Click — Learning in Addiction Recovery

By Sam Renwick 07/06/20
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Have you ever struggled to learn how to do something? I mean really struggled. It’s part of the nature of being human because, at our core, we are learning beings.

For some people, algebra, geometry, and calculus fall into this category. For others, learning to interact with the opposite sex has been the challenge…or navigating group dynamics. Still others, figuring out how to cope with those damn emotions in useful ways has been the struggle.

When we speak of recovery from an addiction, often the process looks and feels like struggle. After all, in recovery one is learning how to navigate life without the use of a substance, behavior, or relationship that was previously quite central to life. Often times, recovery feels like the English major struggling through calculus.

Watching people, especially children, go through the process of struggling to learn to finally “getting it” is truly amazing. The learning process involves toil in the small steps of progress offset by failures until it just “clicks”. When the light bulb of the click goes off, a big shift happens as what is learned gets embedded somehow in our neural circuitry and what once was a struggle is no longer. Humans go from crawling to walking to running, from babbling to talking to writing, from counting to multiplying to solving quadratic equations, etc. What once was difficult becomes easier and more automatic. This is our nature.

For many of us, our addictive behavior was what we learned to help us deal with life. Habit, emotion, attachment/relationships, pleasure, pain, trauma, experience wove together in a tapestry and we learned how to deal with this tapestry in the way that we did. For some of us, we were quite gifted at acting out in our addiction, perhaps not too dissimilar to the math whiz who gets abstract algebra with ease. For others of us, we really had to practice to get to where we were in our addictions. Whichever the case, our addictions clicked for us and that became part of the problem, especially when the consequences mounted.

When we step into recovery, or more simply, learning how to live our lives differently than we were before (sometimes I wish we’d relabel recovery to simply growth), we enter a process of struggle and learning as early on we try to navigate our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships through a new filter, a filter that does not include our problematic addictive behavior and one that attempts to get to the core of why we pursued the addictive behavior in the first place. Often times the automaticity of old learned thinking and behaving makes learning the new way to live difficult, especially early on. Failure, pain, and difficulty seem just as, if not more, prominent than success, joy, and hope. This is the struggle.

But let’s be honest, did you learn to walk the first time you tried? Were you able to snowboard or ski the first time you got on the mountain? Did you really nail talking to the opposite sex (or same-sex) the first time you really tried (in Jr. High)? Kudos if your answer was yes but for most of us the answer was a profound no. It takes effort, practice, adapting, and learning to figure these processes out often helped with mentors. Addiction recovery is not all that different.

What’s amazing to me is seeing the big shifts in people as they move through the recovery process, when they finally “get it” and the recovery process transforms from a struggle not to do something to a part of a person’s identity to go live the best life he or she can. This is the click.

For me, the click happened when I could finally see me as I see my children. They are beautiful, they are a part of me, and it's amazing to see what they are becoming. When I could apply those very same attributes to me (and believe them), I experienced a big shift. To be clear, my kids make mistakes, they can be difficult, but they are learning and growing just as we all are. Me too. They are not their past poor choices and they certainly aren’t worthless. Me too.

This click that happened for me changed me from thinking too little or too much of me to actually just liking me. The click reoriented me from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. The click reframed my thinking about my addictive acting out from something inevitable to something I could grow through and recover from. The click reframed the way I looked at relationships and oriented me toward finding healthier ones. The click helped me to experience more joy and peace in my daily life.

The click did not remove all my previous memories nor did it eliminate the thoughts, impulses, and such that would go through my mind from time to time. What the click did do was help me change how I react to these memories, thoughts, and impulses. Now, I chuckle at some of the stuff that goes through my head and I get curious about where it came from. Then I move on my way…something I could not do well before the click. The click did not remove my occasional desire to use or act out. It did, however, give me the orientation around myself to explore what I really wanted to get out of my life, what my purpose is, and question whether acting out would really help.

Sometimes we have big clicks, sometimes we have small clicks and sometimes we have struggle. Life is a series of all of these. It’s the nature of growth and learning. In order to grow and learn, we have to be in the process of growth and learning (profound I know). So, let us take hope in seeing the big clicks in others when we are in our struggle and let us remember our past clicks to know that we too can get through the struggle as well because we’ve experienced clicks in other areas of our lives before (a great many of us did eventually figure out algebra). Some clicks happen faster and some happen slower but if we remove ourselves from the growth process, they will not come. Growth and learning are contact sports that require practice just like walking, snowboarding, algebra, and talking to that girl across the way (some of us have more aptitude at these things but most can ultimately get the click with practice).

Stay in the process!


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