The following is a text adaptation of Chris Scott’s “solo-cast” on The Elevation Recovery Podcast. You can listen to this episode here.
Hey everyone, I’m Chris Scott and today I have a solo-cast for you! The topic today is 5 Tips for Constructing An Empowering Recovery Narrative.
Now, most people don’t sit down with a piece of paper titled “My Empowering Recovery Narrative.” But honestly, I think that’s a mistake. When I detoxed off of alcohol, I had a journal that I wrote in first thing every morning while having my cup of coffee. My mild OCD tendencies led me to start out by writing massive “To Do Lists” for when I got out of detox, so that I’d look forward to.
These lists were very helpful later on, as my coaching clients know, but I also found myself piecing together bits of my past just to make sense of them. I realized that for a long time, I’d been meaning to sit down and make sense of my life – I’d just never done it. I’d been too preoccupied with getting an alcohol buzz to do any serious introspection at any point in time. That’s one of the deceptive tricks with alcohol, I’d end up feeling inspired for the first few drinks, feeling as if I was going to have some earth-shattering epiphany, and then I’d get woozy and pass out on the couch.
So in detox, I framed my morning time – even though I felt like crap – as an opportunity to develop the discipline to actually have the kinds of creative insights that I’d meant to have back when I’d sit down with a bottle of alcohol. I accepted that these insights wouldn’t feel nearly as euphoric as they would have with alcohol, but then I realized let’s face it – the alcohol tricked me by promising creativity and insights that never came. So it was time to develop discipline and learn how to think without that false generator of creative imagination that we call alcohol.
If I couldn’t get a buzz from alcohol anymore, maybe I could figure out how to get a buzz from my own thoughts. And over time, that’s exactly what happened. I put the pieces of my life together, and while there’s still a great deal of mystery and uncertainty – especially now thanks to the coronavirus – I can say that constructing my own life narrative helped me to figure out who I am and where I think the universe wants me to go, quite apart from any external circumstances whatsoever.
So once I ran out of things each morning to put into my “to do” lists for my life post-alcohol, I started making sense of my past. I wrote about my first experience with alcohol intoxication, how confused I was in college when I realized I was becoming physically dependent on booze despite doing well in all other areas, and I wrote about several pivotal moments with my drinking during my career in finance. I wrote about red flags about my own addiction that I’d totally missed, as well as triggers that bothered me. And I wrote about the bizarre array of talents that I’d developed throughout my life, and realized that there was a huge disconnect between the talents I prided in myself and what I did at that time for a living.
The funny thing about this period of writing is that I didn’t yet have any inkling that the Biochemical Pillar, which is to say targeted nutrition to restore my feel-good neurotransmitter levels, would turn out to be my biggest Missing Link. I jumped straight to the psychological, social, and spiritual pillars – which isn’t a bad thing, but I know that I wouldn’t have made the progress I eventually made in those pillars without fixing my biochemistry. So that’s one big caveat here that I want to mention before I go on. It’s always good to be working on all aspects of your recovery, but you want to make sure you identify your Missing Links, one of which is biochemical stability for MANY people.
Alright, so looking over my past journals, I’ve gleaned 5 main tips that I think can be helpful for anyone trying to make use of this bizarre time we find ourselves in. The worst thing you can do right now is obsess over the news. It’s a good time to take a step back and reevaluate your life. It’s never too late to do that.
So each of these tips concern an area that should be explored in order to make sense of your life and where you’re going, and to increase the probability that you stay the course and leave your addiction behind forever. When you construct an overarching narrative that becomes subconsciously ingrained, you gradually begin to see your life through that lens, including every decision you make. No one will ever be perfect, but it’s possible to achieve a sort of alignment between your inner self and your outer actions by identifying the best possible way to make sense of your situation and your trajectory. Achieving this alignment helps you to proactively determine your trajectory. And as any airline pilot or naval commander knows, a minor course shift now, a minor change in your trajectory, will inevitably result in a major difference in your destination later on.
Now we’ll cover the 5 tips to building your empowering recovery narrative. These tips are not comprehensive, but they’re a good summary of the thought processes that I used to beat addiction, and which I’ve subsequently used in my conversations with private coaching clients who went on to recover as well. I highly recommend writing them down in a journal and using them as food for thought about your own situation.
- Tip #1: Find out what your addiction did FOR you, before it became an exhausted resource.
- Tip #2: Determine which talents, responsibilities, and crucial parts of your identity you sacrificed for the sake of your addiction.
- Tip #3: Determine what values fueled your life during your addiction, and what values you want to design your post-addiction life around.
- Tip #4: Identify false assumptions you need to reframe, and neural associations you need to rewire, in order to transcend your addiction.
- Tip #5: Determine what you need to invest in NOW to build a SUSTAINABLE recovery and start turning your visions into reality.
Tip #1: Find out what your addiction did FOR you, before it became an exhausted resource.
I’ve been transparent about the fact that I was adopted, that I likely had prenatal alcohol exposure, and that I’ve had trouble getting into a relaxing zone for much of my life, which leads me to speculate that I may have an innate deficiency in GABA. For me, alcohol was a very useful tool for putting me into the mental state that I wanted to be in all the time. Alcohol gave me a combination of relaxation and energy. It seemed to infuse my thoughts with creativity and inspiration. I knew that hard drugs could be lethal and cause irrationality, so I always steered clear of them. But alcohol was socially acceptable, especially in college, and I had no shortage of either real or fictional role models who seemed to drink too much. Alcohol therefore became intertwined with my own identity – I figured that it was my Missing Link, and as long as I stayed otherwise healthy, I could supplement my life with just enough alcohol to achieve a sustainable and enjoyable balance.
Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. We’re not educated about the toxic effects of alcohol. Dozens, hundreds, and then thousands of repeated intoxication experiences left me with a brain totally monopolized by alcohol, which would not even release a tiny hit of energizing dopamine or relaxing GABA without first taking a drink. I’d learned that alcoholics drank out of paper bags and lived under bridges. I had no idea that alcohol could destroy the lives of high-functioning people, or that it could creep up on me so imperceptibly and insidiously.
You can see what I’ve done here: I’ve made sense of my addiction. Who knows if I’ve accurately detailed all of the confluences of events, experiences, and neurochemicals in my personal history. The idea is to have a basic grasp of what you REALLY wanted from life when you kept feeding your addiction again, and again, and again.
This kind of journaling exercise can help you to see that you’re NOT in fact a worthless, soulless, irredeemable, pathetic creature. Your addiction may have made you look like on by the time you hit rock bottom, or maybe it didn’t. Maybe you’re catching it early. Either way, having an understanding of what led to your addiction in the first place is crucial for self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness. It’s important to take responsibility for your life and actions, but you also want to avoid “unearned guilt” that can haunt you later and contribute to relapse and self-sabotage later on.
This is something that Nathaniel Branden wrote about in his book, the 6 Pillars of Self-Esteem. Self-sabotage is the result of low self-image, which is a subconscious thing. You might not even know that you have it. Low self-image is caused by the accumulation of reference evidence in your subconscious mind that leads you to assume, on a very deep level, that you’re just not the type of person who’s worthy of anything good in life. It’s a vicious cycle, because repeated relapse can understandably lead to low self-image and low self-esteem. Which in turn becomes a huge psychological contributor for relapse. We need to accept our prior actions, including all of things that went wrong. But we also have to believe that we’re redeemable and that we deserve to be on a path towards self-improvement and personal growth.
Tip #2: Determine which talents, responsibilities, and crucial parts of your identity you sacrificed for the sake of your addiction.
In other words, what was the opportunity cost of feeding your addiction? I’ve already alluded to the fact that I’ve always loved to write and explore ideas. I also valued fitness. During my drinking years, I’d joined a CrossFit gym before letting 6 months transpire and realizing that I’d been paying for something I’d never used. I valued relationships, many of which I was able to maintain in spite of my drinking, but which I never brought even close to the depth of bonding that I enjoy today with friends and family.
Most of all, I always wanted to make a dent in the world. In order to make a dent in the world and be a good person, you have to help people. I had absolutely no plan for helping anyone other than myself during my drinking years. This actually occurred to me several times, but I didn’t understand that real fulfillment only comes from helping others. I rationalized that I’d simply get rich in finance and give money away later. The problem with this plan was that it didn’t put any of my genuine talents to use for others’ benefit in the foreseeable future.
It was only after I quit drinking, and started suffering through brutal post-acute withdrawal, and started training people in the gym that I saw how important helping other people was for me. I was slowly discovering biochemical repair, but not quickly enough to enjoy any “real euphoria” from my life yet. But I was able to develop a sense of inner peace, groundedness, and soul alignment from seeing the faces of happy clients who were seeing real results in their weight management, diabetes, mental health conditions, and overall health just from working out with me.
As I began to transfer this energy into a more specific niche, people with alcohol addiction, I saw how much of a missing gap this was for me during my drinking years. There’s truth to the idea that disconnectedness and isolation contribute to addiction. This is a tough problem that many people face now, especially during the “social distancing” guidelines. My advice is to take care of yourself but make yourself useful however you can. If you’re like me and you have talents that are crucial parts of your identity that can help others, or even just a fundamental human need to be a force for good in the world, then find a way to help people during this difficult time. This can be as simple as participating in an online support group.
Another worthy goal is to figure out how you can foster discipline, responsibility, and an “ownership mentality” in the wake of your addiction. You’ll need to strengthen these characteristics regardless of your particular talents, responsibilities, or underdeveloped aspects of your identity.
So what are some baby steps you can take? For me, it was recognizing that I’d let my talents go to waste for a period of time – but vowing to achieve a total resurrection of them. I had to focus a lot on rebuilding myself and learn to respect my own word to myself again. I tried to figure out how to tun my weaknesses into strengths. Here’s an example: My unrelenting panic attacks after quitting drinking, which occurred largely due to biochemical imbalances, actually turned into fuel for spur-of-the-moment bodyweight workouts and jogs that helped make both my body and my mind stronger. I also began to proactively frame these miserable anxiety episodes as the inevitable long-term result of alcohol, rather than as the result of abstinence. If you have anger issues, depression, or anxiety, you can use these problems as fuel for your self-transformation.
Tip #3: Determine what values fueled your life during your addiction, and what values you want to design your post-addiction life around.
Matt Finch has been candid about the fact that his #1 value used to be short-term gratification, and he was a hedonist. That was his identity: someone who valued pleasure. After he quit drinking and using opiates, he shifted his values to curiosity about the world and continual self-improvement, reading tons of self-development books along the way. This resulted in an identity shift that turned him into the kind of person he never thought he’d be.
During my drinking years, I valued conventional success metrics, such as the name of the company that employed me and the size of my corporate bonus. I did make a lot of money for someone in my twenties. But I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t even envision what happiness would look like. I figured happiness would come in the form of a stroke of luck, early retirement, and hanging out on the beach with margaritas all day. Today, the idea of being a fat drunk on a beach with steadily deteriorating health doesn’t sound all that happy to me.
After I quit drinking and built Fit Recovery, I was able to actualize one of my highest values, which was freedom. I don’t do well in a cubicle or a corporate hierarchy. So I did really value freedom all along – just not the freedom to be a waste of space on a beach. If Fit Recovery didn’t help people, it wouldn’t bring me fulfillment. So Freedom and Fulfillment became two central values that I built my life around after quitting drinking. They took the place of conventional success metrics.
I want to mention another value that became extremely important to me after I quit drinking: Resilience. I knew that over 90% of people relapsed for whatever reason, and I’d seen some of my friends from detox drop like flies after getting out. I wanted to defy the odds and prove that I was resilient. I didn’t know that recovering people suffered from an epidemic of nutrient and neurotransmitter deficiencies that could be proactively fixed. All I knew at the time was that I was the underdog and I had to root for myself, and I had my closest family and friends rooting for me too. So I wasn’t necessarily trying to be “better” than other people with addiction, but there was some grittiness in proving that I could be better than my former self this time around. I framed myself as the protagonist in a heroic struggle. I’d always loved James Bond movies, and when I watched movies like Skyfall or Spectre, I ignored his alcohol intake and started focusing on his ability to defy impossible odds. Luckily I wouldn’t have to do any ridiculous stunts, but I was on a serious mission, and it would involve mental toughness and even martial arts.
Consider the difference in this mindset versus someone who frames themselves as a victimized, weak “anti-hero” who’s been wronged by the world, is always misunderstood, and values fleeting pleasure to take away the pain. I wouldn’t be talking to you now if I’d fed that internal narrative.
Value hierarchies change over time, so there’s no need to figure out exactly which values will guide the rest of your life. But it’s good to have a starting point. As we alluded to in the last tip, it’s helpful to have an idea of what kinds of things you DO value that you’ve sacrificed for the sake of maintaining your addiction. Is it financial security? Maybe it’s deeper relationships with family or God, or maybe it’s total freedom to live an unconventional life off the grid, so to speak. Only you can figure out what your highest values should be, since they’re pretty subjective. It’s best done with a pen and paper, first thing in the morning after you wake up.
Tip #4: Identify false assumptions you need to reframe, and neural associations you need to rewire, in order to transcend your addiction.
For me, “Drinking Sucks!” was the ultimate reframe because I’d linked everything good, beautiful, pleasurable, and worthwhile to drinking. I couldn’t envision a vacation or even dinner without alcohol. I needed to start looking into the truth about alcohol. The fact that it’s not a magical elixir that can be a “missing puzzle piece” in someone’s life, but rather something that when consumed long-term, causes inflammation in the body, reduces the supply of feel-good chemicals, damages the liver, erodes memory, blunts personality…and ultimately, monopolizes vital life force and drowns out all other hopes and dreams that a person has.
So I had to proactively reframe alcohol as a poison, and reframe myself as the type of person who could conquer alcohol. And I had to reframe the world as a playground for my undeveloped talents.
So ask yourself: What false beliefs supported your relationship with alcohol or your addictive drug? Obliterating these beliefs will help you to focus all of your attention on building your life back up from scratch and living your best possible narrative, rather than fighting a nagging voice in the back of your head spouting falsities at you.
With reframing belief systems, repetition is key: You can fake it until you make it. When you consciously repeat something to yourself even before you know whether it’s true – in my case, Drinking Sucks! – your subconscious mind will slowly begin to gather all sorts of evidence to support your new reframe. Start a benevolent propaganda machine in your head and use confirmation bias to your advantage. When I started repeating “drinking sucks,” I finally began to notice articles about how bad alcohol is for us after all.
The topic of reframing is something that I cover in more depth in my online course. But after I achieved these reframes – and laid the foundation for new convictions, and started accumulating new experiences with a new mindset in order to support these convictions – I started waking up every day feeling excited and grateful for the opportunity to build the life I’d always wanted to live. And I realized that a morning routine that begins with a swig of vodka out of the freezer was DEFINITELY NOT congruent with what I wanted out of life.
Tip #5: Determine what you need to invest in NOW to build a SUSTAINABLE recovery and start turning your visions into reality.
(Or for some of you, conjuring up those inspiring visions in the first place.)
Let me tell you something – for the vast majority of people, addiction recovery is not something that “just happens” out of the blue. It involves being proactive. It involves writing things down. It involves a willingness to look at the world radically differently than you’ve ever looked at it before. And it requires you to make certain investments in yourself.
For a lot of people I’ve helped over the years, the most basic investment is in supplements to jumpstart the biochemical pillar of recovery. But it’s not enough to have a bunch of supplements laying around, you have to know what to do with them – you have to know which ones are best for you, how to use trial and error, what dosages are optimal, and how long to take them. Since many people slip in early recovery, most people also find it necessary to invest either money, time, or both into a support group or a coach. That’s why I started my online course, Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0, and that’s why Matt Finch started his Ultimate Opiate Detox course as well. It’s why we offer private coaching services as well.
Guidance from recovery veterans like Matt and myself can be the “difference that makes a difference” this time around for you. And as you identify the “Missing Links” that kept you from getting a handle on your addiction in months or years past, you may find it necessary to make other investments as well. I’ve had clients with underlying thyroid disorders or PTSD that contributed to their alcoholism, who then found it necessary to seek appropriate medications or PTSD-specific support groups. As time went on, these people became healthier, more centered, even more successful and able to continue making investments in themselves.
Recovering from addiction isn’t easy at first, and it requires a leap of faith in yourself. But when done properly, it should be a respite from the chaos and stress that characterized your life in active addiction. Part of the stress reduction comes from a renewed connection with your deepest self, one that you will foster as you continue to build an empowering narrative for your life beyond recovery.
I hope that this episode has given you food for thought during this pandemic. I realize that these are tough times, but I urge you to make use of your time at home to conquer your demons once and for all. Even in the midst of social distancing, we can stay connected online, and you can fill your time with productive routines and your mind with useful strategies. You don’t have to feel alone. It’s never too late to commit to small actions that can change that course of your life.