The other day, on Therapy Unscripted Live (streaming on Addiction Unscripted’s Facebook), I explored the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the age-old question, What is the key to sobriety?
Obviously, if I had this key, if it was just dangling on my key chain, we wouldn’t be in the midst of this horrific death toll. We wouldn’t be losing so many of our brothers and sisters, our husband and wives, our neighbors and coworkers to this vicious and unforgiving disease. We would have more clarity and more understanding of the labyrinth that is both addiction and recovery.
I can only speak from my clinical experience- from the collected journey of working with hundreds of struggling alcoholics and addicts desperate for their taste of freedom and happiness.
The key to sobriety? It’s not about how you define yourself, what program you work, how old you are, what drug you used, or how you even get sober to begin with.
In my work, sustained, meaningful, and happy recovery comes down to the following two things: connection and consistency.
The Individual Feels Connected: With Self, With Others, With The World
When we reflect on the anatomy of active addiction, we can easily conjure the sense of withdrawal from self, the themes of desperate isolation, a disconnect from society and the world at large. Addiction is a state of loneliness.
Many clients describe the culmination of these feelings, and chalk it up to feeling dead. Some argue they would prefer being dead- at least that makes it permanent and finite.
The addiction becomes the primary relationship- it becomes God and it becomes Satan- it is a cult within itself, brainwashing and deluding the addict from logic and sanity. Can we really be surprised when the individual washes up on the shores of recovery, when she finally realizes how unsustainable her life was, that she feels completely lost? That she lacks a sense of identity? That she struggles to know what genuine connection and the bridging of emotions with another human really feel like?
CONNECTION WITH SELF
For many, this is the first stage of recovery, and in a nutshell, it is self-awareness. It is depth and insight of the soul, the ego, and everything in between.
This is a process, and sometimes it can be a painstaking one. It entails rediscovering everything that was never formed- or everything that was lost in the throes of addiction.
It is about learning who you are, becoming curious why you do what you do, and working towards congruence with your thoughts and your actions.
It is aiming to discover yourself inside the addiction- and outside of it as well.
This connection means making and maintaining a positive relationship with yourself, as awkward or foreign as that may feel, and this process can entail work of forgiveness, healing of deeply-rooted trauma, and reconciliation of insecurities and shame.
Sometimes, it also just means trying to be your own friend- being someone you can trust. If you can’t trust yourself, can you really trust recovery?
Connection with Others
To connect with another entails vulnerability and intimacy. On a fundamental level, it requires some form of trust. Addiction took away trust; recovery slowly allows us to reclaim it.
In order to connect, we must work to surrender some of our own defensiveness. This is simple, and it is also complicated, but rarely can it be successful if drugs are in the mix.
Fortunately, the recovery journey teaches many different forms of healthy connection if we keep our hearts open to it: connection with peers, connection with a therapist or case manager or sponsor or possibly all of the above, connection with your husband or children or neighbor down the street, connection with the other alcoholic struggling just as much as you are.
These connections are not random.
We are social creatures. We are meant to connect and form relationships; we are meant to give and feel love. We all crave intimacy- many forms of it- and we are all have needs that can only be met through our relationships with others.
If we don’t have connection in recovery, we fall back in love with only thing we believe is capable of loving us back- our drug of choice.
connection with the worlD
Connection with the world typically entails some kind of experience that something in general is greater than us. This can be felt in the form of Higher Power or the universe or the unity of humanity. It can be felt in nature or through prayer or meditation. It can be abstract and philosophical, or concrete and very real.
Whatever it is is, this connection with the world creates a sense of harmony and peace. It levels us; makes us realize we aren’t as “big” or even “important” as we think we are.
This connection is innate. You see it with happy children, mesmerized by the weather or the bugs on the ground or the trees in front of them. You see it with anyone who comes across as serene or tranquil. Connection with the world means experiencing awe; at some point, in addiction, you lose this feeling completely.
Awe is felt in the forces outside of self, the forces beyond the limits of just humanity and person-to-person experience.
When you feels a sense of connection with the world, there is increased purpose in life. There is a covert understanding that it’s going to be okay- that life just is- that all can be accepted and embraced.
The Individual is Consistent: With Self, With Others, with The World
Envision again the anatomy of active addiction, and examine the chaos and randomness, the impulsiveness and discord, the absolute sense of disharmony- a complete life depiction of not just coloring outside the lines, but coloring outside of the coloring book altogether.
Inconsistency is the highway of addiction- it is the force that makes it impossible to make promises and keep them, to show up to work or keep a job, to even trust yourself to take a shower or cook a meal.
Inconsistency is the bread and butter of addiction- it is what the addict is known for: unreliability, dishonesty, and complete chaos.
The only thing the individual is consistent with? Drug use.
In sustained recovery, all of this must change.
consistency with self
In the primary stages of recovery, you commit to varying levels of internal consistency, and that can be as simple as abstaining from the drug or alcohol or as layered as attending meetings once a day, calling a sponsor, showing up to weekly therapy appointments, arriving to work on time.
Your consistency exists in basic hygiene, in showering daily and taking medication, in eating and sleeping, in journaling if you commit to wanting to journal.
It is about working to keep your own self accountable.
If inconsistency is the highway of addiction, consistency is the island of recovery. The bridge between the two will always exist; it is your job to know when you risk crossing over, when the shortcut to insanity tempts and calls.
consistency with others
In addiction, the individual falls somewhere on the spectrum between unreliable friend and conniving son-of-a-bitch. There is no “consensus” of what’s going to happen, no real truth or meaning behind a promise or statement. Lying becomes synonymous with breathing.
Consistency with others starts with saying what you mean, and doing what you say.
It is the grassroots of recovery- the movement towards honesty and compassion towards others, with doing what you can to increase a pattern of safety within your relationship.
To be consistent with another shows respect towards yourself and respect towards that person. It conveys maturity and integrity; it prioritizes the relationship and honors the dynamic in the highest form a dynamic can be honored.
Consistency, at its core, builds trust. And, trust builds a relationship.
consistency with the world
Consistency with the world entails following through with actions that contribute to greater society.
It means showing up to work everyday or driving safely or throwing away your trash instead of littering on the street.
Consistency with the world shows a gratitude to be alive, and the initiative to do what you can to be a better person in this world.
Addiction takes. Recovery gives. Your consistency with the world takes care of you and it takes care of everyone else.