When Problems Take Over: Persistent Problems

Even when people are firing on all cylinders, relationships can be tricky. When there’s a persistent problem, like an illness or an addiction, in the mix, they can be impossible. Persistent problems can be the source of much harm. The alcoholic you can’t rely on. The gambler you can’t trust with money. The depressive who won’t do anything. The phobic who won’t go anywhere. The narcissist who makes everything about her. The guy who can’t seem to keep his dick in his pants. When problems like alcoholism, compulsive gambling, depression, phobias, narcissism, or compulsive sex take over, it takes hard work to eradicate them and eternal vigilance to keep them away. Relapse can be expected. When we’re talking about addiction, it takes an average of seven real attempts before recovery feels solid and, even then, you won’t know if he’s going to need eight. Mental illness also tends to be episodic, and, if nothing is done about it, each new episode is worse than the last. People who have succumbed once to the allure of violence, sexual recklessness, self harm, suicide attempts, or self pity are more likely to do it again. Moreover, problems will often go into hiding when they feel threatened, so that what appears to be recovery is really a more pernicious hidden phase of the same problem that caused so much trouble before.

If you’ve been traveling this road to reconciliation and don’t believe you’re getting anywhere, maybe your partner is looking at everything differently. What’s black to you, is white to him. Up is down and in is out. When you think you’re heading towards reconciliation, he thinks you’re pointing the other way.  (Continue reading…)

Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse: You can’t stop cravings from knocking at the door, but you don’t have to answer

You could stop using whatever it is that is destroying you and you will still think about it from time to time. You’ll have dreams of using. A beer truck might roll by and you’ll feel thirsty. That old life will seem good every now and then. You could have some very good reasons to stop using, but you will forget them if the craving is strong enough. Thoughts of using are just that: thoughts; but they can be very powerful if fed. They can bring down the most secure sobriety.

When people enter recovery and find they cannot stop the thoughts of use, they get discouraged and figure nothing can help; but recovery is a process. You can’t reduce the incidence of thoughts of use without first reducing their duration.

You know those people who walk through your neighborhood in pairs and knock on your door asking you to join their church? I get them in my neighborhood, too. One day, I invited them in for coffee. I gave them donuts. We had a good talk about the Bible, but I couldn’t get them to leave. They next day they were back. I didn’t want to be rude, so we had coffee again, and again, and again, and again. They were good people, but I wasn’t going to join their church, I was already set in that regard. I was wasting their time and mine also. I couldn’t make them stop. It was madness.

Then, one day when they knocked, I made an excuse that I was painting the kitchen, so we couldn’t have coffee. They were back a few minutes later in old clothes and offered to help me paint. Since I wasn’t really painting anything, I had to tell them the truth. Please don’t knock on my door anymore. Goodbye.

The next day, they were back.

Eventually, I learned that even engaging with them in the doorway was a mistake. Whenever I would hear the doorbell, I had to peer out a window. If it was them, I’d make like I was not home. Finally, they stopped coming.
Your cravings to use drugs are like that. So are your anxieties, your negative thoughts, your unwarranted feelings, your paranoia, and any of your impulses to do things that you’ll regret. You can’t stop these thoughts from knocking at the door, but you don’t have to let them in.

When you notice you’re engaging in these thoughts, that’s the time to stop them. Say to yourself, “Stop the Madness”, and those thoughts will stop for the moment you say it. Seriously. All you have to do is identify your thing as madness for you to end the power it has over you for that moment. It’s as simple as that.

Oh, the thoughts of use will come back in, like, two seconds; so soon it’ll seem like you never stopped. It’s simple, but often it’s not easy.

Sometimes thoughts of use have already moved in, are sleeping on the couch, or even kicked you out of your own bed, or are holding you hostage. They’ll dig in their heels, argue, threaten, lie, hornswoggle you into believing you need to use. Getting rid of them will be like when a woodchuck chews his own leg off to get out of a trap, but it all starts with you identifying the madness.

So, do it again. Say, “Stop the Madness”, and those thoughts stops once more. Do this as many times as it takes. You will reduce the duration of thoughts of use. Time spent in thoughts of use will get shorter and shorter. You’ll get better at doing this. It’ll get easier for you to stop. Eventually, you’ll learn to see the thoughts of use coming and, like me, pretend you’re not home.

I was complicit with the people knocking on my door, but I didn’t know it. I had a choice. I didn’t need to let them in. I entertained them. I fed them. I sat with them and had coffee.

When you stop answering the door every time your thoughts of use knock, you’ll see you have a choice, too. You’ve been complicit. The sooner you terminate your engagement with thoughts of use, the sooner they lose their power over you. They wither away, malnourished. You’ll see.

Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse: When you stop using your drug, you find the real issue

“Ask one of the patients at your unit if you could interview him,” my professor said, giving me a tape recorder. “Ask him if he would tell you why he uses drugs.”

I said I would. I was ready. I wanted to know why people use drugs.

I was an intern at a chemical dependency unit at a VA medical hospital.

“Above all,” my professor added. “When you interview the patient, be non-judgmental. That’s all you have to do. When you’re non-judgmental it becomes easy for them to talk, and they need to talk. You’ll be graded on how non-judgmental you are.”

I thought the assignment would be easy, but when I found someone who would talk with me, once he began to speak, he told me what he said he had never told anyone before.

“I’m a child molester,” he said.

I almost packed up my tape recorder and went to find someone easier. I was supposed to be non-judgmental. I was being graded on this.

He went on to tell me that the first time was his little sister, then some children he’d babysat. He hated himself for it. He joined the Navy just so he wouldn’t be around kids, but they stationed him in the Philippines, where there were plenty of child sex workers. He left the Navy, and got married, hoping that would cure him, but his wife wanted children. When he began to take a sexual interest in his own children, he discovered heroin made him stop. That was his drug, heroin. Now the addiction was out of control and his wife demanded he go to rehab.

“She doesn’t know I’m a child molester. How can I tell her I can’t stop using?”

I didn’t know what to say, but I did thank him for letting me record him.

When my professor heard the tape, he immediately gave me an A. I guess I’d been sufficiently non-judgmental. He said I had to tell the director of the unit what the man had said.

The Director was old school. “He’s trying to justify his use,” he said. “He’s trying to distract you from what he’s here for. You fell for it. What makes you think if he was a child molester he would tell anyone. Why would he tell you, an intern, when he wouldn’t tell anyone else?”

A couple of days later the man absconded from the unit. Whether he went back to using heroin or molesting children, I have no way of knowing; but I do know that he changed the direction of my career. Despite the Director, I would always look for the underlying issue.

I have more sympathy for the Director now than I did then. I have since learned that few addicts know why they use their drug; so, when he heard of someone who said he knew, he was suspicious. I get that now; but I still believe that before using a drug becomes a problem in need of a solution, it was a solution to a different problem.

Let’s just say that a typical alcoholic is having a craving. She’ll say something like, “I need a drink.” If you ask her what she needs a drink for, she’ll probably say she just needs a drink. If you press her, or if she can’t get a drink, she might say that she’s anxious. “That’s why I need a drink,” she’ll say. “I need it for my anxiety.” However, you don’t know if anxiety is what started her drinking in the beginning or if she’s just anxious because she can’t drink.

If you dig down a little deeper and ask her how she began drinking, she might say, “I was a teenager at a party where there were a lot of people I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone; but when I started to drink, I didn’t think so much about it and I had a lot of fun.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. You could go on and ask what was important about knowing what to say.

“I didn’t want to look dumb.”

“What was important about not looking dumb?”

“People used to tease me.”

“What was important about people not teasing you?”

“I wouldn’t have any friends.”

You could keep going like this, all the way down a chain of solutions. Drinking solves not knowing what to say. Knowing what to say solves looking dumb. Not looking dumb solves getting teased, and so on.

If you follow this chain of solutions all the way down to the original problem, you come to when the woman was a baby. She cried. She didn’t know what she wanted because she was just a baby. Her parents don’t know what she wanted, but they wanted her to stop crying, so they tried a series of things; and, when she stopped crying after they bounced her up and down, they figured that was it. Crying was the problem and bouncing her up and down became the solution. When she cried, they thought it meant she wanted to be bounced up and down.

Is that what she really wanted? We’ll never know. We’ll never know because it is lost to time, but, even at the time, it was impossible to know because she had no words for it. She was an utterly helpless, unknowing, inarticulate human being at the time.

That’s what it all comes down to, I believe. That’s the problem that motivates everything. It’s the abyss.

The abyss is this deep, dark, depressing hole, full of chaos. It’s a chasm, really, and when you fall in, sometimes there’s no climbing out. When you call it anything at all, you call it death, brokenness, vulnerability, hopelessness, helplessness, or despair. I like to call it the abyss.

A lot of us like to believe the abyss is at the end of everything, but it’s also in the beginning. We came out of it. The baby is crying from the depths of it. When parents identify a solution, they pull her out.

The abyss is in the middle of everything, too. You walk around it, gaze into it, slip into it, and watch others fall into it all the time. It’s there whenever you see just how screwed up everything can be. You don’t like to think about it. It’s considered impolite to even acknowledge its existence.

You live at the edge of this hole; some dance at its rim; others peer carefully in; most keep their back to it, as if it wasn’t there. You often find yourself reeling, dizzy at the edge. You cling to something to prevent falling. Clinging to something enables you to live at the edge of the abyss more comfortably. You think, if you start to slip, you can haul yourself out.

What do you cling to? What are the bushes at the edge of this hole?


Unfortunately, anything we cling to starts to fall into the hole, too; taking us down, with it. Everything must fall in the hole, eventually. Every solution leads to more problems.

The alcoholic is clinging to a bush that is starting to go and fall into an abyss . She’s got to learn to swing from bush to bush. Let go of drinking and try something new. Of course, this means she’s going to have to let go and reach across the void to grab on to something unfamiliar. She may look crazy, swinging from bush to bush over a bottomless chasm like a mad monkey; but she’ll be the most sensible person of all.

Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse, Part 20: Those who care the most about you will be the last to believe in your recovery

If you’re an addict in recovery, you may have already noticed this. Those who are closest to you are the last to believe you’re changing. Your wife, your husband, mother, father, children, close friends, don’t get as excited as you do when you celebrate one week clean, one month clean, or one year clean. They’ve heard it before. They don’t want to hear it again.

You feel offended. You wish they trusted you, believed in you.

Well, it isn’t just you. This is a universal phenomena. Your loved one is acting as your lookout. This is a good thing.

Your addiction was custom-made just for you or you would not be subject to it. It sneaks up in your blind spots. If you could see it coming, it never would’ve gotten you. It fits you like a glove. When anyone is tricked by your addiction, it tricks you first.

If you’re in a close relationship, you have a resource that others don’t have. You have a lookout. Your addiction was not custom made just for her (or him). It doesn’t sneak up in her blind spots. She spots it coming before you do. She can see through the deceptions more easily. She has a vested interest in keeping you safe from relapse. She could warn you that it’s approaching, if only you will listen.

It takes hard work to cover from addiction and eternal vigilance to keep from using again. Relapse can be expected. It takes an average of seven real attempts before recovery feels solid and, even then, you won’t know if you’re going to need eight. Moreover, addiction of all kinds will often go into hiding when it feels threatened, so that what appears to be recovery is really a more pernicious hidden phase of the same madness that troubled you before.

Paid professionals can help, they have the knowledge, they have the objectivity, but they don’t have the access your partner has. They don’t see you on the weekends and at night when triggers often strike. They do not have as much at stake.

Far too many people fail to use their lookout. The lookout sees the relapse coming and they argue with her, deny it’s happening, get defensive. This is a mistake. It’s as if a lookout on a ship, up in the crow’s nest, saw an iceberg up ahead, and the captain yelled, “You’re crazy, I’m not going to hit an iceberg. You never trust me. I’m going to do what I want. Get off my back.” It would not be good if a captain did that.

To be sure, many lookouts don’t execute their role too well. When they see relapse coming, they often make accusations, rather than observations. It’s as if the lookout, up in the crow’s nest, called out, “You’re hitting an iceberg again! Don’t you care about me?” They should just warn you that there’s an iceberg. You might be tempted to dismiss their warnings as crazed paranoia. It would not be good if you, or any captain, did that.

However, you’ve got to realize that you’ve hit a few icebergs in your day, already, and your lookout should be excused if she gets excited when she sees another one.

There’s a few things you can expect from a good lookout. Don’t be surprised when you see them.

· A good lookout doesn’t resign.

If your partner comes down from the crow’s nest and tells you that you’ve got to look out for your own addiction, you can figure that next she’ll be going off in a lifeboat. True partners do not resign as lookouts, unless they’re about to leave the relationship, or they’re a damn fool. She has to be a lookout, if only to guard her own interests.

· A good lookout stays awake.

She doesn’t watch like a hawk in the beginning and then forget about it later on. If it’s months or years since madness last struck, don’t be surprised if she still on the lookout. She has to be. That’s her job.

· A good lookout scans the horizon.

She doesn’t keep looking in the same place. The main thing to look out for is the way the madness arrived in the past. It is likely to come that way again. If, for instance, Christmas is a difficult time, then she should be especially on the lookout at Christmas time. But understand, the same difficulty can come wherever there is busy-ness, family contact, alcohol use, overeating, darkness, or an imperative to be merry.

· A good lookout is not deceived.

Addiction arrives in disguise. No one starts off drinking three six packs a day just to feel normal. No, they start off with a glass of wine at dinner, a beer during the game, or doing a shot with a friend. These things are all good things, there is nothing wrong with any of them in themselves. They are only evil because of where they lead. A good lookout sees through the disguises. She knows the masks that your addiction wears.

· A good lookout is jumpy.

She’s got to be vigilant. If you keep driving by that place where you used to score drugs, she should be seeing red flags. This may very well be the way relapse creeps up innocently.

· A good lookout raises the alarm.

If she sees relapse coming, she should say something, not keep that information to herself. You need to know it. She may not want to do it, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but this is what lookouts are for. If the addiction has given the two of you a lot of trouble in the past, she might not want to believe it’s back. If the addiction has already taken you over, she might get an argument.

· A good lookout keeps her eye on the hazard.

If your lookout spots a relapse approaching, she should keep her eye on it, even if you say it’s nothing. Don’t be surprised if she looks for confirmation in the form of a home drug or alcohol testing kit to eliminate suspicions. She may want to get a second opinion from a professional; sort of like calling in another lookout and asking what he sees.

· A good lookout keeps herself safe.

She shouldn’t be so busy being a lookout, watching out for your relapse that she gets overcome by her own kind of madness. Yes, everyone, even your partner, has her own kind of madness.

· A good lookout has someone looking out for her.

Be your partner’s lookout, just as she is yours. Watch each others’ backs. You can see her madness more clearly than she can her own. If your partner has been dealing with your addiction for a long time, she’s probably worked very hard to keep herself strong. Someone in the house had to function. The laundry, the cooking, the kids, the relatives, the shopping, and going to work don’t get done by themselves. She may not be accustomed to relying on you for anything; you just haven’t been reliable. That’s going to have to change. She needs a lookout, too.

If you’ve ever complained that your partner doesn’t trust you, let her be your lookout. This is how she learns to trust you again.

Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse, Part 19: While you’ve been collecting key chains at your NA meeting, your addiction has been doing pushups in the dark

So, you’ve stopped drinking or drugging. The addiction seems to have gone away.

Has it, really?

Addiction takes cover sometimes when it feels threatened. It’ll hide in the bushes and come roaring out when you least suspect it. Make no mistake, addiction is cunning, baffling, and very, very patient. While you’ve been collecting key rings at your NA meeting, the addiction has been doing pushups in the dark.

Addiction prefers the dark. It likes to perform its dirty deeds in secret. The night belongs to Michelob. However, addiction is rarely ever a real secret. It’s kidding you when you believe it leaves no trace. You can tell when addiction is still afoot if you are willing to read the signs.

These are the signs:

You haven’t done the things promised for your recovery

If the problem behavior is gone, but you still haven’t been to see a therapist, attended meetings, written that letter of apology, changed associates, or done any of the things you promised, then the addiction is just hoping you won’t notice.

The behavioral changes have been minor

The more serious the addiction has been, the more excited you’ll be when there’s been a slight improvement.

You were drinking every day, now you’re thrilled that you cut down to once a week. You used to put your whole your paycheck into your arm, now you’re just chipping a little. The underlying attitudes towards drinking and drugging have not changed; the only thing changed is the frequency and severity.

When gardeners trim bushes back a little, they call it pruning; it doesn’t destroy the bush, it makes it grow more. The same thing happens when only minor changes are accomplished. You wouldn’t be satisfied with your surgeon if you had a mastectomy and he left some cancer behind, so don’t fool yourself by minor behavioral changes.

Other problems have arisen

Sometimes addiction plays whack-a-mole by extinguishing one problem behavior, only to transfer it to another. We see this frequently with addicts who will use one drug until the heat is on, and then switch to a different drug. Instead of scoring heroin on the street and using dirty needles, they get their narcotics from a doctor. You’ll think that’s an improvement, until you start to abuse those pills, too. The underlying issue remains.

Your thinking has not changed

If the rationalizations that have justified the addiction are still in evidence, then nothing has not gone away. You used to say you needed to drink, so you drank. Now, you don’t drink, but you still say you need to. Guess what? You’ll drink again. If the madness was truly gone, you’d no longer believe you needed it.

No fence has been built

It is not enough just to change the problem behavior to recover from addiction. You also have to know the route that it takes before it arrives. You need to put up a gate and shut out behavior that, in itself, is not problematic, but leads up to the problem.

Relapse comes masquerading as something harmless so that you will not see it coming. There’s nothing wrong with having a glass of wine at dinner or a pain medication that was prescribed by your doctor, right? No, not at all, except for where that leads, for you.

Authentic recovery means that you see through all the disguises.

You minimize your history

If the story you tell about your addiction differs significantly from your partner’s, then it’s still lurking about. If you talk about it only in terms of your suffering and leave out how it affected others, then you’ve not incorporated other points of view into your own. Your limited perspective is still all you have. You have an incomplete appreciation of the costs of your choices. You should be able to tell your partner’s side of the story as well as your own.

You’re withdrawn

If your partner complains that you’re virtually unreachable, emotionally inaccessible, or sexually uninterested, then relapse is waiting for its chance to strike. It doesn’t want people to ask too many questions, know too much, or get too close.

You’re always angry

You may be blaming other people for calling out your addiction and challenging it. you may be using anger as a way to keep others away, off balance, and uninformed. You may still be taking sides with it, against anyone who cares.

Your partner is working harder at recovery than you are

Your partner has been on you like white on rice. Ever since you had that relapse, she’s been monitoring your phone for drug dealers, checking your whereabouts, scanning your emails, opening your letters. She doesn’t let you go anywhere without her. She scrutinizes your eyes whenever you come home at night. She’s gone to more Al-Anon meetings than you’ve attended AA. She found a therapist for you, set up the appointment, went to every session, paid, and did the homework assignments. Your partner is working harder than you are.

If you have not taken responsibility for change, then you will not make the right choices the moment your partner’s back is turned.

You say everything is changed

You’re not the one to judge whether anything has changed. When your addiction fools people, it fools you first.

You want to move on and not get stuck in the past

That’s the addiction talking, trying to convince you to not learn from the past. Truly recovering people remind themselves of the past regularly, so that they’ll not repeat it.

You want credit for improvements

An adult straightens the house every day. He scrubs the toilets when they need it and mops the floor when it’s dirty. He doesn’t expect a medal for it. He just does it because it needs doing.

A toddler tickles the furniture with a feather duster once in a while and everyone will fall all over him, saying he was very helpful. That’s what they do for a child. Are you a child?

When madness takes over: the less you do, the more credit you think you deserve.

In a healthy world: you don’t earn special points for doing what you should have been doing all along.

It’s still all about you

Not only have you stopped the problematic behavior, but you’ve been going to therapy, attending AA, writing in your journal, and getting in touch with your feelings. These are all good things, but you’re still as self-involved as ever.

Real change means taking action towards becoming more loving, generous, caring, and empathetic towards others.

There are no signs

You looked over this list and you did not find a single thing that indicates relapse may be lurking. There seem to be no signs. Well, that’s your sign. If you aren’t seeing signs, then you’re fooling yourself. There are always signs.

The road to recovery is the same road as the road to ruin; you’re just traveling in a different direction. You pass by the same markers as when you were heading to ruin. You should be seeing them now and recognizing them for what they are. You should also be seeing some signs that indicate you are heading in the right direction. You should be seeing meaningful change.

Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse, Part 18: You don’t know what you can do

You could learn a lot about addiction and recovery by watching the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not referring to the scene where Dorothy and her friends pass out in a field of poppies. That’s the only outright drug reference I can recall. I’m talking about the way Dorothy and her friends are traipsing all over Oz, trying to find the Wizard who can give them what they need. You remember. Dorothy wants to go back home. The Tin Man wants a heart, the Scarecrow a brain, the Lion, some courage. They’ve all been told the Wonderful Wizard of Oz can get them what they want.

Dorothy and her friends go through quite a lot of trouble for the Wizard. Together, they confront the Wicked Witch of the West and her posse of terrifying flying monkeys. Dorothy gets captured, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion demonstrate considerable ingenuity, loyalty, and bravery to sneak into the castle, and Dorothy unexpectedly murders the witch with a bucket of water.

I hope I’m not spoiling it for you.

They return to the Wizard and demand an audience. There they find the man behind the curtain. They discover the Wizard is a fraud.

Things couldn’t get worse for Dorothy and her friends at this point, it seems. Here they are, Dorothy, stuck in Oz, the Scarecrow, brainless, the Tin Man, heartless, the Lion, without his courage, and the Wizard, with no power to help. They went through all that for nothing. It couldn’t get much worse than that.

The Wizard certifies the intelligence of the Scarecrow by presenting him with a diploma. He confirms the Tin Man’s humanity by giving him a ticking heart-shaped watch. He awards a medal to the Lion for his courage. By this point, you know that these characters had these qualities all along. They just needed someone to say so.

The thing that saves the day for Dorothy is that, unbeknownst to her, she had possessed, the whole time, the very means by which she could return to Kansas: the Ruby Slippers. A few clicks of the heels and she’s back in the loving care of Auntie Em.

I think you can see the parallels between the plot of this story and addiction. The object of addiction, the drug, is the Wizard. The addicts confer wondrous powers onto the drug. They’ll do anything for it because they believe it’s the very thing they need. They run grievous risks and commit horrendous crimes for its sake. Then, at some point, they discover the drug is a fraud. It does not have the powers they thought it had. It does not, cannot, give them what they want. This moment of awareness is an awful one. People do not want to feel that way, so they’ll engage in denial and hold out hopes in the power of the drug long after it’s reasonable to do so. However, becoming aware that the drug is a fraud is a necessary step in the process of recovery.

If that was all recovery consisted of, it would not be such a good thing. If all that you experienced in recovery was that the drug is a fraud and you have been wasting your time, then you might think you might as well slit your wrists. Fortunately, there’s more to learn. You can learn that all the qualities you looked for in the drug, you already possess. Indeed, you may have even demonstrated these qualities as you sought the drug.

The man who wakes up every morning, sick, homeless, and broke and, somehow, finds a way to raise money for smack should be teaching MBAs at Harvard. The crack whore, who, against all reason, braves the hazards of the street for a moment of pleasure, Medal of Honor winners should be saluting her. The sex addict who deceives and eludes the person closest to him; who knows him best, should get an Oscar for his performance. If addicts could recognize the qualities they have, they wouldn’t need the drug. If they could use those qualities towards an objective other than obtaining drugs, they could go far in life.

This is why you might not realize you already possess great powers. You started off life as child, utterly ineffectual and enthralled by the capabilities of the big people around you. You got used to being helpless. You may have even liked it and preferred depending on someone or something else, rather than taking responsibility for yourself.

Another reason you might not know you have great powers, is that you have not had a reason to use them.

This is how self discovery works: A boy, when he is growing up, is always getting beaten by his big brother in basketball. He believes he’s just not that much of an athlete, so be becomes a bookworm, instead. He gets good grades and is accepted into Harvard. There, on the Harvard Yard, he begins playing Ultimate Frisbee with the other bookworms. He discovers, out of the shadow of his big brother, that he’s more athletic than he thought.

As life goes on, he discovers more things about himself. Having spent so much time in school, he doesn’t believe he can succeed in the real world, until get gets a job and does just that. He dates lots of people and believes he is incapable of commitment, until he meets the right girl and cannot think of anyone else. His first child is born and he is overwhelmed by the terror of having to raise another human being, but he goes on to be a good father. The point is that we never know what we can do until we try.

Of course, trying something requires a key ingredient: courage.

What makes a king out of a slave? 
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? 
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? 
What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? 
What makes the dawn come up like thunder? 
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in apricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got?
(Sung by the Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Movie, 1939)

The Lion was right to desire courage. Without the courage to use them, no other qualities count for anything. Here’s the thing, though. You don’t possess courage before you use it, you develop it while in the act of using it. You create it while facing your fears.

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.


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.


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:

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.


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.