Recovery

Honest, Open, Willing – READY

We see the acronym “H.O.W.” on the wall of just about every 12-step club we enter, and often in church basements, treatment centers and other places where meetings are held. Honest, Open and Willing are the cornerstones of recovery. Without them, there’s little to no chance of our getting and staying sober.

An Honest Challenge

We need to be honest with ourselves and others. To begin with, this is hard. The farther we get from our drinking and drugging the easier it gets, but honesty doesn’t come naturally to alcoholics and other addicts. We've become accustomed to protecting our drugs and justifying our behavior by half-truths, downright lies and omissions that dishonesty is our default mode, at least in some things. The old AA saying, “I used to lie when it would have been easier to tell the truth”, is dead on for most of us.

To start with, honesty is easiest with folks who don’t threaten us much. That’s why it’s important to open up in meetings and begin to practice telling the truth. No matter how unpleasant it may seem to us, there will be people in the room who've been there, done that, and will be unsurprised and non-judgmental. Once we’ve become accustomed to the idea that the sky isn’t going to fall on us, we can consider expanding our truth-telling to others in our lives. We can learn to become more open with whomever we’re with.

be-honestLearning to Tell the Truth

That doesn’t mean that we spill the beans to everyone and his brother. Although the relief we feel in early recovery may cause us to lean in the direction of over-disclosure, it’s probably not a good idea to shock the civilians—certainly with no forewarning. What is important, though, is that we begin to incorporate honesty into our dealings with everyone. Just as lying is learned behavior, so must we learn to tell the truth automatically (as scary as that may be to begin with).

We have to be willing to make the changes necessary in allowing us to be honest and open with others. This requires a firm understanding of the damage our opposite behavior has had in the past, and the potential for further harm. Part of this will come more or less automatically as part of our 4th and 5th Step work, but it is never too soon to consider the value of honesty in our program. If I lie about selected things, then I have to lie to cover up the lies, and sooner—rather than later—I’m so wound up in my stories that the whole thing falls apart. Where do I have to go from there? All too often, it’s back to the old ways of coping with a life gone out of control.

Living Honestly

We need also to be willing to allow others to be open and honest with us. Addicts are experts at getting folks to leave us alone. We withdraw, change the subject, lash out, become amorous, walk away and use a variety of other tricks to make confrontation difficult for others. But if we expect to become clean and sober, to take our place in the real world we must become willing to learn from others and accept their feedback. We've been living in our own heads for far too long. Now it’s time to find the real us and live that story, instead of some drugged-out fairy tale.

Thought: We Are Not Guilty of Addiction

Whose Fault is a Drug Addiction? Parents or Individuals?

Not long ago I was conducting a therapy group at Sunrise Detox when a client shared about how bad he is, how he just can’t forgive himself, and that his addiction is all his fault. When I assured him that the disease is not his fault, another group member raised her hand and insisted that her disease is actually her parents’ fault. Again, I replied that her disease is not her parents’ fault.

We are not responsible for having become addicted; we are only responsible for our recovery.I replied that no one is to blame for addiction. As is the case with diabetes and similar diseases, we are not responsible for having become addicted; we are only responsible for our recovery. Well, that set off a firestorm of controversy, and a great discussion. The questions flew! “Then whose fault is it,” blurted yet another member of the group.

How can this not be my fault when I’m the one who picks up the drink/drug?

My parents make me so mad I just have to use…I can’t help it! How is that not their fault?

I’m an alcoholic and now my oldest son is an alcoholic too. He got this from me and I feel terrible about it.

Sometimes We Feel the Need to Assign Blame

Considering the devastation that addiction causes in the life of a person, a family, even a community, it’s easy to see why there’s a desire to place blame. If it’s not someone’s fault, we feel even more out of control. Humans hate not knowing the “why” of things, and if we don’t get good answers we make up our own. I love it when these questions and comments come up, because I get to give people good news.

not-guilty-quote2We are, I remind the group, accountable for our behavior, in or out of active addiction. Our addictive behavior affects other people, so when the time comes, the right thing for us to do is to make amends: to the best of our ability fix or make right the damage we have done to others. We are accountable, even though we were not in our right minds when we did the damage.

Is Addiction a Disease?

We are not responsible, however, for having the medical condition that caused us to act as we did. Although we may have made some unwise choices along the way, not one of us set out to devastate our lives by becoming an addict. Social, psychological, neurological and genetic factors combined to make what was, at first, a pleasant experience into a perpetual nightmare. We did not choose for that to happen, and would certainly not have done what we did if we had any idea of the real consequences. We are, perhaps, guilty of bad judgement. But we are not guilty of addiction.

Responsibility for an Addiction is Not The Same as Responsibility for Recovery

A parent who may feel guilty for passing the gene along needs to know that we have no more control over our offspring’s addiction than over the color of their eyes. The only control that we have regarding a child’s addiction from this day on is to be an honest example of recovery, a model of living in the solution and of finding happiness without substances.

We Are Responsible for Our Recovery

Just as we are not guilty of our own addiction and have no control over the addictions of others, others have no control over our addiction. We can remain solid in our recovery even if we are stressed, enraged, wounded, or feel uncomfortable about the behavior of someone else. However, we may find that distancing ourselves from people who trigger those emotions is beneficial for us, especially early on. That makes it easier to disentangle our emotions from theirs, strengthen our recovery, and develop some healthy boundaries. No matter what anyone else does, our recovery is our own responsibility.

Addiction— whether our own or that of others — is nobody’s fault. Sometimes stuff just happens, and no one is to blame.

Thoughts on Self-Esteem, Self Image, Addiction and Recovery

The Legend In Our Minds

Most of us have heard the expression “He's a legend in his own mind.”  Although we don't usually think of this as being accurate (or nice), the fact is that we are, in a sense, all legends in our own minds.

We all have a self-concept, a collection of mental images.  Our self-concept (Legend) is our answer to the question, “Who am I?”  It tells us what we like, how we're like — or different from — others, where we belong in the world and our community, and what we've been like in the past.

Recovery is an uphill climb. Sometimes our internal view of ourselves sets the stage for how steep that climb might be.

Recovery is an uphill climb. Sometimes our internal view of ourselves.. the “story” or “Legend” within our own minds, sets the stage for how steep that climb might be.

The Personal Legend

This personal Legend is how we usually think about ourselves.  The details can change, but for most of us the underlying story remains the same.  Sometimes our Legend even approaches reality, but since it is our Legend, not necessarily fact, and because it is shaped by the way we think about our past and our present, it sometimes becomes a bit twisted, and at times even just plain wrong.

Our self-concept, or self-image, is mostly shaped by our understanding of the things that have happened in our life: the things we have done and the things that were done to us.  For that reason, it's not uncommon for a person (especially an addict) to end up with one of those twisted Legends.

Twisted Legends : A False Sense of Self

Much of our Legend is shaped by what we believe others think, or thought, about us.  If we were treated badly, especially as children, if we failed to get the love, nurturing and gentle attention that we needed, if we were emotionally or physically abused, or had addicted parents who were unable to fulfill our needs because they were themselves impaired, our self-concept may become twisted and cause us to believe things about ourselves that aren't true.

Our Self Concept shapes our Self Esteem

That's not good because our self-concept shapes our self-esteem (what we think of our Legend).  Unconsciously, we give ourselves a sort of grade.  If we see ourselves as competent people and value ourselves for who we are, instead of who we wish we were, we usually get a pretty high grade.  But most of us addicts look at the Legend we have constructed for ourselves and think that we are inadequate, incompetent, and unlovable.  Most likely we picked up this idea from people who themselves lacked a healthy self-concept, and we have since viewed our lives and our behavior in that light: “I'm not good enough.”  “No one will love me unless I _________.”  “I deserve whatever I get.”  “I'm no good.” “I don't deserve to be treated well.” “I don't deserve to treat myself well, because I'm a piece of junk.”

And a common way to handle that pain is “I can’t stand this, I’ve gotta get high!

Realizing Self Worth as a Step Towards Recovery

Well, guess what.  God doesn't make junk.  Regardless of how much we believe our Legend, if it's telling us that sort of stuff it needs to be re-written.  We'll cover that next.  For now, just remember:  Good self-concept = good Legend.  Bad self-concept = bad Legend = poor self-esteem.  Poor self-esteem makes it impossible to re-write our Legend.  We need to question all those bad beliefs we have about ourselves.  Are they true?  Who says so?  Who told us that to begin with?  Could they have been…wrong?

Spirituality and Recovery: An Insider’s Guide

It's safe to say that practically everyone thinks they know what addiction is - and from their point of view, they may be right.If you’re reading this, you’re most likely an addict, or your loved one or friend or employee is. You probably have your own ideas of what constitutes addiction. They may be informed by education or ignorance, experience or listening to others. They may be sympathetic or condemning. However, it’s safe to say that practically everyone thinks they know what addiction is—and from their point of view, they may be right.

But we who have struggled with the monkey on our back know things about addiction that no one else knows. That’s not to say that we’re any smarter about it, it just means that we, too, have our point of view, and from the inside it’s rarely pleasant. We beat ourselves up, we focus on our regret, on resentments, on past and present mistakes, about the things we missed out on, on how we were treated, on how the world is being run, on our future. It would be enough to make us crazy, if we weren’t already. And that’s because, as the title implies, “addiction is the opposite of spirituality.”

Okay, fine. But what is spirituality? Well, the spirituality I mean is the “human spirit,” not related to religion at all, although they compliment each other well in some cases. As far as this addict is concerned, spirituality is those things of the spirit that are missing from all addicts to one degree or another.

For example, there’s tolerance, the willingness to let others do their own thing. Most addicts are control freaks, and want to direct the show. Tolerance, in addition to promoting harmony, allows the other party to learn. Few of us learn from the mistakes of others. We claim to, but in reality we’re bit players in every story but our own, and other folks’ mistakes rarely teach us much. When screw up ourselves, the lesson tends to stick. Tolerant folks mostly ignore things that aren’t their business.

Patience goes along with tolerance. It’s the darndest thing: people insist on doing things their own way, not ours. We aren’t going to change that unless we’re both wearing uniforms, and maybe not even then. Some drivers are slow getting away from red lights. (Of course, we never are.) Some speakers go on and on in meetings about things that bore us. Tough. Do we really think they’re on the edge of their chairs waiting for drops of gold to drip from our lips? The package will get here when FedEx delivers it. Our significant other will stop talking eventually, then it’s our turn to yammer. Patience helps us get through boring, frustrating, “painful” moments without getting riled up or angry or annoyed.

Then there’s forgiveness. There’s a saying  “resentments are like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.” Rarely do others worry about our resentments; we’re the ones who do the worrying. We eat ourselves up over things that others did “to” us, not realizing that we are the ones making ourselves miserable. Forgiveness is being willing to let go. If we’re still stewing about something someone did, or didn’t do, who are we hurting? Chances are good that the other party has forgotten all about it. How dare they? Well, who cares? That’s what forgiveness is about. We don’t have to let the guy near our entertainment equipment again, but letting go of the stuff he stole from us last year helps us, not him. If we can’t do that, we need to talk to a shrink, because the TV is gone, gone, gone.

the ability to imagine what others are feeling, and being able to give them unconditional positive regard, are cornerstones of spirituality.Compassion and love, the ability to imagine what others are feeling, and being able to give them unconditional positive regard, are cornerstones of spirituality. People have to let us learn to love them, but we can be compassionate towards anyone we meet. Give the bum a dollar. Don’t decide you know what he’s going to do with it, just imagine how it feels out there in the rain with that sign. Be patient with the old lady digging for change in the grocery line, and consider how hard it must be to live on a limited income—and to be old and know it isn’t going to change.

Responsibility strengthens relationships. It’s doing our part, whether it’s showing up to chair that 7:00 A.M. meeting, or staying after work a bit to make sure our job is done properly. It’s being dependable, and taking our share of whatever load, doing what we can for everyone’s benefit.

All of these things lead to harmony, the feeling that everything is sailing along as it should. Not that everything’s perfect—that’s not harmony, it’s delusion—but just the feeling that things are going okay. No one’s rubbing on anyone’s nerves too badly; we’re in a good space, so that getting cut off in traffic is just another unskillful driver, not a personal affront…stuff like that.

And on rare occasions, we simply feel wonderful, for no particular reason. That’s joy. It doesn’t happen very often, but if we pay attention to the other things we’ve discussed, it happens more frequently than we might think.

We don't have to believe in a specific Higher Power, but we do need to understand that it isn't us.If we use the opposites of all the things I’ve discussed, we can pretty much put together a picture of an active addict, or an addict who isn’t in recovery. When we say recovery programs are spiritual, we’re talking about changing from our previous ways of looking at life to the more skillful ways we’re talking about here. We become spiritual by practicing spirituality, not by just going to church. We say “practice,” because these things are skills that can be learned, and if we want to be happy and stay sober, we need to learn them. We don’t have to believe in a specific Higher Power, but we do need to understand that it isn’t us.

On Anonymity in Recovery

Submitted by Bill: I was at a 12 step meeting a few days ago where one of the participants’ remarks showed that he had no real idea of what anonymity meant, or the reasons for it.  So I thought I’d weigh in with a few ideas on the subject.

I tell people that I have no anonymity; that I drank and drugged publicly and I consider it a privilege to recover publicly.  Despite that, however, I do not advertise my membership in a particular 12-step program.  I often mention attending meetings, in my writing and elsewhere, but not which meetings.  I speak knowledgeably about AA, NA, and other fellowships, but I don't talk about membership.  I have what I believe are good reasons for that, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you.

As I see it, there are two basic reasons for anonymity in a program of recovery: protection of the recovering alcoholic/addict, and protection of the program itself.

First of all, if we wanted to tell people we were members of AA, that would be our business, and ours only, provided that we did it on a personal level.  We might do so when speaking to people one-on-one, or in small groups under conditions where privacy can be presumed, because friendships are enhanced by such honesty under most conditions.  Then, too, that revelation might raise opportunities to bring the 12th Step into play.

Another area where we need to be careful is in speaking to outside groups.  We need to be sure that we're not thought to be speaking for a particular fellowship.  If we set ourselves up as some sort of recovering guru, how is the program going to look if, six months from now, one of those folks sees us passed out behind a dumpster, or in the ER being treated for an overdose?

Could happen.  If you don't think it could, speak to your sponsor.

There are excellent reasons, however, for us not breaking  your anonymity.  You might be hindered in your employment if word got out.  You might be an airline pilot with 20 years clean and sober who had neglected to tell the FAA about her problem — required by law — and lose your livelihood due to our big mouth.  It could simply be an issue that you find embarrassing.  It's no one else's business.  Our business is to keep what we have learned about others in the rooms to ourselves, period.  (Whether or not the airline pilot is behaving ethically in that situation is not the issue; it's our behavior we're discussing — and that is not a hypothetical example.)

The last, and perhaps best, reason that I can think of for sticking with the tradition of anonymity is humility.  It makes me just “another bozo on the bus.”  If I'm going try to be a guru, it's going to have to be on my own merits, not those of the program.  That's good for me and for the program, because my opinions often vary somewhat from more traditional positions.   When they do, I need to take the credit — and the criticism.

Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts about the issue, and I'm only speaking for myself.  Your mileage may vary.

Why Can’t Recovering Addicts Use In Moderation?

A client asks: If we can change our thinking in order to abstain from using alcohol and other drugs, then why can’t we change our thinking to be able to use in moderation?

Why can't addicts use in moderation?  Think about it: why couldn’t we simply use “in moderation” without all the hassle of detox, treatment, and a program of recovery? If we couldn’t do it then, why should we be able to do it now? Those are the real questions!

The key is “change our thinking.” We don’t think our way out of addiction. We make a decision to get clean and sober, and to follow the suggestions of our program of choice, in order to facilitate abstinence. The thinking and process of our programs of recovery relieve some of the emotional pressures we created with our addiction and equip us to live sober lives, but they do not “cure” the addiction.

Abstinence and the subsequent repairs that our bodies are able to effect in our brains allow our addiction(s) to enter remission. Our brains slowly deactivate the extra receptor sites that clamored for more drugs and caused our compulsion to use, and at the same time the production of chemicals normally found in the brain has to ramp back up from being suppressed by the presence of the drugs. Not until this process is complete — and it can take months — do we reach the point of feeling relatively normal, although we begin to feel better long before the job is done.

Feeling better is part of the problem, too. Because the repairs to our brains depend on abstinence, as long as there are any of a wide variety of abusable drugs in our systems, the repairs can’t take place. And because they also take time, and that means that the desire to use won’t go away entirely for quite awhile; it will come and go. We can easily decide that we’ve been clean for a while so we ought to be able to “handle it.” But if we give in and use, even a little, the repairs to our brain will slow down, prolonging the physical recovery process. It is also quite likely that the combination of reuniting with our old obsession, combined with the indisputable fact that people on drugs do stupid things, will cause us to decide more would be better. Continued use will reverse the recovery process and kick us back into full-blown addiction.

Recovery is not a matter of willpower. If it were, we would have simply ignored the compulsion and stopped. The compulsion comes from a part of the brain that isn’t affected by conscious thought. We can’t think our way into sobriety; we need abstinence too. Here at Sunrise Detox, we see a lot of folks who think that they can use in moderation.  Again, and again, and again….

What Is Cross-Addiction? Why Can’t A Pill Addict Drink?

One of the more common questions around treatment centers and the recovery fellowships goes something like,”I’m addicted to prescription drugs, not alcohol, so why can’t I have a drink?  What's this cross-addiction I've heard about?”

That’s really not an unreasonable question. Why do addicts who don’t seem to have problems with alcohol need to stay away from it anyway? Why can’t a prescription drug addict have a few drinks?

There are really two reasons:

  • Alcohol reduces our inhibitions and increases the likelihood that we will make bad choices; and
  • Just as they say in the rooms, “A drug is a drug is a drug.”

Number one is pretty much self-explanatory, and can be attested to by anyone who has regretted something he or she did while they were drinking. The parts of our brains that are responsible for taking in information and allowing us to make reasoned decisions are among the first functions to be depressed by alcohol, along with some motor skills. (See any relationship to drunk driving problems there?)

We make poor decisions about driving, about kissing the boss’s wife at the Christmas party, about arguing with large men who carry guns and handcuffs, and all sorts of other things, including whether or not to drink more or use other drugs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time” can become a major problem when we’ve had a couple of drinks. Essentially, booze makes us dumber while convincing us that we’re smarter.

The second reason, known as cross-addiction, is a bit more complicated but makes perfect sense when you understand a few things. Cross-addiction refers to how we addicts, once addicted, are far more likely to get hooked on other drugs or behavior in addition to our drugs of choice.

Why do we drink or use drugs? We may say we like the taste of whiskey, but the fact is that we like it because we associate it with the way alcohol makes us feel. We use alcohol and other drugs because they change the way we feel. They make us feel “good,” or they “relax” us, or they (insert own reason here). Sometimes we use because we’re happy and we want to feel happier, but most of us use drugs and mood-altering behavior because they distract us from reality. Trouble is, the drugs always wear off, and we’re always there, wishing we still felt good. It doesn’t take us long to figure out how to make that happen.

Certain activities stimulate the production of chemicals in the brain that make us feel pleasure. Generally, these relate to things that are mostly beneficial: seeing a loved one or good friend, eating, exercising, playing games — especially if we win — fun, daydreaming, getting a good grade in school, a compliment, sex and so forth. They are quite literally our bodies’ way of insuring that we keep on doing things that are good for us. We refer to the portion of the brain that is stimulated as the reward center.

Alcohol and other drugs also stimulate the reward center, and they do it extremely well to begin with. When we start drinking and using drugs, the feelings are phenomenal. They are much stronger than the normal sorts of feelings, because the drug causes the production of extra quantities of feel-good neurotransmitters or, in some cases, stimulates the receptor sites in the reward center directly. Now that’s a reward, we think (sort of) — a powerful reward for using the drugs instead of our natural system of feeling good. Doing it again seems like a very good idea indeed.

But the goodness doesn’t last. As our reward centers become accustomed to the higher levels of stimulation, they become pretty much immune to the natural reward chemistry. We begin to need chemicals in order to get any sense of pleasure, and eventually just to feel normal. As we increase the levels of drugs, our brain attempts to compensate for the high levels of stimulation in two general ways: first by reducing the production of the natural feel-good chemicals, and also by building new receptor sites to deal with the excess chemicals floating around. It does this in an attempt to keep things to something like normal, but it’s doomed to lose the contest. Eventually, we have to have the drugs in order to function at all. We’re — guess what — addicted.

Now some of you are going to think, “Man, they oversimplified that big time!”, and you’ll be right. Others are going to think, “What crap! I drink…use drugs…whatever…because I want to!” Well, if you only have have a couple of whatevers a week you may be right, but if you’re reading this because you think you might have a problem, you’re wrong and you’d best pay attention.

So what does all this have to do with a prescription addict having a drink? Everything. At the end of the day all drugs, including alcohol, act on the reward center. We get our good feelings from the reward center, and the reward center doesn’t know the difference between one drug and another. We can tell the difference in our conscious mind, because we feel the physical changes in other parts of our brains — stimulation, depression, whatever those effects may be — but the reason we enjoy them is because of the effects on our reward center, which operates mostly below the conscious level. Really now, who would want to get all jittery…or dumb and sleepy…or stupid and hungry if it didn’t feel good?

So, when we take a drink, our reward center is like, “Hello? This feels good, and we know how to make it feel even better, don’t we?” If we’re in early recovery — the first two years or so, say — our brain hasn’t even gotten back to normal yet. It has to deactivate all those extra receptor sites that it created to handle the extra stimulation, and it also has to have time to reactivate the systems that make the natural neurotransmitters. During that time we’re sitting ducks for relapse. Even after the repairs, the receptors are still there waiting to be reactivated by the presence of the drugs. We’re talking repairs here, not new brains.

Any mood-altering drug or activity can affect the reward center, and so any of them can become addictions. Cross-addiction normally refers to substances, but it can also apply to behavior.
People often replace alcohol and other drugs with mood-altering activities like gambling, which is especially dangerous because of all the booze and drugs around (they know it makes people stupid). Other behaviors include relationships, porn, other sexual acting out, exercise, thrill-seeking and other activities that heavily stimulate the reward center. The fact is, you can get addicted to almost anything, if it causes pleasure or distraction from life issues.

That means that the name of the game in recovery is avoidance of all mood-altering substances — okay, not caffeine (in reasonable quantities) — and excess in other areas of our lives. Fun is fine. Pleasure is fine. But when the feelings become the reason for what we’re doing, to the exclusion of the activity itself and the people involved, we are headed for trouble.

The aim of recovery is not eliminating fun, it’s moderating our behavior and learning to live without mood-altering in unnatural ways. Four generations of alcoholics and addicts have demonstrated millions of time that it’s the most reliable way to remain clean. Until someone comes up with something better (and our bet is that it will be a long time) abstinence and a good program of recovery are the best, if not the only, way to go.