Addiction is progressive. Recovery is progressive. Relapse is progressive. Okay, there are those who seem to go from 0 to 60 overnight. One day they are normal functioning members of society and the next they’re full-blown drug addicts. And there are those who walk into recovery and change for the better seemingly overnight.
For most of us, however, the process is progressive, and it is the creeping nature of addiction that allows denial to be so effective. If we are really honest with ourselves, the fantasy that addiction and relapse happen overnight is an excuse to relieve us of responsibility for our actions - or lack of actions, as the case may be. Full disclosure: that is simply one way of looking at it, one person’s opinion.
I first heard addiction described as a “creeping disease” at an AL-ANON conference, and that was one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments. It’s a slow but progressively faster process that consumes the addict while allowing him/her the opportunity to believe that it is not that bad. The frequency increases, the amount consumed increases, the number and kinds of chemicals can increase, the inappropriate and dangerous behavior increases and the heartbreak increases. As addicts, we confuse the process by pulling it together for short periods of time by getting a job, getting a girlfriend, finishing a semester of school or by simply promising that things will be different, but inevitably we end up back in the pit of despair that is addiction. The signs and symptoms are there, but we block them out, thinking that this can’t happen to me or to my son.
Recovery is progressive as well. A good example of this is how we get involved. We start out as attendees by going to meetings and observing. Then we participate by sharing and even interacting with others. Sponsorship comes next, along with Step work, and this is where change builds up speed. After sponsorship comes service. These building blocks produce a new and improved life beyond simply not using drugs and alcohol. Any one action or set of actions may seem insignificant, just as any one drunken night may not be a red flag. Taken together, consistently, over time, these actions produce amazing results, results that often defy belief. While there are cases of sudden upheavals when an individual shows swift change, most us go through a slow, steady rate of change over a period of time.
Relapse is progressive. I love it when addicts are surprised by relapse, because when they review the relapse process, they see the holes in their game. How does relapse happen? A good way to visualize it is to look at it as the steps we described above for recovery but in reverse. We stop being of service, stop calling our sponsor, stop working the Steps, stop interacting with others and eventually stop going to meetings. Then it is only a matter of time until we pick up again.
Sometimes we find an emotional bottom that has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. What is this bottom, you ask? There are those among us who will stop all the recovery actions mentioned above but do not start using again. Other behaviors emerge: lying, cheating, stealing, procrastination, isolation, anger, frustration and jealousy. The list can certainly be added to, but you get the idea. The point to remember with the concept of progression is that most change does not occur overnight; rather, it is a series of consistent actions that over time produce a change in character.
This concept of progression is important in recovery. It allows us to have patience with the process of change by understanding that change takes time and that mistakes will be made along the way. It also provides us with a road map of what is expected on the road to recovery. We set ourselves up for failure if our goal is simply not using drugs and alcohol.
Recovery is about change well beyond simple abstinence; it is ultimately about becoming a responsible, functioning adult. Those of us in recovery who have been sober for a while are bound to lose momentum in moving forward and the effects are felt in our spiritual condition. When I’m perplexed as to why I’m feeling this way, I need to look at the progressive actions and figure out where I need to step up my game. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? What gets in the way is the ego.
Step one is what reminds us that we have a chronic progressive disease that will seep back if we stop recovery behaviors. Once we believe that it is no longer a threat, the threat becomes real. We are never standing still in recovery; we are either moving away from our last drink or drug or moving towards our next one. Which way are you going?