. And the booze made me comfortable. Until it stopped working. With exceedingly uncomfortable but steady discipline I came to realize that I can remain sober through wild and violent storms of discomfort. I have learned how to sit with discomfort, not medicate it. I can resist cravings. Practicing discipline, I can emerge from an unacted-upon craving with a feeling of victory, a sense of amazement, and the knowledge that I can learn to sit through an urge and obsession and compulsion that powerful without having to act on it.
There is also the pain of the discipline associated with living in recovery. We have to “do the work” required to get the benefits of being a member of A.A. We have to learn the steps and once learned we have to try to "practice these principles in all of our affairs”. I need the discipline required to get myself to A.A. meetings - waking up an hour earlier than I'd like
to get to my 7 a.m. meeting. Spending 5-10 hours a week sitting in meetings and connecting with my sponsor, sponsees, newcomers and anyone with a desire to stop drinking who might need some help. The discipline required of us living in recovery to hold ourselves accountable to our sponsor and our home group and to consistently read the A.A. literature. The strict discipline of a daily prayer and meditation practice. The discipline it takes to make a gratitude list every day when all I really want to do is lie in bed with my self-pity, my resentments, my sloth, my Netflix and my doughnuts.
Lastly, there’s the nostalgic pain, over 20 years old by now, of traveling to France my very first sober summer. The pain of seeing that crisp mouthwatering glass of rosé. A glass that I haltingly, agonizingly, refused when it was offered to me. Even writing about it now I can sense it all. I can hear the cicadas singing in the warm breeze. Smell the sweet dry grasses, the wild oregano and thyme crushed underfoot. Hear the wine glugging softly out of the sexy and chic bottle. Feel the cool glass and the delicious weight of the chilled rosé swirling inside of it. I can smell the sweet sharpness of the wine and imagine the relief to come after a few glasses of this magic elixir. I can close my eyes and envision the soft, clear, pinky glow of that gorgeous rosé, glittering like a gigantic peach-colored diamond against the bright and shocking vibrant purple of the lavender fields, the colors radiating against each other in the soft Provençal light. So it's obvious...I still, even aware of the harm that alcohol eventually causes me, romanticize my drinking and what I had convinced myself that it gave me. I can still cry over my loss. Cry because I couldn’t have that glass of rosé in the south of France ages ago. Cry with the knowledge that I really shouldn't ever drink again. Cry with the burden of knowing that I must remain disciplined with regard to not drinking if I hope to have any true and lasting happiness in my life. Any real joy and authenticity in my relationships. Any sense of pride in the life I am leading.
So that is the pain of my discipline, my discipline of being an active member of A.A. and not drinking these past 24 years. But when I stop and think about it I see that this discipline of not drinking and drugging, of not acting out on my darker urges, can also be seen as a form of self-love. A form of self-respect. And a beautiful and disciplined way to regain all the self-esteem and confidence I lost while living in active addiction.
I know people today who are engaged in behaviors that cause them considerably more anguish than joy. Addicted individuals who are miserable in their addictions but unable to dig deep and find the discipline required to free themselves from their bondage. I know people who repeatedly do things that flood them with self-loathing. I have colleagues who engage in affairs and and deceptions and betrayals - not just of others, but of themselves and their own happiness. I have one associate who every single year gains a few pounds without fail, while never losing the extra poundage from the previous year’s overeating. This person will vehemently swear that THIS YEAR is the year they get serious about their diet, their exercise, their chronic and misery-inducing overindulgence. And they have sworn this same oath every year for the past 10 years (and 20-plus pounds) that I have known them. But I can't judge anyone for being addicted. I know, through painful experience, just how seductive a "quick fix" to one's inner malaise can be.
But then, after the "quick fix", comes the sharp, shameful, unrelenting pain of regret. The intense regret of doing something over and over and over again, wanting to stop it, and being unable to. Unable to quit the drinking or the smoking or the eating or the shopping or the sloth or the person or the social media scrolling (oh, hello me) or whatever it is that causes the regret. That causes a person to feel bad about themselves. That causes a person to feel the shame of chronically doing something which they know in the long run fuels their unhappiness, their shame and self-loathing. Their regret about who they are, who they have become, and where they are headed.
I know all too well what the pain of regret feels like. It’s deeper and darker and harder to bear, for me anyway, than the sometimes exhausting rigor of a disciplined life.
The pain of regret feels like shame. A deep and toxic shame. It feels sad and hopeless and bottomless. It feels like a quicksand of self-loathing. And every single time that I have switched lanes from the lane of discipline to the lane of doing whatever I think will “help me feel better” I have ended up drowning myself in a suffocating bog of misery.
But there is a silver lining associated with all this "painful" discipline, all this holding ourselves accountable. There quite often arrives, in the aftermath of the sufferings associated with discipline, a deep and lasting joy. A sense of accomplishment. A sense of self assuredness and even something like pride. A sense of control over myself, my actions, my reactions, my cravings, and even over the dark recesses of my mind. There might even emerge, with time and patience, a delicious sense of internal serenity.
Discipline, it turns out, is a superpower.
“In life everyone must choose one of two pains; the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is that discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”