01 July 2021

The Challenge of Cognitive Dissonance

Reflections of my Life The Challenge of Cognitive Dissonance: Reflections of My Life Vernon Chalmers Photography
"One of the hardest things to do in life, is letting go of what you thought was real." — me.me

I have referred to Cognitive Dissonance in several of my articles and Facebook comments over the last year. 

Now, in the final stretch and conclusion of my own ‘healing journey’, herewith an explanation, own interpretation and personal experience on how Cognitive Dissonance can sometimes cause incessant confusion, uncertainty and disparity in our minds.

Many of us may suffer from a degree of Cognitive Dissonance at some time in our lives - meaning we are challenged by a mental discomfort and / or mental conflict when dealing with toxic people (or habits) in our minds, but struggle to let them go.

Powerful 'positive' thoughts of what 'could be' overwhelms the mind as we are challenged by the paradoxical thinking of them being, perhaps, just misunderstood or needing more time rather to accept them as abusive and toxic (towards us). For many of us this is difficult to comprehend - that someone in our lives that was once so charming and nice can become so abusive and evil. 

We know they are not good for us, they function different from our own beliefs, personal values and / or expectations, but we still maintain contact with them - or worse-case scenario, stay committed in an abusive relationship. We don't really want to let them go, but at the same time live in fear of their dysfunctional behaviour. Even while experiencing continuous abuse we try and hang on to the mirage at any (emotional / physical) cost - in the hope that their toxic behaviour towards us will change. The sad reality is that abusive behaviour without any significant psychiatric and / or psychoanalytical intervention won't change, can't change.

The continuous cognitive disparity between the positive belief in someone and the conflicting negative thoughts / disappointment with regard to their antisocial behaviour can have a significant impact on our own mental health.

I have experienced Cognitive Dissonance during a (perceived) intimate relationship - although subjected to perpetual emotional, physical and verbal abuse I still believed in the relationship and wanted it to succeed.


Alcohol Overconsumption (warning to self and others)

Alcohol Overconsumption  : Reflections of My Life - Vernon Chalmers Photography
“If you take control of your behavior, your emotions will fall into place.” ― John C Maxwell

How the loss of two significant people in my life had an adverse effect on my alcohol consumption and sense of self

I have always considered myself nothing more than a casual wine and occasional whisky drinker. Like so many of my generation I was introduced to alcohol soon after leaving school, during my military service and have enjoyed social drinking throughout my student / adult life. 

As a post-graduate student I attended an Alcohol Addiction and Recovery 12-Step Programme at an Alcohol Addiction & Rehabilitation Centre in Cape Town. This was part of an Industrial Psychology module for identifying (and remedial management of) alcohol abuse in the workplace. Throughout this very informative week I was made well aware of the risks associated with alcohol overconsumption and / or abuse.

When my mother passed away in 2017 it was a huge shock to my emotional self, but thinking back to that sad period which lasted on / off for about 18 months, I consumed less alcohol in what I would normally do. A considerable part of this period was introspection in which I consumed no alcohol for weeks at a time. Alcohol consumption was probably limited to one bottle of wine per week (if that) - and the occasional whiskey with friends after work - probably once or twice a month.

My social drinking behaviour changed in 2019 after I met the woman I would have a ten month emotionally taxing relationship with. During this period we consumed substantial quantities of the best estate wines available on the local market. This was the first time in my life in which I would consume alcohol almost on a daily basis. We would cook together and go away weekends - always with a few bottles of red and white wine as part of the social routine. During the Covid lockdown Levels Five and Four we went through extraordinary efforts to source anything from wine, whiskey and / or gin. Throughout the relationship the alcohol consumption would average at two to three bottles of wine per night - not every night, but most nights.  

Relationship Abuse and Withdrawal
After about three to four months into this relationship I was unfortunatly subjected to physical, psychological and verbal abuse. This was not due to the effect of alcohol, but rather the antisocial result(s) of a destructive range of underlying grandiose and pathological behaviour traits. After about nine months I decided to physically withdraw from the relationship and ended up living in my studio apartment on my own. This became the most excruciating and saddest time of my life and I went into a stress / anxiety state I have never experienced before. I was sad and I was hurting - today I know I endured a variety of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms during this isolation period.  I suffered severe anxiety, quilt, insomnia and constant flashbacks and I would withdrew myself further and further emotionally from the relationship and everybody else around me. 

To cope with the incessant emotional darkness and PTSD symptoms I started drinking gin & tonic on most afternoons to somewhat numb this severe emptiness - and to help me fall asleep. I would wake up every morning at about 03:00 and start reading and by 09:00 would do whatever I needed to do with my stock market trading and the daily updating of my photography websites. I repeated this routine from August to December 2020. During January and February 2021 I stopped and would not drink for weeks at a time - quite aware of the potential problems that alcohol could cause. 

I was still struggling with the breakdown of the relationship and the darkness inside and around me continued to consume my thoughts, my energy - basically everything in / around me was focused around the relationship - the loss of the most significant person in my life (at the time). 

During April 2021 I was getting a handle on dealing with the relationship breakup. I started to accept the reality that the loss of the love of my life was permanent. My intense anxiety and stress subsided somewhat, although the cognitive dissonance, flashbacks and insomnia continued. 

The Loss of my Friend, Joseph Inns
My emotional state took a turn for the worse when one of my best friends, Joseph Inns, passed away on 19 April 2021 after suffering metastatic cancer for the last year and six months. I was aware of his illness all the time, but as the end became inevitably closer it made me just more emotional. After his passing and before / after his memorial service I started drinking even more alcohol for numbing my pain - for him and my failed relationship with my girlfriend.

It was not until late April 2021 that I woke up one morning and realised that I'm going to far with my drinking. I realised that the alcohol is making my anxiety worse and the worse it got the more I wanted to numb my double-pain with alcohol. I phoned my sister and gave her a brutally honest account of my emotional state and current drinking habits. 

I quit drinking on that Tuesday and went through a period of about two weeks of mild to severe withdrawal symptoms. I never thought about the prolonged physical impact that the sudden alcohol abstinence would have on me. Nevertheless, I endured the withdrawal symptoms, did not feel like drinking and bought a pair of running shoes. Not for running, but to get in a healthier lifestyle of no alcohol and walking a few kilometers every day. 

Learning Through Relationships
During this difficult period in my life I learned to separate my two major 2020 / 2021 losses. I walked away from an abusive relationship and had to manage the void, disappointment and cognitive dissonance the loss of the relationship created in my mind. I now mourn the loss of my good friend, Joseph, the same way I mourned the loss of my mother. He was a good man with good values and with the acceptance of his loss I now have finally engaged, as with my mother, in a substantially healthier grieving process.

Since September 2020 I have received tremendous support from quite a diverse group of people in Cape Town and abroad. Many of them have been in my life for years, but a few others came from almost nowhere with insight and wisdom. I respected and learned from everybody's advice and recommendations. I owe all of them mountains of gratitude. Thank you!

I am currently doing a lot of research, soul searching, writing and walking to help me understand (abusive) relationship loss, trauma and substance abuse - and the impact that these two significant personal losses had on my life. I realized that alcohol overconsumption is never the answer for overcoming the emotional darkness of the soul. 

Overcoming Abuse and Trauma
For assistance with a deeper understanding on overcoming these psychological obstacles I've researched the consequences of alcohol abuse and the impact of trauma after an abusive relationship. I have found the 'Compassionate Inquiry' work of Dr. Gabor Maté - renown international addiction and trauma expert - for his psychotherapeutic approach towards the understanding of trauma and addiction, extremely helpful. Dr. Maté's  books and YouTube videos have had a tremendous positive impact on my current situation, my alcohol consumption scare and dealing with the loss of two significant people in my life.

Small lifestyle changes of regular exercise, a healthier diet and a reduced alcohol consumption are having a beneficial impact on my mental and physical health. I have established new daily routines with set priorities towards my business, photography, mental health and fitness goals.

Some of my latest photography at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden: View herehere and here.

Psychology and Relationship Resources

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