habit-making

In active addiction, we often wondered how we could continue doing things we didn’t want to do. Almost always, there was a back-story to how we got to this point.

Whatever our initial experiences or inclinations were, at some point, a pattern of behaviour began to develop. We would begin to drink alone, or to relieve stress, to wander into a fantasy world of lust, or what have you.. We began down the addictive path, taking tiny doses of a drug to feel better. The momentum was just barely beginning to build. The habits were just starting to form.

Habits of thinking and feeling, embodied into habits of behaviour, all combined into one progressively deepening addiction – or set of addictions.

Seen this way, whether we see addiction as something that pursued us, or something we pursued, we can all agree – painfully – that we participated with it. We gave in. We made the pattern develop worse or faster than it would have without our willing – or willful – assistance.

Habits cannot be changed instantly by brute willpower, at least not with consistency and finality. This is the admission of step 1. We can’t stop it.

What we can do, however, is to perform the surrendering action of admitting what we cannot do. This is a bit like jujitsu. We don’t attack the addiction head-on with arrogant or foolish power. We instead turn away from it and make ourselves busy with doing the work associated with this surrender to our own powerlessness. We thoroughly assert our need for God, take stock of our past, examine our defects, repair relationships as best we can and deepen our practice of a practical spirituality of humility and service.

By doing this, it’s not so much that we directly counter the old bad addictive habits, but we indirectly replace them with new good recovery habits.

There’s a particularly interesting paradox about these old and new habits.

In active addiction, we participated with the addiction in making it worse. We gave ourselves progressively to it. Our condition of losing in-the-moment choice and ‘automatic’ addictive behaviour was itself created by a long, consistent string of hundreds and thousands of small but important emotional, cognitive and behavioural choices.

By contrast, in recovery, we participate with God in regaining healthy action. We give ourselves progressively to recovery habits. Our growing experience of ‘naturally’, ‘automatically’ or ‘instinctively’ doing healthy things, thinking healthy thoughts, etc. is the result of an active, habit-forming partnership with a higher power.

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sober waiting

As we come to know in recovery, a disturbing array of character defects lies beneath our addictive behaviour. One of these is impatience.

I have come to see addiction as primarily having to do with power, so my understanding of impatience boils down to this: we get frustrated when things don’t happen according to our time schema. Behind this impatience is a view of self that is exalted, knows best, and should be obeyed if people knew best.

In recovery, we learn – painfully at times – how to wait in a sober way. First of all, we discover that our ideas may need more time in the oven than we initially think – perhaps we are not as brilliant as we imagined ourselves. Second, even if we do stumble onto a good idea, we have to come, sooner or later, to accept that things may not quickly – or ever – fall into line with our good idea.

This doesn’t mean that we resign from trying to influence anyone or anything, just that we do so from a perspective that is rigorously strained of resentful and arrogant impatience.

practicing change

As addicts, part of our experience of powerlessness was our inability to change ourselves. This failure to change, I believe, resulted from looking for change in the wrong places.

One place we looked for change was in powerful experiences. We would go on retreats, make large purchases, move house (or to another country), change our relationship status, go on an exotic and spiritual expedition, bring ourselves to the point of painful and emotional tears, put ourselves through extravagant therapeutic or other sensory treatments, and on and on. But we eventually found that, as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. We would eventually still take on the same addictive habitual behaviour…

Another place we sought transformation was in superstition. We would see ‘that person’ at just ‘that time’ or just ‘that place’, and felt the universe was giving us signals. We would seek to cease our addictive behaviour at particular dates, such as birthdays, new years, or such novelties as the 11th of the 11th month in 2011 (at 11:11pm, of course)! But these shallow coincidences masquerading as milestones turned out to have no power to bring any difference to our behaviour either…

Still another solution we looked for was in intellect. We would read books – even properly academic or scientific or theapeutic ones – on addiction. We would watch endless videos and documentaries online. We would usually share our vast new understandings of such things as neuroplasticity and brain chemistry with anyone who would listen. But once again, however valuable such knowledge was, and is, this information was not itself the same as formation…

Recovery, it turns out, is a programme of action. We had all kinds of bad habits. Habits of thinking, feeling and of course acting. In recovery we learn new habits that are life-giving. We practice honest and positive thinking. We practice paying attention to and sharing how we feel. We practice all kinds of good positive actions, like fellowship, confession, self-critique and service. This is why “it works if you work at it.”

on self control

In active addiction, many of us tried to control, curb or otherwise manage our behaviour. Our efforts usually were accompanied by mixed results. In this post, I simply want to reflect on the way in which self-control requires a very particular kind of strength – particularly the strength that flows from partnership with a Higher Power, which Christians call the Holy Spirit. But first, a few brief examples of ways we try to control our selves with other kinds of power.

Sometimes, we use the power of thought. Our thoughts can be about lots of things, and many times these can be good or otherwise helpful things. Christians may think deeply about how much God still loves them in spite of their mistakes, sins and defects, and yet these wonderful thoughts themselves do not stop them from engaging in the addictive behaviour. Other examples of fruitless thinking could be endless wondering about what ‘other’ thing (a person, a cultural reality, an experience, a genetic inheritance, etc.) made us the specific way that we are. These and other abstractions fail to help us precisely in the same way that wheels fail to move a car when the car is hoisted above the ground. Hoisting a car with wheels spinning, and getting our mind whirring away with elevated thoughts, can be useful of course, but unless our spinning wheels touch the ground, we simply won’t get anywhere.

Other times, we seek to be rescued by the power of experience. We want to act differently, so we seek a strong or strongly different kind of experience (whether good and healthy or otherwise) to get us there. Whether the ‘jolt’ we seek from the experience is geographically, physically, emotionally, or socially based, sooner or later (too often sooner) we find a way to act addictively even after the jolt.

Still other times, we try to manage ourselves with the power of the will. Whereas thoughts are often about ‘other’ things, and experiences come from ‘other’, from outside ourselves, to rely on the will is to rely on the self. Like good thinking and a good experience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the application and engagement of our will. In fact, as we said above, we will not get anywhere without it. But as every addict knows, their experience is a depressingly progressive failure of the will, which does increasingly more and worse things; things that another part of ourselves does not want to do (see Romans 7).

Instead of pulling ourselves upward via a righteous thought, hitting the reset button with a profound experience, or charting the way forward through iron clad will-power (or won’t-power!), self control is powered by spiritual power. Recovery principles and Christian principles are agreed that spiritual power is the result of a partnership between humans and God (for example, see “Into Action” and “Working with Others” chapters in the AA Big Book; and Colossians 1:28-29). This is why Galatians 5 lists self-control as one of the fruits, not of the self, but of the Spirit. Yet at the same time, it is not called ‘spirit-control’ as though the self could merely stand by passively and be zapped with good behaviour.

Lest all this be another exercise in thinking, what does this look like ‘on the ground’ in our actual experience? Quite simply, it looks like a continual conscious decision to act in partnership with God. We tried asking, detached theological questions (“Does God love me if I keep doing this? Surely…”)… We tried pursuing psycho-therapeutic explorations (“If ‘x’ had not happened to me, would I struggle as I do now?”)… We tried seeking a transcendent experience (“Surely if I experience ‘x’ I will feel new and not feel like acting out again…”)… We tried managing ourselves through brave and naiive reliance on the will (“I swear it; I am over this; I cannot and will not do it again.”)… The spirituality of self control, however, is fundamentally and simply characterized by the pursuit of partnership with God (“What can God and I do about this, right now?).

available to life

In active addiction we are unavailable.

What this means is that, for a host of reasons, we become less and less committed – more and more unavailable – to things that give life.  We become unavailable to family, friends, partners, etc. We become unavailable to others, ourselves and God, despite how available and committed they may remain to us.

Our rapidly vanishing availability to these life-giving things is paralleled by a cancerous growth in availability to all kinds of little, lesser, life-taking things.  We make ourselves available to alcohol, work, sexual intrigue in thousands of forms, etc.  We abandon our lives for another ‘hit’.

Beneath this tragic degradation of our commitments, is a failure or refusal to allow ourselves to receive love and life.  We don’t feel ‘enough’ to deserve love, so we abandon it for a ‘hit’.  And in the context of the addiction cycle, the low that follows a ‘hit’ only makes us feel less worthy of love – less able to be committed – or available – to it.

Step 3 speaks of handing our will and our lives over to the “care of God”.  Within the “care of God”, we discover that we are ‘enough’ to deserve love.  We are made worthy of love, because God “cares” for us, even amidst all our frailties, rebellion and hard-hardheartedness.

In recovery, we learn to abandon the addictions that kill, rob and destroy.  We simply become unavailable to them.  And – rather than swap one addiction for another – we learn to pursue and accept the life and love from those people and activities which give it.

We become available to life.

fantasy

Addicts all fantasize about whatever their “drug” is: alcohol, drugs, sex, etc.  This mental laziness, when allowed to persist, takes the addict closer and closer to acting upon the fantasy.  Walking past the bottle store “just to look”…  Getting in touch with someone who I always used to get high with, “just for old time’s sake”… Making a “harmless” flirtatious comment to a stranger…  And these kinds of accessory actions lead to loss of clean/sober time.  The language of the “slippery slope” is sometimes an unhelpful scare tactic, but other times it is really that dangerous.

Someone recently mentioned having a prolonged fantasy – lasting about 20 seconds before they were jolted back to full consciousness and shut it off.

How many times can you say “yes” in 20 seconds?

Not with your mouth, but in your mind?

This need for urgent self-correction is what Jesus had in mind when he links anger with murder (Matthew 5:21-22), and lust with adultery (v. 27-28).  His other words in the same context have equal relevance about urgency.  Don’t wait until after worship to “go and be reconciled”, do it now (5:23-24); “settle matters quickly with your adversary” rather than put it off and risk losing big at court (v. 25-26); and deal swiftly, decisively and painfully with whatever causes you to sin (v. 29-30).

Fantasy cannot be given an inch.