Blog series: The gifts of recovery
Updated: Jan 11
2020 was a tough year.
Yet over and over again I've heard from people who credited the work they’d done in overcoming addiction as preparation for the pandemic.
While other people floundered in the rough seas of uncertainty, rapid change, isolation, and stress, my peers in recovery had instinctively turned to and found strength in the tools and strategies they’d learned in the early days of sobriety and practiced daily throughout the subsequent months, years, and decades.
This has been my experience, too.
So I’ve decided to share some of the gifts of recovery with you. And I’m writing this for anyone and everyone who has struggled to cope over the past several months, or at any time in their lives for that matter. Because the lessons of recovery – the tools and strategies that have kept me not just sober, but strong and healthy and sane for the past thirty years, as well as the past ten months, are available to anyone who's prepared to do the work.
Let’s get started.
Gift #1 - Embracing limits
My husband can eat a handful of potato chips and save the rest for later, secured in the bag with a “chip clip”. When our life together began and I realized, for the first time, that chip clips were designed to preserve the uneaten chips still in the bag, I knew we were two very different people. Never having opened a bag of chips I hadn’t finished in one sitting, I’d been using said clips to hold notes on the fridge or to hold bundles of receipts or coupons together.
This is but one example of my husband’s innate sense of satisfaction with “some” not “all” (don’t worry, he does have a few flaws).
I, on the other hand, come from the school of “if some is good, a lot is better”. Which, you may argue, set me up for a lifetime of compulsive behavior. Behavior that is [mostly] well-managed these days, thanks to my appreciation of limits.
And while the idea of living within limits seems dull to some people, abhorrent to others, I've chosen to embrace them.
Self-imposed limits. Limits designed by me, for me. Limits that make it possible for me to take charge of the habits and compulsions that limit my freedom.
Think about the irony in that.
My decision to give up addictive substances more than thirty years ago brought me into direct contact with this kind of limits, the kind that can set me free.
Abstinence was my decision and it was the right choice. That said, I know people who’ve successfully moderated their relationship with drugs and/or alcohol. And while I applaud them for the success they’ve achieved, I also know this wouldn’t have worked for me.
So I chose abstinence. No drugs*, no alcohol. The challenges of overcoming the obsessive nature of addiction aside, this made my decision and the path forward clear if not easy. I would live without these substances – full stop. No negotiating, no starting and then having to call it quits for the day, no talking myself down from the ledge of “just one more”.
I was done.
Quitting something outright isn’t limited to the world of addictive substances. There are other things in life that may be necessary to walk away from without looking back – relationships, a job, a place, a behavior.
For example, I know a woman who was obsessed with her former husband’s Facebook account (why he hadn’t blocked her I’ll never know). For years after the divorce was finalized she tortured herself with daily check-ins, exposing herself to every detail of his new life, marriage, family.
She had tried moderation - limiting her check-ins to weekly, “just to see what my sons are up to at his house,” but quickly fell back into her daily habit.
Over time she recognized how self-destructive this behavior was and decided to quit – not just her former husband’s page, but Facebook altogether. She asked me and a few of her other friends to hold her accountable, which we did. It was tough, but she persisted. And came out the other side a person in her own right, with a life of her own, not over-shadowed by something that had long ago ceased to exist. An abstinence success story.
Then there are issues that call for moderation rather than abstinence. Think food, or spending, or how we use our digital devices (all of which are top of mind for me at the moment).
Obviously we can’t just stop eating, so if we want to change our relationship with food the only option is to eat within limits. Some people limit food intake by setting a calorie restriction, or counting micro-nutrients, or restricting an entire category of food (e.g. carbs, fats, etc.). Some people track points or sign up for a plan that supplies pre-made meals. They don't abstain from eating, because they can't. Instead, they draw lines around what and when and how much to each.
I have no argument with any of this - goodness knows I’ve done most of these things at one time or another.
But what I find to be essential in successfully and sustainably changing my relationship with food is to base my plan on what I know to be true about myself.
For example, I know (because I've tried) if I totally give up sugar or carbs I’ll last about two days and then eat every sugar-coated crumb of grain-based food I can get my hands on.
On the other hand, I also know that if I eat one square of good quality dark chocolate after lunch my sweet-tooth is completely satisfied for the rest of the day.
Over time and through trial and effort I’ve learned what works (and doesn’t work) for me.
I’ve also discovered that there are certain foods - I refer to them as "food without brakes" - that are resistant to limits. If I have just one, the floodgates will open and I’ll be left holding an empty bag of chips. Or package of Oreos.
And to me, most of the time, it’s just not worth it. The return on enjoyment to be had in eating an entire bag of chips isn’t worth the investment.
Which doesn’t mean I’m perfect in this department. Once in a blue moon I’ll share the bag of chips my husband has already opened. Or I’ll grab a few Oreos as I’m running out the door.
But this isn’t my standard practice.
And that’s the important point. Creating a normal that is both sustainable and reflective of my personal goals has been key to whatever success I’ve experienced over the years.
And these same principles apply to other issues that require moderation rather than abstinence. For example, I recently set a goal to reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly scrolling through social media.
In the past I’ve experimented with this in a variety of ways – only checking it once a day, reducing the number of social media accounts I maintain, etc. Currently I'm setting a timer whenever I open Facebook or Instagram. This is a bit of a hassle, which is enough to discourage me from flipping over to them when the reason I picked up my phone in the first place was to read a text message or check my email.
As a result, I’m getting in and out of my phone more quickly with fewer time-wasting detours. And when I do turn to social media it’s with more intention – I set the timer and allow myself to scroll, guilt-free, until the timer reminds me to shut it down (I respond well to timers - something else I've learned about myself).
It’s early days, so I’m evaluating my response to this new routine with interest. I’m experimenting, not locking myself into expectations of perfection. I’m learning something valuable about myself, which will help to shape my next strategy (should one be necessary).
To recap, then, changing our relationship with habits that get in our way almost always require imposing limits. Sometimes the limits are extreme, as in the case of total abstinence. Sometimes the limits are less extreme, as in moderation, but require ongoing management. And sometimes the best model is a hybrid of moderation and abstinence.
Whatever type of change you’re hoping to make, here are some tips, in no particular order, to support you in your journey:
Abstinence, moderation, or a bit of both? Consider which approach will work best for you, your goals, and what it is you're trying to change.
Think short and long-term. For example, the short-term solution to your credit card debt might include cutting up your credit cards. But the reality is, living without credit in the long-term isn’t realistic. Including strategies in your plan to help you reach your short-term goal of paying off your debt while simultaneously planning for a future in which you’ll carefully manage your use of credit and debit will help you reach your goals now and down the road.
Be prepared to experience withdrawal. Withdrawal is the discomfort we experience when we no longer do the thing we usually do when we’re bored, angry, tired, frustrated, sad, lonely, etc. You can prepare for this discomfort by creating a list of other things you can do to soothe you through the tough times, surrounding yourself with supportive others, and creating a supportive environment (e.g. get rid of every trace of the thing you’re giving up). And remember this: Withdrawal is a phase. You’ll get through it.
Timing matters. Launch your change plan at a time when you’ll be able to focus on making and coping with the necessary changes, free from excess stress, demands, major life events, etc.
Planning is critical. Create a detailed plan that will give structure to your goal. Be sure to include the reasons you’re doing this, who will support you, how you’ll know you’re making progress, how you'll know you're veering off-course, and how to get back on track quickly if you slip up (speaking of slipping up, relapse a totally normal part of quitting something. If you plan for this ahead of time, you’ll recover quickly).
Support is key. Increase the likelihood of success by surrounding yourself with supportive others - friends/family, accountability partners, support groups, life coach, mental health professional, etc. The more support you have, the better.
If it was easy, you'd have done it already. Be willing to take a deep dive into what’s driving your compulsions. Even dysfunctional behaviors serve legitimate purposes we aren’t aware of or prepared to deal with on our own, so don't hesitate to reach out for the help you need to get to the bottom of the issue.
Keep track of the journey. There will be lots of ups and downs along the way and keeping a journal of some kind that tracks your thoughts and feelings, what's working, not working, getting in the way, or supporting your success will help you reach your goal and inform your next adventure in growth (because there’s always more work to do).
Fill your toolbox. Don’t be surprised if the strategies you’ve been counting on lose their effectiveness over time. Plan for this by filling your toolbox with a variety of tools and be prepared to pivot.
Use set-backs as learning opportunities. Maybe you need more support, or less stress, or something else you hadn’t considered. Build what you need into your plan and keep going.
Begin with and maintain a positive mindset. Instead of viewing the changes you’re making as punishment or deprivation, reframe them as the path to freedom. Instead of telling people “I can’t do that” or “I’m not allowed to do that” (fill in the blank), try something like “I’m making different choices for myself now and I’m excited about the direction I’m heading in”.
Celebrate milestones. Days without a cigarette, pounds lost, debt paid, miles walked, hours reclaimed from digital devices ... all of this matters, so don’t be shy about rewarding yourself in some way that won’t derail your goal.
Celebrate the limits you set for yourself. They represent a desire to give yourself the chance to live more productively, less reactively, and with more integrity and authenticity.
Need more help? I can partner with you in establishing and managing the limits that lead to real and sustainable change. Schedule a free call with me to learn more about how we can work together.
* In the world of recovery there's sometimes confusion about what constitutes a drug. My personal approach is to abstain from anything that requires a prescription that hasn't been prescribed for me by my doctor (who knows all about my history of drug abuse). I only take over-the-counter medications my doctor has approved. I take all medications at the recommended dosage. My doctor wishes she had more patients like me 😉