I was at a 12-step meeting last night where one of the members stated that he wasn’t sure he could remain abstinent from his drug of choice, and intimated that he wanted to believe that he could partake occasionally. Our first instinct is to protect our addiction at all costs.
Really, what he was saying was that he wasn’t sure he was ready to give up his addiction — that old First Step quandary: “Am I really powerless? Is my life really that unmanageable?” And that’s no surprise; when we have used a drug or behavior to fill the empty places for so many years, it’s pretty scary to think about never again being able to fall back on our crutch. In the case of some addictions, it’s even more difficult. Food addicts, for example, still have to eat, and people with sexual addictions find the idea of no sex, of any kind, terrifying.
However, regardless of the form of the addiction, every recovering addict needs a period of abstinence — or, in the case of food, shopping and similar compulsive disorders, carefully adhered-to guidelines and safeguards. The reason is simple: all addictions have in common the fact that they alter our brain chemistry when we indulge, and we get used to it. Only with prolonged periods of abstinence does the craving finally dissipate, and only when that happens are we able to rearrange our thinking in a way that makes “normal” living possible. Abstinence is key.
In the case of codependency and other addictions that affect relationships, abstinence helps us reach a baseline, a place where we can view our interactions with others from a neutral stance, rather than from what it can do to alleviate our own discomforts. When we are able to do that, we become able to look at ourselves and the way we connect with other human beings realistically, and learn how to do so in non-toxic ways. But all of these abilities rest on the removal of the deadly compulsions that rule our active addictions. As long as our brains remain attuned to the highs and lows of our addictions, we will not be able to make the necessary changes.
Regardless of the compulsion, abstinence (if possible) is essential. If it is not possible we need to look carefully in each instance when we are tempted to either act out or simply to engage in the behavior — eating, for example — and examine our reasons for doing so. Recovery is about appropriate behavior, and to begin with such determinations are beyond us. We need clear heads and hearts; that can’t happen when we are still getting high.
It’s tough. But so is living in addiction, and the choice is ours to make.