I have great respect for those of you in the early stages of recovery from addiction. You have given up your drug of choice, which has served as your primary coping mechanism for years, perhaps decades. At the same time, like an arm that’s been in a cast for months, your emotional maturation has atrophied from lack of use. The emotional “muscles” that sober people use many times a day are simply not available to you.
During the first three to six months, expect a good degree of emotional discomfort. The recovering addict must really just “gut it out” until the brain begins to recover and new coping skills develop. (It should also be noted that different drugs have different recovery curves. While it takes more time to get addicted to alcohol, its damage to the brain tends to be less than more powerful chemicals such as methamphetamine or cocaine.)
This “in-between” period represents the greatest risk of relapse that will face the addict on the road to recovery. The desire for relief from uncomfortable feelings is known in recovery parlance as a craving.
Cravings can be physical, emotional or spiritual in nature.
Physical cravings occur as the brain is going through the healing process. Low levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain create symptoms of depression and anxiety. Sometimes those in early recovery get down on themselves for having cravings, but this is as illogical as criticizing oneself for having high blood pressure or brown hair. And self-criticism leads to feelings of despair, low self-esteem and guilt, none of which advance the game of stable recovery.
You’ve been judging yourself for years. This is the time to extend yourself the same grace and compassion that your higher power already has.
Emotional cravings occur when you feel ill-equipped to cope with the stress of daily life. This is double trouble: first, you’ve lost your ability to live in your own skin and problem solve in a mature way. Second, you’ve got a lot of balls in the air due to the the unmanageability of your life. Let’s face it – if things weren’t such a mess, you probably wouldn’t have had to quit in the first place. This is why a robust infrastructure of support is so important in the early days. Get a sponsor, get a therapist, collect numbers at meetings and USE THEM. Use them even if you think you don’t need them. That way, when you really do, you won’t be calling a stranger.
A Spiritual craving is related not only to how we get clean, but how we got in trouble in the first place. In 1670, Blaise Pascal wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing.” Guess what we addicts, feeling the acute pain of that hole, tried to fill it with? You guessed it – drugs and alcohol. As we become sober – and as long as we trudge the road to happy destiny here on earth – we will feel that longing. When we neglect our connection to Spirit, we will experience Spiritual cravings.
In the early days of AA, one of the founders carried on a correspondence with the psychoanalyst, author and philosopher Carl Jung, who brilliantly identified the problem and the solution in one simple phrase: Spiritus Contra Spiritum. The Latin word spiritus connotes both a poison and the divine Spirit. Hence, the treatment for addiction to the “spirits” of alcohol is engaging the “Spirit” of the Universe, in whatever manifestation it speaks to you.
The most important things to remember about cravings are:
- You don’t have to surrender to a craving.
- Cravings are temporary feelings. They will pass.
- Without help, the craving will win. That’s how you got here.
Another Latin solution that’s, well, not really Latin, is
(Don’t let the bastards grind you down.)
For more on the inspiration for this saying, and help with cravings, click here.