Christina Veselak, LMFT
Dn. Jan Veselak, M.A.
Recovery is not merely abstinence. It is a gradual transformation in the way we relate to God, self, and other people. Abstinence (stopping a behavior or substance use) is not recovery as it does not require repentance.
The Three-Legged Stool: Spiritual, Biochemical, and Psycho-social Recovery
Think of recovery as a three-legged stool. Each leg supports the stool and provides balance. The three legs of the recovery stool are the spiritual, biochemical, and psycho-social aspects of recovery.
These involve learning how to keep the brain and body healthy and in balance; healing spiritual, psychological, and emotional wounds; learning effective feeling and stress management tools; and, creating a healthy, non-addictive support system and social life.
Each leg is very important. While it is possible to miss a leg, the time and effort spent trying to keep one’s balance delays recovery.
Addressing the Whole Person
Because addiction affects the whole person, treatment and recovery must address the whole person. The first step is to realize that one has a problem and become willing to get help. The second step is to get stabilized as one quits the addictive behavior and starts to develop withdrawal symptoms.
For the recovery process to progress, a healthy regimen of a balanced diet including nutritional supplements, exercise, spiritual life—including confession, regular prayer, and fasting—and working a recovery program that addresses these issues is needed.
Stabilizing the Body and Brain
Once the addict stops using they begin to have withdrawal symptoms due to the depletion of brain chemicals called “neurotransmitters.”
Addiction is not unlike taking neurotransmitters out of a bank account. The balance becomes low and the body and brain do not get what they need to function. Anxiety increases. Relapse comes primarily from spiritual, physical, emotional, and lifestyle instability. The stress becomes too much to handle and the person uses in an attempt to balance the brain and body and temporarily feel more stable.
Thus, stabilizing the brain naturally becomes crucial. Amino acids, vitamins, and minerals help restore the brain’s depleted chemicals and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Recovery is More than Just “Quitting”
People often confuse abstinence with recovery. While they are actually different, there is some overlap. Abstinence is the act of choosing to not engage in an addictive behavior. Many active addicts go through periods of abstinence attempting to prove to themselves and others that they are not addicts, or attempting to regain control of the addictive behavior.
While abstinence by itself certainly reduces the consequences of active use, nothing else changes. Neurotransmitter depletion is not addressed; new coping skills are not developed; new ways of relaxing, having fun, and socializing are not explored; and rarely does the social group change. Thus, the abstinent addict is “white knuckling” it while typically still experiencing spiritual, emotional, and physical distress.
At this point, many addicts “switch addictions.” They begin new addictive behaviors, or increase the current addiction. For example, the abstinent opiate addict or alcoholic will often tremendously increase their use of sugar or nicotine, and the stimulant addict will switch to 20 cups of coffee, iced tea, or monster drinks per day. They then wonder why their “recovery” is lacking in “serenity” and they are at high risk for relapse!
Recovery is Transformation
Recovery, on the other hand, is a process of progressive transformation of the entire person: body, mind, spirit, emotions, and relationships. Because recovery comprises much more than just abstinence, it can actually begin prior to abstinence! In fact, some recovery may be necessary in order to be willing and able to attain abstinence from all addictive processes.
Recovery is similar to the process people go through when they move from one country to a very different one. They have to learn a new language, new mores, new ways of eating, and new ways of relating to others. This process takes time, effort, and support, but ultimately becomes very comfortable.
Recovery involves addressing all the underlying elements which drove the addiction: restoring neurotransmitter function; eating a pro-recovery diet; healing underlying emotional trauma, shame, guilt, and resentment; learning news ways of dealing with stress and painful situations; learning how to have fun without addictive behaviors; and creating a healthier way of relating to self, others, and God.
Recovery cannot be done in a vacuum. It takes time and occurs in stages. Once this new way of living has become comfortable and is consistently maintained and supported, a return to addictive behavior is quite rare.