I remember my mother used to boast that I was a “Sunday School baby”. I was born on a weekday and she would proudly say that the first Sunday of my life I was in church and that I never missed a Sunday being in church for the first 10 years of my life! The church used to give out Sunday school pins for kids who had perfect attendance over a certain period of years. I always got one. What my mom glowed about, I have ruefully lamented.
The childhood memory about church triggers my sensitivity to a pervading mentality in the 12-step community about the importance of day counts. The concept of day count centers on a chip system: A chip made of plastic, wood or metal is given to a recovering addict who attends a 12-step meeting and has achieved 24 hours, one month, three months, a year or beyond of sobriety. The notice of the achievement is based on the honor system of self report. In truth, marking milestones of achievement in sobriety is vital for an addict committed to long term recovery. Yet, there are times an addict can place more emphasis upon a day count and less awareness on how to bring themselves back to center in the face of relapse. Through the years of personal sobriety, I believe that cultivating the capacity to bring yourself back to a place of centered living from an experience of lapse or relapse is more important than emphasizing the number of days of sobriety. Sometimes, in the presence of relapse an addict will lie about day count to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit failure and needing to start all over again. Subtly social status in a recovery community becomes more important than being congruent with reality. A hiker who is able to boast that he has never been lost while hiking is less capable than one who is skilled and practiced in being able to navigate with map and compass from being lost deep in the woods. Bringing yourself back to center is more worthwhile than the capital of being able to boast an accumulated day count. In a recovery community, there is an unspoken revere granted to those who have been sober longest.
After many years of living around 12-step community, I have concluded that though I prize the many years of sobriety that I have created, being able to bring myself to the center of my values is far more important than day count. It has been the most important skillset toward establishing an enduring day count of sobriety. Rather than adopting the mentality of starting all over, immediately determining the next right thing and doing it independent of feeling disappointed, down and shamed about the engaged destructive behavior has been the most important mindset that has fueled resilience in recovery. Cultivating the ability to bounce back is fundamental to life-long personal growth.
In 12-step communities, there are recovering addicts who know the slogans and who seem sage in their advice about recovery but whose personal life at home is shallow without the ability to reset and recenter when they move away from the values of their recovery. Long term, an addict can be sober but stuck in rage, intimacy disability and be otherwise just hard to live with because they have not spent time cultivating the capacity to recenter themselves in the presence of human frailty.
Addicts in recovery must learn to recognize warning signs that may lead to lapse and even relapse. Noting triggers and build up behaviors requires a commitment to awareness that must become a lifestyle. Lapse behaviors can be addressed long before relapse occurs when an addict works a program with vigilance. Rain-checking is when an addict leaves the door open to the possibility of acting out in the future with a potential substance, process or partner. Creating a list of behaviors that are high risk to recovery and telling yourself that it isn’t bottom line behavior is a way of living in a gray zone that constitutes vulnerability toward relapse. Keeping comfort food available in the fridge for a food addict, an alcoholic hiding a bottle of Schnapps in a secret place at home, creating unrealistic expectations and deadlines for a work addict or maintaining a secret list for booty calls for a sex addict are all examples of rain-checking. Rationalization for a sex addict can include permitting yourself to look at social media for comments or pictures of people who are high risk, emailing or texting with those who are off limits, hanging on to old mementos, letters, etc. These are all examples of rain-checking rationales. The list can be endless with every form of addiction.
Long term recovery requires tearing up all of the rain-checks. Metaphorically, it involves the decision to get rid of the raincoat, the umbrella and live under the sun of truth accountability and consultation. Just like in the cartoon when Lucy continues to pull the football away at the exact time Charlie Brown tries to kick it, and he finally concludes “no more football”, an addict must also say “no more rain-checking”. No more half measures. Eliminating rain-checking means to get rid of old haunts and friends who represent slippery places. It includes avoiding isolation, setting unrealistic goals, pink clouding and interrupting obsessive thoughts about your drug of choice. Paying attention to warning signs and triggers is expected in order to manage the subtle ways that the junkie worm of addiction eats away at the core of sobriety.
Relapse prevention is effective when an addict learns to bookend high risk zones, behaviors or situations. There are many situations that an addict does not need to manage, they simply need to eliminate. Once, there was a sex addict who shared that his problem was that after work he would travel toward home on Sheridan avenue and be drawn into the parking lot of PT’s Topless bar and sit in the parking lot warring within whether to go into the bar or not. I simply suggested that he change his travel route and go down Wadsworth rather than Sheridan. Some interventions can be simple. However, there are situations that cannot be eliminated but must be managed effectively. In those times, bookending can be helpful. For example, perhaps you choose to expose yourself to your addictive element (your drug of choice) because of a work, family or friend environment. Bookending is when you create a specific “what if” list that you write out about how you will manage yourself in this high-risk situation and carefully review it with your support group before you engage the high-risk environment. After the situation, you immediately call your support person to review your experience and further ground yourself into recovery. In this way you bookend the high-risk zone, behavior and circumstance.
Long term recovery becomes more deeply internalized with practical measures that address day counts, rain-checking and bookending.
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