12 Concepts of Recovery That Have Stood the Test of Time

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12 Concepts of Recovery That Have Stood the Test of Time

By Stanton Peele 04/11/15

Because one way is not the only way. The Fix's Stanton Peele offers hopeful options!

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1. Purpose. I emphasize natural recovery from addiction. In particular, I talked about quizzing a large audience of participants at the International Cannabis Business Conference about their smoking histories. From one half to two-thirds of the group who had ever smoked had quit, virtually none had quit a smoking addiction due to treatment or a support group. As I said, a larger percentage of those ever addicted to meth, heroin, and cocaine have quit their habits than smokers, most often on their own.

Why do I always return to this subject? Because it makes clear the most self-evident thing about quitting addictions, or avoiding them in the first place—that people have larger purposes that rule out the allure of drugs, or alcohol, or smoking, or shopping, or random sex. And what are these reasons? What do you think people in the audience tell me when I ask them why they have quit? 

The answers are self-evident: “I was worried about my health,” “I started thinking how stupid and self-destructive I was being,” “I was pissing away money I should have been saving for a home, or retirement, or my kids.” I often tell the story of Uncle Ozzie, a rabid union activist, who quit smoking when somebody pointed out he was a sucker to the tobacco companies—big businesses that were his sworn enemy.  

But the number one reason people quit is embodied by the young girl who says to her father, “Why are you killing yourself—don’t you love me?” It doesn’t work all the time. But it is the number one motive for recovery. More people quit addictions—heroin, alcohol, coffee, nicotine—when they or their spouses become pregnant, or their children near the age of awareness, than for any other reason under the sun. We will explicate the underlying dynamic at work here—love—as the last item on this list.

2. Empowerment. Uncle Ozzie had a disgusting habit he was ashamed of—smoking four packs of cigarettes daily, lighting one cigarette with another at his workbench at a time when that was permitted, until his fingers were stained with that horrible, pale orange of tobacco. What a weak-willed, enslaved, pathetic creature! Then he quit and everyone marveled at his self-control. In fact, Ozzie watched his diet and walked and swam for exercise and lived a vibrant life of over 90 years.

What gave Ozzie the ability to overcome his overwhelming habit? Not having been taught anything to the contrary, he decided he had the power to change his behavior. His assertion of self-control then enhanced this power: “Once I knew I could quit cigarettes, I felt I could do just about anything.” Anything that practices and engages the person’s self-control (as Roy Baumeister and John Tierney describe in their best-seller, Willpower) strengthens that ability.  

Empowerment is, thus, a trainable, practicable skill. It is certainly nothing to be discouraged or disparaged.

3. Values. Ozzie had one thing he valued above all else—the workingman versus the capitalist lackeys who ran his plant. So Ozzie had a strong, central value in his life—a critical tool for licking an addiction. But where was that value for the quarter of a century—between the ages of 18 and 42—when Ozzie was smoking like a chimney? Sometimes people bury, forget or lose their values. And they fail to recognize how their addiction affects what they value.  

The most-often utilized treatment today in the addiction field is motivational interviewing. The best way to describe the MI process is as a value-surfacing exercise, represented by questions like: “What is the most important thing in your life? How does your smoking, drinking, drug use, sexual acting out affect this concern (spouse, children, religion, health, self-respect)?” The value may be submerged but, as with Ozzie, it is there at the core of the person’s being, waiting to be reasserted.

4. Mindfulness. So what is mindfulness? It is both a psychological (a la Ellen Langer) and a Buddhist concept. In the former usage, mindfulness is being aware of the forces that determine your behavior. In Buddhism, mindfulness emphasizes the here and now of lived experience. The two definitions express two sides of your ongoing anti-addiction awareness.

There are various meditations and exercises that allow you to find your core values—the real you beneath the surface of your disruptive and addictive behaviors. Imagine yourself  diving beneath the tumultuous waves of your existence, into a peaceful place where you can slowly rotate your body and your consciousness to be your true, free self—the person you want to be. That’s the parent, the person with integrity, the person who does the right thing, the healthy human being—the person who respects others, the universe, God’s work, themselves.  

That’s right, we’re talking about you. And, as with will power, practicing the visualization and realization of your true self improves your ability to be that person. This realization is, thus, both a divine gift and a pragmatic skill. 

5. Pause. Addictions are marked by their sense of immediacy, when they seem to gain control of your whole being so that you cannot act in any way but addictively. Mindfulness is a way of gaining control over such urges—cravings—which can otherwise seem unmanageable or unavoidable. Imagine your craving as a wave that you are floating or surfing over. Accepting this craving, but recognizing it as a temporary swell that will soon recede and leave you again facing a calm ocean, is a learnable skill or acquirable asset, like everything else on this list.

And the same skill in re-establishing your equilibrium applies even if you resort to your addictive experience—whether that is sex, drugs, gambling or chocolate (to borrow from the title of Tom Horvath’s book), or anything else. There is no birthright, no scientific law (say, like gravity) that dictates—just because a step has been taken in an addictive direction—you need to follow that step to its final, worst point. Even if you should have a moment, an hour, an evening, or several days of excess, the next morning is yours for you to recapture the equanimity and self-respect of your mindful self.

6. Community. From the interior of your mind, we can now branch out into the communities that surround you. AA, and related groups, are communities of ex-addicts or of those striving to leave their addictions behind. But those who encounter addiction have the right, and the ability, to search for larger, more inclusive, less stigmatizing communities. You are always a full member of the human community. Whatever parts of yourself that are not engaged in your addiction—and these always remain plentiful—deserve to form allegiances and to gain the benefits of knowing other people who share your interests and values.  

Broader communities like these, both model and reinforce non-addicted behavior. Since their focus is not on the addiction, other members of these communities engage in life pursuits in ways that rule out the addictive behavior. In this way, community members constantly remind you what such non-addicted, normalized behavior looks like until you get it yourself. Think of hikers, marathoners, political and religious and environmental organizations, musical and writing and craft groups. The world is your oyster, a banquet of such options and opportunities.

7. Engagement. Group belonging is one example of being engaged with the world, a living-in-the-present kind of mindfulness that is the opposite of addiction. When you are rollerblading, or singing, or hiking, or painting, or campaigning for a cause or caring for others, you are not engaged in addictive behavior. The concept of flow expresses the idea of being so fully engaged that the rest of your life passes by as though you are in a cocoon, unassailed by doubt and worry. You know that you are engaged in something positive and worthwhile—something you are proud of.

8. Outlook. Living in the present means accepting that this world—and your part in it—is valuable. You need to fan this belief, which is sometimes difficult to maintain, to commit yourself to a life worth living in place of an addictive lifestyle. This outlook might be called optimistic, or accepting, or faith-based. Without it, escapism will always be a primary motive for you.

9. Skills. As Archie Brodsky and I wrote in Love and Addiction in 1975: 

The best antidotes to addiction are joy and competence—joy as the capacity to take pleasure in the people, things, and activities that are available to us; competence as the ability to master relevant parts of our environment and the confidence that our actions make a difference for ourselves and others. 

Competence is your ability to find and to secure those things in life you wish for—your skills in mastering your environment. Every such skill—from dealing with people, to being athletic, to knowing how to build and repair machines or furniture or relationships, to speaking or painting or singing well, to planning business endeavors, to planting flowers—the list is as infinite as the population of the earth. And every item on it is to be treasured and to be learned from and spread as much as possible to those areas of your life where your skills may lag behind. 

10. Rewards. Addictions are not mysterious things. They provide rewards to people—relaxation, escape from fear or anguish, a sense of control, a feeling of self-value. But, in a true addiction—as opposed to enjoyable habits or substance use (which is a real possibility)—the ultimate tally is in the red, often increasingly, steeply so. Nonetheless, flashes of those temporary rewards—or the memory of them—still motivate the addiction.

What will motivate you to quit your addiction? The rewards of no longer being addicted—the ability to breathe freely when you quit smoking, to walk more easily when you weigh less, to awake with a clear head, to have the respect of others (as well as self-respect), to save money for something you want, to have satisfying, positive relationships, to care for yourself. And on and on. For every negative that addictions cause, quitting or replacing addictions brings a corresponding benefit, one that is to be savored for all time.

11. Forgiveness. In my previous piece for this site, I recalled the tragic story of Terry McGovern, a loving person whose fatal flaw was being unable to love—to forgive—herself. All of us require forgiveness of some kind, and addictions can add to that burden. But, whatever that potential burden, life going forward is a fresh page.

In The PERFECT Program, which Ilse Thompson and I detail in Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict, the “E” stands for “Embrace.” Self-forgiveness, of course, is not a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, research consistently shows that self-flagellation makes it harder to change. Guilt triggers relapse. Thus, self-tolerance prompts you to do better.  

12. Love. Ilse and I tell the story of Phil in Recover!:

Phil had begun smoking at thirteen and had tried repeatedly to quit—succeeding for a few months two times, with a nicotine patch and nicotine gum, but each time relapsing.

At age sixty-nine, he awoke from a heart-bypass operation, following his second heart attack, to see his lovely, thirty-six-year-old daughter Cynthia hovering over him. “Can you get me a cigarette, Cynthia darling?” he asked, as he had so many times before. 

“Daddy,” Cynthia responded, “if you smoke another cigarette I’ll never speak to you.” Phil lived fourteen more years and, like Ozzie after his moment of truth, never smoked again.

Question: Why did Phil quit smoking? Into what neurochemical category does his remission fall? Where is love in the brain? Oh, we can find excitatory love there. But the love of a child or other cherished family member or friend or lover—especially when that love has been ignored in the service of an addiction—can never be located in a brain scan. And yet, the desire to be loved and to do the best thing for the one you love is the most potent force on this list.

Summary: It is complicated to see addiction as the result of such a multitude of factors, and to embrace the complex range of human connections you can use to extinguish addiction. But this understanding is your path to freedom. Try it.

Stanton Peele, Ph.D., recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the Drug Policy Alliance and Rutgers Center, is the author of Recover! Stop Thinking Like and Addict and 11 other books. He last wrote about how the legalization of drugs challenged the brain disease theory and the link between the disease model and the War on Drugs.

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