On the face of things, it may seem rather cynical to proclaim that we all have a dark side. Luke Skywalker got a little angry, but ultimately remained a Jedi. And looking outside of fictional characters, you won’t find a whole lot of stories about that time Mother Teresa got drunk and screamed at her loved ones, or the time Ghandi broke into a house looking for drug money. Because, most likely, those stories do not exist. But our dark side is often expressed more through thoughts than actions. And for addicts and alcoholics, the line can often become blurred.
In her book, Sober Stick Figure, Amber Tozer discusses her own dark side and how she was able to overcome it through her journey to sobriety. But in her interview with The Fix, she made one important observation—getting sober did not completely remove this penchant for darkness. Many of us, addicts and non-addicts alike, are intimately aware of the fact that even good people may sometimes wish to do wrong. But from where does this dark side originate? How, if at all, do we learn to remove it completely? These are important questions, although their answers are somewhat elusive.
Below, we will discuss how our dark side often brings itself out in the worst ways possible. We will also discuss how it may slowly begin to evaporate as we become sober, and what we can do to ensure there are no backslides in this process. It will not be easy. In many ways, it will be like Step Six—a lifelong journey. Those of us who are willing, however, will make great strides toward bringing out our inner Jedi.
Expressing Our Dark Side
Unfortunately, that hypothetical example about Ghandi breaking into a house to look for drug money was a little closer to home than you might expect. It was inspired by a dear friend of ours who was arrested after breaking into two houses. No one pressed charges, because they could tell that he was blacked out and meant no harm. But others who committed similar crimes have been jailed or even beaten half to death. He narrowly escaped great consequence, all because drinking had annihilated his inhibitions. And while he is normally a good person, make no mistake that he entered those houses looking for means to acquire drugs.
This is what our dark side does to us when we are intoxicated. Before he blacked out, the young man in the above story had simply mused that he might break into his dealer’s house, find the stash, and escape with it. In his drunken state, he found that he could not remember where his dealer lived, so he simply chose a house at random and began going down the street. His musings turned into actions, and those actions got him into trouble. When we are sober, our dark side may wish to punch somebody who annoys us or say vicious things to people who question our habits. When we are intoxicated, we often find that we cannot control these impulses.
Even non-addicts and recovering addicts run into this problem. We find ourselves in the grips of strong emotions such as anger and depression, and they drive us toward irrational and uncontrollable urges that we feel must be expressed. In these moments, we become vessels of chaos. Those who have seen The Dark Knight may wish to call this “Joker syndrome.” We become deranged, and we just want to watch the world burn. And if we are not the types to engage in violent behaviors, we will simply lay waste to our own lives. As long as our thirst for chaos is fulfilled, we care little about the consequences we may suffer.
Some of the stronger language in this description might make it sound a bit implausible. Really think, however, about the times in which you have insulted somebody or done something that you knew in your heart was wrong. All of us have had moments like this. Some of us knew that we were in the wrong. But did we care? Not bloody likely. This is what it means to have a dark side. And it’s okay to have a dark side—but only if we can learn to keep it in the shadows where it belongs.
Fighting the Dark Side in Treatment
Before we can learn to control our darker impulses, we must first learn to recognize them. We must learn to see the ways in which we have exhibited various character defects. We must learn to see how our impulses have hurt others, and how hurting others has often hurt ourselves. Through greed and selfishness, many of us have lost more than we have gained. Through stubbornness and failure to maintain an open mind, we have prevented ourselves from growing as human beings.
These are things that patients in our programs will often learn through individual and group therapy. Naturally, we are able to seek these things outside of treatment if we see fit. The primary difference is that treatment harbors us within a safe space wherein there are fewer opportunities to express our dark side in damaging and life-altering ways. Those of us with extreme anger issues may occasionally want to punch out another patient who forgot to flush the toilet, but we are surrounded by others who can remind us that this might not be the best course of action. And even if our dark side takes over, at least there will be a treatment team there to help us rein it back in before we get plastered and hop behind the wheel of a car to blow off our steam.
If the toilet example sounds a bit humorous, it is not an accident. Many of us have expressed our dark side in tragic and dangerous ways. But in many other instances, it’s hard not to laugh at ourselves when we think of the things that once drove us to anger or depression. The young man who broke into those houses has another story about the time he got drunk because his foot fell asleep while he was reading an article about diabetes, and he feared that he may have to get it amputated. When he first told this story, he was sad and troubled, as he had always been the type to pride himself on his intelligence. He was enraged when he told this story to his friends in treatment and they all laughed. Today, he cannot tell this story without the need to suppress a chuckle. When we learn to set aside our self-destructive impulses, we often learn to see how ridiculous it was that we ever had such impulses to begin with.
He may never have come to this realization if not for the sense of camaraderie he gained in treatment. Before then, he had always lived his life in isolation. Treatment gave him a sense of unity and teamwork. He realized that he could not see his own mountain of shortcomings unless they were mirrored back to him by others. Had he not learned in treatment to discover the link between friendship and sobriety, he would still be drinking today. And were he still drinking today, he would not have the presence of mind to have written the article that you are reading at this very moment. Treatment saved his life, which is why he now chooses to spend his time giving back to treatment centers in the only way he can.
Becoming One with the Force
Apologies for this section heading. The Star Wars reference was simply too good not to use a second time. Not just because it’s slightly humorous or because we’re using the words “dark side,” but also because—as we have written before—there are many messages in those movies that may apply to those of us whose lives have been complicated by substance abuse.
In the films, we’re led to believe that those who turn to the dark side are beyond recovery. Up until Vader sees his son’s life in danger, and he begins to see the error of his ways. He hit rock bottom when he was in danger of losing his family. Many of us have had a similar experience, when our family staged an intervention and we learned to see how our lack of impulse control was ruining their lives.
Of course, no one is perfect. As Tozer states in her interview with The Fix, the dark side has not completely gone away. In her words:
“Yes, I do still feel drawn to bad stuff. There have been many times in sobriety where I’ve explored the dark side because I’m still addicted to drama… But, I’m happy to say, the longer I stay sober, the less stuff like this happens. In the past year I’ve only made three horrible decisions that led me to the dark side!”
Whether we get sober in or out of treatment, sobriety will not be the easiest thing in the world. We are still grappling with many of our darker impulses. Life will throw us curve balls to which we may not always react appropriately. We may relapse, or we may simply do something that we know is wrong—either way, we will suffer guilt and we will wonder whether or not there is truly any hope for us.
This sense of hopelessness begins to dissipate when we begin to see our potential to embrace the light. We realize that our lighter side, while it must be nurtured to a great extent in early sobriety, has always been an intrinsic part of us. Whatever we call “the Force” in our lives—God, instinct, human nature, etc.—resides within us at all times. As does our dark side. When we our sober, we regain our ability to choose which side we wish to develop more fully. And while it may take time, the journey will always strengthen us and allow us to become better people. This is a wonderful gift, and we should never take it for granted.