In my last post I wrote that the single most important thing anyone needs to know as they start their recovery from compulsive or addictive behaviors is that recovery takes time. The mistake we often make in recovery is thinking that change is a mechanical process, and if we just turn the screws and readjust some things in our lives, everything will magically fall into place. Immediately. Just tell me where the screws are!

Yes, when in recovery there are definitely some adjustments to your life that need to be made, but first you need to figure out what those adjustments actually are. That alone takes time. And even then, after you make those adjustments, all is not fixed.

To recover means consistently holding adjustments over a period of time.

And after being consistent in holding those adjustments, you’ll discover the adjustments will need to shift to meet both the internal and external changes that have occurred since you began your process.

In other words, your recovery is not like fixing a car or a clock.

It’s more like resetting a broken bone or recovering from a viral infection. Yes, you bring in braces, bandages, pins, and antiviral medications with broken bones and infections, but once you get over the acute phase of the injury or illness, you need to gradually strengthen the muscles or your immune system, without overly stressing them. You do this until greater resiliency is achieved, all the while keeping an eye on those circumstances that caused the break or illness in the first place to avoid getting injured or sick again.

In the case of compulsive behavior and addiction, you first need to get over the acute phase of the “injury.” This is called withdrawal, when you first stop acting out with your behavior or substances and experience the discomfort of your body not getting what it was getting before. The “braces,” “bandages,” “pins,” and “antiviral medications” that you bring in during this phase are therapy, recovery meetings (sometimes one each day for 90 days), working with a sponsor, or even rehab.

And once this acute phase of withdrawal is over, perhaps within 90 days, you enter into a period of time in which you need to address seriously the circumstances in your life that caused your behavior in the first place. That is when your recovery really begins. As with broken bones or infections, you need to take a look at the circumstances that led to you being unwell and make sure you adequately address them. 

Perhaps I am laboring a point here by overstating the biological reality of compulsive behavior and addiction, but the truth is, this is the second greatest aspect of recovery that recovering people need to absorb after the reality that recovery takes time. And it is exactly because of the biological reality of recovery that recovery takes time. In recovery, one is working on rewiring deeply embedded (in the brain) neurological circuits that govern our emotional regulation. Learn this. Know this.

Save yourself countless failed attempts at change by taking this knowledge to heart.

I use a “Recovery Map” in my therapy groups. On one side of the map is “White-Knuckle Change” and on the other is “Real Change.” Among other aspects of White-Knuckle Change is a mechanical view of life, one where problems can be isolated, repaired, and quickly resolved. When you think about it, this type of thinking is very similar to addictive thinking—quick fixes, shortcuts.

Real Change, on the other hand, is an organic view of the world, one that recognizes that life problems exist within the context of unhealthy environments and systems. These environments and systems have developed over years, decades, centuries even. In growing up in them, we have adapted—maladapted—to these environments and systems. To change requires that we step back from these environments and systems, examine the effects they have had on us, and then begin to make healthier choices about our involvement in them, and especially regarding how we want to respond to them.

In short, White-Knuckle Change is trying to change your behavior within the same thinking that caused the problem in the first place.

This inevitably leads to relapse. Real Change is changing your behavior by implementing new thinking, thinking that recognizes that we are biological beings, and like all biological beings we need to ensure that the environments in which we live nurture emotional health and wellbeing, not the opposite.

If what you read resonates with you, please get a copy of my new book, Faith & Sex: Toward a Better Understanding of Recovery, Being, Relationship, and God. I know it will bring clarity to your journey.