Updated: Nov 9
As many of you know, I do not believe in the idea of relapse as a failure or even starting over at day one. I believe as long as we are continuing on our path forward, the idea of taking a step or two backward does not represent a failed attempt at sobriety. It is only when we give up, quit, and choose to reclaim our old life I believe failure in sobriety occurs. With that said, I also believe there is a point at which a person may actually be failing in their sobriety even though they are continuing to try and move forward on their path. It is a point where a person may find themselves stuck in a repeated pattern of trying to quit over and over and over. It is not the repeated pattern of trying that is damaging to this person. It is what they are telling themselves on a subconscious level that is incredibly harmful and even detrimental to any hope of successful sobriety. One of the reasons sobriety works is because a person begins to see their daily success as positive growth toward a goal. They see it as evidence supporting the fact they can and are achieving something they once thought to be impossible. Unfortunately, the reciprocal can be true too.
I follow a myriad of different sober groups on social media, and I even have one of my own. I love reading positive stories about growth, change, and triumph. I am constantly encouraged by the productivity accompanying many of these stories. The businesses started, the goals achieved, the friendships made, and the new paths forged fill me with hope and a continued desire to want to be a part of this community. It fuels my desire to help wherever I can. I write as a way to reflect on my own experience but I also write as a way to reach out to those struggling on their paths or to those waiting to begin their paths. I write because I believe there is truth in my experience. My truth has a lot to say about what I see happening in the sober community. One of those truths revolves around something I hear throughout our community far too often to ignore any longer.
Day one, again...
One of the amazing benefits of social media is the support readily available to those who may not have the support they need at home. It is a place where people can reach out and feel more comfortable about sharing their stories in a nonjudgmental environment. When you tell your story to a large number of people, inevitably, someone is going to hear your story and relate to it and to you. A connection is made with these people, and we immediately feel less alone. When working through something like sobriety, support and connection are not only incredibly important, they are necessary to facilitate success. Unfortunately, not all support and connections are created equal. What happens if the support and connection actually facilitate bad behaviors? Is this possible? I believe it is.
Spattered in with the multitude of positive posts surrounding sobriety are posts and comments of a not-so-positive nature. It is not so much the single post about starting over with which I am concerned. We have all been there. We have all quit, fell off our path, and returned to try again. This is somewhat of a natural progression for a person attempting to find their own truth on their path to sobriety. What concerns me are those who do this on a consistent and repeated basis. If you follow any sober groups, you know what I am talking about. Again, it is not the idea of someone struggling to find their way that is worrisome. It is the idea of what a person is learning, on a subconscious level, in this repetitive process of unsuccessful behavior that ultimately concerns me. What makes matters even more difficult is how we, the supportive and caring people we are, are actually helping to support this pattern of unsuccessful behavior. How can we not? We want to see people succeed.
The post or comment I am referring to is this one, "Day one, again." This statement in and of itself is not so damaging or concerning. However, what follows the post generally is. "Why can't I stop? I can't do this again. Why do I keep doing this to myself? Why am I so weak?" When we repeat these phrases over and over we are essentially planting a seed of failure into our subconscious. Look at the phrase. Day one, again. What am I saying to myself when I make this statement? I am saying, "Here I go again, down this familiar road of which I know the end result." I am saying to myself, "I have been here before, why would the outcome be any different?' I am saying, "I am back to square one, again." This statement does not evoke positivity in the person stating it or the people hearing it. There is a common saying about sobriety I am sure you have all heard, "the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over expecting different results." If ever there was a saying that wraps up failed sobriety into a tight little bundle, this is it. We cannot walk down the same path expecting to end up at a different destination.
Reinforcing Negative Behavior
I wish the buck stopped here but the person stuck in a pattern of negative behavior is not the only person responsible for this pattern. We are right there with them, every time we say things like, "You can do it. You got this. Keep going." Now, I know this is going to rub some of you the wrong way, and I get it, but hear me out. I am not saying we should not encourage everyone who is attempting to venture down their path of sobriety. I am saying there are times when we need to recognize a pattern of unsuccessful behavior is present and our telling someone they can do it is simply no longer supportive; it is, in fact, enabling. I believe it is enabling because as an addict searching for validation, hearing affirming comments feel good, especially when we are feeling down about our continued unsuccessful attempts. We begin to learn we can reach out with every "day one" and someone will be there to make us feel better about what we are not doing. How else can we approach these scenarios so we do not perpetuate the downward spiral?
Before I continue, I would like to clarify something. While this blog may appear to read as finger-pointing toward those who are struggling in sobriety, I assure you, this is not the case. I am writing this as a reminder to myself too. I have struggled with "day ones" in other aspects of my life as well. We all have. I am writing this as a reminder for us all to remember when we find ourselves trapped in a cycle of behavior, the only way out is through change. We have to recognize it, our friends and family have to recognize it, and our connections through social media have to recognize it. As a collective, we can help redirect our own and other's negative behavior patterns by doing a few simple things differently.
As a teacher, one of the most fundamental skills we learn to deal with "bad" behaviors is redirection. It is simple really. When someone is engaging in negative behavior, their mind is enveloped with the thoughts of that behavior. A simple redirect in terms of conversation, action, or emotional response can be enough to positively affect a change in said behavior. In this example, the change may only be temporary but like anything else, practice makes perfect. In regard to our "day one" scenario, the redirect can be as simple as our approach. Instead of saying something like, "You can do it" ask a question, "What is one thing you are going to do differently this time? What is a core belief you hold preventing you from succeeding? What is one way to cope with your urges you have not yet tried?" All of these questions do not support the continued reaffirmation of unsuccessful behavior, they instead challenge the person to think in terms of change. They suggest to the person you are still there for them, but you are not willing to let them continue down the same path. You are not willing to allow them to keep making the same mistakes. You are telling them they matter and you care.
From the point of view of an individual trying to quit, a couple of things occur when the preconceived affirmation for which they were searching is not received. First, the individual immediately realizes their efforts for validation are no longer rewarded. At this moment, the individual has to evaluate why they are not being validated in the way they want. Most of the time, redirecting by way of questioning does not elicit bad feelings toward the questioner. The individual may feel put off by the question. They may feel you are not supporting them, at the time. They may even feel you do not understand, even though they know you do. They may feel a lot of things, but it is unlikely they will feel negative feelings toward you for trying to help them. Some may even feel grateful for your thought-provoking questions. They may answer your questions and put their answers to work during their new "day one." Their answers may or may not work, but at the very least they are trying something new. They are truly walking the path of change toward sobriety because they are learning and growing with every new realization.
Others may not be able to handle the questions at all. They may disregard them and continue to seek out the reaffirmation they need. In this instance, it is unlikely we could have done or said anything to help. We can, however, at least feel confident by asking questions rather than supporting repeated negative behavior, we did not help perpetuate a continued pattern of unsuccessful attempts to find sobriety. This may sound a bit harsh, but honestly ask yourself this question: what would you rather hear from someone? An obligated vanilla comment that carries no weight and shows no true support? Or a question prompting you to think about your path and how to better prepare yourself to be successful in the future? I don't know about you, but I'll take the question.
Competitive by Nature
You may not think you are a competitive person, but on some level, we are all competitive. Staying alive, in and of itself, stems from a competitive nature. You have to fight to survive every single day. You have to find shelter, food, connection, and safety or you will die. There is no denying it, you too are competitive. Are there levels of competitiveness? Of course. I tend to lean toward an overly competitive person. I even feel competitive when playing a game with my eleven-year-old son? Do I feel I need to beat him to feel validated in my worth? No. It is simply a predisposed reaction to engaging in a sport of any kind. It is just there.
Nevertheless, success in sobriety requires a certain amount of our inherent competitive nature too. As human beings, we sometimes need a push to reach higher levels. The easiest thing in the world is to maintain the status quo. If you are happy with the status quo of your drinking life, you may never find the motivation needed for real change. If you are not happy with the status quo of your life, you may need a push, a nudge, or even a slap in the face to see the competition before you. Once you see it, however, you are naturally inclined to stand up to the challenge.
If you are a person on "Day one, again" do not ask others to validate your feeling bad about starting over. Instead, ask yourself the tough questions. Why am I here, again? What have I done differently than before? What steps did I take? How do I feel about being here? What beliefs keep me from finding my success? What can I do differently in the future? Don't stop there. Answer your questions as truthfully as you can. Then, use those answers to help you take the next successful steps toward sobriety.
If you are someone who has recognized the repeated pattern of negative behavior in someone you love or even someone you do not know, do not offer obligatory vanilla support. Do not say you can do it. Ask them the same questions you wish someone would have asked you at the beginning of your journey. Maybe those questions will help redirect an individual and save them years of struggle, pain, and discontent. Maybe those questions will remind you of your own successful journey and help you walk an even more successful path. Maybe those questions will inspire someone else to reflect on their own experience and make changes to improve their journey. At the very least, know the questions you are asking offer true support for those you desire to help.
I am going to wrap up this blog with a quote from the movie, Whiplash.
"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, Good Job."