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  • How I Stopped Drinking Alcohol Using IFS Therapy in Two Minutes.

How I Stopped Drinking Alcohol Using IFS Therapy in Two Minutes.

This article explains how Psychedelics and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy have combined to give me a powerful process to manage my relationship with alcohol.

About a year ago, I was listening to the Tim Ferris podcast, and he had on a guest, Richard Shwartz, talking about Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. IFS is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on the idea that the mind is made up of distinct parts, each with its own personality and agenda. These parts can be in healthy, productive roles or stuck in patterns that cause distress.

An example might be the “Perfectionist,” a part some people have that strives to make you always do things perfectly, driven by a fear of being seen as inadequate. When this part is in balance, it helps the individual set goals and stay organized. When not in balance, it may cause stress, anxiety, and feelings of never being good enough, no matter the efforts. It could, for example, prevent you from trying to do something new if it doesn’t think you’ll be good at it. The breakthrough of IFS is that it doesn’t treat these parts as inherently bad, but rather as trying to help you out, but sometimes not knowing that their approach isn’t helpful. The key is acknowledging them and repurposing them as appropriate.

I’m a techie, so the analogy I use is based on a computer operating system. Your computer has a dozens of processes running at any given time. Some are obvious, like open applications you’re working on. Some are like programs that you left open a few days ago and have forgotten are still taking up memory, and some are like background processes, say, cleaning up your hard drive. Sometimes a single tab open in your browser can suck up an enormous amount of memory and you’re not even using it. IFS is like calling up the task monitor on a MacBook, viewing all the processes, seeing what’s using how much energy, and using that analysis to make the whole system work better. You don’t need to delete the browser, you just need to close a tab.

Rewind? What the heck is that and why is it taking up so much energy?

I was learning all of this as I kind of half-listened to the podcast when Tim agreed to have Dr. Schwartz walk him through a demo session of IFS therapy. Suddenly, I was paying full attention as Tim answered a series of questions relating to this emotional responses in specific situations. As he answered the questions and started describing a part of himself that he was connecting with, I followed along and imagined the same questions and a similar internal conversation I was having with my own part. I didn’t fully get into it because I was also listening to the podcast, but the experience was powerful enough that I resolved to find out more. The next step was reading Schwartz’s book, “No Bad Parts.”

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I found listening to the book to be particularly powerful as there are several examples of IFS therapy sessions and hearing the actual dialog is better (I think) than reading it. For each example, I was able to follow along and participate in the therapy session by answering the questions in parallel with the actual client. If the client was asked, “imagine a recent situation where you were emotionally triggered”, in the book the patient might think of a fight with her husband, but I’d be thinking about a road rage incident. Then as the patient was asked to find the emotion for the incident somewhere in their body, I’d find the emotion for my road rage incident (a tightness across my chest). Next step would be to focus on that part of your body and ask, “why did this incident bother you so much?” and if it’s working, an image of a person might pop up in your head, and answer the question with words that are clearly coming from somewhere inside your mind, but it’s not your conscious mind. You’ll know, because there will be information in the answer that didn’t consciously occur to you when you asked the question.

You might be wondering what I mean when I say “find the emotion in your body” and it’s a good thing to wonder, because I’ve found that that’s the central element of IFS that is hard to get your head and heart around, but once you’re able to do it, the process becomes much easier. And I have a confession to make. If I had tried IFS therapy 3 years ago, I would have had more difficulty getting it to “work” because I had no idea that emotions were housed in the body. So what changed? The answer is 5-MEO-DMT. This psychedelic, also known as “the Toad”, or “The God molecule” is the most powerful psychedelic known. Inhaling the vapour of 15 mg of this medicine creates an ego death experience that can be completely terrifying or a blissful release, and in all likelihood, both. But the most obvious outcome to me when I tried it was that I felt deeply connected to my body, what is known as ‘somatic awareness.’ And ever since, I’ve had much greater awareness of emotions and where they’re manifesting in my body. When I feel bored and want to grab my phone while I’m on a zoom call, I can feel it in my hips. When I worry about finances, I can feel a buzzing in the middle of my back. This isn’t automatic or obvious, I have to scan my body and think about what I’m feeling. But the feeling is definitely there.

So here’s what happened next. I was listening to the audiobook, was about two-thirds of the way through it, and I’d listened to several examples of IFS sessions. I was meeting my friend Dave that evening for a drink and I parked my car across from the bar, stopped the audiobook, and walked inside to meet him. It turned out he was running late and while waiting, I ordered an Espresso Martini, my go to drink for the beginning of a fun evening. I downed it quickly, and started to signal the bartender for another one, when it occurred to me, “Why am I doing this? Do I really want to get drunk? Do I need alcohol to keep me occupied because my friend is 15 minutes late?”

That, um, kind of looks like me! I liked it so much that I’m using it now as my profile pic in lots of places.

Here’s how I did it. First I tried Microsoft’s Bing AI image tool, which as billed, is super easy to use, and I used to create Bizzy at the beginning of this article. But then I typed in this prompt: “5 year old boy with dark hair, sitting on the ground.” and got this:

Seriously, why do I want this drink? Answer me, dammit! — Created using Midjourney

I had just finished a three month exercise where I tracked how much alcohol I drank every day. I didn’t do it to cut down or anything, I just wanted to know the number because a friend had done it and I thought it would be a cool thing to know. So I counted, and so did my wife, and it turned out we both drank about 9 drinks a week. Not problematic in itself, but maybe a little excessive?

So I’m sitting at this bar, thinking about my 9 drinks a week, staring at the empty glass, and suddenly I could feel the yearning for another drink, it was a pressure in my upper chest, and it felt like it was about an inch below the surface. I closed my eyes and reflexively asked that point in my chest, “Why do you want another drink?”

And the most amazing thing happened. I pictured in my mind a bunch of squiggly lines that moved around and eventually resolved into an image:

Fun Bobby — he loves to be social — Created using Midjourney

This was the first time during an IFS exercise that I’d gone all the way in and come up with a visual. Whoa! But who was this guy? Wait, he’s saying something! He answers my question on why I drink with, “Because you’re boring.” Wait, what? I’m boring? This wasn’t on my mind at all, where was this answer coming from? Here’s the entire conversation:

“Why do you want me to drink?” I asked.

“Because you’re boring” he replied.

I don’t think I’m boring, I’m a fun guy, so I asked, “What do you mean, I’m boring?”

“All you do is sit in your room all day, reading. You need to get out and party, meet people, have some drinks, enjoy yourself!” said the voice in my head.

I was taken aback. These thoughts weren’t coming from my conscious mind. I used a technique from the book. “Wait, how old do you think I am? And how old are you?” These age questions can help understand why a part is behaving as it is.

He answered, “You’re 12. And I’m 16.” Ah, now I understood better. At age 12 I indeed was in my room reading a lot. And at age 16 I had my first beer, went to my first party, and experienced an active social life for the first time.

I said, “I’ve got news for you. I’m actually 57 years old. I know how to have a drink, how to have a good time, and I have lots of friends.” His eyes bulged, and I added, “Look, I think I can handle whether I want to have a drink, you don’t have to create that craving in my mind. But I appreciate that you want me to be social and have fun. Is there something else you’d like to do?”

He responded, “I like talking to people. I could talk to people?”

And I replied enthusiastically, “Yes! I’ll decide when to have a drink, and you focus on the people who are around us.”

Then I opened my eyes. The entire experience had lasted maybe 2 minutes. Then I looked at the glass in front of me and suddenly the last thing I wanted was another drink. Then I turned to a stranger sitting beside me and said, “How’s your night going?”

That was 10 months ago, and I haven’t craved a drink since. I have about 1 drink a week. The beauty of this is that I didn’t have to stop cold turkey. I gained control of my relationship with alcohol without having to leave it completely. That is what IFS does — it helps you evolve your relationships with your parts without having to control them completely. The key elements were that I appreciated the part (later I came to know him as Fun Bobby), and asked him what he’d like to do if he wasn’t putting a drink in my hand. There isn’t such a thing as a bad part. They’re all doing whatever they’re doing to try to protect you or improve your life. But sometimes they’re trapped in behaviour they developed when you were a child or in completely different circumstances, and they don’t realize you’ve changed.

After that night, I revisit Fun Bobby every once in a while when I’m meditating, just to say hello and check in on him. He always appreciates the attention. And I found out that he’s responsible not just for alcohol, but anything I do for entertainment.

“Crazy idea Bobby — any chance you’re the guy who’s feeding me ice cream and nachos at 11pm while I watch a movie? Could you maybe knock off the sweets and snacks and focus on protein and water instead?”

I’ll let you know what happened with that one in another story. Follow me on Medium if you want to read more about how IFS can improve your life.

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