By Scott Kiloby
This is one of the most important questions a person with a history of addiction can ask him- or herself: What is true recovery? The DSM and other well-respected manuals, literature and research tell us what the diagnoses of addiction look like. And many have sought to capture what recovery is really about through the same kind of conceptualization. But, for me, to know true recovery is a much more organic, human, spiritual and non-intellectual matter. When one is living in true recovery, it is totally experiential and very difficult to capture in words. There is an inner knowing that is honest, genuine, and surrendered and an ease with self, life and others. There is also an ease, non-resistance and absence of aversion towards addictive substances and activities themselves. We can write books about this, just as I have done. But to live in true recovery is another matter altogether. It is experiential in every sense.
True recovery isn’t about abstinence. For example, it isn’t the act of smoking a cigarette or drinking wine that is the problem. The act itself is benign. It is merely an act that comes and goes within our experience. In the same way, it is not the refraining from the act of smoking a cigarette or drinking wine that is true recovery. The real issue to take seriously when it comes to addiction is the enslavement to the act – including the compulsivity and avoidance of discomfort and pain that goes with enslavement. When enslavement is absent, one actually loses interest in the compulsivity towards the act and the avoidance.
I am not making an argument in favor of moderation over abstinence. Certainly, for some addictive substances and activities, abstinence is critical in allowing a true healing to begin. I am merely saying that life is fluid in every way. We love categories, labels and diagnoses, as if they can truly capture both what addiction is and what recovery is. But if we look more closely at the wide diversity of human experience, we begin to see how difficult it is to pin down this definition of true recovery.
For example, I worked with a client once whose addiction to sugar had truly dropped away, because he had dealt with the underlying feelings of shame and low self-esteem that had driven it for so many years. He explained that, now and again, he can eat a sweet cake or donut, and enjoy it immensely, yet have no craving for more the next day. That is my experience also. How is this possible?
I personally dealt with a sex addiction for many years – totally compulsive in nature. And yet I still enjoy sex now and then, but without the enslavement and repetitive, compulsive thinking and behavior that goes with sex addiction. How is this possible?
Just the other day, I met with a young man who had a drinking problem for many years. After a number of years of abstinence, he found himself able to drink a beer now and then without using it compulsively at all. How is any of this possible?
On the other hand, I have worked with many people – especially in early recovery – who spiral right back down into full blown addiction after a period of abstinence the moment they pick up even one drink or use their drug of choice once. How is it possible that this diversity of human experience can exist?
If we look more closely at what underlies addiction, we begin to see the answer. Addiction really isn’t about the addictive substance or activity itself, for the act of using is – as I have said – benign in and of itself. One man’s drink is benign, while another’s is the catalyst into full-blown addiction. Addiction often carries one or more underlying issues that drive the behavior including shame, guilt, trauma, anxiety, grief, low self-esteem, social and environmental factors, and genetics. Focusing on those issues is the key.
What happens when a person becomes open to address and heal these underlying issues so thoroughly that they are simply no longer there at all (with the exception of genetics)? What happens is that the driving factors are gone or mostly gone. The engine behind one’s addictive tendencies has died. One has lost interest in compulsivity and avoidance entirely.
At this point, you may wonder if I am suggesting that such a person can drink again or smoke pot again without becoming addicted? I am not suggesting any such thing. I am not suggesting either abstinence or moderation. I am suggesting that the real work on the underlying issues changes one’s relationship to everything, not only to addictive substances and activities but also to the concepts of addiction and recovery, addict and recovering addict and abstinence and moderation. This is a complete change in one’s perception of life itself, where one loses interest in compulsivity and avoidance, such that enslavement to substances and activities as well as enslavement to these categories of thinking fall away. This is true freedom.
When I am in a recovery meeting listening to people hold tightly to their stories of how long they have been clean and sober, I feel a mixture of gratitude for the fact that are clean and sober as well as concern for whether they have truly dealt with the underlying issues. You see, when one is holding back the dam of addiction, life is a struggle. Relapse back into full blown addiction always feels right around the corner. They have gone from living in the story of being an addict or alcoholic to living in the story of being a recovering addict or alcoholic. Every day they remain clean and sober is something to celebrate. But the act of holding back that damn is damaging on many levels.
As I walk around those meetings, I watch people drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes compulsively. I listen to their stories of struggle. Everything seems to be a struggle. They are holding back the dam. One could even say that they are unsuccessful in holding back the dam because they are still addicted to something. They are saying they are recovering, but in fact they have merely switched addictions – from drugs to coffee, from heroin to shopping, from alcohol to donuts. And so they have never actually become clean and sober. They have engaged in substitution. The underlying issues are still there to one degree or another. Those issues have not been dealt with and healed. And until they are dealt with and healed, the substitution continues.
After about five years in recovery, I didn’t feel a need to celebrate my clean time. I realized that I had simply switched from alcohol and drugs to coffee, sex/porn, tobacco and other addictions. It wasn’t until the underlying issues were addressed and healed that I began to experience true recovery. Slowly, the addictive behaviors around all of those substances and activities began to fall away. I lost interest. This doesn’t mean that I stopped having sex or stopped eating sweets or engaging in pleasure. It means I lost interest in the compulsivity and avoidance. As I faced all the feelings that I had been running from for so many years, suddenly clean time didn’t matter anymore. What mattered and continues to matter is my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual state right now, in this moment and in every moment. There seemed to be nothing to celebrate until I was open and ready to examine the real issues driving all of that compulsivity and avoidance.
As the issues were dealt with, there was this overwhelming sense that I accept myself just as I am, exactly as I show up in every moment. When feelings arose, I felt them, let them be. When negative thoughts arose, I observed them with mindfulness and let them be. This is still my experience today. Everything is allowed in the open space of the present moment. This is what true recovery is to me. It is not a badge that I wear showing how long I’ve been clean and sober. It is not a label such as “recovering addict.” True recovery is that ease with myself, others and life, that moment by moment surrender to what is. This is the most loving and compassionate way to experience life. In losing interest in compulsivity and avoidance, I lose interest in the enslavement to addictive substances and activities and the enslavement to the stories and labels of being an addict or a recovering addict. I simply live, without any of those stories, taking one moment at a time.
Living in the moment in this way, while staying completely open to examine any underlying issues that pop up, is something to celebrate, truly. It is much more valuable to me than the number of years, months or days that I have not drank alcohol, used drugs, eaten sugar or had sex. It is something much more special than that. It is true recovery. It is completely experiential.