One of the hardest parts of addiction is the feeling of being stuck. Stuck in your disease. Stuck in your habits. Stuck in your life. Stuck in your way of being.
Every time I think about changing, my thoughts keep coming back to the situations and problems in my life. They feel overwhelming, unsolvable. I want to change, but I don’t even know where or how to start. Does this feeling seem familiar?
Even years into recovery, I still feel stuck at times. Even after doing something quite uncommon—transforming into an upgraded version of myself—I still feel like this occasionally. While my sobriety became effortless, my recovery will always be challenging. But how can I work my way out of these impossible-looking traffic jams in my life? And especially for those new in recovery, how can we make a beginning with the obstacles and barriers to changing?
For me, real change began when I started to believe that it was possible. I had no reason to doubt other people when they said their lives changed, so I knew that it was doable. And if they could do it, so could I. But could it be as simple as learning the things other people have learned?
In my book, Infinite Recovery, I write about embracing many new ideas which contradicted things I formerly believed. The way I was raised, educated and influenced made me into someone whose beliefs were standing between me and changing. As I began to learn about my limiting beliefs, I started to realize that my whole way of being was built on them, and that I would have to become open to some new ideas if I was truly going to change. Once I began to consider the possibility that these old, limiting ideas were faulty, new possibilities appeared in my life.
Here are some examples of old, limiting ideas, as well as some new ways to think about them.
Old idea #1. I deserve the bad things that happen to me.
New idea #1. The universe is neutral. While my actions have consequences, in the big picture I can learn and change, and the things in my life will change to reflect that.
First, good and bad (right or wrong for that matter) are subjective, or subject to opinion, and based on our feelings about the outcome. If we happen to like an outcome, something was good. If we don’t, it was bad. The universe doesn’t play that way—it’s neutral. Things just happen.
As to my opinion of an outcome, I do better to take the long view. In the short term, something may seem unfortunate, but often turns out to be necessary so something else, often good, can happen. Example: losing a job that you hated anyway and landing in a great position after having a month off in the summer. Most every turd sandwich I’ve been forced to dine on was followed by a great dessert. I just need to relax about it, and look to a bigger picture.
As far as deserving something, actions do have consequences. Sometimes that might be a lesson I need to learn. The sooner I wise up, the sooner the consequence stops. The neutral universe will call me on my shit, but it’s not malicious or vindictive. The idea that bad things happen simply because I drank or drugged—that I was a bad person—is not valid. If I am willing to do the work of recovery and change, I can live on a new footing.
Old idea #2. I can’t do great things.
New idea #2. Just about ANYTHING is possible. My limitations are largely self-imposed.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Recovery is hard. Successful recovery is one of the greatest human accomplishments there is. While it won’t get you on the six o’clock news, and you won’t receive a medal or a parade in your honor, coming to terms with a disease of addiction is one of the most heroic and courageous things we can do. I say that to inspire, not to intimidate. And I was easily intimidated. Part and parcel of my addiction was an amplification of my fears, particularly fear of failure. I was just afraid to set my sights, standards and ambitions (that very word was barely in my vocabulary) high. Human beings are amazingly powerful, resilient and adaptive. Prior to getting sober, I would not have believed possible the things I’ve accomplished in recovery.
They said the Wright brothers couldn’t fly. They said we couldn’t go to the moon. Can you imagine what life would be like if those things hadn’t happened? If the Wright brothers and NASA had just shrugged and accepted that what they were attempting was impossible and given up? You’re reading this on a computer screen or some type of device; that you’re reading my words was only made possible as a fringe benefit of going to the moon. Great people don’t do great things accidentally. It starts with the belief that something is possible.
Again, the message the world sends us, transmitted through the medium of addiction, is one of fear, lack and limitation. We internalize this in the form of low self-esteem, low self confidence, and low belief in our own worthiness. My perception changes my reality, and if I look at myself through the lens of my addiction, my limitations will be both many and self-imposed. And sadly, many of those also arise from the false perception and judgment of others. If I buy what they’re selling, it’s a sure set up that I won’t set my mind to and accomplish great things.
Old idea #3. My brain won’t change.
New idea #3. The brain can heal, grow and modify through the entire lifespan. This quality of ‘neuroplasticity’ makes possible amazing changes in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, i.e. recovery.
I remember always being told that we have a finite number of brain cells. Once they’re gone, that’s it. When we were kids and getting high, we joked about all the brain cells we burned out each time, but at some level we believed it. This limiting idea has also been proven to be false. We now know that the brain can change, grow and be modified with a kind of reprogramming. This is known as neuroplasticity. When we change our minds, we also change our feelings and behaviors, something vitally essential for recovery.
Most of what we do, 95% according to neuroscientists, is subconscious. Things like driving and some other learned behaviors (if you’ve ever said about something, “I could do it in my sleep,” that’s almost true) become so automatic that we don’t have to concentrate on them. Haven’t we all hopped in the car, only to arrive at a destination without recalling anything that occurred on the trip? We just drove. Well, addictive thoughts, feelings and behaviors become so practiced that they’re automatic as well. The good news is that just the way these things can be learned, the old addiction things can be unlearned.
When we do something new, we’re using brain cells (neurons) in a pathway. This is referred to as a neural network. The neurons are firing a small electrical charge called an impulse. The impulse travels from the brain to muscles which perform the action of the new activity. The brain wants to work smart, not hard. If the activity is repeated frequently, the neural network, preferring efficiency, will form a more permanent connection. It’s said that neurons that fire together, wire together. Likewise, when we stop using pathways, they tend to unwire.
This comes as wonderful news to those of us who, like I once did, think the brain cannot be changed. The ability to (literally) change our minds is one of the many miracles of recovery.
Old idea #4. Genetics determines my life.
New idea #4. My environment and my thoughts determine my life.
How often do we hear someone say “It’s in my genes,” as they resign themselves to what they believe is an inevitable condition. Everything from baldness to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and… diseases of addiction are thought by most to be inherited from generation to generation. However, we are not slaves to our genetic destiny.
In the last 20 years, the concept of epigenetics has demonstrated that the environment, not the so-called DNA blueprint, influences which genes are expressed. That’s right! What is happening within and all around us affects the way we are—all the way down to our cells. That includes our very thoughts, it’s been proven. So, why has the old theory of genetics always seemed to work? Precisely because our thoughts have so much influence; everyone has always believed in it.
I need not die in my 50s of the ravages of alcoholism, like my mother did (or go bald like my father for that matter). And if that’s not liberating enough, we’re free to create a genetic reality of our choosing. The people and situations we surround ourselves with and again—even the thoughts we think, are the basis of the lives we lead.
Given choice between recovering in a world governed by those old, rigid ideas, or recovering in a world of new ideas of greater potential, possibility and freedom, the choice is obvious. If these concepts seem a little complicated, remember that there is always a starting point. One need not buy into the entire bundle immediately. Try simply staying sober for one day, and working on acceptance of your worthiness to feel a sense of accomplishment. All change and amazing recoveries started with 24 hours. And remember: though change won’t always feel comfortable, it is your friend. So the next time you’re feeling stuck, think about whether some new ideas might serve you better than the old ones.