Dr. Adam L. Front, Psychologist


Dr. Adam's Blog

Relaxing into Recovery

Posted on July 7, 2020 at 4:20 AM

You may be reading this because you have tried - probably more than once - to get and stay clean and sober from alcohol or other drugs, or perhaps you have a family member or other loved one who has been engaged in this struggle. Over the more than 3 decades that I have worked with recovering addicts and alcoholics I have clearly seen that the more times a recovering person relapses, the harder it becomes to take up the task of getting sober and stabilizing recovery. Why is it such a struggle? For some it is the most difficult thing they have ever undertaken from the first time they tried to get clean and sober and becomes more difficult each time they relapse and renew their commitment to sobriety. For others, it seemed incredibly easy the first time but became more and more difficult with each relapse and renewed attempt.

I have come to believe that it is not the task of getting and staying sober, of stabilizing recovery and improving one's life that is so daunting. What actually makes it so tough is not the things we do that are related to recovery. The thing that makes it sometimes seem impossible is the way we frame the tasks (and the general idea of recovery) in our minds. It is the definitions of some of the terms that we subscribe to, the stories we tell ourselves about the undertaking of recovery and its component parts, the way we approach recovery that becomes the biggest set of obstacles imaginable.

So we assume that it is going to be hard. We think of it as depriving ourselves of something we want, something fun. Which can translate into the idea that fun = getting loaded, so if we are not getting high any more, we will not have any fun any more, ever. Or at least that nothing else will ever be AS fun as using our drug or drink of choice.We also may assume that whatever is good for us is more unpleasant than the things that are not good for us. Hence the way the word “bad” is used sometimes in popular lingo to mean exciting, fun, or cool.

In addition to the way we mentally and emotionally frame our experience having a massive effect on our expectations and judgments about what it will be like, there is something else about the way humans approach change that can make things seem easier or harder, and because of the resulting perception, it  can make whatever it is actually become easier or harder, depending on our perception. Many times when we want to change something, we imagine that we cannot make the change until and unless we "find the motivation" to do it differently. Usually this means that we are waiting for our feelings and thoughts to change so that we can enact different behavior. For example, I may want to start working out every day when I have had the long-standing habit of sitting on the couch, eating and watching TV. I keep telling myself that I want to go to the gym, but once I sit down on the couch it is all over, and I may think, "well, I will start tomorrow, for sure this time." I may have these same thoughts for weeks, multiple times a day, until finally I give up and decide that it is hopeless, that I am just a failure.Or, if I just decide to try it anyway, I may find that it is not as hard as I thought.  If we have a theory about how it will be, and we do not test it, we will never really know.  And if we do test it, with fair and repeated trials, we often find that there were at least parts of our theory (if not our entire theory) that end up being proven wrong.  This is true in scientific experimentation in most fields - more theories are proven wrong than proven right.  But if we never really test our basic assumptions, our theories, or only do so half-heartedly, we will think what we have always thought, and as a result we will get what we have always gotten.

How many people go through exactly this same loop about getting sober, over and over and over again? Those who actually get sober instead of just thinking about it do one thing differently - they actually DO something different despite the thoughts and feelings. The action of being sober for one day actually CREATES the motivation to stay sober the next day, in the same way as actually going to work out (in spite of not "feeling like it") makes it more likely that we will work out the next day. If we wait for divine intervention to strike us with inspiration and motivation so that we can be sober for that first day, we could wait a very long time.

So just imagine… imagine that it is possible to find fun, joy, connection with others, a feeling of purpose and excitement about each day, each moment. Imagine that this does not have to be a struggle, but instead something that we can relax into. What if that were actually possible? Well, it is, and it won’t take a lot of time, a lot of money, or a lot of struggle. In fact, you can change your feeling about your life from a living hell to a heaven that is right here and right now. It will take work, it will take doing things that are outside your comfort zone, and it will take believing that it is possible by suspending your beliefs that it isn’t. But as you try new things and find that it indeed is possible, you will create a world of possibilities, possibilities that you never dreamed could be yours. They will open and unfold right in front of you.

It has become even harder right now, in 2020, because of current challenges, to feel hopeful, optimistic and motivated about the future. We face factors that compound each other, factors that have become a dark lens that makes everything look bleaker and harder. These include restricted movement and contact with others due to the COVID-19 pandemic; social tensions due to the numerous racial clashes and inequities; political divisions that are wider than ever between people who should be able to work together toward the common good; and economic pressures that are affecting many families, making it harder and harder to see how to simply survive. No wonder so many people right now are feeling frustrated, losing hope, feeling their optimism and motivation fading. We have been taught to believe that we live in a world of progress, yet everything seems to be going in the wrong direction, getting worse, not better.

Recovery is not just a vehicle for stopping the use of mind-altering substances or behaviors. It is a way of redefining yourself and re-casting the direction of your entire life. It is by finding a new direction and a new way to live and cope that we find a path away from our addictions. There is a huge clue to this hiding in plain sight in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Even if you don’t like, believe in, or want to follow the 12 steps, stay with me for a minute. Of the 12 steps, only the first of them has anything to do with drugs or alcohol. The other 11 are about living differently, coping with difficult situations differently. Which means that, mathematically, eleven-twelfths of recovery has nothing to do with not drinking or using other substances. Think about it: If you are primarily thinking about not drinking or using drugs, then really, you are actually thinking about drinking or using drugs. If you find things like joy, purpose and connection that take you in a different direction, then you won’t have to use so much energy pushing the alcohol and drugs away.

In future posts, we will look at how to make this a reality – things that you can do that will make it possible to Relax into Recovery.



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