"Failed recovery is responding to present-day situations with yesterday's emotional package."
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Episode 82 -- January 25, 2021New Year, New Now: Stop Letting the Past Control Today
Beloved author Earnie Larsen was a true and certain guide to living more abundantly in recovery. In his book, Destination Joy: Moving Beyond Fear, Loss, and Trauma in Recovery, Larsen explores ways you can bring greater love, acceptance, and belonging into your life. This includes learning to fully inhabit the present moment—what he calls "getting in the now."
A pioneer thinker in the field of recovery, Larsen describes sustained abstinence from an addiction as only the first stage of recovery. Sobriety is the start. Real recovery begins with what he calls Stage II—the rebuilding of the life that was saved in Stage I. According to Earnie, "Stage II Recovery work is about the "me" that stands in front of the bathroom mirror each morning. It is about getting to the cause of our problems rather than endlessly putting Band-Aids on symptoms."
It has been edited for brevity.
Do you recall a time on your recovery path where something happened, you hit a speed bump along the way, and an event triggered a ton of "old stuff "? You may have thought, "I dealt with all that years ago. I thought I was done with all that!" As one woman put it, "When will I finally get the word recovered stamped on me like a side of beef?" Wrong questions have no right answers. Wondering, let alone agonizing over, when we will finally "get there" comes from seeing recovery as an event (achieving sobriety) and not a process or journey. It's essentially a spiritual journey. There is no end or "been there, done that." All there is, is better—and more—and further.
Understanding recovery in this light allows us to understand that when "old stuff " jumps up, it isn't a failure. It isn't a sign that we haven't done a good job dealing with "it" back when. What the "jumping up" does is ask us to move to a new, deeper level of our recovery. Here, the God of our understanding stands waiting for us to show up so that we may experience healing on a deeper level.
Lost in a Blizzard of Labels
In recent years, labels have littered the field of recovery like falling leaves in October. As I travel around the country, I hear: "Hello, I'm Frank, alcoholic, chemically dependent." "Hi, I'm Joe, drug addict, rage-a-holic." "Hello, I'm Mary, alcoholic, co-dependent." "Hi, I'm Harold, chemically dependent, codependent, shame-based." "Hi, I'm Agnes, druggie, adult child, dually addicted." "Hello, I'm Eddie; I'm the king of addicts. I catch any addiction floating around."
All these labels seem to be attempts to move beyond the glorious victory of abstinence. "Yes," they seem to say, "I am an abstinent addict but I still have living problems. I need to keep going. These labels are a way of naming those problems." As good as this intention may be, it can get confusing. And confusion can be a fine place for addictions to hide. Can't you just hear someone saying, "I'm all of these labels. Who wouldn't drink with all the things that are wrong with me?"
The meaning of all these labels and how we use them can be found painted in ten-foot-high letters stating, "My problem is me!" We may say: "I have problems with relationships, with boundaries, and about being good enough. I still feel the urge to try to fill the hole within my spirit with alcohol, but I am at the center of all my problems. Something inside of me doesn't work right. Something inside of me is out of focus, if not downright broken."
Stage II Recovery work is about the "me" that stands in front of the bathroom mirror each morning. It is about getting to the cause of our problems rather than endlessly putting Band-Aids on symptoms. While putting Band-Aids on symptoms is fine (ask anyone who has ever taken an aspirin for a headache), the symptom will continue to return until the cause of the problem is figured out and acted on. That is why connecting the dots is so important in our recovery. These symptoms tend to drain away energy and attention that could be spent in happier, more productive ways.
Stage II Work = Life Work
There is more than one way of doing Stage II Recovery work. When egos get out of control, we often tend to think we know the one and only right way of doing recovery, even though we might not know as much as we think we do or want others to think we do. A friend of mine who is a counselor at a treatment center told me how he makes the point of the alcoholic's strange combination of bloated ego and monumental insecurity. After the first few days of treatment, he calls together all the new people in treatment. He asks them if they have ever been to treatment before. Most say no. He asks them if they have ever run a treatment program before. Again, they say no. Then, he asks if any of them have ideas about how to improve the program. True to form, he says, they all know exactly how to improve the program. They don't know the questions, but they have absolute certainty regarding the answers.
Again, I'm not saying there is only one way to do Stage II work. I'm only saying our life work needs to be done if we want as much abundance and joy as is possible for us.
Let Now Be Now, Not Then
Stage II Recovery enables us to distinguish between now and then so we can let now be now and not then. Life work is always about learning to respond to the events in our present life with the emotional intensity appropriate to the event and not with the emotional intensity that was appropriate to tragic situations twenty or thirty years ago. For example, consider these situations:
- When someone cuts you off on the highway, don't look for a flamethrower to turn the driver into a cinder. That's old stuff. It's no big deal. Let it go. Get in the now.
- When people get up to leave when you are speaking at a meeting, don't get all riled up because they are discounting you. Maybe they just have to go to the bathroom. That's old stuff. It's no big deal. Let it go. Get in the now.
- When people have disagreements with you, it doesn't mean either they or you are total idiots. You don't have to write them out of your life forever. That's old stuff. It's no big deal. Let it go. Get in the now.
- When you have to wait in line, it doesn't mean you have to "get even" by making a scene. Everyone waits. Waiting is not a personal assault directed at you. That's old stuff. It's no big deal. Let it go. Get in the now.
- When someone asks you your opinion, you don't have to beat the person up with your thoughts or act like you never had a thought in your life. That's old stuff. It's no big deal. Let it go. Get in the now.
Failed recovery is responding to present-day situations with yesterday's emotional package—which you used back when the situation was totally different. Serenity or living in a state of recovery is all about letting yesterday be yesterday and today be today. Recovery is training ourselves by practicing daily disciplines to act in the present as the present and not from the emotional stance of a thousand past yesterdays. These yesterdays are long dead except where we allow them to be fully alive inside us. We can never experience the abundance and joy that is available to us by allowing yesterday to live with such terrible intensity in our hearts, minds, and bodies today. Think of every day as a new baby being born to us. Allowing the worst of yesterday to be the architect of our today is like taking that child and sacrificing it on some pagan altar of antiquity. Such a loss is tragic beyond words.
Do parts of your past control your present? Whether you answer yes or no, see if you relate to any of the following situations.
- When we react badly to some everyday criticism, "open the trapdoor in your mind." Who is driving the bus of your life? How old is that person? What situation is he or she acting from? What is our negative present-day response really about?
- When we feel discouraged by where our capacity for intimacy has been damaged, "open the trapdoor in your mind." Who is driving the bus of your life? How old is that person? What situation is he or she acting from? What is our negative present-day response really about?
- When we fall into the trap of trying to fill the hole in our hearts with more money, more work, more sex, more stuff, "open the trapdoor in your mind." Who is driving the bus of your life? How old is that person? What situation is he or she acting from? What is our negative present-day response really about?
- When we swallow our integrity by pretending some-thing is all right or "just fine" when it really isn't, "open the trapdoor in your mind." Who is driving the bus of your life? How old is that person? What situation is he or she acting from? What is our negative present-day response really about?
If we allowed a five-year-old child to drive our car, how long would it be before some terrible accident happened? Five-year-old children are not able to drive a car. It would be unfair and cruel to ask a five-year-old to drive. Why would we expect anything different if we put an emotionally fixated five-year-old in charge of our lives?
We have all been affected by our past. But none of us has to be victims of our past unless we allow the evil tide to sweep us away. If we allow this to happen, we will re-create the past every day of our present lives. We then allow the past's process of pain, loss, and misery to be the blueprint of all our tomorrows.
Unchecked pain tends to fixate us at the point where our pain was first felt. Unrecognized, unchecked pain guarantees that this negative process of emotional fixation in our past will imprison us in an unending loop of disastrous thoughts, feelings, and actions. And we give that cycle of pain a free ticket to pass down to the next generation.
Stage II Recovery says, "It stops here!"
About the Author:
Earnie Larsen was a nationally known author and lecturer. A pioneer in the field of recovery from addictive behaviors and the originator of the process known as Stage II recovery, Earnie authored numerous curricula, DVDs, audio CDs, and books with Hazelden and other publishers, including his 2010 Hazelden book Now That You're Sober: Week-by-Week Guidance from Your Recovery Coach, written with his sister, Carol Larsen Hegarty. With degrees from Loyola University and the University of Minnesota, Earnie had been a counselor for more than forty years.
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