Part 5 – Re-engaging with Life and Choosing to Change

In 1997, I had the honor of being one of the speakers at a Fellowship convention in Cincinnati. One of my fellow speakers was a local guy. He remarked that, for fifteen years during his active addiction, he had lived his whole life on only six city blocks. His entire world had shrunk to just that narrowed neighborhood. That area was the only place where he felt safe, where he could function – albeit in a limited, stunted way. The miracle of recovery, for him, was that at last, he was free to go anywhere.

His story was very evocative to me; it reminded me that we all have had our own mental chains, fences and prisons. When we were lost in addiction, we could not even imagine ourselves being free, and having the power of choice. Of course, we tried to defend our own fantasy version of freedom, and rebelled against anything we feared might “take our freedom away” – although frankly, we were really enslaved. As long as we were in its grip, our disease of addiction made most of our choices for us: who to see, where to go, how to live, what to hide. But now that it is no longer in the driver’s seat, we worry: what will become of us? Now it turns out that getting and staying clean is only the first of many choices that we are free to make for ourselves – and sometimes, are obliged to make. And many of us actually find this new true freedom scary.

We are advised that we have to choose a home group; we have to choose a sponsor; we have to choose to work Steps and to keep coming back. (While they’re called suggestions, we learn very quickly that these choices are really features of recovery, not options. We may choose which home group to join, or which sponsor to ask; but if we want our recovery to succeed, we can’t really opt to have no home group or sponsor. And so forth.) We may also have to choose to find honest work – since some of us had lived a life of crime or chronic dependency, and now are told that we may need to become more self-reliant. We may have to choose a more wholesome place to live, a more realistic manner of dress, a healthier diet and lifestyle, safer habits, even a normal bedtime! What all this adds up to: we discover, to our surprise, that we have to choose to grow up, become responsible, deal with “life on life’s terms,” minimize the recurring chaos, crisis and pandemonium in our lives, accept reality, and make adult decisions.

Not the least of these is the decision to face our fears. Chemical courage had previously deadened our fears, or kept us from even acknowledging them. Now, suddenly, they become achingly apparent. We may have avoided social interaction, for fear of being judged. We may have avoided challenging ourselves to advance in education or career, for fear of failure. We may have put off seeing a doctor or counselor, for fear of finding out how sick we really were, or that we’d have to stop using if we hoped to survive. We may have evaded accepting help, or cleaning up our problems with the law, or even entertaining the possibility of a relationship, for fear of losing our “freedom.” We had not realized that, for a using addict, freedom is an illusion. Of course, people often fight more fiercely to hold on to their illusions, than they ever do to defend reality. Now, we would have to learn that “the only way out is through”: walking through our fears, and coming out whole on the other side. Now we would have to buy our freedom – real freedom – through working on ourselves. It can all seem so daunting.

But wise addicts, who had got here before us, suggested to us: Just Take Baby Steps. We don’t have to do everything at once, and we can’t expect to get entirely well overnight. Nobody goes straight from being a shabby, desperate street addict to a Nobel prize winner in one easy leap! Each day that we do one or two new good and healthy things for ourselves, however small, is a victory. Gradually, we get into the healthy habit of risking little changes that may promise more happiness or freedom, and those little risks and victories add up. It is only our unrealistic expectations, (and our disease of addiction that uses those false expectations to discourage us,) that may make us lose heart. But it’s seeing and hearing the experience and wisdom of our fellow predecessor recovering addicts, that may lend us heart and give us hope.

If we listen to them share, we discover that, when they were new, they had to deal with all the same crazy thoughts and irrational fears as we did; and what got them through those, and out the other side, was the love and support of others in the Fellowship who had also been there before them, and who could reassure them that the cravings would subside, the sick thoughts would diminish, and over time, the ride would steady and things would work out. We encourage each other; and that encouragement is, quite literally, the lending of courage. We borrow a little of others’ courage, hope, understanding and confidence, until we have generated enough of our own to stand strong. None of us get there all by ourselves; we do learn how to have greater self-reliance, but we also learn that self-sufficiency is a myth. The difference is that self-reliance means that “I can count on myself”; but actual self-sufficiency would mean that “I am all I need.” But no persons are entirely sufficient unto themselves, and all of us are part of a wider world; none of us is a “special case,” and we all need help, love and support from time to time. It’s just one of the facts of life of being human.

Most of us, while using, thought of ourselves as a “law apart.” We felt divorced from any sense of common humanity. The rules and norms which regular people accepted, we believed did not apply to us. But while at first we had identified with other using addicts, gradually even that bond began to fray. As our active addiction made us more dysfunctional and erratic, even our fellow using addicts came to want nothing to do with us, and we were left isolated and alone. Some of us became so dissociated, that it got hard for us to believe that anyone else could or would ever care.

Coming in to the rooms of recovery, many of us still cling to that extreme loner mentality. We have so much emotional energy invested in the notion that no one else could possibly understand, that some of us deliberately push away those who actually might understand! It’s as though we are determined to defend a false principle, and continue to be “terminally unique” – even though it’s hurting us, and even though some part of us knows that we aren’t really so different. Experienced members know that there is no point in trying to explain our common bond and deep mutual understanding to those newcomers who have a chip on their shoulders; they’ll most likely just reject any such explanation out of hand. The same things that worked for us, will have to work for them: just hearing us share, over time; receiving heartfelt hugs; and learning to relate rather than compare, will gradually melt the ice around their hearts, forge a genuine connection, and help them realize that they do belong after all; that they can be “part of,” not “apart from.”

When I was a newcomer, there was no single person who told my whole story. But in bits and pieces, many members told portions and segments of my story. By six months clean, I had heard my life, told from the mouths of others. The fact that so many others shared experiences, feelings, scars and ordeals that I could directly identify with, made it much easier to grasp the central point: I am remarkably like these other addicts; and if, in spite of everything, they could stay clean and recover, maybe so could I.

One of the tools we use in recovery is working Steps with a sponsor; and one of the essential tools that wise sponsors use in Step work iswriting. It seems that, in the process of writing down our feelings, thoughts and inspirations, we reveal ourselves to ourselves; this helps lead to self-understanding, which is indispensable to real recovery. Sometimes, an addict wants to write the “great addict story”; but a good sponsor reminds them to “keep it simple.” Usually, all it takes is making simple lists – what some call the “inventory process.” Sometimes, at first, we don’t grasp what these lists have to do with the Steps; but often, much later, we can see how they opened up the Steps to us. Among the many lists that some sponsors have asked their new sponsees to fulfill:

1/ A Gratitude List. Everything you’re grateful for; animal, vegetable or mineral; personal or general; current or historical. It’s been said that a grateful addict will not use. While some level of gratitude may not be sufficient to stay clean, it is necessary. If an addict can’t think of ten things to be grateful for, they’re not really trying, have failed to appreciate what an amazing gift recovery is, and probably need to pray for gratitude. Hint: the first thing on my gratitude list is always: “I am grateful to be clean today.” That first item makes possible all the others; for without being clean, I’d still be insolent, resentful, self-pitying, alienated and delusional. The result of the exercise, to our surprise, is that we have counted our blessings. It is helpful to pull out and peruse this list, whenever we get discouraged. And it should be left open-ended, so that we can keep adding to it as more things occur to us – and as we get more grateful.

2/ Positive Expectations. A list of what good things we hope for and expect from staying clean and recovering. This helps give us a clearer picture of what we have to look forward to. Reviewing it from time to time, and amending it as needed, can clarify our path, and keep us on track. If we don’t identify what we want, the chances are slim that we’ll make the effort to get what we want. Most recovering addicts say that, years later, looking back on their first expectations lists was amazing – because the gifts of recovery had actually turned out to be orders of magnitude greater than they had at first hoped for.

3/ Reservations. All the “what ifs” that drag us down, and make us worry that we’ll never achieve what we want; all the things we think we’ll never be willing to surrender in order to recover; all the holes we can poke into the program of recovery; all the excuses for using our disease can imagine; and all the things we are afraid might force us to use. Sometimes seeing these in black and white, make us either contemplate successful ways to overcome them, or else realize that they were not real anyway – just the product of a negative addict imagination that always saw things in terms of worst-case scenarios and diminishing returns. As we gradually experience more and more success and rewards in recovery, our reservations become less compelling, and fade.

4/ Unfinished business. A list of the many things we had put off; had deliberately avoided dealing with, or taking responsibility for. These could include anything from unpaid parking tickets to dental visits to phone calls with long-lost loved ones. As we begin to fulfill the list and check the items off as “done,” we discover that we sleep easier, feel more serene, and worry less, because there are fewer things hanging over our heads and stealing our peace.

5/ Consequences. A list of the destructive things our active addiction did to us – and the harmful things we may expect if we relapse. We addicts have a highly-developed “forgetter.” That is, we are easily able to suddenly blank out or ignore facts and realities that make us uncomfortable, or go unconscious over things we’ve learned that might deter us from doing and getting whatever we impulsively want. Reviewing the list whenever we feel tempted to have “just one,” or tempted to minimize the importance of recovery, will tend to open our eyes to what calamities we can expect if we go back to using, and restrain us from making that fateful call.

6/ Who helps me, and in what ways? / Who hurts me, and in what ways? For many of us, we have under-appreciated the friends, family members and other acquaintances who have supported and encouraged us. We’ve taken their love and patience for granted. At the same time, we may have given a pass to those who have drained us, belittled us, tempted us to relapse, or otherwise encouraged us toward self-harm and self-destruction. We’ve hurt ourselves in order to please or placate them. We’ve learned the hard way, for example, that those who try to persuade us to use, are not our friends; sabotaging our recovery is no favor. Seeing the patterns in our own writing can clarify whom we should trust with our time and energy.

7/ What extra-curricular activities do I enjoy the most? Too often, addicts in recovery suffer from being stretched too thin: we try to balance work, family, relationship, meetings, Step work, service, home maintenance and exercise – and forget to do things we enjoy and find rewarding. (I’m not talking about passive entertainment, but rather things we actually enjoy doing.) I have always asked sponsees, once their lives have settled down a bit, to list the hobbies they most enjoy. If their addiction had left them no time for hobbies, I suggest that they try out a few, just for fun. As long as these pastimes don’t become alternate obsessions or addictions, they can add a lot to life’s joy and pleasure. On occasion, they can even lead to a new, more rewarding career.

8/ Advantages/Disadvantages. The first time I brought a dilemma to him, my first sponsor told me to take a sheet of paper, and draw a line down the middle; then list the advantages of taking the action on the left, and the disadvantages of taking it on the right. Once I’d done that, he told me to draw a line under those entries – and list the advantages of not taking the action on the left, and the disadvantages of nottaking it on the right. I don’t remember what the dilemma was about; I only remember that doing this clarified the situation so simply for me, that the solution was obvious. I’ve since used this chart a number of times, and so have my sponsees. Rather than avoid making a decision, and letting life happen by accident, we have a simple technique to illuminate the likely outcomes of our choices.

There are plenty of other lists and inventories we may devise, and the more thorough we are, the more rewarding the exercise is. A sponsor knows that they have an eager sponsee, when they start asking for suggestions for yet more inventories and writing assignments! It’s a sign that a sponsee has understood the potent therapeutic value to the exercise, and is showing real devotion to their own recovery, and hunger for more. Few things are more gratifying for a sponsor, than seeing their sponsees start to really blossom in recovery. It makes it all worthwhile.

Of course, mere list-making is not the same as change-making. Awareness is not the same as action. Once we understand the nature of a deficiency or a problem, we may need to develop an action plan to overcome them – which may require still more writing to design the plan. Then we must find within ourselves, often with our Higher Power’s help, the willingness, courage and determination to fulfill our plan, and just to begin. We also need to develop the flexibility to adjust or edit the plan along the way, if it turns out not to be accurate or sufficient. We also need the humility to ask for help, and seek an objective viewpoint. I have always told sponsees that if we are willing to become wise and prudent, we should always run any major life-decisions past our sponsors before making them – just for feedback, not for “permission.”

Merely talking about our recovery is not sufficient or effective. We need to make effort, and take constructive action. That’s why we call it “working” the Steps, and not “playing” them; and that’s why we call them the “Steps,” and not the “Escalator!” Lots of addicts talk a good game. (We’re the best talkers in the world.) But alas, we have seen so many prospective sponsees just disappear from the face of the earth, the first time they were expected to actually do something concrete for their own recovery. We have to agree to do the work; find the faith that the work will be worthwhile; learn to actually want to do it; follow through; face the music; share it with our sponsors; and look for realistic and practical ways to apply the work that we’ve done. It takes a little courage to do this work; but the rewards are so great, that in short order, we start looking forward to it, rather than avoiding or dreading it. And as our recovery progresses, we begin embracing change,because we start to like the people we’re turning into. We may even find ourselves savoring our choices, rather than running away from them.

As mentioned earlier, a huge part of recovery is simply growing up. Children make excuses; adults take responsibility. We may have a million clever reasons why we can’t stay clean, work a program, develop a satisfying life, realize realistic goals, have genuine friendships and healthy relationships, or become worthy citizens and respectable people. But all those reasons and excuses are eclipsed by the good reason why we can and must do those things: because our recovery, happiness and lives depend on it.

If we choose to go back to using, then we can, of course, continue to lead immature, phony, half-lives. But if we’re going to stay clean, then we must develop the healthy and mature lifestyle that will safeguard our recovery. Staying clean is more than mere abstinence from intoxicating chemicals; “Clean” also means “Not Dirty.” Perpetuating the bad mental and moral habits (making excuses, running away, blaming others, shielding ourselves with dishonesty etc.) can only cripple our recovery, and hasten our relapse. Our commitment to staying clean and recovering, depends upon an equal commitment to learning how to live well, do right, and make our mothers proud. (Or at least, our sponsors!) Staying clean leads to living positively, which in turn protects staying clean, in an ever-growing cycle.

For many addicts, the first move toward a functional and responsible life starts with Service. Helping to open a meeting room, set up chairs, make coffee, put out literature and welcome the newcomer, tells oneself three things: “I want to be here enough to show up early; I’m willing to do something to help others; and I value this enough to make an effort to help it succeed.” Those who only take, are telling themselves that their program is about freeloading. Those who only give, tell themselves that the only way to be liked is to be used. Those who can both give and take, are learning to grow up and recover.

– David H., Cutler Bay FL Continue reading “Re-engaging with Life and Choosing to Change”