Back to Basics

Asking: “Does this add value?” has changed my life. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. I ask it about everything.  As a result, the hours I once wasted are now spent in a more centered, present, and productive way.

I always maintained that I didn’t have “enough time” to write but, the truth is, I was CHOOSING to fill my time with bullshit. Not just a little bullshit, but inordinate amounts of bullshit.

Having kicked the bullshit to the curb  (I’m sure there will be many more bags to toss out in the future), I find myself writing or thinking about writing a lot more.

It recently occurred to me that some of the things I write about might not be very relatable to someone who is new in recovery or just thinking about getting clean and sober. After 7.5 years, I have what they call “luxury problems”. I don’t watch the minute hand creep around the clock, hoping I can make it through another hour without engaging in my addictive behavior. That’s not to say that I couldn’t easily get back to that place if I’m not diligent… and it’s certainly not a declaration that I am in any way “better than”. I’m just saying that sometimes, when you’re in the trenches, it helps to hear from someone who has been there…and survived. In that spirit, I thought I might spend some time returning to my recovery roots.

Photographing and interviewing addicts/alcoholics for the Human Too campaign has taught me that there is no “right” way to recovery. Sure, there are recovery “purists” who will tell you otherwise, but every journey is different. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to get clean and sober, I think this knowledge can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, you have someone telling you they don’t judge which path you take to find recovery. Whew! What a huge relief! On the other hand, knowing there are many pathways to recovery might be the perfect justification NOT to try a method you don’t particularly like or about which you have developed preconceived judgements.

I was in the same shoes, once. I was fearful and I tried, desperately and unsuccessfully, to cover it up. I was stubborn, arrogant, and judgmental. I knew better than everyone; it didn’t matter if someone had been clean and sober for 50 years…I could figure it out on my own and I sure as hell didn’t need your advice.

So… you might not need my advice…but I know that I personally couldn’t intellectualize my own way out of my problem(s). I needed some help from someone who’d already climbed out of the pit.

No one likes to think of themselves as fearful or arrogant. But a little humility went a long way for me. I’ve heard it said that the favorite response of a newcomer to recovery is: “Yeah, but…” Maybe your counselor suggested you try AA meetings and you said: “Yeah, but…” Or maybe a friend suggested you join a meditation class at your local yoga center and you said: “Yeah, but…”

I challenge you to eradicate “Yeah, but…” from your vocabulary. It could save your life. Try: “I don’t know,” or “I’m scared”. But lose the “yeah, buts…” They will keep you sick and they will kill you.

If you say “I don’t know,” or “I’m scared,” at least you’ve opened the door for someone to help you. “Yeah, but…” slams that door firmly shut and brings the process of change to a screeching and premature halt. “Yeeeeaaaaaah, but,” says: “Sure, that might work for you, but here is a list of all the excuses I have about why it won’t work for me”.

I’ve been there and done that. Heck, “yeah, but…” still sneaks into my vocabulary. Today, however, I recognize it as a concession of terror and arrogance in two powerful little words.

I try not to be pushy but I can’t gloss over the fact that this is a deadly disease. Maybe your drinking/drugging/compulsive behavior won’t kill you today. It might not kill you in fifteen years…or even twenty-five. But you can bet your ass it will kill you. And it will rob you of the joy and peace you could have until it does.

If you’re anything like me, you do things when you’re good and damn ready. But this is an elevator you can exit on any floor. You don’t have to wait for the next (or the first) catastrophe. I tried recovery for the first time when I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years old. I was young but I was already dead inside and I knew I couldn’t go on living that way any longer.

I think people want, on some level, to be told exactly how to get clean/sober/behavior abstaining. The 12 steps are the only thing that work for me. (There’s a saying: “If you want what I have, do what I do”. That’s what I do.) But I can only speak for myself.  12 step meetings aren’t for everyone. If, after a fair shake, you’ve found that’s the case for you, I can share some guidelines for recovery that seem to be universal:

  1. We have an insatiable void inside that needs to be filled with something other than drugs/alcohol/compulsive behaviors. The successfully recovering people I know fill that void with spiritually rewarding practices like yoga, meditation, healthy (not compulsive) exercise, work with animals, art etc. I think the most successful people I know include an element of helping others in whichever spiritually fulfilling activity they choose.
  2.  Isolation is the enemy of recovery. The successful people I know have a clean, sober, and/or behavior abstaining support network. I once shared an article that argued that the true nature of addiction is a lack of connection with others. By this logic, the antidote for addiction is forming genuine relationships. When we are busy pursuing our drug or behavior of choice, we don’t have the time or interest to nurture relationships. We’re too busy focusing on how to fill the void. And alcohol, by its very nature, prevents the development of genuine connection. How can you form a real connection when your brain is altered by a chemical? Is that really you making that connection? Who are you really? Can you even answer that question? How can you be vulnerable with someone else if you don’t even know yourself? What are you passionate about other than your compulsive behavior? Who are you?
  3. Asking: “Who are you?” leads to the final practice I’ve observed successfully recovering individuals undertake, namely, addressing the personal issues driving their addiction. Maybe that means doing step work with a sponsor. Maybe that means seeing a therapist and working through the past. An overwhelming percentage  of alcoholics and addicts have experienced some sort of trauma. Processing and healing from that trauma is essential to maintenance and relapse prevention. The likelihood that you’re going to seek something to numb the pain is pretty high if you’re stuck in the past or seething with resentment. Once you’ve faced the “why” of your addiction, however, you can’t just dust off your hands and be done with it. The people I know who are successfully recovering are committed to a lifetime of learning and growth. They are constantly striving to be better people in the present.

Now that I’ve laid all that out, I need to reiterate my disclaimer. The aforementioned is my own anecdotal experience. If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know I am constantly learning and experiencing my own growing pains. I don’t claim to be an “expert”. These are merely things I’ve done or observed over the last decade. I guess I shouldn’t minimize them because they have worked for myself and others… but I don’t have any right to decide what’s best for your life. I just know that if I were Googling recovery or discreetly tuning in from Facebook because I suspect I might have a problem, I would find it helpful to read about what has worked for someone else. I might even appreciate a little tough love.

I guess my tough-love-spiel would be this: We don’t choose to be addicts. We were either born with the predisposition or the disease gradually developed as our brains changed. However, we CAN choose to get better. And if we don’t choose to get better…we choose to stay sick. I know it might be hard to hear, but you have the ability to unlock your own prison. The only thing standing between you and recovery is you. The key is to reach out your hand again and again and ask for help until it clicks. The key is also to be willing to accept help and listen to suggestion even if it feels super uncomfortable. Is someone trying to hand the key through the bars only to be met with your closed fist? Doing the right thing usually feels horrible…until it doesn’t.

There is a life waiting beyond the confines of this disease that defies imagination. Recovery hasn’t made my dreams come true. Instead, it has taken every notion I have ever had about my life and delivered something infinitely better.

Please. Take the key.

3 thoughts on “Back to Basics”

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