'Where Do I Start?'
When you decide to change your life, especially after years of unhealthy behaviours, it can seem intimidating and overwhelming.
It may seem like the problems you created for yourself are beyond your ability to fix. One strategy for dealing with such daunting problems is to break them down into smaller pieces or goals so that you can deal with one or two parts of an issue at a time.
Understanding Addictive Behaviours
If we engage in a behaviour occasionally and don't do it to excess, then we don't need to worry about it, analyse it, or stop it; however, if a behaviour - even one that starts out as a healthy one - causes too many problems in our lives, it may be time to change.
Behaviours become addictive when they:
• Are the result of a pattern that becomes a ritual or habitual.
• Become stronger each time you do them.
• Involve short-term thinking in the pursuit of immediate pleasure, to feel "normal," or to relieve discomfort or distress.
• Incur long-term costs, such as damaged relationships or serious financial hardship.
We reinforce and strengthen our addictive behaviour when we are caught up in the repeating pattern of giving into urges to get relief.
The Problem of Immediate Gratification
It is important for you to understand that you weren't born with an addictive behaviour and nobody gave it to you, however difficult your situation; it took you a lot of effort and practice to get trapped by such a bad habit. Understanding how this happened will help you overcome this behaviour.
A trigger leads to a thought or craving (l want a drink, some cocaine, to gamble, to have sex, to eat), which builds into an urge (l must have a drink, some cocaine, etc.). Once we use or do, we feel better or normal, but only for a while. This relief or pleasure reinforces this pattern and strengthens the habit. This is the Problem of Immediate Gratification, or PIG.
The PIG's Method
The problem with the PIG is that immediate gratification often appears to be much more desirable than healthier, delayed rewards. Repeating the pattern reinforces the PIG. Every time we give into an urge, we strengthen the pattern. The next urge comes more quickly and more forcefully. More - and less important - events, thoughts, feelings, and other life stuff cause you discomfort, which triggers more cravings, resulting in more urges, which leads to more using.
The minor stresses that earlier in your life you dismissed as annoying are now major issues in your mind, giving you a "reason" to use. Over time you need more of your addictive behaviour to find relief, so you may start looking for or inventing triggers to have an excuse to use. You may even create urges so that you'll have an excuse to act out.
The more you repeat this pattern, the bigger the PIG grows.
You may feel like you can't escape this cycle of Addictive Behaviour and that you're doomed to repeat it forever. But there is hope; millions of people have permanently stopped their compulsive behaviours and moved on to live satisfying lives. It happens every day!
How To Defeat An Addictive Behaviour
It all starts with stopping. If you don't give in to urges, they become less intense and occur less frequently. Fewer things will serve as triggers so you'll have fewer urges. The PIG shrinks!
Learning to tolerate short-term discomfort, and accepting that urges will only feel bad for a few minutes, will help you to control your behaviour. Within a relatively short time - a few days or weeks - you'll learn to accept short-term discomfort as part of living a healthier life and urges will fade away. Your addictive behaviour will lose its grip on your life. You'll understand that using is a choice. Just by understanding that using is a choice and not an inevitable reaction to discomfort, you're already retraining your brain.
Your recovery can be a realistic and self-directed journey; SMART can help you:
• Identify and understand the triggers that lead to your cravings and urges, and that they don't have to result in acting out.
• Recognise and understand your unhealthy patterns (rituals, triggers, and behaviours), and stay motivated and focused, even when recovery seems overwhelming.
• Cope with your urges, change how you think about the events in your life, and make better decisions.
What Is Recovery?
You might think recovery is just about stopping the addictive behaviour and maybe twenty years ago most organisations and governments would have agreed with you! More recently, thinking has moved toward a much broader way of thinking about recovery, recognising that changes to lifestyle and health are also important to long term success.
Abstinence without recovery will not fill the addictive behaviour void, which is why 'Living a Balanced Life' is such an important part of our programme. Recovery is a personal journey. It's what you make it and can be how you want it to be. After all, you're the boss!
Perhaps you've been told, "You're an alcoholic"; "You're a drunk"; "You're weak"; "You're different from normal people”; “You will battle this for the rest of your life”; “You must stop right now and forever"; to which you may have responded, "I'll never beat this so I might as well (act out, get drunk, get stoned, smoke a pack of cigarettes, eat cookies, go shopping, harm myself) because I can never be healthy. Why bother?"
You may feel trapped in your behaviour with little hope. Hopelessness often fuels addictive behaviour. Therefore, SMART discourages the use of labels which can lead to hopelessness.
The Journey To Recovery
Like any long journey, recovery starts with one step. Changing behaviour patterns takes time and effort, trial and error.
If you have ever thought, "I'm a hopeless addict with a disease that I will never beat” “I have no choice but to fight this forever"; or "l have no choice but to keep using"; try changing your thoughts to, "l used to have an addictive behaviour but I choose not to act that way anymore.'
Those words may help you feel more confident, especially in the beginning of your recovery.
If you can feel that you will triumph over your unwanted behaviour, then it's likely you will. If one of SMART's tools, strategies, or exercises doesn't work for you, try a different one until you find what makes you successful. Recovery is possible. Urges fade away. Abstinence gets easier. Your addictive behaviour becomes a thing of your past. You find meaning and enjoyment in your new life.
Abstinence vs. Moderation
SMART is an abstinence-based programme. The idea of abstinence may be intimidating to you - as you begin your recovery. Even if you're unsure about abstinence, you're still welcome at our meetings.
For alcohol and drug use, the meaning of abstinence is usually obvious: stop drinking or using. It is however important to realise that the goal of abstinence can mean different things to different people. For example, some people are on opiate substitution therapy (such as methadone) and they might use SMART Recovery to stick to their medication and not use on top. For others, SMART Recovery might help them reduce and stop their medication. In either case, these goals are welcome at SMART meetings because both are about abstaining from addictive behaviour.
But what about other activities such as eating, shopping, and sex? People with eating disorders still need to eat. Compulsive shoppers still need to buy things. For these, we can define abstinence as stopping the compulsive or self-destructive aspects of the behaviour: Buying one watch instead of five, eating a cup of yogurt instead of a gallon of ice cream, being intimate with your partner instead of engaging in anonymous sex with others.
If your Addictive Behaviour is of this type, you may need professional help setting boundaries, defining abstinence, and developing skills to moderate your behaviour to keep it from becoming compulsive.
If you're considering the benefits of abstinence, think about this: The more years you engaged in addictive behaviour and the more serious the compulsion, the more likely abstinence - rather than moderation - will help you reach your goals.
If you're thinking about moderation, here are some points to ponder:
• Programmes aimed at controlled use or moderation usually recommend an extended period of initial abstinence. Stopping completely for a period can be a healthy choice, even if moderation is your long-term goal.
• Most people find it is easier to abstain rather than control or moderate their addictive behaviour because it's difficult to know where to set the limit and then stick to it. Even people with the most committed intentions often find their behaviour inches back to the point where it causes problems again.
• Instead of applying your efforts to control and moderate the addictive behaviour, you can focus that energy on dealing with other aspects of your recovery.
Why you might prefer abstinence as a goal:
• It's a safe choice.
• It's simple - no counting, no precise decisions, and it's good for all situations.
• Any level of using may aggravate existing medical conditions.
• Even moderated use of a substance may worsen psychological or psychiatric problems.
• Some medications become hazardous or are rendered ineffective when combined with alcohol or other drugs.
• There may be strong social (family, friends, employer) and legal (courts) demands to abstain.
• You believe it will be easier to abstain because of your long or severe history of use, or because of background risk factors (family history, seriousness of related problems such as depression, violence, etc.).
A significant period of abstinence will help you feel better and may:
• Enable you to find out what abstaining is like and how you feel without mood-altering substances or behaviours.
• Help you understand how you became dependent on substances or behaviours.
• Help you break other old habits.
• Allow you to experience significant life changes and build confidence.
• Please others such as your spouse, partner, children, employer, parents, and friends.
If you're considering moderation because you've tried to abstain but it didn't work, it doesn't mean you won't maintain your abstinence now. Previous attempts and lapses or relapses aren't failures. You can learn from them and they will provide you with valuable insight to help you in future attempts.
You might be ready to abstain right now, or you may want more time to decide. Don't make that decision until you're ready. Abstinence is not a commitment to be perfect. Many people do lapse or relapse in their efforts to abstain; however, some people never do - and that maybe you. Committing to abstinence means that you are committing to change. It requires patience, persistence, and practice. Breaking a commitment to abstinence is not the same as giving up on it. You may find abstinence easy. If you have reached a point in your life in which you have had enough of the problems and disappointments from your Addictive Behaviour, abstinence may be easier than you think. For most, however, it's more difficult than that.
Please note: If you have been drinking or abusing drugs heavily for some time and are planning to stop, consult your doctor first. It may be dangerous, even life threatening to stop 'cold turkey" after a long period of continual heavy use.
Wherever you are on this decision, you're always welcome at SMART meetings and on SMART Recovery Online.
Stages of Change
It's difficult to change long-standing behaviours, even when new ones are better for you.
James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed the Stages of Change model in the 1970s. They found that people who stopped smoking usually tried to stop several times before they permanently changed their behaviour.
As you read each stage description, think about which one you're in today and remember that tomorrow you may be in a different stage.
For example, if you're in the preparation stage today because you're sure you want to change your behaviour, tomorrow you may be in the contemplation stage because you had doubts about changing.
Identifying the stage, you're in can help you work out what to focus on.
This stage describes people who are not currently intending to take action and may not be aware their behaviour is problematic.
Pre-contemplators may show up in therapy or mutual-help groups under duress - pressure from spouses, employers, parents, or courts. They resist change and usually place responsibility for their problems on external factors such as genetics, family, society, the legal system, etc. They don't feel they can do much about the situation.
People start weighing the benefits and costs of change and may experience the mixed feelings - ambivalence or procrastination - that people normally feel about change. Many find that writing down the benefits and costs of change help them decide.
At this stage, a person has decided their life needs to change and are open to seriously considering options. They gather information, evaluate alternatives, and take small steps toward changing their behaviour. They start looking toward the future and less at the past.
Here's where a person takes the plunge. Action can take many forms, from the controlled environment of inpatient treatment, to working with a professional counsellor, to attending mutual-help groups, to working on their own - or some combination of these. Here's where people try new ways to handle old situations, uncomfortable emotions, urges, and other challenges. This stage requires the greatest commitment of time and energy, but also is where new changes start to be visible to others. People in this stage usually need supportive relationships. They start substituting some new, healthier activities for old ones. Some people experience anxiety at this stage, but learn to accept a certain amount of discomfort in return for achieving their long-term goals.
People continue building confidence as they progress on the new direction of their lives. But challenges remain; unexpected temptations may require new thinking or approaches. People usually keep seeking support from those they trust and keep doing healthy activities to cope with stress.
This is not a stage, but rather an occurrence. After a long period of maintenance, most people adopt a new lifestyle consistent with their "new normal" behaviour. Old, harmful behaviours no longer have a place in their lives. They express confidence and self-control, and live healthier, happier lives.
Lapse or Relapse
While not a stage or necessary part of change, lapse and relapse are common and may occur at any stage. They do not need to be an excuse to continue addictive behaviour. If a lapse or relapse occurs, it doesn't mean a person has to restart their journey. They can identify which strategies helped them and which ones didn't, using that knowledge to move forward with their recovery.
If you lapse or relapse, don't let it lead to crushing, self-reproach and guilt. It's better to accept the temporary setback as a normal part of change and growth rather than to call your recovery a failure and give up. Handled well, a lapse or relapse can be brief and provide another opportunity for self-empowerment.
After all, when learning to ride a bike, we fell many times before we knew how to balance and control the bicycle. Not all of us pass our driving test the first time.
A journal or recovery diary may be one of the most important tools in your recovery. It's a record of your progress, accomplishments, setbacks, stages, etc., and a private place to document your experiences and emotions as they happen. By writing in a journal you will deepen your learning and may make fewer miss-steps.
There are no rules to journaling. Some people like to write in journals with favourite pens, some keep them on their computers, some use spiral notebooks, some don't like lined paper. Some people write every day as a discipline, some only write when they need to work through an issue. You can draw pictures and doodle. You may want to keep your journals forever, or eventually throw them away. It's completely up to you.
A journal of your recovery can serve many purposes. It reminds you what stage of recovery you're in, what you've been through, what accomplishments you've made, and what changes you still want to make.
• Keep daily notes about what you're thinking, how you're feeling, and what you're doing.
• Break down overwhelming complex problems into smaller parts.
• Plan activities and set short-term goals.
• Identify what's helping you recover and what's not helping.
• Chart your progress along your recovery journey.
Your journal is your space. You may choose to share it or to keep it private. If you're afraid to keep a journal because you think someone will read it, make it clear that your journal is off limits. You may feel more comfortable keeping it with you at all times or finding a secure hiding place for it. Reading someone else's journal - unless you think they are in eminent danger of hurting themselves or someone else and their journal might provide information - is never okay.