For addicts, getting sober is the most important step toward having a more fulfilling life. But once they put down the mind-altering substances (and/or certain unhealthy behaviors), they face a lifetime of decisions that can enhance, or detract from, their journey. These decisions will affect not only their success staying sober, but also the quality and enjoyment of their lives.
Like most everything in this article, we’re talking about learned skills—habits that become easier the more we practice them. Our “acceptance muscle,” like any other muscle, will atrophy unless we use it—and gets stronger the more it is exercised.
I measure my own serenity by looking at how long it takes for me to embrace acceptance when my first instinct is to try to change a person, place or situation. If I wallow in resentment, self-pity, anger, etc., my serenity is obviously lacking. But if I’m in a good spiritual place, I can move more quickly to acceptance and get on with the things I can change, focusing only on my side of the street. Long live the serenity prayer.
Attendees of recovery meetings often hear “A grateful heart will never drink.” But an attitude of gratitude doesn’t come naturally.
People in recovery often view the glass as half empty. Why? Because life is hard, sometimes very hard. Our patients won’t be tiptoeing through the tulips all the time, but they can focus on the things for which they are grateful. As addiction professionals, we must remind clients to invite gratitude into their daily lives, creating a more balanced set of life experiences. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.
We humans are hardwired to form communities. Our very survival is predicated upon our ability to band together against common foes, to create a tribe of like-minded individuals. In short, we need each other. A common phrase heard at recovery meetings is “We can do what I couldn’t.” It’s in our genetic makeup to rely upon friends, neighbors, etc.
Yet this presents a challenge to many in early recovery. Our patients’ addictions may have 1) delayed the development of social skills; 2) rendered individuals unable to trust others; or 3) destroyed their self-esteem. In any case, serenity will be more easily achieved and more thoroughly enjoyed if we invite others into our lives.
Mark Twain said it best: “The best way to cheer yourself is to try and cheer someone else up.” It just feels good to help another human (or even a non-human). Call it the gift of giving. It gets you out of your own head and focused on someone else’s situation.
And we don’t have to be the highly visible, proactive, center stage of service. Supporting roles are equally important and provide endless rewards to those who volunteer to do their part. A great quote from Pericles: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
We’ve all heard of “runner's high”. It’s real. Strenuous exercise causes our bodies to produce “feel-good” chemicals such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. When we produce these chemicals naturally, we become less inclined to seek out external stimuli. The social component of participating in team sports or working out with others also carries importance. It can be a lot of fun, which makes the workout feel less like work.
Nutrition offers another opportunity to enhance our mental health. We don’t have to be wealthy to eat healthy. I would suggest an honest appraisal of our eating habits, and would encourage a more mature approach to when we eat, where we eat and what we eat.
William Butler Yeats wrote, “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that: but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
There are many people in early (or even late) recovery who discover they have the time, money and interest to learn something new. A class in oil painting, a book club, piano lessons, a high school diploma, some college courses, learning a language, finishing a certificate program … just about anything is possible in sobriety.
Persons in recovery should start small and with the guidance of trusted advisers. Your patients might learn that they have what it takes to succeed in certain endeavors. This will do wonders for their self-esteem, and it might introduce them to people with similar interests. It can’t hurt, and it might open doors that they thought were closed to them.
Serenity doesn’t just happen to us. We must proactively embrace positive attitudes and make smart choices. I hope you and your patients will examine the opportunities in front of you and create an environment in which serenity becomes a day-to-day reality.
Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I, is a mental health counselor at SMOC Behavioral Healthcare in Framingham, Mass. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.