What is the number-one enemy of recovery? Many people say drugs, alcohol or the disease of addiction itself. Perhaps you’d point to unsupportive friends or a flawed health care system or a dysfunctional home life. However, there is a much loftier, much more conniving opponent threatening your sobriety: you.
Addicts are expert self-saboteurs. Addiction itself is, in some ways, an act of self-sabotage. Rather than dealing with uncomfortable feelings and finding workable solutions, addicts turn to drugs and alcohol, temporarily escaping one problem only to create bigger ones. Here are a few ways addicts continue to get in the way of their sobriety, even years into recovery:
Inside an addict’s mind runs a soundtrack of self-attacks: “I’ll never get it right.” “I don’t deserve to be happy.” Many addicts suffer from a core belief that they aren’t good enough or don’t deserve anything but the misery they’ve known in active addiction. They accept self-judgments and abuse they would never tolerate from other people.
Often unbeknownst to the addict, these thoughts translate into feelings of hopelessness and defeat, leaving the addict feeling desperate for a high and powerless to resist. Recognizing and intervening in this ongoing negative commentary and substituting more accurate thinking is an essential skill in recovery.
As Helen Keller famously said, “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” In moderate doses, feeling sorry for yourself serves a useful purpose in recovery. Many addicts have suffered devastating trauma, both pre-addiction and as a result of their addiction. Grieving for one’s losses can be an integral part of the healing process.
The problem arises when self-pity zaps you of your motivation to recover or turns into resentment, hopelessness or blame. Instead of taking responsibility, self-pity becomes a way to justify blaming others or refusing to take positive action. While self-pity may have served a purpose in active addiction, left untamed, it can jeopardize your recovery.
“I’m not like these people.” “I can do this myself.” These ego-centric thoughts typically mask deep-rooted insecurities, anxieties and fears. When ego gets in the way of recovery, the addict becomes competitive with others, working harder to be right than to stay sober. As a result, their recovery is superficial and their personal growth stunted.
Most addicts know the hazards of isolation in recovery, but the habit is so ingrained that their natural inclination is to withdraw without even realizing it. Isolation fuels loneliness and depression, increasing the likelihood of a return to addictive thinking and behavior. As with many aspects of recovery, the antidote is within your control: Get involved in activities you enjoy and ask for help, whether from family, friends, a support group, sponsor or other trusted source.
You can’t block all stress from your life, whether you’re in recovery or not, but you can control how you react to everyday stressors. If you take on too much too soon or refuse to say no when you’re overextended, you make yourself more vulnerable to drug cravings and relapse.
Another enemy to recovery that is well within the addict’s control is boredom. Meetings and counseling sessions are integral parts of a recovery program, but they aren’t sufficient to make each day fun and fulfilling. To fill the time once spent getting and using drugs, you’ll need to explore new interests, create an enjoyable daily routine and discover what gives your life meaning.
So how can you prevent yourself from getting in the way of your own recovery? The first step is making yourself aware of negative thinking and problem behavior, whether through journaling, self-help support groups, counseling or other means, and taking responsibility for your sobriety. In recovery, you have all kinds of new freedoms, including the ability to turn your inner voice into your biggest supporter. And as the African proverb says, “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
By David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Medicine and Addiction Psychiatry.