I’ll give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind.
The Beatles – I’m So Tired
When I was still in college, a naive psychology major nearing graduation, I took a job working at a well-known drug and alcohol rehab to get some field experience. I was about 20 at the time, with plenty of classes under my belt but little else to show for it. It was difficult work, even by normal standards. The facility was an hour away from where I lived, the hours were 4:00 p.m. to midnight. I was the sole staff member in what was called an “extended care” facility, meaning that the patients were done with their first 30 or 60 days at the main facility and needed more time before being “released” back into their newly sober lives.
The pathology unleashed after previously self-medicated drug users now found themselves without coping mechanisms for the very raw and real emotions they now faced was enough to scare anyone away from the field. I’m the type of person who wants nothing more than to help people, and extremely susceptible to being manipulated by people like drug addicts and alcoholics. Having an alcoholic parent leaves many triggers that other addicts can easily find and press. It was not long before I would leave each day exhausted, heartbroken and abused by these people who were trying to get well. The worst of which were the celebrity patients who, in addition to all the above characteristics, also expected to be treated with exception.
The one thing I learned in interacting with them, all of them, was that for all their wealth, power and influence, with all the drugs or alcohol they could handle, for all the things they could “get,” peace of mind was just not one of them. It was the one thing they could not purchase, manipulate or cajole. The sadness there, I felt too, was the constant idea that scratched in the back of their minds like a trapped rat.
Rehabs teach the serenity prayer, which sounds so lovely in writing. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” It is one of those mantras we are supposed to tap whenever we feel weak or sad or overwhelmed. It is intended to be reassuring, because just about any of the things we could encounter in life fit neatly into those categories.
In practice, serenity is not this fluffy cloud of wisdom that we get to sit on as our troubles are seamlessly filtered into the two categories as we deem them to fit. It is the trapped rat, panicked, scratching to find a way out of a helpless situation. Where we feel discomfort, whether from something we are experiencing in the moment or a haunting thought, fixation or memory we cannot shake this feeling from our consciousness.
It requires a huge component of introspection and self-awareness, combined with the willingness to remove emotion from a series of events as we experience them and the clarity of mind to make an informed decision on how to continue perceiving the situation. Sometimes the rat settles and is quiet; other times you must find it, remove him from the trap and let the poor creature go.
As nice as that feeling of release sounds, as happy as the word serenity makes us feel, the practical experience of hard inner work is not easy. Even if you are successful in changing how you feel about something, you do not exist in a vacuum. Serenity is also coming up with a workable strategy for coping with the people in your life tied to the same experience. For the addicted and non-addicted alike, it is the enablers who allow the use to take place, the abusers who inflict the harm on them to begin with which they seek to medicate away and likely the inner demons we all carry that rationalize the easier, yet more dysfunctional behavior.
Serenity is not a calm pond of still water. It is a battle ground of not only doing right by one’s self, but also by others. It is the root of all compromise, and hopefully, at the end of the day, being able to look at yourself in the mirror satisfied. It is the sad resolve that we must accept our mistakes, learn our hard won lessons, forgive ourselves and hopefully others. It is the key to moving on. There are no shortcuts here, only the willingness to do the hard work, to look inward first, seek awareness, commit to do better and then let go.