Hannah had been in active recovery for nearly four years before she had her first big breakthrough. She landed in treatment for love and sex addiction and had learned through the benefit of personal work and the love and support of an SLAA community of accepting, non-judgmental friends that sometimes recovery is an awkward waltz: three steps forward, two steps back. She’d learned to look at her slips—like texting flirtatiously with an already committed friend—with a kind of clear-headedness, knowing that while it seemed she’d failed herself, all she really needed to do was get back on the horse. But around two years into her recovery, Hannah began to feel pretty confident. She’d been through so much and heard so many stories, she felt she’d seen it all—and she thought she had an answer for everything. Those AA-isms, the axioms so common to “anonymous” groups, became her lingo, even though she’d dismissed them as unoriginal and cliché just a few years before. There was a straightforward path everyone could walk down, regardless of his or her situation or problem. At least that’s what she thought. So two more years went by and Hannah grew at once more certain of herself but also bored with the process of recovery. Hearing the same stories over and over again began to feel like a chore. She started to think that all people in meetings were doing was venting their negativity rather than coming up with solutions. She saw herself as a fixer—she’d fixed herself, hadn’t she?—and believed all that whining was a waste of time. So she stopped going to meetings. And her life was OK, good really. She was productive in the small business she ran; she’d changed her diet and was regularly exercising for the first time; and she had finally allowed herself to settle into a relationship that wasn’t about intensity or romantic intrigue or sex—it was about care and consideration and commitment. Now, when she spoke about SLAA to her boyfriend, she sounded dismissive, as though she’d come so far and probably had never needed them to begin with. But on a sunny Tuesday morning when Hannah would normally have been working, she found herself doing some online shopping, and by no means for the first time. She didn’t need any of the items she was hunting for, and probably didn’t need to spend the money. It hit her that she had been falling into a pattern of online shopping because it gave her that little thrill her previous addictive behaviors had. And just like after those behaviors, she felt a sense of disappointment and shame after the fact. Calling it “buyer’s remorse” had simply clouded her ability to see it for what it was, an addictive tendency that had simply crossed over. She sat back and decided to examine the rest of her life and it occurred to her that shopping wasn’t the only issue to have cropped up. Hannah had been taking a lot of pain medicine since a car crash had hurt her back years before. But she wasn’t sure anymore that there really was much pain; she’d healed pretty well. She didn’t think she was getting high on the drugs; they just helped her to feel more relaxed, less afraid. Though somewhere along the way she’d become a little bit more than attached. Hannah knew what she needed to do; she needed to reengage her recovery, to step back into a meeting. But now she felt uncomfortable. Wouldn’t all those friends in her group just shake their heads at her now—like they’d known better all along, while she’d pretended to be healthier than the next addict?
Fearless honesty is required before anyone ever takes his first step toward sobriety. Admitting your addiction isn’t for sissies; it can be incredibly painful. This pain is the reason the admission has been so unforthcoming for so long; it hides deep down in that secret, dark place with all those other murky urges and motivations we’d rather not look at in daylight. But when life gets tough enough, when the pain of addiction gets intense enough, we’re forced to examine our hard truths.
Admitting a primary addiction takes tremendous courage, and it is the beginning of the road to recovery for any person struggling along addiction’s path, but with each step, more honesty is required. Addiction to a substance or process is never the end-all-be-all concern; it is the process of addiction itself we must get at. This is why crossover addiction—when a person finds she’s replaced one set of addictive behaviors for another (like drinking for chain smoking and high-octane caffeine consumption)—is so common. But even the addictive tendency is not the last stop in our problem finding mission. Something lies underneath our need to numb out with compulsive urges and it’s our job to move cement and tree roots to unearth it. Even when we find it, though, we may need to keep digging.
Hannah fell into a trap not uncommon to folks with some time in recovery. She began to relax a little; she began to give in to the false notion that she was somehow better than the steps she’d taken to get where she was—healthier and improved. Recognizing that she’d only managed to pick up new addictive behaviors, or ones she’d simply never noticed before, and being willing to admit that, again, she will need help to overcome, will empower her rather than diminish her. What Hannah may have forgotten is that every other person in treatment knows what it means to have lived in denial—to have lied to everyone and especially to themselves. And they all know that in those groups, they find others who, because they’ve been there, will not judge them, and will welcome them back at any time with open arms. If you allow yourself to think of your meetings as family, you’ll recognize that no matter how far you go, or how long you’re gone, when you decide to step back in the door, you’re going home.