6 Transformational Lessons of Addiction Therapy

A girl in a grey sweater is calmly meditating on a field of grass, while the sun beams on her.

By Alisha Irby, MS, Primary Therapist, Men’s Co-Occurring Disorders Program at the Ranch

Sometimes people do not succeed on the first try for sobriety — or the seventh — and then, one day, timing or circumstances bring a new opportunity to truly begin the journey of a lifetime of recovery.

As you travel down this path, it is important to remember that there is more than one way to solve a problem. What worked before may not work again, and what did not seem to help before could be the thing that changes your life. It is a constant journey of learning, and taking with you what is next — and leaving behind what is not meant to be.

While the therapeutic approach to treating addiction may be multifaceted and adaptable to each individual, there are certain themes that come up again and again in therapy. Maintaining sobriety can be a struggle, but continually working at it therapeutically gives you the tools you need to take on the next part of the journey and to help you get back on track.

Here are some of the challenges that can be transformed into powerful lessons to aid in recovery:

  1. Understand why substance use no longer serves you. There are two opposites that are true at the same time – addiction is destructive, and addiction can be the source of great healing. While you cannot work out trauma by escaping into a substance, there was a reason you turned to alcohol or drugs, and it is important to uncover it. Only then can you begin to live a full, rewarding life in sobriety.
  2. Recognize when your disease it talking. Thinking about the “good times” that substances have provided can cause relapse. When not engaged in recovery work, people with the disease of addiction may forget how much the disease had driven their lives. Because there is no separation between you and the disease, you may misinterpret an urge that is whispering in your ear for that still small voice within. But they are very different. The desire to use, accompanied by the voice that says, “this is good for me,” is your compulsion driving you.
  3. Understand how “addiction-thinking” fools you. Memories can also lead to “addiction-thinking” or “disease-thinking” that distort reality. This can be similar to running into an ex you once loved but had to get away from. If you run into this person after a breakup, you may forget how the relationship devastated your life and think, “Oh man, she/he is great. Why did I ever leave?” This can be similar to addiction-thinking: “Oh man, that was great. Why did I ever stop doing that?” You have to quickly replace those thoughts with, “Oh, right, because it was trying to kill me,” and snap back to the reality that you stopped because you were powerless and your life became unmanageable. Returning to that old relationship could kill you.
  4. Acknowledge your addiction is chronic, progressive and fatal. Something I commonly hear from clients is, “My problem is not as bad as someone else’s, so maybe I shouldn’t be here.” This is often a form of denial. Think of it this way:  If you cut yourself badly while chopping vegetables, you go to the emergency room and wait for someone to stitch up your thumb. If someone comes in with a gunshot wound (or any wound more serious than yours) and your wait suddenly gets longer, that would not mean you get in your car and go home. You still need treatment. If you let that wound fester and infect long enough, you can end up with an injury as serious as that of the gunshot victim. Emotional wounds are not different — they grow, fester and become infected if you do not let someone know where you have been wounded so that healing can begin. Just because someone you meet in treatment seems worse off than you, you still need treatment.  You have wounds that need to be healed.
  5. Trust vulnerability will lead to truth. In any therapeutic situation, you want to learn how to speak your truth because it truly will help set you free. This means being vulnerable and willing to uncover the trauma and disease that drives you. Acknowledging the wound that is inside, and how it makes you feel, is a way of connecting your head and your heart with your emotions. Being able to develop the ability to sit with those emotions and feel them —to bring them into the therapy room no matter how much they hurt ― is the path to healing.
  6. Relapse happens. Figure out how to learn from it.  Relapse can often be a source of pain and shame.  If you lose your sobriety, rather than berating yourself, say: “OK, so it happened and I can’t change that. It didn’t work for me, but what did I learn?” Getting lost in shame, guilt and regret keeps you stuck, but analyzing what happened can be transformative. Maybe you recognized some new activities or people who trigger you. Maybe you noticed a new way of thinking or behavior ― like returning to meetings or asking for help ― that you can use going forward. Maybe you can now more actively heed warning signs or know you need to change your environment. Whatever you learn, turn it into something positive by working toward new solutions for recovery. It is never too late to try a new start at recovery.  As long as you remain willing to start over in sobriety, to embrace humility instead of shame, recovery is possible.

Each person has a journey that is very personal. There are no guarantees in life, but where there is an attempt to learn from past mistakes and behaviors, there is hope.

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