How can you make conscious progress in addiction or alcoholism recovery? And is it even necessary to live “consciously” in order to succeed in recovery in the first place?
I think that conscious growth is really what a good addiction recovery program is all about.
In other words, we are not just going to pursue progress randomly or blindly in recovery, but we are going to do so consciously, deliberately, purposefully.
Meaning that we need to think about how we think. We need to step back and look at our life, analyze the good and the bad, really dig into what is making us tick, and make some big changes.
Let me describe to you how this overhaul worked in my own recovery.
When I first got clean and sober I was going to meetings, talking with a sponsor, trying to work the steps of AA as best I could, writing in a daily journal, reading recovery literature, and so on. I was doing anything and everything that I could in order to “work a program of recovery.”
And I noticed very quickly that my brain had a mind of its own. My thoughts were seemingly random at times, like a pinball shooting around inside of a machine. If, for example, I wanted to only think about recovery all day, my brain might start playing scenarios in my head of memories when I got highly intoxicated at a party once, or I would be suddenly seeing and smelling big fields of marijuana plants, or something like that.
In other words, my decision was saying “I am in recovery now” but my brain was saying “Remember all those fun times? And all those drugs we used to have fun with? Let’s think about those right now!” And then the brain would just take over and seemingly force me to think about things that were essentially triggers that either made me want to relapse, or they simply made me miserable to think about them because I was now “depriving myself” of them in recovery.
So the first example is with glorification of drugs or alcohol. If you go to treatment and you talk with your peers about addiction and recovery, at some point one of you or all of you is going to slip into “glorification” of drugs or alcohol. So they will be talking about the good times, about how great it felt to be high on a certain substance, and not really talking about the solution or about how bad it got eventually. They will only be talking about the good part of drug use and not the ugly side that eventually led to our demise.
I realized that when I listened to someone glorify drugs and booze, or when I did it myself, that I would enjoy that discussion while it was happening, but then it had a negative impact on me afterward. The reason it had a negative impact later was because I was comparing. I was comparing my present reality of being clean and sober to that exciting and fun reality that was described in the glorification.
Therefore I made a decision to stop doing that. Stop talking about the good times, stop reminiscing about the good times, and exit any conversations where other people are doing so–just kind of drift away from them or excuse yourself. Because all those conversations do is add a tiny little bit of misery to your brain later on, after the conversation is over.
Now in order to do that you have to “turn on your radar,” so to speak. You have to pay closer attention. Because suddenly you will find yourself glorifying drugs or alcohol again, and you seriously did not intend to do so. So you remind yourself as soon as you notice and you shut it down immediately. That’s it. You increase your awareness and you correct the behavior. Then you move on with your day. Do this consistently enough and you build the habit, the habit in which you no longer glorify drug or alcohol use. And you become happier as a result.
Second example for me is more personal, and it has to do with self pity.
I noticed in early recovery that my brain would suddenly start feeling sorry for itself and making me out to look like a victim. It was, again, doing this seemingly on its own, without my permission. Why was my brain doing this?
My brain was trying to be the victim in every situation because it was attempting to justify drug and alcohol abuse to itself.
This was a leftover cause and effect from my active addiction.
So in order to abuse drugs and drink huge amounts of booze all the time, I had to somehow rationalize that this was okay in my mind. I had to have an excuse. My brain had to be able to say “If you had my life or if you had my problems then you would drink too.”
And so my brain had learned how to do that during my active addiction by figuring out reasons why it had been wronged, why the world was unfair, why it was the victim. Some of this was self pity and some of it was resentment. But either way, the script became clear to me: My brain was actively campaigning for victim hood, and it was trying to justify and rationalize why it deserved a drink or a drug.
However, I was now trying to remain clean and sober. I had made the decision for recovery. And yet my brain was still doing this, even after a month or two of sobriety.
So first of all, I noticed this.
Key point. I had to notice it happening. For the first 2 months, I really did not notice it happening. I wasn’t aware of it. For those first two months, I was not thinking about how I was thinking. Not yet anyway.
Then I discovered it. My therapist and my sponsor helped me to identify it. And therefore I was able to start doing something about it.
So I increased my awareness of it. I deliberately noticed throughout the day when it was happening. And I learned that the antidote for self pity and resentment is gratitude and forgiveness.
So I started practicing gratitude every day. I started making out gratitude lists. I started thinking in terms of what I was blessed with in my life, rather than what I was lacking.
And so things started to improve. But the key point here is that I had to take deliberate and conscious action in terms of discovering the problem, identifying what was really going on and why, and then come up with a plan to fix that behavior. And I had to stick with it, I had to consciously watch my own mind for a few weeks so that I could catch it in the act of self pity.
I believe that everyone in early recovery has issues like this–little tricks that their own mind is playing on them, that they must then figure out how to overcome and deal with. If you cannot identify any flawed thinking during your early recovery then I strongly suggest that you ask a therapist or a sponsor to help you identify this. If you don’t know about the problem then you cannot fix it! Good luck!