Stinking Thinking

We Don’t Have To Give In To “Stinkin’ Thinkin'”

Everyone in recovery knows someone who tried to go back to “occasionally” using alcohol or other drugs — with predictable results. Many of us have personal experience. It often starts out with being sober for a few months, but it can happen in a program that has gone smoothly for years. We begin to think that we've been feeling so good lately that maybe we aren't an addict after all. Maybe we can “handle it.” Of course, now that we know all about addiction, we won't let it get the best of us.

Sometimes we try it, sometimes not, merely teetering on the edge for a bit. Those of us who did try tend to have the most interesting stories, and they all center around the idea that we convinced ourselves that we didn’t need to remain abstinent, or that we concentrated on some terrible thing that someone had done to us, dwelling on that instead of the good things in our lives.  Or perhaps we simply forgot to look for the good and concentrated on the bad, so that drinking or using drugs seemed like a reasonable alternative to the way we were feeling. Professionals call these ideas “reservations.”  But call it that, or a “dry drunk, “stinkin’ thinkin’” or whatever you will, it is the main component of relapse. (Remember, we relapse before we use.)  And it causes a lot of misery, even though we may technically remain clean and sober.

But it doesn't have to work that way.

Photo: DigitalZen

When we are active in our addictions, we dwell on our problems.  After all, they give us a marvelous excuse to use.  And, as we progress in our addiction, we learn to project our feelings about ourselves onto others.  It is much easier for me to resent the fact that my spouse spends all her time at work than it is to admit that if I got off my butt and found a job, she wouldn't have to work so hard.  Thinking like that would threaten my drinking and drugging, and I need to avoid that at all costs.  This way of thinking rapidly becomes a habit, because it allows us to feel more comfortable despite evidence that we shouldn't be. Eventually it affects our entire view of the world.

But after we're clean and sober, we no longer need to protect ourselves that way. One of the things I’ve learned through years of meditation is that I actually do have a reasonable amount of control over what I think. When we meditate, we try to concentrate on something without intellectual content — our breathing, say — to the exclusion of outside thoughts. This allows our subconscious to percolate uninterrupted, and we begin to gain some insight about ourselves.

To begin with, it’s hard. Thoughts about all sorts of things come along. We get really pissed off at our inability to do anything about it. Then someone tells us that it's a normal part of meditation. The idea is not to fight the stray thoughts, but to just let them arise, and then bring our mind back to the breathing, mantra, rosary, or whatever we’re using as a meditation tool. The key is that I can’t stop thoughts from coming to my mind, but I can control whether or not I concentrate on them, even if they come back over and over again.

Instead of drinking the poison of resentment and then waiting for the other guy to die, I can choose to turn my mind to something else. I can do it over and over again, until eventually I’ve distracted myself into thinking about other things entirely. The same is true of obsessions like drinking, or unsatisfied sexual urges, or the new toy that I think I need. It is entirely within my power to control those thoughts — not to pretend that they don’t exist, or fail to acknowledge them, but to choose not to dwell on them. In doing so, I rob them of their power, instead of giving them mine.

Why I Don’t Say I’m “Recovered”

Every so often around the 12-step rooms you’ll hear someone say something like, “My name’s (…), and I’m a grateful recovered (alcoholic, addict, codependent, etc.)”

“Recovered” is meant to remind us that there is more to life than meetings and hanging around with people from the rooms — that recovery is learning to live the way “normal” people do and moving back into the mainstream of life. Healthy people who work a good program have nothing to fear from this return to the world outside, and much to gain: continued renewal of self respect; new associations with people whose main focus is life in the world rather than just the Steps; business advantages; broader horizons, and myriad other things.  

I get that.  So a few years ago I decided to try “recovered” on for size. I began referring to myself that way: as a recovered person. I stopped after a bit, though, because it made me uncomfortable.  Also, I thought it made me seem like an attention-seeker in the rooms, where most people still refer to themselves as “recovering.”   It seemed presumptuous, and maybe even a little arrogant.

I came to recovery a physical, emotional and spiritual wreck, with just enough brain power left to recognize the reasons for my troubles and the way out of them. I am one of those people who has had the good fortune not to “relapse.” When I tell my story, I say that with tongue in cheek and then explain that while it’s technically true that I haven’t had a drink or drug since 1989, it isn’t strictly true that I haven’t relapsed.

Relapse begins when we begin to fall back into the old behavior and ways of thinking, whether or not we go so far as to pick up our drug of choice (or a different addiction). Given that more realistic definition, I’ve relapsed several times.  I didn't have to use.

One of the things that leads to the old behavior and ways of thinking and living is getting too big for our  britches. That’s why “recovered” feels uncomfortable. I know that my continued recovery depends on staying mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy, and especially on remaining humble.

My gut tells me that — for me — “recovered” is the wrong way of looking at what is really a process, not an event.  One of the most valuable things I was told early on was “trust your gut.”  

If it feels icky, it probably is.

Your recovering friend,