Addiction as an Ally: Part Two

Goodbye Forever?)

Yesterday I discussed how our addict self is trying to do something useful: help us through our great sorrows in life, but it does it in an unhealthy way. This means we should unequivocally reject its suggestions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the fact that it was trying to solve a real problem.

And for as much as we might like to say goodbye to the addict-self forever, it isn’t going to just pack up and leave. Even when we are solid in our sobriety, the addiction will still be there, putting thoughts and ideas in our heads that we don’t want. We may be able to maintain some boundaries with it, but we won’t be able to block it out entirely.

At some point or another we’re going to have to figure out what our long-term relationship with our addiction is going to be. How are we going to deal with its continual calls for our attention? Is it really healthiest to pretend that a real and constant part of ourselves just doesn’t exist for the rest of our lives?

The Inner Roles)

The therapist over my addiction recovery group taught us about Internal Family Systems, which is a process where we identify the different parts that live inside of us. There is the part that is a wounded child, the part that is the protector, the part that wants to make sure you’re having a good time, and even a part that tries to manage and regulate all the others! Also, there is the addict self, the part that tries to cope with stress in the easiest, most readily available way.

In our group work, we would try to identify and distinguish these different parts and see how they each tended to get out of bounds. The manager was being a cruel taskmaster, or the protector was being abrasive to everyone nearby, or the wounded child was establishing unhealthy relationships with others in a needy search for love. And, of course, the addict was trying to get the body to do things that the other parts found deeply offensive.

Having recognized how these parts were over-stepping their bounds, it was now our job to have a little chat with them, to hear their concerns and guide them back to their proper function. And we were to do this with all of the parts, yes, even including the addict.

Listening to the addict helped me to better understand his plight. So much of his misbehavior was motivated by pure fear. He was terrified of us being abandoned and alone, he felt like it would kill us if we stayed in the lonely and depressed places that we so often found ourselves in. He saw how our negative feelings caused real pain, and he really wanted those to be taken care of. Understanding that, I realized that my addict-self still has a role to play in my well-being. To be clear, I don’t mean that acting out on my addict’s impulses has a role to play in my well-being but responding to his concerns does.

So, I gave my addict-self a new job. I told him that I was going to take the reins from now on, but I needed him to let me know when things in life were getting out of hand. He was to be the lifeguard, watching for danger in the water. When he saw a danger, he was to raise the alarm. He might have ideas about how to deal with the problem, but he doesn’t get to carry those plans out anymore. He just lets me know about the problem, and I make an intentional and healthy action to address it. As I consistently and quickly respond to the issues, he starts to learn that he can trust me in the driver’s seat.

In Practical Life)

I’ve been using a lot of metaphor, but what do I actually mean in practical life? What I mean is that some days I suddenly notice a sharp increase in the number and intensity of lustful temptations that I face. Things were pretty calm beforehand, with me only needing to check the occasional stray thought or gaze, but suddenly it seems that my triggers have been turned into overdrive!

And as I have observed myself, these sudden spikes in temptation are typically not random. They tend to occur when I am feeling rejected, or lonely, or scared, or any other powerfully negative emotion. They come when I feel like the world is starting to slip out of control, like things might take a turn that I don’t want, that I may end up in places that I don’t want to be.

These spikes in temptation might occur when the bank account is too low and I worry whether we can make ends meet. They might happen when my wife and I have a fight and I think we won’t be able to patch things together this time. They show up when I get passed up for promotion and work and believe that my efforts will never be appreciated.

This sudden increase of temptation is my addict-self sounding the alarm. Him suddenly trying to look for an escape tells me that the pressure is getting too high inside. I need to address the situation or I will drown in anxiety.

I just don’t deal with it by acting out anymore. I deal with it by poring over the financial data and coming up with a budget I can believe in, and by having the hard conversations with my wife, and by deciding whether I need to find a new job where my skills are appreciated. I don’t let the issue remain hanging over me, because my addict-self has warned me that it is too much.

And then, when I take the decisive action, the temptations fade away. Yes, the addict-self wanted to deal with the stress in a particular way, but he will quiet down as long as it was taken care of in some way.

Apply to Self)

If you’ve gained some sobriety in life and have decent stability, but you keep being aggravated by random spikes of temptation, maybe it’s worth considering whether this same pattern exists in you as well. Maybe your addict-self is trying to tell you that something in life is off, that a basic need of yours isn’t being met, that you’re pushing yourself too hard. And if so, you only ignore him at your own peril.

Certainly, I would never say that you should give in to your addiction, but there is a wisdom in becoming curious about what is behind the things the addiction is saying. I’ve developed a sort of annoyed-but-attentive relationship to my own addict-self. It’s complicated, but honestly, I think I’ve found a way that he and I can work together for my better future. Hopefully you can with yours as well.

Addiction as an Ally: Part One

Talking to the Addiction)

When I was about a year into my initial recovery process our group therapist told us to write a letter to our addiction as if it was an actual person. The next time we met we read those letters out loud, and there was a great deal of anger and hatred directed towards the addiction. Most of us made it abundantly clear how much we had been hurt by the addiction, and how much we would wish it could be hurt in return, if only it were a living thing.

Then our group therapist said something that caught me by surprise. He advised us to redo the exercise, but to tone down the hate this time. We were here to say goodbye to the addiction, not to rage against it. In fact, he said, through all his years of doing this work he had come to appreciate the intentions of the addiction, even if he didn’t condone its behavior.

I had a very hard time processing what he said in that moment, it just seemed too outlandish to accept. Over the years, though, I think I have come to understand what he was getting at. The fact is that our addictions are actually trying to help us. To be sure, they absolutely do not help us, but they are trying to. Our addictions arise due to a terrible grief or stress in our lives, and they are an attempt our instincts make to cope with that pain. Yes, they cope with the pain in a way that only causes more pain down the road, and that is why we have to stop them, but their intention to free us from our anguish isn’t in-and-of-itself evil. How true, then, is the expression that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That quote matches the addict perfectly!

My therapist was trying to help us reach the point where our letters could say in essence, “Addiction, I see what you were trying to do, and I can even appreciate your intentions. Thank you for trying…but now I know that your methods don’t work. In fact, they only make the problem worse. Also, you have not been willing to listen to me when I tried to reason with you, so now I’m here to tell you that I’m cutting things off entirely. I’m not going to entertain your suggestions any more, and I don’t want to hear from you again. This is good-bye.”

Firm and decisive, but not hateful.

As I suggested, I wasn’t able to see this perspective at first. I had spent too long hating my addiction to give it any sort of acknowledgement whatsoever. The more I worked the program, though, the more I had to deal with the fact that my addiction was inseparably connected with my young-child self, who didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with his great sorrows in a healthy manner. I couldn’t bring myself to hate seven-year-old me for being ignorant, for being duped, for just being a child who didn’t understand. Not to say that my young-child self is entirely one-and-the-same as the addict self, but they are inextricably linked. One came about because of the other, and so much of my addictive acting out, even as a fully-grown adult, has been initiated by my childlike impulse-driven mind.

Growing Up)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. - 1 Corinthians 13:11

Our addiction is a sign that part of us has been trapped in our childhood. We have remained little boys and girls in the area of how we deal with our emotions. Every little child becomes a worse form of him- or herself when they are overwhelmed with emotions that they cannot fully process. They become tyrants, they become liars, they become gluttons.

Ideally, the child will be guided in these moments by a kind and understanding adult. One that can show them healthy outlets for frustration, support them through overwhelming situations, and reaffirm to them their true nature. They need an adult who won’t hate them for having started to go astray, but who will love them back to being who they really are.

Often we only became addicts because we didn’t receive that sort of wise and loving care back then. Instead we were left to figure things out on our own, and the result was that we let an addiction into our lives. The addiction promised us control over our painful feelings. We probably had some instinct that what it enticed us to do was wrong, but also we were young and easily seduced by the pleasures that it offered.

Now, though, we are an adult. We have greater perspective and higher reasoning, if we choose to use it. That small child is still inside of us, and we have the chance to help it…or to aggravate it further. When we direct hate at our addict-self, we inevitably also hate the overwhelmed child that is locked up with it. What’s more, by engaging in these angry outbursts we are only giving up our mature self to lean further into our childish nature, thus ensuring that there still isn’t an adult present to help with the situation.

The true adult would have the maturity to forgive. The true adult would , forgive the child for being scared and not knowing what to do, forgive the child who having made an ignorant mistake, forgive the child for letting the addiction in. Not only would the true adult be able to forgive the child, they could even forgive their addiction.

I absolutely understand if that notion seems incredulous right now. I wasn’t able to come to terms with it at first either. I had to mature in my recovery considerably before I was able to finally say, “Addiction, I get it. I don’t approve of what you did…but I see why you thought you had to. You were wrong, and continue to be wrong, but I forgive you for that. I’m not going to hate you anymore.” I have been able to say that, and then I have parted ways with my addiction in peace.

Or, well, we sort of parted ways. As any addict in recovery knows, the boundaries we set with the addiction are tested many times over. My addiction has snuck through the back door in different guises that I wasn’t expecting. I was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. I started to have a sense that the addiction was never going to really leave. It was probably going to always be there in some capacity or another. And as I came to accept this fact, I realized that I could actually have a partnership with my addiction and still make use of it. Now I realize that might not sound like a very good thing, but I don’t mean it in the way that you’re probably thinking! Come back tomorrow and I’ll explain myself further!

The Secret to Permanent Sobriety: Part Two

The Never-Ending Journey)

In my last post I shared how addiction recovery programs and motivational mantras can help us to find sobriety for a time, but they are not a total cure for our sickness. If we are trying to find a way to fix our addiction in one great action, we will be forever disappointed. The secret to permanent sobriety is that there is no secret to permanent sobriety.

Yes, it is possible to live a life free of your addiction, but not as the result of a single grand gesture. It comes by a continual sequence of innumerable efforts. We seem to think of our recovery as a state, a place that we can reach and then stay there. But the fact is, sober living is the byproduct of a lifelong journey for personal improvement, and once we stop taking steps in that journey the sobriety will also falter. Thus, each program and each mantra is only a step that gives us a reprieve for a time, but it must be followed by another step.

The good news is that once we accept that the single grand gesture that brings permanent sobriety is a myth, then we can also accept that the daily gesture that brings a period of sobriety is real. Only by surrendering our desire for the big fix can we finally appreciate the little one. This is why the AA mantra has always been “one day at a time.”

Ongoing Programs)

And speaking of AA, the reason why twelve-step programs are able to permanently sustain an addict in his or her sobriety is because they never end. There is no graduating from a twelve-step program. You come to the meetings, you work the steps, you finish the last one…and then you start over at the beginning, and find someone to sponsor, and keep coming to the meetings.

I mentioned previously that I went to a one-time intensive recovery program, but even they did not profess to be the final cure for all that ailed us. As we finished up their program they repeatedly reiterated to us that if we hadn’t already, we needed to join some continuous recovery program to maintain our sobriety. I admit that I was lazy in making that transition. I was in a good place for the moment and I took their advice halfheartedly. I had seen for myself that I could be restored to sanity, but I guess I had to also see that I could start slipping back into insanity as well.

I have since made a commitment to myself that I will never allow myself to be inactive in my recovery work again. I will always be attending some sort of meeting and doing some sort of homework. I will always ask myself what the next step for a healthier life will be, rather than say that my life is good enough where it is.

Change Within the Ritual)

There is another seduction that we have to recognize and reject as well. After an addict accepts that a singular effort won’t keep him sober and he commits to regularly meeting with a group and doing recovery homework, he might think that he is now in the clear. He believes that he has found the recipe to a happy life, and if he repeats it over and over, it will carry him through to the end.

But this still isn’t quite true.

And the reason why it is not quite true is because we do have an enemy who actively makes war with our souls. I personally believe in the reality of the devil, and I believe that once we find a line of defense that keeps him at bay, he immediately starts concocting another method for attack.

This is how warfighting works, after all. Once an enemy has been defeated in one battle, they aren’t going to keep attacking on the same field under the same conditions. They are going to change tactics. At first they might deploy forces to a weak point. When that point is fortified, they might shift to guerilla, strike-and-run tactics. When precautions have been made against that, they might send spies into the country and stir up sedition from within.

The strategies that worked for you yesterday will not always be fit for the threats of today. You have to be prepared to change tactics just as much as your adversary does. So yes, you keep going to your recovery group and keep doing your homework, but you do that so you have a reserve of strength to respond to the ever-shifting battle.

As an example, in the beginning the addict does this work so that he can learn to overcome his immediate temptations. By the repeated effort, he gradually makes progress, and finally seems to be able to live with a constant sobriety. But now that he is living a healthier, more grounded lifestyle, he finds that the people in his home are resisting that change. His new patterns have broken their expectations of him, and even though he is clearly happier and healthier, they will exert pressure to return the relationship to more familiar places. Thus, the assault has changed from temptation to relationship. The attacks are coming from within the addict’s very own home. Now the addict must learn not only how to establish boundaries with his own behavior, but also with others. A twelve-step program and recovery homework will help him to connect to his higher power and have the strength to do this, but he is going to have to employ new practices in his life to keep up.

To Be a Warrior)

Every addict in recovery is called to fight an eternal war. Every addict is called to forever be a warrior. I realize that this probably sounds exhausting and grim, and perhaps on some days it is. But thankfully, miraculously, there really is an incredibly joy that comes out of living this sort of always-active lifestyle. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous they say: “There is, however, a vast amount of fun about it all. I suppose some would be shocked at our seeming worldliness and levity. But just underneath there is deadly earnestness.” Later on, they also say: “But we aren’t a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.”

Getting started is hard. Sometimes it is hard enough that I try to put it off and look for an easier way around it. But when I finally stop wasting my time in vain pursuits, get to work, and build up just a little bit of momentum, I suddenly find that this labor becomes the most pleasant and rewarding work in all my life. Not only do I feel a sort of satisfaction and excitement about the whole thing, I am also able to look myself in the mirror with dignity and pride. I know that I’m genuinely doing my part and that God is making up for the rest.

Perhaps you are also one of those who has lapsed between programs. Perhaps you thought you were all better, and seemed to be so for a time, but now the enemy is knocking at the gate once more. Perhaps you have felt afraid that this means you will never be whole. I hope these posts have helped you to see that there is still hope for you. Not hope for a one-time cure-all, but hope for an ongoing pattern of life, one which evolves and grows with the changing times, and which keeps you healthy in the moment, from moment-to-moment. It might require a paradigm shift for you to accept these realities, but I pray that you will make that shift quickly. Once you do, you will ascend to a higher truth and sobriety than you had the first time around! A truth and a sobriety that works, and then works again and again!

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.

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.

The Trouble with Statistics in Recovery: Part Three

Statistics Criteria)

Over the last two posts I’ve examined the nature of statistics, and why they shouldn’t be used to predict one’s personal journey in recovery. I’ve spent time explaining that statistics are meant as a measurement of external uncertainty, and to model a group, but how they cannot represent your internal, individual state.

There is also one other limitation of statistics that makes them a poor crystal ball into your personal future. This is that every statistical survey has to clearly define the criteria that it is measuring for. Success and failure are described in clear, binary terms, which often fail to perfectly capture our nuanced, complicated world.

As an example, most surveys related to addiction seem to define success as simply not having another slip or relapse. People in recovery are surveyed, they answer if they have had a relapse since starting recovery, and that becomes the statistic of recovery. And even if the survey is more in-depth, it tends to only be this narrow, easily digestible slice that gets represented in web articles and everyday conversation.

And as the data shows, it turns out that most addicts who enter recovery will slip at some point in their first year. So, in conclusion, most addicts will fail their recovery and never get better.

Recovery vs Sobriety)

Well, no. It’s not as simple as that. Anyone that has been in close proximity to an addiction recovery program will be very familiar with the statement that “relapse is part of the journey.” Which is to say, that yes, almost everyone will relapse, but no, that doesn’t mean that their recovery journey is a failure.

Recovery is a process, and in most addicts, it means following the program, failing in a moment of weakness, and then recommitting to the program. Over time, rather than all at once, the addict pries off the grip of vice until he finally he can live free of it. Then, at last, he will be sober. When we fixate our surveys on the number of addicts who remain sober in the first year, we seem to be suggesting that sobriety doesn’t come at all unless it comes in that first twelve months.

So, are there addicts who at some point or another quit and never turn back? Yes. In my experience, if addicts are sincere and committed, then many, if not all, will achieve this state. It’s just that the point in the recovery program where this freedom is won is different for every addict. Thus, defining success as who quits cold turkey as soon as they start the program is an arbitrary and unhelpful goal.

Of course, I want to be sensitive to the fact that addicts want to stop acting out immediately. Their spouses want them to stop acting out immediately. Everyone who knows what’s going on with them wants them to stop acting out immediately. So, of course, at the outset everyone is going to want the addict to be in the small percentage who really do stop acting out as soon as they start the program. The problem is that if the addict “fails” at that goal, then the discouragement might make him give up the program entirely, when he would have eventually achieved success if he had kept with it. What is it that really matters? Immediate success, or just success?

What I am hopefully making clear is the difference between sobriety and recovery. Recovery is working the program faithfully and consistently, bit-by-bit freeing the captive soul. Sobriety is the desired fruit of all that labor, which ripens sooner in some lives and later in others, but all can achieve it if they keep working at their recovery.

One Day at a Time)

It is only natural to wonder what one’s chances of obtaining sobriety are but putting too much stock in the reported statistics is not only discouraging, it is deceiving. Immediate sobriety is not the one, true metric of an addict recovering.

If one wants to know if they will be successful in recovery, they have only to ask themselves if they are going to work the program of recovery for this one day. If their answer is yes, and they actually follow through on that, then yes, they are being successful in recovery. And if they can say and do the same tomorrow, then yes, they are in recovery for that day, too.

This, of course, brings us to the famous twelve step mantra “one day at a time.” The idea is that focusing on lengths of time past one’s immediate control is a fruitless effort. Long-term sobriety is not the result of mustering up the courage to be sober for an entire decade, but by mustering up the courage for a single day, one after another. Thus, ironically, most addicts who achieve ten years of sobriety do it by not worrying about the decade. If the addict is to consider months and years and decades, he does it in retrospect, looking backward upon the mountain of sobriety that was raised, almost by accident, one grain of sand at a time.

The odds of success in your recovery are not determined by what other people did in their first year of recovery. That doesn’t matter to you in the least. All that really matters is the decisions that you make for yourself this very day. This is the only metric of success, and in that field no survey has been conducted. You are the one that will record the numbers for yourself, you are the one who will create your own, personal statistics of success, and you are the one who will define what your fate is to be. In the end, success or failure is entirely up to you.

The Trouble with Statistics in Recovery: Part Two

Yesterday I discussed the use of statistics to predict how likely a person in recovery is to maintain sobriety. These sorts of statistics can be discouraging, as they often make it seem like the addict is unlikely to ever obtain lasting sobriety.

I made the case, however, that statistics have their time and place, but cannot be applied in every situation. They are useful for representing the level of uncertainty in the observer, but not for describing the actual state of the observed. Thus, a coin that is covered only exists in one state (heads or tails), but the uncertainty of the observer is divided between two (heads and tails).

Today I want to consider another fact of statistics which makes it unhelpful in determining what your personal future entails. That fact is that statistics are a tool for measuring groups, but not individuals.

The Sad Case of Sally Clark)

There is a tragic real-life example of how the misapplication of a broad statistic to a single individual is both in appropriate and dangerous. Sally Clark was an English woman who lost one son to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) in 1996, and then lost a second son as well in 1998. This was terrible enough, but then it was made worse when Clark was tried for murder. One SIDS death in the family was believable, but two?

As it turned out, there was no concrete evidence to show that Sally Clark had killed either of her two children, but the prosecution brought in Professor Sir Roy Meadow to describe the statistical probability that this mother would have lost two sons to the same rare cause.

Professor Meadow argued that the odds of such an occurrence would be 1 in 73 million, an event so improbable that it could be rejected as a virtual impossibility. Mathematically, he said, Sally Clark had to be a murderer. The jury was convinced, and Sally Clark was sentenced to life in prison.

Four years later, though, it was discovered that the lab reports on the deceased children had omitted clear evidence of the two sons’ deaths being due to natural causes. Clark’s conviction was overturned, and she was released. At this point, though, she had already slipped into a terrible depression, and died shortly thereafter of alcohol poisoning.

Professor Meadow’s application of statistics was torn apart by other mathematicians and statisticians. The numbers he arrived at were simplistic and faulty and he never considered calculating what the likelihood for a mother committing double infanticide is, about 4.5-to-9 times more unlikely than double-SIDS as it turns out! Perhaps most importantly, though, he had made the critical mistake of applying group statistics to an individual.

Consider this, if the odds of a double-SIDS family were genuinely 1 in 73 million, then that would mean for every 73 million mothers you would expect at least one to have lost two children to the phenomenon. 1 in 73 million does not mean that the event does not occur, it means that it does, and you will start seeing multiple occurrences once your population pool is large enough. 73 million is large, but it is not unfathomable for a population. It was inevitable that someone would show up with this situation at some point or another.

By Professor Meadow’s logic we could look at every mother on earth, one at a time, and for each individual conclude that it is too improbable to believe she has lost two children to SIDS. And thus, we would go through the entire population, believing none of them could have suffered that ordeal, when by Meadow’s own statistics there would have been over a hundred women who actually did.

It is the same with addiction recovery. Statistics can define the pattern for a group of addicts, as every group will inherently have a certain likelihood for certain behaviors. But when we apply those likelihoods to the individual we make the subtle, but damning mistake of saying that if something is improbable for everyone, then it is improbable for anyone.

Groups Within Groups)

Statistics can model the group, but they cannot model you. And they especially cannot model you when you consider that inside every group there are more specific subgroups, each with their own accompanying statistics.

By this I mean that most statistics on recovery cover a very broad spectrum of addicts. The odds of sobriety that they give tend to include individuals who have been working a 12-step program for twenty years, and individuals who showed up for the first time today. It includes those that have come of their own volition and those who came only because a judge ordered them to. Clearly not everyone in this broad group is as likely to remain sober as every other.

Every time you take the next step in recovery, you come into a new subgroup, which is represented by better and better odds. Maybe 1-in-10 of all addicts will stick with recovery, but just by returning for the second week you might now belong to a group with a 1-in-9.5 success rate. Do your “step 4 inventory” with another member of your program and you come into another subgroup with even higher levels of recovery. Earn your one-month chip and enter yet another higher-recovery subgroup.

Not to suggest that you are improving your own odds, only that the group statistics are converging more and more to who you actually are. Or at least they would be if the research were conducted down to such granular levels. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Start going to recovery programs for any sustained amount of time and you will quickly see that there is a clear correlation between amount of time working on recovery and length of sobriety.

You Are You)

Hearing discouraging statistics might make you feel like you don’t have a chance of recovery. But never forget that in order to even define the odds researchers must first find a number of successes. They couldn’t say 1-in-10, or 1-in-100, or 1-in-anything until they had found that 1. Never mind what the group pattern might be, the fact remains that there are people who do achieve sobriety, and whatever their methods to get there, it’s safe to assume that they weren’t putting too much stock in “what their odds” were. They got better because they got better. They weren’t 1 in a group, they were 1 in themself, and they decided for themself what that themself was going to be.

Governing your life by statistics is not only a misunderstanding of the science, but also a dangerous game of self-fulfilling prophecy, one that can ironically change the statistics on the subject. There is no statistics on you as an individual. There are statistics on the group, and they are useful for understanding the group, but the group is not you. The group can be documented, but to quote Lawrence of Arabia, for you as an individual “nothing is written.”

The Trouble with Statistics in Recovery: Part One

In addiction recovery it is natural to wonder what one’s chance of success is. If you’re like me, then shortly after you start a program, you’ll be googling something like “what percent of addicts relapse?” I’ll just tell you right now, the results are not encouraging. Depending on your personal flavor of addiction, your chance of never slipping again might be as low as the single digits. This can be a very discouraging realization, both for the addict and for any loved ones that are involved. It can be enough to make one feel that “once an addict, always an addict.”

But I am here to tell you that statistics like these are next to useless when it comes to predicting what your personal story will be. Something about them rang false to me when I first started recovery, and after walking the journey for several years, I gradually came to understand the reasons why.

Statistics of Uncertainty)

Let’s suppose I hold out a coin in front of you, heads-up, and ask you what the chances are that it is heads-up.

“Well it is heads-up,” you might say. “So 100%.”

“But there are two sides, aren’t there? So isn’t it a 50/50 chance?”

“No, I can see it. It’s 100% heads-up, and 0% tails.”

And you’d be right.

Now suppose I cover the coin with my other hand, but I do not rotate it. Still 100% heads?

“Of course,” you say, “it may be covered, but I still know what state it is in. 100% heads up.”

But now suppose I call our friend in, I show him my closed hands, and I tell him there is a coin underneath. I ask him what is the chance that it is heads.

“50%” he says, “and 50% tails.”

And he is right. But you still know it is 100% heads and you are also right.

You are both right because when we talk percentages and statistics we are not talking about the actual state of the coin, we are talking about the state of our own uncertainty. With your inside knowledge you are 100% certain of what the coin is and our friend, without that knowledge, is 50% certain. The numbers you give represent a state of your own selves and not the coin.

And what of the coin? It just is what it is. It isn’t 25% something, or 50%, or even 100%. It just is heads-up or it isn’t, and no matter of ignorant guessing is going to change what it is, even when that guessing is based on statistically sound principles. And not only is the coin what it is, it is also going to be what it is going to be. The mystery and uncertainty of what a flipping coin will land on is only a side-effect of how we view only a narrow slice of time, moving forward at a gradual rate.

The Statistics of You)

And as much as the coin just is what it is, you just are what you are, too. And as much as the coin is just going to be what it is going to be, you are just going to be what you are going to be as well. When you decide to go to recovery, you don’t split off a hundred separate universes and spin a cosmic roulette wheel, hoping it lands on one of the ten realities where you happen to stay sober. When you decide to go to recovery you just are going to see it through, or you just aren’t.

Outsiders may remain uncertain of whether you will maintain sobriety or not. They are ignorant of your inner state, so the best they can do is estimate your chances as a percentage. But you are not an ignorant outsider. You know what your state is and what it isn’t. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably already know whether you’re going to be acting out later this week or not.

The reason why the statistics didn’t feel like an appropriate fit to me when I started recovery was because I knew my own state. Outsiders didn’t know, but I did. I knew some of my group were only there because their wives made them come, but I wasn’t. I knew some were just going through the motions, but I wasn’t. I knew I was going to faithfully be at my recovery group every Tuesday night, and I knew that I was going to be doing my recovery work every other night of the week. I knew that my commitment was real, and I knew that my intentions were serious.

Now you may not be so certain of yourself over the next month and year and decade, but it is possible to be certain of the now. And unlike flipping a coin multiple times, your behavior in the future is affected your behavior in the past. What you choose today weights you more towards one side for the next day. If you are certain of sobriety today, and you follow through with that, then you will be that much more likely of sobriety tomorrow as well.

The Scope of Statistics)

Statistics have their place in the world. They help in defining the probabilities of what is unknowable, and they are useful for modelling large groups. But you are knowable, at least to yourself, and you are an individual, not a group. We’ve spoken to the first of those points today and we’ll examine the other one tomorrow.

Never forget the wonderful fact that you are a person who has free will. You get to choose. You are not a spinning roulette wheel. You are the card that draws itself, and the coin that turns itself. You get to decide your own outcome.