Drug addiction and alcoholism are two of the most destructive, life-changing diseases that any person can struggle with.
For many who are affected by addiction, the road to recovery is long and winding.
Though we never like to think about the possibility of relapsing or the chance that someone we love might relapse, it is a very real danger for many, especially in the early stages of recovery.
Emotional upset, turmoil, grief, and other negative experiences and emotions represent the most pressing risk to sobriety for many recovering addicts and alcoholics.
Until recently it was simply accepted that this was a fact.
Recent research and thinking on the subject has suggested that this needn’t be the case and that the cause of this increased risk of relapse has less to do with the events or emotions themselves, and more to do with how we process them.
According to medical professionals like Sheri Van Dijk, it is particularly to do with the difference between pain and suffering, and how we cope with the reality of negative situations.
Van Dijk outlines the two as separate feelings which should be understood and addressed in order to cope with negative situation and emotions.
Pain, Van Dijk states, is the natural result of the negative or traumatic experiences that are a part of everyday life.
Grief, loss, abuse, mental illness, or trauma associated with accidents all cause us psychological and emotional pain.
This is entirely understandable and natural, and there is no reason why it should cause us to act in a way that is damaging to our health and wellbeing.
In contrast, suffering is the result of our inability or unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation that has caused us pain.
When we fight our reality and focus on the unfairness of a situation, or plague ourselves with ‘what ifs’ and ‘should have beens’ suffering is the result.
It is suffering, Van Dijk argues, that increases the risk of unhealthy coping mechanisms and behaviours such as substance abuse, gambling, drinking, or excessive promiscuity in risky and unsafe situations.
Those who struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction, of course, are at most risk of relapse when a relationship ends, a loved one dies, or a serious upheaval occurs within their personal life.
Research conducted by healthcare professionals like Van Dijk, however, suggests that it is suffering, not natural pain, which increases the risk of relapse.
They argue that part of the solution lies in a facet of dialectical behavioural therapy known as ‘radical acceptance’.
Radical acceptance has proven to be just that for many people; a radical concept that causes them to question the validity of the process that is being recommended.
This is because they have set perception of what ‘acceptance’ means.
This means that it is often most productive, to begin with, what radical acceptance is not.
There are many myths about what radical acceptance means.
These three misconceptions, in particular, are the most likely to make people turn away from dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).
Radical acceptance does not mean that you agree with or condone the situation or events which led to your pain.
It means that you recognise the facts of the event or situation in their entirety, including the pain they have caused you.
For example, if your spouse is unfaithful and your marriage breaks down as a result of this, radical acceptance does not mean condoning their betrayal or even forgiving them.
It means accepting that they did what they did and that your marriage is over as a result.
From this place of recognition and acceptance, you can then think about what you as an individual need to do in order to process your pain, heal, and move forward.
Victimhood, first of all, is not the same as being victimised; the first is wallowing in a situation that makes you angry, sad, or unhappy, the second is something which happens to you.
Radical acceptance does not promote victimhood, in fact, it does the opposite.
By experiencing your painfully, and accepting the reality of the situation you are in it is possible to take back control and choose how to proceed with clarity.
For example, if a person is raped it is common for them to feel that they are stuck with the label of ‘rape victim’ forever.
By using radical acceptance to face and recognise the facts of their current position they can begin to heal and make choices that put distance between them and this horrible event.
Denial and avoidance are common, and unhealthy, coping mechanisms when faced with a traumatic experience.
Radical acceptance is neither of these things, however, but rather facing the full magnitude of a situation as it is, and reacting accordingly.
For example, a person rendered unable to walk as the result of a car accident will face many emotions. Grief, panic, anger, a sense of disappointment in the way their life has been entirely changed.
Those denying or avoiding the situation might convince themselves that they will be able to walk again with the right surgery or treatment or avoid getting into a wheelchair by staying in bed and playing video games.
Those employing radical acceptance, by contrast, will work to accept the fact of what happened, and the reality of their capabilities now in order to find a way of living that is compatible with these facts and still gives them joy.
For those struggling with addiction and alcoholism, radical acceptance represents a chance to drastically reduce the likelihood of relapse, but also to improve the chances of a successful, sober future.
By practising radical acceptance, you put yourself in a position of clarity and calm whereby you can make measured choices which are logically best for you.
The truth is that no-one chooses to become an alcoholic or drug addict, no-one plans on fighting with addiction in their adult life.
This is why so many people who are affected by addiction often find the reality of their lives unbearable; the anger, the pain they cause to themselves and others, the regrets they hold about the lives they could have led.
This is why the first step in programmes like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) is to accept that there is a problem, and facing the reality the pain caused by addiction comes later.
The pain that these facts cause those who struggle with addiction is too great, and so they fight it, suffer as a result, and very often turn to the substance they were trying to escape in order to cope.
Acceptance of your reality, as we have previously noted, does not mean approving of, condoning, or liking the facts of the situation.
Many of those who struggle with addiction have past trauma which fuels their dependence on alcohol or narcotics, and while radical acceptance demands that these facts be faced it does not mean that you must forgive, condone, or approve of the things done to or by you.
Fighting your reality means asking “why me?”, thinking “this shouldn’t have happened”, “I don’t deserve this”, or “I don’t have to deal with this, it’s not my problem”.
Many of the things we think when fighting or denying our reality are true; we may not deserve to be in our situation, many of the things that caused us pain should not have happened, there may even be issues that we do not need to face.
Radical acceptance means accepting these thoughts as well as the facts of what happened.
For example, an alcoholic who struggles with memories of childhood abuse may turn to alcohol in order to forget or cope with their memories.
It is undeniably true that they should not have been abused, that they did not deserve to be abused, and that they could go on ignoring and avoiding their memories until the end of their life.
Nonetheless, by denying their past, their trauma, their pain, and their addiction they are causing themselves to suffer.
By turning to radical acceptance to face the reality of the events which brought them to their current position, however, they can begin to heal and plan for a brighter, healthier, happier future.
In this sense, radical acceptance has been a part of recovery since the advent of the 12 step programme pioneered by AA.
In practice, radical acceptance means letting go of the idea that we can control what already is, and instead of learning to accept how things are regardless of our feelings, or moral judgements, on the matter.
For those seeking to use DBT as a part of their recovery, this means, firstly, accepting that there is a problem with addiction (of any kind) and that they need help in order to overcome it.
Of course, learning to accept our own reality is hard when we have made a life which revolves around denying, obscuring, and avoiding it.
The path to total acceptance is different for every person, just as the path to sobriety differs for each person, but Sheri Van Dijk does suggest that there are four key steps in achieving functional, radical acceptance:
It is true that neither you, nor anyone else, can force radical acceptance; this is a commitment that you make to yourself, and a skill that only you can hone.
However, once you begin to develop this skill you will notice that while the pain of negative experiences remains, the inner struggle and suffering attached to them begins to decrease.
With this comes the ability to choose how you react to upheaval, grief, and loss without turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol, narcotics, and gambling.
As a result, the process of recovery is more bearable for many of those who put their faith in radical acceptance while struggling with addiction.