January 9, 2012

Reinventing ourselves in recovery

It’s not about creating a shiny new self; reinvention is about moving toward the self we left behind

Allen Berger
Image: Joan ParemaSimply stated, there are three distinct stages to recovery. The first stage is getting clean and sober, or detoxification. This is the easiest of the three to achieve. The second stage is staying clean and sober, and as we know, this can be quite difficult. Harder yet is learning to live clean and sober, which is the third stage. If we are to successfully progress through these stages, we must manage what William White, senior research consultant at Chestnut Health Systems, called “our ongoing vulnerability to addiction.”
What kind of changes we need to make to create a strong foundation for our recovery has much to do with our direction of change—specifically, what we are moving away from and what we are moving toward. To put this in its proper context, we must understand the concept of the addictive self, how it comes to have such a dominant role in our lives and the self we were before our addictive self took over.
A Population of Selves
You’ve no doubt heard references to the so-called “committee” that meets in our heads. Have you ever wondered who serves on that committee or how they got elected? The committee consists of different parts of you—parts that are in conflict. You may have a debate going on between the part of yourself that wants to be more assertive with a friend, while another part of yourself is concerned with losing the friendship if you speak your mind. Or you may have a part of yourself that wants to divorce your spouse or leave a relationship, while another part is concerned about security and feeling lonely. You also have a part of yourself that is committed to recovery, while another part of yourself wants to drink or use.
Each of us has a true self, which will be actualized if we grow and develop according to its unique nature. In fact, we have a basic need to grow toward wholeness or integrity. Called self-actualization, unfortunately, we rarely realize it. Instead, and very early in life, most of us typically develop a basic anxiety—we become overly concerned with being loved and accepted. When we become skewed in this way, we lose our integrity and, if our path goes uncorrected by our parents, society or culture, we ultimately become alienated from our true self. In short, in our quest for approval, we end up abandoning who we are for who we think we should be.
This idealized image becomes our false self. Our false self hijacks energy from the true self to fuel its development and establish its tyranny. The more alienated we are from our true self, the more diseased we become.
The shoulds that we adopt to become our false self make certain parts of ourselves acceptable and other aspects of ourselves undesirable or despicable. The parts of ourselves that are not OK are summarily disowned, leaving us fragmented and often in a state of inner conflict.
The Addictive Self and Addiction
If we are vulnerable to addiction and we drink or use, we develop yet another part of ourselves—the addictive self. The addictive self consists of destructive personality characteristics that support our addiction.
When the addictive self assumes command of our lives, it turns us into someone that we hardly recognize. See the table for a list of the characteristics of the addictive self that develop to support its tyranny and our addiction.
One way of understanding how recovery works is that it helps us develop a new understanding of ourselves. In recovery, we recover our lost true self. We learn how to live with integrity and how to honor our true self as a result of what we move away from and what we move toward.
What We Move Away From
The bottom line is that we need to move away from the dominance of the addictive self. Clearly the wrong part is running the show. So the first thing, and the most important, is that we move away from the ideas that we can control our drug use and that we can rely on our false self for solutions. As Bill Wilson stated in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, “ … little good can come to any alcoholic who joins AA unless he has first accepted his devastating weakness and all its consequence.”
Facing and accepting our limitations helps us realize that “I can’t, but we can.” This is no small matter as our ego cries out against this admission. But if we do surrender, we shatter our reliance on our false self and come to accept the help we need from others.
As we shed distrust and cynicism, we come to see that distrust is not the real problem. The real problem it is that we don’t have enough courage. We need to find the courage to face the mistakes we have made.
We stop manipulating and move away from dishonesty. We give up our special status that makes us think we can be perfect. We stop making a career out of being irresponsible and give up being closed and rigid. And finally, we relinquish our selfishness and lack of empathy.
These changes do not occur overnight, but they do happen with daily, consistent effort coupled with right action. As we move away from the addictive self, we begin to get a peek at who we really are. We begin to see our true self.
What We Move Toward
Becoming excited about the promise of freedom from the bondage of the false self and addiction is incredibly inspiring and creates a powerful motivation to stay the course—no matter what.
On the tail of surrender, we begin to glimpse hope. We start to believe and have faith that we can actually have a better life. We move toward those who have something we want. We discover that there are people who have faith in us and want to support our recovery. We move toward honesty, open mindedness and willingness. These characteristics become crucial to our quest.
We embrace authenticity and strive to be genuine. We welcome growth and opportunities that promote our self-actualization. Our openness turns us into seekers and students of life. We strive for progress, therefore, acquire better problem-solving skills.
We move toward flexibility because we know that this is where true strength lies. We learn how to have healthy relationships based on mutual respect. We recover our awareness and passion for life. Essentially, we are moving toward our true self instead of alienating ourselves from it. 
Bill Wilson had this to say about our evolution, “ … sobriety is only the bare beginning. It is only the first gift of the first awakening.
If more gifts are to be received, our awakening has to go on. And if it does go on, we find that bit by bit by bit we can discard the old life—the one that didn’t work—for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever. Regardless of worldly success or failure, regardless of pain or joy, regardless of sickness or health or even of death itself, a new life of endless possibilities can be lived if we are willing to continue our awakening.” 
Characteristics of the Addictive Self and the Recovery Self
Addictive Self                                           Recovery Self
Controlling and manipulative                    Free and spontaneous
Perfectionist                                             Progress-seeking
Dishonest, disingenuous,                         Honest, transparent,
deceptive and calculating                         genuine and authentic
Numb, unaware and dead                         Alive, aware and responsive
Closed and rigid                                       Open and flexible
With no respect for self and others           Having respect for self and others
Distrustful and cynical                               Trusting, faithful and believing
Toxic                                                         Nurturing
Allen Berger is a nationally recognized expert in the science of recovery and relationships. He is author of the popular recovery mainstay 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery and a new book on emotional sobriety, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone.


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