Stress is not Required

Before I got clean I would sit around thinking about all the extra money I’d have if I ever stopped getting high. I had a hole the size of a quarter in the sole of my boot and every day I would do the math of my drug expense and think “I probably cook up and inject the equivalent of a few pairs of expensive boots every week”. After I got clean, however, I realized there was very little in the world that could compel me to come up with money the way drugs did. I didn’t have the extra hundreds in my hand because suddenly I was doing things like paying rent and feeding myself – stuff that hadn’t mattered before.

The same thing goes for creative and career dreams that once had a specific place in my fantasy life while I was getting high. I imagined all the things I would do once all my time wasn’t spent on feeding my habit. And, like most people in recovery, the minute I got clean I felt like I had to make up for all the lost years – starting immediately.

So whether or not I followed through on my to-do list of steps to take to realize my dreams, every waking hour I carried inside of me the insane pressure to be doing more than I was. No matter what I accomplished in the course of a day, I always felt like there was more to do. My head rambled on a continuous to-do list no matter whether I was actively productive or laying in bed at the end of the day. It was akin to holding down a computer key. And no matter what I accomplished or how happy and satisfied I felt, a voice in my head always insisted on more. It always left me feeling like I was not doing enough. This managed to keep me in some state of anxiety. Ongoing low-level stress is that “on edge” feeling that has the power to turn sour and turn into sadness or depression. It’s that inner voice, ignored or not, that insists that all is not well despite evidence to the contrary. In recovery-speak we call it “beating ourselves up” or negative self-talk. And it is a place the disease uses to distort our perception that the glass is always half empty and that we are never enough. Without drugs, our disease manages to stay alive inside our habit of creating a life that is too busy for us to find balance. Balance is always key to well being because it reduces stress.

Try to imagine our brain looking like dry riverbeds in the California desert. Every time we experience stress it’s like a flash flood. Every time we got high or drunk, every traumatic event was experienced as a full-on flash flood. What we end up with is a very deep river bed. It takes a lot of stress to fill these up to the levels that drugs would fill them. So, drug free, these pathways keep waiting for the big rain. When we first get clean the immediate drop in the water table (so to speak) is why we feel completely insane with anxiety. This is that feeling of exposed raw nerves during withdrawal. As we stay clean, the stress is lowered, in part because our brain slowly adapts to a lesser level of metaphoric rain filling our riverbeds but it is also because our new behaviors begin to deepen other pathways. In recovery, our healthy behaviors actually re-route our neurological pathways. We repair much of the damage active addiction caused our brain and begin to balance out our equilibrium. Nonetheless, our ridiculously imposing to-do lists keep our brains dampened by a low level of stress which in turn keeps our disease engaged enough to trigger other negative feelings. If we feel bad enough long enough, using starts to seem like a reasonable solution to “take the edge off” our feelings.

This is why it is important to create a daily routine that balances the workload with self-care and relaxing activities. This is why people go to the gym before or after work, why it feels like a weight has been lifted after yoga class, why laughter at a dinner with friends feels so good. Without these things, life becomes a soul-sucking job and no matter how successful we are, if we put pressure on ourselves every minute to be productive, if we hold our own whipping stick, at the end of the day no matter how much we’ve accomplished the feeling of being spent outweighs the satisfaction of a job well done.

I am not suggesting that we need to shoot lower with our goals or modify our dreams to less than we desire. I believe we need to accept our human limitations and that we’re best able to live a life of lower stress if we plan our day to include healthy decompressing time. This needs to be as high on the priority scale as anything to do with work and life errands. I realize that parenting involves placing other people’s needs at the top of the list and that there is often very little or no time to breathe on weekdays. So how can parents create daily balance to take care of themselves? One way would be to use family car time to play games, tell jokes or sing songs. Consciously create pleasurable activities wherever you are. For parents who have to kill time while their kids are in afterschool activities, bring along a book (fiction not self help). Audio books are great for taking a breather from self-obsession. Breathing meditations or guided meditations downloaded onto an IPod can be done anywhere (even at your work desk or in the office restroom). Take a few minutes throughout the day to stretch your body, to step outside and take in any natural beauty you can find. All of these little actions will add up to a big payoff – even for people who don’t get time alone until everyone else is in bed.

It takes practice to create stress-reducing activities and – trust me – the addict mind and the stress riverbeds in your brain will put up a lot of resistance – but a conscious effort will result in change. In time, self-care behaviors will come as effortlessly as breathing. It takes time to re-route our brains away from the pathways that were created prior to recovery but it will happen. Peace of mind and the ability to take on the responsibilities of a full ambitious life can co-exist.


Patty is a nationally recognized certified recovery coach and writer. She lives in New York City.

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