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.
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.
In my teens and twenties, I fell in love with reading novels that blurred the line between fact and fiction. I would read everything I could get my hands on about each author so I could tease out the real story from what was in the novel. What I discovered disappointed me. Other than the adventures that inspired their fictitious pages, nothing much happened in their downtime. For example, Jack Kerouac sat in an easy chair watching TV and drinking beer with his mother for months on end. I realize that this was when they did their writing but it was a letdown to my nineteen-year old self. I saw no value in ordinary days.
During the early days of getting clean and sober it’s such an overwhelming experience that the process of adjusting to life on its own terms is an adventure all its own. The high highs and low lows are almost comforting because emotional instability is familiar to us. We may cry that we want inner peace but what we usually mean is that we want a little less intensity.
Once that inner turmoil normalizes, most of us go through a phase of creating drama because anything less feels like boredom. The no-drama grey area is too uncomfortable. We act out in anger, start arguments, begin gossiping, act inappropriately on the job, go hunting for sexual or romantic companionship – anything to not have to feel bored.
In time we gain experience living without having to Ping-Pong between highs and lows and we start to find comfort in the grey area. We can sit with our feelings. We’re surprise when we discover that drama no longer seduces us. Life goes on. We exercise, meditate, create goals, get hobbies and develop new interests, and attain healthy relationships.
But do we ever really value our ordinary days? I still get caught up in goals and deadlines, projects unfinished, the pressure of time passing. I savor the fun stuff as much as my peace of mind but sometimes I wonder if part of me still the 19-year old longing for on-the-page adventure while undervaluing the ordinary day. I know most people – not just people in recovery – plan activities to look forward to and “get through” the days leading up to them. Practicing mindfulness brings us into the moment but do we really feel gratitude for dull daily routines?
It isn’t until we are faced with crisis, loss, grief, tragedy, health issues, or a relationship storm that all we want is for things to “go back to normal”. Gratitude comes as a reminder that we have it good. Gratitude may cross our minds when we watch the news and realize the horrors people experience but sustaining feelings of gratitude requires conscious effort when day after day is filled up by work, laundry, grocery shopping, errands, and the whole “to-do” list. Sure, life always presents new adventures and excitement – we know this from experience – but the majority of the time it’s the typical “day in a life” stuff. It’s no different than what I learned about the favorite writers of my youth.
Recently someone new to recovery shared a gratitude list with me. It was simple: health, family and ordinary days. The words “gratitude for ordinary days” jumped off the page and shifted my perspective on my own life. I wanted to share it in the hope that it does the same for you.
Remember what it was like when you first got clean? How suddenly there was so much to do? For many of us it went from a life focused on one goal – getting high – to a full life in recovery. This meant learning how to juggle all our new commitments of not only rejoining life (a job, honoring financial responsibilities, reuniting with loved ones) but also incorporating time for meetings, new friendships, the gym, new hobbies, meditation, therapy, health and dental check ups. The list goes on. While it felt great to be taking care of ourselves, it was overwhelming to have days that were busy until ten or eleven at night without a break. “Will it be like this forever?” we’d ask old-timers, wanting reassurance that eventually we could take a break.
We create healthy new habits that become part of the fabric of our lives and we stick with them because they make us feel good. Our lives run smoothly until we experience change – a change in jobs, new responsibilities, new romantic relationships – and we have to adjust our schedule accordingly. Unfortunately, addicts are prone to amnesia. We make deals with ourselves based on what has the highest rewards with the least labor. It feels good to snuggle in front of a movie with our date so we let the gym slide. We need that overtime so we cut back on meetings. We gravitate back to junk food because we didn’t have time to go to the supermarket. And forget about meditation. Who has the time to sit?
I spent last week at a friend’s country house in upstate New York. The plan was to work on my book and to help harvest their garden. On the way up I offered to make a gooseberry pie since no one seemed to know what to do with all the gooseberries. As soon as we arrived I put on a bikini and headed for the garden. I had no idea that gooseberry bushes were a tangle of thorn-covered branches or that each berry had a small spike of its own. I really wanted to get it over with so I could start writing but quickly realized that this was not going to be a job I could rush.
Hours later I was so scratched I looked like I’d been in a cat fight but I had two large bowls of berries. It surprised me to realize that I’d arrived to a country visit expecting to maintain my city pace. While picking berries it dawned on me that being self-employed in a freelance way, I create momentum by applying a certain level of stress and urgency where there probably isn’t any need for it. Somewhere in my mind, I equate that feeling of urgency with energy when it comes to productivity. Yes – even with years clean and all the mindfulness tools at my disposal I get amnesia. It took picking berries for me to recognize the pressure I put on myself to be productive.
When it came time to make the pie I discovered that each berry had to be cleaned from its thorn and that most thorns stuck to my hands and fell into the bowl of cleaned berries. It was not an easy job. Three hours later I was ready to make a pie. This pie-prep experience turned into something of a spiritual epiphany for me. The slowing down, being in the moment, and concentrated focus was similar to a meditation and the results were similar. I was forced to set aside expectations and my tendency to rush through my day. What is the point of rushing through life when this time is finite? Yet it is how most of us live. We rush through things that feel like work and try to bask in the things we decide are pleasure. What if we turn as much of our experiences into pleasure by mindfully being present to them? This is an easy way to multi-task recovery and reap the benefits.
Preparing a meal is the one time of day where you can allow yourself to exhale. Whether it is chopping produce or stirring something on the stove, this is a time you can redirect your attention away from the future. The great part is that it is not slowing down the actual process of making the meal. Taking a break from the fast pace of our lives will give us more energy throughout the day. All we are doing is essentially following that old saying, “Stop and smell the roses.” Some people find washing dishes to be a meditation. You can bring mindfulness into almost any activity that you do. All it takes is letting go of the idea of urgency, paying attention to what is in front of you, and you will be living in the moment. You don’t have to restrict mindfulness to a formal meditation or a yoga class.
My gooseberry epiphany was not new. Recovery is about learning what works, forgetting, and relearning. Just because we can veer away from what works does not mean we can’t reclaim it.
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.
How many times have we heard I am not into drama? Ever notice that whoever says this usually follows it by complaining about an emotionally exhausting situation involving a relationship (romantic, family, friends, or co-workers)? Are you the one complaining about drama or are you the type who suffers in privacy by guarding the secrecy of your emotional chaos and all-encompassing anguish?
Drama was such the norm when I was getting high that I didn’t even register it. Perhaps it’s from having moments of serenity in recovery that make us all too aware when drama comes along and throws off our emotional balance. We don’t like it – but damn there’s almost comfort in its familiarity.
Whether the source of drama has roots in a platonic or romantic relationship, the feelings are the same – obsessional thinking and a compulsion to continue engaging in it expecting different results. Sound familiar? Without drugs and alcohol, it’s pretty common to discover ourselves in a situation that we seem unable to walk away from no matter how horrible it makes us feel. With romance, like drugs, when it stops working we always hold out for some sign that it is returning to that place of euphoria or bliss that we experienced at the beginning. The cycle of obsessional thinking, compulsion behavior, denial of the reality, and the default setting of turning the pain inward is so familiar that we are able to withstand it long past a healthy expiration point. But why is it when we are able to bring affirming recovery actions into every other area of our life we feel incapable of letting go of certain relationships or behaviors in relationship even when the pain is causing us to fantasize about using again?
When we were getting high most of us watched our lives shrink. Pretty much our only concerns were getting and using and finding ways and means to get more. Anything else happening in our life had no real emotional effect on us unless it got in the way of our using. Oh – one feeling persisted – shame. When our sober lives fill with drama centered on another person (usually a romantic or sexual interest) our emotional lives shrink. Everything takes second place to the source of our obsession. We think about him/her all the time, replay past conversations searching for a clue to make sense of the situation and indulge our daydreams in future conversations. We find ourselves reaching out to friends (or suffering in silence) only to describe how we feel in relation to the object our desire/drama. The fullness of our life is shrinking as we become a broken record of same story different day.
Do we really hate the drama or is it serving us in some way? By having one feeling – pain – displacing all other emotions we retain some level of control. The other feelings can’t affect us if we are blocking them out by our current drama. If we go from one dramatic relationship to another we have succeeded in getting out of experiencing the full range of emotions that life in recovery offers. It almost makes sense for someone in early recovery to jump on the relationship bandwagon because extreme pain and extreme pleasure are safe whereas the whole gamut of grey area feelings are unfamiliar and usually uncomfortable to sit with.
Take a risk and disengage with the drama – give yourself a set abstinence period and acquaint yourself with what might really be going on inside of you. Journal, meditate, take walks and share your process with someone you trust. Self-discovery is necessary for deep self-acceptance. How free do you want to be? Recovery is limitless.
It’s good to be back in the blogosphere. I went MIA for a good chunk of 2013 because I was traveling with clients who had crazy demanding schedules. I was too wrung out at the end of the day to focus attention on any writing. I’m sure this year will be just as insane but I’ve committed to bringing mindfulness and better time management into all areas of my life so I don’t sacrifice things that bring me pleasure – including this blog. Although I plan to post something new every week, it won’t always be possible. If you sign up for my newsletter you can have my blog posts sent directly to your inbox the minute they’re posted. This also lets me share info and events that don’t make it to my blog.
Until now, most posts have been geared toward people in early sobriety while sticking to topics that remain relevant regardless of of how long you’ve been clean. I’m not abandoning this approach but during my New Year’s Eve meditation I had a revelation– to start writing not just about how to stay clean through difficult times but about ways to celebrate the positives. I want 2014 to be about seeking and celebrating the fabulousness of living a life free of active addiction. Let’s start taking stock of the positives that are in front of us at every moment in abundance – and learn how to bring in MORE. Addicts love MORE so let’s start inviting more health & wellness, serenity, energy, laughter, happiness and fun into our recovery. True, we have to do a ton of work to get to know ourselves and to heal from past trauma, drama, and self-inflicted injury – but let’s try in 2014 to not lose sight of what is so worthwhile about being clean and sober. Recovery is not simply the absence of being enslaved by obsession and self-destructive compulsion – it’s about being conscious, free and present for all the good stuff.
Let’s start off 2014 with an open mind and open heart. I’ve been in recovery long enough to know that well-laid plans have a way of becoming a trap for expectation and disappointment. Let’s start this year together by leaving the reigns loose and letting the universe surprise us as each day unfolds.
I hear some of you grumbling “But Patty how do I let go of plans, expectations and the illusion of being the master of my own universe? And what if I am uncertain, godless and cynical – can I still let go?”
My advice for myself and anyone who just heard the above comments whispering to them is this: While it’s important to have goals, try not to get married to the results you want from them. This is easier than it sounds. First you must get into the habit of catching yourself living in fearful thoughts and start using a variety of techniques to yank yourself back into the present moment. Obviously meditation is ideal but let’s start with this exercise.
When you feel your fear creeping up do you feel it in your throat, chest, or stomach? Does it feel like a tightness and shortness of breath or does it feel like the dull ache of hunger pains? What does fear feel like for you?
Close your eyes and locate the fear. Does it accompany thoughts about the future? Make a note to yourself (in your mind or on your cell phone) what the common source of future fear is so that you can train yourself to notice when your mind starts directing you back to this specific subject. When this happens – throughout the day I want you to step away from what you are doing, close your eyes and take ten long slow and very deep inhalations (mouth closed). Do this mindfully – meaning pay attention to the temperature of the air and to the movement of your nostril hairs. Try to fill your chest and belly with new air until it feels like there’s no space left inside of you. Now blow that air out through your mouth until you are an empty balloon. You can use this breathing time to either invoke creative visualization techniques (such as imagining your fear as black carbon poison that you are releasing from your body) or you can pray if you are so inclined, or you can use this time to repeat positive affirmations or you can think of absolutely nothing.
For the next week I want you to repeat this exercise to create the habit of becoming aware of fear-based future tripping and taking a conscious action to redirect your thoughts away from fear. Remember, every action is practice toward a goal – which is freedom from the fear-based hamster-wheel. Start experiencing your life in the moment. This is the place where we will always find peace.
I’d love to hear how this goes- your difficulties and successes – so please share your experience by posting a comment.
We all have different paths (and are entitled to them) but we share the same goal – freedom from self-inflicted pain, a loving relationship with self, and to find inner peace. As long as we have willingness, we will find our way.
I have a friend in recovery who HATES it when I break things down in terms of the “disease” of addiction. Although she has been clean for four years and attends 12 Step meetings, she has never been able to open her mind up to the possibility that addiction is a disease. For me, the disease concept is the one thing that’s made it possible to unravel my twisted thinking and impulsive wiring toward self-destructive behaviors and has allowed me to develop new skills to break the cycles.
In her defense, I have always had the same sort of recoil from talk about higher powers, although conceptually I see how beneficial they are to the process of finding meaning and safety. In either case, a certain amount of fantasy and creative imagining has to be invested – though there is neurological evidence of the brain disease of addiction. My friend has made it clean four years without a disease concept or a God. She has made it on willingness to follow direction from people who have more experience dealing with life clean and sober. That has been enough for her.
At two years clean she developed an eating disorder. We were just getting to know one another while I was in her city when she confided to me a violent episode that had happened in her youth. From the moment I returned to New York and our friendship turned to instant messages and emails, it became apparent that her anxiety was going through the roof. She was crying all the time and her legs were cramping uncontrollably. She was sleeping two or three hours a night and forgetting to eat. Whatever suggestions I gave, she’d forget as soon as we said good-bye. At first it was impossible for me to understand why she wasn’t taking any sort of self-care actions when she was so clearly in physical and emotional pain. It only made sense when she told me that I was the first person she’d ever told the story about the abuse.
It made perfect sense to me what was going on when I broke it down in “disease” terms. Something terrible had happened to her. She was a victim yet carried the blame and shame. The disease loves blame, shame, and secrets. For fifteen years this had been her secret. While her love for her young daughters was the impetus for getting clean and attending meetings to stay clean, she’d chosen a sponsor who used her as a babysitter and was uninterested in moving her forward in step work. In fact, as her weight fell away and she decided to go to therapy at my insistence, her sponsor shamed her over it, saying that she looked great and it was all in her head – as if she’d concocted the anxiety to get attention. It was a replay of the relationship she’d had with her adoptive mother. Every step of the way toward seeking help, her disease struck harder. The trauma she’d experienced at 15 continued to hold her down. This wasn’t surprising considering most addicts have trauma in their background. Whether we used because of the trauma or if it was a catalyst to fuel the disease is like asking the chicken and the egg question. The facts on paper: 30 year old woman with an addict birth mother, drug and alcohol use, sexual trauma at 15 and an increase of drug abuse – rehab at 28. Shedding light on her secret was followed by extreme anxiety that preceded anorexia.
In recovery terms, there were actions that could have helped but she was incapable of taking them. To her credit – and I believe this should be typed in bold for anyone reading this paralyzed by feelings and behaviors yet unable to take action – she continued to attend meetings throughout the next eighteen months of physical and emotional hell and new women came into her life with substantial clean time and they led her to a new sponsor. This carried her until she was ready to get help. She hated going to meetings, hated hearing about the disease and about God but she went anyway. I believe WILLINGNESS is the launch of an arrow, its tip cutting through space changing all of the molecules in its path. It causes change to happen.
The most interesting thing to me in witnessing anorexia in action is that early in the process, there were very strong parallels to how the disease of addiction works and the tools we use in recovery may have altered its course. At a certain point the anorexia took on its own twist and it needed very different tools to heal it. Ultimately the process will involve intensive trauma work.
I began writing this blog entry because I wanted to discuss the disease concept and how grasping a thorough working definition will help you to address any issues, past or present, in order to have sustainable long term recovery. It has been a very long and difficult path for my friend but through trial and error she is discovering for herself that the disease concept gives our creative mind a chance to understand how it operates on us individually so that we can change its course before it either leads us in a direction of relapse or toward death by other means.
In upcoming blogs, I’ll be writing more about my theory of the disease of addiction and a way to gain an understanding of how it seems to trick us into behaviors away from health, wellness, and inner peace and how recovery tools really can combat it.
This friend wrote a blog that I posted earlier this year for Eating Disorder Awareness Month. I am very happy to announce that she is currently seeking help at an inpatient treatment facility. I believe she will flourish and become a positive power of example to many others she will encounter on her journey. I have her permission to write this entry.