Learning how to use difficulties – your best teacher in addiction recovery

Written by Dave Cooper

April 14, 2017

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
― Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

The best way to view your difficulties

Learning how to use difficulties is one of the main keys to recovery from addiction. Possibly the main key! Is that a shocking thought for you? “aren’t problems things to be avoided”? How could something that feels so bad be good? How could bad or wrong thoughts help me in any way? The main reason you have continued using drugs or getting drunk is that you have believed this lie!

The problem with problems

Why do you avoid difficulties? Bad feelings or thoughts? In this respect addicts are no different from other human beings. The main difference is they do not get a choice! Your ‘addict brain’ offers you an ‘exit’ whilst there’s does not. In other words normal people mature and develop mainly because they have to. If they had an ‘EXIT’ door they would probably use it just as much as you did. I hope that makes you feel better about being an addict. You probably started this habit many years ago if you are wanting recovery from addiction. Over the years you have learned to anaesthetise yourself whenever anything that feels bad comes along. Because of this you developed a belief that anything bad is really serious, even deadly!

So I want to let you into a secret. All grown ups face difficulties every day! Yes, as part of their normal days. Not even the worst days. Difficulties, negative feelings, bad thoughts. These are all part of a normal adult day.

I now want to let you into another secret feelings will not kill you! That’s right. When I work with groups I always ask this question “what are we supposed to do with feelings”? I get some weird and wacky answers but I have never had the right answer, “feel them”. Remember, a feeling cannot make you do anything.

The raw material of growth

So if you could choose the raw material of growth, the thing you could use to build strong character and a mature grounded self image. What would you choose? I’ll bet you would choose something free and in plentiful supply. Not something expensive and rare. Well here is the good news, it is! Your difficulties are the raw material of your growth. I bet you will agree with me that you have a plentiful supply of this material!

Robert Browning Hamilton expressed this thought so wonderfully in verse:

I walked a mile with Pleasure
She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!

Turning difficulties on their head

“comfort and ease is good whilst suffering and hardship are to be avoided” is an idea you must learn to ditch. Because you are an addict you have accepted this and avoided most forms of discomfort.

Because I spend most of my professional life supporting addicts into recovery, I have seen the extreme version of this belief which is drug taking, heroin, crack or alcohol, gambling and pornography. The aim is always the same, to feel good without earning it. The part of your brain most affected by taking drugs is actually called

‘the reward pathway’.

So let’s get down to it. If you want to produce some form of positive change such as losing weight, getting fit, becoming an expert in sport or business, passing exams you will face discomfort. Yet you are likely still failing to see the obvious in all this.

Your greatest teacher

So I tell my clients that the greatest secret of recovery is that your weakness, failure and problems are your greatest teachers whilst your good points are almost useless to you. 

“Those things that hurt, instruct”

Benjamin Franklin

How do normal people grow into mature adults? By taking the things that life throws at them (being dumped, not being chosen for the promotion, not passing their driving test). And allowing the pain of those hurts to develop strength, tolerance and stamina. A bone that is broken develops twice as strong once set and healed. You have avoided these processes by avoiding your feelings.

Once you understand this principle and get some good support around you, you will turn this whole thing on it’s head and start to use difficulties to grow instead of letting them make you shrink! As a result your progress into complete recovery is inevitable, unstoppable. I have a client who is starting to understand this at the moment, he is a Rugby player, a team player. I asked him which games he learned most from. “When we lose” he answered quickly. So I asked him why. He answered quickly “When you lose it exposes your weaknesses, you are motivated to get better”. 

Learning how to use difficulties

So I want you to resolve to face these things and turn them into opportunities by making up your mind to squeeze every last drop of wisdom and learning out of them. When something hurts, ask yourself, what am I supposed to be learning from this? Since you are always telling people about how big your problems are you will have plenty of raw material to work with!

In conclusion, learn to ‘own your part in things’ using the AAA process. Also when things start to go right audit the experience and use what you learn. Your feelings are always telling you something you need to know about yourself. Therefore, share how you feel with someone you trust and accept the lesson life is teaching you. You will never regret the instruction you receive.

Please like and share this post with someone who needs to know these things

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