Hitting Rock Bottom

Diving Deep)

“Hitting rock bottom” is a common phrase in addiction recovery and twelve-step programs. Addicts will include it when describing the shocking depths they descended to before they were willing to wholly commit to recovery. They lost jobs, were imprisoned, lost their families, declared bankruptcy, were excommunicated from their church, lost their physical and mental health, and perhaps even found themselves on death’s doorstep. In short, they sunk as low as they possibly could, and then, having “hit rock bottom,” they finally started to look upward.

This pattern is so common that some addicts will attest that no one will ever find real recovery until they first hit rock bottom. It’s not that everyone’s rock bottom is the same, but they claim that one must hit their personal moment of absolute devastation before they can recover. Some will even tell newcomers who haven’t suffered enough hardship from the addiction that they aren’t possibly going to get better until they first get much worse.

I absolutely disagree with such claims. I think there is a real pattern being recognized, but extrapolating that pattern to say it is an absolute rule for each and every single individual is a terrible mistake. No one should ever be told that they cannot yet begin the process of getting better.

The Power of Fear)

But as I just said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real pattern occurring here. I saw it in my initial recovery group of six members. We each had our own highs and lows, but only one of us totally stopped working the program. I have to say, from the very first meeting I had my doubts about his commitment. The most obvious difference between him and the rest of us was that he was still young, unmarried, and had relatively little to lose if he didn’t get better right away.

Well, that’s not true, we all had just as much to lose, but for some of us the losses were occurring in the present, whereas for him much of the potential losses were still in the future. Since that time, I have met other young addicts who were able to stick to a program, even without their feet being held to the fire by the threat of losing marriage and family, but they are a small demographic in our ranks.

Fear of real and dramatic loss is one of the greatest motivators for change. It isn’t the only motivator, and people can achieve recovery without it, but there will always be more scared and desperate individuals in recovery than cocky and sure.

Pivot Points)

Of course, fear does not properly account for the phenomenon of getting sober after “hitting rock bottom.” Fear is an emotion that comes from potential unpleasant outcomes. Fear is always looking forward to a future experience, usually one that may or may not even occur. But “hitting rock bottom” would mean that the thing you were afraid of has already occurred. The loss has happened, the relationship has ended, the freedom has been taken. Fear has already been replaced with reality. So what else is it about these moments that might inspire real change?

Well, these are pivot points. They are moments that force a huge reality check on us. Up until these moments we might have been in denial, finding other things to blame for our problems, but huge tragedies like these usually make us take a hard look inside. We finally see ourselves as we actually are, and having gained that perspective we get to make a choice whether we will accept what we see or not. We have a chance to say to ourselves “no, I cannot tolerate this. I cannot be this way. I will do whatever it takes to change.”

Each new low presents a new chance to have that introspection and to make that commitment to change. They are stations along the railway, and at each one we have the option to change trains if we want. There is a train station when you are caught the first time. There is a train station when you lose your marriage. There is a train station when you go to jail. One might take the first exit, another the second, another the third, and another might never get off the ride at all.

Thus, “hitting rock bottom” really means the time you reach the pivot point where you finally decide enough is enough. Each person has a different point where this occurs for them, and it is based entirely on their individual personality and choice. Many of us are too stubborn to choose to change until we have suffered great loss, but as I have said already, I do know others who made a real change far sooner on their journey. It’s entirely up to you.

Overwhelming Stress: Part Four

A Broken Schedule)

Yesterday I addressed that we might not have the capacity to do all of our daily tasks, but we might be able to use some techniques to get through them anyway, such as shifting some to an every-other-day cadence, or quickly knocking out high-effort tasks that then become low-effort maintenance.

I acknowledged, though, that even this may not be sufficient for everyone. It is possible to simply not have the resources to do all the things that we need to maintain balance, no matter what strategy we employ. An example of this would be if one didn’t have enough income to pay off even the interest on their debt. Or perhaps if one suffered an injury that prohibited exercise. Or of one’s need for education and a regular day-job were mutually exclusive.

In situations like these, more drastic strategies are required. But as a prerequisite to any of these strategies, we first have to accept that we aren’t going to be able to do all the things that we want to do. Any solution at this point is going to require sacrifice and a change of expectations. Coming to terms with this disappointment is painful but necessary if we are ever to make the most of a hard situation.

Once we have made this peace, then here are two options to consider.

Ask For Help)

I am certainly one that wants to take care of everything myself. I want to prove that I have the strength and wherewithal to take care of everything on my own. Part of me feels that I would rather live a broken life by my own power than a fuller life by the power of others. But that part of me is simply pride, and now that I’ve tried both options I can tell you definitively which one is better,

For years I remained entrenched in my addiction because I insisted on taking care of it on my own. But the more I tried to handle it on my own, the more it became apparent that I simply couldn’t. My deficit wasn’t time or money, it was spiritual strength, and I had to finally accept that I didn’t have the wherewithal on my own and that I needed to reach outward for help.

I finally did so, and I have leaned on the strength of dozens of people since. My therapists, my group members, brothers in recovery that I’ve met along the way. I have an entire village of supporters who help me to do what I couldn’t by myself, who help make up for my spiritual strength deficit and then some.

The principle is the same if you’re talking about financial shortcomings, or scheduling conflicts, or simply not having enough time to do everything. If you really can’t do it by yourself, then can you swallow your pride and surrender some part of this plan to the care of another person? We are born into families and raised in communities for a reason. The resources are almost certainly there if we’re willing to just look outside of ourselves.

Make the Hard Cuts)

I have an entrepreneurial and hobbyist mindset. I always have a number of projects and developments that I want to work on, both so that I can learn new things and also create new sources of income. These endeavors seem justified by the fact that success in these areas would make me a more skilled individual and bring greater stability to my life. So I prioritize working on these projects, even trying to progress several of them at a time.

Of course, things of substance never come quickly or easily. The cost of doing this work gets higher and higher, other untested fields start to look more promising, I try dividing my focus into even more areas, and even my basic self-care starts to evaporate as I pour more and more time and effort into all these ventures.

Many times I have had to give myself a sharp reality check. I realize that optional projects have become obligations, hobbies have become jobs, and ambition has become obsession. At this point, letting these projects go feels like cutting out some of the essential parts of my life, but really they’re not. At some point I have to decide what genuinely is essential and what only feels like it is.

Obviously this is a problem of my own making. More difficult to deal with are the demands that have been put on us by duty and necessity. The principle remains the same, though. If you really can’t maintain everything that you want to, and you can’t get enough external help to make things manageable, then sooner or later you have to accept that some things need to go.

Maybe you really just don’t have the capacity for a relationship right now. Maybe you really do have to declare bankruptcy. Maybe you can’t maintain every friendship. Maybe having a clean house just isn’t in the cards for today. Maybe you just won’t be in shape to run the marathon this year.

None of these are happy sacrifices to make, but at least we can have the dignity of letting them go ourselves, rather than watching them shrivel from neglect. It’s better to throw the food you won’t get around to eating away than to let it grow moldy on the shelf. Better to stop making half-measures that accomplish nothing and preserve our strength for full-measures on what we can actually accomplish.

Conclusion)

Strategic management, asking for help, and making sacrifices, it certainly seems that everything would be nicer if we didn’t have to do any of these things, but these are the realities of life. All of us will need to take all of these steps many times through the years. Sooner or later we can have to make our peace with imperfection and make the most that we can of it.

If we do make our peace and move forward, we still may not accomplish everything we wanted in the way that we wanted, but I do believe we will all accomplish more than enough. Life can still be whole, even when it’s parts are broken.

Overwhelming Stress: Part Three

An Untenable Situation)

Yesterday I recommended a process by which a person can get their life under control. I suggested that they identify the minimum, daily effort that is necessary to change all areas in decline into areas of progress. Not massive progress, only a steady, consistent movement in the right direction. Then I suggested one commit to that daily quota, prioritizing sustainability of effort over grand, but short-lived surges.

But at the end I brought up the fact that for some even their bare minimums would still be too large an effort for a single day. You might have capacity for some of them, but you just don’t have it for them all. There are still a few ways that a person can respond positively to this situation, depending on the nature of their shortcoming. I will present two of the easier strategies today, and the two more difficult ones tomorrow.

Alternating Schedules)

Ideally, one would like to have balance every day. In 24 hours they would have sufficient sleep, spiritual communion, exercise, work, time with family, leisure, and whatever other life qualities they value most. But 24 hours is a hard limit on one’s daily resources, and sometimes there literally aren’t enough hours in a day to get all the things that one needs.

I found myself in this very situation. Trying to balance my family, writing, career, spirituality, rest, exercise, recovery work, budgeting, house maintenance, and pleasure only resulted in hurried efforts that didn’t really progress any of those areas and left many of them untouched for weeks.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that several of my “daily” tasks could actually be “every-other-daily” tasks. While it may not be ideal, I’ve decided that I’m okay writing Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and exercising Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Being consistent with writing and exercising on an alternating pattern is still better than the sporadic, weeks-without pattern that I’ve had before.

Of course, not everything should be split into an alternating schedule, for example I still want to have a prayer and seek connection with God every day, but I have nearly cut my daily tasks in half. And again, so long as my every-other-day effort is enough to progress me towards a healthier lifestyle, then I will still reach my goals eventually. And you will, too!

One might even consider a three-day rotation, but the more you space things out the harder it will be to establish the habit. You really want the cadence to be as regular and rapid as possible.

Short-Term Goals)

Another strategy to consider is that some areas of life might require a higher effort temporarily, but then will become more manageable afterward. An example of this would be if you need to get your finances under control. At the beginning, you probably need a higher-than-usual effort to track down your expenditures, figure out your budget, and cut out unnecessary expenses. But once you’ve done all that, you then only require a fraction of that effort to check yourself against your budget moving forward.

Again, ideally you’d be able to do all of the work for all the areas of your life simultaneously, but if you can’t, it may be worth considering whether you have any of these temporarily high-effort areas. If you do, for the short term prioritize getting through those tasks. Once they’re taken care of, then try to settle into a daily or every-other-daily cadence to take care of everything else.

It will be up to you to decide what other areas of your life are put on hold while you’re focusing on these temporarily high-effort areas. Is it okay to not work on your physical health while you get your finances in order, so long as you make a solemn commitment to bring that area back into your schedule once your budget is established?

I had this situation when I got serious about overcoming my addiction. At some point I needed to be able to integrate my recovery work with all the rest of my daily self-care, but for the short term I needed to focus on gettimg some momentum into my sobriety. For a temporary period, everything but the bare necessities was put on hold as I attended group meetings, went to therapy, and did hours of homework. I experienced a great change of heart, and then, with a little trial-and-error, I transitioned to a lower-effort strategy that would still maintain the recovery I’d achieved while still having time for all the other parts of my life.

Minor Adjustments)

Scheduling regular, daily efforts is a great step towards taking back control of our lives, but there will probably be a couple wrinkles in that plan. Fortunately, many of these wrinkles can be smoothed out with the minor adjustments described above. By shifting some things to an every-other-day cadence and by focusing temporarily on areas that could later be reduced to a lower effort, we will find that life becomes far more manageable.

But as I mentioned at the start, this still may not be enough to resolve every situation. Come back tomorrow as we’ll deal with the areas of life that are imbalanced through-and-through. As we will see, even in these areas, there can be relief and growth.

Overwhelming Stress: Part Two

Frantic Lunges)

A sure sign that a person is losing a fight is when they give up on precision and strategy, to instead swing and lunge wildly at their foe, hoping to get a lucky connection. Unfortunately, this is very often the same manner in which we fight the problem areas of our lives, taking passionate, wild swings at our trouble, but consistently missing our mark.

I have been guilty many times of panicking at a bank statement, or a number on the scale, or a new mess in the house, and then I lunge at the problem with everything I have. I want to subdue the issue quickly and permanently, and so I try to take the biggest steps that I can towards doing so.

And, if I were able to sustain this, I probably would see real and rampant improvement in the area. But the fact is, none of us are able to maintain this sort of frantic behavior for long. We quickly lose our stamina and then aren’t able to do any work at all. Not only that, but while we’re obsessively working on one area of life, we tend to ignore all the others, and the lost ground in those areas can easily outweigh the gained footing in the one we are focused on.

Thus, our desperate efforts are doomed to failure and frustration. We’ll wind up right back where we before, and probably even worse off.

The Tortoise and the Hare)

We’re all familiar with the famous story of the tortoise and the hare, and with its moral that “slow and steady wins the race.” It might be in our nature to react to stress and fear in dramatic ways, but we need to suppress that urge and instead approach the issue with thoughtfulness and consideration, and then we need to act in a calm and deliberate manner.

If you only make mild progress towards accomplishing your goal, you won’t exhaust yourself prematurely like the hare did. A mild effort is sustainable for the rest of your life. Even better, you can only really perform one desperate lunge at a time, but you can maintain multiple mild efforts in different areas simultaneously.

As discussed in my last post, we need to shift our focus from “what is the massive gap between where I am now and where I want to be,” and instead consider “how much effort is it going to take to just get things moving in the right direction?

A Recipe for Improvement)

There is a practice I have implemented in my own life to help me keep my efforts grounded and reasonable. First, I make a list of all the areas in life that I feel I am losing ground in. Then, I try to make my best judgment for how much effort would be enough to overcome the daily entropy in each of those areas. So, for example, in the matter of cleaning the house, I don’t have to make everything spick-and-span in one weekend. I need to figure out how much mess is made in a day, and I need to clean up that much mess, plus just a little more, so that over time the house will reach the state I want it to be in.

Once I have quantified this for each area, then I have my daily to-do list. I know what my financial budget is, how many calories I’m allowed to eat, and how many messes need to be cleaned. Anytime I find myself with a spare moment in a day, I consult my list and take care of the next thing on it. Once the list has been accounted for I can spend the rest of my day on whatever projects or leisure I want with a clean conscience.

A Foundation to Build On)

You may find that your to-do list isn’t very demanding. You might be able to do all of your maintenance and improvements in just a small section of your day and still have hours leftover. It might be tempting to immediately raise your daily goals to something more ambitious, but I would recommend giving yourself a couple weeks at this lower capacity to see whether the pattern holds.

I have had times where the first week of following my plan was a breeze, because I was still highly motivated and the week did not have much else scheduled for it. After a little while, though, excitement for the new program cooled down and I had the occasional unusually busy week. This was the real test for whether my plans were sustainable or not.

If the pattern does hold for you, though, then you can incrementally raise your expectations for each day, resulting in you reaching all of your goals even more quickly. What’s important is that the goals still remain sustainable, though. You want to be able to meet them every day with rare exception.

Insufficient Resources)

Finding that you have extra time and resources is, of course, the happy outcome. The other possibility is realizing that you don’t have the capacity to even do the bare minimum in each area. Going through this process has helped us identify that our life is fundamentally unsustainable and to what degree. While this may be a depressing realization, it is crucial information to obtain. It is better to know where the realities are and react accordingly than to keep plowing ahead in vain behaviors.

This brings us to our options. Difficult options, to be sure, but now we can intelligently choose them. Tomorrow we’ll dive into those difficult choices and how we can determine the best ones for our situation.

Overwhelming Stress: Part One

Whenever we look at the root of our negative behaviors, we will most often find some form of stress lurking there. Powerful negative feelings fester inside of us and tend to come out sideways. But not all stress is the same. Some stress is inevitable and unchangeable, such as having a disability or a chronic disease, while other stress seems like it could be removed, whether by a change of environment or character. These changeable sources of stress are the subject for this series.

Two Kinds of Agitation)

Failing finances, becoming overweight, and having a messy house, these are all things that agitate us just by living with them, and then they agitate us again because we feel like we could resolve them if we just worked harder or smarter. Knowing that we could deal with these, but that we’re not, makes us feel guilty, ashamed, and weak. Our failure leads directly into our shame, and our shame leads directly into our negative behaviors.

I have certainly had my fair share of this sort of shameful stress. In fact, the three examples I just gave are all ones that are currently active in my own life. I have watched as the bank account became lower and lower, and the number on the scale became higher and higher, and the messes spread further and further. Each has brought its individual anxiety, and then each has been compounded with the embarrassment and shame of having ever letting things get into such a situation. Worst of all, I then indulge in unhealthy excesses to medicate this pain, and that excess further aggravates these very same problem areas.

The Fear of Destruction)

The key issue of these stresses is that they put in us the fear of our own destruction. Maybe there is still a little money in my bank account, but if it is trending negative, the eventual conclusion can only be financial ruin. And maybe I’m still able to get up and do what I want, but if my weight keeps trending upward the eventual conclusion can only be disease and a premature death. And maybe there are still some clean refuges in the house, but if the messes keep spreading the eventual conclusion can only be an entirely uninhabitable household. To see the train chugging towards a wreck and then discover that the brakes don’t work is enough to make anyone feel hopeless. They’re not ruined yet, but the crash is inevitable.

Under the shadow of inevitable ruin is a terrible place for one to take up residence. Is it any wonder we keep taking a vacation from here, even if only briefly, to the fantasy land of our indulgences? Of course, the fact that these indulgences only make the problem worse leads us to seek another vacation just as soon as we glimpse our home of harsh realities. We know that we’re not dealing with the problem, but it’s already gotten so heavy that it seems we couldn’t ever have the strength to lift all of it.

But let us take a step back to consider the facts that we have just uncovered. It is the recognition that our path leads to destruction that creates a constant sense of dread is un. It is the way a man’s life is trending that distresses him most, far more than the state he is actually in. So often we get caught up in trying to change our entire state, when really we ought to be focusing on simply changing our trend.

A man that is seventy pounds overweight longs to shed all of it, but his most pronounced anguish actually comes just from seeing that his weight is a mere 0.1 pounds higher today than it was yesterday. Being seventy pounds overweight is bad, but even more terrible is knowing that seventy pounds will look like a happy place compared to where he is going!

Shifting the Trend)

And in this realization we find our salvation! For which is the more manageable task, to get out of those seventy extra pounds, or to change the daily trend of 0.1 pounds plus to 0.1 pounds negative? Obviously shifting the trend down by 0.2 pounds per day is far more within reach than to suddenly melt away dozens and dozens of pounds!

And once again, I am saying all of this from my own experience. I am myself seventy pounds overweight, and 1,200 dollars in debt, and with six large messes spread throughout the house. And up until about a month ago I was inching further and further in the wrong direction in all of those areas and was miserable because of it. During this last month, though, I have started making small changes, so that I am now inching in the right direction in all of those areas. And at the end of that month, I am still overweight, and still in debt, and still have a messy house…but I am enormously happy! Why? Because the future is not inevitable destruction anymore, it is assured salvation! I have changed my trend and I am going the right way, and this is the peace I always wanted.

Charles Dickens probably summed it up best in his novel, David Copperfield (slightly paraphrased to a more familiar monetary format):

Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19.96, result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20.06, result misery.

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.

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.

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.