Click – Learning in Addiction Recovery

By Sam Renwick
Originally posted on The Fix

Have you ever struggled to learn how to do something? I mean really struggled. It’s part of the nature of being human because, at our core, we are learning beings.

For some people, algebra, geometry, and calculus fall into this category. For others, learning to interact with the opposite sex has been the challenge… or navigating group dynamics. Still others, figuring out how to cope with those damn emotions in useful ways has been the struggle.

When we speak of recovery from an addiction, often the process looks and feels like struggle. After all, in recovery one is learning how to navigate life without the use of a substance, behavior, or relationship that was previously quite central to life. Often times, recovery feels like the English major struggling through calculus.

Watching people, especially children, go through the process of struggling to learn to finally “getting it” is truly amazing. The learning process involves toil in the small steps of progress offset by failures until it just “clicks”. When the light bulb of the click goes off, a big shift happens as what is learned gets embedded somehow in our neural circuitry and what once was a struggle is no longer. Humans go from crawling to walking to running, from babbling to talking to writing, from counting to multiplying to solving quadratic equations, etc. What once was difficult becomes easier and more automatic. This is our nature.

For many of us, our addictive behavior was what we learned to help us deal with life. Habit, emotion, attachment/relationships, pleasure, pain, trauma, experience wove together in a tapestry and we learned how to deal with this tapestry in the way that we did. For some of us, we were quite gifted at acting out in our addiction, perhaps not too dissimilar to the math whiz who gets abstract algebra with ease. For others of us, we really had to practice to get to where we were in our addictions. Whichever the case, our addictions clicked for us and that became part of the problem, especially when the consequences mounted.

When we step into recovery, or more simply, learning how to live our lives differently than we were before (sometimes I wish we’d relabel recovery to simply growth), we enter a process of struggle and learning as early on we try to navigate our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships through a new filter, a filter that does not include our problematic addictive behavior and one that attempts to get to the core of why we pursued the addictive behavior in the first place. Often times the automaticity of old learned thinking and behaving makes learning the new way to live difficult, especially early on. Failure, pain, and difficulty seem just as, if not more, prominent than success, joy, and hope. This is the struggle.

But let’s be honest, did you learn to walk the first time you tried? Were you able to snowboard or ski the first time you got on the mountain? Did you really nail talking to the opposite sex (or same-sex) the first time you really tried (in Jr. High)? Kudos if your answer was yes but for most of us the answer was a profound no. It takes effort, practice, adapting, and learning to figure these processes out often helped with mentors. Addiction recovery is not all that different.

What’s amazing to me is seeing the big shifts in people as they move through the recovery process, when they finally “get it” and the recovery process transforms from a struggle not to do something to a part of a person’s identity to go live the best life he or she can. This is the click.

For me, the click happened when I could finally see me as I see my children. They are beautiful, they are a part of me, and it’s amazing to see what they are becoming. When I could apply those very same attributes to me (and believe them), I experienced a big shift. To be clear, my kids make mistakes, they can be difficult, but they are learning and growing just as we all are. Me too. They are not their past poor choices and they certainly aren’t worthless. Me too.

This click that happened for me changed me from thinking too little or too much of me to actually just liking me. The click reoriented me from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. The click reframed my thinking about my addictive acting out from something inevitable to something I could grow through and recover from. The click reframed the way I looked at relationships and oriented me toward finding healthier ones. The click helped me to experience more joy and peace in my daily life.

The click did not remove all my previous memories nor did it eliminate the thoughts, impulses, and such that would go through my mind from time to time. What the click did do was help me change how I react to these memories, thoughts, and impulses. Now, I chuckle at some of the stuff that goes through my head and I get curious about where it came from. Then I move on my way…something I could not do well before the click. The click did not remove my occasional desire to use or act out. It did, however, give me the orientation around myself to explore what I really wanted to get out of my life, what my purpose is, and question whether acting out would really help.

Sometimes we have big clicks, sometimes we have small clicks and sometimes we have struggle. Life is a series of all of these. It’s the nature of growth and learning. In order to grow and learn, we have to be in the process of growth and learning (profound I know). So…

Stay in the process!


9 Responses

  1. Doc says:

    Thanks. The “clicks” perspective is an interesting one.

  2. Anne J. says:

    I learned the basic definition of Gestalt to be ‘Ah Ha’. I think that is the clicks of this piece. And yes those have been the most profound moments of my recovery!

  3. Dean W says:

    Thanks for an excellent description of what recovery can be like. I use the image of lights rather than clicks. Step One was a light bulb. The hope and sense of belonging I felt after Step Five was another. I haven’t had many dramatic light bulb experiences in my 32 years of sobriety. Most of my growth has been by lightning bugs, not lightning bolts (my reworking of Mark Twain’s quote). As with the author of this article, it’s all about growth and learning. Hopefully I’m still experiencing both.

  4. Lisa M. says:

    Hi There! I like this idea you present much better than what I heard so often: the recovery saying “Don’t Quit Before the Miracle Happens”. That implies one big thing and what if it doesn’t materialize? I also wanted to add a thought that I heard “out there” on the internet or podcast land, can’t remember, and it was “leave room for magic to happen”. These clicks are like magic – don’t know when it will happen but AHHH magic each time.

  5. Karl J says:

    Great article I can relate to the click analogy.

    Thanks Roger.

  6. Paula H. says:

    This idea that learning how to live happily in recovery is a learning process sounds just right. I’m in my second round of recovery, and the thing that has kept me hanging in here through the tough early months is knowing, from actual experience, that sober life becomes truly wonderful. This has been good food for thought. The thing that I worked hardest at was learning to play the piano. Talk about slow going! Comparing recovery to that makes it look pretty darned easy, because the rewards started coming a whole lot sooner. It took me at least five years to be able to play anything that anybody would want to listen to, but I hung in there. I’m in my fifth sober month, and right now, for example, I am feeling relaxed, hopeful, and energetic. What a change! If anyone is out there struggling to get through the beginning, know that relief is on the way. Just hang on tight. It’s better than you can imagine!

  7. Larry g says:

    I can’t begin to say how much I value this article. An exquisitely accurate description of how growth, healing and recovery occur. I often have sponsee’s stare at a thumb nail with two tasks in mind: 1) to use their will power to force it to grow; and 2) to raise their hand when they catch it growing. Obviously neither occurs. Then we have a discussion on how to stop smashing the nail with a hammer and to actually care for it. Then we shift to recovery. I can never catch myself growing. But if I can alter my thinking and behaving habits I do then experience moments after the fact when something happens and I discover that I have grown. For me this is one of the great pleasures of recovery. For me the closest thing to permanence in recovery is habit.

  8. Mike B says:

    Great article. It took me about three years to reprogramme my brain to not wake up every morning with alcohol on my mind and about another eighteen months to understand that I’ve internalised it.

    I am probably in the minority, believing that AA is an education process which can eventually be outgrown, although refreshers – in my case, coming to this site regularly for a secular top up – shouldn’t be neglected.

    I no longer attend meetings, despite initial fear and misgivings I’ve been more than two years out of them. Looking back, I can see it as like leaving school, or a job I’d outgrown. Meetings themselves were making me unhappy, from others I’ve met and talked to since this doesn’t appear to be a personal aberration.

    I strongly believe that finding and working what works for each of us is the key to a happy, sober life, once we have accepted gladly life without the poisons that once we were unable to live without.

    I would never, ever, advise anyone to stop going to meetings if you either enjoy them or haven’t yet discovered complete confidence in your sobriety. I believe if I’d continued attending meetings I am more likely to have lapsed than by following the path I chose.

    I maintain friendships from the rooms, and have made contact with others in recovery who have done the same. I’ve met people in supermarkets who dropped out of the rooms because of the relentless big book and Bible thumping and have set minds at rest that they are not alone, and that following the principles will not necessarily lead to relapse.

    I am hugely grateful for the sobriety I found in the rooms, and would counsel anyone in need of finding what we have to go to a meeting. I’d gladly take them myself.

    • Larry g says:

      Hi Mike B, wonderful post. I believe it takes real courage to both eventually venture outside the AA fold and just as much courage to say so to active AA members. Thx for sharing sir.

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