B13: It’s Hard To Get Clean


One of the things us recovering addicts do is ‘sponsor’ other addicts. This is a term they use in 12 step fellowships, it doesn’t mean sponsorship in the traditional sense of financial support, but more emotional and psychological support. While everyone does it differently, it basically involves a type of mentoring and taking the person through the 12 steps. It is one of the most common forms of ‘service’ that we in recovery attempt to give. By helping addicts get clean we not only help them, but their friends, families and the community in general.

My work as a counsellor is something I trained to do and get paid for. This is very different to sponsorship and, as I’m paid for it, it is not what I consider ‘service’. It also employees quite a different skill set and methodology; I feel competent in both but my service as a sponsor has often been the most rewarding.

One of my sponsees has struggled recently and at one-o-clock in the morning I found myself wide awake after attending a Wu Tang concert, walking around the windy hills above my home talking to myself about it.

I found myself thinking about recovery in a simple way and figured I’d like to attempt to write it down. This will be my attempt; here goes…

Why recovery is so fucking hard.

No matter how terrible living with addiction is, and no matter how many problems, issues and catastrophes acting out on addiction creates, active addiction has one huge benefit: you get high.
Whether it’s on drugs, sex, food, gambling or whatever, you do the thing you’re addicted to and you feel relief and (often more importantly) you don’t feel something else.
While this often only lasts for a short period of time before being returned back to your deteriorating world (generally with increased anxiety, shame &/or self-loathing for having acted out) these brief reprieves from reality become essential to us.

For some of us we build such a high tolerance to drugs (or whatever) that we actually don’t even get high anymore and the best part of the experience and the most exciting part (or at least the most distracting part) is the part where we are preparing to get high e.g. scoring, stealing, cooking, driving, rolling etc

The point is, no matter how bad our addictions make our lives, they quickly become the most exciting thing in our lives and even when we know that they are the root cause of all our misery they’re often still the only thing we feel we have to look forward to.

Recovery, on the other hand, transforms your life from a pile of shit to a vivid, exciting, and fascinating journey with real intimacy, passion, love and relationships. This is no airy fairy exaggeration; I’ve seen this hundreds of times in real life. Of course recovery people have hard times and bad days, but that’s just the seasons. Life itself becomes amazing.

The catch is that the first year or two of recovery is really hard. Anyone who could experience a month of long term recovery would walk through broken glass to give up drugs and have that experience. The problem is that when you first give up drugs, or any other addiction, you don’t feel that way at all: you feel really bad.
Below are just a few examples of some of what you can go through in your first year or so clean. Some people get none of these and some get all and more, but most people just get a couple that differ from time to time.

1) You feel physically uncomfortable. even those who don’t use drugs involving physical withdraw can expect to feel some or all of the following things, some or all of the time; sweaty, headachy, shots of adrenaline up the spine, itchy, diarrhea, bloating, exhaustion, achy etc
2) You feel your feelings (clearly/acutely)for the first time which include unpleasant feelings such as shame, anxiety, anger, fear etc
3) You remember things. Including painful things from your past and shameful things.
4) You feel low &/or depressed, often your brain chemistry is low in dopamine and serotonin for a while.
5) You have cravings that you can’t (or won’t) satiate.
6) You can’t sleep.
7) You look at your life and you see what bad shape its in which can lead to being overwhelmed and/or feelings of despair.
8 You start working the steps and doing other recovery things and they’re often uncomfortable and unpleasant and they require some hard work and effort.
9) Your friends, family, kids, partners, business associates etc might think you’re cured now and expect all sorts of unreasonable things of you.
10) You might expect all sorts of unreasonable things of yourself.
11) You might beat yourself up for not living up to your unreasonable expectations or beat yourself up for the wasted years and burned bridges.
12) You feel socially awkward; situations that came naturally; parties, socialising, sex, family events etc can seem totally unpleasant and/or uncomfortable now, this affects your confidence and you feel like a dick for feeling like a dick.
13) You find yourself not only needing to take responsibility for your feelings, thoughts and actions (which is hard in and of itself), but you might have bills, legal issues or custody issues that you can’t avoid anymore through your old dishonest and irresponsible techniques.

So instead of comparing the hell of addiction with the awesomeness of recovery life, you compare it to the hell of early recovery which is often not much better than active addiction, but without the relief of the drugs.

Being that humans are biologically hardwired for short term gratification, most people can’t bear to have to work for a year or two to get the reward of recovery, and so give up before they’ve ever even had a taste of what recovery actually is. What’s worse is after that experience they believe that they actually have tried recovery and think it sucks, and therefore make up their minds that it’s not for them and they won’t try it again.

Some people feel like their first month or so of recovery is actually surprisingly easy and they feel like they’re being spiritually carried or guided. Sometimes it’s the people for whom the process is easiest at first who have the hardest time staying clean long term. This can happen if/when the ‘pink cloud’ of changing their life dissolves and they experience some of the above hardships the majority of addicts in early recovery experience.

The challenge for me is how to respond to a sponsee when they feel like it’s too hard and they just can’t go on making the effort. In that state they will likely believe one of the following things;

1) That things will be better in a year but they can’t keep going that long.
2) That they are somehow so radically different or their circumstances are so unique or difficult that even if they stick with recovery, things won’t ever get better so there is no point trying.
3) That there is an easier way to achieve the goal and if they just keep looking they’ll find a path to the same destination without the pain or effort.

Point 3) is easy enough for me to respond to as I have been around 12 step fellowships for 16 years and as I have studied psychotherapy and counselling I can fairly definitively respond that the research and evidence clearly says that every single addict feels this way and 99.99 percent have been wrong. Also every addict reading this will believe they are the .01 percent that will find the other easier way, but they won’t. Because addicts hate to be told what to do though, I might say something like “but if you really want to try and find another way that’s fine, you’re always welcome back if it doesn’t work out”.

If they are of the Point 2) persuasion (or what we in the fellowship refer to as the group who feel ‘terminally unique’) again I explain that this feeling of being different is your addiction talking and you just need to say back to these thoughts with a friendly wink and wry grin “thanks for sharing” and then go and actively distract yourself because if you ‘entertain those thoughts’ for very long you’re fucked.

Those who believe recovery works and know it could work for them but just feel they can’t go on any longer (point 1) are the hardest to respond to. Because that level of despair and hopelessness is quite contagious, I find myself sort of agreeing with them even as they tell me (with earnest remorse and apologetic tones) that “it’s just too hard”.

The reality is it is hard and it certainly proves itself to be too hard for most. To make it even harder, people who’ve lived a whole life in the dysfunction and spiritual disintegration that is active addiction are perhaps the least equipped people to take on such a challenge.
Yet despite everything, including the statistics, all around the planet for over six decades people of all types who are addicts of all persuasions have found through the support of the 12 steps and the fellowships and traditions that house them, that they gain the ability to do for one day at a time what has previously been impossible to them for a life time.

It’s almost entirely useless to argue with anybody about whether or not they can do it (in fact in general arguing is not a very productive tool in promoting change in anyone) so I guess at those moments my job with my sponsees is just to express that “I know just how fucking hard it is because it was just that hard for me too and despite what you might think and how it might look now, when I was at where you’re at I felt just as weak and hopeless as you do and I had no magic tools or superhuman powers either.
Can you make it through 1 more minute, 1 more hour, 1 more day? Are you willing to tolerate some suffering in order to fulfill your dreams and reclaim your soul?”

I don’t know how to perfectly invite people into the extremely challenging process that results in a life as amazing as mine. When people give up and say they can’t do it I wish I could pass onto them my passion, my faith, my strength and my knowing. I hate to think that it’s some people’s destiny to survive and some peoples fate to die. Yet when I look at the world, that really is just how it happens. In some ways even that is a motivator because in reality it is a choice: what are you going to do; give in and disappear or keep on going and live.

I want to be alive. I want to live.

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