Recovering from the committee in my head
By Beth H.
We frequently hear talk in the rooms of AA about “the committee”, or the different thoughts and voices swirling around in our heads, often giving us conflicting messages or bad advice. In my sobriety, I have benefitted tremendously by taking the time to identify those voices. I had no clue who the real Beth was when I got sober; I thought all of those voices were me, or else why would they be in my head?
Will the real Beth please stand up?
What follows is a list of voices in my head that are not the real me, and that have far less power over me than they did prior to being recognized, named, and distinguished from my own true voice.
The first voice I learned to identify, which is crucial to staying sober, is the one I call The Disease. Rational Recovery calls this voice The Beast. It is the voice of addiction, the part of alcoholism that is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It told me I would never be able to eat pizza or Mexican food again if I got sober. It told me, during one particularly difficult emotional time during my sobriety when I coped by overeating, “You’re not in recovery. You just switched addictions. You might as well drink.” Thank goodness for my friends in the program who assured me that was false; I wouldn’t have my kids taken away for being overweight; I wouldn’t get arrested or kill anyone because of driving while fat; etc.
In labeling this voice I am able to recognize that I don’t want a drink; the Beast woke up and wants a drink. The Disease cares about its own survival, not my survival. This voice tries to employ many psychological tricks on me. Here are some of them:
Deny. “You’re not really an alcoholic. It’s not in your family. Your three siblings who were once in recovery have all been back to drinking for years now, and they don’t seem to be getting any worse.” It clearly IS in my family if it has affected four of the kids. The Disease is trying to tell me I’m not an alcoholic because I may not have a genetic predisposition. It ignores the childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect that is another source of alcoholism. I don’t know if my siblings are getting worse because I don’t live inside their heads. I know they are not being arrested or hospitalized, but they may well be living with shame, guilt, and incomprehensible demoralization. Does that really sound like a better choice for me?
“Nothing bad will happen if I just have one or two drinks.” Yes it will. It may not happen that night, but it will absolutely fan the flame of alcoholism lurking in my body and I will be off and running. I know from relapsing on cigarettes exactly how it happens. I have one; nothing bad happens so a couple days later I have another; I have two because I think I’m still in control; then two a day, ok three; ok, now I owe so many people cigarettes that I have to buy a pack to repay them; I better buy two packs because I can’t repay somebody and immediately bum it back (for alcohol, the Disease would say it’s more economical to buy larger quantities); and now I’m smoking a pack a day and it took four weeks to get there. The absolute worst thing that could happen to me is to have one or two drinks and believe I got away with it. Or I could lose control with the first drink. Neither outcome is good.
Minimize. “Your drinking wasn’t really that bad. Not as bad as these other people’s. You don’t need to be here at a meeting.” It was bad enough to get me here. I couldn’t control it. I know in my heart of hearts that I cannot stay sober by myself, because I tried. I absolutely do need to be in a meeting. This is my own truth; that other voice is The Disease trying to get me drunk.
Rationalize. “Other people are drinking with impunity. Everybody does it. So can you.” These are all lies. Some people may drink with impunity, but I now know a whole lot of people for whom that is not the case. Everybody doesn’t drink, and many people who drink have adverse consequences. I have already proven that I belong to the group who cannot drink safely. The Disease wants me to ignore the truth and buy into its lies and get drunk.
“This book that is telling me things I don’t want to hear has bad grammar and punctuation errors. I don’t have to take advice from somebody who can’t get those things right.” The Disease is afraid that its power over me may be lessened if I actually hear the message. All the more reason I need to hear it.
Justify. “You deserve to have a drink today because (fill in the blank).” Absolutely false. Nothing going on either outside of me or inside of me will be made better by drinking. My true self knows this. The Disease tries to convince me otherwise because it is fighting for its own survival, not mine.
Intellectualize. “Well, you know, the disease concept is highly debatable, and there’s no reason you should be locked into it when it may not even be true.” I don’t need definitive scientific evidence that I have a problem with alcohol that I can’t control by myself. I have lots of empirical evidence. Let the debate continue; there are lots of things we don’t know for sure, but I for sure know my own experience.
These thoughts follow regular patterns similar to the examples I gave, and it gets easier to identify them with practice. Once I realize that I am minimizing (key words – “not that bad”), justifying (key words – “I deserve because…”), etc., the second step is to say, “Who or what is being served by this trick?” Any voice that is leading me toward the first drink is The Disease. Whiskey is OK if I mix it with milk? (Denial – whiskey is alcohol, no matter what I mix it with.) That is not me talking. That is The Disease trying to take control of my mind. Don’t listen to it. It is liar. Don’t trust a thing it says.
The Critical Parent or the Voice of Shame
I have been plagued with this voice since long before I started drinking. In fact, I used alcohol to try to silence it. In sobriety I needed to find another way to make it go away. This voice says things to me like: “There’s no excuse for you. How do you justify your existence?” (Clearly my mother, almost a direct quote.) “No man will ever be attracted to you.” “No matter what you do, it is not good enough.” (Thanks Dad.) “No matter what you are, it is not enough.” “You came in second; what a waste!” “You’re lazy, selfish, and irresponsible.” “I don’t deserve to be taking up space or using up oxygen.” “The world (or your children) would be better off without you.” (The last two are depression and shame uniting forces).
Although I still find it hard to believe at times, I do not actually have to justify my existence. Like it says in Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.” “There is no excuse for you” is Mom talking, not me. Mom said it not because it was true, but because she was broken. Dad’s advice wasn’t good advice; he’s not happy today and I don’t want what he has. Even if never being “good enough” may have worked for him, it worked against me. Telling myself how terrible I am is not a good motivator for me. I respond better to support and encouragement. Fortunately I have the opportunity to listen to many other people’s ways of doing things today, and I can choose what works for me.
I heard these things a thousand times growing up, and because they were mixed in with other messages such as “brush your teeth” and “look before you cross the street”, as a child I took them all to be true. I’m an adult now, and I can sort out these messages and choose which ones I am going to hang on to and which ones I am going to toss.
When I catch myself berating myself, I stop and say, “Who is speaking, and is what they are saying true?” I run it past my sponsor or a friend. Am I really being “lazy, selfish, or irresponsible”? There are times when I may be, but not all of them all the time. These are all lies that I do not have to listen to any more. Coming in second place is good.
I ask myself, “What would I say to a friend who’s in my situation?” My best self would say something compassionate and empathetic. That’s the real me. I can’t think of a single other person on earth to whom I would say, “You are such a loser.” It’s highly offensive. The voice that is telling me what a screw-up I am is not me; it’s mom or dad or some other negative message that I took in as a child, but I can choose not to listen to it today. I took enough emotional beatings back then. Today I have the choice to disregard rather than continue the bludgeoning. Mom and dad may not have known better, or been able to do better; it’s not about blame. I tell that voice, “Your opinion is noted, but I also note that your opinion comes from your own deep places of pain and dysfunction. It reveals a lot about you but not much about me.”
Shame also likes to participate in the interpretation of events. It is very self-centered. It says, “Whatever went wrong, it’s your fault. You should have done more.” “Everyone in this room is staring at you because – bad hair day, clothes don’t match perfectly, gained two pounds, any visible flaw.” Really, as if people don’t have more important or interesting things to think about! “No one in this room likes you.” The way I’ve gotten past these thoughts is to actually check them out with trusted people, especially at my women’s meeting. They assure me that they like me and that I’m being ridiculous, but not to worry, they do the same thing.
I love this fellowship! Where else would I find a safe environment to actually run these crazy thoughts past people to learn that they are in fact crazy thoughts? I’ve also tried experiments. “The people in this aerobics class are snubbing you because you’re unattractive.” No, they are reacting to my hang-dog expression and failure to make eye contact that tells them to keep away. One day I just went in smiling and said hello to people, and by golly, they were friendly.
When I refer to the ego, I’m talking about the voice that wants to be heard above all others, because it is RIGHT. This voice tends to shout, and goad and prod me to open my mouth when I probably shouldn’t. It says, “These people don’t know what they’re talking about. You need to set everybody straight.” It’s the flip side of the voice of shame. It is as driven as the shame voice is passive. In sobriety I have learned to find MY truth; not everyone else’s. My truth can be spoken quietly. The more insistent this voice becomes about being heard, the more I need to remain silent and talk to a sponsor or friend. Maybe I’ll write the email, but not send it until I review it again tomorrow.
The Ego also pipes up when it feels I need defending. It invents bad things about other people, or explanations for their behavior or motives, that make me look good in comparison. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my career and get scared. Then the Ego says, “Your co-workers don’t work as hard as you. They’re not as dedicated as you.” “I can’t believe they didn’t know that!” “They are so lame!” When this starts happening, I ask myself, what about me feels threatened, that the Ego would feel the need to intervene. Better to identify the threat, determine if it’s real or imagined, and deal with that. In the meantime, don’t talk. The Ego quiets down when I’m at peace with myself.
The Generalized Other
“What will people say if I _____?” “If you do that, everyone will think _____ about you.” “What if someone comes to the door and sees my house isn’t perfect?” “How does it look to society when I don’t fulfill the roles it has defined for me?” This last one frequently pops up in the form of “I’m a bad – wife, mother, employee, etc.” These questions are all based on the false assumption that there exists a unified “people” or “everybody” or “society or “someone”. When one of these anonymous voices starts telling me how to behave, I have to call it out. Name one single person that will actually think that. (I usually can’t.) These voices tell me that I’m failing to live up to certain standards. But, are they my standards? Do I care more about someone who might come to the door than the people who are actually in my home? Is wife or mother a rigid concept or a human being? It took many years in recovery, maybe 20, before I actually had enough self-esteem to say, “This is what I think. This is my standard. I’m not here to live up to anybody else’s, least of all these people who do not exist.”
I apparently had been self-medicating an undiagnosed depression with alcohol. At two years sober I was so miserable, I thought, “If this is what I feel like when I’m sober, then no wonder I drank!” Fortunately I got outside help, but the depressive thoughts still come and go at times. Depression says, “Don’t bother. There’s no hope. It’s not worth the effort. Things will never get better.” I’ve had two really serious bouts in sobriety that lasted about two years each time. I was able to get through the second because of what I learned from the first one. When I start hearing this voice in my head, now I can say, “That’s the depression talking. That’s not reality. That’s the way things look when you’re depressed. Be patient. It will get better.” I don’t buy into the hopelessness; I just wait it out and get help if needed. I can’t think myself out of depression, but I can ride it out much better. This sentence, “That’s the depression talking; it’s not reality,” has saved my life.
Learning to identify the different voices in my head, and understand what their game is, has given me a new-found serenity. I’ve made friends with them.
Oh, Disease, are you back again? Okay, do what you gotta do; meanwhile I’ll just go about my business. Hello, Ego. My, you certainly are sure of yourself. I know you’re trying to help me, but it’s okay, I’ve got this. My old buddy Shame – I’d scarcely know myself without you. You may think you’re protecting me by beating everyone to the punch – no one can think less of me than I think of myself, so no one else’s opinion can hurt me – but you are built on lies and hurt me much more than you have ever helped me. I can take it from here.
I have been sober for 30 years and still attend four meetings a week. If not for AA, I would never have heard the term “the committee”; I would not have learned how to handle it; I would not have developed the habit of self-reflection; and I would not have had a safe learning environment, where I could reveal what’s going on inside of me and also hear many other ways of handling things besides my way.
When I’m in a meeting, I reflect on my thoughts and behavior as they relate to the topic. I learn to live my life consciously, instead of on auto-pilot or just reacting to things. Without this self-reflection, I would never have found my real sense of self.
I love that we come in all admitting that we’re flawed from the get-go. There’s no pretense. I can share my crazy thoughts out loud and get a reality check. At first I had to shout down these voices in my head, but over time they have lost their power through this practice of naming them and recognizing their lies. A lie only has power if it is believed. Thanks to AA, my head is now a much more peaceful place than I could ever have imagined.