When I was first trying to live in recovery, my addiction tended to shift like a bad shuffle session. I didn’t know what would hit me next. If I was clean of drugs and alcohol, then my love life would become turbulent, if that was somewhat calm, then food would become an issue, or codependence, overspending, overworking… a life without being somewhat dragged by addictive patterns seemed hard for me to imagine. It felt like playing a constant Whac-A-Mole game, where one doesn’t know from which hole the next mole will come out and one waits with the mallet to strike it down as soon as it appears. 

Except not as fun… few people can relate to the sense of dismay that can come about upon starting a new day (or a new night as the case may be) and wondering what tricks our minds will play on us, what compelling reasons will it find to convince us that it is ok to act out. How bad will the craving and obsession get? And… Will I finish today sober? At least for me, getting through those periods were by far some of the most difficult times in my life. 

I call my tribe all those brave souls who have found ways to navigate this; those who know what it is like to walk through this jungle; to walk like Frodo with The One Ring that keeps exerting its power in spite of our best efforts. 

One of the things that happened to me along the way is that I became rather obsessed with doing absolutely everything I could to recover. Like a good addict, I took this quite far. I had a huge coloured-coded chart with weekly recovery activities that included attendance to at least three 12 steps programs, three different types of meditation groups with weekly get-togethers, one coach, one trauma therapist, a doctor, a homeopath, a naturopath, sessions for cardio exercise, tai-chi, walks in nature, supplements, ecstatic dance events, among other workshops and courses. Even though I realized at the time that this was (just a little bit!) neurotic, I also understood that I was too scared to miss on The One thing that would possibly help me recover. If I heard of any lead about a process or a teacher who was offering a solution to my dilemma, I would try and follow it through the end. 

I have recently gratefully celebrated 22 years of sobriety (and I do have a much more trimmed schedule for my wellbeing). After having worked with many others on this journey, I can now see that it is not uncommon, especially as more information and options become available digitally each day, to become hung up and at times excessive about recovery activities. After all, we do want to come out of suffering as soon and as efficiently as possible. 

The sea of opinions, promises, testimonials and approaches to the matter of addiction is an overload of confusion even for the most Zen among us humans. And for those who are weakened from addiction, navigating this can be an insurmountable challenge. 

I recently worked with a few people who were seriously struggling with this predicament. Our work together helped me articulate some initial reflections on how to surf this option-overload. I hope they might offer a bit of reassurance to those facing this difficulty and also spark further conversations about how to navigate the increasing complexity of finding a path to recovery. 

  1. Keep in mind the effects of Limbic Capitalism. In his book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, David T. Courtwright defines “limbic capitalism” as “the growing network of competitive businesses targeting the brain pathways responsible for feeling, motivation, and long-term memory”. We often think of addiction as “What is wrong with me“?, as if our issues arose solely from inside ourselves. But, we do live embedded in an era where many social practices encourage addictive behaviors. When looking at programs of recovery, therapists, counselors, products, etc. keep an eye on whether the marketing leaves you with a sense of: “Either I do this or I will be doomed forever” o “I need to somehow find a huge amount of money to pay for this because it is The Thing that will cure me“. If your system is sending you these sorts of internal signals, it might be worth checking with someone trustworthy for their opinion and try to decipher whether the impulse is out of inspiration and a “positive good feeling about it”, or whether the marketing practices have left your limbic nervous system completely wired for fear and compulsion. 
  2. Support, support, support – Trauma and addiction expert Steve Hoskinson often says: “people grow and heal through support”. Having met hundreds of people in recovery, it seems to me like most of us have a sense that recovering should mean toughly battling on our own against the ugly monster of addiction. But this “efforting” usually further dysregulates our already battered nervous systems. Finding ways to have as gentle a ride as possible is a kind and effective way of going about it. I here refer to support in its widest possible definition. We want to have people who support us, we want to have expertise that support us, medical attention that support us, a furry friend that supports us, food that supports us, nature that supports us, a cozy chair and a cozy bed that supports us. In general, facing a bunch of things that do not feel supportive might not be fully avoidable. There are often challenging circumstances intertwined with addiction, but avoiding the temptation to tough things out more than necessary is a good way to go. 
  3. The four quadrants of Integral Theory – Integral Theory as expounded by philosopher Ken Wilber is a vast body of work. At the risk of sounding absurdly over-simplistic, here are four perspectives that he proposes are always constituent of any issue. This map is often my go-to when I am overwhelmed with options and perspectives, both for me and also my clients. 
    • I – The subjective inner world – This broadly refers to our internal world of memories, states of minds, emotions, belief systems, etc. Usually a program of recovery will involve some ways of exploring the inner world and integrating it in a way that makes the compulsion to act out decrease over time. There are countless options in terms of types of therapies, spiritual practices, support groups, etc. It’s good to see which ones resonate with oneself and which ones have a proven track record of efficacy. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the foundational text upon which all 12 step programs was based, suggests that recovering from addiction requires some form of spiritual awakening. There are many more perspectives out there now than there were at the time that this book was written. Nevertheless, the essential wisdom of the book pointing us to heal our inner spirits in order to heal from addiction remains highly relevant today, just as it did when it was first published in the 30s. 
    • IT – The objective material world – The brain, the material body, etc. Finding ways to support our physicality can also go a long way. Modern medicine has progressed a lot in its capacity to provide relief and there is no reason to “rough it out” without proper medical care. And it does not necessarily need to involve medication, but it’s worth looking at what things make our bodies do well: exercise, nutrition, relaxation, etc. 
    • WE – The cultural collective – One of the common denominators most often found in those living in recovery is community. Having a group of people that cares about one’s sobriety, who can relate to our journey, and who prioritizes it is a great foundation upon which to build one’s program of recovery. 
    • ITS – The external environment – Technology, politics, and the natural environment all have effects in our minds and bodies. Though it would be very nice, we are unlikely going to be able to have politics adjust to our inner needs any time soon, but finding spaces free of prejudice, and natural and digital environments that are nourishing can be a source of support that is often overlooked. 
  4. Hope – Do not let thoughts about hopelessness convince you too much about what your future will be like. It is normal to feel defeated when initially attempting to stop habits that are overpowering, but keep in mind that wise neuroscientists, awakened spiritual teachers, and thousands of living examples all point out to the fact that there really is a way to heal. There is a way out, and gently and one step at a time we can walk through that door.