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I have been in recovery from addiction for 31 years. I have been reflecting on the 9 thoughts that have shaped and governed my recovery life. I want to share them in hopes that perhaps I can offer hope and strength to those who struggle with maintaining sobriety today.
1. Attitude is your greatest stock-in-trade. Sometimes people think they have to pay an exorbitant price to work with the best-known inpatient facility or a perceived guru in order to address addiction. Sometimes this attitude wreaks of entitlement. They have the money so they feel entitled to demand the best. One time this guy came to see me and said I heard you were the best and I want to only work with the best. I responded by saying “Why do you need the best therapist, you are not the best client.” What is far more important than finding the best therapist is to bring with you the best attitude you can manifest. When I got into recovery, I did not have any money. It took some time but I created a great attitude about recovery. My wife and I decided to embrace the mantra that we would “hock our socks” and do what was necessary to be healthy and sober. We found many resources that were free including 12-step programs which offered free cassette tapes and books. I learned to look for what would help me develop and grow my sobriety. I found individuals in 12-step rooms who were serious about living a sober life. I would sit or stand in the parking lot talking to them about recovery life. When confronted by others in 12-step meetings, I did not always receive helpful feedback. I learned to latch on to what was helpful and let go of what was hurtful. It was a good attitude that helped me to keep coming back again and again. Thirty-one years and over 3500 meetings later, the number one reason that I am sober is because I learned to live with a good attitude toward growth and recovery. I have to work on it every day. The greatest investment I ever made was not for a therapist or an inpatient facility. It has been my determination to be coachable and have a good attitude. It serves me well.
2. Be hungry. Let the world be your library. What does it mean to be hungry about recovery? Literally, the physical craving for food is a motivation to satisfy the need for nourishment. It’s not different in addiction recovery. When you don’t have a white-hot intense hunger for sobriety, serenity, and recovery, you miss out on what others get. Some people think they only do recovery when they attend a 12-step meeting, do the steps, or sit in a therapist’s office. Not me. I have learned that recovery is all around me. I have greatly appreciated the different therapists who have helped me throughout my journey. Yet, if I limited my resources to identified recovery sources I would have stunted and stifled my recovery growth. Being hungry for recovery growth means that you bring this mindset to all that you are and all that you do. I have gained great insights from the imagination of children and the persistence that I have observed from people who live a hardscrabble existence. I have walked alongside very wealthy people and have learned recovery principles. I have experienced even more wisdom from the poor and homeless. I have learned spirituality from my depression, impatience, and dire failings in my life. Emotional and physical pain have been great teachers. Recently, sitting next to Sequoia trees in California helped me to keep my vision for change to extend beyond my own time and onto future generations. When you are hungry for insight and understanding, you find it all around you. Let the world be your library to stretch yourself and grow.
3. Tell on yourself. The hardest thing in recovery I have ever had to do was to get emotionally honest at a deep level and tell on myself. That meant to tell on myself about times I was insecure and unsure. It meant that I needed to learn to live with being “emotionally naked” to those who I identified as support. This is much easier to write about than live. It meant that in order for me to show up at a 12-step group, I had to be honest and lead with the last thing I wanted people to know about me and let that be the first thing I said. I have pissed people off, said things I wasn’t comfortable saying, and put up with blowback from others because of what I said. I don’t do this everywhere I go. Yet, when it comes to recovery groups, the only way I have been able to always get something from each group is for me to show up and tell on myself. This mentality has conditioned me to cultivate deeper intimacy with my wife and those I care about and who I have invited to be close. Practice telling on yourself.
4. Do the next right thing no matter what it takes. We say this all the time in 12-step work. When you screw up, make a relationship mistake, or act out, the hardest thing is to face the consequences and do the next right thing. You feel shitty about yourself and getting up out of the mud hole you created for yourself is really hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. It requires that regardless of how you feel, you have to force yourself to move in the right direction, not perfectly, but you’ve got to move! While the voices are screaming that you can’t do recovery, give up, just numb out, and get high, you have to take yourself by the nape of the neck and do the next right thing. This move is not spectacular and there is no glory in it. The war with addiction behavior is hammered out when you drag yourself from wallowing in the mud and pick up the phone, tell on yourself, and go to a meeting. You can never get away from doing the next right thing no matter what it takes.
5. As an addict, what you think is most important, seldom is. In my addiction, what I thought was so important never was. John Prine wrote this great song about Sam Stone who became a morphine addict in the VietNam war and lived out the rest of his days addicted. He wrote, “When he popped his last balloon… there was nothing to be done but trade his house that he bought on the GI-bill for a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.” That’s always the result of addictive demand. There are times, even now, that I can be so damned insistent on wanting what I want when I want it. The next day it didn’t even matter. After the build-up of addictive craving and you too have popped your balloon, what you thought was so important on the other side seldom was.
6. Be your own guru. Activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote a book when she was 98 years old. In the book, she said “We are the leaders we are looking for.” This applies not only about our country’s destiny but is also true for those in recovery. I lead several groups of men who gather on weekends to work through addictive behavior. The tendency in groups of all kinds is to look to someone to be the guru. Usually, it is someone who has a way with words, is charismatic, or who just simply talks a lot. Guru is synonymous to being a teacher, master, or sage. The idea of being a teacher is great. However, it is common for group members to look to a teacher and build them up and put them on a pedestal. I find this very annoying! I can teach you and you can teach me. There is no need to pedestalize anyone. In religion, we make saints out of people. We do the same thing in recovery groups. Perhaps, out of insecurity, we put others on a pedestal and make gurus out of them. I find it detrimental to recovery growth. I suspect that this is done because we don’t want to grow ourselves and become our own guru. Recovery growth in my life has required that I become my own guru.
7. Addicts change only when the prospect of not changing is more painful than the change they are facing. This has been said by many regarding the change of behavior. It certainly has been true for me. Only when the pain of remaining stuck in old behavior—addiction, procrastination, lack of exercise, healthy eating habits, etc, became intolerable did I transform myself around these behaviors. Many talk about change. It will require that you increase the pain of hurtful behavior to an intensity that change is less painful than remaining the same. Personal growth throughout the rest of your life will demand that you make decisions around this experience of tension.
8. What is more important than sobriety is bringing yourself back to center. Sobriety is sacred. It is hard won by all of us who experience it. However, throughout the years I have learned to value the skill of bringing myself back to center to be more important. No one does sobriety perfect. In the world of sex addiction, few have ever put down the addictive process and never returned through relapse. Even among those who do, lapses into high-risk behavior is common. Bringing yourself back to center is a way of managing your humanity. You will make mistakes. You will need to cultivate the concept of velvet steel if you intend to maintain long-term sobriety. When – not if – you blow it and make a big mistake, you will need to know how to bring yourself back to center with humility and gentleness. You will need to know how to assert necessary firmness and resolution that will ground and help you to be true to your heart.
9. Be who you are – don’t try to be someone else. Musician and poet Van Morrison wrote, “Live the life you love and it will bring the blessings from above”. So many people try to be someone they are not. It is not necessary to try to live life through another’s persona. It’s an impossible way to live and extremely painful. Recovery flows and is rich when you commit to being your authentic self. You will never remain lost in your recovery when you practice being true to yourself.