There’s a saying that’s so familiar yet one most addicts and alcoholics in recovery continually forget. “Pain is optional”.
How many times do we have to hit the same wall before we start doing things differently? The answer varies from one recovering addict to the next. In early recovery, we blindly make choices that lead us toward pain. Often it ‘s because we haven’t yet acquired a deeper personal insight into how the disease of addiction manifests. Pain still masquerades as a familiar friend, a constant gnawing, a sense that all is not well or that the other shoe is about to drop. It’s fighting for territory against the threat that recovery might actually take hold. That’s why in early recovery we stick super close to our support group. We hang onto, “This too shall pass” (which it does) and we start to taste freedom. We gain tools for living and for coping with our emotions. This is recovery. Life gets better and we start to feel good.
Then something interesting seems to happen to everyone once we put together some clean time: we make choices that lead us back to emotional pain. Sometimes we can look back and pinpoint our choice and see that is happened when difficult feelings surfaced around fearful situations or insecurities. Other times, we can’t explain what the hell we were thinking. There are even times when we knew there’d be a price for acting out and we simply didn’t care and headed toward our desires with complete abandon. We may have even claimed that we were willing to pay the price for it.
The first time I consciously chose to act out was around the six or seven year clean mark. I wasn’t completely satisfied with where my life was at. Though I could easily say it was better than it had ever been, it wasn’t aligning to where I wanted it to be. A lifestyle of healthy activities and self-care had become the fabric of my routine and no longer felt like individual achievements that excited me. I was bored. That was the crime – boredom. I remember telling my therapist that I just wanted to feel euphoria. It was springtime and I was restless. For me, that meant I wanted to make love, romance, or a sexual adventure happen. I even said to her that I knew there’d be a price and I was willing to pay it. Several weeks later I was back in her office crying that I felt empty. I may have even said “godless”. It was a familiar existential yearning and despair that reminded me of how I felt coming off a coke run. I didn’t like it. Her response stuck with me. She said that when I was telling her I was willing to pay the price, she knew that I had absolutely no recollection of what the price felt like. When I was feeling it though, it was all too familiar. A time travel of sorts to an emotional place I’d worked hard to get away from.
The disease of addiction is like that. Call it denial or call it amnesia, the disease is always going to resurface and lead us toward pain if we allow it. In recovery we have a choice most of the time. It’s found in the pause and patience we practice before acting.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend who’s been in recovery for over thirty years. For 16 of them she worked vigilantly to find peace, unaware that she was also being undermined by an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. Later she experienced the long slow death of her mother and several years after that her life was upended by one of her kids becoming addicted to meth. She navigated these minefields by staying deeply engaged in her recovery process. Yesterday she was telling me how fantastic she felt and how happy she was with her life. For a steady period of time now it’s been blossoming. The fruits of her labors include a successful business, drug-free children, a reinvigorated sex life with her husband, and an upcoming dream vacation. Next she admitted to sending several emails to someone who’d caused her years of emotional turmoil and her disappointment that he hadn’t responded and how she was now thinking of inviting another former relationship back into her life. Of course as she casually mentioned both of these people, she wasn’t remembering the turmoil or emotional abuse that comes with them. Until she spoke her plans out loud to someone, she had been unable to see what these tentative actions could bring. We wondered why sometimes it’s so hard to allow ourselves to be happy. After philosophizing for several minutes we remembered the disease. Of yes, it may be decades later, but it’s still there trying to orchestrate pain back into our lives IF we allow it.
It can be argued that this experience isn’t exclusive to addicts and alcoholics but for us the consequences are greater. If we feel bad long enough our brains are wired to remind us that there is a solution – if only temporary – to our pain, The long game is for that solution to be found in drugs and alcohol. This is why we learn to pause, to share our secrets, and to recognize that we always have a choice. The road does get narrower. We learn that when we act out in certain ways, we volunteer for the inevitable soul-emptiness we experience when we surrender our serenity. The trick is to be able to remember this truth.
Does anyone remember the Scorsese film “After Hours”? At the start of the film Griffin Dunne watches his last $20 bill float out a cab window and it is a catalyst for a night of chaos in downtown 1980s New York City. Every scene builds with chaos and insanity and a colorful cast of menacing weirdos. To the average audience it probably seemed like a high-stress falling down a rabbit hole Alice in Wonderland but to people who’ve lived with addiction it’s more like watching “chaos-lite”.
In case you ever forget what life was really like in active addiction, listen to the stories being recounted by people who are newly sober. The events taking place and the cast of characters usually falls somewhere between the epic Dante’s Inferno and Monty Python – and this is recounting twenty four hours or less. They’re recounting only one story from one of many hundred days spent living on the edge. The stories that come out of these experiences are riveting. They easily rival the big screen. They have it all – drama, action, comedy. In the telling (and the spirit-saving grace of irony) hilarity helps to make the pain bearable. For anyone who has lived it through this lens, it is like living life at a distance. To survive, we learn to detach.
I call this “my life as a movie” storytelling. Almost all emotional context is missing from these stories. Although they are personal, they sound like re-telling a movie recently viewed. It is common among addicts. The unreality life takes on under the influence. The more unbelievable things get, the better the story.
I have to admit that I was pretty entertained by the craziness of my life when I was getting high. Drugs exposed me to people and situations that kept me amused and curious. For a while, the unfolding story brought me as much pleasure as the high. Life felt epic. Managing crisis after crisis was a challenge and I was good at living by my wits.
The progression, like addiction, is that the pain usurps the pleasure and the entertainment value is lost. Instead of hilarious characters, you discover yourself surrounded by people you don’t care about and who definitely don’t care about you. It’s more evidence of being trapped by the lonely prison of addiction.
When you get clean and start attracting attention for your storytelling it can kick up bizarre feelings. On one hand, what you lived through and laugh at was really painful but you will start to miss it. Life clean may feel uncreative and uninspiring. The transition can be painful for people who found twisted pleasure and ridiculousness in pain. Getting clean may feel like going from Technicolor to black and white.
What is happening is that your current story is becoming more complex. Now there is an emotional life that accompanies you throughout each day. It may feel difficult at first and your head will romanticize the past as being more “care-free”. Find some humor in this – maybe you’re confusing “care-free” with “pain-free” which was not the case. Our distorted perceptions can amuse us while we land back into reality if we let them. Adjusting to new circumstances takes time. Find people in recovery to seek out new experiences.
I think it’s important for people who relish chaos and living by their wits to discover activities or hobbies they can become passionate about. You can have big experiences and be clean and sober. Trust me, there will be plenty to laugh at.
Maybe what you need is to challenge yourself physically or intellectually. Facing yourself and your fears clean is a challenge that should not be under-estimated. You can’t go from living a completely external existence to living a completely internal one. Stay engaged because you can’t afford to lose interest in your own life. Get involved in your fellowship, do service in your community, create friendships, find out what floats your boat and dive into the stream of things. The worst thing you can do if you are an adventure seeker is to dial your life down to a low frequency. Community is where you will find the laughter.
Not everyone found personal thrills from living on the edge during active addiction. They may not relate to this blog however the recovery advice stands alone. Passion, fulfillment and a sense of purpose will enrich everyone’s personal recovery.
Eventually traveling the road of recovery you’ll discover that the thrill of drama and chaos becomes less attractive. You’ll make choices that enhance inner peace without losing your personal edge. There will be no need to push the envelop all the time. This process happens naturally so don’t bother trying to rush it. Stay in the recovery game and change happens.
I began 2014 with a commitment to spend the year blogging more about how to enrich an already clean and sober lifestyle – how to have more fun and increase feelings of wellbeing. For 2015 I want to get back to basics and address early recovery – creating coping skills, what to expect, and how to ride out the tough spots without relapsing.
There is a misconception that the majority of people who get clean do it as part of a New Year’s resolution. If that were the case, every January there would be ridiculous amounts of people celebrating anniversaries in 12-Step programs. I’m talking out of the ballpark numbers. The truth is, attendance at most 12-Step meetings doesn’t go up noticeably in January. My guess is that many addicts spend January and February deep in self-loathing for not being able to comprehend why their countless attempts to control or abstain keep failing. Maybe January is a month for New Year Resolutionists to hit bottom. This year my blog is geared to helping people create lifestyle changes to support sustainable recovery, ease stress, and put an end to isolation.
Whenever I begin working with new clients one of my goals is to create new healthy lifestyle habits, create a weekly routine and to guide them through their resistance to all of it. There’s a predictable pattern. They start out willing to do whatever I suggest because they want to stay clean and sober and are motivated by fear of failure. A couple weeks into this routine and they’re complaining that they’re exhausted, that they can’t keep going at this pace without everything in their life falling apart, and that I can’t possibly understand how serious this is. I call this the “whiney phase’. This is when we fine-tune the routine to make sure there’s enough balance so they’re not in a genuine prolonged state of HALT (hungry angry lonely tired). This crankiness (which usually occurs between 14-30 days) passes and the benefits of implementing these new activities begin kicking in to bring on good feelings and a noticeable lessening of stress.
Anyone’s who been to rehab remembers the intense daily schedules – moving from one activity to the next. God knows I never was happy to be doing jumping jacks in a rainy yard early in the morning. Every day the addicts would get together and complain that the seemingly pointless daily routine business was because they needed to justify keeping us for 30 plus days.
Here is why it is important to create a weekly schedule in early recovery:
1. The worst-case scenario is for a newly sober addict to have hours pass with nothing to do except think. The disease is still very strong and loud in the weeks following that last drug or drink. The “feed me feed me feed me” mantra is the basis of restlessness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood swings, even physical symptoms of extended withdrawal. It can make us believe a headache is surely evidence of the need for a future lobotomy. And the worst part of all of this inner chatter is that left alone, our humor about ourselves dwindles rapidly. Taking the “edge off” becomes appealing and less frightening.
2. Exercise, yoga, meditation, healthy eating, time with friends, leisure time for activities (sports/movies/live music/dancing/comedy), 12-step meetings (or whatever recovery support groups you attend) added onto your daily routine will promote energy, mental clarity, reduce stress, improve sleep and leave you less time to think about yourself in negative ways. Regardless of what hopeless negative chatter your mind may want to kick up, you will have evidence that each day you are staying on point and are willing to go to ANY LENGTH to stay clean and move toward goals of happiness, inner peace, and freedom from fear of feelings. Your daily life is recovery in action.
How does all of this begin – especially for people who are new to recovery doing this on their own?
Create a hard copy (pen and paper) weekly calendar and a copy into your cell calendar with notifications. Each morning set alarm reminders on your phone for activities, appointments, meetings etc. Find a system that works for you. The main thing is that you plan your week ahead of time so you don’t spontaneously over-commit yourself at the expense of screwing up your day.
Here is an example of a weekly recovery plan.
Make a list of 12-Step (or alternative) meetings you will attend for one week. This way you won’t agree to working overtime or driving the kids without knowing what is at stake and having time to find an alternative meeting you can put into your schedule rather than believing you’ve screwed up and now have to miss the meeting. Remember – sustainable recovery is something you build through effort. By sticking to this early recovery lifestyle to-do list you have daily evidence that recovery IS your priority no matter what negative crap goes on in your head.
In your weekly planner include 30-60 minutes a day outside (walking, exercising, relaxing). Include 3-5 hour slots for fitness (whatever that looks like for you).
Make time to spend with other recovering addicts/alcoholics and a checklist of new people to contact via email, on www.intherooms.com chat, phone calls. Reach out and try to build a support group.
Always plan so that you have food and time to eat. Skipping meals or waiting too long to eat tends to make people cranky, outright angry, or weepy.
If you feel like you have been running non-stop to get everything done from the minute your alarm went off until you are about to turn in – take an extra 20 minutes to unwind with some music, YouTube a calming guided meditation, take a relaxing bath, or create your own end of day chill out space to reflect and unwind.
In the coming weeks I will elaborate on every activity that helps strengthen recovery and explain not only how to do it without it costing any money but also what the short and long-term payoffs are.
Remember – within the first couple weeks of following a daily recovery routine it’s normal to feel exhausted and overwhelmed and want to crawl back in bed and say fuck it. Power through this phase. Remember the agony of creating healthy habits is temporary and nothing compared to the agony of wanting to get clean and being unable to surrender again.
I wonder how many people reading this pre-Christmas blog are thinking about giving up their clean time to “enjoy” a few drinks over the holidays?
I wrote, “enjoy” in quotes because when the disease speaks to us it tends to create advertising strategies that would rival the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. For example, a couple years ago I was passing a park in New York City when the smell of weed hit me and a voice in my head responded with, “That smells RELAXING”. It was such an absurd adjective to describe weed that I recognized it as an impulsive ploy by the disease to try to get me to relapse. In fact, immediately following the word “relaxing” came “All you have to do is walk into that park and take a hit off that joint and you won’t have to write a recovery book and you can walk away from all the pressures that come with being self-employed“. Of course there is more to the story – it was the 4th of July and I hadn’t made plans so I was feeling sorry for myself and a little lonely. I was exhausted and hadn’t had a day off in ages and I did have a lot of writing deadline pressure – in a sense, it was a perfect storm of ongoing stress and HALT for the disease to gain a bit of a voice again (after 23 years clean). This is what is meant when we tell newcomers to respect the power of the disease – it’s always looking for a way to regain control. I loved heroin but if it takes weed to get me back to heroin, then the relapse-strategy of the disease will use weed. If you were a meth addict, a glass of wine will appear harmless by comparison (in the strategy of the disease mind). Pay attention to the way you think about drugs and alcohol this holiday season. The subtle use of language in your head is a trick the disease will try to use to gain traction. It’s part of the disease’s seduction.
It might use the color of wine or the rarely used holiday cocktail glasses you see at a party to get your attention or the jolly bar scene that appears through the window as you pass by on a snowy night. Rarely will the disease let you equate Christmas “cheer” with a syringe or a crack pipe. Instead, it will suggest partaking in the midnight champagne toast on New Years, or spiked eggnog on Christmas. Maybe it will start by tricking you into eating a dessert that you already know is dosed with rum. Recovering addicts and alcoholics can’t afford to get amnesia over the holidays. We must be alert to our actions and tell on the bargaining voice that assures us that we “are not in danger”.
Amnesia is how relapse begins.
I am currently with someone who is in withdrawal from Suboxone. When she started to use pills after several years clean, she’d convinced herself that the emotional pain and discomfort she was experiencing (over romantic disappointment) was greater than the pain of opiate withdrawal. Another way amnesia plays into relapse is that it distorts the hellish process we went through before we were ever able to summon the courage to get through detox. You know – the voice that says “It’s okay to drink throughout the holidays because you can get sober again in the New Year”. We forget all the times we tried to get clean but couldn’t make it 48 hours before giving up.
This holiday blog is meant as a reality check for anyone who is bargaining with himself or herself over whether or not to drink or get high this holiday season.
Yesterday was my friend’s first day off of 2 mgs of Suboxone (which, by the way, she got down to through an outpatient detox of 6 weeks. This involved a weekly taper which was equal to low level withdrawal misery). Last night she continually shifted from the bed to the floor, to the tub, to blankets, to no blankets while she went from sweating to freezing. It brought it back home to me – that horrible sensation of being so uncomfortable in your bones that no position allows for sleep. I could hear her moan, whimper, and weep all night long. There’s no way through it except through it – and by late tonight the worst will be over. Hopefully by Christmas she is through the physical withdrawal because we’ll be able to address the anxiety and depression that always follows detox by going to meetings and using stress reduction tools. A year ago when she relapsed, she really believed her emotional pain was so great that the only thing that could relieve it was a narcotic. Watching her pay the price for this error of judgment last night was heartbreaking. Alone with our mind, our disease will always suggest that life is more painful than active addiction. This is the amnesia I speak of. This is the lie.
Cravings always come about as a result of feelings and lack of self-care. When I talk about holidays being trigger times, I don’t mean that they will come in obvious ways. Instead, they’ll appear as an advertising campaign equating joy and community, intimacy and alcohol OR they will be in response to feelings of insecurity around specific people we have a history with, or in response to the void we feel around the grief of people who are no longer here. Cravings will kick up around loneliness, grief, disappointment, insecurity, hopelessness, and future fears. It will appear as nostalgia for a time when drugs and alcohol worked to bring relief and intensify good times, nostalgia for youth and innocence. The cravings will not be obvious connect-the-dots stuff. It might be a certain smell, or a body memory, or self pity that gets a voice in your head rationalizing how you can control it this time, stop when you want, use one drug and avoid others.
You do not have to be the victim of addict amnesia. There are tools to address every feeling, a fellowship and a community of people in your support network to share your deepest fears with, preventative actions and exit strategies you can put into place before stepping into environments where there are people drinking and using this holiday season. And most of all – minimize your time alone no matter how long you have been sober. Even if you insist that holidays have no power of you, the disease knows where you are vulnerable. It will manufacture a pro-alcohol advertising campaign in your thoughts while creating amnesia so that it’s impossible to get a reality check on what is truly at stake if you relapse.
Have a safe and happy holiday. Reach out. Volunteer. Don’t be alone.
When I was eleven I was on my school’s gymnastic team. A year later I traded in all my after-school activities for boys and drugs. From that point until I entered rehab at twenty-eight, the only exercise I got was from sex or from being chased by police dogs. I don’t know if this qualifies as a ”fitness phase” but in my late teens I’d regularly jog from 14th and Third to Avenue D to cop heroin. In those days cabs wouldn’t go into Alphabet City and jogging felt safer than walking.
When I got clean and sober my body started sending signals to my brain “Hey remember me? I’ve been sustaining this girl while you were hijacked by active addiction? Can you get her to give me a little attention please?” because out of nowhere I wanted to start exercising. I had a few friends who were “gym nuts” but my entry into fitness started slow. I couldn’t feign the enthusiasm for working out that they had. When they’d try to cheer me on I’d get annoyed. I deliberately started going when I knew they weren’t there.
My gym experience was miserable. I’d be bored after a few laps around the track. I could only dog-paddle around the pool for so long before I’d feel ridiculous. And forget about figuring out how to use the resistance machines. Even if someone took time to explain them to me, I couldn’t pay attention. My ADD stressed-out brain would get overwhelmed. I loved the idea of being strong and fit with a fabulous body but I definitely didn’t have any love for the gym. After a while it felt like I was paying a monthly membership so that I could hate myself in entirely new ways. But I kept showing up.
Here’s the thing. Everything I was going through was totally normal for the amount of drugs I’d been using and the length of time I’d been using them. It was going to take a while for my brain to rebalance itself. In the 80s there wasn’t the science and research to back what I was discovering first hand in my recovery process. All I knew was that for the first four months I was either too hot or too cold. I would feel happy and out of nowhere be filled with anxiety. Stress seemed to be irrational. It could be set off by an idea. I got my first good night’s sleep somewhere between 5 and 6 months clean and it took a year before I could read a page in a novel and be able to tell you what I’d read. I’d either be wired for sound or completely lackluster. It was normal to be laughing and crying in the space of five minutes. When someone with less clean time than me said they were running five miles a day I wanted to slit my throat.
Here’s what was happening in my brain. During prolonged drug use, dopamine receptors get jacked up, sometimes 1500 times higher than their natural levels. The brain stops releasing natural dopamine and endorphins in an attempt to rebalance itself. Dopamine is what drives out desires. It’s responsible for motivating us and rewarding us. This is how we experience intense pleasure, love, and connection. When you take away drugs and alcohol there’s a major drop in dopamine levels. We feel this deficit as lack of motivation and lack of reward. This means that even things that should feel great only feel slightly satisfying. It’s hard to maintain motivation when there is no immediate pay off. When the brain’s in dopamine-deficit mode it creates stress. This is what makes it hard to focus attention and why it’s difficult to sleep. The brain responds to low dopamine levels the way we respond to heartbreak. It yearns. So even if the obsession to get high has been lifted and drug cravings have vanished, it’s normal for a strange broken-hearted despair to linger over everything.
Healing takes time. Luckily the brain, body, and spirit (the you) want to survive and thrive. It wants to restore itself and our lifestyle changes speed up the payoff. At the beginning I couldn’t muster up motivation to workout because I wasn’t getting enough of a pleasure payout but I continued to show up at the gym and do what I could. Eventually I found what worked for me. When I started getting an endorphin high from aerobic classes I understood what motivated people to run five miles or run marathons.
I began to sleep better and my energy increased. Weird new positive feelings started surfacing. I felt proud of myself for staying committed to my health and my recovery, self-esteem started silencing some of the self-hate. It’s crazy how all it took was finding the right workout to boost my endorphins and the payoff was immediate.
If I get honest, what drove me to join a gym, aside from peer pressure, was vanity. I wanted a slamming body. I instead I got hooked on the feelings and this is what sustained my motivation. The body thing just sort of happened as a bi-product.
If you are new to recovery (or an oldtimer who has avoided exercising) I hope you find a form of cardio that excites you. Your brain will reward you for it, your immune system will strengthen and yes – your body will change.
There will be times when it feels like your life is falling apart even in recovery. Sometimes it’s a direct result of consequences from choices you’ve made and sometimes it’s because of events completely beyond your control. Either way, when life becomes completely unmanageable it will feel like you are drowning – whether in fear, sorrow, financial crisis, relationship chaos, or grief. The sensation of drowning becomes a state of panic. The ripple effect is similar to trying to fight your way out of an undertow or riptide. The more you struggle the worse it gets.
Most addicts have this in common – when we are afraid we want relief. Usually the best plan we come up with is to invest all of our energy in getting the situation under control. “Control” being the operative word. The internal dialogue might go like this, “This shit is serious and if I don’t do everything in my power to make it right things are just going to get worse. I can’t count on anyone else. It’s my problem. I have to fix it.” And if the situation is is due to impulsive decisions they’ve come up with on their own there’s usually another layer of inner dialogue that goes like this, ”It’s all my fault. I fuck everything up. This is my mess and I have to deal with this on my own.” (Most likely the dialogue is laced with more anger and self-loathing than I have written here).
I don’t know if you can see a pattern emerging but what’s obvious to me is that this illusion of self-relaince gives the disease leverage to create an amnesia effect regarding recovery tools that have worked in the past. Most likely the crisis situation was brought on by impulsive decision-making rather than methodically creating a plan and sharing it with people they trust (a friend, a sponsor or a therapist). The source of their current chaos may have involved risky spending, behavior inside a relationship, a major move, or exiting of a job. Impulsive behavior such as making major decisions that could have consequences without consulting their support network for feedback sets of a domino effect of self-reliance. Instead of recognizing that they need to ask for help, they believe that they alone can fix it. Often this involves more poor choices that result in panic driven by a fear of drowning.
This cycle continues to create more damage because it is impossible to make clear rational decisions when fear is the driving force. This is when it is time to ask for help. It is better to ask for help sooner rather than later. With the help of others and of professionals it is possible to come up with a workable solution. Depending on the situation and how bad it’s gotten, a quick fix is unlikely. A steady ongoing commitment to clean it up may be required.
While self-reliance is a worthy goal in some areas, if it’s driven by fear it’s unlikely to create positive solutions. Fear kicks up character defect and shame, regret, and pride ignite negative self-talk and self-hatred. It’s unlikely for anyone to come up with workable or sane solutions under these conditions. The only way to get out of the riptide is to ask for help. It’s no different than admitting defeat in order to get clean. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Everyone makes poor choices at some time or another and we learn from our missteps. The disease of addiction gains power from isolation and emotional pain. What may start out as impulsive spending could spiral into a relapse. You have the power to stop yourself from drowning by sharing the truth with someone in your support network and asking for help. No matter how bad things appear, in recovery there are workable solutions to every problem. Getting high is not one of them.
World Suicide Prevention Day is coming up on Sept 10th. If you have been in recovery for a while chances are you’ve known someone who has committed suicide while on a relapse. In fact, it’s not unusual to have been touched by suicide even before coming into recovery. A life spent in both active addiction and recovery carries within it a lot of tragedy and grief. There’s usually a body count.
We know that drugs kill yet I have seen many people protect their own recovery by avoiding friends who have relapsed. They may reach out once or twice but when the friend doesn’t get clean right away, they get cut off. I’m not suggesting that people in recovery need to open their lives up to the level of drama an active addict can bring into it but I do think it’s important to open up a discussion around what we can do for our suffering friends. The loneliness, hopelessness and self-hate may be what bring them back into recovery but it may also be a level of pain (especially after having lost substantial clean time) that makes the idea of suicide an option to them.
I’ve had several friends commit suicide while they were on relapses. One had tried getting clean repeatedly and had burned out most of his friends by the time he killed himself. He’d been a popular well-liked guy and the funeral was attended by at least a hundred recovering addicts. His closest friends were racked with guilt for having cut him off but believed it was the only way they could maintain personal sanity. The question on everyone’s lips was “What could we have done?”
It’s important to have boundaries, especially with people who are in active addiction. No one wants someone showing up at the door unannounced, constantly being asked for money, or having to live in fear of break-ins and theft. But we can’t forget the loneliness and hopelessness of active addiction. Small acts of kindness go a long way – and it can be done without surrendering your safety or sanity. A regular phone call, dropping by with some sandwiches, offering to accompany them to detox or a 12-step meeting can be done with support from other recovering addicts. By showing unconditional love they’ll know they can come to you when they’re ready to get clean. It requires a level of commitment to be consistent with contact – whether daily, once a week, or you divide it up among friends. It’s important that the person on a relapse knows they can call you to talk about anything without being judged. But remember, when it comes to thoughts of suicide, many addicts hold them secret. They may never confide these thoughts to you because their experience has taught them they will be judged for having suicidal feelings. Look online or contact a local suicide prevention center and ask if they have an information card that you can give to someone you are worried about. It’s okay to hand this to your friend and say “I don’t know if you would ever tell me if you feel like killing yourself but keep this card if these thoughts ever come up”. Also tell them you will always take them to the hospital if they ever feel like they are a danger to themselves. Check the laws in your area to see if they have a 72-hour psychiatric watch in place for people suspected of being a danger to themselves or others and get information on it. Some states call this the Baker Act. If your friend refuses to re-enter recovery, suggest seeing a therapist to treat depression. If you can get them to do this, it is one step closer to helping them move toward recovery.
Handling a friend who’s on a relapse requires unconditional love, patience, and compassion with boundaries. A group effort is less emotionally taxing. Do not neglect your own self-care. Share your feelings with others. While ultimately we are powerless over what another person does, we are not powerless to provide them with information and options. Relapse is reversible but suicide is not.
Imagine you’ve never run a marathon. How do you think you’d make out if you didn’t train for it? What if you start training, 100% committed, but after a couple weeks you start to cancel sessions, cut them short, stop asking your trainer what he thinks is best and instead tell him what you think you should do – even though you’ve never been in a marathon before? Would you consider this self-sabotaging behavior?
We can take this scenario and replace “marathon” with “recovery” to illustrate what happens to a lot of people who are newly clean and sober. Motivated by pain and desperation, they ask for help and are willing to do whatever it takes to find relief. Within a couple weeks or months of not drinking or using drugs, they’re feeling pretty good. This change has come about from the combined effects of abstinence and applying the tools they have learned, exercise and stress reduction techniques What they’ve been doing is so obviously working that their pain and fear have subsided. Then amnesia sets in. When their addict-mind starts to minimize how bad using left them feeling , the newcomer is incapable of separating these distorted thoughts from reality. This is the seduction of the disease of addiction in action.
What do you suppose their next move is? They cut back on the effort they’ve been making. Same as the person who decides they have what it takes to run a marathon without completing their training. After a few weeks clean and sober they’re are anxious to get “back to their lives” and are willing to compromise the time they’ve been spending developing a healthy recovery-based lifestyle. Here’s what’s missing from their thought process: a few weeks abstinent isn’t long enough to create any lasting changes in their brain yet. The disease-mind is still in control, albeit a bit weaker. It’s hungry and busy at work trying to trick the newcomer away from any actions that will continue to weaken it.
The disease of addiction is like a computer virus that has read your hard-drive. It can mimic your thinking and the newly sober person can’t discern disease-driven thinking from healthy thinking. In active addiction, it hijacks the brain to keep feeding it more drugs and alcohol – this is why, when using, we feel out of control. Without the defenses that come from actively participating in recovery, the reasons for using again will always seem to make sense – one way or another. Self-reliance in early recovery usually shrinks the recovery-commitment. The way the disease of addiction regains power simply gets subtler. This is how a lot of relapses begin.
This is why it is important to have a recovery support system. When you’ve rationalized cutting back on the tools that have helped you to stay clean, there will be someone to point what you are really doing – moving away from recovery.
You know how hard it is to go back to the gym after time away? Well if someone in their first few months clean starts coasting on abstinence alone, they won’t reap the benefits of recovery. Without coping skills, feelings are too uncomfortable. Recovery is taking repetitive actions until you re-train your brain to take life-affirming actions rather than seek to escape reality. Learning how to honestly assess where you are at emotionally by identifying feelings comes with practice. By cutting back on the things that helped you at the beginning, the muscles you were building weaken. When emotional discomfort comes along the old wiring starts asking for relief. Often this story ends with, “I don’t know how it happened. I really wanted to stay sober.” Of course staying engaged in recovery doesn’t mean that you’ll always feel great but you will have choices on what to do with these feelings other than get high. t takes a while to thaw out but all feelings pass. During the first six months there will be highs and lows. Generally emotional roller-coaster starts to even out between sixty and ninety days.
Here’s what I really think is behind the shrinking commitment. The first sign of disengagement from a recovery routine is also the first sign of some feelings thawing out. On some unconscious level, they know these feelings have surfaced from being in recovery so their first reaction is to step away from the cause. The irony is that recovery teaches you to be fearless so that you can embraces your feelings rather than run blindly from them.
If you are new to recovery, connect to others whether it is finding support in a 12-step or alternative recovery group, an outpatient group, a therapist or drug counselor, or simply search for people to connect to on websites like www.intherooms.com. Trust me, the disease of addiction will make a convincing case for why it’s important to take a “day off” from taking care of yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually. So where are at you today? Are you working hard or hardly working?
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.
I’m a recovering addict who doesn’t like to feel shitty. I’ve discovered through years of trial and error that taking positive actions (especially when I don’t want to) that support my emotional and physical well-being pays off. I’ve lived through 25 years of season changes without getting high and have learned how to surf them with some grace. This is what I hope to share in my blogs – practical tips on how to cope with whatever life throws your direction without getting high.
Believe it or not – changing seasons have the power to wake up the disease (of addiction) and this can cause a lot of emotional discomfort.
I wrote Part One of this blog two weeks ago and since then everyone I talk to says they’ve been feeling crazy. A lot of people are going through a hard time this month and people in early recovery seem to be feeling it the worst.
The good news is that, for the majority of people I’ve spoken to, the root of their discomfort is connected to the change of weather and not their deep core issues. Though many of them fail to recognize this. When recovering addicts feel bad, the first thing they do is intellectualize and over-analyze their emotional life to get a false sense of control over it. When this fails they get filled by overwhelming helplessness. Some people will be experiencing some level of seasonal affective disorder because they slacked off on basic daily doses of fresh air and exercise all winter and they probably lived on comfort foods rather than a healthy balance of fresh vegetables and fruit. The good news is that these feelings – like all feelings –will pass. The current blahs and waves of depression hitting you this year don’t have to be repeated.
Recovery lifestyle changes are easier to embrace when you are given a choice between feeling good or feeling lousy. If you read this blog regularly you’re probably sick of hearing this – but trust me, physical activity pays off long-term in so many ways. You don’t have to become a crazy gym fanatic. Hike, walk, jump rope, bicycle – just move your body in the winter months. When its zero degrees no one wants to go outside. Do it for springtime sanity. Play it forward.
The change in weather is going to have an affect on you. Your energy may feel unsteady. Some days you’ll feel tired yet the weather is making you believe you should be super energized. A voice in your head is now blaming you for not having energy – like it’s somehow your own fault, like you are ruining a perfect day by being tired. Jeez – there’s nothing like the negative self-talk of the addict mind! Instead of staying stuck inside your head try this – accept that today you’re tired. Set lower goals and be gentle with yourself. Maybe you just need some rest. A lot of people experience a shift in their sleep patterns. Be patient. Don’t judge yourself. Honest – it is all going to even out.
It’s not just us – everything’s messed up. Trees were without buds late this year then almost overnight flowers opened. We are not alone. A shift is happening and nothing seems to be running smoothly. (It was seventy degrees yesterday and tonight its twenty-four). Whatever your body is doing energy-wise allow it to be where it is at. Stop expecting more of yourself. The renewal energy of spring is going to happen for you. It’s always our internal struggle with acceptance that feeds the disease. When our body feels off and we decide that our entire life feels off. We feel like shit so our life is shit. The worse we can make ourselves feel, the more that cocktail two tables over is going to call out to us, the more we’re going to want to linger in the scent of a joint that passed us on the sidewalk. The disease will point out drug or alcohol solutions to these feelings whenever it can – and our job is to recognize where these triggers are coming from – the dis-ease we feel internally. Recognize it and let it go. Getting high will not make things better. It is not the solution. Trust me – during springtime these ideas are going to pop into your head without warning. This is a trick so don’t turn it into something wielding power over you. Call a friend in your support system. You never have to tough it out alone.
This is the rollercoaster of seasonal changes: Lust, thirst, anxiety over lust, anxiety over cravings, melancholia over memories (which are often memories of times when drugs and alcohol still worked and these may involve outdoor patio cocktail memories), loneliness will accompany lust, financial insecurity may arise at the thought of needing new clothes or appear as harsh self judgment over not having money to buy thing you feel you can’t live without.. While beauty starts to spring up all around us with the rebirth of spring, on the inside we may be digging ourselves deeper into self-centered despair. Again, this is when you need to reach out and get together with friends. At a time of turning the soil over on our most powerful negative feelings, we need to step into the sunshine of community and of service – volunteer to garden in the community or find a volunteer position that is of personal interest to you. Get out among people.
If you are in early recovery and unsure what is going on inside of you – what is real from what may be the obsession or a general sense of hopelessness the solution is always in connecting to other people in recovery and disclosing what you are going through. You do not have to tough it out alone. These feelings are temporary. They may last a day or a week but they will pass. Soon you will land in a comfort zone and will be present to experience the vitality of the new season. This rollercoaster ride will come to an end.