Pain is Gain in Early Recovery

When does an addiction start?

I’ve worked with hundreds of addicts in my lifetime. The answer is almost always 12 years old, give or take a year.
Every once in a while I run into a client who says they got into it later than that. But when I do I ask them about their relationship with sex or food.
People who did not get started on their addiction to a substance usually got started on a behavior.

Sex, Porn, Food and Addiction

For 12-year-old boys, sex masturbation and pornography are common “starter addictions.”
For girls, anorexia, bulimia, and/or binge eating are common gateways.
The pathway to addiction appears to start relatively early. People don’t usually start with hard stuff – they start with what they can get. It’s tough to score crack when we’re 12, unless we come from a pretty rough neighborhood. So we start with alcohol, pot, food or sex.
Now I realize that most young boys masturbate and, more often than not, look at pornography. I also realize that everyone is going to have a relationship with food in junior high school.
But for the aspiring addict, it’s different.
For the aspiring addict the relationship with sex and/or food is special.
Sex and/or food become a higher power.
They also become a refuge from the difficulties of junior high school.

Junior High Sucks.

During junior high school we go through a process called individuation.
Individuation is a developmental stage during which I try to figure out who I am outside my family system. Up until this point I developed a sense of identity within my family, but now I decide I want to see who I am within the world.
Individuation means I am going to be a pain in the ass at home.
I’m going to question things that I never questioned before.
I’m going to rebel and resist.
I’m going to be passive-aggressive – or sometimes just straight up aggressive.
Most of us had parents were good people, but were not especially mature.
Most of the people I work with had parents who did the best they could with the tools they had. But the parent’s weren’t developmentally past their teenage years either.
When Johnny comes home and starts to individuate his parents freak out.
And Johnny struggles.
And so does his family.
The process of individuation means that during adolescence life at home sucks.
School sucks too.
The problem is that school is no walk in the park either.
During individuation young people experiment with a variety of personas.
And they compete.
What that means is that in pre-adolescence school kids are vicious and unkind to each other. We do awful and horrible things to each other. Anything we can get away with.
We’re mean. We are vicious bastards.
Here are some quick stories:
“There was this girl who was mad at me. She grabbed my hair and just started running down the hallway. She held me by my hair with her hand and kept kicking me.”
“I got bullied because I was white. I got picked on. I had to get into fights and grow up fast.”
“My friends would start rumors about me all the time that I was a whore or a slut.”
“I stayed home from school for months at a time. The bullies were so bad I couldn’t go.”

No Pain No…

In summary, the process of individuation begins around the age of 12, give or take a year. Once individuation gets started there’s tremendous pain, at home and at school. Everywhere.
So now what? What do people do when they experienced this sort of pain?
They endure it. They grow and adapt.
They develop coping mechanisms and social skills.

Addicts Are Smarter Than Normal People.

Someone who is developing an addiction realizes that they do not need to suffer like their peers!
All it takes is a quick hit off of something in the liquor cabinet. Or a quick hit off a bong. Some addicts seek it out, but for a lot of addicts their first drug of choice finds them.
“The first person to let me try marijuana was my mother.”
“The first time I got high was at church youth group. I went back every week.”
“My ex-best friend’s dad had a stash and he shared.”
“My friend’s dad showed me porn. Then he started molesting me. I was so lonely they I just appreciated the connection and someone seeming to want me.”
Normal people go through all the pain and challenge and difficulty of junior high…
and grow.
Addicts don’t. They’re smart. They don’t need to endure pain. They have something to take care of it! A quick and easy road to connection.
The only problem is it doesn’t work.
Well, that’s not exactly true. It works awesome to begin with. But eventually it stops.
And once it stops, we can’t.
And that’s what we end up in treatment.

Why Early Recovery Is Pretty Hard

When someone comes into recovery they have a couple obstacles ahead of them.
First of all, the brain is rebuilding from all years of damage. We’ll get into the brain science of early recovery in a future post, but rest assured, it’s tough.
Even if the brain wasn’t a problem, the absence of social skills would be. Remember, the coping mechanisms normally put in place in preadolescence never developed.
As if that’s not enough usually addicts have severe trauma. Sometimes medicating the trauma is what started the addiction. Or the lifestyle of active addiction caused the trauma. But a lot of times it’s both.
So the first six months of recovery consist of
  • enormous weekly changes in brain chemistry
  • unrelenting social anxiety
  • flashbacks, panic attacks, and other symptoms associated with surviving severe trauma
Awesome! Are you ready to sign up???
Wait, you’re not? That doesn’t sound like fun?
Yeah. It’s a tough sell. And people wonder why the relapse rates are so high.
The Recovery Recipe.
The point of all this is that when it comes to overcoming addiction there actually is a pretty simple recipe.
It’s Pain.
Go through the pain of enduring those things.
Most recipes are designed to help people avoid pain.
If I wrote a book entitled “this is totally going to suck, but you’ll be glad you did it,” I doubt it would sell very many copies.
But that’s basically what I do addiction treatment.

Why is “Relapse Part of Recovery”?

My experience is that everybody has a threshold. An amount of pain that they are willing to experience.
This is also part of why “relapse is part of recovery”. It does not have to be. But most people simply will not go through the amount of pain they need to go through the first time to get and stay sober. We try our own way first.
People come in and say “I’ll do anything get sober.” 30 days later they say “I’ll do anything to get sober… other than stop hooking up with girls. I still want to have fun.”
Then they discharge. They changed a lot, but not quite enough.
Usually, they come see me again.
And if they’re lucky, when they come back they realize what they need to change. It’s their willingness to walk through the pain.
Change always leads to at least discomfort. Usually pain. You can’t have one without the other.
If they’re not lucky, they either don’t realize what needs to change, or they realize it and they’re not yet willing. That’s when we give these folks who come through for 7 or 10 or 18 treatment stays.
I bet it worked with more than 100 people in that situation.
In almost all cases the solution was usually painfully simple.
She tells me “I’m a chronic relapser” when really she’s a sex addict but she isn’t willing to accept the label.
He tells me “I’m a chronic relapser” but really he’s addicted to relationships. And he’s not willing to stay single for a little while.
So they make changes, but not enough. And relapse becomes part of their recovery.
Or they die.

A Case For Pain

Then there are some folks who come to treatment humbled and ready to change. They take suggestions from people who have been where they are. They make the changes that are suggested.
Even when the changes hurt.
And they get better.
They’re willing to walk through anything, no matter how painful. Because they realize they’ll die if they don’t.
Those folks get better.


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