After entering recovery, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the map I’d been using to navigate my life was severely flawed. My experience in addiction had forced me to confront the fact that my ideas and ways of living were not working, and after years of getting my ass kicked by substances, I was willing to try pretty much any path that was suggested. I consider myself quite lucky in this regard. In following a flawed map, I’d stumbled enough times to crack my mind open a bit. The experience humbled me enough to push my ego to the side just enough to let some new ideas enter the picture.
Through connection with others in recovery, I began to develop a new map, complete with clearer perspectives and better ways of moving through the world. For the most part, the new ideas were a tremendous gift, and have continued to aid me as the years go by. The fundamentals of my map have remained the same. I don’t pick up a day at a time. I make phone calls when I am facing a challenge. I meditate daily. I connect with other people in recovery several times a week. I share my map with those who are just beginning the journey. These are some of the things that were suggested early on, and they have continued to save my life.
But as they years have gone by, my life has changed, and with those changes some of the stuff that served me early on in my path no longer serves me. In the same way my addiction forced me to let go of some old ideas, my changing life circumstances have also left me facing the fact that I need to revise or discard some of the ideas I’ve been given in recovery.
Realizing this need to discard or revise old ideas or perspectives can be scary. Our ideas and perspectives are the map we use to navigate the world and make meaning of our experiences, and letting go of them often creates the feeling of being lost. I have faced many moments in recovery where I have realized my map is flawed, and I expect to experience this many more times as I continue forward. I believe if we are moving through life with an open heart and fearlessly searching for our own personal truths, these realizations are unavoidable. And while scary, this is the stuff recovery is all about. I spent too many years holding onto half-truths and total lies, so my recovery is rooted in a search for truth.
At times, these new understandings are minor and easy to correct. For example, in my third year of recovery, after two years in school studying social work (which, by the way, seemed like the next point on my map based on what others around me were doing), I realized that I wanted to study literature and writing. This realization changed the trajectory of my education and my path in life, but it was relatively easy to adjust the map to make it work. At other junctures, however, the realizations have shaken me to the core. Two years ago, I realized the conception of God that had helped me get clean did not sit true for me anymore. It was too limited to fit with my experience, and I had to let it go. In this case, I felt as if the structure that held my life together had fallen to pieces. My map no longer reflected the landscape I was moving through. I am still working through this realization, though I feel it has added a level of freedom to my life I never expected.
There have also been times when I’ve discovered a new truth, and refused to let go of the old idea blocking me from it. A couple of years ago, a very important relationship I had been in for several years came to a natural end. It was very clear to everyone I talked to about it that the relationship was over. I was living 3,000 miles away from her, our goals and dreams were no longer on a similar trajectory, the intimacy had faded, and eventually she started seeing someone else. Despite these clear signs, I continued to cling to the idea that somehow we would work it out, and the results of this clinging were not good. I continued trying to navigate my life by a map that was no longer true, and it led to frustration, prolonged grief, and conflict in different areas of my life. In denying the truth, I prolonged the pain.
I have recently become aware of another old idea that I am letting go of. Along with support I receive from other people in recovery, I see a therapist on a weekly basis. I have been in therapy much of my life, and find it incredibly helpful to get the perspective of a professional who is not steeped in the same recovery paradigms that I am. I was talking to my therapist about a big decision I am facing, and I told him, “I just don’t trust myself.”
As soon as I said it, I became aware of the fact that in recovery I have been trained to think this way. I suspect most of us, if we have been to treatment or participated in12-step meetings, have confronted similar ways of thinking. I hear the following on a regular basis: my addictions is doing pushups in the parking lot, waiting for me to falter; There’s a part of my mind that want me dead; my own best thinking got me here. Sound familiar? All of these adages suggest in a subtle way that I cannot trust myself.
I do believe there is truth to all of these ideas, and I am the first one to admit that my thinking was screwed up when I first found recovery. It was necessary to confront this part of my brain in the early days, and I don’t mean to diminish these ideas if they are important for you to hold onto. What I mean to say is that after years of hard work in the 12-steps, engaging in therapy, and cultivating my spiritual practices, I believe I finally have a map that serves me in getting where I want to go, and doubting it no longer serves me.
I have gained some clarity, and do have the ability to make good decisions. Looking back at the beautiful (and sometimes messy) years I’ve been blessed with in recovery, I have made some of the best decisions in my life, and the mistakes have been marked on my map as places not to travel. Despite this, however, I still feel a great deal of anxiety when it comes to trusting myself.
After sharing this conflict with my therapist, and explaining the way that I have been trained not to trust myself, he offered an interesting insight. Yes, he agreed, there is a part of me that gravitates toward escape, that desires at times to relieve emotions and anxiety with substances. But, he suggested, there is another part of me that continues to choose life over death. This is the part of my mind that I can rely on and trust, and if you are in recovery and staying clean and sober a day at a time, you possess this aspect of mind as well, and each day you cultivate the decision to live, it grows.
If I am really concerned with the quality of my decision-making, I can always bring that decision to another person—my therapist, my mentor, my partner—and I do. But I am letting go of the assumption that my desires and decisions always come from a part of my mind that wants me dead. I am learning to find confidence in taking risks. I am learning to trust and listen to that part of myself that wants to live.
I’d love to hear about your process of revising your map and letting go of old ideas in recovery. Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until then, happy travels.