What our Alumni Have Told us About Their Struggles in Recovery

When we ask clients what addiction is, they provide any number of answers:

  • “It’s a disease”
  • “It’s not a disease, I just made bad choices”
  • “It’s a bad habit”
  • “I was irresponsible”

Everyone seems is a bit baffled. Of course, the experts are just as baffled. In 2006, William R. Miller, a world-renowned addiction expert, told us that “Addiction is not well understood.”

In previous blog articles, we’ve provided you with lots of different interpretations of addiction. Here are 3 we’ve looked at:

  1. Psychologist Jeff Singer says addiction is a response some people use when they really don’t know who they are or how they fit in the world.
  2. Neuroscientist Nora Volkow says addiction is a “brain disease”
  3. Nobel-Prize-winning economist Gary Becker says addiction can be understood in terms of rational economic theory

In a sense, all of them are right. It depends on what perspective you take. For example, if you believe that everything about you can be reduced to chemicals interacting in your brain, then you would likely agree with Nora Volkow. If you believe that you are more than chemicals interacting in your brain, then you might think that addiction is something other than a disease. If you adhere to the philosophy of the 12-step program, then you likely think that addiction is a “spiritual disease”.

Of course, we interpret addiction in line with the great psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who said that addiction is a response to living a life that has little personal meaning. In real life, this means that those at risk for addiction are usually people who find daily life dull, boring, lonely, uncomfortable, and don’t think they fit in. Once addiction sets in, then, life becomes “meaningless, monotonous, and boring” (as Narcotics Anonymous puts it).

All this is important because, generally, you will do things for your recovery based on what you think your addiction was caused by and how it affected you. Those who follow a 12-step program for their recovery and see addiction as a spiritual problem demands a spiritual solution. Those who interpret addiction as only a matter of excessive use of substances often focus on relapse prevention techniques. Those who interpret addiction as a disease follow any program (usually a 12-step one) that will help them keep away from the drug and since there is no cure, they need to learn to live with the problem and get support to do it.

There are some clients who really don’t care what the addiction is. All they know is that they’ve got a problem with substances and they just want to know how to get over it. This is also a good tactic. After all, in real life, who really cares where it came from? The key is to get over it. Even if you don’t care what caused it, you still have to figure out a way to overcome it.

We know this because we regularly talk with alumni on how well their recovery is going. A lot of the alumni give us reports that they’re beginning to live the life they wanted to live. There may have been a few surprises when they left us related to cleaning up some of the wreckage of the past, but they are doing well.

Others tell us that they are struggling (Remember that that we like to hear from you even if you are struggling!). Interestingly, most of the fellows who are struggling have told us that life in recovery surprised them. They were taken off guard that the way they thought recovery would go didn’t actually work out that way.

In this blog article, we’ll look at some of the surprises that struggling alumni have told us about. You can learn a lot by what didn’t work for others.

“Just say no”

At any given time we find several clients have decided that their recovery will consist of just saying no to alcohol or drugs. Some of the ways the clients say: “Drinking is just not an option for me” or “I know that I can’t use anymore” or “If I just don’t use coke, I’ll be fine”. This seems like a good idea, since, after all, Nancy Reagan told us that the solution to addiction was “just say no”.

For these fellows, addiction equals using drugs or alcohol; therefore, the solution is abstinence. It seems reasonable. This is certainly how most family members and the public interpret addiction, but we have seen the repercussions of this belief with lots of research behind it. The idea that recovery means putting a cork in the bottle or just saying no seems to be a recipe for relapse. In fact, clients who follow this as their main strategy for recovery seem to be the ones who relapse quickly. Thankfully, most of our clients who believe this change their minds in a week or two here.

When someone says, “Drinking is just not an option for me,” it often quickly becomes an option. So, what happened? Was this person lying to us? We don’t think so. Most of the fellows seem genuinely honest; they don’t want to use anymore. Usually, drinking becomes an option for the alumnus because he doesn’t actually understand his addiction. He blames the using rather than looking deeply at what it is about himself that makes intoxication appealing. So, this is a good lesson. If your strategy for recovery is to just say no, then you’ll likely be very surprised when you discover it isn’t enough.

“Life Sucks”

Here’s a common story we hear from alumni: “I don’t get it. I haven’t used. My family is thrilled that I’m sober. My boss is thrilled that I haven’t missed work. My parents tell me they’re so proud of me for kicking the drugs. Everyone seems happy about my recovery… except me. I think my life sucks.”

Although everyone who tells us this is unique, there is a common theme we find in these sorts of stories. We often find that they are not being true to themselves. We generally discover that the alumni who tell us that their life sucks have not paid attention to themselves and have not been true to themselves. They have usually been doing what other people tell them to do.

This really isn’t a big surprise. If you attended our program, you probably discovered from listening to your peers’ life stories that few have insight into themselves. If you don’t know who you are, then how can you be true to yourself? This is why we use Viktor Frankl’s eulogy exercise. It’s a good way to learn what is really important to you (the eulogy exercise is  where you pretend that you’ve lived a good life and then passed away. The exercise is to write down what you want someone to say about you at the funeral service).

This is why we incorporated mindfulness meditation into the program. It is a proven way of helping our clients to be self-aware (e.g. understand what’s going on for you right now). We ask them what they are feeling and how aware they are of their feelings at that moment. Most clients are so dissociated from themselves that they have lost this sort of self-awareness. It takes practice to get it back (Watch infants. They have no problem letting you know how they are feeling right now). We don’t expect you to discover who you are while with us, but we hope that you will begin the process of discovering it.

“I Just Have to go to Meetings”

It is one of the more baffling things that many people in 12-step programs think recovery consists only of going to meetings. Research has shown that those who only attend meetings don’t do very well in staying away from booze or drugs. Researchers have concluded that “involvement” is the key. If the person is actively involved—participates in lessons, focuses on the speakers at meetings, does volunteer work, spends time socializing before and after the meeting—then he succeeds.

Some experts have suggested that those who only attend meetings—and don’t work on themselves—let themselves off easy. If all you do is attend meetings, then you don’t have to take any real action, such as making amends or challenging yourself to change behaviours or take risks to be true to yourself.

“I Just Have to Avoid Being Stressed out”

Here’s a common comment we heard from an alumnus who had a slip: “I had a lousy week, and I was so stressed that I just had to have a drink.”

Thinking that the key to your recovery is to protect yourself from getting stressed out is always a bad strategy—simply because the odds of having a bad day, bad week, or bad month are overwhelmingly high. If your recovery depends on lack of stress, you’re pretty much doomed.

While in our drug rehab program, we give clients a test to see how stressed out they are. Clients mark off all the items that apply to them then add up the scores to see how stressed they are. However, we point out to clients out that lots of people who are happy in recovery face many things that are stressful. A marriage may end, they may have contracted a serious disease, they may have lost a job, they may have been in a car accident, they may have trouble with their family, but they don’t need the drug to deal with these stressors.

So why do we get an alumnus who tells us he “just had to have a drink,” when other alumni didn’t seem to need it? Usually, it’s because his life in recovery is missing something. To borrow an idea from Alcoholics Anonymous, he isn’t being true to himself. Those in recovery who have a slip because of some stressful event are usually living lives that are primed for relapse. The stressful time is often just the last straw.

It’s interesting that those in recovery who decided to drink or use tell us that the actual drug use was the last step. All sorts of things were going on for them days and even weeks before the actual drug use. Although everyone is unique, the common theme is that what they were doing in recovery did not make them feel alive,  vital, or energized. Some typical things we heard from these alumni include: “I was putting in a lot of hours at work”, “I was bored with everything”, “my family was on my back all the time”, or “I just sat on the couch all day.”

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