One way to stop a behavior is to start a new behavior.
I’ve been in recovery from drug addiction for 21 years. As I move forward through the various stages of my recovery, I am confronted by the constant need for change. During my early years, the focus was on my need to stop using drugs. Initially, there were certain things I couldn’t do. As I remained clean longer, there were certain things I didn’t do. And now, there are certain things I don’t do. Every one of those stages requires a different strategy, and therein lies my challenge. In this current stage, it is much more productive to initiate behaviors that reinforce abstinence. As I continue to recover, I learn how to both restore healthy old behaviors and establish new ones that help to improve the quality of my life. Practicing new behaviors helps me stay stopped.
Recovery is about attraction and not promotion. When people with substantial "clean time" sit around in meetings and only talk about not using drugs, 12-Step recovery is not very attractive. While recovery is always about not picking up, it’s also about living--having jobs, dealing with family, and more. Fortunately, I have enough experience in recovery to go to different meetings and mix up my program with people who are also in long-term recovery, who are also using the program, in part, to pursue their life goals and aspirations. I also attend newcomer meetings because they offer a diversity of perspectives that I find helpful.
How can we make recovery attractive if we only focus on what we can’t do? One of the things that makes recovery desirable is when people come to believe they can do more than just avoid drugs. Freedom from active addiction allows me to set my sights on a goal and go for it. That’s exciting because I never know what’s going to happen. There are ups and downs. Different situations occur, but somehow, staying in the process allows me to contend with everything that arises. It also increases my self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect.
In one sense, addiction is a breakdown of the will to choose. The addicted person has numerous choices, but they continue to make the same one. “Give me another hit.” By the time I got to recovery, my ability to make healthy choices was impaired. What changed was I didn’t just stop using drugs, I started going to meetings, making new friends, reading recovery literature, getting involved in service, saving money, changing my diet, exercising, going back to school, creating a business, writing a 'zine. Recovery helped me learn how to do all that.
At different times and for different reasons, we all face the existential dilemma of what am I going to do now with my life? How do I reinvent myself? The literature refers to this as the spiritual void, the place where the addictive behavior used to reside. Many recovering addicts refer to it as a hole. At some point, we all have to face that hole and decide how it should be filled.
Once I stopped using drugs my imagination began to serve me in different ways. Over time I began to not just imagine what I wanted, but I gained the ability to pursue what I wanted by placing myself in an atmosphere of recovery, listening to the experience and suggestions of other recovering people. That’s when I slowly began to imagine myself living a different life. That experience taught me to face my own spiritual void. The point is: just stopping was not enough. Stopping without starting something new is just pausing. The rooms of recovery are full of people who have stopped using drugs who are miserable as hell because they failed to start practicing new behaviors. Here’s a word from the field of botany to describe what I’m talking about: marcescent. That’s when the leaf withers but continues to cling to the branch.
The disease of addiction can manifest itself in a variety of ways that don’t have anything to do with drugs. So I can put down the drugs and pick up a fork, credit card or dice. This needs to be explained to newcomers. They need guidance and support to find new ways to live. The step working process is one of the ways in which I continue to explore who I really am and what I want to do with my life. Step work helps me identify and reduce the unmanageability in my life. It also offers me the opportunity to make the changes I want to make. It has been a very valuable experience for me to learn how to use this process to change my attitude and behavior.
Abstinence is only the beginning of recovery. If you’re only abstinent, I’m betting you’re leaving some recovery on the table and there is a good chance that you are not as happy as you could be. Recovery offers so much more than that. Abstinence and self-realization are two different things.
My wish for anyone who wants to stop getting high is for them to not only abstain from drugs, but for them to also take the opportunity to pursue their true ambitions. According the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous: “Lost dreams awaken, new possibilities appear.” My own experience is that I’m doing a lot of things now that I could never do before. I didn’t have the lifestyle that would support my decision to pursue those things.
Starting something new helps prevent you from returning to old, unproductive behaviors. When I identify my primary purpose and pursue it with my whole heart it helps me avoid the obsession and compulsion of my drug addiction. Some people misinterpret our program and our literature by taking on the view of non-striving; they think that turning it over means they don’t have to do anything, that the program will just take care of them, and that their higher power will make everything alright. Be careful. Just because I’m in recovery doesn't mean that I can take off to the spiritual suburbs. No big recovery truck is going to pull up and deliver my goals to me. If I want to change my life I have to do the footwork. I have to go for it. Recovery is the thing that helps me mobilize myself for the task. Understand that starting can help you stop.
How do "start behaviors" relate to spirituality? I truly believe that a power greater than me, some force out there, is working to manifest something in the world. That power pulled me out of the throes of active addiction. I don’t know what it is, but something helped me. All I know is, I didn’t do it all by myself. I don’t even try to label it. I just call it a "higher power" because other people also have access to the power through their own beliefs.
I’ve been told, “You can only keep recovery by giving it away.” To be more compassionate and to be of service to others is spiritual in nature. That’s the higher power working through us to manifest a better world. Creating, improvising, re-purposing: I’ve heard it said, “Recovery is like a great recycling program.” It re-purposed me, redirected me, reprogrammed me to make the effort to be a better person. The recovery process requires that I follow an unfamiliar path, with my whole being, and with no guarantees. That requires faith. That’s spiritual.