The inspiration for this blog post came in the wee hours of the night, while I was scrolling through Instagram instead of going to bed at a reasonable time – as so often happens with my overstimulated “night owl” mind. In doing so, I was fed an enticing confluence of posts… well, two, to be exact. The first was from a psychoanalyst who described what we can do to resist a strange phenomenon called “repetition compulsion.” (Don’t worry, I’ll define that in a bit). The second was a reel from @therapyjeff about the feeling of loss that can accompany settling into a romantic relationship after the honeymoon phase dies down.
The result was me tying everything back to patterns of heavy drinking, like I often do, and furiously typing ideas into the Notes app on my phone before they escaped me.
So, how do these things come together?
Setting the Stage with Booze
I’ll get to @therapyjeff later on. First, I’ll need to describe “repetition compulsion.” The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines this as a concept from psychoanalysis involving “an unconscious need to reenact early traumas in the attempt to overcome or master them. Such traumas are repeated in a new situation symbolic of the repressed prototype.” It sounds a little wonky and convoluted, but this is how it works…
Traumas often lead to deep-seated and long-lasting fears, like the fear of abandonment, failure, or loss of autonomy. That fear (counterintuitively) can drive us to seek out situations of chaos and danger because they create a turbulent environment that resembles the one where our traumatic experience took place. Our fears, hurt, and anger have kept us stuck in trauma’s aftermath. By rekindling this dynamic, we prepare ourselves with a stage on which to reenact our response to the aggressor, another chance to do something where we once felt powerless, in the hopes of triumphing over whatever it is that threatens us.
You can find out more about repetition compulsion here.
A very straightforward route to creating this kind of chaos comes via alcohol. It’s a path most of us are unconscious of even setting foot on, as heavy drinking creeps up on us, entrenched in our culture’s coming of age. If we have unresolved trauma, particularly from childhood or adolescent development, it’s easy to fall into a cycle where we compulsively repeat both heavy drinking and the self-destructive behaviors that accompany it because doing so creates a tense environment that suggests the opportunity for change.
When we fail in effecting that change, we try and try again. But the pain and fear originating from past trauma persist, sometimes elevated due to the new consequences of our well-intentioned but ill-directed behavior.
One of the hosts of my new favorite podcast, Petty Crimes, described how alcohol can make it blatantly obvious when someone is going through something difficult, causing them to get belligerently drunk and to project their hurt onto those in their immediate vicinity. It’s clear that they lack attention where they really need it. They’re almost screaming for notice – forcing others to contribute that missing attention by taking care of and cleaning up for them.
In the case of myself and many women I know, relationship or breakup-related pain can give us cause to drink and act out – but pain and anger related to traumas rooted in family relationships, death and loss, discrimination and marginalization, and other factors can also lay the messy groundwork.
Scratching the Dark and Stormy Itch
Looking back, I can see that in my heavy drinking years, I was trying to overcome the shattering sense of abandonment I’d experienced due to a breakup that impacted me in a way that I can only define as deeply traumatic. In its wake, I drunkenly sought out romantic entanglements that without fail led to rejection, hoping against hope that someone would pull through and give me the sense of security and validation I so deeply lacked. Instead, I only led myself to experience that rejection pain over and over again… and to do or say other things I regretted as a result of alcohol myopia.
At times, I felt the fresh (albeit, soft) breath of empowerment at the back of my neck when I moved on from someone without a feeling of unrequited desire. That was all the soothing I needed at the time – just enough to nudge me onward in the same compulsive cycle. More often, I was out there conducting the “petty crime” of getting obnoxiously drunk because there was a gaping void inside, and I wasn’t well-versed in healthy ways of expressing that or fixing it.
In the long term, compulsive repetition didn’t work for me – and it rarely works for anyone else. Cycles only feed themselves. Recreating traumatic situations by acting out in unhealthy ways increases the salience of the pain we’re trying to overcome. It reinforces an ugly pattern. We’re scratching an itch, and the more we do it, the more infected it gets.
Heavy drinking tends to fuel the pattern. It’s very difficult to break out of repetition compulsion without quitting or cutting way back. Despite my most desperate efforts, I didn’t come close to resolving or triumphing over any of my earlier traumas until I gave up alcohol. Only sobriety could provide me with distance from that pain, giving me enough clarity of mind to break free from the vicious cycle.
This pattern of creating turbulence has been difficult for me to escape. Even now – though I do it in much smaller ways, and in my head, through rumination. I also occasionally self-soothe by catastrophizing and imagining myself mistreated by loved ones or strangers. There is a sort of righteousness in feeling wronged. But I’m aware of this tendency, where it came from, what it serves and what it doesn’t. I understand the cathartic nature of the exercise. I can acknowledge these thoughts, contextualize them, and move on. Still, the effects of trauma don’t leave easy.
Self-reflection isn’t always enough to get over this pattern. Doing so may require a support group, therapy, or other means. I’m a believer that therapy is a good option for just about everyone at some point in their lives. I participated in both a Smart Recovery support group and individual therapy for a year or so after quitting. And I don’t think I would have had as smooth, as enriching, or as enlightening a transition to sober life if I had gone about it on my own.
Stretching Our Way Out of the Doldrums
Back to @therapyjeff… it’s here where I start to see a lot of parallels between what he describes as a lull of boredom and disillusionment after we’ve been in relationships for a while, and what happens in sobriety after we come down from the initial excitement of the “pink cloud.” In both cases, things tend to settle into a more regular rhythm. Like those who’ve experienced war, leaving the toxic environment of drinking or the early stages of a developing relationship – often as chaotic as they are exciting – can lead us to feel jaded and disappointed. Many people start to feel an unexpected sense of loss or grief.
With sobriety, we also give up our simple source of generating the tension we relied upon to work towards triumphing over our fears. We must deal with those fears and the traumas that created them directly. This is harder… and scarier. But it’s also more effective.
Stability is the aim of overcoming trauma. But when it arrives, it may not feel like the nirvana we expected. At least not permanently. When the sameness sets in, we sometimes miss the stimulation and euphoria of drinking or the honeymoon phase with our partner – the acute desire, the drama, the ups and downs, the unknowns, the story ever unfolding. We resent our new steady path, forgetting the hurt, desperation, and anxiety that often accompanied the earlier chaos.
Periodic boredom is a given. But we can create a spark in healthier ways and have fun with that process. Getting outside of our comfort zone can help us to add novelty and grow in ways we never imagined, gaining a real, lasting sense of empowerment and self-efficacy, as opposed to the facsimile of stability we sought through reenacting our fears and traumas on the drunken stage.
In my case, this has meant writing, learning a new language, joining interest groups to push myself out of introversion and broaden my connectivity to others, and other exciting adventures that I’ll leave for my next post. What constitutes novelty and getting outside of one’s comfort zone will vary. Stretching the self is an independent endeavor, contingent upon what motivates and challenges each one of us.
Of course, just as with our limbs, flexibility takes time. We must be careful not to overstretch in the early stages of sobriety. For some changes, like starting new relationships, transitioning jobs, or moving long distances, the results are unpredictable. While our self-image is still healing and vulnerable, failure can hit us hard. So proceed with a healthy amount of caution, especially at first. With consideration of risk and your own resilience. With sober baby steps.
But do proceed, as getting out of your comfort zone can open new worlds of possibility. And this innate resource of ours will be critical when the lull of sober normalcy hits.
Challenging Ourselves Toward Empowerment
When confronted with fear or reminded of trauma, turning to negative coping behaviors or crutches like alcohol may seem easier at first. But it will, almost without fail, route us toward heavier drinking and the vast extended family of self-harming behaviors that accompany it.
Fear is an inherent and inescapable human emotion. When we recognize that and cut off destructive inputs that only make it worse, we can define our own, healthier coping mechanisms. We can seek security and safety in more constructive ways. With heavy drinking and its toxic friends out of the picture, we’re able to create chaos elsewhere – by challenging ourselves with pursuits in other realms like the creative, intellectual, athletic, and charitable.
Sobriety allows us to create new identities for ourselves and to nurture previous ones that were drowned out by booze. What’s more, we develop a personalized and reliable accelerator to help us through times of boredom and disillusionment.
The repetition compulsion isn’t unique to heavy drinkers, but it’s certainly common among them. Everyone experiences some degree of fear. Regardless of whether we drink, it’s critical to find and nurture our own healthy spark to combat it. For those with trauma to overcome, challenging ourselves provides us with a way out of the chaos loop, a path forward. And that is where we create a real, lasting sense of empowerment.