Recovery Hack - Change the Subject

It is not unusual to get stuck in the recovery process. This can take the form of stronger-than-usual temptations and cravings, boredom, loneliness, and sometimes slips and relapses. The best solution can be to double down on good recovery activities: call your sponsor, attend extra meetings, and spend more time with addiction recovery resources like books, counselors, etc.

But what if you are doing the right things, but still feel like you aren’t making the progress that you should be? It could be that you are spending too much time on recovery topics. It may be time to explore some growth topics and activities that aren’t directly related to addiction recovery. It may be time to expand your focus to include other things.

The first few times that I drove a car, my eyes would look at the hood, trying to keep the car lined up with my lane. The instructor said, No, look farther out to where you want the car to go. That will keep you in your lane.

For much of my driving career, cars and trucks were rear-wheel drive, and recovering from fishtailing and spins was a necessary skill in snowy, icy northeastern US winters. As you take the actions to recover control, one of the keys is to look where you want the car to go (safely on the road and in the lane), and not where the car may be headed (into a ditch or pole). In other words, focus on where you want the car to go.

Initially, you may not know what other topics to explore. Start with areas of weakness that need shoring up. Do you have spiritual needs; for example, are you sure of your salvation? Do you know where you are going when you die? Are you grounded in the Bible, prayer, and meditation?

If you are out of shape, make some time for activities like walking. If your house needs some minor repairs, do some research to see what you may be able to do yourself. Is there a topic you have always wanted to learn about? Grab a book from the library and start exploring.

A few years ago, I took an interest in habits and habit formation. I used what I was learning to stop a life-long habit of biting my fingernails. This was a “small win” compared to the addiction I was wrestling with, but it was a helpful diversion that gave me confidence to tackle my bigger issues. When I am tempted now, I will often look at my hands to remind me of what is possible.

One of my major deficits is in the area of relationships. My tendency is to isolate and withdraw and my listening skills are not where they should be. Some of this lack may have been caused by my addictive behaviors, but I will not improve significantly if I don’t go beyond just becoming sober. I am reading relationship books and applying the principles in my relationships because this is healthy regardless of my history.

My favorite 12-Step meeting usually has a “meeting after the meeting” at a local McDonalds. We rarely talk about our recovery because there are plenty of other things to talk about: our families, God, music, work, recreation, etc. We laugh (mostly at ourselves), we empathize, we talk about our disappointments, hopes, and dreams. We talk about life.

Learning researchers talk about two types of knowledge assimilation: focused learning and diffused learning. The idea is to give focused attention to the topic you are learning. But then when you get stuck or feel “full” you leave it alone and release the hard focus. Do something relaxing and totally unrelated to your topic of study. My favorite things are to take a walk, a shower, or a short nap or errand. This is where the subconscious takes over—the diffused learning—and where we will receive unexpected flashes of insight into our topic. Solutions to problems will seem to appear out of nowhere.

One technique for getting sober in the 12-Step world is doing a “ninety-in-ninety,” 90 meetings in 90 days. This is a good way to get immersed in recovery and get established in sobriety. Early in my recovery, I was attending 5 or 6 meetings a week and the intense focus was an immense help.

But I found that a lot of my awareness and understanding of the addiction and my recovery was coming when I was not directly focused on it. When I was relaxing or working on something totally different I would suddenly think of patterns or insights that I could relate to my recovery. By broadening my interests and areas of study, my thinking has become less problem oriented and more solution oriented.

The bottom line: do whatever it takes to get and stay sober. Sobriety is the foundation of recovery. But remember that your addictive behaviors are symptoms of deeper issues. Broaden your thinking beyond the immediate problem and seek to grow in all areas of your life. The solution to being stuck isn’t always to double-down on effort in that area. Progress will often come by shifting attention to something seemingly unrelated to recovery.

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