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Meaningful insights in recovery addiction often surface in paradoxical metaphors. “To be in control you must let go”; “in order to win you must lose”; “To know God you must be willing to embrace what you don’t know”— are common anomalies that contain significant wisdom and understanding. Sleuthing wisdom from the intensity of addictive craving requires the capacity to sit with addiction and not run from its claws of control. In order to transform addiction into sobriety and serenity, an addict must cultivate the capacity to sit with the struggle. In this manner, he/she can know how to manage the intensity of impulsive desire. It sounds so nonsensical. Many times addiction management suggests that you do the opposite of what seems compelling. Recovery is often counterintuitive.
Addiction recovery can be like bushwhacking when hiking. The term “bushwhacking” is when you go hiking off the trail and make your own way. My son Sam will do this at times. Once, he worked with one of my colleagues and a family in the wilderness. My colleague described that Sam took them on a long hike off the trail. They made their way through briar patches, hiked over boulders, down creek banks, and up over brush piles. It seemed that the entire hike was experienced as one big obstacle. As they made their way, irritation, uncertainty, and growing insecurity began to mount in my colleague and members of the family who followed. However, Sam appeared to meander casually without much consternation as he made his way seemingly aimless through the brush. What seemed acceptable to him was one big obstacle course for those who followed behind! Finally, they reached a place of clearing where there was a break from the brush, even a nice little stream that provided beauty and a breather from the tension of bushwhacking. Family members began to chuckle about the journey and engage in the profound subtle experience of peace in an outdoor space that they would not have known had they not bushwacked with Sam on that day. Suddenly, arriving at a desired destination wasn’t so important anymore. In the moment, the boulders and brush that had been such an obstacle were now experienced as a terrain that set free the pent-up emotions in exasperated relationships and opened each family member’s heart to new experiences of bonding to each other. The obstacles that were challenges on the course of bushwhacking became opportunities for closeness and family connection.
Addiction recovery invites us to reframe our experience with obstacles as something that flows in the universal stream of life. When we see our addiction as only an irritation or obstacle—like a boulder in the way that must be climbed over—we miss the insight and wisdom that the obstacle or addiction would share.
The curse of addiction is an obstacle in life that is designed to be transformed into a blessing. Most addicts are at first dumbfounded by this thought. How can intense addictive craving ever be a blessing? It seems so antithetical. Many curse the addiction and hate themselves for being an addict.
I like to think that addictive craving is the voice of God trying to communicate legitimate needs that must be met in a healthy way. When an addict craves for a drug of choice, it is important to listen to what is going on underneath the addictive urge. In other words, there are legitimate needs and feelings that must be addressed. For these needs to be met, an addict must tune into his/her feelings. Typically an addict will disconnect from unwanted feelings like shame, anger, disappointment, resentment, etc. Most likely an addict would rather numb out with a drug of choice than to sit with the intensity of discomfort of an unwanted feeling. Immediately triggered, an addict will move in the direction of acting out or curse the addiction while asking for help in some way. Either way, the addict will be unfriendly to self and the addiction in particular.
We talk about “the addict” within. Many times I hear guys say how much they hate their addiction but are glad for their recovery friends. They live in an adversarial relationship with their addiction. It makes sense. You want to live free of destructive behavior so why not hate your addiction. My concern is that I don’t see that working toward long-term serenity. Treating your addiction as a curse has proven helpful for short-term sobriety for some. However, it is my experience that addicts rob themselves from long-term serenity by hating themselves for being addicts. It leads to more of a “white-knuckling” mentality.
Buddhists speak of cultivating unconditional friendliness toward oneself. Serenity requires self acceptance of all of yourself, warts and all. Addicts who learn to work with their addiction through deeper acceptance become more aware and acute to listening to their addiction with effective dialogue. Running from addictive urge fuels ignoring needs that must be met in healthy measures. It’s not like saying “I’m fine with my addiction, no big deal” or “I just love being an addict!”. None of us who know addiction would ever sign up for that torment. Yet, working with addictive urge and listening to decode what need is left unmet is critical toward emotionally growing yourself up by using that which would be destructive and transforming it into something constructive. Addiction recovery is another form of growing yourself up to the adult that you are destined to be. Everyone, not just addicts, have the assignment of emotional maturity.
Growing yourself up sounds sophomoric. Befriending addictive urge is not about giving yourself a pass or rationalizing addictive behavior as “OK”. It is about deepening Step 3—“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him”. The goal is that through surrender and acceptance, you work to transform addictive response to a healthy self-parenting response. Hating and despising yourself is always counterproductive. Addicts who stay stuck in this mindset agonize over every temptation and destructive behavior and usually don’t change in the long term. They usually settle for painful cyclical lapsing behavior.
Rather than hate yourself for having the urge, practice listening to the craving, accept it, and choose responsible self-care. This involves removing yourself from a high-risk situation and asking your “wise mind” what need must be met in a mature way. Build strength through consulting your outside support for clarity of immediate intervention. Figure out what is going on underneath the addictive urge. Once you identify what you are feeling and what need must be addressed, surround yourself with encouragement to cultivate intimacy rather than isolate through addiction behavior. When you do this effectively you become a mature adult meeting your needs through healthy self-parenting. This strategy is simple but not easy. It takes a lifetime of conditioning and training yourself. You never reach perfection but throughout life, you just get better and better. Essentially, addiction is an intimacy disability. By listening to your addictive urge you become capable of transforming an intimacy disability into intimacy ability when you parent yourself and meet the need with intervention and self-care. It comes back to the reality of a paradoxical metaphor of being able to take what is experienced as a curse and transforming it into a blessing. This is the way of mature recovery.