If you’ve been following along, then this is the fourth post I have written this month. All of these posts have been focusing on the essentials of recovery from compulsive behaviors and substance abuse. Everything I have discussed ties in with my new book Faith & Sex: Toward a Better Understanding of Recovery, Being, Relationship, and God.

The first essential aspect of recovery that I discussed is that recovery takes time. It takes time because—and this is the second essential aspect of recovery—unlike repairing a machine, recovery is an organic, biological process. In other words, no wound or injury heals overnight. The third essential aspect of recovery is that just like with a wound or injury, there is work required to recovery. And not random work, but consistent, targeted, and salubrious (healthy) exercise. Just like going to the gym.

Which raises the question, what is it we are working on when in recovery?

Most people who struggle with their recoveries struggle because they really do not know on what they are working. It’s a giant mystery. And maybe they even believe that there is something mystical about it. At best, if they “stick with the winners,” maybe after enough exposure to them, some of the winners’ enlightenment may rub off. At worst, since they just don’t seem to be picking up on what the mystery is, clearly they are not worthy of understanding so they might as well throw in the towel.

There’s no reason to mystify recovery, and certainly no reason to throw in the towel.  There is an answer.  And the answer is this: what you are working on in your recovery is the rewiring of the “implicit” memory system of your brain to make it more adapted to the environments in which you currently are instead of the past from which you came.

Your implicit memory system is a cluster of brain regions ranging from your brainstem (lower brain) on up through your midbrain throughout the right hemisphere (the “feeling” side of the brain). This implicit memory system is wired from a very young age (starting at conception!) to perceive and respond to what is dangerous and threating, safe and approachable within your environments.

It is designed to ensure your survival. This implicit memory system is your “unconscious.” 

Problems arise as you get older when how this implicit memory system was initially wired is not adapted (meaning prepared for) the environments you find yourself in today. In this way there is a conflict between how you perceive danger and threat, safety and security, and what actually is dangerous and threatening, safe and secure. All of this is communicated to the rest of your brain and body through emotions like fear and anxiety, calm and relaxation. For many of us, these were the emotions we have managed throughout our lives with any variety of acting out behaviors—including sex!—and/or with drugs and alcohol.

Well, this is where the work comes in when in recovery from these behaviors and/or substances.

First you need to go sober and remain sober so that you are no longer detaching from the environments—and people—who trigger the emotions that lead to acting out. Then you need to begin the process of learning what actually is dangerous and what actually is safe within your current and immediate world.

When you start your recovery, there may be a period of time when you want to avoid what you have historically experienced as dangerous, and maybe even avoid what you have historically perceived as safe, especially if, in reality, you’ve got those two things mixed up. An example would be a fear of public speaking yet an attachment to a shaming, emotionally abusive parent. However, once you have more clarity about what is actually dangerous, and what is actually safe, you then need to push into what is safe to begin to rewire your implicit memory system to begin to perceive it as safe.

This is the beginning of accessing the “adaptive resources” I introduced in my last post.

These adaptive resources are therapists, recovery groups, and sponsors. These are the “winners” I referred to earlier. They are “winners” because they know this pathway toward recovery and growth and they understand the work that is required to be on it. They will be confidential (i.e. SAFE!), patient, and unconditionally loving.

The more time you spend with what you have learned actually is safe, and the more time your implicit memory system has had to deeply internalize this experience, the more emotional resiliency you will have gained, just like going to the gym! With this increased resiliency you can then begin incrementally to expose yourself to stressful situations, ones that you may have, for various reasons, come to perceive as dangerous but actually aren’t.

This in turn will build more resiliency and, just like with a bodybuilder, you will get stronger, fitter, and more adapted to challenges!

Remember, recovery is not a one-time thing. Just like with physical fitness, we must always be maintaining our recoveries. We do this by remaining around “the winners” in therapy rooms, recovery groups, and sponsorship. As we gain more resiliency, we can expand our adaptive resources to include friends, family (if possible), and healthy communities, including churches.

As a good rule of thumb, if it was our experience with people that caused our problems, it is our different experience with people that is the solution. We evolved for community. Sometimes the community we came from wasn’t adaptive for the community we have found ourselves in now. Instead of retreating to compulsive behaviors and substances of abuse when emotionally overwhelmed, you can retrain your implicit memory system to trust what is actually safe, and distrust what is actually unsafe. And in this way, reverse the course of a number of different trends in your life.

You got this!

And remember, if what I have been sharing resonates with you, please pick up my new book Faith & Sex: Toward a Better Understanding of Recovery, Being, Relationship, and God. It will provide you with a new perspective on recovery, one that is organic, and accurate to your real human experience.