It was on January 1st, 2010 that I made a decision that forever changed my life…
Up until that point, I believed there were aspects of my life that were out of my control. Bad things happened to everyone, especially me, and unfortunate circumstances were not my fault and just part of life. My ‘situations’ were thrust upon me, largely due to a belief that I was a magnet for finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Aside: Seriously? Did I believe that crap? Short answer, yes…yes I did.
The Choice that Determined the Rest of My Life
That cold, wet morning I was awakened by a feeling that wasn’t new to me. It was like I had a 9-inch nail thrust through the middle of one temple, protruding straight through my cranium and exploding out the other side. I could feel my eyes expanding and retracting against my eyelids – pulsing, beat after beat with the throbbing of my temples. Everything hurt. When I finally pried my sweat-laden face from my Berber carpet, peeling open my sleep-crusted eyes, I realized I was home. The piercing daylight peeking through the blinds confirmed the world was still doing fine without me.
As I rose up off the floor I heard laughing from downstairs. My two little girls were giggling as I heard the all too familiar lyrics ring out, “backpack, backpack… backpack, backpack”. Dora, Dora, Dora… oh how I detest thee, let me count the ways.
As I made my way downstairs, I walked down through the clouds of slightly overcooked grilled cheese sandwiches. My wife, Christie, was jamming dishes into the dishwasher as I caught her fleeting glance as she turned her attention back to the dishwasher. Head slightly cocked to the left, even though she wasn’t looking me straight on, I could tell that tinge-o-ginge death-stare was fully locked and loaded. She quickly stood up, put the dishwasher on, grabbed her cup of coffee, turning her attention to the kitchen table. As she sat down she made one hell of a clash, slamming her porcelain happy face mug down on top of the glass-topped kitchen table. The kids didn’t even turn their heads.
I wish I could say this was a one-off occurrence, but we’d been here before. Felt a bit like Groundhog Day — we had been here a lot. But there was something different that day, everything felt off. I felt off. I couldn’t shake the feeling of finality. It was like the moment you realize you’re in a dream and that you have complete control over what happens next. But, in realizing that you are in fact dreaming, you also realize that you are going to wake up and the optimistic world of new possibilities will come to an end.
I felt awake.
In the past, I would make a joke and apologize for drinking myself into a stupor. I’d apologize for every disrespectful or hurtful thing I’d done the night before. I’d defer blame to the people, place or ‘special’ event. “Baby, you know how it goes, it wasn’t my fault…I shouldn’t have had that last drink… I shouldn’t have mixed my alcohols…” and my reasoning continued. Ultimately coming to the conclusion, “That’s the last time I will ever do that. Trust me, I will never drink that much again.”
I felt really awake.
Awake and unhappy – reminiscent of a time in my life when at 14 I faced a similar rock bottom situation. I could blame everything and everyone at that moment, but I knew deep down, without a doubt, that my unhappiness was my choice.
Christie was right (she normally is), it didn’t matter how much good I did as a father, husband, brother, business person, community leader, or whatever label I decided to wear on a given day because it could not outdo one night of poor choices.
I was living a cliché. Alcohol to me was like drugs to an anesthesiologist – it was my numbing agent. It was a crutch I chose to use all too often to escape the responsibilities of life. Life (so I thought) was hard. When faced with stressful situations or choices, it was easier to uncork a bottle of wine or a twist-off of a cap from a bottle of beer. I was conditioned to the “buzz” and “haze” that alcohol enveloped around me. Like my daughter’s safety blanket that soothed her to sleep on restless nights, booze had become that thing I chose to calm myself. It was something I believed I needed and I chose it freely.
Christie was thumbing through the flyers on the table like a cat kneading a litter box before it has its morning sit. I made my way to the table to have a seat. Her eyes glazed over as her gaze came to fix itself on the .99 cent cans of tuna. She stopped then looked up at me. For all that know Christie, she is the most caring, generous, uplifting person you will ever meet. She has a way of making you believe you can do anything you want and that no obstacle is too daunting. Christie is the one person who never lost hope in me, even in my most depressed states, and on my misguided days, she was always there to love me. But the look I got from her that morning on January 1st, 2010, was like nothing I’d ever seen before. At that moment, I knew I had lost her.
Einstein once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Based on my lifestyle choices I was downright loony. I was at a crossroads. I could continue doing what I was doing, choosing to make drinking my frequent reprieve from life, or I could own my current life at that exact moment and start making choices that added sunlight to my life and not shelter myself in darkness.
Before Christie could say anything, I asked her to come to join the kids on the couch so I could tell them something very important. Not amused and seemingly disinterested, Christie stood up and made her way to the girls and sat down between them, throwing her long slender arms around their tiny shoulders, pulling them in close to her bosom. She gave them a big squeeze, smiles filling their faces. I sat down at the coffee table in front of the TV, Chardonae and Brie stretched their necks to see what grand adventure Dora had to tackle next. They sighed as I turned off the TV.
“Girls, Daddy has something I want to tell you.” My eyes swept over them, “I’m not going to be drinking anymore.”
Chardonae, my eldest, stared at me through her glasses. Due to a lazy eye needing strengthening, her eyes appeared three times their actual size when she gazed through her prescription lenses. Such beautiful eyes, and when she looked at me I could tell she saw her shiny prince – her hero – her dad. “No more coffee, Daddy?” she blurted.
“No baby, daddy isn’t going to be drinking ‘special adult’ drinks anymore”, I replied. “I’m going to need your help though. You, Brie and Mommy too. I’m making some changes.”
Brie looked at me, “What about pop?”
“Pop, coffee, bubbly water, those are drinks I choose to drink still. But I’m not going to be drinking any of the adult drinks like wine and beer. You know what I mean?” I made sure to look them each in the eye, looking for acceptance, remembering to smile with my eyes like Christie always does.
They both smiled and nodded. “Can we see what happens to Dora?” Brie asked.
“Yes, baby, let’s see what adventure she has coming up next.” I felt my eyes watering up as I stood up and made my way back to the kitchen table. Christie followed.
She sat down. Not saying a word. Reached out and grabbed my hand pulling me in close, and hugging me so tightly I could feel the air being wrung from my lungs. It felt amazing. I never wanted the feeling to end.
Christie whispered in my ear, “I’m not ready to give up on you, Dai.” “You have a lot of work to do, but we’ll support you. But if you aren’t making this decision for you…”
I sobbed. She stopped talking. The sun warmed my back as she caressed my neck. That was the first day of the rest of my life.
Did the Bottle Choose Me or Did I Choose the Bottle?
Before you jump to conclusions or try to guess the “why” behind my actions, let me share a few things with you. I was never a compulsive drinker; I didn’t drink every day; I wasn’t a “bad drunk” or for that matter even a “good drunk”, but what I was most of all was unhappy.
Christie often asks me, “Are you being the type of man you would want to marry your daughters one day?”
My decisions and actions didn’t reflect the type of man I wanted to be. No one person wakes up one day and says today I’m going to be a drunk. Alcohol wasn’t the culprit – it had no power over me. I chose to drink as a way to escape, making my decisions freely and without coercion. Drinking alcohol, like many other decisions I made in my life at that time further reinforced, and added to, my unhappiness.
So, why am I sharing this story with you now?
Over the past few years, I’ve shared parts of this story during keynotes, podcast interviews, and most recently in my book the Whole Life Fitness Manifesto. To be honest, until my recent conversations with Saint Jude Retreats (www.soberforever.net), I couldn’t figure out exactly how I could help others achieve similar results. I knew what I had gone through, and continued to go through, was not the typical form of treatment (i.e. 12 step programs).
Why I believe a non-12-Step approach to treatment is worth exploring
The few years before giving up alcohol, I had failed many times as empty promises went unfulfilled to my family and loved ones (and most importantly myself). I remember thinking I must have a problem; I’m a failure; there’s something clearly wrong with me… after all, I keep choosing to put myself in these situations. I keep choosing to drink instead of following through on other commitments – even though they were the right things to do based on what I wanted in my life.
And so, I continuously opted for what I perceived as ‘easier’ and when given the chance would opt for the easy way round most of the time. Realizing that I was a walking cliché and based on my first research, I was led to a number of treatment groups. There I purchased books and digested an inordinate amount of literature detailing the process for a variety of “12-step” based programs. I struggled with coming to terms with why I couldn’t make the decision to change go beyond just a few months.
I felt like a failure.
I visited the website after the website, meeting after meeting, and found the same themes appearing, again and again, reminding me that:
- I’m powerless
- I’m filled with guilt, regret, and shame
- I’m doomed to live a future tainted by my past transgressions and,
- I must resolve to learn to live in a world of recovery and endless treatment.
This all seemed counter-intuitive to what I believed.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not here to say treatment programs don’t work, but I struggle with advocating the ‘disease model’ of addiction. I found the underlying messages weren’t congruent with what I wanted — I wanted to be in control of my life along with the decisions and actions within it. However, based on the treatment model I found myself within, I was reminded over and over that it wouldn’t be possible because alcohol had a power over me and ultimately, my life. Until I submitted myself fully to that core belief, there would be nothing I could do to break the cycle of ‘addiction’.
My thoughts on all this? “No way, man!! There’s got to be another way!”
Alcohol Misuse was My Excuse!
It was a bad habit used to shirk my life responsibilities and numb pain from emotional issues I’d been harboring my entire life. My lifestyle choices were not in alignment with who I wanted to be nor the life I was trying to live.
When we started our conversations, it was obvious that I and Saint Jude Retreats share a number of beliefs and values. Unknown to me, the process I found myself going through back in 2010 is something they’ve been working on for 26 years. Their entire system is set up to empower people with owning their decisions and happiness. The method for their system is based on Cognitive Behavioral Learning, which is a well-defined and thought out system for voluntary positive change based on free will and personal autonomy — they call this the “Freedom Model”.
When I started to explore this model, I realized it wasn’t new to me. I’ve experienced parts of the Freedom Model at various times in my life, including when I first overcame morbid obesity as a young teen, then 8 years later when I overcame body dysmorphia, and most recently when I chose to stop drinking alcohol in 2010.
The Freedom Model Triad and 4 Axioms that are hard to deny
The Freedom Model Triad, FMT for short, is composed of “3 vital, natural, undeniable and universal gifts all humans possess internally at birth”:
- The Positive Drive Principle (PDP) – this principle is the basis of all internal human motivation (including yours). It states: “All people always move in the direction of what they believe will make them happiest at every given moment in time.”
- Free will – you can, and do, choose all of your own thoughts and all of your behaviors based on your internal freedom of will.
- Personal Autonomy – you are a separate, completely independent being from all others, with thoughts that are yours and yours alone. This makes you completely free from the control of all others.
Thus the FMT can be summed up in one short and concise sentence:
All people have the natural right, the ability and the inherent tools to think freely within themselves and independently of all others, and can, and do, exercise and express those thoughts as behaviors through free will and free choice, from birth to death and that at any and every given instant in time a single internal drive motivates every human being: the pursuit of happiness.
When I first read this, I yelled to Christie in the other room, “That’s it! This is what I’m talking about in my book [WLFM]… Holy crap! I wish I knew about this [FMT] a long time ago. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache.”
My MIND was BLOWN!
Without knowing it, the FMT was happening and helping me through each major decision I’ve made in my life. I’m not a psychologist, behaviorist, or any other -ist for that matter, but I know people. And I know what worked for me and a number of other people who I've seen overcome tremendous adversities in life. In particular, people who have released significant amounts of weight or overcome health complications created through poor lifestyle choices. More impressive still is that they’ve kept the weight off their entire life and continue to make positive choices each day that reinforce the new lifestyle they’ve created. They have chosen to pursue a happier and healthier life.
(And just to hammer this point home, I've included a clip of one of my favorite scenes from ‘The Pursuit of Happyness' – don't ever let anyone tell you what you can and can't do!)
This isn’t a one-off or some extraordinary circumstance, it happens often in the world. People overcome physical hardships, unhealthy habits, and mental barriers every day, but they share one commonality – choosing to change not for anyone else BUT for themselves. The choice to pursue a better outcome, something that made them happy, and not continue to make decisions that would lead further away, and into debilitating sadness.
As I explore my past actions and significant lifestyle choices I made 6 years ago, there's one blaring, underlying theme that keeps coming to the forefront… “Power of Association”.
6 years ago I realized that my circle of influence – the people I was hanging around with 80% of the time – were not supportive of the changes I wanted to make in my life. I had to make some (at the time) tough decisions. I realized many of my social circles fed into the lifestyle choices and direction I was traveling, and the psychological inputs they were providing were not conducive to what I wanted in life. I severed those ties. Changed my inputs, so I was feeding my mind with positive thoughts, engaging-growth focused conversations, and people with value systems I wanted to emulate. It was like I turned on a light switch.
Using the Kaizen principle, the Japanese process for continuous and gradual improvement, I would make small positive decisions that would bring me closer to my goal. One small decision, then another, followed by another, which would eventually lead me to something far greater and sustainable. In this case, it was my happiness.
I know what you’re thinking… ‘This sounds like it has all the makings of an after school TV special’. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that, but I challenge you to ask yourself WHY would you think that.
The internal debate will ensue much as it did for me. Here are just a few of the questions I battled:
Am I truly powerless against certain things in my life? Was I addicted to food? To physical and mental attention? To self-loathing? To alcohol and other substances? Is there such a thing as addiction?
4 statements that are hard to deny
The more I explored these questions and took the time to learn about me, I’ve realized that the Cognitive Behavioral Education’s 4 axioms are universally true.
- Change is constant;
- I’m a product of what I think;
- my thoughts lead to actions, all of which have consequences (there’s no free lunch!); and lastly;
- my happiness is in my hands.
Six years ago I made a personal choice that affected my life and the lives of those closest to me.
I chose ME.
Over the coming months, I plan to expand, explore and educate myself about the options available to help people choose a path that leads to personal happiness and not being lost to an unsustainable, roundabout detour of grief, guilt, and shame.
My goal, along with the help of Saint Jude Retreats is to help people gain control over their own lives and affect lasting changes in their attitudes, motivations, choices, and behaviors. Taking personal responsibility and building back one’s dignity by overcoming obstacles in life, creating personal empowerment, and doing whatever it takes to achieve the happiness and success desired, regardless of how many people say it’s impossible — that’s what this is all about.
My eyes have been opened to another way of dealing with the hard choices we all face in life from time to time. If you knew your choice to make a change would bring you greater happiness and value to your life, would that not be motivation enough?
The choice of making a change is simple but simply does NOT mean it’s easy. On January 1st, 2010, I chose ME over a bottle, and not because I had to, but because I wanted to. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it is one that I’m forever grateful for making.
What habits do you experience in your life that prevent you from achieving long-term, sustained happiness?
Please feel free to email me privately or share your comments below.
Don't stop here, check out the other articles from the Addiction for Life series