Why Do We Self-Sabotage in Recovery?

Self-sabotage in addiction recovery is common.

Being in recovery for the last ten years has taught me a lot about myself and other recovering addicts. While we’re all unique individuals with different, often dysfunctional, histories, we also have a lot in common. One of the most common similarities that I’ve seen time and time again is our ability to self-sabotage.

Addiction itself is a form of self-sabotage. When we’re in our active addictions, we depend on our drug of choice to help us escape dealing with life’s issues, which usually leads to bigger problems and more devastating consequences. Active addiction is self-destructive, isolating, and it destroys everyone who is caught in the wake of the disease. Yet, we often go back to it over and over. I know I have. Even after nearly seven years sober, I relapsed last year, reverting to old coping methods that I knew didn’t work.

Why do we do this? I think there’s a simple reason for this complicated behavior. Even though it’s so destructive and chaotic, self-sabotaging feels comfortable, familiar, like wrapping ourselves in warm security blankets, even in recovery. It’s what we’ve always done – it’s what we know. And even worse, it’s what we think we deserve. In active addiction, we feel like the pain, guilt, shame, and negative consequences are warranted. We deserve to lose our progress, our relationships, our dignity, our sanity because we’re not worth anything better. Unfortunately, that way of thinking doesn’t just go away when we get sober. It takes time. And it takes vigilance to not let it sneak back into the soundtracks of our lives.

I think there are numerous reasons that we self-sabotage our recoveries. Some that we may not even realize until much later. I’m certainly not professing to know all the answers, I’m speaking from my own experiences and from what I’ve learned from others in recovery about the art of self-sabotage. That said, these are some of the most common reasons that I think we undermine our recoveries:

Inability to cope with excessive stress. When I was in active alcoholism, the only coping skill I had was to check out of my life by drinking to the point of blacking out. Since then, I’ve learned how to deal with stressful times more effectively, but I’m still no expert. It’s easy to fall back into old behaviors when life gets really rough, and if I’m not paying attention, that can lead me to some dark places.

Guilt and shame. My drinking made me a different person, someone who was unrecognizable to me and to the people who knew me. My behavior created so much guilt and shame in me that I thought I would never be able to let go of my past. Fortunately, working the 12 steps of AA helped me work through a lot of it, especially steps 4 and 9. In step 4, we take a personal moral inventory of ourselves and in step 9, we clean up our side of the street. Through those actions, and God’s grace and mercy, I’ve been able to forgive myself for many of the bad things I did and said. Not all of them by any means. It’s a process, and it takes time.

Fear of missing out. We see booze everywhere; it’s ubiquitous and it’s usually associated with having a good time. It’s no wonder that there have been times, especially in my early sobriety, when I romanticized drinking and all the “fun” that goes with it. Why can everyone else drink and enjoy themselves and I can’t? Well, it’s because when I do, bad things will happen. Just like when someone with diabetes eats too much sugar, bad things will happen. There is nothing romantic about ending up passed out beside a dumpster at Circle K after a night of drinking. I have to “play the tape to the end,” as they say in the program, remembering what happens when I drink.

Stuffing emotions. Oh boy. I am a champion at stuffing emotions and finding distractions to keep myself from feeling them. Of course, my main strategy to stop feeling used to be drinking. Nothing stops an uncomfortable emotion like a couple (or twelve) shots of tequila. The thing is those negative emotions will still be there when the booze wears off, and so will whatever additional messes I created by drinking. When I was in rehab, I remember that my therapist told me, “Your emotions won’t kill you, but your alcoholism will.” That was pretty eye-opening at the time. These days, after much therapy, I am better about sitting with my emotions, talking about them, and working my way through them instead of around them. I do still use distraction sometimes when I’m uncomfortable with my emotions (I’m a TV show binge-watching ninja), but they’re healthier distractions, and I don’t wait as long to get back to what’s bothering me and deal with it.

Low self-worth. There’s no doubt about it, when I drank, I felt like I was smarter, prettier, funnier, and more outgoing than my quiet, sober self. Of course, I know that isn’t true, but booze gave me the self-confidence that I’m pretty sure I was born without. Liquid courage, I’m sure you’ve heard it called, and I had it when I was drinking. When I got into recovery though, I no longer had that artificial boost that I needed to feel like I was interesting or worthy of anyone’s time, and that’s a lonely place to be. That feeling of low self-worth led me back to the bottle many times when I was first trying to get sober. Now that I’ve been in recovery for a while, I do feel better about myself a lot of the time. When I don’t, I can turn to my husband, my friends in recovery, and God for encouragement.

Addiction is a dangerous disease without us adding to it with self-sabotage. But our ability to make things worse is huge, in active addiction as well as in recovery. In both, self-sabotage starts the same way, with destructive thinking patterns. That thinking, left unaddressed, leads to self-destructive behavior, and then it’s only time before we are masters of the art of self-sabotage.

When we get into recovery, we have to recognize the importance of working with a new medium. We need the willingness to try new techniques that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for us. We need the confidence to use new, healthy tools that paint a whole different picture. And we need the courage to see the canvas as it really is. True recovery means that we have to embrace the art of self-awareness and leave self-sabotage in the past where it belongs.

Finding a New Recovery Community

People in recovery need a circle of friends who are also in recovery.

Our sweet little, red brick house in Alabama.

When I got sober in 2012, I learned that my sobriety depends on the people with whom I surround myself. I need to interact with other people in recovery to help me stay sober and active in my recovery. Fortunately, my husband, Austin, is a recovering alcoholic, the same as me, and we’re able to support one another in our recoveries, but we need more than just each other. We need a community, a circle of friends, in which we can find and offer support to other addicts. Recently, for the first time since I quit drinking, I had to think about finding a new recovery community to fit into – a daunting task for introverts like me.

Why I Need Friends Who Are in Recovery

There are several reasons why I need to be a part of a recovery community. Perhaps the most important is peer support. I know that when I surround myself with friends who are also in recovery, they can understand my struggles without me having to explain anything. The reverse is also true, if someone else is struggling with recovery, I get it, so I can empathize and offer support. That connection, the commonality that recovering addicts have, lends itself to creating the supportive environment we need to maintain sobriety. Without peer support, isolation can set in, and that’s a dangerous place for an addict to be. Isolation keeps us stuck in addiction cycles. When I relapsed last year, I wasn’t going to meetings and I wasn’t doing anything to work on my recovery. That allowed old behaviors to slip back in, and it resulted in me picking up. 

Studies have been done that show that people who are involved in recovery communities with peer support are less likely to relapse than those who aren’t. I know this to be true for me. When I stay involved, I stay sober. There’s accountability when I’m a part of a group that encourages me to talk about my issues before I end up on a slippery slope. I have friends who are counting on me to show up at meetings and get-togethers, and they will call or come looking for me if I don’t. Having something to lose (friends, social interactions, activities, etc.) makes it easier to stay motivated about sobriety and to keep my feet planted firmly in recovery.

Recovery groups are also helpful in increasing awareness about addiction and reducing the stigma that is still attached to it. Support groups like AA encourage people to be open about their recovery without the fear of being shamed or judged. Even timid people like me can feel comfortable sharing in recovery groups because it’s pretty likely that someone else in the group has experienced the same feelings or thoughts that I’m having. I don’t have to be fearful, embarrassed, or ashamed about what I’m going through, and I will probably get some good advice about how others have gotten through similar things.

Being involved in a recovery community allows me to help others, which is one of the main tenets of AA. In step 12, we are encouraged to “carry the message” to other alcoholics. It says:

“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Helping others isn’t a one-way street, it’s beneficial for the helper too, because in recovery “we keep what we have by giving it away.” By helping others, it keeps it fresh for me, I can see the pain of early sobriety in newcomers, and that helps me stay sober. I can offer my experience, strength, and hope to them. These are messages that I often need to hear again myself. It’s a symbiotic relationship, in which we are helped by helping.

 A Cross-Country Move Meant Finding New Recovery Support

We made a big geographical move last May, from Tucson, Arizona to the small, rural town of Fayette, Alabama. Austin is from Alabama and he has family in nearby Birmingham, but I had only visited the South a few times before our move. In the early part of the year, Austin inherited some property in Fayette, and our dream of retiring to Alabama was fulfilled early. Austin, our son Benjamin, and I packed up, and made the 1,600-mile trek across the southern US, amid the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Being new in a small town along with all the shut-downs due to COVID-19 made it challenging to get to know anyone, let alone people in recovery. In Fayette, there aren’t many AA meetings, just one each week on Tuesday evenings, and even that one wasn’t meeting until very recently. I came from Tucson, where there were hundreds of meetings every month, at all hours of the day and night. The Celebrate Recovery group was and still is, on hiatus until the virus is over – if it’s ever over.

Fortunately, God’s providence can be found everywhere – even in Alabama! By His grace, we found a wonderful and supportive group of people in recovery who recently started a Friday night get-together where we all share a meal, talk about recovery and Jesus, and support one another. It’s resulted in meaningful friendships that also exist outside of our weekly meeting, a sense of belonging, and a way to help each other with recovery. I’ve always felt that people in recovery bond quickly because of what we’ve been through. There’s a deep understanding of the pain and consequences of addiction and the challenge of getting sober that we all know, and that draws us toward one another naturally.

It’s still early days for me in our new home in the South, but I have found a circle of like-minded friends that continues to grow, and for that, I am so very grateful. I already feel like I fit in and that is such a blessing for an alcoholic like me.

When Relapse is Part of Addiction Recovery

alcohol addiction relapse

Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, p85

I’m back! Back to writing and blogging for myself and not just for work. I wish that I could say that I’m back and I’ve stayed sober for the last couple of years, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I had a relapse in September 2019. Fortunately, it was a one-time, one-day relapse, from which I got right back on the wagon. It was a huge blow to my ego and to my self-worth, knocking me to my knees in shame and humiliation, which is probably why it’s taken me over a year to write about it. I won’t go into the gory details of that horrible day. Suffice it to say, I was an alcoholic being an alcoholic, and it wasn’t pretty. However, looking back now, I can clearly see some important lessons that I needed to learn.

Lessons My Relapse Taught Me

My relapse taught me a lot about myself, my recovery, and my loved ones. Here are a few of the most important things I learned:

I need a recovery program. In the year or so before my relapse, I had fallen away from AA. Nothing bad happened, I just allowed other aspects of my life to get in the way of going to meetings. I really think that I thought I was far out of harm’s way, that I wouldn’t drink again ever. After all, I had been sober for almost seven years. Complacency. How many times had I been warned about it in meetings? Way too many to count. Yet, I allowed it to happen to me. I know that there are some sober people who don’t need a recovery program to stay that way. I also know now, that I do.

I have to manage stress and anxiety more effectively. When I was in active addiction, the way that I coped with stress and anxiety was to drink. When I got into recovery, I learned other coping skills to manage them. Things like self-care, talking to another alcoholic, H.A.L.T. (to be aware if I am hungry, angry, lonely, or tired), going to meetings, taking a nap, writing, praying, and other healthy activities helped me handle life on life’s terms. Prior to my relapse, I had returned to old behavior, and started stuffing feelings of stress and anxiety. I didn’t use my healthy coping skills consistently, making a disaster just waiting to happen. And then it did.

You do go right back to where you left off. The only thing different about my drinking when I relapsed in relation to my old, active addiction drinking, was that I no longer had a tolerance to the booze. One of my last drunks in 2012 ended with me in the hospital following a blackout and a handful of pills. My relapse, though not as serious, ended up with a blackout and a trip to the hospital. Thank God it didn’t end in handcuffs, which happened more times than I care to share in my previous drinking.

My family loves me unconditionally. After my relapse, I felt terrible guilt and shame. But it wasn’t because of anything my husband, daughter, or stepson said or did. They were nothing but loving and supportive in the days and weeks that followed. They loved me through it, with graciousness and mercy, and I am so very grateful.

Relapse is a Part of Recovery

I’ve always hated the saying, “Relapse is part of recovery.” I felt like it justified an addict’s or alcoholic’s choice to pick up again. My feeling about it hasn’t completely changed, but it’s loosened up a bit. I can see now that for many of us who are in recovery, relapse is part of the process. It’s something that we can learn and grow from, enhancing our recovery. It’s risky though. One relapse can be (and has been, for many) a fatal action. Luckily for me, that wasn’t the case, but I certainly don’t want to risk it again. So, I will remember the truths I listed above and always remember that I am not recovered, I’m recovering – hopefully forever. 

 

Gratitude – July 8

My post for yesterday is late, but not because I don’t have a lot to be grateful for.  I had a good day at work and was able to get everything done that I needed to.  And again, I was able to do it in only 9 hours!  That’s definitely one for the gratitude list.

The reason that I didn’t get a chance to write last night is because from the time I got off work until well past 10:00 (which is well past my usual bedtime) I was talking with a friend about going to treatment for addiction.  He’s just admitted to family that he is a heroin addict and he wants help.  Our talk wasn’t successful, he didn’t go to treatment, but the seed is planted and I believe that if he really wants to get clean, he will change his mind.  I feel hopeful because I remember what it was like making the decision to go for treatment.  I waffled on the idea for a long time before I finally went, but once I knew it was an option, it was constantly in my thoughts and eventually those thoughts, and my desperation, led me there.

So for yesterday, I am grateful that I got to put my experience, strength, and hope to use.  I am thankful that I wasn’t married to the outcome of the situation, that I was able to accept my friend’s decision, even though I disagreed with it, and that I am still able to be hopeful.

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what are you grateful for today

Normies…they don’t get it.

I’ve been  a part of the recovery community for over two years now (sober for eight months), and I have become so accustomed to interacting with others in the program that I often forget about the normies out there.  Most of the people who I have any kind of relationship with are people who are at least a little bit familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous.  Whether they are in the program or not, they can understand the language of recovery.  Every once in a while, I am reminded that there are people who have never had a problem with drugs or alcohol, so they don’t (can’t) understand what it is to be an addict.

It’s like when someone tells you to “just stop” drinking so much, or they ask “why can’t you just stop?”   How many times, as addicts, have we heard that one?  I can’t even begin to count the number of times my mother said that to me.  That statement, “just stop,”  has become a running joke in my house.  Whenever one of us complains about how we are feeling (physically or emotionally) we ask the other one, “Well, why don’t you just stop?”   It doesn’t matter what it is…could be a headache or stomach ache, a feeling of guilt or despair. Whatever the situation we ask the question and then we both laugh.  Ah, alcoholic humor.  Normies wouldn’t get it.

I am very open about my alcoholism at work.  My coworkers all know that I go to an AA meeting nearly every day, and that I take my recovery very seriously, even though I make  jokes about it sometimes.  I have a lot of love and support at my job, and I know I am very lucky to have it.  That said, this morning I was very surprised, and kind of amused, to be reminded that normies think differently than addicts do.  I talked to a coworker about exercise when I saw her leaving work in gym clothes yesterday.  She lauded the benefits of working out, and I told her that I knew that I needed to get my big, fat butt in gear and do some kind of exercise myself.  Then, this morning she came into my office to tell me about her Zumba class last night.  She talked about making a commitment to exercise, and I agreed that it takes commitment and likened it to me going to meetings. That’s when she so graciously explained to me that if I would get a fitness regimen and stick to it, I would no longer need AA meetings. She went on to say that I would feel so good about myself that I wouldn’t even have to think about drinking or not drinking. She was very adamant about it.  I thanked her for her advice, but told her that I will always need meetings because I don’t want to ever drink again.  She told me to just try working out everyday and cutting down on my meetings.  I smiled and nodded and she went on her way.  The whole thing was rather funny to me, and I thought to myself that normies just don’t get it.

As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of some things my mom said when I got out of rehab the first time.  For the first few weeks she was like the meeting police, asking me repeatedly if I had gone to meetings and when I was planning on going to another.  I struggled with going as a lot of newcomers do.  A few weeks later I had made some friends, shared at meetings a couple of times, and was beginning to really get something out of meetings.  One evening my mom wanted me to come over and I told her that I couldn’t because I was headed to a meeting.  I thought she would be happy about it, but she said “how much longer are you going to have to do those meetings?”  Like I would suddenly be cured within a few weeks!  My mom, although she has a lot of addictive behaviors, is a normie when it comes to booze.  She doesn’t get it.

One of the most blatant examples of normies not getting it happened to me not that long ago.  A friend of mine who knows I’m in recovery, knows about my visit to rehab last year, and has supported me through my struggles, and applauded my successes, did something that really opened my eyes to the differences between the way recovering alcoholics and normies view alcohol.  My friend often shops at specialty food stores and she likes to share fancy chocolate candy with everyone.  One day she offered me a piece of chocolate, and of course I accepted (please refer to the fat butt comment above).  I took a bite of the candy and it tasted like it had alcohol in it.  I asked my friend and she said yes, it was a rum filling.  She said it and then a look of realization spread across her face.  But in an instant it was gone and she said, “well it’s alright, isn’t it?  It’s only candy.”  In my mind, at that instant, I felt like I may as well have taken a shot of tequila.  I had all of these panicky thoughts about whether this meant I would have to reset my sobriety date (I didn’t), what if it triggered me to want to drink (it didn’t), what was my friend thinking giving an alcoholic a rum filled candy, why didn’t she think it was as big of a deal as it seemed to me?  I called my husband, and I called my sponsor and they calmed me down.  They both said that my friend just didn’t think about it before giving me that candy.  What the whole thing taught me is that booze is just not a big deal to normies.  They can take it or leave it, the thought of drinking it or of not drinking it doesn’t consume them, they haven’t had a love/hate relationship with booze.  It’s just a thing to them.  They don’t get what it is to be an alcoholic.

I hope I haven’t said anything out of line or offensive to any non-alcoholics out there, that is not my intention.  I have a number of normie friends that are super supportive, loving and they do understand where I’m coming from.  I am truly blessed to have them in my life.  But there are a lot too, that just don’t get it.