Recovery, Not Just Abstinence

I’m in Los Angeles for the next few weeks, getting some writing done and seeing old friends. There’s one person I love dearly who is still struggling with meth from time to time. He works in the entertainment industry, so he’ll have a film that lasts months and fully occupies (and satisfies) his life for its duration. He’s got community (the cast and crew), companionship (those with whom he shares a temporary rental on location), a meth-free environment removed from his dealer and, most importantly, a purpose to his life. He is participating in the creation of something larger than himself, a film.

Then he returns to LA and has months off before the next gig. That’s when he starts using again. “Just for a weekend,” he tells himself. “After all, I’ve got the time.” But the reality is he’s backed out of more than one job commitment because he couldn’t stop after that “weekend,” which turned into months. He’s missed many career opportunities. Still, magically, at one point, he puts down the pipe and syringe and says, “Enough. I’m done.” And shortly work appears again and he’s off, abstinent and happy with his career-filled life (the movie industry is pretty much 24/7 when you’re in production). But inevitably boredom returns during the next downtime and he begins to get uncontrollable cravings to use – just for a weekend, of course.

My friend’s story demonstrates perfectly the difference between mere abstinence and hard-won recovery. Often, when we first quit meth we think, “I’m doing this to quit my addiction. Once I’ve got the addiction out of the way, life will be great again.”

But many researchers and clinicians are coming to the conclusion that most drug use isn’t about drugs; it’s about one’s life. Abstinence means stopping our meth use, period. Recovery, on the other hand, means dealing with the feelings and thoughts that bring us constantly back to using in the first place.

Most of us used then abused drugs in order to escape or enhance or otherwise alter how we experience our lives. I remember my earlier months with crystal. It made me feel energetic, young, sexually free (uninhibited), I got a lean, cut body. Gym workouts were a breeze and I could get all kinds of work done fast. I felt as if was a superman in most respects. But, in fact, what I was escaping was clinical depression and no small dose of guilt about my career not panning out as I’d planned, among other things. The truth is my life before meth wasn’t so great (though there were some great aspects to it – most of which I eventually lost due to using).

It’s a profound thought: My addiction isn’t really about the drug, but about me and my life. For most of us, I believe this is true.

This is one of the primary reasons that 12 Step programs are so successful for those who fully commit to them and stick it out. Have you noticed that after Step 1, where you admit you are powerless over crystal meth and your life has become unmanageable, drugs drop immediately out of the equation. It’s all about getting wholly honest with your defects of character and then addressing the wrongs you’ve done not only during your using career, but during your entire life. Tall effin’ order. But as millions of alcoholics and addicts have proven, it can work. And, oh yeah, there’s that connecting to a Higher Power bit. That’s the underlying foundation to all the Steps, God as you understand It. Doing the work, and it is work, of the Steps changes a person. At the least, it makes one more humble and, usually, compassionate toward others.

The 12 Steps are not for everyone, but they sure work for many. If you’re one of those who just don’t “get” the 12 Steps of CMA or AA, you’re not alone. The best alternative is working with a therapist (hopefully individually and in a group) who specializes in addiction. I’d suggest looking at behavioral therapies (cognitive, dialectic) or something similar. The key is that your therapy focuses on changing your behavior. More than reliving a past childhood trauma, you need a therapist who’ll help you change your old bad habits and learn new skills for coping with life that doesn’t involve picking up the pipe. Once recovery and the new habits are securely in place, then comes the time to dig deeper into the psyche if you wish.

If you’re like many of us, you’ll find that abstinence alone isn’t enough. You’ll need something greater than yourself to help give you purpose – to fill that sense of emptiness within. Cultivating that purpose in life is what recovery is all about.