Probably the most intimidating thing about recovery is its reputation as a seemingly monumental task. Since the early part of the 20th century, when a fledgling program for alcoholics declared the ultimate goal of recovery to be a spiritual awakening gained by living according to a rigorous program, overcoming addiction has come to be synonymous with total life transformation. I was told, “You only have to change one thing: everything!” Very often, this reinvention is presented as an all-or-nothing venture upon which recovery hinges. One recovery program asserts, “Change or Die!” “Progress, not perfection” is outweighed by “half-measures availed us nothing”, and solemn warnings against the “softer, easier way”. The person entering recovery is ominously assured of ego destruction, a spiritual root canal and enema, followed by a monastic life of service. No, thank you!
Does recovery always have to mean a daunting personal metamorphosis? Why does one have to immediately embark on an arduous lifelong journey of self-improvement in order to recover? People in early recovery are usually advised against taking on serious life changes; why doesn’t this also apply to personal growth? People in early recovery already have serious life issues to deal with. Is this really the best time for a spiritual upheaval? When this takes the form of individual development rather than self-transcendence, people in recovery are more likely to be empowered to self-direction and self-efficiency (not the same as self-sufficency!) . Reducing or eliminating substance use can bring significant benefits and satisfaction. The perceived need for hypervigilance and constant second-guessing can be replaced by increasing self-confidence and ability. It then becomes possible for people to develop at their own paces and enjoy what I like to call the “luxury of mediocrity”.
The idea that recovery necessitates relentless, monotonous toil has roots in the stigma which portrays substance use as self-indulgence, and substance users as weak. Since we have enjoyed ourselves so much, the theory goes, recovery must be work; and it will be hard for us, because we are lazy. Early recovery is challenging enough, and of course there is some work to do. However, once we have stabilized, some of us may enjoy just living our lives and relaxing a little, as normal people do. Some people find it very appealing and rewarding to devote their minds and lives to intense programs of self-improvement; others, not so much. Some people flourish in medriocrity; we excel at being average.
It has often been said that people who don’t have drug or alcohol problems don’t think too much about their drug or alcohol use. People in recovery often jealously joke about “luxury problems”; the ordinary cares and concerns of people who are not dealing with recovery. These people have no weightier aspirations than to get home to their loved ones, or to pay their bills, or to watch their favorite TV show. We can have those problems too! We can be free of constantly thinking about recovery. Addiction, after all, is a full-time job with no vacation days, lousy pay, and a bitch of a boss. Why shouldn’t recovery provide some relief?