Lessons From Early Recovery

[Guest blog by Facilitator Rick Kuplinski and Henderson Nevada participants]

There is no one path to recovery. Everyone’s journey is different, and it is up to each of us to find the strategies and supports that work for us. Also, each of us is likely to experience some false starts and wrong turns (mistakes?) along the way. These too will vary from person to person. We, the participants in the SMART Recovery meeting in Henderson (Nevada), have had our share of these. So, we used one of our meetings to talk about what we wish we hadn’t done, things now shared here. We are not telling you what not to do. (We avoid giving direct advice in SMART Recovery). Rather, we are sharing what we wished we had done differently:

  1. Have one last party before getting started. That one last “hurrah” wasn’t necessary to get started facing our addictive behaviors. Besides being dangerous to drink or use to a newly epic level, this didn’t make getting started any easier. For some of us it just made the detox part even worse. For others, the partying merely delayed the start of our recovery yet again.
  2. Keep waiting to hit rock bottom. How bad is bad? How low is low? If we’re already feeling bad and fallen low, that’s far enough. Better to stop after just bumping into the sides than to crash all the way at the bottom. Those who haven’t tried the SMART Recovery tools Hierarchy of Values (HOV) and Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) might find that these help us to see that the downside of continuing addictive behavior already far overshadows whatever upside is still left. These tools are in the SMART Recovery Handbook and at smartrecovery.org.
  3. Keep negotiating against ourselves. “I will only drink on weekends.” “I will just smoke and not inject.” “I won’t take any more markers from the casino.” “I’ll take a break for Sober January.” It is natural behavior to make deals with ourselves. But if our history is one of constantly breaking these promises, then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate strategy and come up with a more comprehensive and lasting plan.
  4. Try to just drink to “the legal limit” or drug only to “take the edge off.” Like #3 above is this belief that we have suddenly learned to control what has clearly been out of hand for a long time. We have a saying: “Those who can moderate, just do it. Those who can’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out how.” (Which one are you?) SMART Recovery recommends that we start recovery with an extended period of abstinence so that we re-gain physical and mental clarity to see the benefits of long-term recovery and to have experiences that inform our decisions about what is working and what is not. (NOTE: Anyone in active, extended use should consider seeking medical support before beginning a period of abstinence to avoid the potential danger and excessive discomfort of withdrawal.)
  5. Do it completely alone and don’t try anything new. We thought we had the perfect solo flight plan for recovery . . . until things just sputtered and crashed to the ground (again). Maybe trying by ourselves to beat something we tend to do in isolation (our addictive behaviors) isn’t such great idea? But getting help isn’t the only thing we told ourselves we would never do, but later found out how effective it was once we tried it. This also includes things like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, talk therapy, inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, medication-assisted recovery, self-care, and even checking out other support groups in combination with SMART Recovery.
  6. Withhold information from those trying to help. Of course, we are not proud of our addictive behaviors. Sometimes they lead us to do things that leave us feeling guilty or ashamed. Some of the underlying issues are hard to talk about. But keeping things locked “in the vault” denies treatment professionals (and our peers) the full picture of our situations they need to help us. In fact, nobody can if we don’t ask. No need to ask everybody; just those we know will be team players. In SMART Recovery, asking for help is a sign of strength—not weakness.
  7. Refuse to change some of the people, places, and things in our lives. It was not a good idea to try to change, on one hand, but keep everything in our lives the exactly the same, on the other. This includes some (but not all) of the people with whom we drank, drugged, acted out; the places we associate with our addictive behavior; and the things we did that might tempt or trigger us. It is possible to re-associate some of these as we become more secure in our recoveries. But early on, hard choices need to be made.
  8. Overemphasize “time served.” Just about everyone counts days. But we learn in SMART Recovery that the number of days clean and sober is not nearly as important as real changes in our attitudes and behaviors. So, we place more emphasis on how we are building our power over addiction than we do marking days on the calendar. This also makes it easier to get back on track if a setback occurs. No need to start counting days from zero all over again. We just try to learn from what happened and pick up where we left off with new resolve.
  9. Focus on the trainwreck; not the cleanup. War stories, drunkalogues, drug tales, addiction résumé comparisons—whatever we call them, stories about the depths of addictive behaviors have a certain allure, maybe even shock value. But when we focus on how badly someone else’s train wrecked, we risk not paying enough attention to what was done to get things back on track. Thus, there is very little of value that we can take away and apply to our own situation. This is especially true of many of the portrayals of addiction and recovery in movies and television that sensationalize the depths of addiction but spend hardly any time on what the people in the show did (or did not do) to recover (or not). Not helpful!
  10. Declare victory too soon; too publicly. We all look forward to the day when we are truly recovered—not just in recovery—and through motivation, working a plan, and patience with the process, we can all get there. In addition to challenges along the way, there will be plenty of progress to celebrate, to savor, and from which to learn. But for now, the work continues . . .


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