I love how simple recovery principles are. I love the simplicity of the following insight:
Every thought or action is taking us toward either addiction or recovery.
There are no ‘neutral’ thoughts or actions. No twilight zones where we can ‘do whatever we want’ with no effect on ourselves. It all matters. Everything we think, say or do is thought, said or done as a ‘drug’ to give us a fix, or as ‘medicine’ to make us better. Selfishness, pride, fear and envy can pervade even the most simple actions, even when they appear to others (or ourselves) to be good, helpful, harmless or ‘neutral’. As we work recovery, we discovery how mixed our motives really are, and we work to weed our gardens from those selfish noxious motives and grow the characteristics of service, truth and beauty.
In active addiction, our loss of control becomes apparent to us sooner or later. One helpful image is that of balancing a golf ball on top of a basketball. Keep it on top and all is well. Correct it immediately and with appropriate counter action, and a fall is avoided. But once it gets a certain distance from the top, the action required to stop it from falling off is effectively superhuman. This is precisely how addiction is experienced. We are perfect storms of Obsession and Compulsion. The thought of ‘doing it again’ takes root and grows (with our continued permission, it must be said) and fantasy gives way to subconscious ‘planning’ to do it, which eventually leads to ‘close calls’ or more often just going ahead with it. And irony of ironies, having ‘done it again’, we look back in disbelief, wondering how it happened… It’s as though our free will is eroded or better yet imprisoned or shackled, and to our shame, we have to admit that we have hidden the key from ourselves…. Self control is practically non-existent, and we have to admit complete and total powerlessness (step 1) to stop the behaviour…
As we grow in recovery, we gradually regain the self-control we lost. Or better yet, we gain a new kind of self control. Before we had attempted a kind of self control which was weakened by qualities such as entitlement, anger, blame and basically a thousand forms of fear. Now, in recovery, the programme teaches us to stay away from the behaviour, and the “stinking thinking” that gets us doing it. It’s not as though we get ‘cured’ and no longer want to do it, but rather the sobriety that comes with recovery gives us new eyes to see through the shoddy thinking and selfish justifications that accompanied our one-way trips to addictive behaviour. We get street wise. We safeguard ourselves. To add an awkward addition to the ball metaphor above, it’s like we don’t even try to balance the golf ball on the basketball, but we grow wise enough to use a doughnut to keep the ball securely on top. Without needing to do a ‘geographical’ to another job, marriage, town or country, we learn to ‘stay away’ from those places, venues, people or fantasies that we have continually allowed ourselves to be tripped up by. In a Christian key, this sounds like Paul saying that when he is weak he is very strong. This is self-control not from the flesh, but as a fruit of the Spirit who leads us into the wisdom we need to keep ourselves safe.
Addiction is Progressive
This is the ‘bad news’ side of the coin… All addicts know, or will discover sooner or later, that addictive behaviour (whether with drink, drugs, work, sex, food, relationships, etc.) is progressive. We need larger quantities, more frequent engagement, more extreme episodes… What used to ‘do it’ for us, eventually doesn’t anymore. What we used to only think about doing becomes things we get close to doing, and eventually do. This is why they call addiction “the disease of more”.
Recovery is Cumulative
This is the ‘good news’… As we work our programmes, doing the suggested actions of meetings, reading, writing, prayer, service, our sobriety grows. It gets longer in terms of day count, and it gets deeper in terms of our character. Where we used to be “restless, irritable and discontent”, we slowly become more and more calm, accepting and grateful. Where we used to be dishonest, arrogant and lazy, we grow in the spiritual characteristics of “Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness.” It really does get better.
In step 3 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we read the following:
The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are. Therefore dependence, as A.A. practices it, is really a means of gaining true independence of the spirit.
Prevailing modern, consumer culture says the opposite. Be free and unchained to do and be what you want. At the end of that pathway, however, are the countless many who find themselves to have been tricked. Freedom, as they had conceived it, had imprisoned them to various kinds of slavery. Slavery of financial insecurity. Slavery of incessant and unquenchable desire. Slavery of a ghost-like personal identity, both seemingly untouchable, yet also fearful to attain and be trapped by it.
Recovery and Scripture yet again speak with the same tone of voice. In Romans 6, Paul contrasts a person who is “enslaved to sin” (and thus “free from the control of righteousness”), with being a “slave of righteousness” (and thus “free from sin”).
Addiction is slavery indeed. In recovery we learn to “slavishly” work our programmes in the strength of God, our Higher (Highest!) Power. This is not self-help or self-righteousness or legalism. This is freedom in Christ. True independence of the spirit.
Yet another point of convergence between the principles of recovery and Christian faith is the reality that we are not very good at being God.
In life, we were never very good at being God. Try as we might, we could not control life, circumstances or the ‘other’. We were continually driven to frustration, resentment and anger when, as the AA Big Book puts it, the show didn’t “come off well”. Eventually, we had to surrender to the reality that we aren’t meant to control reality.
In addiction, we were never very good at being God. When our resentment and anger drove us to addictive behaviour, try as we might, we could not stop, manage or control ourselves. Whatever assets we thought we had – great personality, award-winning intellect or something else – these turned out to be liabilities in terms of controlling our behaviour. Eventually, we had to surrender to the reality that we were powerless over our addictive behaviour.
Even in recovery, we were never very good at being God. Even in our efforts to apply the 12 steps, as long as we did this from a posture of control, we kept bumping up against our own limitations, frailties and sin. We were never going to work our own way to clean living. Eventually, we had to surrender to the reality that we needed a higher (even the Most High!) power.
You’ve heard the wise old adage…
Living life, and the struggle between doing good things and doing bad things is like having two dogs that fight one another. And how we get the good behaviour dog to win is to feed that one and starve the other.
It’s a very practical and useful image. Now, let me share how such a good thing can be distorted so as to make it worthless…
An addict can take the best things and distort them. I, for one, had an unexamined, unchecked belief that I could “feed the right dog” at the last minute. I could obsess, fantasize, take steps toward doing ‘x’, and then at the last minute, I would suddenly and heroically reverse all of that momentum and “feed the right dog”. Such a herculean effort would make a great story to tell to the next person we ‘confessed’ to.
In active addiction, we are always prone to minimising things that are actually bigger (e.g. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve only done it ___ times this week…”) or maximising things that are actually smaller (e.g. “I am the biggest [insert extremely positive – or negative – label here”) ever… people [love/adore or hate/despise] me…” The above example is a case of falsely maximising the power and self-control that we have, pretending that we can stop ourselves ‘just before’ doing it again. “Lord, lead me right up to the point of almost sinning, and then get me out at the last minute and give me a great story to tell of how you rescued me.” Such is the stinking thinking we can be guilty of…
The wise story about the two dogs is not about last minute choices to feed one dog instead of the other. It is, instead, about an ongoing process of feeding. Taking on a new set of habits that are all oriented away from addiction and toward recovery. We pray, go to meetings, read Scripture and literature, make phone calls, do step work, do service, and much more. The on-going work of recovery is how we “feed the right dog”.
I’ve written before about how quality recovery is characterised by simple actions, and addiction is characterised by complex thinking. In this post I want to add just one more important thing.
This simple action needs to happen as early as possible.
Before entering recovery, I can remember acting delaying any healthy ‘simple action’ too long… too often it was delayed until it was too late. Even after joining a 12-step program, I would delay action. Here’s an example…
In working step 3, I remember my sponsor asking me, toward the end of our monthly meet up, “So… are you ready to make that decision to turn your will and life over to God’s care?” My brain immediately got in the way. Complex thoughts and questions and curiosities choked out any chance of a simple, active and affirmative response. “Well…”, I muttered out… hesitatingly, “my understanding is that this is a decision that nobody can make perfectly, so we make it as best we can and we have to keep making it as we live our lives.”
This response was too muddy, too heady, and too hesitant. Prolonged, complex thinking.
My sponsor eventually was able to point out that the answer to these questions should always and instantly be “YES.” At least then, we have handed our will and life over for at least a few seconds!
The point here is not do invalidate the observation which every addict learns, namely that we must learn to accept progress not perfection. Of course, we never do anything perfectly. But that’s kind of the point. We don’t need a ‘perfect’ surrender. We also don’t need a perfect explanation of why such perfection can’t be attained. We certainly don’t need an extended, complicated treatise on the matter.
The only kind of surrender we need…
is the only kind we can give…
…an early, simple and active one.