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?
December is always a time-traveling month for me. I not only look back over the year (to make sense of where the time went) but December’s also my anniversary month so I get to look back over the 28 years I’ve spent in recovery. You can’t have perspective without time passing. I couldn’t tell you what was on the wish list I wrote during my first year clean. Probably a lot of things I wanted or wanted to achieve. Nowadays when I travel backward over the years what I see are not the outside changes but the inside ones. It’s funny how that happens. The concept of a relationship with myself and personal growth wasn’t even on my radar back then. Why would it have been – I’d felt lost from myself my entire life. I didn’t know this then of course. All I knew was that drugs made me feel right.
SEX TALK is another place I time travel to support each month’s topic. I always remember speaking at a meeting in Hollywood California when I had around 9 months clean. In my filter-less way I started questioning if I’d been presenting a public persona built around my sex life to hide my true self in. It was a weird and embarrassing share to say the least and I was horrified when I finally stopped talking. Ugh – vulnerability! Afterward many people took me aside to thank me and share about their own confusion around their relationship to sex and secrets they feared would get them loaded. I learned that day – unintentionally – the strength in vulnerability and how we heal one another when we expose our own truths.
This brings me to our final topic for 2016: Has Recovery Changed How You Talk About Sex.
When I was thirteen my mom came into my room to have what she called “a talk about the birds and the bees”. Yes – I am quoting her. You can only imagine how uncomfortable she was and how awkward it felt for me to have her in my personal space this way. I put a quick end to her misery by telling her I already knew everything. I said my friends told me and they told us at school. She looked relieved but I don’t have any decades’ old memory footage from that moment on. The memory triggers sadness because by cutting her off like that I cheated us both out of a conversation that may have set the stage for deeper bonding and honest communication into adulthood. It wasn’t until I had several years in recovery that we began learning how to communicate with one another.
Despite what I told mom that day, I didn’t know anything about sex other than that a few of my girlfriends in the drug fueled crowd I hung with were sexually active. Two of them would give birth before their 8th grade graduation. I had boyfriends but no one ever tried to get further than first base. I’m thankful now but at the time I remember thinking “Why doesn’t anyone want me the way they want my girlfriends? What’s wrong with me?” When I finally did have sex at 14 I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could get home to phone my friends. I hated that virginity had become a thing that separated us and I just wanted to get it over with. My younger brother lost his virginity at 17 to his long-term girlfriend. He told me they planned the evening and he and wanted it to be very special for both of them. It never occurred to me people did this. It seemed so sweet and thoughtful and intimate. Very unlike me seeing virginity as a cross to bear.
Friends in recovery are starting to talk to their kids about sex. I’ve witnessed two things – either they go into the same denial like their parents had and can’t accept the possibility that their kid is sexually active or else they’re determined not to make the same mistakes their parents made. Allowing for privacy while creating a safe judgment-free environment for their kids to talk to them about sex seems to be the winning formula. But even this is not without hitches because kids often hear what they want to hear. I’ll go into more detail on Sunday at Sex Talk.
In recovery we learn from one another how to talk about sex – with our parents, our friends, our kids, and our partners. I look forward to seeing and hearing you this Sunday at 9pm. The flyer will appear on the home page of In-the-Rooms all day Sunday with a link to the meeting.
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.
Last month I posted this blog on sexting which was to be the topic for July’s SEX TALK. Unfortunately ten minutes into my intro, right as I was disclosing some very uncensored personal stories (the kind that fire up an inner voice saying to “reel it in”), dozens of instant messages popped up on my screen saying that no one could hear me. Collectively we began troubleshooting without success. Our back and forth instant messaging continued after the website’s tech person took over. I was amazed at how many people stuck around through this mayhem. Eventually I got back into the main video box to say good-bye and pantomime “We’ll talk about “sexting” next month” (Try to pantomime that one!). A final message appeared on my screen as I was signing off. “I was really looking forward to this meeting but it’s kind of perfect that we spent the hour texting about sexting.”
Due to technical difficulties in July we’ll be revisiting “Sexting to Fill the Void” this Sunday August 7th at 9pm on SEX TALK.
Readers of a certain age may be asking themselves “What’s Sexting?”. It’s the 21st century version of spin the bottle or strip poker but with higher stakes. By sending sexually provocative text messages or sexually explicit self-images, sexual intrigue moves to the forefront of a conversation with immediacy. In most cases it’s replaced flirting as a seduction technique. The main difference between sexting and strip poker is that you don’t even have to be part of the game to experience it. More than once I’ve gotten dick pics mistakenly sent out as a group text and I’ve seen numerous pornographic images of men and women who obviously never questioned what would become of these photos when they hit “send” on their phone.
This past year numerous articles have been written about teenagers (young women mostly) who’ve committed suicide after nude photos they’d sexted someone were shared on social media. It got me thinking about how often impulsive behavior overrides weighing out big-picture consequences. This impulsiveness is a common characteristic of addiction. The conversations we’ve had on SEX TALK have taught me that it’s much harder for people in recovery to discuss negative consequences connected to their sexual behavior than it is to admit emotional pain from almost all other sources. Not to be glib but sexting seems too easy and seductive for addicts in recovery to resist – it’s impulsive; there’s excitement, daring and some risk; it’s accessible 24/7; it’s void of emotional intimacy; it’s a way for someone looking for sex to weed out non-contenders; it’s a way to get off without having to participate in real sex; and it’s a way to hide behind a mask that feels empowering.
I began wondering how people in recovery dealt with the emotional consequences or negative fallout from sexting – since as a subject it’s stayed off the radar. Obviously where there’s opportunity for pain there’s also often opportunity for pleasure so – to be clear – I’m not judging sexting in a moral context. From a recovery standpoint bringing this conversation into the light serves as relapse prevention since undisclosed pain is usually coupled with shame.
A few weeks ago a friend told me about a guy she met at the gym. After being stuck for months in the unrelenting feelings of grief from a recent break-up, this chance meeting filled her with the hope of possibility. She forwarded me a face photo shortly after their initial meeting. I asked how things were going with the new guy a few weeks later when we met for lunch. She said they’d gotten into the habit of nightly texting because their schedules hadn’t aligned yet for a first date. Almost immediately their texts became playful and sexy – which she was down for because it re-awakened her mojo. When dick pics started turning up on her phone she was surprised but didn’t discourage him. My friend then reached across the table, placed her cell next to my plate and began scrolling through all the photos he’d sent – each photo more explicit than the last until we came to the money shot. It was like a male ejaculation flip book. I was stuck for an appropriate response so I stared at her phone nodding, my mouth full of pasta. She explained that the playfulness of their sexy banter was exciting but somehow she failed to notice that sexting had replaced their “getting to know you” texts. At this point in our conversation tears began welling up in her eyes. She added that when they finally met up in person the space between them was filled with awkward silence and sexual tension. She’d been interested in getting to know this man but because of their sexting this date turned out to be nothing more than a hook up. She was devastated but not surprised when she didn’t hear from him again – devastated not because she’d an emotional investment in the new guy (because she didn’t) but because his texts had been filling a void which now felt even bigger.
As a woman in her 40s, she didn’t consider sexting as anything more than sexy playful banter and assumed if they had a connection in real life emotional intimacy would follow. Naively when she impulsively sexted back she had no idea she was signing off on the emotional intimacy she craved nor was she aware of how dependent she’d become on evenings of texting as a way to avoid experiencing the grief of heartbreak and her fear of change. Fixed by fantasy and distraction, she also failed to recognize the need for self-care when she was in HALT.
This story is just one person’s sexting experience. Please join me this Sunday at 9pm for SEX TALK and let’s get this conversation started by sharing your experiences with sexting – the pros and cons.
SEX TALK is an open forum where we talk about sex in recovery. If sexting isn’t your experience feel free to steer the conversation toward issues that do concern you.
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.
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.
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.