“Many attempts at change fail because people hope to leap directly from the good intention to the final conclusion”—was an inspirational quote I read regarding SMART Recovery. One of the most difficult concepts in early recovery is the idea that recovery happens only one day at a time. This is an adage borrowed from the 12 steps, and it’s one that’s quite apt to what’s going on when a person stops using drugs.
I’ve seen many people give themselves enormous and impossible goals, such as “deciding” to stay sober for the rest of their lives. I’m not saying that’s not doable – I myself am a firm believer that it is – but, for some, to set yourself up like that in the beginning is probably more harmful than useful. Quitting drinking is not an easy task. For some people it can happen on first attempt, for others it will take many trials and many years. But beating yourself up about not being able to do it on the first go is not productive. Yes, addiction is a chronic neurological disorder in that there is no cure and a relapse can often lead to death – yet at the same time, relapses are not guaranteed death sentences. It’s almost never too late for someone with addiction to get better.
Change is difficult. We are set in our ways, and we like things to be the way they are because, even if a given situation is challenging, familiarity gives the illusion of safety. This means even the familiarity of a hangover, of a blackout, of anxiety and fear that is there the day after a binge. None of those are pleasant things but people in active addiction seek pleasure over and over and are scared or unable to do the opposite of what they do to seek it. That initial comfort and relief a person with addiction feels on taking their drug is a delusion, which becomes apparent as soon as something goes wrong. But even if something goes wrong, chances are that a person in active addiction will try again because to try something completely different is scarier than the misery they’re used to. People are creatures of habit and that includes bad habits, unfortunately.
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When I work with clients, I often see people who are overwhelmed by the idea of sobriety. To think that they won’t have the dubious comfort of their drug of choice is terrifying. For some it seems like very loss of identity. Think about all those rituals that come with drug use – rituals create the sense of predictability even in chaos that is addiction. It’s no wonder relapse seems like a good idea when something in recovery goes wrong. This is why I would never say to a client to set a goal that might seem impossible to achieve, especially in those early days. Even if a client says they want to stay sober for the rest of their lives, I would encourage them to apply only one-day-at-a-time method as 24 hours seem doable to most if not all of us. Twenty years is a whole different story. Twenty years seems like a sentence. The rest of your life seems like a life sentence. And recovery should never feel like a punishment because then we rebel against it. Recovery is the reward.
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