This phrase “left to your own devices” dates back to the late 19th Century and has prevalently been used in common vernacular for many decades. This expression generally means that if a person is left alone (to his or her own devices), and given the chance, that person will probably do something at least mildly sneaky or duplicitous. Sound familiar to those of us in recovery? There is little question that when a person is alone with themselves, or hanging out with a questionable crowd of peers who may not have our best recovery interests at heart, there can be a strong influence to relapse. This applies particularly during the early days and weeks of our attempt to distance ourselves from our addictive substance. The symptoms of physical and mental withdrawal do not go away quickly, that is for sure. Most of us did not land overnight into a state of addiction or alcoholism. Some real time, effort, negative choices, a lot of money, physical decline accompanied by considerable pain and hurt are what usually comprise a person’s decent into such the illness of addiction.

When all alone with ourselves, we may cunningly feel that we can get away with a ‘minimal’ relapse and no one will find out. Just one or two drinks and I promise I will stop; one or two pills and I’ll get right off them and go clean for a few days so the narcotic residue does not show in a test. Those of us in recovery know these scenarios quite well. We also are very familiar with the dubious ‘peer’ pressure we receive when out, partying with our typical crowd of ‘using’ or ‘drinking’ pals, enticing us and encouraging us to use again. Or, at the very least, such a group of individuals create an atmosphere that indirectly incite us to use or drink again when we know very well that we are relapsing and sledding down that slippery slope directly back into addiction. Why would such a group of associates want to admit that they have an issue with drugging or drinking? Why would they even care if you were to use again or not. They may feel that they have nothing to lose by their partying, then why should you?

Let’s ask the following question of ourselves. At what point do we see ourselves rationalizing a relapse and making it easy for us to do so? Are we someone that is in a perpetual pattern of relapsing, detoxing, going through a recovery program and then relapsing again? I have noticed a very interesting and familiar pattern when someone starts using or drinking again. This is especially in plain view when one must honestly disclose a relapse to their own recovery or support group. We tend to beat ourselves up, sometimes very powerfully and destructively – don’t we? There is so much pain, embarrassment; disappointment with oneself, a depressing sense of starting over (yet again) that overtakes us. We mistrust ourselves even more. Why? Because in a sense, we have violated our own inner commitment to remain sober and clean and this violation hurts and is a setback mentally, physically and spiritually – and our loved ones lose faith in us and distrust us – sometimes to the point of ending the relationship. How does this pattern become ever easier to repeat?  This pattern of thinking and behavior gives us another chance to dabble with our drug of choice and never really create a wholesome pattern of true recovery.

This is such a tough area to discuss. On the one hand, when we do in fact return to using or drinking again, however brief a period this may be, and then want to resume sobriety, we certainly want and expect to be received back into our family or a recovery group with open arms, support and fellowship. Nurturance and care is the hallmark of groups such as AA and Smart Recovery and many other professional organizations – and for family and loved ones, Al-Anon is a lifeline. It is among these people that we realize who our true friends really are. People in recovery are continually learning to forgive themselves and are always there awaiting your renewed honesty and recommitment to your own sobriety. However, even with the warmth and acceptance we receive upon renewing our commitment to recovery, there are intense battles still present within our own minds. Depression, anxiety, mistrust of ourselves are examples of the short list of consequences from a relapse. A basic “what’s the use in trying” can easily overtake us especially if the relapse sequence is repeated over and over again. We simply have not allowed ourselves to cross the great abyss with a long enough period away from using and drinking, to realize the rewards of remaining clean and sober and making it a way of life – permanently.

It is not during the hours and minutes of a recovery meeting that present the challenge to someone on the path of sobriety. It is the critical moments in between that become the real dynamic challenge to our health, our well-being and our commitment to remain clean and sober when we’re on our own. What kind of thought can we insert into our minds that can provide an instance of honest decision making and wise choices? What can allow that small voice within to be noticed by our own conscience and take prominence over those knee jerk taunts to start using again? When left to our own devices, is there some way to replace those sneaky, duplicitous choices with our firm resolution to remain on the path of Unconditional Recovery? If we are experiencing difficulty accomplishing this, we must ask ourselves -- why is this the case? Get into your thought process during these periods and share with your recovery group just what happens in the moments before returning to using again.  

Let’s get real - there is no such thing as getting away with something. Many of us have been brought up to think there is because we feel protected by appearances – if no one really knows or finds out about what we did, we somehow feel we have gotten away with our shiftiness and dishonesty. However, this is far from the truth. Sure, there are many individuals engaged in such ego games, as is easily apparent throughout our society and frequently and openly accepted. To be left to our own devices in recovery and then relapse while hoping that no one will find out – well, suffice it to say – our own conscience knows. We fool no one but ourselves. We violate no one but our own self. We empower no one but empower our addiction and a belief that we cannot free ourselves from our addiction. Such behavior also displays that you care more about what people think about you than what you actually think and feel about yourself.  

A relapse is very serious. No, it is certainly not the end of the world or ever considered a reason to give up, or a finale to your ability or chances to recover. Quite the contrary – so many individuals have proven otherwise and are now living a positive life, a thriving life – clean and sober – even after having multiple relapses. The mantra we must always recall is that it is never too late to become clean and sober – we must never give up – we must always retry and keep on trying. Why? Because living free from addiction, one day at a time, is always possible for you. This is a choice for you every moment. Those in recovery offer their love, fellowship and deep understanding every day as well – one day and one moment at a time. You do not have to believe in a God to comprehend this, because you have your own inner conscience and feelings that must always find a way to breathe freely in the open, honest air of our own truth.

I would like to offer a final suggestion and challenge to you for this holiday season – especially if you are feeling prone to giving yourself permission to relapse. Why not make a potential return to using or drinking again the ‘most difficult’ choice you have ever made. It is your life and health at stake. Wake yourself up at the moment before using and ask yourself, do you really need to relapse? Try not rationalizing that you can do it for a while and then give sobriety another attempt – later. Instead of being left to your own devices as a permission-giving premise, push yourself through your own barriers and choose wisely. Reach out to others who can truly help you and have your true welfare in mind. Let your conscience have voice within you. Let it breath its whispers to you when alone, to not go backwards. Let your true inner voice that wants you to be free have precedence over the addictive voices. Is it difficult to accomplish this – perhaps, at first? Is it impossible? Clearly the answer is no – it is far from being impossible. Do you have the ability, the inner strength and resolve to turn away from the permission giving impulse to start using and drinking? Of course you do. This is your life and the decision to remain clean and sober must ultimately be made by you. 

This holiday season, don’t allow the pressures that may seem to overwhelm you – whether they be family gatherings, finances, whatever – be a rationalization/excuse to use again.  Until next time . . . be true to yourself.

I wanted to re-post this February 18th blog since it seems that this topic of how we use labels to describe people has become such a prominent practice used today, sometimes with detrimental societal consequences. There are so many terms and labels used to differentiate one person from another or one group of people from another, and these objective labels are used millions of times each day all over the world. Examples: male, female, man, woman, girl, boy, straight, gay, lesbian, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Caucasian, Latino, Asian, Afro-American, American, Canadian, Syrian, French, German, Italian, President, Senator, CEO, Manager, Assistant Manager, short, tall, skinny, fat, obese, in-shape, alcoholic, addict, recovering alcoholic, sane, insane, bi-polar, autistic, normal, abnormal … you get the idea. The list could take up many pages. Suffice it to say we have so many of these terms to differentiate one person from another, some are labels we accept in common dialogue but some terms are disparaging and offensive. 

What surprises me when I think of this endless list of words we use to describe ourselves, is the general failure to identify our similarities such as kind, compassionate, understanding, funny, practical, humble, hard-working, outgoing, positive -- and so many more. Often the seemingly endless terms of distinction unwittingly separate all of us from seeing ourselves as part of the human family and if all these linguistic means of describing people are used as often as they will be used on any given day, are we not in fact enforcing the countless ways to separate us from one another? We may in fact be objectifying ourselves so often that as a society, many have lost their way and have become blind to that which unifies us. Regretfully and often tragically, some people and groups use scornful and bigoted categorizations of others to try and boost their own identify as ‘greater’ or ‘better’ or ‘ordained' by some god as ‘superior’ compared to those they attempt to label.

The great American Poet, Walt Whitman, asserts this timbre of meaning best in his poem, I Sing the Body Electric, describing a slave at auction prior to the American Civil War. He refers to an auction he sadly observed before slaves were freed by Lincoln’s great Emancipation Proclamation.

Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!

These few words from Walt Whitman speak volumes. One of the great lessons I learned very early in my sobriety while detoxing in a hospital, was embracing a genuine sense of humility and human understanding of others. I no longer felt differentiated from anyone. It was quite a beginning epiphany for me that continues to grow within the longer I remain in my sobriety. I felt grounded and, all the things I had ever been or accomplished were not important anymore. I was discovering something else. Yes, I was around different ‘kinds’ of people who were in the hospital that could be described by one or more of those various objective labels mentioned at the outset of this posting. Yet, we all shared a common bond - addiction and alcohol issues that had caused so much agony and harm to many others and ourselves. This may sound peculiar to people that have not gone through a detoxification process, but, ironically, this is where I first discovered my true self and was able to see this certain key facet present in all of the individuals I shared this hospital ward with.

This unveiling of my true self continued for the next several days, weeks, months and now years and continues to this day. Previous outward accomplishments, awards, recognition, promotions, job titles -- those labels again -- that I had ever garnered during the course of my relatively ordinary life became insignificant and lacking real meaning. Before sobriety, I had let these external designations define who I was. I had become separated from that universal bond, that union with people and life and most especially, with myself. All of those labels and distinctions fell by the wayside. I am a person. I am a creation of God, the Universe or even simply the result of a magnificent evolution of atomic, physiological and biologic processes put in motion by the great ‘void’ or ‘beginning.’ Most importantly, I realized I am a part of this human race, with consciousness, the senses, awareness, feelings, emotions, identity, purpose, love and will.

So many of the challenges we face in the world today have to do with the objectification of people and attaching that same shackle upon ourselves. External accomplishments and the winning and losing that go on in our competitive world can be just fine. However, losing sight of the real, true measure of ourselves as people can only create havoc in life and dismantle our awareness. Using labels to identify others for consciousness sake and communication, can be okay, as long as they are not used in harmful ways that end up offending or injuring others.

Obviously, labels are certainly going to persist in our world as a way of trying to communicate, but we should be cognizant that they do not interfere with our empathy and awareness of others. Using these objective ways of branding or categorizing people can harden our sensitivities to people and we easily become callous. The multiple forms of electronic media used today are adding to this growing sociological dilemma. Without being conscious of what we are doing, we can easily use these objective one-word classifications to reinforce dissociation and alienation. Just as an individual that is in the midst of their addiction or alcoholism is unable to see their true self or have love and empathy for others, so too can the way we think of others perilously influence our own life.

As individuals recovering from our addiction, let us please remember that we are so much more than an ‘addict’ or an ‘alcoholic,’ despite what others in this world wish to use to single us out. We are courageous people, who like so many others in this world, have lost our way on this journey of life, and need to reach out to others for caring, human warmth, and above all, help. What really defines us has to do with our daily thoughts and actions. Our individual identity becomes apparent when we bravely reach within to understand ourselves. Then we can heal, and forgive and finally help others. Quite simply put, how we treat ourselves will be how we treat others. Look beyond the appearances . . . until next time.