The Secret to Permanent Sobriety: Part One

The Broken Commitment)

A friend of mine just lost his sobriety. He started in the same addiction recovery program that I did. I began my journey there more than five years ago when I finally got serious about getting better. Together he and I went through two years of intensive work, with weekly meetings and daily homework, getting to the roots of our problems and learning how to find true healing. The members of our group found different levels of sobriety during that period, but all of us had dramatic improvement from where we were before. I believe that many of us felt we had found a change that was permanent, and that gave us a lot of hope.

Now this friend of mine has slipped to a point of addiction that, to my knowledge, he hasn’t been at for years. It is only natural for a person in his position to despair and think thoughts such as “well if that intensive program couldn’t even save me, then I guess nothing can!”

I’ve mentioned before that while I made great progress in my addictions during that intensive recovery program, I have since found myself losing ground in the sector of healthy eating. I have also shared my sense of frustration in not being able to consistently do all of the healthy, self-care things that I commit to. I’ll come up with a plan of action and I’ll stick to it for a few weeks, but then I’ll fall off, only to recommit myself a month later to another plan, only to fall off that one another month later.

In fact, every addict that I know has encountered these ups and downs and periods of deep disappointment. It had seemed that we had finally overcome our addiction for good, but then a second wave rose to take its place. So, was it all a vain effort to begin with? Is the reward for all of our work and effort only that we have delayed the inevitable?

Reframing Failure)

Let us consider an analogy. Suppose that you are diagnosed some terminal disease. Suppose that you are told that you will die within mere weeks, that the thing is about to consume you. And then, right in the moment of despair, imagine that you are told about a new medical program that has just come out related to your disease. The doctor’s caution you that this program is difficult and arduous. Not only that, it is not an actual cure for your condition. It will restore you to a point of seemingly perfect health for a time, but eventually the effects will wear off. The doctors cannot say whether you will gain two more years of life, or five, but at least you will have more time than you would otherwise.

Perhaps this is bittersweet news, but wouldn’t you jump at the chance to have several more years of life? Several more years of health and freedom? Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to have just a little more time to do the things that really mattered?

And then, imagine that a few years later, just as the doctors predicted, you started to see the first signs of the disease’s return. But then, another breakthrough, the doctors have discovered that the medical program you went through before can be done multiple times, each time restoring the afflicted back to health. It will still never fully cure you, you will feel the resurgence of the disease at distant points in the future, but you can continually push it back through the treatment until you have lived out your entire life and pass away peacefully of natural causes.

Is the program a failure because it does not totally eradicate the disease? Or is it a success because it gives you a little more time to be alive, and does so repeatedly as long as you engage with it?

Seeking the Life-Changing Message)

There were many times in the height of my addiction that I kept seeking for some principle or message that would finally break through all of my failings, unlock my resolve, and permanently heal me. I would listen to a sermon or read a motivational quote, and a part of it would resonate in my heart. I would latch onto that part and say “This is it! This is going to be my mantra! This is going to give me the frame of mind that finally allows me to live with integrity and truth forever!”

And that little nugget of wisdom or new perspective really would help me to overcome temptation for a day or two, maybe even for an entire week, but sooner or later the reinvigorated heart would quiet down, and a temptation would overrun me. I would act out, and now I was right back where I started. Apparently, that hadn’t been the golden idea that would set me free, and I would start to hunt for the real thing.

Eventually, when I fully accepted the fact that I was an addict, I went to that intensive recovery program I mentioned before. And while it gave me years of living life to the fullest, like the doctor’s treatment I mentioned, it was not a permanent fix. Earlier this year I accepted that I had to start going back to a new program, a twelve-step program, and continually rekindle the fading flames.

Every addict wants to find the silver bullet that will kill his inner monster for good. Every addict wants to get better and just not have to do this work anymore. Every addict wants to assume that this latest program is the one that will finally fix whatever is wrong with him.

But none of these programs and mantras will ever do that for the addict. That doesn’t mean that they are a failure, though. It just means that we need to adjust our expectations from one-time cure to ongoing medication. We have to understand what programs and mantras are actually able to do for us and use them accordingly. What they do for us is to motivate us to live a full life and stay sober for a time. They are like life-giving water in the desert. Drink all you can, fill up your bottle, and now you are good to journey for several miles more. But, of course, before long you will need to look for another oasis somewhere along the way. From oasis to oasis, from refreshing to refreshing, you can journey for hundreds of miles.

Misguided Strength

A Surprising Discovery)

Early in my recovery journey I went into the mountains to attend a three-day spiritual retreat based on the writings of John Eldredge. While there, I discovered a deeper and more consistent connection with God than I had ever known before. I gained an understanding of my past and a roadmap for my future. One of my takeaways was that I needed to start writing. I came back home and started a story blog, later expanding into this spiritual blog and a novel.

My initial motivation for writing was simply to do something creative, something that I had loved in my youth but abandoned somewhere along the way. Much to my surprise, though, the act of writing also became one of my greatest tools in recovery. As I wrote consistently, I felt my desire to lust decrease to a level where I could easily turn it down. I hadn’t started writing to gain sobriety, but that was what had happened even so.

I found this a strange, if welcome, phenomenon, and I started paying close attention to my behavior and feelings. Through my self-examination I believe I found the link between my writing and sobriety. Perhaps this concept will help you on your own journey.

Energy Costs)

One thing I noticed was that my writing took real energy. Sometimes I would try writing when I was tired because I thought it would be a calm and sedentary activity, but it didn’t work. I really struggled to compose anything, and whatever I did get down was of inferior quality. I found that I did my best writing when I was still fresh and full of energy. I might not work up a sweat with my writing, but it does take real mental energy.

And this, I discovered, was the same with lust. Lust takes a story of energy, even when one is only sitting at a computer. It expends your strength and leaves you weaker than you were before. Thus, I found that my act of creativity was burning the same fuel that was used for lust. When I gave my energy to my writing, there simply wasn’t any left over for vice.

This made me consider how one of my earliest triggers for lust was being bored as a teenager. Sitting around with nothing to do had left me with pent up energy that needed some sort of outlet. At first, I had spent it in my writing, but when lust presented itself as an alternative, I moved over to that, leaving my writing behind. I was able to do one of these activities but not both, and if I didn’t want to do one then I simply needed to do the other.

The Strength of Man)

I don’t think that my situation is unique, either. As I consider men as a whole, I can’t help but notice that so many of us have problems with anger and lust, two high-energy vices. This has led me to theorize that God has given men great strength, in order that we might do a great work. But too many of us are not seeking what that great work is. We miss our calling, but we still have this great strength within us and it’s got to come out in some way.

If this is true, then one of the key things for real recovery is for a man to find what his calling is and spend his strength in it. Exactly what that calling would be is something that he must discover personally for himself. For me it was writing, but that won’t be the right calling for everyone.

One thing I am curious about is whether this phenomenon of pent up energy leading to addiction holds true for women as well. The addiction recovery groups I have been part of have been exclusively male, and obviously I am a male myself. I would defer any insights on the addiction patterns of women to someone who is more directly connected there.

But for men, at least, I think there is some real truth here. I am still evaluating this theory, and perhaps my opinions will evolve as to how energy, productivity, and addiction relate to one another, but I am at least certain that it is always good to seek one’s calling and put one’s strength into it. I am certain that doing so can only help one in their sobriety.

If you have desired sobriety for yourself, but been unable to attain it, I would recommend that you take some time to consider what calling God has for you, and how you can pour your heart and soul into fulfilling it. Join a group, work the program, and find your purpose in life. It is a wonderful way to live!

Holding Back the Tide: Part Two

Shifting Impulses)

Yesterday I spoke about how trying to overcome one addiction might simply cause it to shift to another area. Recognizing this tendency is important if we want to live an actually healthy life, not just a life that is unhealthy in a different way.

As I suggested yesterday, slipping into our vices one way or another will always be easier than being healthy. Just as gravity is a constant downward force in the physical world, there is also a constant downward force in the spiritual world, making it easier and simpler for us to fall than to rise. And like gravity, this evil force can pull at us from all directions.

Fortunately, from the times when I have been the most sincere in my recovery, I have discovered some things that can help a great deal. Today I’ll be taking a look at them.

Emptying the Cup)

If I were to ask you to empty all of the air out of a cup, how would you do it? Obviously tipping the cup upside down wouldn’t suffice. You could suck the air out with a straw, but of course other air would flow right back in to take its place. You could make a seal on the top of the cup and then suck out all of the air, creating a vacuum, but this would likely cause the cup to collapse inward and destroy itself.

However, there is one, simple and non-destructive way that the task can be done. Instead of only trying to get the air out, you can simultaneously put something different in. If you pour water into the cup, for example, then the air will naturally be replaced, thus fulfilling the task.

So, too, with getting out a vice. That vice took up a certain amount of your time and energy, and if you just try to scoop it out of your day you have now created an emptiness that will be filled with something else. If you don’t give any thought to what will make use of that time and energy, then it’s probably going to be some other vice because, as I stated above, vice is easier than virtue. If you try to take the vice out and then seal off that freed-up time, not allowing anything to make use of it, you will eventually collapse under the pressures of boredom and frustration.

So, for every evil thing you want to take out of your life, you’re going to need to replace it with an equal measure of good. You need to deliberately start doing something new, something that carries the same expense of time and energy that you were using for the vice.

For me, that led to starting this blog and writing stories. These were very large undertakings, but that was appropriate, because they were replacing a large addiction. It definitely took some work to get my writing going, but once it became a regular practice then going back to the addiction wasn’t even an option, because now it would have to displace the writing that had taken its place and I just couldn’t accept that.

Preserve What You Have)

But if you are going to start a new practice, then consistency is absolutely key. Have you ever found yourself rotating between life-changes that you want to make, shoring up one, just to see the others slip back out of control? I might go on a rotation between things like exercising, getting to bed on time, and saying meaningful prayers. I’ll make a real effort to start exercising, and I’ll make progress there, only to realize that my bedtimes have been slipping later and later into the night. So I’ll focus on when I get to bed, while trying to maintain my exercising, but then I realize I’ve totally forgotten about having a meaningful prayer in the morning. So I focus on that, only to lose my grip on exercise.

In some cases, this is a result of trying to do too much. Yes, a healthy, well-rounded life requires balance, but you only have so many hours in a day and so much of a reserve of willpower. By pouring it all into one area at the start of the day, you may not have enough resolve remaining for all the later tasks. And this cyclical pattern of restarting and abandoning practices only serves to ensure that none of them become a part of regular habit.

So as I’ve already said, one needs to fill their day with deliberate, good things, but they also need to not overfill it. One must put together their core practices with judgment and care, and perhaps their first plan doesn’t work perfectly, and needs to be revised over time.

A Work in Progress)

This is still an area that I am working on myself. I think I have learned and understand some important principles, but the knowledge alone is not enough to make me a perfect practitioner. I am, at least, aware of my shortcomings, and committed to fixing them. I’ll continue to check in from time-to-time, keeping you apprised of my progress. In future series I will also detail more of how I am creating a schedule of healthy tasks to replace the vices in my life, and some of the challenges I have faced while implementing it. For now, though, I’ll move on to another topic for tomorrow. I’ll see you there.

Holding Back the Tide: Part One

Slipping to the Bottom)

There is an engineering problem that is so difficult that it has become an idiom for any impossible task: pushing water uphill. All of us know that the tendency of water is to take the most immediate route downhill. It pauses when it comes to a level surface and pools up, but only until it is able to feel out another path downward.

Many times, living with an addiction can feel much like this problem of trying to keep water at the top of a hill. There are steeper edges on some side of the hill, where your temptations are strongest, and the tendency to fall is constant. Through sincerely working an addiction recovery program, one may start to shore up the steepest sides of the hill, putting up a bulwark to prevent themselves from slipping that way anymore, but what happens next? Well, if you deny water its usual route, it run along the length of the barricade until it finds whatever the next best route downward is. And this is the case with our addictive tendencies, too. Many the addict has momentarily rejoiced at having his addiction under control, only to slowly realize that he is losing control in another area of his life! One addiction is traded for another!

My Victory and Defeat)

This was the case with me when I began recovery work for my addiction to lust. I threw myself into a program with all my heart and will, determined to make any changes whatsoever until I had beaten this unacceptable behavior. And you know what? It really worked! I started accumulating some real sobriety, and it stuck! At last I felt I had solved the riddle that had stumped me for twenty years.

Then, a couple years into sobriety, I started to notice something annoying. When I had first started my campaign against lust I had started to live a more healthy lifestyle overall, resulting in me losing a good deal of weight. Now, though, the numbers on the scale were starting to go the wrong way again.

Okay, I thought, I got a little lazy with my exercise these past couple months. I just have to recommit to my routine of running and calorie counting. Things will get back into place in no time.

Except that they didn’t. Though I recommitted myself to being physically healthy (multiple times!) I just couldn’t make those changes stick. In fact, the more I tried to improve my behavior, the more I seemed to dive off the deep end instead. Now the overeating had my full attention, and I was horrified to recognize in it the same impulsive, stress-coping, habitual nature that had defined my addiction to lust.

But even realizing this fact was not enough to regain power over my appetite. Until recently, I was trying to approach my sedentary life and unhealthy diet as an addendum to the first addiction, an additional area to work on now that the main issue was under control. But this wasn’t an accurate portrayal at all. This wasn’t an addendum to the addiction, it was the full addiction itself. The same water, just pooled to a different part of the hill. I had pinned the dragon down in the cave, but it had snuck out under disguise and was razing the village once more!

You can’t keep the water in place by laying sandbags in one place. If you shore it up where it was running out, it will come spilling out of areas that were only somewhat a problem before. If you shore up those areas, then the water will start coming out of areas that weren’t a problem at all before. You have got to get the sandbags around the entire perimeter of the hill.

A Total Reformation)

Now I admit, I had allowed myself to get complacent in my recovery work. When I first started I was singularly focused on my addiction to lust, but soon learned that nothing short of an entire life restructure was going to suffice. This was why I had been able to make some headway on my physical health, as well as my social and financial health, too.

But after I finished my initial addiction recovery program I did not immediately get myself to a consistent twelve-step group. Just when I started to realize that I needed to, COVID shut down in-person meetings, and I took that as an excuse to still float adrift. By the time all the lockdowns had been lifted, I had stopped thinking about joining a group entirely. And through all of this I had maintained my singular focus on continuing sobriety from lust, but I had given up on the broader view of maintaining an entirely new lifestyle. My physical care was therefore in severe decline, as well as my social connections and my finances.

Half a year ago I started to right the ship. I joined a twelve-step group and have been attending diligently ever since, while also doing recovery homework. I have, as a result, seen the downward trends be halted, and some of them have started to turn back in the right direction. The journey seems to be slower this time than it was before, but maybe that’s just how it feels when you’re in the trenches.

Most importantly, I have become reconvinced that if I am not willing to change my entire life, then my life will not change in any significant way. I am trying to rebuild control and consistency, with the understanding that areas must be worked on. If I get my health and wellbeing back where I want them in just one area first, I won’t make the mistake of thinking that now I’m done and the other sectors of my life can be left to themselves.

Tomorrow I will discuss a little more of how I am trying to make changes in my life on a day-by-day basis. I’ll see you then.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Summary

Capable but Powerless)

I began this journey by considering the conundrum of the addict who hates his addiction but lives it even so. The addict possesses the physical capability to change his behavior, and sufficient desire to cease his behavior, yet finds himself falling into it again and again. The missing piece, as we have discussed, is that the addict lacks the mental willpower to translate his desires to his actions, at least when in the face of powerful temptation. His prefrontal cortex has been eroded, which is responsible for all his higher mental functions. When the need for another hit arises, all feelings and rationality are numbed into silence, leaving the addict a slave to his base impulses.

Many of us felt that we had plenty of character. There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it – this utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish. - Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book

This conundrum has led many the addict to despair. He feels that at some point earlier in life he must have forfeited his last chance at salvation. By the time he became really serious about wanting to change, it was already too late, and now he believes that he is doomed to do the very things he despises most for the rest of his life. This demoralizes the addict, is almost certain to cause him to enter a deep depression, and can even make him suicidal.

While I would certainly never encourage any suicidal notions in any person, reaching this moment of despair does suggest that the addict has finally reached the point where he can be totally honest with himself. Because he’s right, he can’t win this battle. Only by accepting this soul-crushing defeat can he begin the path to victory.

Other Paths)

When one door closes, another opens

For most addicts, it is only the total failure of their attempts to control their lives that will finally humble them enough to hear alternative methods. Inherent in all of us is the desire to fix ourselves by ourselves, so we have to try at that for a very long time, and to absolutely ruinous results, before we will start to look outside for help. And it is in this shift outwards, though, that we can actually find the success that has eluded us for so long.

Quite probably the single method that has brought the most hopeless-case addicts to true healing has been the twelve-step program invented by the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, and this program is entirely predicated upon the notion that the addict, though powerless by himself, can find the power to overcome his addiction through the strength of God and the recovery group that he binds himself to. Relying upon others goes absolutely in the face of our desire to be autonomous and self-powerful, but, paradoxically, it is also the only thing that will ever allow us to regain out autonomy and self-power.

In the course of this study, we examined how the addict who reaches out to a fellow brother or sister when facing temptation is inviting a working rational mind to the situation. The addict who calls for help is having his mind assaulted and numbed by an active temptation, but the person that he calls probably is not. The helper can provide the calm reasoning to the distressed addict, talking them down off the ledge and back into rational ways of thinking.

We also considered how uniting together for this good purpose gives us access to Christ’s promise that “where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Coming together as a group for a holy cause is one of the surest ways I know of to tap into the strength and willpower of the divine. And, in my experience, that strength and willpower is far more than enough to overcome every temptation that we might face. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

We also discussed personal practices that the addict can put in place to help shore up his defenses. These are in no way an alternative to calling upon the strength of our brothers and sisters and God, but an addendum to those resources.

The practices we described included recognizing and avoiding the sequence of events that typically precede our acting out. Often there are trigger events that come before the temptation, and much of our acting out can be avoided if we simply avoid the trigger event. Usually we are able to circumvent that trigger because our mind isn’t yet fogged over by temptation.

The other personal practice we discussed was finding the areas of life where our damaged prefrontal cortex and higher reasoning weren’t being entirely steamrolled by temptation. In those areas we make a conscious effort to act deliberately and conscientiously. I pointed out how when we deliberately do little things to improve our lives, even if they seem fairly inconsequential, we are exercising the regions of our brain needed to perform higher executive functions. Bit-by-bit we are increasing our willpower, mental strength, and conviction. Eventually we will have enough power to reclaim the fields taken by our addiction.

Hopelessness isn’t Hopeless)

Sometimes it isn’t the situation that is hopeless, it is the method that we are bringing to it. Each of us needs to give up on using the wrong tool so that we can start to use the right one.

If you have a genuine addiction, powering through on your own is doomed to failure, but that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doomed to failure. After failing countless times over it is easy to become pessimistic and assume that nothing could ever work for you.

I’m here to give you the good news that this is not the case at all, though. You are not the first person to have felt this way, and you will not be the last person to find salvation even so. Leaving behind the methods that didn’t work, now embrace the methods that do. Learn to be shrewd in how you avoid temptation, build up strength of willpower through small wins, and tap into the strength of others and God.

Do these things and your mind will heal, your impulsive behaviors will fade, and self-control will return. You will become one of those of whom it has been said, “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:28).

I have seen it in myself and in numerous others. The brain can heal itself. Hope can be restored. The numbing forces can be numbed.

As I pointed out at the start of this post, the addict in the midst of despair can find himself entertaining thoughts of suicide. He is wrong to think he has no alternative but to end his life, however he is correct that a death of some sort must occur. That death, though, is the death of the ego. Only by denying himself, putting to death his pride and isolationism, can he be reborn through the baptism of fellowship in Christ. He must immerse himself in the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow addicts in recovery, and when he does, he will feel Christ manifesting within himself. Then his new life truly begins.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Five

A Pattern of Power)

I have been discussing ways that we can find the willpower to fight temptation, even when our brains have been damaged by our addictions. I have covered doing all that we can to avoid even encountering our temptations, but sooner or later they will find us even so, and then we must suddenly find strength and mental reasoning that we are incapable of providing for ourselves.

This immediately suggests that we must have a strength that is beyond our own. An external strength and reasoning that will slay the dragons that we fail to overcome by ourselves.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. - Matthew 18:20

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me - Philippians 4:13

These verses provide us a pattern for accessing just such an outer strength, a pattern that I have found most effective. In the first verse we are promised by Christ himself that when we gather together in his name, he will dwell among us. In the second verse we are told by Paul that Christ strengthens him to be able to do all things. Thus, gathering together invites Christ’s spirit, and Christ’s spirit lifts us to be able to do what we could not do on our own. This is a pattern that I have been able to make use of in my own life and I have come to value it greatly.

Group Strength)

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that there was a special power when addicts came together as a group to lay down their burdens and encourage one another. A room full of individual failures could somehow churn out mass success. Ever since that realization, groups have sprung up all across the world and for all manner of different addiction recoveries. I, myself, regularly participate in a twelve-step group for pornography addiction, and I can attest that there really is a secret strength in numbers.

Mathematically, it doesn’t seem to make sense. As an analogy, imagine if our addiction was our debt and our resolve was our assets. Then an addict, by definition, is someone whose debt outweighs his assets, someone who is at a net negative. Now if you have ten such men, all with a net negative, and you combine them all together, what would you expect? Net negative of course! A negative plus a negative plus a negative plus a negative–and so on–can only result in a greater negative.

But, counter-intuitively, that’s just not how it works in practice. The men in my group bring all of their problems with them to the recovery group, yet somehow the group doesn’t feel weighed down by the shared burden. Instead, weight is collectively lifted up by the group and tossed aside.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that the scriptures cited above are true. When we gather together to do the holy work of refining our souls, Christ is there in our midst. We come with all our collective debts, but he has a wealth of assets, enough to compensate for all our shortcomings and more.

A Phone Call Away)

And this same strength can be called upon in moments of duress as well. We addicts have learned that we can recreate the spirit of the group with a simple phone call to another brother, right when we’re being faced by our temptation.

We might feel powerless in the face of the temptation when on our own. We might feel that we are doomed to give in. But if in that moment we can work up just enough resolve to make a phone call, then as soon as we start sharing our burden with a brother, that same unseen power starts rising within, enabling us to do the very thing we couldn’t just a few moments before.

In fact, we don’t even need to have decided to overcome our temptation when we first make the call. We can simply make the call without any commitment whether we will remain sober after we hang up or not. We only need to have the strength to dial the number, and then the strength to go the rest of the way will follow. If I can’t decide to be sober on my own, I can still decide to step out and get help. And when I chose to step out and get help, then I can decide to be sober, too.

The power that comes from reaching out to a fellow addict in the moment of temptation is twofold. On the one hand, we are currently having our mental willpower, our brain’s prefrontal cortex, overrun by our powerful temptation. Our mind isn’t working how it should, but in the fellow addict that we call there is still a properly functioning mind. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t currently being overrun like ours is. Thus, they are able to bring the higher reasoning and persuasion that our own mind cannot provide. Later, when they are the one being overrun by temptation and we are back to sure footing, then we are able to provide the same benefit to them.

The second power is, of course, the light of Christ that I have already been discussing. For when a brother reaches out to me to help, I really do feel that it is more than my own mental faculty that I am able to bring to bear on the matter. I have felt an external love and wisdom flow into me, helping me to say and share the things that will speak directly to the soul of my brother. And I have felt the exact same divine presence shared with me when I have called for help, too.

Growing Ranks)

I don’t know why the power of Christ comes to us in this way, but it just does. I have tried many times to pray in isolation for his power and I have been very disappointed in the results. On the other hand, I have never gone to a recovery group meeting without feeling Christ’s power overflowing me. I have never reached out to a brother in recovery without feeling the strength to do what I couldn’t before. It seems to me that this is just how he wants it. He wants me to reach out to others, and he gave his instructions in the verse from Matthew so that I would know that I needed to do it.

At this point I’ve discussed how we can find self-control through preventative measures, and how we can access the strength of Christ and a larger group. I have also explained how exercising our willpower in daily tasks can increase our resolve over time. This brings me to the end of all the techniques that I wanted to share with you. Tomorrow, we’ll review them all together. I’ll see you there.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Four

Impossible, but Temporarily So)

During the past few days, I have discussed the addict who has fallen to his temptations time and time again, yet still thinks that next time he’ll somehow pull through. I made the case that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that all of our desire and willpower combined are not enough to prevent us from doing the things we despair of. When we act out our addiction, our base and thoughtless impulses are bringing the whole self along for the ride, even if some of those parts are kicking and screaming against it!

I have also shared how this is in large part due to the stunted prefrontal cortex that develops in the mind of the addict. One who has given in to a harmful habit for an extended period of time literally has less mental willpower than one who has not. To adapt to this fact, we must consider techniques that will help us avoid our temptations, rather than trying to fight them head-on. But before I get into that, I do want to offer one word of encouragement in regard to facing temptation and overcoming it.

I have made the case that the addict has some situations where he will give into temptation, even if he doesn’t want to. We don’t like that fact, but it is a fact, nonetheless. I want to reiterate a fact that I shared just yesterday, though, which is that it doesn’t have to always be that way. Absolutely we can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, build up moral fortitude, break habits, and get to the point where the same temptations that would have overwhelmed us can now be rejected entirely. Many former addicts have healed their minds and their souls in just this way, and we can, too, but in order to survive long enough to do so, we will need to employ these more preventative tactics that I am about to discuss.

If and Then)

Let us suppose that at last we are able to admit that we are not in such control of ourselves as we would like to think. Let us suppose that we have accepted that given certain situations we will give in to temptation. This does not have to be a statement of hopelessness. It can instead be the first part of an if-then rule that preserves our safety.

If I cannot browse the internet late at night by myself without viewing pornography, then I will not browse the internet late at night by myself. If I cannot walk by the pub without going in for a drink, then I will not walk by the pub. If I cannot go to that restaurant without ordering the chocolate cake, then I won’t go to that restaurant anymore.

If I’m serious about my recovery, then I’m not going to put myself into the same position of failure that I have succumbed to time and time again. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking that I’ll just defeat temptation in battle, I’m going to secure victory by preventing the battle from ever occurring.

By understanding the parameters and preconditions of our acting out, we can stop worrying about how we will face temptation and instead focus our efforts further upstream. If you’ve let it get to the point that you’re alone in your office with your hands hovering over the keyboard, or sitting on the stool talking to the barkeep, or roving your eyes over the menu, you’ve probably already lost. The time to fight was when you first started going to the place of temptation. You may currently lack the resolve to resist the tantalizing ad on your computer, the smell of the beer, the atmosphere of the restaurant, but you probably did have the resolve thirty minutes earlier to say, “I’m going to bring my laptop out into the family room where everyone can see me,” or “I’m going to see if my friends want to play golf instead,” or “I’m going to try that other restaurant today.”

This is true, because even though the prefrontal cortex of the addict brain has been diminished, it has not died completely. The addict still is capable of higher reasoning, just not when they are not in the face of great temptation. By exercising their reason at a time when the distasteful appetite is sleeping, they can avoid waking the beast entirely.

The Lever)

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

One of the most basic components of engineering is the lever. It is a simple machine whereby a relatively small force in one place can be magnified into a multiplied force somewhere else. One may not have enough strength to move a heavy rock directly, but through the magnification of a lever, their strength can end up indirectly moving the rock even so.

Does it matter if you don’t have the willpower to turn down temptation if you do have the willpower to avoid the temptation in the first place? In either case, haven’t you effectively overcome your addiction in that moment? A choice, only made indirectly made through another choice, is still your choice.

It takes some time an observation, but if you examine your life and your addiction behaviors, you will notice that there are certain situations and events that tend to be precursors to those actions. With a little thoughtful effort, you can circumvent those situations and events, and will already make great progress towards sobriety.

But of course, even this is not a complete solution. If we circumvent every opening for the addiction, soon we will experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Cravings will arise, even without our usual triggers to set them off. Sooner or later, we’ve got to deal with that matter of resolve in the face of temptation. And I’ll tell you right now, there will never be an easy win here. It is always going to be a difficult, uphill battle. But at least we’ve cornered the enemy to this one place. So next we will examine how we rely on a willpower other than our own in such moments. We’ll dive into that topic tomorrow.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Three

The Difficulty of Doing)

Yesterday I shared about the studies that have been done on the minds of addicts, and how the prefrontal cortex has been shown to have diminished activity in their brains. Where in a healthy brain appetite can be ruled by reason, in the addict things go the other way round.

And this is true in so very much of the addict’s life. In fact, very few addicts have only one uncontrollable behavior. They might have their primary vice, such as drugs, alcohol, pornography, excessive eating, or gambling, but they probably have shades of several others as well. Once the prefrontal cortex is damaged by one behavior, then it is stunted in how it deals with all of the others. Maybe the addict isn’t as totally helpless in these arenas as they are in their main addiction, but things are probably getting worse on those fronts, rather than better.

This might seem a depressing fact, but actually there is a nugget of hope in it. The fact that the willpower has varying degrees of efficacy in the addict’s life means that it isn’t dead entirely. If the prefrontal cortex was totally eradicated, then all areas would be overrun by wanton excess. There wouldn’t be a difference between small temptations and large, they would all have their way entirely if the opposition was a total zero.

And this is a positive fact that every addict needs to appreciate. Yes they are damaged, yes their willpower is compromised, and yes they might be losing ground, but the war isn’t over yet. Their forces are not completely in retreat. There is still some strength left in them, and if there is some strength, then it can be exercised.

Building Strength)

If you were to have the muscles completely removed from your arm, you would never be able to use it again, no matter how hard you tried. But if your muscles were only damaged and weakened, you could regain use of them through many repetitions of weight-lifting. By flexing your muscles against increasing levels of resistance, you would gain the ability to move your arm like you could before.

And it is just the same with the prefrontal cortex. The same studies that showed that this region of the brain is stunted by addiction, also showed that it can be restored again to its usual activity. Brain scans of addicts who have walked the path of recovery reveal that a once-damaged mind does heal back to its proper and powerful state.

For this healing to occur, there are two things that must occur. The first is what I have already begun to describe: the addict must exercise his self-control to make it stronger. The second is that the source of damage must be stopped. Let’s look at these criteria one at a time.

Exercise)

As I mentioned above, some parts of our lives are still active battlegrounds. We have smaller struggles where the temptation is still mild enough that our prefrontal cortex can still grapple evenly with it. This is our gym. This is where we can start exercising our mind and regaining control.

When I first began my addiction recovery journey, the counselor overseeing my group asked each of us to make specific goals every week and then follow up on how we had done with them. He told us that we should choose goals that were well within our power to achieve, but which would stretch us a little beyond our usual day-to-day behavior. He also insisted that we needed to take these goals as sacred commitments. We had spent years teaching ourselves that we couldn’t be trusted, now it was time to convince ourselves of the opposite.

Small, daily commitments often seem inconsequential in and of themselves, but so does lifting a small dumbbell repeatedly, and yet we all know that this serves a useful purpose. No one lifts the dumbbell simply for the sake of lifting the dumbbell. They do it to increase their strength and health in all the other areas of their life. They lift the dumbbell so that they can lift what matters later on. So, too, small, daily commitments that we consistently follow through on are how we do the weight-lifting of the mind.

So, take some time to identify some simple, regular practices that are not currently doing, but that you would like to implement, and make a solemn commitment to change. It might be something as simple as making your bed in the morning. Follow through on that commitment, whatever it is, over and over, until it becomes a matter of simple habit. Then choose an additional healthy practice to adopt and start working on that, too.

Just Stop)

I do realize that obtaining sobriety so that your mind can recover so that you can overcome temptation might sound like a chicken-or-the-egg paradox. How can you obtain sobriety if you don’t first have the recovered mind to overcome the temptation? It seems an impossible riddle.

Fortunately, it’s not an impossible task, it’s just not immediately apparent how it can be done. Throughout the rest of this study, we will be examining the outside-the-box thinking that helps us to do just this. For now, though, let me explain the general idea of what these techniques will accomplish.

We are physically able to deny our addictions, we just are lacking in the willpower to fight against temptation. What we need to do is bypass the need for willpower altogether. If we let the battle get to the point of mental arguments, we are going to lose. Just as how our addiction is a matter of habit, we need to build new habits that circumvent the addiction. Then it doesn’t matter if our mind is compromised, because we won’t actually be putting any thought and reasoning into the matter. We want to make our sobriety become easy and automatic, based upon an already-made decision, so that we don’t have to try and remake the decision when in the face of temptation. Starting tomorrow, we will begin to explore how we accomplish this. I’ll see you then.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Two

A Sudden Thoughtlessness

Yesterday I described the experience of an addict desperately wanting to stop his addiction yet finding himself diving headlong into it even so. The addict knows perfectly well that he has the physical capability to put away the needle, close the laptop, skip the dessert line, or walk past the pub, and he knows he has all the reasons in the world to do exactly that…but he just doesn’t. In the moments of anticipation, the addict remains convinced that things will be different this time. In the moment of action, though, he is proved wrong again.

How could this happen?

Most addicts throw their hands up in exasperation. They have absolutely no clue! They would love to know the answer to that question themselves! It makes just as little sense to them as it does to everyone else. In fact, it makes even less sense, because they know better than anyone that their resolve was real and true just an hour ago! They, more than anyone, know just how far they fell and how quickly.

How could you choose to do this?

The addict insists that they didn’t. But then they admit that obviously they did. Again, it makes no sense to them. They thought they had already made their choice: they would never do this thing again. But then the choice was undone, and seemingly without their permission. But how can they say it wasn’t by their permission? Whose else would it have been?

What were you thinking?

Here the addict might blink their eyes blankly. Honestly, now that they think about it, they really weren’t thinking about anything at all. At the moment they didn’t consider why they were giving in to the temptation or if they should do so…they just went ahead without any reasoning or thought process at all. Or in some cases, it might have briefly occurred to them that they had all manner of reasons not to give in, but all those thoughts felt dull and meaningless and were quickly ushered offstage.

And this is the experience that seems most puzzling, because beforehand the addict had created an airtight argument against the addiction, a series of facts and principles meant to convince himself to stay away from his vice forever. But that depth of logic and reason had abandoned him when it came to make his case. In the moment of decision, it had felt like his rational, reasonable self was addressing a brain-dead jury. Where did the addict’s mind go at the time when it mattered most?

This question might seem an aggravation to the addict, but it is actually a wonderful thing to settle upon, for this is the key to understanding the true nature of his addiction. This phenomenon is so consistent in the addict, and so prevalent across all addicts, that there really must be a reason behind it.

Playing Without a Full Deck)

Thankfully, researchers picked up on this pattern and they dedicated themselves to getting to the bottom of it. Through a series of studies, they found the answer. What they uncovered was that our addictions do not only cause emotional and spiritual damage to ourselves, but they also have a clear and measurable effect upon our very brains. The brain of the addict has been shown to have drastically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, as if it had been severely injured.

If you’ve never heard of this fact before, feel free to do a quick web search for “addiction and the prefrontal cortex.” You will find all manner of scientific papers on the subject, such as this one.

The idea that the brain of the addict would be different from that of a sober person might be quite alarming. Most addicts don’t feel like their minds are working differently, but the science is clear. The brain scan of a sober person is completely different from that of the addict.

And to be clear, this phenomenon of different mental activity is not limited to addicts who have been using brain-altering drugs. The research has found that even when the compulsive behavior introduces no foreign chemicals whatsoever, such as the habitual viewing of pornography, there is still a decisive erosion of the prefrontal cortex. The implication seems to be that it is the act of living our addiction itself that causes the damage to this part of the brain.

And just what is the prefrontal cortex used for? Well, it is the region of the brain from which comes all of our higher reasoning. It is what provides our rational, calculated thinking, so we don’t just operate from pure instinct and reflex. It is what allows us to set goals and sharpen our focus.

To have a damaged prefrontal cortex means to lose one’s ability to apply reasoning over appetite. It means to give up deliberate decision-making and revert instead to habitual instinct. It means to be highly susceptible to suggestion. It means to have very little mental strength in the face of great desire.

Sound familiar?

The addict is caught in a vicious cycle. Back in his past, probably long before he felt that his behavior was a real problem, he engaged in practices that eroded the part of his brain necessary for higher reasoning. By the time he became aware that he had a problem, his ability to turn down the temptation had already been severely stripped down, leading him to act out again, which only eroded his higher reasoning still further. He is caught in a downward spiral of having less and less control over his choices.

The addict is playing a game of poker, but with only half the cards he is supposed to, and in every round the addiction will call his bluff.

Is There Any Hope?)

This may sound like a terminal diagnosis. How can one exercise “mind over matter” when the physical matter of the mind has been damaged? Does this mean that the addict is doomed to a life of acting out?

Well, no. Happily, the research has also shown that the damage to the prefrontal cortex is not total, meaning it has not progressed in the addict to the point that he literally cannot make his own choices at all. Also, the research has shown that the damage is not permanent, meaning that once the addict’s brain has been stunted it does not necessarily have to remain so.

But how can the addict strengthen and repair his mind? We’ll dive into those questions tomorrow, detailing exactly what the addict needs to do to get the desired healing. I’ll see you next time as we explore these subjects.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part One

An Unfixable Flaw)

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19

The universal paradox that every addict faces is the notion that they must stop acting out, but they can’t. They have tried to stop so many times before only to repeatedly let themselves down. They are overcome with a terrible sense of powerlessness, a belief that they are forever destined to do the very things that they cannot accept.

And what makes this situation even more frustrating is that part of them still insists that they really could stop. Certainly they possess the physical capability to not do the troubling behavior. None of us are physically required to do any of the things that we wish we didn’t do. It’s just that we can’t work up the self-will to control ourselves.

Except for when we do. I was once speaking to a man who received a powerful insight from his therapist. The addict had been bemoaning that he kept returning to pornography because he had no power to resist. The therapist then asked him what would happen if he was viewing pornography in his room and heard the footsteps of someone coming down the hall. Well, in that case, all of a sudden, this “powerless” man would suddenly find untold reserves of willpower as he frantically ALT-TABBED away from the offensive window! Thus, it was clear that the man could exercise the willpower to turn from his addiction, at least when sufficiently motivated by the fear of being found out!

Can’t vs Won’t)

So, what is it? We seem to be going back-and-forth as to whether the addict can suddenly stop his problematic behavior or not. After some time, I have concluded that the seeming paradox goes away just as soon as we change one, little word. Instead of saying that the addict “can’t” stop their behavior, it is far more truthful to say that they “won’t.”

Now I don’t mean “won’t” in the sense that the addict will defiantly refuse, only that the addict has presented copious amounts of evidence that when subjected to certain situations and triggers they will act out and they will not stop themself, even though they otherwise possess the desire and physical capability to reject the behavior. This is an observable, consistent pattern which we all need to come to terms with sooner or later.

The first truth that every addict must accept is that “if I am alone, by myself, under these particular circumstances…I am going to act out.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to resist, or that you won’t try to resist, or that you’re faking your efforts to be sober. Indeed, the defining trait of the addict is that he really, truly, sincerely does want to stop himself…but he just won’t.

The only logical conclusion is that part of the addict is holding the rest of himself as a slave. There is the part that would live soberly, but there is the other part that won’t let him.

Surrender)

This is a simple concept, but it is extremely difficult to accept. We are loathe to admit that we are not as in control of our own selves as we pretend. We say that we aren’t beholden to anyone or anything, that we are our own master, that all it takes for us to do something is to choose to do it.

But that is demonstrably false. That we are the masters of our own fate is a motivating and happy thought, but it is a complete lie. And living a lie is to remain living a pattern of life that simply cannot work. So long as you insist on this mentality of being your own master you’re going to keep living as a slave to your lusts, insisting through it all that you’re a free man.

I would like to tell you that waving the white flag and admitting that you are a slave to your appetites isn’t necessary. I have tried to find my way around this surrender myself. I have tried to deny my fundamental powerlessness. I have tried to find the external evils that forced me to do wrong against my self will.

But the simple fact of the matter is that if I live the same patterns of life that I have lived before, I will give in to my temptations again and again. Not because anyone or anything external forced me, not because I wanted to, but because I am enslaved to a tyrant of my own making. And I have to accept that fact, and then accept it again and again, anytime my ego starts to think that I can fully trust myself in the driver’s seat, only to be proven wrong yet again.

Now I do have more to say on the matter, including more hopeful messages for the addict, but first and foremost we have to come to accept this sense of powerlessness. This is the first step of any twelve-step program, to finally accept that we will not do what we wish we would do under every circumstance. Let’s let this notion settle in for today, and then move on to next things tomorrow. I’ll see you then.