Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery

Any one who has attempted to recover from addiction realizes how difficult a quest it is. Recovery rates for the first year are estimated to be 2 out of 10. This means that 20 percent of the people who enter recovery remain clean and sober that first year. That’s not very promising, is it? But once you make it past the first year of recovery your chances to stay clean and sober greatly improve. Eight out of ten or 80 percent of the people entering the second year of recovery remain clean and sober. Needless to say getting over the first year hump into the second year of recovery is critical.

So what can you do to give yourself the best chance to be one of those 2 who remain clean and sober for the first year? We can now answer that question. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have taught us a lot about recovery. In fact AA and NA continue to be the most complete source of knowledge and experience about recovery from alcoholism and other drug addictions, respectively.

We have learned from them that recovery is dependent upon a spiritual experience. This spiritual experience is facilitated by “hitting bottom,” by experiencing a sense of hopelessness and helplessness about drinking or using or both. This state of mind has been labeled “surrender” by Dr. Harry Tiebout. Surrender is the first step towards recovery. What makes it so hard to take this simple step? How come so many balk at surrendering to this reality? The answer lies in understanding resistance.

Resistance is the force that blocks us from moving towards what we need. You see if we get out of our way we will naturally move towards what we need to do, to recover. We are hard wired to move in this direction, but only if we don’t interfere with ourselves.

Surrender will occur naturally if we get out of our way. Bill Wilson called it “deflation at depth.” When we surrender we recover our true self. We recover our ability to grow and evolve. Our true nature is restored.

I refer to this growth force as an organismic wisdom. It’s innate to move towards the resolution of our needs and desires, to complete what is incomplete. Dr. Abraham Maslow referred to this as a basic human need. This need is incredibly powerful. But it can be interrupted.

Our current understanding is that addiction hijacks our brain and uses other psychological forces to interrupt and interfere with our basic need to grow, resolve and evolve. Resistance to recovery therefore is to be expected. Resistance originates from several sources: 1) The disease of addiction which doesn’t want us to get well; 2) Feeling unworthy of recovery; and/or 3) Self-hate and a corresponding desire to punish ourselves. These three forces cause us to do stupid things that sabotage our recovery.

In my book, 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery, I discussed 12 of the most common ways that these forces manifest themselves in our recovery and how they sabotage recovery in the first two years. I selected what seemed to me to be the 12 most common ways to sabotage early recovery. They are:
1. Believing addition to one substance is the problem.
2. Believing sobriety will fix everything.
3. Pursuing recovery with less energy than pursuing addiction.
4. Being selectively honest.
5. Feeling special and unique.
6. Not making amends.
7. Using the program to try to become perfect.
8. Confusing self-concern with selfishness.
9. Playing futile self-improvement games.
10. Not getting help for relationship problems.
11. Using the program to handle everything.

I want to discuss one of these in this article, namely number 7, Using the program to try to become perfect. The reason I want to focus on this issue is that it is usually unrecognized because it seems like the person is doing what they are supposed to be doing in recovery. But the truth is they are not. Let me explain this further.

In my graduate training program in clinical psychology I read an article that really impressed me. I don’t recall the names of the authors but their thesis was intriguing. First they argued that pathology is reinforced and supported by what they called “illness perpetuating behaviors.” These behaviors occurs outside of our awareness, it’s unconscious. In other words we aren’t aware that we are perpetuating our problems. We don’t allow ourselves to be aware of these behaviors because it would create a cognitive dissonance. Realizing what we do to contribute to our problems would make it very uncomfortable for us to continue to behave in this manner.

Addiction is a great example of how illness perpetuating behaviors contributes to the progression of the disease of addiction. As the disease progressed our lives became organized around drinking or using. We chose friends who were like minded. We manufactured excuses to drink or get high. We argued that we have an inalienable right to our behavior. We dulled our empathy and constricted our awareness because we didn’t want to feel or see the truth of how destructive our behavior was to ourselves and to those we love. Any defense we used to continue drinking or using was therefore an illness perpetuating behavior.

Addiction is a great example of how illness perpetuating behaviors contributes to the progression of the disease of addiction.

This part of their thesis was not a new idea. In fact it was a widely accepted clinical fact but the second part of their thesis was unique.The second idea they discussed was that we reacted to psychotherapy or other means of healing like some species of insects have reacted to insecticides. Some insect species have evolved and adapted biologically to the point of making DDT useless. Another example of this process is how some strains of bacteria adapts to antibiotics. We do the same thing. We adapt to psychotherapy and use what we learn to perpetuate our illness rather than to get well. We take things that are designed to help us and neutralize their therapeutic value. This is quite evident in many areas of recovery. Using the 12 Steps to achieve perfection is one of them. Here’s how this perpetuates a problem that began in our childhood.

Early in our personal development we moved away from who we were, our true self, towards an idealized image of who we thought we should be. We alienated ourselves from our true-self to resolve anxiety, the anxiety that we wouldn’t be loved or accepted. This idealized image became our way of insuring that we would be loved and accepted. It created a false-self, which acted like a governing body that rewarded us and punished us if we didn’t obey its laws.

The false-self became a tyranny of shoulds. When we acted the way we should we felt proud of ourselves. This rewarded our compliance. When we didn’t act like we believed we should, we despised ourselves. This self-hate punished us for not acting accordingly. This is the false-self’s way of keeping us in line. These shoulds are absolutes. The only choice we have is to honor the false-self and its demands with total and unquestioning obedience.

However our idealized self did not fulfill its promise. It couldn’t. It’s impossible to be perfect. In fact the falseself created a whole new set of problems. It alienated us from our true-self, it created black and white thinking, and it made us believe that our redemption lied in perfection. In trying to live up to the specifications of our idealized self, we became perfectionists.

I used the following analogy in my new book, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone, to describe this process. “Have you ever seen a beautiful bonsai tree? A bonsai artist works patiently over many years to constrain what should be a full-sized tree into perfect miniature. She constantly prunes the tree, wraps wires around its branches to shape them, deprives it of water, and trims its roots to fit a tiny pot. Such a tree becomes perfect to look at. And yet…and yet. It is not its true-self. It is a tree made to conform to a vision of miniature perfection.”

This is what we have done to ourselves with our shoulds, but it doesn’t work. The solution turns out to be an impossible way of life. When we hit bottom we realized that we will never be perfect, our reliance on our false-self was shattered. But wait, a part of us said something like “Maybe I can finally pull this perfectionist thing off with the help of the 12 Steps.” When we adopted this kind of a goal we are now tying to use the 12 Steps to realize the myth of perfection. This doesn’t work any better in recovery than it did before recovery. The reason is obvious, recovery necessitates doing the opposite of what we have done in the past. Recovery means accepting our imperfections, not trying to become perfect. If this point is not understood then it can be very easy to fall into this trap. What we need to do is become more human not perfect. We need to recover our true selves not immortalize and glorify our false-self.

Let’s return to the analogy of the bonsai tree. If the bonsai artist removes the coils from the branches of the miniature tree, stops constricting its roots, and transplants it to a better place, the tree will begin to grow. It will spread its roots, its branches will reach out, and it will grow into its natural form. This is what can happen in our recovery. If we cut the wires that have held our true self prisoner, we can then grow into our natural form. But we can only achieve this wonderful state if we are honest with ourselves and face the stupid things we do to resist recovery.

By Allen Berger, Ph.D.

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