Completing Your Past
Three Phases Of Recovery
Over the next three blog posts, I’m going to talk about three phases of recovery that I have found are critical in a person’s journey if they really want to leave a behavior behind. However, my concern is that because of our stigma-filled culture, you MIGHT find yourself saying, I don’t have a problem, Tim.” If you currently don’t identify with being in recovery from an addictive substance or behavior, I invite you to consider if there’s something in your life that is just like “kryptonite” for you… i.e. when you’re around it, you just can’t resist or control your use. Another way to look at “the A word” is the behavior or substance you continue to use despite it having negative consequences.
In my dear friend and mentor Tommy Rosen’s book, “Recovery 2.0,” Tommy identifies SIX types of categories where people might find themselves experiencing kryptonite:
- People (including codependency and sex)
- Money (including gambling)
- Technology (including social media and video games)
Everybody reaches for something when they get stressed. That’s the nervous system working as designed. When the nervous system’s stress response is activated, it looks for a way to self-soothe in order to initiate the relaxation response. What we reach for falls into FOUR categories: It…
- Works in the moment and has a positive consequence aftward
- Works in the moment but has a negative consequence aftward
- Works in the moment without any + or – consequence afterward
- Doesn’t work.
Our responses can also fall into these four categories:
- Healthy and socially acceptable
- Healthy but socially unacceptable
- Unhealthy but socially acceptable
- Unhealthy and socially unacceptable
After walking into my first 12 step meeting in Feb of 2003, and after working in substance use disorder and mental health treatment centers since 2008, I’ve picked up a few things along the way that I want to share with my fellow brothers and sisters.
I’ve noticed there are three critical categories to address if one wants to leave a behavior behind. I’ve also noticed that there’s a way out for anyone, no matter how far down the rabbit hole they think they’ve gone. Change IS possible, because it’s the fundamental dynamic of the known Universe. Said another way, change is the verb of the Universe. It is forever dynamic, from the macro to the micro level. What we know from the field of neuroscience is that the human brain has the capacity to change thanks to a function called neuroplasticity. When it comes to behavior, we’re malleable. Our pasts do NOT equal our future.
However, if we want to create a future that’s distinct from our past, we need to first complete our past, so that OUR past actually stays in THE past where it belongs. Too often, out of safety and survival, we actually keep our past right on our shoulders, constantly trying to avoid anything that resembles the pain from the past. “Will THIS hurt me like THAT did?” is a question that our survival-focused brain is trained and designed to ask.
Remember, the human brain’s architecture is built for survival first. In our 21st century culture, we’ve moved beyond the need to survive and now grapple with the desire to thrive. That’s a very advanced concept for an old processing system like our brain. So, we need to prune, nurture, and care for our brains very carefully if we want to achieve something more than not dying.
First step: heal the hurts of the past
Until we do, they are omnipresent, sitting on our shoulders and clouding our judgment and ability to create something from nothing. When we are stressed, our nervous system jumps from what’s often thought of as “rest and digest” to what’s often called “fight or flight.” As clinician and author Deb Dana says in her book, “Polyvagal Theory in Therapy,” We move from Connection to Protection. I say we move from Creativity to Reactivity.
Have you ever had an injury that took a while to get treated and heal? What happened whenever you used that injured arm or walked on that injured leg? You probably experienced pain. However, when you’ve sustained a traumatic injury, it doesn’t just relate to your phyiscal brain. It can injure you emotionally, socially, and/or spiritually. The same thing happens in cases where you engage the part of you that sustained the trauma, you can feel emotional, social, or spiritual pain.
All types of pain are stressors on the nervous system, thereby activating the stress response, thereby initiating a craving to self soothe. Consider that cravings aren’t for “the thing” as much as they are to just self soothe, and the brain knows what will work FASTEST. The part of the brain issuing that craving only cares if “the thing” works or not. That’s it.
Until we heal the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual injuries from our past, we run the daily risk of aggravating them and triggering a subsequent craving to self soothe that pain.
This is step one. Heal your past.
Just last week I spoke at length with someone in a family crisis, and this person’s method of escaping the stress was through their work. Along the way, they actually knew and said to me that they were trying to stay busy through it all so they wouldn’t have to cope with the trauma of their youth that was lurking in the background.
Outrunning the injuries of your past is like the ultimate game of procrastination. There’s no peace in stillness, and there’s no satisfaction in success. There’s only the ominous knowledge that “it’s coming… so I better not rest or it will catch up with me.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that before. Lucky (or unlucky) for them, they live in a hyperstimulated culture addicted to production and consumption, so there’s no shortage of things to do, and people also outrunning their past all around them.
If you can’t find peace in sitting in stillness, you’re probably sitting on an injury that you haven’t healed yet, and you’re hoping that “time heals all wounds.” Sadly, it does not.
The good news is that there are extremely effective AND efficient ways to treat and heal those injuries. In my upcoming Stress Elimination Summit: Recovery Edition, I’ll be hosting close to THIRTY experts sharing their best practices and experience, and one of the three main topics we’ll be focusing on is just this… how to heal your past.
But then what?
Don’t worry, that’s what the next two posts will be allllll about. 😉