Those of us in recovery tend to put a lot of weight on our sobriety date. 30 day, 60 day and 90 day markers are important milestones but somewhere in the middle of it all, it’s important to ask if the quality of our recovery is increasing along with the count.
For me, there was a point when I’ve had to say “no.”
My Return to Powerlessness
Remember Whack-a-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese? It’s the game where you use a rubber mallet to hit the little mole every time he pops up from his hole. Unfortunately, there are about 9 moles and just as many holes. The game progressively gets more difficult until there are four or five popping up simultaneously.
That’s what my recovery looked like.
I put down the pills and alcohol but as soon as I did, I picked up smoking. Soon enough, I also started overeating. Not just here and there, but real binge eating sessions that centered around ice cream, Heath bars and nachos.
About 15 pounds later, when I hit the 9 month clean marker, I decided it was time to be ruthless. I was determined to remove the things that were popping up as Whack-a-Moles in my life—I wanted to be vice-free. This would require a return to powerlessness. I had to realize that it was more than drugs and alcohol that I was powerless against. Looking deeper, I saw that I was powerless against the very act of looking for anything and everything to distract me from the core pain and deep, foundational problems that needed healing in my life.
Once I came to that realization, I was able to then dissect my thought processes. “Well, I’m not going to jail for overeating or smoking, and I certainly won’t be penalized for becoming a workaholic—at least not on the surface.” It became clear: the Whack-a-Mole game was a way for me to continue to avoid the broken and bankrupt places in my life that seemed too painful to touch. Avoidance often becomes our mantra as addicts and, believe it or not, we can slowly die a death by distraction.
To break it down in simplest terms, recovery takes some serious work. It involves active participation in the process. This is often uncomfortable. Our feelings are involved. We are required to make ourselves vulnerable. This is the opposite of what we’re used to—a life without accountability or much inward reflection. Pain and awkward emotions are avoided at all costs, so we get really good at turning towards distractions.
Are All Addictions Bad?
Now you may be asking, “Isn’t it good to have passion for the things we love?” Like I said, one can argue that some addictions are good and productive—that they aren’t actually harmful.
But they are.
The root problem in addiction switching is not the substance or activity itself, but the underlying problem the behavior points to. Even if the focus is on something viewed as harmless or positive, there is a fine line between healthy and obsessive behavior. Substituting one activity or substance for another reveals that hidden compulsive patterns are still occurring in our lives. Engaging in these behaviors will often have negative consequences of some shape or form down the road.
Dr. Steven Sussman, professor of psychology at University of Southern California, has coauthored a paper on the topic. After reviewing 83 studies, with a total of more than 40,000 participants, he found that 23% of individuals suffered from more than one addiction. These included alcohol use, illicit drug use, tobacco use, binge eating, sex, work, internet use, gambling, exercise, shopping and binge eating.
What’s Really Going On
Substitute addictions are an attempt to serve the same purpose as the original addiction, with dopamine playing a leading role. In the brain, the same mesolimbic pathways are activated in all types of addictions, whether behavioral or substance. After reaching sobriety, many people find it difficult to experience pleasure from normal, positive life events. In a subconscious attempt to jumpstart the limbic factory, we often go down the path of addiction switching.
Some of the most common substitute addictions in recovery include the following:
• A co-dependent relationship
• Food & eating disorders
• Technology & social media
• Exercise and fitness
So What’s the Answer?
Since addiction switching is a way to avoid the root of our behaviors, the only way to freedom is going through it. We have to choose to face our fears, our flaws and walk through our pain and whatever else is holding us hostage, instead of mindlessly reaching for “something else” to fill the void.
Walking in awareness of the fact that we are engaging in unhealthy behavior is a good first step.
For me, the rest of the path was (and still is) difficult —but it’s not impossible. It takes the willingness to lay everything down, fresh every morning. I lay down my own plans, my own agenda, my own selfishness and my own ideas of how things should be.
In other words, I surrender. Practically, this means I make myself vulnerable to others by talking about what I’m dealing with and live a life without masks or walls. I also do my best to place myself right in the center of community instead of isolating.
Through this process, I have seen how my sober community has rallied around me. Two of my friends work out with me at 6:30 am almost every single day. They even text me things, like…”Don’t binge eat today!” and “I’m your accountabilibuddy.” These things sound silly on the surface, but they work. They help me realize that “God is doing for me what I could not do for myself,” just like the promises tell me.
Will I ever reach the destination of wholeness? Well, I believe I’m already whole and that I’m already recovered. I’m just waiting for my mind and body to catch up—and they will.
Robin Bright is the founder of ThatSoberLife.com, an advocate for recovery, author, business owner and single mom living an exuberant life in active recovery.