For most of us there’s something about the idea of change that we just don’t like. Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown, or perhaps we just don’t want to make the effort. However miserable we may feel, our current situation has become our comfort zone. Any change “might make matters worse”.
Nevertheless, recovery from addiction is all about change. We have to change our old attitudes and practise new ways of doing things until they get so ingrained that they become new habits. Changing ourselves is a hard struggle.
But we know from working with thousands of cases that this kind of profound change is very possible. The keyword in the process is HOW: Honesty, Openness and Willingness to change. These are the three essential requirements for success.
Recovery from addiction is basically about regulating behaviour so that a new and better life can be built. The changes that have to be made during this process are difficult and take time. Later on we have to make sure these changes stay in place by diligently practising our new ways. Behaviour can normally only be successfully regulated if we make changes inside ourselves: to our attitudes, to the way we think and the way we respond to people and situations.
A person who is trying to recover from addiction, particularly in the early stages, is likely to be very occupied with the inner struggle between the new person they want to become and the old person that they are leaving behind. They may be aware of this struggle or not, but it will be happening inside them and the symptoms will show themselves, including tiredness, irritability, anxiety and sleeplessness.
Addiction is a powerful, cunning and baffling disease and it tries desperately to stay active within us. It will not give up or go away, in fact it will always be there waiting to attack us when we least suspect it. One of my patients used to liken addiction to Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick Cato in the Pink Panther films.
The good news is that, as time goes by, this inner struggle will diminish in intensity. I believe that it will never go away completely, because addiction itself will never go away completely. We have a chronic disease and no matter how brilliant our recovery we will never receive a certificate telling us that we are cured.
The inner struggle never ends because there will, I believe, always remain a tiny part of us that does not want to change. And that tiny part is the remains of our addiction – dormant and diminished but never dead. We forget this at our peril. We must never cease to regard recovery as work in progress.
Therapists’ working on “self image” with a patient sometimes ask them to write an epitaph. The American poet Raymond Carver, a notorious alcoholic who was in recovery for the last seven years of his life, wrote this:
‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth’