I thought meditation was woo-woo, until it helped me get sober
When I arrived at rehab for my alcohol and cocaine addiction, one of the first things I was handed was a schedule with the day’s activities on it. It included groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I would need to attend, as well as meal times — all the usual things you’d expect to find on a daily rehab schedule.
But I was a little taken aback to see that the first thing on the agenda every morning — from 8 to 8:10 — was meditation. The idea of having to meditate for 10 minutes every day was baffling to me. I immediately chalked it up to hooey or some woo-woo crap.
I skipped as many mornings as I could. When I did participate, I did anything but focus on my breath for the 10 minutes. How could I? My brain had too many other things to think about, and I was pretty sure those things were far more interesting and important than sitting quietly and counting in breaths and out breaths.
I thought about how stupid it was that I had to sit quietly for 10 minutes. I thought about how badly I wanted to peek at the clock so I could see how much time I had left. I thought about how I would probably most definitely drink again when I left treatment. I thought about the fact that I absolutely would not move into a sober house after rehab. And maybe once, maybe twice, over the course of those 10 minutes, I’d focus on my breathing.
While I was sitting there thinking about all the things that were much more interesting and important than meditation, something funny happened. Progressively, I had fewer and fewer thoughts that seemed all that important. Slowly, my brain began to quiet. Instead of focusing on one or two breaths over the course of the 10 minutes, I found myself coming back to that breath every 30 seconds or so. Four months later, when it was time to leave treatment, meditation had become like a sigh of relief for my brain. It became something I looked forward to every morning instead of something I dreaded.
Meditation, it turned out, was something I could carry with me into my day. When I first arrived at rehab, my mind was always racing. It jumped ahead to three Thursdays from now. It played an endless stream of what-ifs. That, in turn, caused a great deal of anxiety because I can’t control the future. I don’t know what will happen in an hour, let alone tomorrow or next week. Inevitably, that stress and uncertainty led to me to pick up alcohol and drugs to quiet my mind.
Meditation gave me the ability to stay present, to find the here and now. It taught me how not to get ahead of myself. To sit with my emotions and my discomfort instead of running from them or numbing them with substances. By learning to sit through uncomfortable feelings, I also got to learn that those feelings — all feelings, in fact, both good and bad — would pass. Candice Rasa, clinical director of Beach House Center for Recovery, says that my experience is a common one.
“During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress,” Rasa explains. “This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.” For me, that looked like an overall calmness and a decrease in my anxiety levels. I also began to explore different kinds of meditation — guided meditations using phone apps, practicing yoga, and repeating a mantra over and over again. Each of these forms of meditation provided something different.
Yoga allowed me to connect my meditation practice to my physical body. As a trauma survivor who often drank and used drugs to cope with my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, I wasn’t used to feeling present in my body. Yoga and progressive muscle relaxation — a form of meditation where you systematically relax every muscle in your body — helped me learn to be present in my body again and to really feel it.
Rasa says that this benefit of meditation, of keeping people in the present, is very important for those of us who are recovering from addiction because “it allows for greater self-awareness... and reduces negative emotions, which leads to [fewer] destructive behaviors, such as picking up drugs and alcohol.”
The most helpful thing anyone ever told me is something that Rasa stresses, too: There is no wrong way to meditate. During those first few weeks when I was thinking about anything other than my breathing, someone told me that if I had focused on my breath even once during those 10 minutes, then I had meditated. Meditation, like anything else, is a practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
Ultimately, meditation became just one of many tools that I use in my recovery. It’s something that I can use at any time, in any place, and I can tailor it to my needs. It’s given me the ability to quiet my brain and find the time to just breathe, which helps bring me back to center — and makes it less likely that I’ll need drugs or alcohol to cope with how I’m feeling. And that, truly, is a gift.