This week I texted a few people asking for topic ideas for SEX TALK. It went out to people who are very different from one another: men and women, gay and straight, 23 – 60, various fellowships. I was amazed when they all sent back the same suggestion. Everyone wanted the topic to be “Getting sexually involved with someone you know you shouldn’t and once you do it’s impossible to stop no matter how much trouble you know is coming your way”. In other words: what’s the allure of forbidden fruit?
How often do you hear (or have you said) that sex is hotter when it’s taboo? For someone in recovery this can mean seducing the newcomer to having sex with someone who is loaded, someone who’s in a relationship, someone who normally has sex with a particular gender, someone who’s breaking celibacy.
I asked New York therapist Carole Gladstone Ramos to explain why some people are sexually turned on by situations that they know will inevitably cause pain. “We tend to go to what’s familiar even if we are aware of the chronic pitfalls because we have an unconscious need to correct what went wrong even though our rational mind knows better. The psychological term is called “Repetitive compulsion”. We keep going back as a way to hold hope (unconsciously) that this time it will be different.”
Wow – now that’s a loaded answer! Join me this Sunday for SEX TALK where we’ll explore our experiences crossing whatever line we’ve drawn in the sexual sand and how we’ve dealt with the emotional fallout using recovery tools to make our way back to sanity. How many times do we have to repeat old behavior expecting different results before we surrender it? When you surrendered, how did things change?
Last night I sat down to write this blog. With the election underway, my brain was hitting emotional overload. I needed a topic for this week’s SEX TALK but my mind wouldn’t cooperate. Sex and politics were not good bedfellows I lay awake ’til dawn rifling through mental flip cards of sex in recovery experiences (my own and stories that have been shared with me). Numb, exhausted and disconnected. It felt like a closing scene from Clockwork Orange.
It appears we’re living in a country where a large percentage of its people long to return to an idealized 1950s version of America. I’m proud to be part of a recovery community that pushes back against the very taboos and stigmas the 60s began liberating us from. If we want to heal from the ravages of active addiction we have to push back and eradicate societal shame. Ours is a quest for inner peace and self-acceptance and this is achievable by sharing our experience strength and hope, by participating in altruistic acts, and by expanding our capacity for empathy and compassion.
SEX TALK started out as an open-topic forum free for all discussion – a safe space for people in recovery to talk about their relationship to sex and to explore how their sexual behavior, desires, and feelings impact their recovery. A lot’s happened since SEX TALK came on the In-the-Rooms scene. Special interest discussions such as David Weiss’ Sex and Addiction and Rachel Levy’s Healthy Love are now part of the ITR offerings; SA (Sex Addicts) and SLA (Sex and Love) have been added to the 12-Step video meeting list; and Hazelden Books released ITR member Jennifer Matesa’s “Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers,” an engaging and excellently researched recovery book. My point here is that once we began talking about sex in recovery a door opened and we walked through it. It starts with courage and willingness to share experience strength and hope. Conversations on ITR make their way into small local groups of recovering friends. Your contribution matters.
Join me for SEX TALK this Sunday at 9pm ET to talk about sex in recovery – our fears, desires, shame, behaviors, confusion, insecurities, our secrets, pleasure and our pain. This week’s topic is Truth or Consequences because once the drugs and alcohol are gone it’s impossible to side-step accountability – even if we’d like to. I want to extend a special welcome to anyone new to recovery because you’ll have your first drug and alcohol-free sexual experience and the people at SEX TALK have been there. You’ll find support and no topic is off limit so feel free to bring it.
In early recovery when I shared in 12-Step meetings I was filter-less. There wasn’t a topic off the table in my desperate attempt to stay clean. One night in 1989 I attended a late night meeting in Hollywood California when I probably had 8 months clean and was going through a new layer of painful feelings. I knew I needed to share some risky stuff but the room was filled with terminally hip rock and rollers I was dying to befriend and I didn’t want to be uncool. I went to the podium despite my ego and insecurities and shared that even though I owned my decision to be sexually active in casual relationships, I was questioning whether I was self-servingly open about my history with sex work and current employment as a nude dancer as a way to hide my real self behind the “sexual free spirit” image I put forth in recovery or if some part of me believed I was valueless and sex was all I had to offer. The second my mouth closed I felt the horror of vulnerability and shame. I wanted to evaporate into thin air. When the meeting ended there was a line of people waiting to speak with me. Every single one identified with what I’d shared and they started to tell me things about themselves they’d never told a soul. I realized that night how important honest discussions about sex are to our recovery and also how rare they are. Twenty years later I asked the founders of IntheRooms if I could host an open discussion video event about sex in recovery in the hope that members will bring this conversation to their face-to-face sober communities.
Well the conversation has begun and I’m THRILLED to announce that Jennifer Matesa is my guest for this week’s SEX TALK. We’ll discuss her latest book “SEX IN RECOVERY: A Meeting between the Covers” which will be released on October 4th. I do not say this lightly – this book is a must-read for anyone in the recovery community. It is a well-researched exploration of sexuality through the lens of recovery and is filled with personal stories and questions to contemplate individually, with your recovery community, or “book club” style.
Jen has done a masterful job combining the intimacy of her own story and interviews with a diverse demographic of recovering individuals while exploring big questions about sex, shame, privacy, trauma, sexual health, sexual stigma, and our right to sexual pleasure. I’m dying to quote long sections of the book here – especially the section on the lack of scientific research on the long-term psychological and physical consequences of sexual dysfunction that occurs on replacement drugs such as Suboxone and Methadone – but I think it will be more fun to discuss some of the content on SEX TALK. In the meantime, listen to her I LOVE RECOVERY CAFE interview with Nicola O’Hanlon at http://ow.ly/jiXa304EGVR
Jen’s been a longtime member of IntheRooms who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know outside of the cyber world. Her award winning blog, Guinevere Gets Sober chronicles her early years and personal experiences in sobriety and has gone onto to explore and comment on current trends in addiction treatment and the politics behind the drug war as it re-brands itself as a war against addiction. Her first recovery book, “The Recovery Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober” (Hazelden 2014) provides readers with a fact-based roadmap toward health and spiritual wholeness.
SEX TALK is a free live video event on www.intherooms.com . The website is free but you must join to participate. You can also attend the event from your iPad of cell by using the InTheRooms app. It is open to everyone in recovery. The group provides the momentum and steers the content. We keep the focus on the feelings experienced around sex and intimacy. Attendees can come into the main video box with a question or share their experience. Anyone who’s uncomfortable being seen can step off camera. If anonymity is of utmost importance shoot me an instant message with a question to relay to the group.
Some readers may remember seeing the flyer “Let’s Talk About Sex” turning up on my website and social media intermittently between 2011-2014. This was the original Sex in Recovery event I co-hosted with Dan Griffin. Add another two years of hosting SEX TALK and one thing’s clear – I’ve been instigating dialogue about sex in recovery for a while. Throughout the years we’ve laughed, cried, and shared many intimate moments together on www.intherooms.com. This familiarity creates a place of safety for new arrivals to speak honestly about their sexual experiences and desires in the context of their recovery. Because let’s face it – without drugs and alcohol we feel the impact of our actions. The joy, the emotional fallout, and the self-created drama.
My biggest takeaway from hosting Sex Talk is that one topic’s always a deal-breaker: communicating sexual needs. It seems no one wants to discuss the trepidation, discomfort, and outright fear one experiences when it comes to having an honest conversation with their partner about their sexual needs. I believe this topic is affects the recovery process most profoundly because it ties into self-esteem and codependence.
I’ve never had an issue admitting I’m an addict but if someone points out any behaviors leaning toward codependence my impulse is to throw up my armor and explain myself. I’ve been in recovery long enough to know that whenever I get on the defense I start to justify or explain away codependent behaviors because I feel exposed. The knee-jerk (and pointless) response is to judge myself for not being further along in my process. I also know I’m not alone with this. One of the most profound things said to me by a therapist with many years in sobriety is that if you peel away the layers of an addict you will come to the codependent. Recovery in codependence cannot be addressed by anyone actively engaged in addictive or compulsive behaviors. This is why once we put down our substance or behavior of choice many of us experience difficulties with intimacy.
A high percentage of substance abusers, both men and women, enter recovery with untreated trauma. Our history accompanies us into the recovery process. It’s no wonder talking to our partner about sex and our sexual needs can be a terrifying experience – so much so that we do whatever we can to avoid it. I suspect this is why when I introduced it as a topic last year, not one person came into the main video box to share – though the room was packed.
If we want healthy sex lives, authenticity, and greater intimacy in our relationships we have to learn how to engage in honest dialogue with our partners and express our sexual needs without fear of alienating or harming the object of our affection. I’ve enlisted the help of Dan Griffin, my former co-host of Sex in Recovery to bring his wealth of knowledge and experience to this topic. Dan has spent years lecturing on men and trauma and has written numerous books including: A Man’s Way through the Twelve Steps, A Man’s Way through Relationships: Learning to Love and Be Loved, and Helping Men Recover.
I look forward to your questions, your input, and your shared experiences this week on SEX TALK, a free live video event on www.intherooms.com . The website is free but you must join to participate. You can also attend the event from your iPad of cell by using the InTheRooms app.
People in recovery like to overthink things. It’s probably a holdover from active addiction. I realize not everyone in recovery is a member of a 12-step fellowship but there are definitely perks for those in them. The collective wisdom passed down from one recovering addict to another is of immeasurable value. All over the world, recovering addicts share similar eye-opening revelations they’ve experienced and these shared insights turn into the often-repeated sayings we hear in meetings.
“We can’t think our way into new feelings but we can act our way into new thinking.” (Or some variation of this). We hear this solution – that action changes feelings – yet we continue to overthink, ruminate, and obsess in a vain attempt to control how we feel. Overthinking is never a solution. Usually all it does is increase stress and keep us trapped in our discomfort and confusion. We long for change yet we fear it – unless, of course, we are in control of it. There’s no comfort in familiar misery but in early recovery the concept of “letting go” is confusing and difficult to grasp. We usually let go when the pain is great enough. Until then, we hang onto our old belief in self-reliance that’s hardwired by fear. Without solutions we stay trapped in our heads with emotional discomfort.
For anyone new to recovery the greatest suffering happens when we are left alone with our mind for stretches of time. Once the substance or compulsive behavior is gone, our brain experiences a dopamine deficit and this creates anxiety until it finds homeostasis. Our mind’s racing and it feels like we’re going crazy. Even the air stings our raw nerve endings. What’s a newcomer to do?
You can reduce the intensity of withdrawal and early recovery anxiety by taking actions but this requires a conscious daily commitment on your part. Trust me, the addict-mind will try to hold you hostage in prolonged isolation. It’s easy to lose hours sitting at the kitchen table thinking your way into a level of anxiety that’s paralyzing. This makes it hard to get the day started or find motivation to create new habits of self-care.
Here are actions to take:
Call people and make plans so you aren’t spending too much time alone. (Maybe this means going to a meeting or getting together with other people in recovery).
Get outside – take a long walk, look at whatever nature is around you. Fresh air lowers stress.
Do something physical – go to the gym, take an exercise class, yoga, a bike ride, jogging, jump rope, swim or play a sport. Get your body moving for at least 30-60 minutes. (Make an effort – baby steps if you haven’t been active in years).
Eat healthy food and don’t skip meals. Newly clean and sober people have a tendency to go for sugar, bread, and caffeine – mood-changing foods. What they don’t realize is that the mood this diet may lead to is depression and lethargy. Be mindful to get in enough healthy food to balance this out.
If you do all of the above on a regular basis, your body will respond positively. You will sleep better and have more energy. You will also experience less mood-swings.
Cravings always come from feelings. Stress is where they begin. You have the power to control this – the choice is yours. Action not thinking is the way out.
Whenever you start to feel anxious – if you talk to someone who triggers you, if you have to go somewhere or deal with a situation that’s stressful – have quick stress-deactivator tools on hand. Here is what to do: before entering a situation that’s triggering take ten slow deep breaths. Inhale through your nostrils until you feel completely full of air and then blow this air slowly out of your open mouth until you feel like an empty balloon. This will relax you. Anytime you feel any level of stress, breathe like this. Whenever you feel your stomach or chest tighten, excuse yourself from the person or situation and get some fresh air or go to the restroom for some deep breathing. This only takes a few minutes. YOU HAVE THE POWER TO STOP STRESS FROM BUILDING UP BY ADDRESSING IT AS IT HAPPENS.
Allow yourself several minutes throughout the day to deactivate stress. This is damage control. This way day to day stress won’t pile up until thoughts of using pop into your head as a solution. This will leave you more room for joy.
The following post is based on a series of conversations that keep popping up lately. I use a masculine pronoun but this story is not gender specific. Perhaps this blog will hit home for some people new to recovery. To be clear, the situation I’m describing involves having a partner who’s a casual consumer of substances – not someone heavily dependent or in the grips of their own addiction.
You did it. You’re finally clean and sober. What an achievement! Maybe you’ve even been exercising, hitting some yoga classes, and spending as much time as you can with your new sober friends. In fact, the only thing that feels shitty is going home to your partner.
Driving home you find yourself praying his car won’t be in the driveway. Sometimes just the thought of him unleashes a flood of negative feelings you swallow down. You walk into the house and feel the hate rising when you see him. Oblivious, he smiles and asks how the meeting went. Then he gets up to give you a kiss and inwardly you collapse into confusion, wondering if you’re going to have to divorce him. You see, he isn’t tormented over his substance use and has no desire to stop. Because he suffered through your suffering, he was 100% behind your decision to get clean. Compared to what you’ve heard from other people in recovery, you have it easy. No complaints when you head out to a 12-step meeting after dinner, always willing to watch the kids, to leave parties early, and not force you to go anywhere you feel jeopardizes your recovery. Yet, you resent him so much for not offering to quit using for you that you’ve convinced yourself the clock’s ticking on this relationship. When you aren’t angry, you feel guilty or jealous. Sometimes you start wondering if being sober is worth it.
Do you remember what motivated you to enter into recovery? It was the solution to your pain and suffering. Try not to lose sight of this simple truth. After you’ve been sober for a short time and the pain diminishes, you may get amnesia and forget why you are sober. What’s really happening is that with the pain of using gone, you’re starting to experience an avalanche of feelings. This is the “roller-coaster” you hear people in recovery talking about. Usually it’s like being hit by waves of anxiety and depression. Your mind will try to search for something to blame it on. Fear of feelings always underlies our attempts at control. If we can figure out who or what is at the source of our emotional discomfort, we can get rid of it. Or in this case, get rid of him. The disease-mind will start laser focusing on the problem and convince you that you have two choices – leave him or drink. Black and white thinking. Divorce or drink.
While it’s normal to feel disappointed that you can’t always get what you want, you do have a choice about whether to see the glass half full or half empty. Loving support is valuable. Stay in conscious gratitude for anything that is making it easier for you to attend to your sober needs. At this time keep the focus on yourself and stay close to your support system. Continue to exercise, meditate, go to meetings and talk about your feelings with your sober friends and therapist (if you have one). Remember, no one responds well to the pressure of recruitment. Try to accept that for now he may not have the same relationship to drugs and alcohol that you have. If he isn’t suffering, he isn’t suffering – and without a private pain connected to his using, there’s nothing to motivate him into recovery. Very few people surrender in any kind of real way if it is forced upon them. No one knows what the future holds but one thing is true – the disease-mind uses words like “never” and “forever” in connection to all unpleasant feelings and difficult life situations. This is untrue. Our lives (and our inner-lives) are ever-changing. Keep the focus on yourself. Practice patience and tolerance, and apply the golden rule by treating him with the love compassion and respect that you want for yourself. Stay close to your support and allow time to pass. More will be revealed.
The emotional roller-coaster has very little to do with anything other than your brain chemistry responding to being cut off from drugs and alcohol. It will eventually come to an end and your emotions will stabilize. You’ll experience moments of equanimity and be able to assess your situation, your needs, and your relationship more clearly. This may be a time to consider couples’ therapy to work through any distress that may linger.
Applying “live and let live” isn’t always easy, especially when it involves your intimate romantic relationship or life partner. As a newcomer it’s better to trust in the process of recovery and allow some time to pass rather than take impulsive actions in response to chaotic feelings. Avoid causing irreparable damage you may regret.
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 titled this blog “Celebrating Nothing and Everything” because it’s time for us to put down the scorecard that rates and divides the content of our life into worthy events or dull days. All of our life should be celebrated. We all know how easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind or lost in financial stress or romantic drama or pretty much anything where our addict-mind starts to pull levers so that the glass looks half empty instead of half full. I’m here to say that we don’t have to wait until a, b, or c is accomplished before we can be happy or fulfilled or experience peace. Seriously, let’s give up the belief system of “I can be happy when…” It is no longer being supported inside my mind.
I want every day to matter. Don’t you?
A few years ago I experienced probably one of the craziest things to happen in my entire life. While on vacation, I came face-to-face with a panther. (You can be read about here: http://www.pattypowersnyc.blogspot.com/2011/10/death-defying-summer-vacation.html). This event was probably one of the most transformative spiritual experiences of my life. At first whenever I thought back on the panther experience, my body would kick into a simulated fight and flight trauma response. Now it kicks up the joyful feeling of excitement that I felt when I thought I was about to die (for real) and I looked at the sky and trees and panoramic view and realized how LUCKY I am to have had the chance to be here – on this planet. To exist here. To experience this life. As cornball as this sounds, I’ve never really lost that feeling – and I do believe we are all so lucky to be here. It is such a beautiful planet. No matter how we feel, what shape our life is in – we really can step outside and take a good look and slow things down, get out of the prison of our mind and find some beauty nearby. Beauty is a mood lifter and it is always available to us if we make the effort to seek it.
As 2014 comes to a close, I am feeling a lot of gratitude. This past year has been a peaceful one for me – and this has not always been the case. A lot of amazing stuff has happened on a professional and personal level but what really blows my mind is that there has been a real deep shift inside of me this year that I know is a direct result of all the accumulative work I’ve done on myself throughout my years in recovery – working a program, therapy, EMDR, etc. This doesn’t make me special or my recovery exceptional. I’m witnessing these same changes in others all the time. I’m just personally blown away to discover that I continue to change and find a deeper peace inside of myself. I truly feel safe. It’s easy to remember my life in the days leading up to my first day clean in 1988 and recall with fondness all the fun and drama and running and hiding (from myself) I have done over my years clean. Mostly, I’m grateful I’ve remained willing to grow – and I keep being surprised by how good I feel.
One thing I can say that was consistent with how I spent 2014 is that every single day I spent time outside and I appreciated whatever weather I was walking in. I was living mindfully in small ways. I was always celebrating nothing and celebrating everything. I hope this blog can inspire you to do the same in 2015.
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.
Recovery is the process of becoming fearless. This means shedding the layers of psychic armor we’ve built around ourselves to hide and protect us from the unknown. Without armor we feel vulnerable and this feeling of vulnerability is the thing most addicts fear the most. The irony is that this is where our greatest strength can be found.
Addicts come into recovery with decades of built up armor. Maybe it went up early in life, before drugs even entered the equation, as a defense against other dangers such as violence, sexual abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse. Then drugs came along adding even more layers. In active addiction there’s good reason to not to feel safe. In the world of active addiction vulnerability is a sign of weakness, a sucker waiting to be had.
In recovery vulnerability is strength. When we meet someone who is open and unguarded we experience feelings of safety and warmth. We feel their authenticity. What you see is what you get. These people have courage to embrace life without the need for armor. We are attracted to this.
Armor limits our capacity for real intimacy. It protected us from danger but it also distanced us from our own painful experiences and locked away the feelings that were too difficult to process. In recovery, whether we like it or not, our emotions begin to thaw. This is how we start to shed our armor. By sharing our stories, our feelings, our confusion, and acknowledge our need to connect to others we learn to expose our true selves. This process is natural and gradual. We find people we feel safe with – usually people whose own strength lay in their vulnerability, their compassion and empathy – and we begin to reveal ourselves to them. This is how we shed our armor. As we learn to trust we make authentic connections based in honesty. We grow in our capacity for intimacy.
In time we experience the freedom that comes from not having to hide behind image or attitude. We are multi-dimensional. We’re more than the clown or the gangster, a haircut and an outfit, the party girl, the wild one. When our armor comes off we no longer need to pretend to be any more or any less than who we are. We discover our greatest strength comes from being ourselves.