Addiction Recovery: Short Term Fix or Long Term Life Change?

Everybody who struggles with addictive behavior wants fast results in recovery. It’s part of our bent as a society that we are used to getting things done quickly. We have no patience for complex processes that drag on and on. On top of this, when people seek help for addiction, they are often experiencing pain and chaos. Partners, family, and friends are at their limit of patience.

So everybody involved is calling for dramatic and speedy change. Is that realistic? Can recovery help a person make big changes quickly? The answer is a qualified “yes.”

First the good news…

If we devote ourselves to the process of recovery, we will quickly see significant change in our feelings, self-esteem, and behavior. It’s amazing what can happen in a few months, when someone gets regular support through a recovery group and counseling, and starts to get some sobriety under their belt. The world looks better.

I heard a speech by one of the early members of Sexaholics Anonymous who talked about the “30 Day Shine.” He said that he could often see a noticeable difference in the demeanor of people who had started the program and experienced their first 30 days of sobriety. It was so obvious that they felt better about themselves and their lives that he could see it on their faces.

Make no mistake: when people start taking recovery seriously, and devoting themselves to honesty and recovery practices, things change fast. It’s great to see that.

Weight Loss Analogy

Using weight loss as an analogy — this is the period where someone gets “on the program” and starts losing weight. It’s hard work, but it’s exciting. There is positive energy and momentum, and positive feedback from the scale. We can tell we’re making progress, and we feel encouraged by that. Not only do we get positive feedback from the scale, we sometimes start getting it from other people who notice that we’re losing weight.

That’s what it’s like for many people in early recovery. There is often noticeable progress and encouraging signs in the first months of recovery. If the struggler is in some kind of recovery group, other members are likely demonstrating support, and commenting on how the person is doing.

The newly recovering sexual struggler may also experience significant positive changes in their marriage – even in early recovery. Many partners are encouraged by the changes the addict is making, and the relationship takes a positive turn. But of course this is not universal. There is often much hurt and mistrust to be worked through, especially if the disclosure of addictive behavior has unearthed an ongoing pattern of dishonesty. It’s even worse if the struggler has a history of failed attempts and broken promises, which create cynicism in the minds of any discerning spouse.

But all that being said — the newly recovering struggler may be surprised at how quickly positive change takes hold. If they take their recovery seriously, and engage with counselors, groups, and regular recovery work, they will see progress.

Now the bad news…

Here is where we need to face the “qualified” part of the qualified yes. Getting sober isn’t recovery. Recovery is about an internal life-transformation that allows us to stay sober … to live sober. Getting sober for a few months is one thing — staying sober for a few decades is another.

Getting sober is like losing weight. Living sober is like keeping it off. Just as many people lose weight and few keep it off, so it is that many people get sober and few people stay sober. The road to recovery is littered with cars and trucks in the ditch.

Many people start the recovery journey with the wrong mindset. They treat it like a problem in their lives and/or marriages that needs to be solved. And after they have solved that problem, they turn their attention to something else. They’re like the person who lost weight, and now just wants to go back to their regular life.

This mindset spells disaster. When you go “on a diet” and lose weight, you will eventually go “off the diet” (back to your old ways) and gain it back. In fact, this yo-yo dieting experience is so common that many people are cynical about dieting altogether. The real issue is the mentality of dieting … thinking that it’s a problem to be solved, after which you can turn your attention to other things, and go back to business as usual.

It’s the same for peoples’ recovery. People with the short term mode of thinking don’t keep focused on the heart issues, the ongoing need for honest relationships and support, the ongoing quest for emotional and spiritual well-being. They allow themselves to get alienated from and filled with resentment towards key people in their lives. A sense of entitlement starts to build. They allow their lives to get over-crowded with responsibilities and stuff, and go back to a life filled with chronic stress, anxiety, and/or depression. They allow themselves to compromise their boundaries, playing around the edges with sexually provocative material or dangerous relationships.

And in so doing, they set themselves up to drift back into addictive behavior.

The bottom line — a mindset shift

There is a profound shift that needs to take place for lasting recovery. The shift is from stopping a certain behavior to becoming a different person. What kind of person?

  • A person who doesn’t need the behavior in order to be happy or “okay.”
  • A person who lives with honesty, integrity, and intimacy in relationships.
  • A person who lives with ongoing emotional and spiritual health, not allowing him/herself to live in the chronically overwhelmed and stressed out state that is so common today, or to live with resentment, or un-dealt-with spiritual confusion and doubt.
  • A person whose life is characterized by healthy community — a network of friendships with people who he/she is honest with — rather than isolation.

First we focus on stopping the behavior — the recovery equivalent of losing weight — but over time we engage in the deep, ongoing work of heart and life transformation. It’s hard work, but necessary work. It’s an ongoing lifestyle. That is the only way to maintain ongoing recovery.

What do you think? Has this been your experience in recovery, or observation from what you’ve seen in the lives of people you know? I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Addiction Recovery: Short Term Fix or Long Term Life Change?”

  1. Great article thanks although I could have done with this ten years ago. What you describe is similar for me – after confessing and seeking help there was a long period (as in years ) of sobriety – even when it was right under my nose on the server at work I had no urge or inclination to spend time looking at it.

    But when things were a bit flat in my marriage I started hanging around the edges again on rare occasions. I believe I’m sober now but it has come at a terrible price.

    1. Thanks for the comment Mike … and sorry this happened. Another reality in the ongoing work of recovery from sex addiction is that sex is a part of our lives, and it takes ongoing effort to stay focused in a healthy way. It’s not like alcohol, drugs, or gambling in that recovery simply involves complete abstinence from something. The work of recovery is lifelong and ongoing not so much because addiction doesn’t “get better” or “get healed” … but rather because we are human and fallible, and therefore remain vulnerable.

      – Mark

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