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Episode 148 -- September 13, 2021

Stop That, Start This: Two Essentials for Early Recovery

In the beginning of our recovery journey, many of us began to see that our days of active addiction consisted of an endless cycle—one where we repeated the same behaviors and received the same results, which ultimately fed and reinforced our addiction. What happens when we ask for help and break free from that cycle? How can we make real and lasting change? We must let go of our lies and our need to control. We must leave our old patterns of behavior so we can start our renewal process.

In his book The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior, Craig Nakken outlines steps to a successful recovery. He discusses the genetic factors, cultural influences, and progressive nature of substance use disorders to help us understand the process of addiction.

The following excerpt explores two practices Nakken offers as beneficial in the early stages of recovery: defining abstinence and developing positive rituals. These actions can help us begin to trust ourselves while we work to break our addictive cycles and patterns, and transform our attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors in recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

The End of Endless Cycling
In Buddhism and Hinduism, the wheel of samsara refers to the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. Within that endless cycle are the smaller cycles that make up our lives. One of them is the addictive process—pain, acting out, momentary pleasure, more pain; or power, control, being right, feeling out of control, demanding more power. These addictive cycles are endless unless the addict seeks help. Once the addict surrenders to the need for help, the process of recovery and the renewal of the Self begins. The Self still struggles with the Addict, but now the Self begins to change its focus.

Defining Abstinence in Recovery
Recovery relies upon total abstinence from the abused object or event. It is easy to define total abstinence in addictions to gambling, drugs, or alcohol. It may seem much harder to define in addictions to food, sex, spending, or work.

Defining abstinence, then, consists of first defining the addictive behaviors each individual uses in the process of acting out. Next, recovering addicts need to be totally honest with themselves and others when defining these behaviors. They will have to commit themselves to abstinence from those specific behaviors and rituals. Some addicts relapse because they define abstinence too loosely. A sex addict, for example, may tell himself that he can't visit prostitutes, but it's okay to view X-rated movies. Pornography, he will soon discover, can be just as addictive as visiting prostitutes. Some addicts, however, make their definitions of abstinence too rigid, as if to punish themselves: "I will never look at anyone as an object again." When they set up such unrealistic expectations, they often fail to stay sober in their program of recovery. They get angry and rebellious at the harsh restrictions.

We need to create a realistic abstinence contract to recover from those addictions that we cannot be completely separated from. Planning such a contract should be done with a counselor, sponsor, or someone who has been in the program for many years. A sponsor can help us decide exactly what substances or events led to our addiction and what behaviors would now be seductive enough to derail our recovery. With our sponsor's help, we can develop strategies to protect ourselves.

This is a dangerous time in recovery because we become preoccupied with our addictive rituals. In thinking about what it is that excites the Addict within us, we run the risk of re-entering the addictive process. That's why we need to work out a contract with a sponsor whose experience can help us through the dangerous spots. The alcoholic, for example, may have to decide that abstinence for her not only means not drinking but also not going to bars, not traveling alone for extended periods of time, and not going to drinking parties. The compulsive eater may have to make a list of the exact foods he will eat at each meal.

Once we have defined an abstinence contract, we need to share this information with everyone we have chosen to help us stay abstinent. When we talk about our contract with our support group, the contract becomes more clear and real. Others can now help to hold us accountable for our actions. During the first year, we need to reevaluate the contract regularly, adding any behaviors that may endanger recovery.

Rituals and Recovery
In recovery, rituals are as important to our renewal as they were to the addictive process, and we learn to develop positive, self-enriching rituals as a result. Instead of going down to the bar for a couple of beers with the gang as an addictive ritual, we go to a meeting to talk about the Twelve Steps. With other recovering people, we connect to the principles of recovery, to our own spiritual centers, to the spirit of others around us, and to a Higher Power. These positive rituals are about being connected, about filling our lives with meaning. They are about identification and commitment.

Many recovering addicts have a simple ritual: each morning or evening, they read about recovery, then meditate on the reading. This personal ritual ties them to the recovery process. It allows them to recommit themselves to recovery on a daily basis.

Addiction is also about having few choices, because the addict is focused on the trance and the specific rituals leading up to it. Recovery, on the other hand, is about choices. The rituals of recovery teach us the behaviors that help us exercise our choices. By practicing these rituals, we bind ourselves to the new beliefs and values of the program. We focus on growth. We commit ourselves to caring and nurturing ourselves and others. Through our rituals and the symbolic language used in these rituals, we learn to develop and commit ourselves to a language and lifestyle of love, for ourselves and others.

As we develop our rituals, we learn to act according to the specific code of conduct of recovery. We treat ourselves and others in a respectful and nurturing way. We make amends for our past mistakes and continue to do so whenever necessary in the present. We take time to reflect and to visit and listen to others. We use prayer or other means to connect to our Higher Power on a regular basis, and we go out into the world and practice these spiritual principles in all our affairs.

The rituals of recovery bind us to the parts of our world from which we receive healing, nurturing, and love. Positive rituals are about faith and life. By engaging in them, recovering addicts connect themselves to others and start to have faith in people and themselves again. By turning to their rituals in times of trouble, recovering addicts can reduce their personal stress and, despite struggles, can seek opportunities for growth. They rely on these rituals to help them find meaning.

About the Author:
Craig M. Nakken, MSW, CCDP, LCSW, LMFT, is a lecturer, trainer, and family therapist specializing in the treatment of addiction. With decades of working experience in the areas of addiction and recovery, Nakken has a private therapy practice in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of several seminal books and writings in the recovery field, including Men's Issues in Recovery, Reclaim Your Family from Addiction, and Finding Your Moral Compass.

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