Yesterday we looked at how to conquer triggers and urges in addiction recovery. But what if you are still in early recovery, and you want to find a way to stay busy and thus avoid idle hands? Let’s take a closer look at early recovery and how relapse prevention might work during year one.
How most people approach early recovery for the first time and why the relapse
The problem with the typical, average approach to overcoming addiction is that people approach it much as they have approached other challenges in their life before. For example, maybe they had a difficult exam coming up in school at one point and they really had to study hard for it. Or maybe they had a tough job with a difficult boss and it was driving them absolutely crazy. These are the sort of “normal,” everyday challenges that people might compare to the challenge of overcoming addiction.
Unfortunately, beating your alcoholism or drug addiction is not like these other challenges. This is because it is more than just an “average challenge,” instead it is an entire lifestyle change. This is not just something that you do once and then you are done with it. Recovery is not an event. It is an ongoing process. The newcomer almost always messes this up and perceives it to be more of an event. They are essentially thinking: “I will go to treatment, get the help that I need, and then I will move on with my life again.” This is not how recovery works.
Another way to say it is that most newcomers in recovery attempt to compartmentalize their recovery process. They want to clearly separate their effort to overcome addiction from the rest of their life and their other activities. Some people might go so far with this as to believe that they could actually still go out to the bars and nightclubs after they are in recovery and have overcome their addiction. They are under the false belief that perhaps they could just remove the drugs, the alcohol, and the chemicals and leave everything else about their current lives exactly the same. Thus they have compartmentalized the idea of addiction recovery and they are hoping that they can wrap their recovery up in this neat little box and have it set aside in some corner of their life.
The truth is that you may actually some day go out dancing again in the bars during your recovery, but not in the way that you might be envisioning. This is because recovery is a process that has to unfold slowly, encompassing your entire life. To think that you can keep everything the same but just remove the drugs and the alcohol is very naive. You may still do some of the same activities in recovery but everything will be different, and such things will only come about after massive amounts of change in your life.
Thus most people relapse the first time they try to get clean and sober because they do not treat their addiction like a lifestyle disease (which is really is). This is the same concept that people are referring to when they talk about how you “have to change EVERYTHING” in order to recover. They mean that you have to approach this as a lifestyle disease, and that you cannot compartmentalize your recovery and think that it is possible to just simply eliminate the chemicals and then move on happily with your life.
You can move on and become happy again in your life, but not through the simple process of simply quitting the chemicals. If that were all it took then recovery would be really easy and would not require books, programs, meetings, rehabs, counseling, and so on. It takes a massive effort and it requires massive action and this is why you need to make a total lifestyle change, not just a one dimensional change (as in the compartmentalization idea).
So this is really about using the correct approach to recovery. If you approach your recovery in the wrong way then it can lead to too much down time, too much thinking time, and too much “idle hands.” This happens when you view your addiction as one dimensional (something that has to be eliminated, then move on with your life, compartmentalized thinking).
Instead, the key is that you must view your addiction for what it really is: a lifestyle disease that requires you to change everything. Remember that addiction is not like most other challenges that you may have faced in life. It is not like studying for a difficult exam, where you simply meet the challenge, pass or fail, and then overcome it and move on with your life. With addiction recovery, there is no “moving on with your life” per se, it is really just an ongoing challenge and thus a demanding lifestyle change needs to be made.
You can’t just change one thing, instead you must change the way you are living. This is an enormous task. If you approach recovery in a one dimensional sense then you will likely be sitting around at some point, very bored, and probably gravitating towards relapse. Obviously we want to avoid this. Therefore you should treat drug addiction and alcoholism for what they really are (lifestyle diseases) and therefore your challenge(s) that you will face should keep you much more busy.
There are some points in everyone’s early recovery where they just have to hang on for dear life in order to avoid relapse. You can make it through these tough moments a lot easier if you are pushing yourself to take lots of action. If you just sit at home on your couch and argue that “addiction and recovery are all in your mind” then you are probably setting yourself up for relapse. The truth is that your idle hands will cause your mind to work overtime, and this is what makes relapse so dangerous and into a real possibility.
Your first order of business, therefore, is to approach addiction as a lifestyle disease. Don’t treat it as a simple chemical problem. It is more than that. You really do have to change everything. As such, how can you have idle hands at all?
Overcoming inertia and how people slide back into relapse
I want to clearly illustrate a concept that involves people sliding back into relapse.
Where is a certain amount of inertia in your life, especially when you are still stuck in active addiction. You are self medicating on a regular basis. You keep using drugs or alcohol because that is what you have done for a long time and that is what has worked well for you. The concept of “inertia” just means that you will have a strong tendency to keep doing what you have been doing. With most addicts and alcoholics these patterns build up over years or even decades. We start to define our world in terms of our drug of choice. We deal with almost every part of our reality through the lens of self medicating. Happy and want to celebrate? We use our drug of choice. Bad day or upset or angry? We use our drug of choice. In fact, even if we simply drink or use our drug of choice every single day, we still have an excuse and a justification in order to go along with our behavior.
This is a subtle but important point because it changes everything once we try to get clean and sober. Really think about this: We do NOT just use our drug of choice every day and resign ourselves to being a hopeless addict or alcoholic. This is what we may tell ourselves, but there is something deeper going on here. What is going on is that we are also justifying and rationalizing our drug and alcohol use. This is why it becomes a lifestyle disease and is so tricky to overcome later on. We use our drug of choice to define every part of our life, and to justify every part of our existence.
After doing this for several years (or even decades), it then sets the stage for a very difficult adjustment period in early recovery. This is our pattern of living: we define every part of our lives and our experience through our drug of choice. So when we suddenly choose to become clean and sober, we are left defenseless without our trusted companion and we have all of this inertia that we have to try to overcome. The inertia is the momentum of our past addiction–we had always got high or drunk before going to the movies, and now we have lost our drug of choice. We always self medicated when we had a stressful day, and now we have nothing. We always got high when we woke up and had to go to work, and now we have nothing but coffee. You get the idea.
Really what you are doing in early recovery (say for the first year or so) is to try to overcome this massive amount of inertia that your addiction had in your life. It is like your addiction was this huge snowball that was rolling down a hill and suddenly you have decided that you want to stop the snowball and push it back up the hill instead (and recover). Nearly every day there will be lots of little opportunities for the snowball to want to roll back down the hill. In order to recover you have to make this massive, persistent, and conscious effort–all day, every day, for a long, long time.
This is what people usually miss in early recovery. They believe that they can just stop the snowball once and be done with it, and be cured. Instead, the darn thing wants to roll down the hill at every chance it can get, and this is how your addiction tries to constantly creep back into your life at nearly every turn. There will be constant temptation and the reason is because your patterns of addiction were so deeply ingrained into every part of your life.
Think about other lifestyle problems such as being out of shape. You cannot just exercise for a weekend and declare yourself cured. This won’t work and we all know it. And on another level, it probably won’t even work to sign up for a six week training program if your heart is not truly in it. The only thing that will really “cure” this lifestyle problem would be to change how your live. You have to embrace a new lifestyle, making permanent long term changes that involve taking massive amounts of action. This is not a trivial one-time change, this is a massive ongoing change that will redefine your entire life. Such is the case with addiction. Recovery is not a one-off event. It is a continuous, ongoing lifestyle change.
In other words, overcoming an addiction requires a massive amount of change, and effort. If you have idle hands in recovery then that is a sure sign that you are flirting with disaster. Not out of laziness, but because you are not going to build enough momentum to overcome the inertia of addiction. The tendency and pull towards relapse is powerful. It takes massive action and persistent effort to overcome this. Idle hands indicate that you are failing in this area.
Using overwhelming force as a method of avoiding idle hands
I talk frequently about “overwhelming force” because it is a critical concept for early recovery.
Here is how I would suggest that you implement the idea of overwhelming force.
First, estimate what it will take for you to probably recover from addiction. Say that you imagine that you might have to go to rehab for a week or two, then go to a few 12 step meetings here and there, and maybe try to make a few improvements in your life, maybe get involved in helping others somehow, etc. You have this vision of what your life might look like in successful recovery, and that vision is made up of certain actions that you might take.
What you should do now is to multiply all of that by a factor of ten. If you pictured yourself going to a few AA meetings each week, picture yourself instead going to meetings every single day. If you pictured yourself hitting the gym twice a week to try to improve your health, instead picture yourself committed to daily exercise for the next five years continuous. If you pictured yourself seeing a counselor or therapist for an hour each week, instead picture yourself meeting with several different mentors, and also mentoring others.
Whatever effort you were thinking about making in your recovery journey, multiply it by a factor of ten. You might exclaim in shock at this and say “But then how could I ever live the rest of my life if I focus this much on my recovery?”
Exactly. This is the right kind of approach that you need during that first critical year of recovery. You need overwhelming force. Think back to the people who relapse because they try to compartmentalize their recovery and put it in this little box. It doesn’t work that way. Let’s say you go to counseling for an hour each week and then do 3 AA meetings and that is it. The rest of your life is yours and that little schedule is just you, trying to squeeze your recovery into a little box. It will never work. You have the wrong approach and the wrong attitude.
What you have to do instead is to flip this process around and start with recovery as the main goal, the focal part of your new lifestyle. Design your life completely around recovery first, and then later on you can try to squeeze some of the old stuff back into your new schedule. Many people may object to this and say that they cannot afford to do this, because of their jobs or their families or whatever. Such people will eventually lose their jobs and their families if they do not fix their problem anyway. Addiction forces all of us to either recover or die at some point.
In other words, recovery requires an extreme effort. If you try to use a laid back approach to recovery you will get poor results and end up relapsing. The only way to find success in long term sobriety is if you first lay a very strong foundation in early recovery, and this requires massive action and overwhelming force.
Go all out in early recovery. It is really your only chance at making it. Anything less results in relapse.
Support and early recovery
Early recovery is a time of massive support. This is not the time to go out on your own and engage in personal growth, but instead you should be seeking guidance, new information, and support from others.
Even if you are fiercely independent and want to recovery “completely on your own,” it makes sense to seek support initially. You can always do your own thing later on in recovery. But in the early days you need advice, guidance, and support in order to recover.
There is nothing wrong with hitting lots of meetings, living in long term recovery, or immersing yourself fully into a recovery program. In fact I recommend that you do any or all of that in your first year or two of recovery. Later on you can be as independent as you like. But early recovery is not the time to use strictly your own ideas for living.
The first few times that I tried to get clean and sober I underestimated the amount of support that I would need. I thought it was a big deal to go to inpatient rehab for 28 days, and I resented the fact that this took up “so much of my time.” How ridiculous! Clearly, I had the wrong attitude, and was still trying to compartmentalize my recovery. I wanted “my life” to be separate from “my recovery.”
Later on (after I fully surrendered) I lived in long term treatment for almost two full years. This was the support and help that I really needed. Looking back on this time in my life, I did not resent living in long term rehab at all, and would gladly do it again if I had to. This is because I now understand that recovery cannot be compartmentalized. Living in long term rehab is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. And I fully understand that trying to maintain everything in your “normal life” and just remove the chemicals is impossible anyway. It is easier just to check into long term rehab than it is to try to juggle your “normal life,” remove all the chemicals, and somehow make it all work without going crazy.
This does not mean that everyone needs to go to long term rehab, it just means that for me, living in rehab represents the right amount of support and change that I needed to embrace for my own recovery. Even if you do not go to treatment (short term, long term, or anything else) you are still going to have to make a massive effort in order to overcome the inertia of addiction.
Relapse is a powerful drive and an ongoing threat.
Idle hands in recovery is not the thing that creates relapse–having idle hands is merely in indicator that you are probably not taking enough massive action in your life to begin with. Get involved, get busy, create something amazing, take some suggestions, go exercise, go back to school, find a way to help others. Do all of that stuff and then start asking people in recovery what else you can do in order to improve your life. There is no limit to the amount of personal growth you can experience in life.
Get busy! Go create something positive in your life!