Vigilance – the process of paying close and continuous attention; wakefulness, watchfulness
“Vigilance is especially susceptible to fatigue”
Staying in the recovery process requires vigilance. If change takes time and fatigue is the enemy of vigilance –what’s an addict to do? The answer is simple: we need to learn patience.
We want what we want when we want it and our society caters to this fact. The 60’s invented fast food drive-thru restaurants and instant add-water meals. God knows no one has time to wait for anything. If we don’t see results immediately, we lose interest in going to the gym. We can now get liposuction if we don’t have patience to diet. Who has the time to wash and cut vegetables, never mind prepare an entire meal? If we have to wait for anything our first thought is “What’s the point?” and then we lose interest – whether it’s in learning a new skill, preparing a healthy meal, or sitting to meditate. If we can’t be at yoga within minutes of leaving the house, forget it. And I’m not even factoring being a recovering addict into this rant. Everyone is born hungry.
While lacking patience can have consequences for anyone, for addicts impatience can lead to the “fuckits” – the precursor to relapse. This is why we have to keep being reminded that recovery is an ongoing process and that it requires vigilance.
In early recovery, it feels like we’re constantly being hit by an onslaught of feelings. After years of dulling or numbing ourselves with substances, the reawakening of our emotions is new to us. Fear seems to lie underneath every sensation. Even joy can be accompanied by the sensation of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Anger makes us want to use, sadness makes us want to vanish from existence. We look at other people in recovery who seem to be at peace with themselves and we want to know how they got that way. We want to be like them right away. We expect recovery to give us instant results. “I worked my steps and go to therapy but I’m still a mess. What am I doing wrong?” Instead of accepting that change occurs over time, we blame ourselves.
Sometimes we can will things to happen – or so it seems. It could just be that everything aligned and we get what we want right away. Instead of it being an isolated incident, it makes us think if we don’t get things right away, we mustn’t be doing something right. Anxiety builds and patience evaporates. Enduring time passing is not the same as being patient. Being patient is an act of faith – faith that time will pass and things will change – however they will change. Patience is not counting the days and minutes.
People always ask, “What’s the trick? What work can I do to acquire patience quickly?” (Yes I’ve really been asked this). Translated, I think they’re admitting that they understand the concept “change happens slowly over time” but want to know how can they exist inside of this unknowable timeframe without having an anxiety attack or pulling their hair out. The trick is to create mindfulness habits so they can slow themselves down – whether it’s by quieting the mind or reducing physical anxiety. This makes not only the passage of time more bearable; it will probably be more enjoyable.
There is so much information readily available on mindfulness techniques and practices. A quick search of Google or YouTube can bring up thousands of links. When I was in early recovery I couldn’t focus my attention on anything for very long before I felt like I was crawling out of my skin. The idea of meditation was nice but I drank far too much coffee to attempt it. I’d overthink everything and believed I’d need to take a class, join a group or read a book on it before I could start. If I was going to meditate, I wanted to do it right. Truthfully, it was easier to sit in a café with my friends drinking coffee than it was to set aside 20 minutes to try to quiet my mind. No one ever explained to me that if I could set aside this time, I wouldn’t feel that “crawling out of my skin” feeling as often or as intensely. Had I known what the payoff was going to be I might have tried it sooner. I was resistant because, deep down, I equated meditation with edgelessness. Now I know that is not the case.
There are a few quick tricks anyone can do throughout the day. They are pretty low-effort but you’ll feel results immediately. You can do them at any time, anywhere.
Start by taking a few deep breaths. Get on your tiptoes and reach up over your head and stretch out all the way through your arms to your fingertips and wiggle your fingers until you feel the stretch go all the way to through your fingertips. Lift one foot off the ground and rotate your ankles and stretch out your toes. Now do the other foot. Meanwhile flex and release your leg muscles. With one hand to the sky and the other pointing to the ground lean to the left and feel the stretch move down your sides. Do the opposite side. Tilt your pelvis forward and backward then rotate your hips in a circular motion and reverse the direction. Roll your shoulders in a circular motion and reverse. Tilt your head all the way forward and all the way back, and then try to touch each ear toward your shoulder. Roll your head slowly in a clockwise circle several times then reverse. Squeeze your shoulders up toward your ears and release. Do this several times. Now bend forward and let your arms hang. Swing from left to right and slowly move up your body, both arms swinging from side to side. Raise your arms over your head and bring your hands together and lower them toward your heart. By now your body should feel relaxed and energized. You can do all of this in less than 5 minutes as often throughout the day as you can remember. In fact, why not schedule it into your phone now to do 5 times during the day until it becomes a habit.
Take a look around. Pay attention to the immediate details to your surroundings. It doesn’t matter whether you’re standing at the back of a restaurant or on the sidewalk, pay attention to the colors, the light, and the sounds. This brings you into the moment. When you are in the moment, fear doesn’t have power over you. By existing in the moment, you’ll be less distracted by your thoughts.
Another quick decompressing trick you can do is to take ten deep slow breaths. Inhale through your nose until your lungs and belly have expanded as far as they can and then blow all this air out through your mouth until you are completely empty. You should be feeling the muscles in your chest and stomach relaxing with each inhalation and exhalation. It may feel like your heart is racing but it’s really just the awareness of your heart and your body. It’s nothing to worry about.
By stretching and breathing, you’ll become conscious of your body and breath so this next trick will be quite easy to do. Whether your eyes are open or closed, feel the air moving into your nostrils. It should feel slightly cool on its way in and warmer on its way out. Control it by inhaling and exhaling slightly longer. Most likely you’ll have to yawn several times. Feel the stretch in your jaw when you do. By doing this exercise you’re going to start noticing the way the air feels entering and exiting your nostrils throughout the day. You’re building a relationship with your physical body and an awareness of the moment you are in.
You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with patience and vigilance. By creating these habits and incorporating them into your daily routine early in recovery, you are exercising some discipline over how time is being spent. It gives you control over how you want to feel physically and emotionally. Less anxiety means less fear. And fear is what sends signals that say, “If it’s going to feel like this, why bother ?” Less fear means less pain. Vigilance is not giving up.
We are like a porcelain vase that fell off a table and shattered across the floor. A lot of damage has been done. We gather up the pieces and enter recovery hoping someone will tell us how to put it back together. And people tell us how – but they also say, “It takes time.” We start going through all the pieces and start to figure out what fits where so we can put the vase back together again. It takes time and patience but we know the pieces will eventually all fit. If we approach this task in a hurried, stressed out way, we’ll make a mess of it and end up taking longer to get it done. By practicing some mindfulness, we are able to enjoy the process and we’ll feel excited when it begins to look like a vase again. It takes vigilance and patience to put ourselves back together. Honestly, if the payoff didn’t exceed the work we put into recovery, no one would stay clean. This payoff is why we keep blindly moving forward even when we can’t see what’s ahead. Patience teaches us that the real prize is the journey.