The Opposite of Addiction

Any recovering addict worth asking will tell you they have not forgotten how to get high. They will probably also add that they never stopped enjoying the high, it's the consequences that they couldn't stand.

The experience of addiction is never forgotten. Not just the high but the whole behavioral practice leading up to the high. Ask any addict what it's like to cop. From the drug infested neighborhoods to the sound of a dispensing ATM machine, it's visceral.

Scientists have documented dopamine levels increase in anticipation of the reward. That endorphin increase connects the preceding activity to the hit. All of it, the coping and actual ingestion of the substance reinforce and connect you to the experience.

If the drugs don't get you the lifestyle will. That's why it's not enough to simply stop using drugs. One has to actively work on changing their attitude and behavior in order to stay stopped. The deer that wanders onto the road at night receives two competing signals, one to stop and one to go that freeze him in the headlights and bring it's life to an abrupt halt. Recovering people specifically those who use the 12-Steps figured that out a long time ago. Their approach, going to meetings regularly, doing step work, sponsorship, and service is designed to help one make the lifestyle changes necessary to avoid getting run over by the disease of addiction. There's always two parts to any behavior change one wants to make, cognitive and behavioral.

The opposite of addiction is not recovery it's connection. You never forget how to get high. Once you learn how to swim, you may not swim for years, but once back in water you will instantly remember. You could take any recovering person and drop them off in any city in the US and they could cop dope within two hours. As a recovering person myself I can tell you I know where to find street drugs. The only reason I'm not high right now is because I have some connections I don't want to lose. Whether it's my partner, my job, my kids, my grandson, or god children I don't want to give them up. Connections are the key.

Let’s Get It Started


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.



Addiction Relapse Prevention Possible by Exploring Drug-Associated Memories


Memories contribute to who we are and our experience of life. Recovering drug addicts can avoid relapsing by exploring drug-associated memories through mindfulness practice. When memories are positive they provide us with a sense of joy and well-being. But when our memories are unpleasant they can compel us to avoid them at all costs. We can find ourselves withdrawing from others, avoiding anything that might trigger a negative memory, or trying to escape our thoughts and feelings all together.

Humans evolved with a negative bias which enabled us to survive in a predaceous world. Is that a tan rock in the distance? Or a lion. Our early ancestors who could not discern the difference ended up on the dinner table. We remember. According to Professor Robert Sapolsky, zebras don’t get ulcers because zebras only think about lions when lions are present. We, on the other hand, think about lions (or negative events) all the time.

While drug use can be considered an unsuccessful repair attempt, at its core, addictive drug use is rooted in memories both positive and negative. Because memories are so powerful many people would like to avoid thinking and, thus, re-experiencing the feelings associated with memories. Exploring those memories through mindfulness practice offers recovering people the greatest opportunity to successfully avoid relapse. Mindfulness practice teaches us how to experience our thoughts in a more productive way by inviting us to accept our thoughts and feelings without ruminating, judging, or trying to fix how we feel.

By learning how to breathe, relax, and simply observe our thoughts we can increase our capacity to tolerate various emotional states without turning to compulsive behavior. With practice and time we can develop a non-threatening relationship with our own thoughts.

As scientist search for a cure for addiction, a pill that will enable us ignore its siren call, I remain doubtful. My skepticism is born out of my experience with nasal sprays—which worked wonderfully for about two hours after which my nostrils were blocked far worse than before. That experience taught me about the concept of rebound. Addiction is a rebounding condition. Recovering addicts don’t get to return to the beginning stage of their addiction if they start using drugs again. Their addiction picks up where it left off and they quickly discover that it is far worse than before.

I can’t imagine the side effects of any pill capable for curing addiction. Mindfulness has no side effects. It also increases the capacity for compassion for self and others. It can also decrease the effects of trauma. Studies have shown that it helps decrease chronic pain. It is effective in reducing both depression and anxiety. Mindfulness is something you can learn and practice anytime and it is free.

Mindfulness does not erase memories or empty the contents of your mind. Your mind will not become a blank slate. Over time, with practice, mindfulness can take the charge out of memories by teaching us how to accept without judgment our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness teaches us how to be happy.