Make Recovery Easier – Stop Bad Habits!
Learn How to Enhance the Quality of Your Life
Simple Approach – Success at Your Pace.
Find out how exercise and nutrition prime the brain and body to overcome unhealthy habits and addiction. Naturally. And without having to become a gym-rat or food-nut. These basic principles work for everyone: young and old, relatively fit or struggling with chronic conditions and injury. Take back control of your life. Feel good again.
Rochelle “Shelley” Poerio
Living Free Health & Fitness
MA, LADC, CFT
I wrote the book so the story that follows need not be yours…
When I exited hospital detox September 10, 2001, I weighed 20 pounds over my healthy weight. Not age-25 weight. Not collegiate-athlete weight. Healthy, average, 40-year old woman weight. From there, over the next four months, I gained an additional 40 pounds!
Finally, my doctor said “Hey, you know what? You’re now officially obese. I know you’re trying to stay clean and sober, and I wasn’t worried about weight gain initially. Unfortunately your blood pressure is way up. You need to do something about this. Here’s the number for a dietician. Call her.”
I did feel fat. I was fat! But somehow I really hadn’t noticed it (or was in denial) because I felt so good about the fact that I was actually staying clean and sober – and felt that maybe I was getting a little bit better each and every day.
What was happening?
Well, in hindsight, it’s pretty simple to see. Not only was all the sugar and fat I was eating helping to satisfy drug and alcohol cravings, but I was eating to my feelings! In spite of the fact that I felt better in some ways, I still felt terrible about myself in many other ways. Little did I know that my eating habits were like pouring gasoline on a fire of mood swings, racing thoughts, irritability and fatigue …and, of course, cardiovascular disease.
The strange thing about all that was this: my over-eating and bingeing on bags of candy and chocolate reminded me of that last vestige of sanity before I went over the cliff into addiction. Remember that moment when your sane brain said “Hey, this drinking/drug usage has crossed a line. This is no longer normal partying/using”? And your addictive brain responded, “F-U, I’ll do what I want!”?
So, I went to see the dietician. And immediately felt overwhelmed by her advice. Maybe I wasn’t listening. Or maybe I heard what I expected to hear. I simply felt that what she was telling me to do way too much all at once.
Why? Food had become my security blanket. I had just given up drugs and alcohol. I needed something. And darn it! I had earned that! (Anyone recognize the addictive and impulsive thinking here?)
That’s why, in the book, I emphasize the importance of changing our diets in recovery, but making small, incremental changes based upon the Small Wins SM approach.
Maintain a long-term outlook. But make small changes in the short-run. Set realistic, attainable goals. It shouldn’t be too easy. But it shouldn’t be too hard, either.
My first step in losing 60+ total pounds was stopping the Gummi Bears. I still over-ate other foods and chocolate. But this was a process — progress, not perfection. The key point was that I had become aware that my eating choices had become problematic both to my physical health and to my recovery. It was up to me to take responsibility for the change that needed to take place. Incidentally, it took me two years to lose the weight. And I did so by removing some foods from my diet, substituting for others, and introducing light, then moderate, exercise into my lifestyle.
And I won’t lie and say it’s not something I need to watch to this day. And my weight has bounced +/- 10 pounds at various times in recovery. But that’s who I am. I can’t do certain things like other “normal” people. I also can’t run anymore because of arthritis in my knee. I can choose to complain and make excuses, or I can choose to take full responsibility, make the necessary adjustments, and live life on life’s terms. I chose the latter. So should you.
In group the other day, a young man was struggling with cravings and urges to use. So I asked him to go up to the whiteboard and draw a “T”. On the left side, he was to list the “pros” of using; on the right, the “cons”. Here’s what he came up with in just a few minutes’ time.
It’s important to note, the last entry he made was “temporary” under “pros” of using. He readily admitted the benefits of using really wouldn’t last longer than the immediate relief he would get from his current uncomfortable feelings. And while he couldn’t come up with more “benefits” to using, he told the group he could think of more negative consequences, but wasn’t going to write them down. “Why?”, I asked.
His urge to use, to leave treatment, had passed. “I never thought to look at relapse like this. It really helps.” He looked relieved. And much more relaxed.
An alternative exercise is to draw the same “T” but on the right, list the benefits of staying clean and sober. Of course, in early recovery, it’s pretty difficult to imagine the freedom, opportunity and lust for life abstinence offers. Which is why it’s important to try anyway. List your uncensored dreams, desires, aspirations. Be creative. Be uninhibited. And think outside the box of material things.
Recovery is about way more than not-using. Dare to dream of the fullest life imaginable! And don’t be surprised when you find yourself in the middle of it someday!
Strange that as soon as we get clean and sober, we think that the world around us has also embarked upon a wonderful transition. And magically people will understand our problems, believe in us, cast away doubt and suspicion, re-hire us, open doors for us, give us what we want or need. There may be a sense of entitlement. The reward is just around the corner. Unfortunately, reality proves to be rather different.
So many of us climb Mt. Pity Party. From our perch high above, we spend many of those first days, months, or years of our recovery being flustered, frustrated and downright pissed-off that the world is not conforming to our needs, demands, plans, desires or vision. Last time I checked, getting clean and sober did not convey superpowers or godliness. So why do we so often think and act as if it has?
The Big Book speaks to this on pages 60-61. About the actor wanting to run the whole show, knowing that if only people did just as he said, everything would work out right. This is the egocentric thinking of a child!
I write in my book about the relapse trap that our need to control really is. “Understanding that many things are beyond your control, no matter how you plan, or what you try to do, alleviates the struggle and fight for control of everything. After all, if we believe we have total control, don’t we then bear total responsibility?” And that’s the trap! Classic self-sabotage.
Remember, we have control over our actions, our responses, our emotions. That’s what we are responsible for. We do not have control over anything else. Certainly not outcomes.
So let go. It’s okay to be the actor. Remember, the director’s chair is reserved for someone or something greater than us all. Make sure you stay in the right role.
We strive to develop positive coping skills in recovery because they help us deal with urges, cravings, and our triggers to use. Remember, coping skills can be healthy or unhealthy – and are the sum total of ways that we deal with stress, trauma, and other problems we face.
In our addictions, we got into habits of using negative coping skills to deal with life: in fact, drinking and drugging was our “go-to” coping mechanism. Conflict at work? Take a pill. Wife has custody of the kids this week? Get an 8-ball. Bills piling up? Head to the bar. Boyfriend won’t talk to me? Get trashed.
These negative coping skills became automatic. Other examples of negative coping skills: manipulation, lying, isolation, avoidance, aggressiveness/anger/violence. Maybe we became passive-aggressive, became people-pleasers, or acted out.
How then to unlearn and change? The first step is to recognize and call-out our old behaviors. This, as the Big Book states, requires “rigorous self-honesty.” Sorry, you may wish for this, but there is no “easier, softer way.” It takes hard work and practice to identify, replace and change our old ways of thinking. But isn’t that what you signed up for in recovery? Isn’t that what you really want? Because our old ways just don’t cut it any more. And haven’t for quite some time. Healthy coping skills are the foundation of a new way of life.
Take a look at the photo of a recent group we did. What would you add to the list? How many positive and negative coping skills can you identify with?
Ever find your mind racing down a path you don’t want to travel? Catastrophizing about the future? Engaging mental gymnastics inside your head to debate points or events now irrelevant? Why do we torment ourselves so?
My experience indicates the answer is this: automatic thinking. Sure, part of this emotional turmoil is related to post-acute withdrawal. But even for many of us with years of abstinence, this “debate society” in our heads won’t shut up.
In our addictions, we cultivated and grew a vast crop of distorted thinking patterns. Defense mechanisms that allowed us to deny, justify, rationalize, minimize and cast blame for our addictions and indefensible behaviors. Irrational thinking that was impulsive, made assumptions, jumped to conclusions – negative conclusions. And these patterns of thinking became automatic.
Just because we are suddenly clean and sober, doesn’t mean we aren’t still stuck in our own BS.
So how do we get unstuck? Becoming more self-aware. Practicing new ways of thinking.
One technique I use is “thought stopping.” I try to catch myself when my brain starts hurtling down the tracks of negativity. How do I know this is happening? For me, I find myself first starting to feel uncomfortable and irritable. My blood pressure goes up. I can feel my face flush and heart rate increase. My mind begins racing with thoughts of how I would have, could have, should have, must ____________ (fill in the blank). I’m either trying to rewrite history, or author the future.
When you feel this way, stop. Deconstruct what is going on. Usually, we are triggered by something. What was that activating event? Keep in mind that whatever this trigger was is objective. In and of itself, it does not cause your emotions. Your beliefs about the trigger are what result in your emotion and reaction.
So look at what your beliefs are about this event. My old ways of thinking would be conflicted, pessimistic, catastrophic.
That negative thinking results then in my feeling stressed, uncomfortable and increasingly agitated, irritated and angry. I don’t like feeling like this – but I know a way to not feel this. That’s right. Using. So the natural result is getting an urge or craving to use. Score one for your disease.
It takes work and practice to identify, dispute, and then change our old ways of thinking. I liken it to learning to shoot a basketball jump-shot when all you know is a two-handed-push shot from your chest. Your way old way worked for a while and you made some baskets. But it quickly lost its effectiveness. And certainly has no place in a game beyond grade school. Learning the new way takes willingness, open-mindedness, practice, attention, focus and…time. You’ll feel uncomfortable. You may miss more shots initially using your new method. But eventually, your game, self-confidence and effectiveness will take a leap forward. Score two for your sobriety.
So many principles of recovery….and life…cross my mind when I’m out hiking. Helps me maintain perspective. It’s not just about the exercise and the fresh air and sunshine. Patience, nurture, faith, acceptance, healing – rebirth. The tree reminds me that the scars from a life of addiction can be channeled into something beautiful and enduring. The petroglyphs remind me that others have come before me; and more will follow. When I’m out there, I can’t help but be “right-sized.” And the crystal clear pool, despite the fact it hasn’t rained in a month? A metaphor for “the promises.” It’s all there. We simply need to put one foot in front of the other. And keep an open mind.
The best exercise is the one you want to do!
While I want to encourage readers to get active in recovery, there are some important things to consider first, especially if you’ve recently stopped drugging and drinking.
- In early recovery we are more prone health and injury problems. This is because we been sedentary, malnourished, and (probably) smoking; and the drugs/alcohol caused damage to our cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, digestive, musculoskeletal (and other) systems.
- Addiction has not been kind to our bodies (or minds). Even though you might be starting to look better on the outside, your insides may not be keeping up with that progress.
- We tend to want to over-do it. “Make up for lost time.” There’s a saying in AA, “Time takes time.” Believe it. As much as you might want to, you cannot change the laws of physics or biology. Slow down.
- Think in terms of “journey”, rather than “destination.”
- Keep an open-mind. I have more problems with former athletes than I do with those who were not particularly athletic prior to addiction. Why? Because the former athletes tend to go too hard, too fast. This can lead to disappointment because of unrealistic expectations, or injury, or quitting.
- Remember, anything you do now is more than you were doing before! Think in terms of progress, rather than what “people” “should” or “must” or “are expected” to do.
- Your goal for each day should be suiting up and showing up. Just like they say in 12-step meetings, “Don’t drink or use. Go to meetings.” Same principle here.
- Make sure you’re cleared by a medical professional prior to engaging in any program of activity or exercise.
Exercise and movement make a huge difference in the quality of all our lives. But especially for those of us in recovery from addiction, or chronic/aging-related diseases. Learn how easy it is to get started and stay motivated!
Get your copy of REBALANCING THE ADDICTIVE MIND
Whether it’s exercise or working a program of recovery — consistency, repetition and practice are required to turn actions into habits.
How can we develop new, productive exercise habits? We know that our old, drug-taking habits produced instantaneous, abundant neurotransmitter-cascade “rewards.” In fact, drugs provide approximately 10 times the neurochemical reward that “normal” healthy or desirable activities do (4). This was why it was so easy to get hooked.
Those addiction-oriented pathways will be with us forever. But the less we reinforce them (by abstaining from psychoactive chemicals and addictive behaviors like gambling, excessive shopping, etc.), the more they atrophy (weaken or deteriorate). Anyone who has had to wear a cast on an arm or leg for a month or more can attest to how a lack of use results in atrophy. We want our addiction-oriented thinking and old behaviors’ pathways to atrophy. One way to do that is to replace bad habits with good.
An action or activity is a habit when it is automatic. Learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car is automatic for most of us. We don’t need to think about how we do it; we just go do it! But learning that ability required practice and repetition. Making something a habit, (like eating right), takes conscious effort and perseverance over a period of about 90 days.
Remember, these new, healthy activities, like exercise, don’t have the same immediate super-strong rewards that psychoactive drugs gave us. So we must persevere even when we don’t feel so good, or so rewarded. We must continue to “exercise” that new behavior on a daily basis or else it will self-extinguish.
Programming new habits is critical because we all know from experience that willpower is not enough – whether it is in recovery or maintaining an exercise or diet plan. Therefore, it is critical that we invest the time, energy and commitment to develop exercise as a habit. That means regular, consistent action augmented by Small Wins SM each and every day, for at least 90 days.
To prevent relapse, new healthy behaviors must become an auto-pilot function — a good habit driven by our mid-brain.
My friend Jim Anders has graciously shared some of his thoughts on alcoholism. While Jim speaks directly to alcohol (his addiction), anyone who has suffered a substance or behavioral addiction will instantly recognize the insane commonality among all.
How He Felt Versus How He Appeared:
Alcohol was taking over my life in each and every form and I didn’t even know it. I had learned more and more about scotch and wine and beer and cocktail recipes and this glass and that glass, boiler-makers and hot toddies and which garnish goes with which drink and on and on. More and more knowledge about alcohol and no real knowledge of alcoholism. Generally speaking, as I got more and more entrenched in alcoholic behavior, the more I felt sophisticated, the less sophisticated I must have appeared. Who could see the forest? All I saw were trees. (From Chapter 8)
I still have phantom memories of my drinking past, euphoric recall. It’s as if one of my legs were amputated, but that I can still sometimes, somehow feel those toes that are not there. Triggers are phantom toes wiggling. Don’t take the bait. Don’t bite. Use your good leg, the sober leg. The bad leg is gone. Let it go. Say your eulogy. Mourn this death and move on. (From Chapter 65)
“My brain knows my disease. My brain loves my disease and my brain will never forget my disease because my disease has carved permanent grooves into my brain that no amount of sobriety can ever putty shut. The grooves in my brain lay waiting for me to pick up again so that the grooves can progressively deepen. I must depend on the help of others. Acting alone, I will be devoured by my disease. For addicts, alcohol will devour memories of the past and anxiety about the future, drowning them in the unreal, insane world of addiction. A living lobotomy. A blind man descending a spiral staircase leading to nowhere. No past. No present. No future. Addiction will survive by eating you alive.
Now, in recovery, I’m learning how to thrive.” (From Chapter 51)
A Progressive Disease, A Progressive Recovery:
Loving to drink. Living to drink. Dying to drink. Dying from drinking. This is the progression of alcoholism. Wanting to live. Learning to live. Loving to live. Living with love. This is the progression of recovery. (From Chapter 82)