Mental health & wellbeing
11 min read

Resolutions: the addict’s guide to making a change

Don’t give up on giving up something. Lauren Windle explains how to arm yourself best for success.

Lauren Windle is an author, journalist, presenter and public speaker.

Three signs attached to a fence read: Don't Give Up, One Day At A Time, and Your Mistakes Don't Define You.
Road side encouragement in Lehi, Utah.
Ann Schreck on Unsplash.

I remember the talk we had on ‘giving things up’ every year in my primary school. The same doddery old vicar from a local church tottered down to tell two-hundred children what it meant to sacrifice something we enjoyed in order to feel better down the line. He explained that he could give up kippers, but that would be no sacrifice, as he didn’t even like kippers! How we laughed. 

We were young for a lesson on restraint, but down the line, it would prove to be the biggest challenge of my life. The concept is huge for 4-11-year-olds but, as adults, we all know that sacrifice comes with rewards – although many of us resist the idea. It’s very unsexy in a world of ‘you do you boo’, but the fact is, discipline is making a comeback. I read plenty of self-development, smart-thinking and spiritual books, and am gob-smacked by some of the wisdom on offer. The greatest minds of our day are now suggesting taking a full day of rest every week. They are extoling the virtues of honesty to our neural pathways. And they are encouraging fasting as a route to greater mental and physical health. This advice is so sage that it almost sounds biblical. 

The world is finally catching up with what the birthday-boy Jesus has been saying for so long. A life of prayer, meditation, bounded connection, outward-focused living, honesty, non-judgement and discipline will lead to the peace and sense of fulfilment that so often eludes us. 

We’re not so different you and I. We are all weak. We all live in a world tailored to give us short-sharp dopamine hits when our soul yearns for sustained, hard-earned rewards. 

As an active drug addict, I had none of this peace. I didn’t want it. Live fast, die young. The highest of highs faced by the lowest of lows that could be chemically rectified. My assumption was that everyone was miserable, I had just found something to get me through. If anything, I was the one who was winning. But from the cage I had built around me, there was no way to see the freedom I could be enjoying.  

It was on 22 April 2014 that I finally gave up cocaine and alcohol after handing over every good thing in my life in service to their attainment. I thought I was trading the misery of addiction for the misery of abstinence. But, what I would slowly learn was that the incredible weakness I had exhibited could be transformed into a strength of such magnitude, it exceeded any dream or hope I had for myself. I had decided to deprive myself for long-term good of my life and unlike Father Brown and his kippers, the cost would be great. 

I have a degree in neuroscience. This surprises both people I meet at dinner parties and other students who were on my course – one of which asked if I was lost on my way to beauty therapy. Since getting sober I have added a Master’s in Addiction Studies from King’s College London to my resumé and five years of heading up a recovery programme for people struggling with all sorts of addictions. I have mentored, coached and sponsored scores of people to freedom. In the process I’ve learned a thing or two about ‘giving things up’. 

The best time is right now. Before you’ve had one last ‘treat day’, one last party or one last flutter. The best time to make a change is the moment you realise you need to. 

There are two points I’d like to address before we get into the nitty gritty. Firstly, yes this is relevant to you. This isn’t an addict’s sob story where you get to voyeuristically bask in my pain before returning to your cushty life safe in the knowledge that you’ll never sink so low. Addiction is at the top end of a scale of idolatry that we all teeter on the brink of. If you think you can’t relate to my story, turn your phone off for three days and note how you feel every time you go to reach for it. We’re not so different you and I. We are all weak. We all live in a world tailored to give us short-sharp dopamine hits when our soul yearns for sustained, hard-earned rewards. We all have something we could afford to give up or moderate.  

Second, New Year’s Day is not the best day to give something up. Neither is the first day of the month, or next Monday, or even tomorrow morning. The best time is right now. Before you’ve had one last ‘treat day’, one last party or one last flutter. The best time to make a change is the moment you realise you need to. That said, I do know plenty of people who gave up smoking for Stop-tober and never looked back and there are plenty of resolutions that have resulted in lasting change. Also - we are conveniently placed at the start of a new year, so let’s strike while the iron is hot. 

If you have decided to give something up this year, here is how I, a recovering addict, believes you can arm yourself best for success.

Set clear goals 

Leave the shades of grey to E. L. James. When it comes to making a positive change in your life this is a black and white business. ‘To be on my phone less’, ‘to read more’, ‘to drink less’… these are too vague to be achievable. Instead try: ‘to turn off my phone at 9pm and not turn it back on until 9am’, ‘to go to bed half an hour earlier and read 10 pages of a book’ or ‘to only drink on two days a week and have no more than three drinks.’ 

I once worked with a woman who set herself some simple goals around food: not to eat while she was cooking, not to eat in the supermarket, not to eat in her car and not to eat in her bedroom. This is far easier to attain than just a generic diet.  

If you want to change your clear goals, you absolutely can… after a three-day cooling off period. If you want to up your drinking days to three per week, do it. But it will start next week, not this one when you’ve already drunk on Wednesday and Thursday and someone brings round some beers on Saturday night. You want to turn on your phone an hour earlier every morning, definitely do. But that will start in three-days-time, not on a low day when you’re fighting in bed and decide ‘what’s the harm?’ 

It's half about the lower screen time/alcohol consumption etc. and half about your ability to play by the rules, to exercise discipline and to make a decision today that will benefit you tomorrow. This is about looking after yourself as you would someone else who was your responsibility. You must enforce boundaries to help your charge develop well. Only this time, your charge is you.  

Tell people 

Social pressure is a helpful tool. Did you know those flyers that they drop through your door saying: ‘90% of your neighbours have completed their tax return by now’ are far more effective than the ones saying: ‘File your tax return’? How others perceive us matters to us. 

Research shows that the more people you tell about your new resolution, the more likely you are to keep it. If you’ve announced to the Jones’ that you won’t be drinking and then pour yourself a cheeky snifter, you don’t just disappoint yourself but you run risk of a loss of respect from those you informed of your decision. Keeping up with the Jones’ can be a powerful motivator. 

Expanding on that premise, and taking it from a threat to an encouragement, there’s also evidence that doing things in a group greatly increases everyone’s chances of success. If you’re reducing phone time, why not set up a WhatsApp group where you drop a message to your comrades just as you turn off your phone. That way everyone will have a record of the time each person logged off, you could then catch up in the morning and say how you used the time instead. If your plan is to exercise more, head to the same class every Tuesday morning with a friend and grab coffee afterwards. If you’re making pledges around food or alcohol patterns, why not agree them with your partner as you’re likely to share many meals together? 

For the sake of your friendships though - make it clear to whoever you tell if you expect them to challenge you if you fall short or if you want them to leave you to it. Don’t expect a friend to police you without their prior agreement. Equally don’t expect them to stand by as you break your resolution without saying anything, unless you’ve made it clear you don’t want their intervention.  

Observe yourself 

There will be times when sticking to your resolution is easy (usually the firs two days of January). But unless you’ve gone for the kippers option, there will be times when it is incredibly hard. Observe yourself in those moments, ask yourself questions and understand what it is about those times that present a challenge.  

Many people reach for their comforts when they’re happy, hungry, angry, lonely or tired. How do you respond when you feel these emotions? What brings you most comfort? Is there a healthier option that could support you instead? 

You see, if you’re giving up something that has become an idol, that takes your attention and satisfies that dopamine craving when you most want it, you’ve left a vacuum. The void could mean you are more drawn to your crutch of choice than ever. Or it could mean that you select something equally unhelpful to get you through. Identify these crevices as they arise and come up with a plan to protect yourself in those moments.  

I’ll kick you off with a few examples: 

  • You would usually pour yourself a glass of wine to mark the end of a working day? Get outside for a walk. 
  • You would usually fiddle on your phone on the commute? Bring a book with you.  
  • You get distracted during prayer/meditation time? Take a notepad with you, jot down any thought and then get back to your practice.  
  • Connect with friends over booze at the pub? Host a games night.  
  • Give yourself a little treat of chocolate or cake after a long day? Get a nice selection of teas and hot drinks.

Personalise the above as required.

Don’t beat yourself up 

Lifestyle changes involve failure. Sadly, most things that are worth having involve accepting some level of failure. It doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you evil. It doesn’t make you anything other than human. ‘The measure of a person isn’t how they fall, but how they pick themselves up.’ – said some over-quoted person like Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt or Marylin Monroe probably. 

 Discipline is a muscle that needs work, and if this is your first time seriously embarking on something like this, you’re in the equivalent of the beginners’ Zumba category. Slipping up does not signal the end. It signals a slip. If I were cycling from London to Brighton and I fell off my bike around Horsham, I wouldn’t pick it up, walk it back to London and start again. I get to remount the bike exactly where I fell. I get the benefit and experience of the last 30 miles of road. It is an opportunity to strengthen my resolve and recommit myself, not to give up until next year.  

Use the tools 

There are an outrageous number of tools available to help you in your quest for progress. Don’t be too proud to use them. There are tracker apps, accountability programmes (like covenant eyes for those who want to cut out porn), books, podcasts, charities, anonymous meetings, medications, therapists, doctors, family, friends, churches and many others who can be with you. They can help while you mull on any challenges and strategize solutions that will help you grow.  

Self-efficacy is key 

There’s a study that I promise exists, even though in my in-between-Christmas-and-new-year haze I can’t find the reference for it. It was research on cannabis. Formerly cannabis was most commonly found as a secondary addiction for those whose primary focus was cocaine, heroin, Benzodiazepine or alcohol. But with the increased potency of street-level cannabis and the invention of synthetic-cannabinoids like Spice, more people are dying at the hands of marijuana, and therefore there are increasing budgets for research. 

Unlike heroine, Benzos or alcohol, there is no medical intervention to support those coming off cannabis. So the study looked at the primary factors that supported long-term abstinence from the drug. The strongest predictor of successful recovery was self-efficacy i.e. participants who were most likely to get and stay clean were those who started the process by saying they believed they could. 

 You can make any positive lifestyle change you want but it takes time and perseverance. But if you make a declaration believing you probably won’t stick to it or that you’ll see how it goes – you’ve lost before you’ve started.   

It won’t feel good 

There’s an unspoken expectation that taking steps towards better, more nourishing clean-living feels good. Some people think that they will start waking up before their alarm, well-hydrated, with enough energy for a quick round of squash before a bracing ice bath and hearty breakfast. This is not my experience. 

There are times when, in order to stick to my resolve, I had to just stay in bed. Not moving or facing the outside world. There were times when the agony of rejecting my crutches felt unbearable. Anything felt better than continuing on that difficult path of discipline. Achievement, to-do lists and even the notion of ‘a calling’ are reserved for those lucky enough to be functioning that day. The rest of us just have to survive. 

The feeling of pain won’t last. It never does. For some it will be a few days of discomfort, followed by smug boasting that they ‘don’t even think about caffeine anymore’. While for others, the loss will sting and it will take time before they feel any benefit. But those benefits are coming. They are worth holding out for. In a world of 10-15 minute Deliveroo meals, let’s take an hour to cook ourselves a good dinner. In a world where every movie is a few remote clicks away, let’s read a book. In a world where you can plough on, getting things done, let’s boot one thing off our checklists and pause to pray instead. In a world of quick solutions, let’s take the long, restrained route. Let’s allow the process to run its course. Let’s become better, stronger people who are more equipped to carry life’s burdens and help others along the way too. 

Mental health & wellbeing
5 min read

It’s OK to be angry about this, right?

Anger's real gift is the desire for action.

Anthony Baker is a theology professor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He is currently exploring the intersection of classical accounts of Christian holiness with current issues in ecology. 

In a darkened room, a man's angry face is lit as he rests on arms folded tightly around it.
Abhigyan on Unsplash.

When is anger appropriate? When we hear of hideous acts of war in civilian villages, shouldn't we be angry? When I read about a shell exploding in a Gaza hospital, I get angry. I do also when something unjust happens to me, or to someone close to me. Some moments seem to call for anger as the right, and perhaps righteous, response.  

But I often don't feel very "right" when I'm angry. In fact, I feel a bit out of control, like some other force or energy has taken over my body and my will. This is especially true when my anger leads me to say or do something that is hurtful to someone else.  

Is there such a thing as Christian anger? If so, what does it look like? How can anger be the sort of emotive response that deepens, rather than erodes, my connection to God, myself, and others?  

It is the act, and especially the amalgamation of acts into habits, that leads to virtue or to vice. 

Anger is a passion 

The ambiguity of anger stems from its grouping within what Thomas Aquinas, here as usual following Aristotle, calls "the passions." A passion is a creature's reaction to either the loss of something or to a gaining of something. We are passive, or receptive, to this giving or taking. Sickness is a loss of health; sorrow is a lack of happiness. When on the other hand a friend sees me sick or sad and brings me a bowl of soup, I am receptive not only of the soup but of a passion, or a feeling—a receiving rather than a losing in this case— of pleasure.  

The passions are morally neutral: we cannot really be praised or blamed for being sad or pleased any more than for being sick. They often do, though, lead to actions, and this is where virtue and vice come into play.  

Love, for instance, is a passion: it identifies a desire within me, received through contact with something or someone beyond me. The act that this gives birth to might be virtuous: kindness or affection toward that something or someone. In these cases, the passion becomes the catalyst to the greatest of the theological virtues, caritas, or charity, translating the Greek word "agape", used by St Paul. It may also, however, be vicious, as when my desire leads to me to attack someone whom I perceive to be standing in its way (think “crimes of passion” here).  It is the act, and especially the amalgamation of acts into habits, that leads to virtue or to vice.  

Anger originates in such a taking or giving. Something or someone is taken from us, and we get angry: something that I perceive—rightly or wrongly—as belonging to or with me. Or perhaps something inappropriate (which literally means "not my property") is given to me which is not mine to have: a false accusation, say, or a punch to the jaw.  

When anger leads me to hurt someone as a result of that loss or addition, I commit sin. But sometimes it also leads to virtue. How does this happen?  

But this next act, as any parent or teacher knows, is likely not to be the right one. That's because I will be tempted to simply to act, rather than to seek counsel to ensure that I act prudently. 

Prudence is the virtue anger needs 

The key to understanding how anger about such losses or gains could lead to a virtuous, or let's say a righteous act, is in another virtue - the one Thomas calls prudence. Prudence is the form wisdom takes on within human practices. Its goal is wise action shaped by the particular context in which it is needed. The prudent person knows how to calibrate the next thing she does so that it leads will to the specific end she is pursuing.  

This "know how" in turn comes through counsel. I know the next practical step not because I have memorized formulas in right action, but because I can learn from others, past or present, in ways that will instruct me in the art of finding the next right thing.  

Prudence is the key to understanding righteous anger because anger is supremely a passion that demands activity. Anger wants action, as the therapists teach us. It pumps blood through my body, it makes my muscles flex and my jaw clench, and so prepares me for some bold and likely aggressive act.  

But this next act, as any parent or teacher knows, is likely not to be the right one. That's because I will be tempted to simply act, rather than to seek counsel to ensure that I act prudently. Most likely I will act out of a desire for revenge: to cause equal or greater harm. What I need in that moment is the outside input that can help me shape my act in accordance with reason. This is how, Thomas says, the neutral passion becomes meritorious passion: anger becomes righteous.

Righteous anger has a gift to give 

Anger's desire for action is in the end its real gift. Notice how anger and sorrow are different sorts of passions. In sorrow, what is taken from me is joy. I long for the lost joy and am tempted to become even more passive. Depression takes me to the zenith of inactivity. Even getting out of bed or calling a friend feels like too much action.  

Anger though is all about action. Yes, to act too brashly, too quickly, to seek revenge on the one whom I perceive to have harmed me. Or even to harm the nearest one to me regardless of their involvement (the sin of kicking a dog or abusing a child). Still: anger calls me to act, and for all its risky unhinged-ness, this is potentially a good thing. 

Disordered, which is to say un-counseled by practical wisdom, anger can lead to harm. In these cases we make matters worse by calling our anger righteous: that self-justifying claim may in fact be blinding us to the real price of our next act.  

But well-ordered, anger can draw us into deeper community with God, ourselves, and others. First comes the passion itself: I am angry and primed for action. Then comes the seeking of counsel, so that my desire for action can shift from the immediate to the prudently discerned. Finally comes the act itself, which anger was calling for in the beginning, now tempered by practical counsel. In such moments I am enacting a right and righteous anger.  

And on those days when a loss or an unwanted gain is enough to make me wish to withdraw from the world of human activity, anger may be just the gift I need.