The Key to Recovery: Staying Stopped, No Matter What
Generally speaking, I live my life with dignity, self respect, responsibility, and care. I like to be in healthy relationships with my family, friends, and romantic interests. I try to be financially stable, working hard and saving money, while still enjoying the occasional evening out or latest gadget. I work on myself and practice self care by attending self-help and 12-step meetings, going to the gym, and eating healthy–while occasionally indulging my cravings for a piece of strawberry cheesecake or “wasting” a whole Saturday on the couch watching movies in my pajamas. I make commitments and show up on time for things, I keep my promises, and I even pay my bills on time. It might be a little boring at times, but overall a pretty good way to live. That’s my ideal way to live, at least.
The problem is, I’m a person with addiction. I’m not wired for delayed gratification or self control. I don’t like being bored. I struggle with responsibility and social pressure. I tend to earn money fast, and spend it even faster. I’m seemingly programmed to focus on jealousy and greed, always forgetting to be grateful for what I have instead of being resentful for what I don’t have. I’m drawn to things that make me feel good, and once I try something that makes me feel good, I want to do it over and over again, always upping the stakes to make the experience more intense. I gravitate towards pleasure seeking, excitement, drama, and chaos… or as I like to call it: fun.
Un-learning self-destructive habits
The unifying symptom of my addiction is that I’m drawn to things that feel good at first, but ultimately ruin my life. Furthermore, left to my own devices, I will continue to seek out these pleasurable-yet-harmful activities again and again, no matter how much chaos and pain they bring. Over and over, I’ve re-lived the all-too-familiar thought process that goes something like, if a little bit feels good, then a lot will feel great, and if a lot feels great, I should do it all day every day, no matter the outcome. As you might imagine, this thought process has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. My disease has a dark sense of humor.
My addiction is not a temporary state of mind and body–it’s a chronic condition that needs daily attention. No matter how long I stay sober, my disease will always look for an opportunity to sneak in and convince me that I can drink or drug safely, if only the right set of circumstances were to present itself. The funny thing is, once I decide on a set of circumstances that would justify a relapse, those circumstances magically appear in my life. Actually no, it’s not magic, it’s my disease. Those relapse-worthy circumstances don’t just appear in my life, I manufacture them. My disease is also very sneaky.
There’s no cure for addiction, but there is a treatment that works
When I finally made the decision to get sober, I found refuge in the rooms of a familiar 12-step program. It was in those rooms that I learned how to stop drinking and drugging. Moreover, I didn’t just learn how to stop using, I learned how to stay stopped, giving myself the opportunity to work on all the harmful habits, negative thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, and lack of spirituality that had led me back to active addiction over and over again throughout the years. The hard part was learning how to replace my old bad habits with healthy new habits. How to stop thriving on chaos and instead gain satisfaction from hard work and patience. How to have healthy relationships and boundaries instead of blindly stumbling through one toxic relationship after another. How to grow up and accept the fact that I can’t just feel good all the time. Life is filled with ups and downs, hits and misses, strikes and gutters. The trick is to enjoy the peaks and endure the valleys, without drinking and drugging to enhance or numb the experience.
Learning new habits in early recovery
During the first few months of sobriety, I would dutifully attend 12-step meetings. I met people I didn’t like, went to places a hated being, and heard a few uncomfortable truths about myself. I cursed, swore at, and threw middle fingers to anyone that dared to accuse me of being terminally unique. I scoffed at old timers who rattled off platitudes and bumper sticker slogans about their own sobriety. I squirmed in my seat at every meeting, getting up multiple times throughout the hour to refresh my coffee or take a short break in the restroom. But it only took a few weeks before I found myself really listening to these people. Not just listening to them, but identifying and empathizing with them. I started hearing things in their stories that sounded remarkably like thoughts, feelings, and emotions I’d experienced. Before I knew what had happened, I found myself wanting to go to meetings, hoping to hear yet another person tell my story through their own experience. I started craving that loving connection that addicts and alcoholics share, even if we have almost no external similarities.
So I kept coming, kept listening to other addicts share about their addiction and how they fight their own urges and cravings. Along the way they taught me a few tricks that helped me stay sober and grow one day at a time. They kept using those bumper sticker slogans that, in the beginning, made me groan and roll my eyes. But as the fog of my drinking and drug use lifted, those annoying sayings started to make more sense. Don’t drink, go to meetings. Ninety meetings in ninety days. Stick with the winners. Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. It’s a simple program for complicated people. K.I.S.S. = Keep It Simple, Stupid. First things first. A grateful heart doesn’t drink. Keep coming. More will be revealed. Is it odd or is it God? One day at a time.
Fake it ‘til you make it
The things they told me to do aren’t rocket science, but they’re not exactly easy either–at least not at first. Those first few months I got more suggestions than I ever thought possible. They told me to pray every morning and every night, even though I didn’t believe in God. They told me to make a gratitude list–10 things I’m grateful for–every single day. They told me that if I felt uneasy or angry, I should call another addict and ask him how his day is going, and then actually listen to his answer. They told me to keep coming to meetings even if I felt like they didn’t work. They told me if I hated someone, I should pray for them. Most importantly, they told me no matter what happens, don’t pick up.
Often it would take me days or even weeks to turn these suggestions into habits, but once I did, I found they made staying sober just that much easier. And best of all, if I spent a couple weeks learning a new habit instead of drinking or drugging, guess what? That was a couple more weeks of sobriety for me. I took their advice. I listened to these meager and sometimes infuriating suggestions, scoffed and rolled my eyes at them, and did them anyway.
Take suggestions like your life depends on it–because it does
I started practicing prayer even though I didn’t believe in God. I tried to find things in my life to be grateful for and managed to find at least 10 every day, when I put my mind to it. I got phone numbers for other people who attended the same meetings I did, and I started calling them and asking them about their day. I noticed after each phone call I felt better, even though we hadn’t talked about my problems at all. I kept going to meetings and eventually found that meetings made me feel better, so getting to one didn’t feel like a chore anymore. I started praying for people I hated, sarcastically at first, and found that by praying for them it helped me empathize with them more and hate them less.
By far, the most important thing I learned in this early phase of my recovery was that alcohol and drugs don’t fix my problems. For me, getting high makes everything worse. That’s why I have to stop getting high and stay stopped. It’s only when I stay stopped for long periods of time that I give the chaos in my life a chance to recede. Abstinence from all mind altering substances is the foundation upon which every other facet of my recovery is built. If I’m getting high, nothing gets better, it only gets worse.
Staying sober no matter what
So I stay stopped. I keep going to meetings. I pray, even though I’m still not sure about this God fellow. I keep gratitude in my heart and in my mind. I try not to focus on my problems, instead opting to help other people with their problems. I’m trying to learn how to meditate. I’m learning how to take things slow. When another person pisses me off, I do my best to practice patience, tolerance, and understanding. I go to meetings. Most importantly, I don’t pick up, no matter what.
My life isn’t perfect. Far from it. But my life is pretty damn good compared to what it used to be. And even though it isn’t perfect, it gets a little better each day, one day at a time. That’s really all I need to get by. And while sobriety doesn’t always give me what I want, it always gives me exactly what I need.