Think of your recovery like surfing a giant wave. As long as you’re concentrating on surfing that wave, (aka working on your recovery – going to meetings, talking to your sponsor, working your steps, staying in touch with your higher power), you’re balanced on your board, experiencing joy, and surfing the ultimate wave. But then your concentration breaks. You stop focusing on the wave and start paying attention to distractions around you. Maybe you start thinking about your romantic relationship, or how it’s going at work, or how you’re going to pay that next bill that’s due, or how that person you met last night perceived you, or some dumb joke you made that no one laughed at. It doesn’t matter what the distraction is, because as long as that distraction becomes more important than that wave you’re surfing, you’re going to lose focus. So you get distracted, you lose your balance, the wave breaks, and you come crashing towards the rocky shore.
If you regain focus quickly, you can jump back on your board, catch your breath, and paddle back out into the water to catch another wave. But if you lay on shore feeling sorry for yourself thinking, “I’m such a loser, how did I mess up that wave? I’ll never catch another wave like that one, I might as well just give up,” all is lost. Sure, you might have a moment or two on shore, beaten, battered, but still breathing. Laying there in the sand, feeling sorry for yourself, feeling crushed, but safe for the moment. But if you wait too long, another wave will inevitably come crashing into shore, catching you in its undertow and dragging you back out to sea. Back out into the deep waters of active addiction. Without the motivation to get back on your board and paddle out to catch another big wave of recovery, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ll get sucked under by the current, and drown in the sea of addiction.
Addiction is like the waves of the ocean. Either you’re surfing on top of them, using the skills you’ve learned in recovery to carve against the tides and currents, using them to your advantage to move forward, or you’re fighting against them, getting bashed, thrashed, and trashed by the unpredictable whims of the ocean of addiction. You’re either in control, or out of control. There is no in between.
Sobriety might seem hard at times, but it’s easier than addiction
It can feel like an exhausting prospect, having to be constantly vigilant against the dangers of addiction. It takes work. Hard work. It’s hard staying constantly aware of risky situations, scheduling time to go to meetings, talk to sponsors, maintain your spiritual condition, reach out to other addicts, raise your hand and share where you’re at, work the steps (if you’re in a 12-step program), plan ahead, be aware, and maintain your sobriety. The single biggest challenge of long-term recovery is the seemingly constant work required to maintain your sobriety. But the reward of that work is sobriety itself, and that is the greatest reward of all.
Continuous, long-term sobriety is… relaxing. It doesn’t require lying, cheating, stealing, planning, stressing, or constantly thinking about the next score, the next drink, or the next way to excuse yourself from life. Compared to active addiction, sobriety is a breeze. All you have to do is tell the truth, go where you’re supposed to go, do what you’re supposed to do, and just… be yourself.
Sobriety doesn’t require math and scheming and plotting and planning just to portray the illusion of normalcy. All sobriety requires is that you abstain from mind-altering substances, ask for help when you need it, offer help when it’s asked for, and when all else fails, simply don’t use alcohol and drugs, no matter what. That’s it. Everything else that’s suggested in recovery programs will add to the overall experience of a sober lifestyle, but at its heart and soul, the only thing recovery requires is the willingness to abstain, to accept help when you need it, and to offer help when help is needed. It’s pretty simple when you compare it to active addiction.
The pain and heartache of active addiction
Addiction is an all-consuming lifestyle. In the throes of severe active addiction, all other facets of life take a backseat to the beast that drives our addictions. Got plans tomorrow? Better make sure you’ve got the right stuff to get you through the day. Planning a trip out of town? That means pulling together extra money so you can go see the man and get a little extra in case you can’t score in an unfamiliar environment. Run out of what you need to maintain? Well, that means you’re going to have to call in sick and cancel plans until you find what you need. Run out of your supply a little ahead of schedule? Better hope mom leaves her purse lying around, or else you might have to look for something around the house that you can pawn or sell. Are people looking at you funny and asking you if you’re alright? You’d better start coming up with a good story now and stick to it, otherwise people might know. And if they know, well that’s the worst feeling of all. There’s no feeling worse than being caught and exposed in your addiction.
Active addiction is truly exhausting. I’ve found that active addiction requires much more vigilance and attention than sobriety does. Addiction is like a pet that doesn’t love you back. It always needs to be fed, walked, groomed, and maintained. Addiction doesn’t sleep, doesn’t rest, and doesn’t give you anything in return. Addiction requires math, planning, scheming, plotting, planning, driving around, making uncomfortable late night phone calls and texts, begging, pleading, sickness, destruction of relationships, loss of trust, and overall destruction and deconstruction of one’s own normal life. It’s hell. And this hell of active addiction is what drives most of us to get sober in the first place.
If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards
I may not be speaking for everyone in recovery when I say this, but I’ve met a lot of people in recovery (including myself) who wish we could get sober and then just… stop. Stop going to meetings, stop working steps, stop making and taking phone calls during moments of struggle, stop working so hard and just…. Be normal. We wish we could get past our addiction issues, fix the problem at hand, and just move forward with our lives.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but we’re not normal. There is no stopping. There is no taking a break. There is no return to normalcy. Just like addiction, sobriety and recovery take continual maintenance. I’m sure diabetics wish they could normalize their insulin levels and return to normal life, but they can’t. Diabetics have a disease, just like addicts. They have to constantly and vigilantly monitor and maintain their blood sugar levels in order to stay healthy. And unfortunately for us addicts, we have to do the same for our physical, mental, and emotional health. Addiction, like any other progressive disease, needs constant treatment and monitoring. If you’re not moving forward in your recovery, you’re moving back towards your addiction.
Daily action equals daily reward
In order to defeat the mental, emotional, and physical challenges of addiction, addicts have to work on a daily basis to battle addiction. We have to continue to go to meetings, to talk to our sponsors, to help others and thus be helped when we are in need. The rigors and vigilance talked about in 12-step programs is not without its wisdom. The best way to fight addiction in order to obtain and maintain a healthy and happy life is to face addiction one day at a time.
Of course, some days are easier than others. We may go through periods where we don’t need to work quite so hard. We may not always need daily meetings, daily conversations with our sponsors, daily maintenance of our spiritual condition, but the desire and drive to stay sober must always be present. We must always be focusing on surfing that wave. Constantly and consistently adjusting our balance and focus, zeroing in on the areas of our lives that are causing trouble and pushing us towards relapse. Constantly making corrections, making adjustments, and developing new healthy habits to battle the demon of addiction that is ever bearing down on our backs. Always threatening to crash upon us like that ultimate big wave we’re surfing.
But maybe MY addiction is different… maybe I’m different
For a very few people, this wish to return to “normalcy” may actually come true. In fact, I’ve seen it happen. I’ve known people who developed physical dependencies on opiates and other substances due to a catastrophic accident, and then beaten that physical dependency once their injuries healed, and returned to “normal” life. But unfortunately for most of us, this phenomenon of defeating the physical effects of chemical dependence, without treating the mental and emotional symptoms of addiction, is a true rarity.
Thinking of yourself as the exception, the one-in-a-million addict who can beat the physical challenges of addiction and then just walk away, is a dangerous game to play. Don’t get caught up thinking you’re special. I know I’m not special, I’m just another addict, just another alcoholic, just another person who needs help to maintain my sobriety.
There is a solution, and it works
Chances are, if you’re reading this right now, you need to treat the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of your addiction in order to maintain a healthy and happy and sober life. So instead of trying to do it your own way, do what others have done to stay happy, joyous, and free.
Go to detox, go to rehab, stay in a sober living, go to meetings, get a sponsor, get a home group, get a service commitment, raise your hand at meetings, ask for help when you need it, offer help when someone else needs it, get a higher power, pray, stay vigilant, work your program, and succeed. Yeah, that’s a lot. I know it’s a lot. And sometimes it feels like a huge pain in the ass.
But there IS a light at the end of the tunnel. Treating your addiction on the physical, mental, and emotional level yields tremendous results. There are many gifts of sobriety: better relationships, improved career options, improved health, reduced anxiety, mental health improvements, and so many other benefits. But the ultimate gift of sobriety is freedom. Freedom from addiction. Freedom from mental slavery. Freedom from need. Freedom from guilt, shame, and remorse. Freedom to be yourself. Think about that. The freedom to be YOU. No hiding, no running, no lies, no bullshit. You can wake up every morning without having to scramble to make up a story. You can go to bed every night without having to worry what you’ll have to deal with in the morning. Freedom. True freedom.
So when it comes to your recovery, keep surfing that wave. Stay balanced, stay aware. Stay on top of your board and don’t get distracted. If you get caught in the chop and wind up bailing, get back on the water and keep surfing. Don’t lay on the shore feeling sorry for yourself, get back out there and keep riding the waves. Don’t get caught in the undertow, don’t get dragged back out to sea. Keep paddling, keep trying, keep riding, and like they say in the movies, just keep swimming.
— Bryan Swift for Avenues New York, 2018
If you’re struggling with addiction, relapse, secrets, lies, or fear, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are people who understand. We understand. You are not alone. Let us help. Find a meeting. Find a group. Find a detox, rehab, sober house, or recovery community. You don’t have to do this alone. You can do this. We can help. For more information about addiction, recovery, and what you can do to battle your demons head-on, contact Avenues NYC and ask to speak to a case manager today.