Why Overcoming Addiction Isn’t About Getting Sober
When we talk about overcoming addiction, successful recovery is often determined by abstinence or sobriety. That is, you’ve only beaten your addiction to the extent that you haven’t used, drank, or acted out.
This idea is so common in our culture that in 12-step circles, we measure the strength of one’s recovery in terms of “clean time,” or that period of time that’s elapsed since your last acted, used, or drank. Hang around recovery treatment centers long enough and you’re bound to hear things like, “He’s got 12 years,” or “I just got my 90 days.”
But here’s the thing: Overcoming addiction has nothing to do with how long you haven’t engaged in your addiction.
So what’s the real story with beating addiction?
First Things First: Choosing Your Goal for Your Recovery
Marking time in recovery is a source of pride for many, though to those that struggle with returning to their addictive behavior, it’s a source of shame. Let me be clear: If your goal in your recovery is total abstinence, you should take joy in each day that’s new in your journey.
Others choose a different goal for their recovery. They might want to drink more safely, use less of their drug of choice, and so on. From a harm reduction approach, any positive change in one’s drug and alcohol use or any choice that helps one move toward sexual health is celebrated.
I believe that you should be able to choose your goal for your recovery without shame, fear, or judgment. After all, it’s your life and your recovery.
But abstinence has been a requirement for starting treatment for drug and alcohol problems for decades. It’s also the current standard for out-of-control and problematic sexual behaviors; with sexual compulsions, sometimes finding a way to stop entirely is necessary to save a relationship with one’s partner. In my experience, many who struggle with sexual behaviors are desperate to save their marriages.
Now, there are times when clients whose lives may be in danger by continued use need to stop using or drinking right away with medical support. I also recommend abstinence in collaboration with clients when their relationships are in crisis and clearly will not survive continued addictive behavior, and we make that decision together.
That addiction treatment almost always requires abstinence from the start is a topic for another time. It’s enough to say for now that the overwhelming emphasis on addiction recovery is getting sober and staying sober.
Overcoming Addiction: The Harm in Measuring Success by Sobriety
Whatever your goal for your recovery is, putting so much emphasis on getting sober and staying sober is harmful to those struggling with addictive behaviors.
- It sets up the person struggling with a substance use disorder for failure and shame, as the overwhelming majority of those in recovery reuse or “relapse” at some point.
- It creates a false “all-or-nothing” paradigm of recovery that can make reusing more harmful as the user gives in to the “fuck-its”: “Well, I had one drink and I blew it, so fuck it, I might as well get wasted.”
- Returning to the addictive behavior, from this perspective, often costs the user critical social support as family, friends, and support groups who understand recovery only in terms of abstinence don’t understand the relapse and may judge or shame the person.
- It pays no attention to the underlying emotional and relational factors that have motivated and perpetuated the addiction in the first place, giving the false impression that the more “clean time” one has, the less vulnerable they are to returning their addictive behavior.
Moreover, we treat addiction differently than other mental health problems. We don’t say to the depressed person, “I’ll help you as long as you’re not depressed.” It sounds crazy. Yet that’s precisely what we require from those struggling with addiction.
An Alternative Perspective
It’s often said that getting sober is easy. Staying sober is the hard part. There’s truth in this statement. That’s why the focus of recovery should be on understanding the underlying feelings, hurts, and motivations that fuel the addictive behavior.
Oftentimes, that means getting honest about two things:
- What benefits does the addictive behavior have? In other words, how does it help? It may sound odd to think about any benefits of destructive behavior, but remember that addictions don’t start out as destructive. People develop the habits that become addictions because they serve a purpose, and it’s often more than one purpose.
- How can the client and the therapist understand and resolve the powerful emotional drivers and pain that fuel the addiction? Often, this work evolves and progresses even as the client is moving toward his or her goals for their use, their drinking, or their addictive behaviors. The relationship to their addictive behavior changes as they restructure their inner world. In other words, as they work through their shit, they don’t need alcohol, drugs, porn or sex as they used to; other possibilities for using become within reach.
Getting and staying sober isn’t the goal of addiction recovery, nor is it the real sign of a recovered, healthy person. As Dr. Adi Jaffe said on a recent podcast episode, you might have intermittent sobriety and be doing a whole lot better than an emotionally unhealthy person who’s been abstinent.
Now don’t get me wrong. Often, especially in the early part of treatment, focus does need to be on the addictive behavior and managing that behavior. Learning cognitive and behavioral strategies like mindfulness, urge-surfing, and the use of alternative coping skills is an important part of the work of recovery.
But when you focus on transforming emotional life and your pain, your relationship to your addictive behavior will change as well. You will have awakened from the addiction-induced slumber, no longer needing it for your emotional survival.
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