Are things honestly ever “just fine” in early recovery?
At Sanford House , we begin group therapy sessions with a check-in. Clients are asked to identify how they’re feeling today. (Sure, sometimes therapy is just as on-the-nose as one may imagine.) I challenge my clients to reframe answers like “fine,” “good,” or “I don’t know” as emotion words.
“Good” may be reframed as “inspired,” “content,” or “relaxed.”
“I don’t know” as “confused,” “numb,” or “overwhelmed.”
“Fine” is trickier.
I’m Feelin’ Fine – My Recovery is Just Fine
It isn’t uncommon to reach a plateau in addiction treatment. The client is maintaining their sobriety, but motivation has waned. Folks may be less active or enthusiastic in their recovery than immediately after the decision to get sober. Life begins to feel routine. Everything is less urgent, less shiny.
The New Normal sets in where nothing’s wrong, but nothing’s especially right either.
We’re reaching the seasonal equivalent of a “plateau” in Michigan right now. February: the shortest, but longest month of the year to Midwesterners. Valentine’s Day has come and gone. The ice will not quit. Nor the wind. Nor the wet, sloppy, slippery streets. It’s misery. I really can’t sugarcoat it, and I won’t. I’m exhausted (and cold).
And why should I? Life is full of unsweetened moments. I spoke to a friend recently who was flying into Detroit from Florida. She said, “Everyone on the plane was asking, Who would live here? But the fact is, people do and there are moments of great beauty and people are also successful in recovery here. Honestly, you could live in California and relapse exactly the same. You’d just be warmer while doing it.”
When Sobriety is Monotonous…
The hard truth is, life is ordinary far more often than it’s extraordinary. It’s what makes the extraordinary moments stick out, because they’re out of the ordinary. If things were wonderful all the time, we’d get bored. And then start seeking out the extra-extraordinary stuff. It’s the human condition, the primative part of our brains is never satisfied.
And after the chaos and fast pace of active addiction, the monotony of sobriety can lead us to madness. All of the sudden, a surreptitious thought… a dangerous thought… What if I threw a wrench in here. I screw everything up anyway, right? Fiona Apple’s voice sings: “I want to make a mistake… I want to do it on purpose…” And we begin to flirt with people, places, and activities that don’t support our recovery. Partly out of boredom, partly out of frustration, mostly as a really good excuse to use.
Seduced by Secrecy, Cloaked in Shade
None of us are immune, I’ve found myself engaging in the forbidden. Falling in love with self-sabotage and feeling superior and darker because of it. Like a martyr. Carrying this weight, this burden… which we love. Which we tie to our identity and use to keep us sick. For some reason, we equate secret-keeping with strength and importance.
It’s exhilarating to have a secret, it makes my skin buzz. However, the exhilaration usually fades once the dangerous thought no longer thrills us. (A fair sign it was void of any healthy meaning in the first place.) And we move on to bad behavior, when bad thoughts aren’t enough.
There’s this movie iconic scene where a woman starts seeing a married man. They rendezvous at expensive hotels, they meet in the middle of the night. Inevitably, it grows stale. So they’re lying on a scratchy motel twin, not touching, when the man says, “This room smells like take-out curry.”
And it’s such a great metaphor. At some point, “being bad” starts to smell like bad food. When the thrill expires, we’re left with a hollow, queasy heart. An I-don’t-think-I-should-have-done-that heart. Not very fulfilling.
Hide and Seek
We love to be bad, it’s classic. In reality, it takes much more strength to disclose a secret and behave responsibly. It requires a great deal of bravery to reveal our dark thoughts. When we come up against self-sabotage (in the form of using thoughts, relapse, or situations we know to avoid), it’s best to tell on ourselves. Opening up to our therapist or AA group holds us accountable, and gives us the knowledge to navigate those feelings in the future. It’s the reason Sanford House values aftercare so highly (more information about our newly opened Sanford House Outpatient Center here).
Personally, I’ve always had a thing for people who bend the rules. Maybe that’s why I became an addiction counselor. I respect people who forge a new path, question everything. Those people are usually smart.
But there’s bending the rules, and there’s recklessness for the sake of recklessness. And that’s why secret-keeping is so often tied to shame, especially in terms of substance use.
In early recovery, we have to be vigilant to the ways our addict brain will repeat old patterns. Boredom is one of the biggest triggers my clients report, and folks typically never see it coming. It’s during the quiet moments, when things are “just fine,” that it’s easy to play fast and loose with our recovery. And in this weather, one can’t help but feel a little bad for oneself. The good news, is that appreciating the ordinary times becomes a mainstay of long term recovery. Where we can relish the lack of drama – and look forward to the inevitable and extraordinary blue sky winter day…