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.

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.