Sorry to tell you this, but time takes time.

We addicts love our instant gratification, and one of the places it really shows up is in our seeming conviction that we ought to get better right away.

(c) DigitalZen — used with permission

Let’s face it: with virtually no exceptions, we spent months (at the least) and years (far more likely) using alcohol and other drugs. We took all that time to mess up our brains and bodies to the point that we were miserable enough to decide to do something about it. Then we got clean, and suddenly we were amazed that we still felt like crap, and that our minds were still running off in all directions at once.

For goodness sake, why wouldn’t they be? We aren’t addicted to substances, per se, we’re addicted to the changes they make in our brains. Doesn’t it make sense that those changes, created over months or years, should take a while to repair themselves? Of course we continue to think about our drugs. Of course we feel like crap. Of course our bodies — suffering from malnutrition and who knows what other problems — take six months to a year to get back to something like normal. If we took a bulldozer to our house  we wouldn't expect to put it back together into livable condition right away, with minimal effort and attention, would we?

We think in the short term: how long until the next chance to have a drink, shoot up, meet with the guy on the corner, pop that pill. We’re used to doing our thing and feeling more or less instant results. Changing that way of thinking around, accepting that not everything we want comes exactly when we want it, takes time.  Time takes time.

Left to our own devices, we’ll try to find short-term solutions. There aren’t any. Recovery is physical and mental healing, and doesn’t happen overnight. If we don’t take our time and put in the work, if we give in to that short-term addict thinking again, we’re not going to make it.

That’s why we need programs, folks. That’s why we need the guidance of others. We’re in no condition to figure these things out for ourselves.

Quote Of Note

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous

delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” – E.E. Cummings

My Best Thinking Got Me Here

When I was in early recovery I went to the market to get some cat food and passed down the beer aisle.  I stopped to see what was on sale, just out of curiosity, and was surprised to note that looking at all that beer didn’t make me want to drink.  I was really proud of that, and told one of my therapists about it.  His only remark was, “You stupid ****, they don’t sell cat food in the beer department!”  That was a revelation to me, and I had just barely enough sense to realize that he was right.  If I’d been in the wrong frame of mind at that moment, there was nothing to stop me from picking up a couple of sixes and heading off to the races.

There’s an old saying — mostly heard around the rooms of AA, but equally applicable to any kind of addiction: “If you don’t want to slip, stay away from slippery places.”  Like so many program slogans, it sounds pretty trite.  Nonetheless, we hear those things so often because they're good advice.  For alcoholics and other addicts, it’s some of the best advice we’ll ever hear.

Those of us who make our living (or, in my case, part of it) hanging around detox and primary treatment facilities see the same thing, over and over again.  Mary Jane comes to detox or treatment, resists suggestions, and leaves against professional advice.  She gives herself excuses like “My children need me at home,” “I have to get back to my business,” “My boyfriend will help me stay sober,” yada-yada.  A few days, weeks, or months later, Mary Jane comes to detox or treatment, resists suggestions again, and leaves against professional advice.  It’s not uncommon for this to happen several times, until MJ gets so beaten down that she finally decides to listen to the experts’ suggestions — or gets dead.

We reach a point in our early recovery, all of us, where one of two things happens, sometimes both.  We start feeling cocky and/or we become so frightened of the thoughts and emotions that we’re experiencing, now that our brains are working overtime and we are no longer distracted by our addictive behaviors, that we’ll do practically anything to avoid feeling those feelings, thinking those thoughts, changing that destructive behavior.

Unless we are terrifically motivated at that point, we jump ship, and go back to exactly the conditions where we used to turn our brains off as often and as thoroughly as possible — to the same people, places and things that gave us our excuses for using to begin with.  And some of those people, with vested interests in undermining our recovery, will do what they can to make sure we don’t stay clean for long.

Shel and I were talking with another Sunrise person last night, and the phrase “My best thinking got me here” came up.  We all heard that in early recovery, and it’s another of those trite but oh-so-true aphorisms.  To put it another way, if we’re so sure of what’s good for us, why did we become addicts to begin with?

Relapse happens before we pick up a drink or a drug or a catalog or a Twinkie or a person of the attractive gender.  Relapse is a state of mind.  It happens because our old ways of thinking and reacting to stress lead us on the path to using.  And why not?  We didn’t stay in treatment long enough to even begin to learn new ways of behaving.  Addiction, in addition to being a disease, is also a habit.  When we’re under pressure, we react the way that is most familiar, unless we have enough “training” to behave some other way.  That’s why staying out of familiar places, avoiding familiar things (and often familiar people) is so important.

We are wired to behave in certain ways under certain conditions, and until we are thoroughly re-wired, we’re in trouble if those conditions arise.  They are far more likely to do so out in the world than in a recovery facility.  The slippery places are always going to be there.  Until walking carefully is a state of mind, rather than just an idea, they’re still able to put us on our butts — and we might not be able to get up again, this time.

George Carlin Was Sooooo Right!

I've been off the grid for the last few days on vacation, and just got to a WiFi connection. As a result, I hadn't seen the news about the U.S. credit rating reduction. Sometimes you get lucky.

With no intention of creating a political discussion here, and the assurance that I'll ignore one if it starts, I have to say that to those of us attuned to addictive thinking it's obvious that our government acts — or, rather, reacts — like a seriously dysfunctional family.  It reminds me of the old program saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

It's good for me to be reminded that we have to break out of our old ways of thinking and looking at problems if we're ever to have a chance at finding solutions. I know people who have been clean for many years, yet have never gotten past the passive-aggressive, pouty, tantrum-throwing behavior that typifies us addicts and alcoholics when we run up against the preferences of others.

“My way or the highway” is normal behavior for active addicts, but we have programs of recovery and therapy to help us break out of the old mold and begin to develop the skills we need to interact with each other and society as a whole. When we don't avail ourselves of those resources instead of behaving the way we used to behave (like spoiled nine-year-olds), then we're the very definition.

Us addicts are lucky; we have a program that will lead us, if we're able to give up a bit of ego, to healthy and effective ways of dealing with each other and the rest of the world.  Those poor, dysfunctional souls in Washington? All they seem able to do is the same old thing, over and over again. I wonder if they even expect different results, really.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the Rockies and High Plains with my kids and grandkid, and trying to do new things with no expectations at all.  However, I do try to remember, as always,  my favorite quote from the inimitable Mr. Carlin, who understood us folks all too well:

Just because the monkey's off your back, it doesn't mean the circus has left town.

Well, it's in recess, come to think of it, but relapse is imminent.

Keep on keepin' on!


Strength? We don’t need no stinkin’ strength!

Nowadays I hear a lot of folks saying (to recovering people) things like “You’re so strong!” and “Be strong!”  I hear newcomers say “I pray for the strength to beat my addiction,” and other stuff like that.  While I understand the thinking behind such remarks (all too well), there are a few comments I’d like to make.

One of the first things we need to learn in recovery is our powerlessness.  We are powerless when it comes to our addictions as long as we are using our drugs of choice, and for some time afterward. If this were not true, we’d simply quit and no one would ever relapse.  The only strength we need is the strength to admit that unpleasant fact, accept it, and listen to people who know what they’re talking about — since we obviously don’t.

That does require a certain amount of guts.  We addicts and codependents hate to admit that we aren’t in control. In fact, though, weren’t most of our problems based on our illusions of control:  controlling our drinking or other drugging; controlling our addicts; controlling our kids; getting everything just right and then having it welded, as a friend of mine used to say?  (He was talking about tuning his 12-string, but the remark is so addict!)

When we have the strength to admit that we’ve lost control, that we’re whipped, that we can’t go on, then we have finally reached the point where recovery is possible. Without that realization of powerlessness, recovery is unlikely, if not impossible.  That’s why I worry when I hear folks speaking in terms of “strength.”  When we think that way, we are in danger of becoming convinced that we are no longer powerless, that we can control our using and keep it “social” this time, that he really isn’t a  rotten wife-beating s.o.b. when he’s drinking, that if we just took Muffy in off the street and give her a clean place to sleep, she’ll realize that she’s much better off and will quit using those nasty drugs.

In early recovery we don’t have much power, if any. We don’t need strength, we need the humility to learn from others the things that we were unable to learn on our own: how to handle our urges, our relationships, our jobs, our spiritual growth — in short, how to live lives of sobriety.  Then, after we’ve gone a good distance in that direction and our bodies and minds have begun to recover from the beating we gave them for all those months or years — at that point we begin having some power over our addictions.  As long as we don’t use.

Addiction is like a rattlesnake.  I can pick it up and haul it around wherever I please — all day long, if I like.  That’s strength.  But if I get careless, that’s when I find out what powerlessness is all about.

The Serenity Prayer And Me

Religion is extremely important to the great majority of people on this planet.  It gives them reasonably coherent systems of ethics and moral guidance, community, support in hard times, and hope for a better life.  In many cases, it gives their lives structure and meaning.

I am not a religious person myself, instead thinking of myself as spiritual. I don't believe the two concepts are by any means one and the same.  That's a discussion beyond where I want to go here, but it's a necessary observation in order for the following to make sense.

Many of us in recovery — especially early recovery — have difficulty with what we see as the “religious” aspects of the 12 Step fellowships.  Again, without getting into a discussion about religion versus spirituality, it has been my experience that those who are able to put such prejudices behind them, take from “the program” what fits for them, and allow others the same privilege, are the ones who are most likely to succeed.  Personal problems with concepts of gods and higher powers notwithstanding, it is quite possible to be a part of the 12 Step experience and not delve into religion at all.

Spirituality, however, is an absolute must, and certain concepts that have come to be expressed in terms of prayers and similar ideas are also critical to success.  Again, we need to read between the lines of those things and take from them the underlying thoughts and wisdom.  Sometimes we even need to show a bit of humility and go along with customs such as prayers at the beginning and end of meetings, understanding that those things are important for many people, and that participating does us no real harm at all.

One prayer that we need to take absolutely to heart is the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

The ideas embodied in this simple verse are essential to recovery.  The Serenity Prayer reminds us to be humble, and helps us organize the things on which we need to be working in order to get and stay sober.  If we spend some time thinking about it, in fact, we may discover that it embodies an entire philosophy of life.  It reminds us

  • That we are not in charge of anyone or anything but ourselves;
  • That we cannot in fact change anything but ourselves and the way we look at and live our lives;
  • And that if we don't figure this out and apply the knowledge, we'll be back in the same controlling frenzy that we just came out of — for what is a life of addiction if not one of trying to control our lives and feelings with chemicals?

Control issues, in fact, are major relapse triggers — and wonderful excuses:  “If she'd just do what I want, everything would be fine!” We forget, sometimes, that “she” is a human being with her own rights and needs, that there are two sides to every situation, and that it is the responsibility of an adult to be able to arrive at solutions that are fair to everyone concerned.  You can probably think of similar examples.  Maybe you've even used a few of them.

The “wisdom to know the difference” has been a major key to my recovery.  Other people have their own wants and needs, and they will do what they believe they need to do — just as I do. The only thing I can change is me.  When I figured that out, and begin living my life that way, I was soon able to relax and stop running the world.  It was so exhausting!

So I say my own version of the Serenity Prayer several times a day, and have been doing so for a long time — actually longer than I spent in my active addictions.  I say “May I learn” to accept the things I cannot change….  I don't put the weight on god's shoulders.  It isn't god's job, it's mine.  I try to live my life remembering just how much power I don't have.  I change the things I can, and try to understand the difference.  I don't let personal ideas about religion get in the way of my recovery.  My opinions don't mean a thing if I die, so why take them so seriously when I'm trying to stay alive?

Try something: sit quietly for five minutes and really think about the meaning of that simple little set of verses.  Five minutes.  It could change your life as it did mine.

Minding Our Own Business

When I first got sober, I wanted to save the world. It became clear to me that the 12 Steps were going to be a big part of getting my life straightened out. It also became clear — now that I wasn't out there with them — that there were a lot of other folks who needed a dose of The Program as much as I did.

So I made no bones about being in recovery. Contrary to what a lot of people think, we don’t have to remain anonymous ourselves, except at the level of the media. We just can’t “out” anyone else. I made sure that I wasn’t anonymous, and I made sure that all those poor folks knew that I was there for them if they wanted help. The result was inevitable and, in retrospect, completely predictable. They began avoiding me in droves — exactly what I would have done if someone had come at me with talk of sobriety when I was still using alcohol and other drugs.  Would you like it if someone tried to talk you out of seeing your best friend? Hardly anyone likes a proselytizer, religious or otherwise.

It took me longer than perhaps it should have to learn that what other people do is none of my business, as long as it isn’t hurting me or others. Even then, sometimes there is nothing to do but retreat. You can always engage in another battle, but it becomes far harder once you’ve already had your butt kicked. (Insert “turning the other cheek” joke here.)

Looking back, and looking at many of the newcomers I’ve known since, it seems to me that this sort of thing is a natural part of the “saved” feeling we get in recovery. Just as well-meaning religious folks want to spread the Good Word, so do those of us in the rooms. That’s fine, but we need to be careful how we go about it.

Attempting to talk to active alcoholics and addicts is one of the more useless endeavors. Denial is deep for them, just as it was for us, and our being able to see the issues clearly from the outside does not mean that we will be able to illuminate their understanding. Quite the opposite, in fact. We run an excellent chance of turning them off to any such advice — even of driving them away, as I did some of my old friends. Today I have young family members who, it is clear to me, are sliding down the slippery slope. They’re a long way from the bottom yet, and they wouldn’t listen to advice from me. But if I don’t alienate them, when they get there they might remember that recovery worked for someone they know. Our program works better when we let them come to us.

So I learned to keep my savior complex in check, and to direct that energy toward helping people who were already seeking recovery. I learned — finally — to be a good example instead of a preacher. I followed the advice of those who came before me, and worked with newcomers and other recovering folks. Eventually I moved on to working in the field, then to writing about recovery, but I still try to simply share my “experience, strength and hope” and let the audience sort themselves out. As they say, “attraction, not promotion.”

We don’t need to wear our program on our sleeves; only in our hearts.

Keep on keepin' on…