Building A Recovery Toolkit (Part II)

Taken down to its bare essentials, recovery is remarkably simple: replacing the habits and thinking of an addict with those of a physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy person. The key is “replacing.” If we remove a bad habit and leave an empty spot, it’s likely that other bad habits will slip into that space. Substitute addictions are an excellent example: eating, sex, gambling, excessive exercising, working, smoking and so forth. Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum — and so do addicts. Didn’t we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to fill our empty spaces?

It’s a good idea to start the day with healthy ideas and thoughts. I have two books that I read from each morning, meditating briefly on the ideas they bring. I’m on my second trip through one, and my first through the other. They help me start off in a recovery frame of mind, and with healthy ideas in my head that I can try to implement in my life throughout the day. I make notes of passages that particularly catch my eye, and ideas for things to write about. Often I’ll read a passage in the basic text of one of my recovery fellowships. The idea is to at least begin the day with my head in the right place.

Daily contact with other recovering people is another must for me. Texts don’t count. I need tones of voice and nuance, and my supports need to hear me. It’s easy to hide feelings in a text or email, and I need my supports to know the reality of what’s happening in my life, and as far as possible in my head. I have a core group of folks that I’ve been talking to regularly for years, and they can generally tell when I’m feeding them a load.

Addicts are loners. Even those of us who used around others never let our companions see who we really were, and heaven forbid anyone else should find out! In the process of supporting our legend, we got further and further from the reality of who we were in our own minds. People with poor self-esteem have to protect themselves, and there’s no such thing as an active addict with good self esteem. Which brings up supports.

As recovering people, the most important thing (after abstinence) is learning to trust others. We can’t get the unconditional love that we need without first trusting without conditions. This extends beyond the 4th and 5th Steps; it has to become a part of our daily lives.

We learn to trust by trusting. First, just a little bit: testing the waters. If that goes okay, then a little more, and then a little more. Eventually we learn who we can trust, but we can’t do that without taking at least a little chance. We do that by getting to know our peers in the program: first maybe a couple of people who sound like they know their way around sobriety, along with a couple of folks at our own level of experience. We make phone calls, talk after meetings, maybe go out for pizza. As we get to know them, we develop feelings about who we want for our “core group.” Those are the folks who go on speed dial, that we learn to turn to when things are bothering us. We need three or four of these folks.

We don’t develop relationships like that without trying. I tell the guys I sponsor to call me and three other people every day, and to note it in their journals. (At least they’ll have to open them for that, if nothing else.) My reason for insisting on that is simple: if we don’t get in the habit of calling our supports when we feel good, we’re not going to call them when the crap strikes the propeller. Instead, we’ll recoil back into our addict shells, and that’s the most dangerous place we can be when we’ve got trouble in our lives.

Meetings are a must. They’re available online, by phone, and obviously in person. There is absolutely no excuse for blowing off meetings. Newcomers need one every day. We spent far longer on our addictions than we’ll ever spend on our programs, so we need to knuckle down and take our medicine. I’m diabetic, so I take my metformin every day and watch my diet. I’m also an addict, so I go to meetings, talk to my supports, and watch out for people, places and things. Same difference.

There are dozens of other healthy things to add to our toolkit: meditation classes (I recommend at least a few), yoga, regular get-togethers with supports for fun and games or a movie, reading, bird-watching, hiking and other exercise (always in moderation), classes in all sorts of things — all the stuff that would have interfered with our acting out is now open to us. Some of us enjoy keeping a written record of what we’ve done, so we can go back and remember things we enjoyed (another new experience: wanting to remember).

The important thing is to do it! Leaning on our shovels and telling everyone how some day we’re going to own the company is no way to get long-term sobriety. Active addiction was the worse job we could ever have. Compared to that, a little work to get better is no big deal.

Scary, maybe, but no big deal.

Building A Recovery Toolkit (Part I)

When we first get into the rooms of recovery we hear lots of suggestions. Some of us take them seriously. Others see them as simplistic, and not applicable to people with experience/education/intelligence like ours. I plead guilty to a prolonged membership in that category; it didn’t help my recovery at all. I discovered, after paying a high price, that those suggestions definitely apply to me, and I’m still taking them.

It seems to me that people “in recovery” can be divided into two classes: recovering and getting by. I avoid “drunk”, “relapsed”, “dry drunk” and similar put-downs. While they’re useful in their way, they’re weighed down with derision and emotion. What I’m referring to here is folks who may be abstinent, but who aren’t getting all they could out of recovery. Continue reading “Building A Recovery Toolkit (Part I)”

Basics of Recovery

It’s possible to find all sorts of advice about recovery, addiction, alcoholism and so forth on the Web.  Everyone with a few weeks under their belt has a blog now, it seems, and there are a lot of treatment centers, addiction gurus and other sources more than willing to shed confusion on the matter.  

And that’s a wonderful thing.  There’s no such thing as too much recovery, and the newcomers especially offer a perspective that may be invaluable to someone new to the program.  It’s hard to relate to some old guy with thirty years, but not at all hard to understand and share the struggles of someone who’s just getting his or her balance.  However, some of it can be pretty overwhelming so I thought I’d tell you what I think are the essentials:

                        • Don’t use;
                        • Go to meetings;
                        • Get a sponsor;
                        • Work the steps.

These are the basics of recovery in the 12-step programs.

Abstinence, of course, is essential. We don’t get over behavior or physical addiction by keeping the taste of it fresh in our minds. Drugs (including alcohol) require abstinence to allow our brains’ chemistry to begin to normalize, and our heads to clear so that we can begin to change our ways of thinking and living without interference. As long as we are distracted by the pleasurable — or at least familiar — sensations generated by our addictions, we aren’t going to get very far. All creatures tend to stick with the familiar — a concept known as homeostasis — unless jolted out of their ruts by some sort of severe discomfort. Crawling back into the same ruts is not the answer.

Going to meetings is simply the logical thing to do. We need the support of people who know where we’re coming from. Most of the time our families don’t. Even if some of them do, it’s hard to take guidance from people that close — and nearly impossible for them to look at situations with the necessary detachment to allow them to guide effectively. If they are that good at guidance, and we were that willing to listen to them, why do we need help?

Meetings, on the other hand, give us contact with people who know how we feel and how to start feeling better, since they have been down the same path and had to make the same sorts of changes in order to salvage their own lives. They are not the people who “wired our buttons,” and are far more likely to be able to look at us and our difficulties with a clear head.

The Steps are the process by which we slowly gather the fragments of our emotional and social selves back together so that we can function effectively in our new lives. There is nothing mystical about them. They are simply applied psychology, and the reason so many counselors and physicians recommend them is because they are known to work. When you get right down to it, they’re about as mystical as hoeing weeds out of a garden. Romanticize the process of gardening though we may, it’s still a lot of hard work to get a decent crop.

Sponsors are the interface between recovering people and the steps. The purpose of a sponsor is to guide us through the steps and support us during the journey. They are not shrinks, accountants, consciences, bosses or experts. They are not there to drive us to meetings, loan us money, or mediate our domestic strife. They are simply people who have successfully completed the steps, gotten some sobriety because of them, and are able to explain them to someone else.

Most emphatically, they are not our new best friends. While we should be able to get long with them, it isn’t necessary to even like them. What we must do is respect what they have accomplished, and desire to accomplish the same things. That’s why it’s necessary to watch folks for a while before we decide to ask them to sponsor us. The most unsatisfactory experience I ever had with a sponsor was several years into sobriety when I asked for some help without peering beneath the surface. Turned out the reason I was attracted to that person was because we were too much alike — he had some of the same problems I did. (Remember, we’re attracted to the familiar.) It didn’t work out.

Watch. Look. Listen. Spend some time doing so. When we find someone of whom we can say, “That is the one I can trust enough to follow down some rough roads,” we are on the way to choosing the right sponsor.

Recovery involves a lot of work, but it’s really pretty simple. We may need additional help beyond our 12-step programs, but physicians, counselors and medication are not the final answer. They are only for the purpose of dealing with specifics. When we decide to redesign our lives, we need the long-term support of folks who understand us — and our recovery.