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At Your Age, You Should Know Better

Posted by on in Alcoholism
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Over the last 12 years, I've done a lot of self-study about what kept me in lock step with the powerful disease of addiction. I've peeled myself back, layer by layer, to unveil the root causes for this.

One of the most profound things I uncovered during that investigation was how the toxic phrase “I should know better” directed my life.

Growing up, I heard, " Honestly, Alison you really should know better” on a rather regular basis. This phrase was so ingrained into my head that as I grew older, if I found myself in a bad spot, within a second I’d think, “Ugh! I should have known better!”

For the average person, a reflection like that is nothing more than a casual check-in.

Not so for someone who lived for decades underneath the addictive, obsessive diseases of alcoholism and an eating disorder. For someone like me, that statement is monumentally damaging.

When those words about knowing better would float through my head, I equated them to mean I had said or done something identified as an error. Thus the message received was, “you made a wrong choice, and therefore YOU are wrong.”

Oh, but I didn't stop there! I would continue this mental beat-down, internally telling myself the things like, “You should be ashamed of yourself, acting this way at your age” leading to, “You’re a failure as an adult” which turned to, “And because you’re a failure, you’re not acceptable.”

In that one simple statement about how I should have known better, I found myself catapulting down a path of never-ending, terribly damaging, and negative self-talk. The pervasive cycle went on and on and on.

Everyone who has lived with the insidious disease of addiction can imagine how strongly this sequence of messaging destroys. For me, this was most profoundly conveyed in painful moments like when I’d wake up not remembering what I had done the night before or when I stepped off the scale for the 15th time in one day.

In those embarrassingly shameful moments, the self-talk would be, “My God, someone my age should know better. I shouldn't be behaving like this.  I’ve failed once again.”  I’d hear these messages in a continuous loop for hours on end.

This mental punishment would become so powerful I often wondered if I even had the right to breathe the same air as those around me. Toward the end of living in the hell of my additions, my only source of relief was to isolate. I felt being alone was the only solution.

I had no idea there was another solution. I had no idea that other people might know how to break free from this mental and physical seclusion. I had no idea my age had nothing to do with my ability or inability to help myself.

Yet when I finally accepted the idea to reach out, I found my way out.

There is a belief that people with addictions have stopped maturing emotionally beyond the age in which they first used their substance of choice. The year listed on my birth certificate had absolutely nothing to do with how I had been navigating life.   Although I walked with complete confidence I was a very mature woman, the truth is I was skipping along like that of a child with complete disregard for how to handle life as an adult. Prior to recovery, I was mature only on paper. My actions, reactions and behaviors were those of someone far younger than my physical self.

I had my first “all out” drinking experience when I was 13. When I entered the treatment center to combat alcoholism I was 40. Although I was physically a woman in mid-life, I had been perceiving life through the lens of a young teenager.

My eating habits began to be under observation when I was 10 or 11. I sat with a dietician at the age of 12. When I barely walked through the doors of an eating disorder treatment center at the age of 46, I was emotionally a little girl with a body to match.

As much as my head continued to tell me I “should” have known better than to drink to the extent I did or starve myself to near-death, I was clearly incapable of doing so. Maybe I should have known better based on my birth certificate. Yet the truth is I didn't know any better than a little girl would know how to handle life as a grown woman.

So I took the time to find and understand that little girl inside. Once I did, I allowed her the space and time to mature into the person I am today.

While I hope I still experience life with a bit of child-like wonder, I know my actions and words are those of a healthy, peaceful, grateful “seasoned” woman.

Alison Smela, is in long-term recovery from alcohol and an eating disorder following a 30-year struggle with both. She’s an active member of a 12-Step Recovery fellowship and serves on the Board of Directors for MentorCONNECT, the first global non-profit online eating disorder mentoring community. Alison is also a writer and author of the forthcoming book, “Slow Down. Breathe. Recover” while she maintains her blog, “Alison’s Insights” focused on the life lessons she’s learned through the course of her recovery process.

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