Guest Blog by Nathaniel, an SRC Humanitarian Scholarship Recipient
Finding purpose in a world where nothing is inherently meaningful and the truth seems to have little value is difficult in the best of times. But finding purpose all alone while coping with trauma or abuse can seem nearly impossible. This is compounded by the fact that we live in an increasingly lonely society where a meaningful connection is hard to find. According to a recent poll nearly 3 in 4 Americans report struggling with loneliness or being dissatisfied with their friendships. Being this disconnected from each other likely contributes significantly to the growing addiction problem among us. This is because human beings are social creatures that require both a sense of belonging to a community and the feeling that their contribution matters to realize their potential. What I’m going to share here is a little bit of my journey to find meaning in the depths of suffering that brought me to finally deal with my alcoholism.
For most of the time I spent struggling with alcoholism, I wasn’t aware there was any problem with what I was doing. Morally speaking, I still don’t think there was because I don’t see feeling desperate and hopeless as a moral failing. The problem with my drinking was mainly that it was a way to avoid dealing with the real problems in my life and led to further isolation, which made my problems worse and made finding my purpose harder. So, what was at the root of my problem? Mainly PTSD and a perfectionist mindset that said, “if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all”. Both of these feed on the fact that I had never felt a sense of belonging anywhere. I was always different than “normal” somehow because of any number of reasons ranging from my chronic health problems to my apparent inability to believe in the supernatural. As a consequence, my social group was small and transient. This meant that I never got the feeling my actions mattered to anyone or had any impact beyond when I actually interacted with people. I was usually very kind, but I didn’t think that my interactions with people where anything more than a passing moment that would soon fade into irrelevance and I saw myself that way as well.
The change came when I realized the futility of running from myself. As the saying goes: “I ran from my problems but everywhere I went, there I was.” I don’t mean that the problems were my fault, just that by running from them I had abandoned any hope of progress. I realized the biggest thing I was missing was a reason to do something different. Sure, I wanted to be healthy, productive, and happy but I didn’t have a reason to I felt was valid. I had never cared about myself or my aspirations very much and trying to convince me to start was a fool’s errand. After all, I had just begrudgingly enrolled in a 6-month treatment program, what else could anyone want from me? After a while, I found that I actually care a tremendous amount about the wellbeing of other people and animals. Their well-being mattered more to me far more than my own, so I started looking for ways to be more involved as a way to live my values.
After I got cleared to be out of the center on my own, I started volunteering to help look after abused and neglected horses, donkeys, and dogs. I chose to start with animals because their motives and affections seem to be less contingent on biases and prejudice. The appreciation they showed for my efforts helped me understand that the things I do have the power to shape the experience of those around me. After seeing that they recognized me after several visits I started to notice that my impact was less transient than I had previously believed. Later that summer I started wanting more for myself because I stopped believing my lies about worthlessness. I re-enrolled in my local community college to study psychology so I could start helping other people. However, I didn’t wait for my degree to get involved with people in need. I spent hundreds of hours volunteering at agencies like Habitat for Humanity, Tempe Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Arizonans for Children, and other worthy causes over the next 2 years. This volunteer work made me feel more connected with those around me and gave me my first sense of community and purpose.
The combination of going to a treatment program, volunteering, and working towards my degree gave me a sense of meaning and purpose that I had lacked for most of my life. Today, I am still sober and in the middle of earning degrees in both psychological science and neuroscience at a university. Knowing that I affect those around me in a meaningful way, actively working towards a goal that means something to me, and being surrounded by a community with similar goals are the main differences I see between myself and many friends I made who have since relapsed. I think this is because of how unthinkable it has become for me to even entertain the idea of sabotaging myself after so much effort. Not everyone could or should follow the same path because the things that matter to us may not be the same. But anyone can find purpose if they have a safe place to explore the drives that make them unique. It’s never easy but there are people and resources available to help you on your journey if you need them. Even if you’re not an addict or alcoholic I hope you can take this one thing away: just do your best and give it all you have, it matters because you matter.
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