I mentor — and in 12 Step parlance, sponsor — a number of folks working to overcome various addictions. Part of any program of recovery is sharing what you’ve learned with those newer to the transformation than you. I’ve written often of the rule of three, which I see as central in my own progress. I make sure that every work (or almost every week) I connect with someone with more wisdom and experience and “time” than I have; a second person who is a peer both chronologically and experientially, and a third person, almost always much younger, who is just beginning recovery or a spiritual journey. Even for introverts, the rule of three can work (I’ve seen it).
One of the issues that came up a lot for me when I was getting sober from my various addictions (alcohol, drugs, sex, food, and so forth), was dealing with the intrusive thoughts about relapse. I struggled enormously with the compulsion to “act out”, and at times in my early recovery it seemed as if virtually every situation in which I found myself presented a fresh set of “triggers” designed to get me back into old and destructive behavior. I had plenty of relapses along the way. (I went to my first AA meeting in 1987, but didn’t get sober “for good” until 1998 — eleven years of walking in and out of a revolving door.) I made countless promises to stop drinking and using, and countless promises to be faithful to wives or girlfriends. I would cobble together weeks or months of recovery until I encountered a seemingly irresistible temptation of one sort or another (the “accidental” discovery of a large cache of benzodiazepines in a family medicine cabinet; a surprise encounter with an old flame or a fellow newbie in a recovery program), and I would “fall” again. And even as I put together large periods of abstinence from destructive and dishonest behaviors, I was tormented by dreams about using and intense fantasies about hooking up with unfamiliar, as yet unexplored skin.
My sponsor gave me a tool that is the point of this post, one that I share with those whom I mentor. When it comes to intrusive thoughts or seemingly irresistible fantasies about doing something that is almost certainly a bad idea, there’s no point in fighting the thought. Saying to oneself “don’t think about that” doesn’t work well. If one is told in a firm voice, “Don’t think about elephants!”, the first thing that pops into one’s mind is probably a pachyderm. Rather than fighting a futile, shame-filled battle against one’s fantasies, it makes more sense, my sponsor said, to give oneself permission to have the fantasy. But — and here’s the key — one doesn’t have permission not to think the fantasy all the way through. I was told that if I wanted to drink again, I could imagine the heat of the liquor in my throat, the soothing warmth in my belly, the delicious sense of calm suffusing my whole body. But, I wasn’t allowed to stop there. I had to continue the fantasy. I had to envision the nausea, the stumbling, the peeing on my self once I passed out. (Yes, I was a wet-the-bed drunk. I know, TMI.) I needed to continue the fantasy into the next day — the hangover, the guilt, the fear of seeing people again, the worry about the harm I had done, that awful sourness in my stomach and soul.
With thoughts about acting out sexually, I was told to do the same thing. I couldn’t just do the pleasant parts of imagining taking someone new in my arms for the first time, the taste of her mouth and the thrill of slipping the clothes from our bodies as we tumbled into beds, backseats, or bushes. I needed to think through the awkwardness to come, the fear of being discovered, the shame of knowing I had crossed a line (for the umpteenth time) I had sworn not to cross. I had to imagine not just the erotic aspects of a desired encounter, but all of the possible harsh, inescapable consequences. I couldn’t stop the fantasies half-way through, in other words; I was allowed to daydream all I liked, but only if I carried the reveries to their inevitable conclusions.
By the time I was given this tool, I’d had enough deceit-ridden hook-ups and binges that I couldn’t possibly have any serious illusions that the next time — if there were to be a next time — would be different than all the times before. I knew what was so sweet going down would be so vile coming back up; I knew what seemed so transcendentally ecstatic at 1:00 in the morning would leave me feeling empty and shame-filled twelve hours later. It was a great tool my sponsor gave me; it liberated me from the seemingly hopeless responsibility for policing my mind, but it forced me to introduce the reality of consequences into my fantasies. There was an element of psychological aikido to the idea; rather than resisting what seems so irresistible, I was told to flow with the thoughts as they came, and using the sheer force of their flow to carry them past the point where I would normally stop. I was liberated to want what I wanted — but only if I went past the point where I had initially wanted to go.
The tool worked for me. It helped diminish the urges by connecting cause and effect more clearly in my mind. The sort of temptations I struggled with a decade a more or ago rarely come to me now, but come they occasionally do. I don’t fight the thoughts that come, or shame myself for having them; I calmly let them wash over me, and I ride them like a wave that rolls all the way to the shore. I know that I can’t stop the fantasy before taking it all the way, to the ecstasy — and past it, to the devastating consequences beyond. I recommend this “think it through” tool to the young (and not so young) whom I mentor, whether they call themselves addicts or not. From what I hear, it often works nicely for them as well, and I thought I’d share it today on the blog.