Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse, Part 17: Recovery is easier than you think

All this reading about substance abuse and recovery may have given you the wrong impression. You may think that it’s hard to stop using drugs. Maybe it is, but nearly everyone who has experienced both addiction and recovery say the same thing: recovery is far easier than addiction.

You’re accustomed to all the work it takes to keep up an addiction, so you might not notice it anymore. You’re not accustomed to the work it takes to recover. It seems hard to decline your first impulse, to be honest with yourself, to go to meetings, and to open yourself up to healthy influences; but, in almost every case, you will wonder why you put it off so long. It’s not hard, it’s just different.

Let’s look at all the work involved in keeping up an addiction. You’ve got to get the drug. It’s rarely cheap and often involves going to a bad neighborhood and dealing with unsavory characters. You often get ripped off, run legal risks, and have to act secretly.
Then, you’ve got to use the drug. It sometimes involves the fuss of cooking and the pain of needles. It tastes bad, makes you cough, or gets you dizzy. You’ve got to stand out in the weather or hide yourself in the bathroom. You sometimes have to use it, even when you don’t crave it; like when you pull out your cigarettes before going into a movie theater because you won’t be able to smoke till the end.

Finally, you have to recover from it. There’s the hangovers, of course, the withdrawal, the delirium tremors. You’ve got to deal with the fallout from your spouse, the disappointment from your children, the criticism from your parents. There are lies and excuses you have to think up, and then remember what you said to whom. There are health issues. You’ve got piss tests at work and teachers looking closely at your eyes at school. Judges and probation officers don’t take kindly to chemical use and neither do old friends who know how you used to be.

Oh, there’s also the phenomena of increased tolerance. The more you use the drug, the less effective it’s going to be. You chase that first high and never experience that delight and wonder again. It gets to be that you can’t even get high anymore, but you use only to feel normal again.

People in the beginning and middle of addiction seldom think of all the costs involved. All those kids, smoking in front of the school are not saying to one another, Look at me, I’m starting a habit that going to cost me thousands of dollars a year, will make me stink, cause me to be socially ostracized, discriminated when I apply for insurance, give me cancer and heart disease, and bring me to an early grave. You think that’s what they’re saying to one another? No, they’re talking about how cool they look, how grown up they feel, and how no one else understands.

Let’s take a look at the decisions involved when you make the choice whether to use drugs or not. You probably use in response to a distress of some kind. It may only be the distress of the craving, itself; or you may use drugs as a way of coping with some anxiety or depression. Either way, you experience distress and assume you’re going to continue to experience distress unless you do something about it. The situation is depicted in this graph.

Image001

The vertical axis represents the level of distress, the horizontal axis, the passage of time. Your distress grows over time, until it gets to the point where you are now. You imagine that it’ll just get worse. You feel you have to do something fast.

What do you do? If you’re an addict, you use your drug.

Image002

Your distress level plummets pretty fast. You think, it’s a good idea you drank, shot up, or smoked, then.

But, there’s one problem, you don’t know what would have happened if you didn’t use your substance.

I’ll tell you what would have happened. What would have happened is what always happens. Things regress to the mean, people get used to anything, thoughts end, feelings go away, you get distracted. If you don’t do anything, it looks like this:

Image004
If you knew this, you’d feel like a fool, using drugs. All that cost, all that risk, all those consequences, all to get exactly where you would have gotten if you did nothing.
Well, if you feel like a fool looking at that graph, then look at what happens when more time goes by and all the costs, risks, and consequences of using drugs play out.

Image005

How do you like them apples?

This same graph works just as well with almost all kinds of distress and other things we do to intervene: shopping, getting in a fight, avoiding issues, hurting yourself, or killing yourself. We rarely know what the consequence of doing nothing is because there seems to be an imperative to always do something to relieve distress.

I used to advise people to learn to sit with feelings. If you feel angry, sad, nervous, or scared, see what happens if you do nothing. Study the feeling, contemplate it, and experience it before you act on it. You’ll find that, whatever feeling you had just went away and didn’t stick around long enough for you to study anything. So, I don’t say sit with your feelings because your feelings don’t sit. They travel. Watch them go by.

It’s easier than you might believe.

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