How Passivity Sabotages Recovery

An excerpt from 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery

The following is an excerpt from 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery.

While there are many paths to getting and staying sober, it's your responsibility, and no one else's, to find the path that's best for you.

When you begin recovery from addiction, you embark on a journey that will change your life in unimaginable ways. It's normal to ask, "What path is best for me to get sober and stay sober, and how will I find it?" Once you've been in recovery for a while, you begin to ask something like, "Is the path I've been on the best one for me?"

These are good questions. But we often expect that there is a simple, single answer. We also hope for a guru or fairy godmother of some sort—someone who will magically pick us up and put us on the right path. But that's unrealistic, as you will learn in this chapter. In fact, that very expectation is pretty much a repetition of what we were doing when we were drinking or using—trying to find a magical, single answer for our screwed-up life. It didn't work then, and it won't work any better now. All we're doing is repeating a failed behavior. And that's the first thing to know about addiction: people with addiction have trouble learning from experience.

They repeat the same behaviors that got them into trouble in the first place. Where did this magical expectation come from? Why do we persist in believing there is only one right path? Why do we rigidly stick to a path, even when experience shows us that it leads nowhere?

Failing to Learn from Our Experience

In the psychological literature about active alcoholics and addicts, this point is clear: we don't learn from our experience. And that also creates a problem when it comes to identifying the best path for us to take in our recovery. You see, we need to use our experience to become aware if what we're doing is, in fact, helpful—if it is right for us. Why do we fail to learn? Learning occurs when we process the feedback we get from a behavior and use it to enhance our awareness. A child learns not to touch a hot stove by touching it and getting burned. A child eats ice cream and wants more because it is pleasurable. If she then eats too much and gets sick, she may learn when to stop the next time. The pain or pleasure that the child experiences tells the child what's in her best interest.

We alcoholics and addicts have lost this simplicity in our lives. How many times have you been hurt as a result of drinking or using? Probably too many, but despite the pain and suffering it has caused you or your loved ones, you returned to drinking or using again. Repeatedly ignoring the messages and warnings of our inner voice desensitizes us to the role experience plays in learning.

In AA meetings we hear the definition of insanity as "doing the same thing and expecting different results." Well, I believe the problem is much worse than that—we do the same thing and expect better results. Better? Are you kidding me? We are sincerely deluded. Clearly we are not learning from our experience. So the question becomes, what is blocking us from seeing the obvious and admitting our fatal condition?

We fool ourselves by dulling our awareness. This desensitization begins early in life. At a young age, most of us dedicated ourselves to trying to be someone we thought we should be rather than staying true to who we were. We wanted to please our parents, our teachers, or siblings, our friends—and that often meant ignoring who we were and what pleased us. Even though that hurt us in countless ways, we often continued to choose the rewards of others' approval over finding out who we were and what we wanted. We cut ourselves off, numbed ourselves with alcohol and other drugs, and avoided becoming aware of the truth about ourselves, including the impact of our drinking and using. And in recovery, many of us persist in this behavior. By continuing to look for magical answers outside of ourselves, we avoid becoming aware of what really works for us, and what doesn't.

And we become passive, which is deadly to recovery. We stay locked in a childish belief that there is one solution to our problems, that one person or path holds all the answers. Let's dig into what that means, and how passivity can sabotage recovery.

The Toxic Effects of Passivity on Recovery

Passivity makes it less likely that we will discover our path to full, mature recovery. Why? Because when we are passive, we marginalize the role of our true self in determining our path. We leave ourselves out of the process of our own recovery! Passivity separates us from being an active, determining force in our own lives. Regardless of the path we choose, we'll need to be an active part of the process. In the words of recovery author and counselor Earnie Larsen, "If nothing changes, nothing changes." I would put it this way: if we don't change our passive attitude toward ourselves and our problems, then nothing will change.

Passivity interferes with taking the necessary steps that will help us find the best path for our recovery. Passivity leads us to wait for something to happen rather than mobilizing to make something happen. Our full personal participation in finding the optimal path to addiction recovery is essential to our success. Passivity will undermine our attempt to create a better life.

Passivity almost undermined my own early recovery back in 1971. I unconsciously hoped that someone would come along and tell me what was best for me. That's the fairy godmother syndrome. I wanted someone to figure out what I needed to do and show me the easiest way to get sober and stay sober. What an order! I wanted to be saved, to be rescued from my self-destructive behavior and from my addiction, but I wanted to be a passive participant in the process. Quite a paradox.

If you'd met me back then, you wouldn't have guessed that I was so passive. I hid it well. I was great at asserting myself in the public areas of my life, but not when it came to taking care of myself or protecting myself. I had quickly climbed the ranks in the Marine Corps, becoming a corporal in less than two years. I ended up as section chief on a base piece in an artillery unit, overseeing a gun crew that ensured the artillery battery was accurately targeted. It was an important role; I had to be direct and give orders ensuring that every crew member was carrying his weight. That I could do. But when it came to talking about something I personally needed, I fell mute.

Over the years I've come to understand that my passivity in early recovery was in part due to the fact that I wanted my future to reverse the experiences of my past. I hoped that something would happen in the future to compensate for the painful times in my early life, rather than seeing the future as one I created by seeking to know and express my true desires. This passive attitude undermined my ability to act on my own behalf. In fact, losing my father at the critical age of twelve was partly responsible for this passivity. I was devastated when he died. You see, I loved my dad deeply and idealized him—he was everything to me: so funny, knowledgeable, strong, loving, and capable. My sense of worship and dependency on him was probably appropriate for that age, so when he passed away he left a big hole in my life. I missed his guidance and support through the tough years of adolescence when I was trying to figure out my own identity. I imagine that if he'd been present during my teens, he would have helped me learn how to stand on my own two feet—though I will never know. But I do know this: I needed the support of a man to become a man.

On December 26, 1963, I was told that my father had passed away the night before in the hospital. I fell into a deep, inconsolable grief. I was hurt, bitter, and angry, but I didn't let anyone see it. My mother and my father's dad, my grandpa, were devastated. Their pain and loss seemed to occupy all the emotional space in our family. I didn't believe there was any room for my feelings. I suffered alone, never expressing my feelings, never once asking for comfort. I didn't want to add to their burdens, so I shut down. I felt alone, and a deep sense of desperation overcame me.

I had lost my father and felt abandoned by my mother and grandfather. But another part of me emerged that day that I unconsciously believed would ensure my future well-being. I developed an unconscious claim that my future life should conform to my needs, make up for my loss, supply me with love and comfort, and provide me with a father who would ensure my full initiation into manhood. I felt like God or someone owed me this much, since my father was so unfairly taken from my life and since no one was there for me when I needed comfort and support.

So, after floundering through my high-school years, I signed up for a three-year commitment with the Marines at age seventeen, hoping it would help me become a man. I wanted something or someone to help me feel better about myself, because my self-esteem was in the toilet. I had no concept of the various forces that were driving my life at that time—I didn't know what I didn't know.

I attended boot camp at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot for a grueling sixteen weeks, learning close-quarter drill, hand-to-hand combat, physical fitness, rifle care, and marksmanship, and being indoctrinated with the thinking and behavior that make a Marine. It was one of the hardest challenges I've ever faced. So you'd think that at the graduation ceremony, when I was officially awarded the title of US Marine and pinned with the globe and anchor initiating me into the ranks of manhood, I would have felt proud of myself. In fact, I felt the opposite: I felt like a phony. I thought that they'd made a mistake letting my scrawny little ass graduate and enter the ranks of the few and the proud. This should have been my first tip that my search for a fairy godmother wasn't going to turn out as I hoped it would, but I was too young to understand the lesson. Graduation from boot camp clearly hadn't made up for my losses or healed the wounds to my self-esteem. Today I see that it did many other beneficial things for me, but it couldn't make me whole. I realized later that this is my job, not anyone else's.

You can see that my passivity, stemming partly from a childhood loss, was a kind of emotional dependency in which I expected something or someone—in this case the Marines—to solve my problems for me, to make me feel good about myself, to rescue me. But other unconscious forces were operating in me that also added to my passivity. A part of me was quite depressed and doubted that there was a solution to my problems. I didn't have much faith in myself, and I had good reason: it was during my stint in the Marines that my alcoholism and addiction to other drugs became full-blown.

Everything came to a head when I was caught in the airport on a furlough with a bunch of illegal drugs. I was so messed up, I'd walked around the airport hiding my extra stash in ashtrays, all the while being followed by airport police. My arrest ended up being a kind of intervention. Fortunately for me, the people who caught me decided not to arrest me but instead threatened to contact my commander and report what had happened at the airport.

When I arrived at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, I turned myself in to get help. The Marines had just started an addiction treatment program. So, rather than going to jail or getting a dishonorable discharge, I was put into a military treatment program in Hawaii.

And what a good thing that was! I obviously hadn't done a very good job with my life up until then. I was in a personal crisis, insensitive to my own experience, and still seeking the fairy godmother to set me on the right path. As I look back, it seems like a miracle that this addiction intervention set me on a path where I was eventually able to unravel and heal most of the pain I experienced in my childhood.

Yet, as I embarked on recovery, I still wouldn't tell the people who were trying to guide me that what they were advising wasn't working for me. I wanted them to read my mind because I was afraid of asserting myself and alienating them. As one of my patients eloquently put it, "I didn't have a speaking part in my own life." When it came to speaking to people on a more intimate level, I remained mute.

However, I was fortunate in treatment to get a very fine sponsor, Tom, to challenge and guide me. At first I wasn't ready to give up my passivity and admit that addiction recovery was my responsibility. I couldn't see my passivity, but Tom could sense that I was too dependent on him for my recovery. He knew he had to do something to help me stand on my own two feet. That's because, like most of us alcoholics and addicts, Tom had been passive and dependent, too. Tom's sponsor had seen his emotional dependency and created a situation that forced him to grow by moving away. Tom was devastated, but he learned to stand on his own two feet.

So Tom did something similar for me but in a very different way. He gave me a copy of Sheldon Kopp's book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! It made a significant impact on my attitude toward myself, my relationship with Tom, and my recovery. Kopp's main message is that if we want to experience full enlightenment, we need to stop depending on teachers and gurus—including the Buddha himself! He asserts that enlightenment is a unique experience for each person and eventually has to come from within, not through adopting other people's methods and ideas as your own. We can learn from others and often need the guidance of a teacher, or in my case, a sponsor. But eventually we have to find our own path.

As I dug into the book, I realized that the author was helping me confront that part of myself that was extremely passive and emotionally dependent. I finally faced the fact that a large part of me was still looking for someone to take care of me, to tell me what to feel and believe, what to think and do, and ultimately take responsibility for my recovery. I didn't want to grow up.

This childlike part of me projected the responsibility for my growth and recovery onto my sponsor, my therapist, the meetings I was attending, and even onto the Twelve Step program itself. I was hoping that "they" (whoever they were) had the answers for me. Even though I was in AA and trying to work the program, I was psychologically and emotionally dependent upon people or circumstances to improve my lot. I thought that if my life improved, it would be because of their advice. But if I didn't get better, then I could blame them. After all, I was following their direction! Needless to say, with this toxic attitude my chances of getting and staying sober were slim to none—and slim was holding a ticket on the next bus out of town.

You can see the pattern—I thought my mother and grandfather should have eased my pain, I thought my father should have been there to help me grow up. I thought the Marines should have made me a man and given me self-esteem. I thought my sponsor, my AA meetings, and my therapist should heal me and make me whole. It was always someone other than me who should be in charge of me.

Today, my passivity still rears its ugly head to a certain degree in several areas of my life. But I'm thankful it's not nearly as strong as it was back then. If it were, I truly believe that I wouldn't be sober today.

As I look back, I see that my drinking and using gave me a temporary sense of relief from the prison I created for myself. It allowed me to tolerate the intolerable and live with the unbearable—but at a great price. I lost myself and my integrity. Thanks to the fortuitous "intervention" that led me to the Marines' treatment program, and thanks to my sponsor's insight in giving me that book at just the right time, I began the journey on my own path, which has included working an authentic Twelve Step program that has given me back my integrity and helped me discover and recover my true self.

Allen Berger 100x115Allen Berger, PhD, is a psychotherapist who has written extensively about the experience of recovery, emotional sobriety, and the psychological forces operating within the Twelve Steps. A nationally recognized expert on the science of recovery, he has, for more than 30 years, been on his own journey in recovery while helping thousands of others discover a way of life free from addiction. He is author of 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone and 12 More Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.
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