With relapse rates of around 40 to 60 percent, recovery from addition is tough. And yes, by addiction we usually refer to drugs or alcohol. But addiction comes in many forms; food, prescription medication, gaming, porn, eating toilet paper (apparently it’s a thing…). Psychology likes to define an addiction as the use of any substance where an individual continues using or taking the substance despite significant said-substance-related problems. Just like we explored in the blog post on alcohol addiction, your character will continue to use, eat or drink their substance of choice despite the negative personal, relational and vocational impacts it has on their life.
I came across this article whilst working through my nerdy psychologist to-read pile. Stephen Melemis, a medical doctor who has been working with patients for more than thirty years in treatment programs and in private practice recently wrote The Five Rules of Addiction Recovery: The Stages of Recovery in the Mental Health, Addiction and Community Awareness magazine (Spring 2017) and it struck as me valuable for writers. And although drugs are obviously the most common and well-known addictive substances, with the most research the greatest understanding, and although that’s what we’ll focus on, keep in mind that these points can be applied to any addiction (toilet paper consumption included).
Melemis begins by noting there are three stages of recovery: abstinence, repair and growth.
The main focus of this stage is dealing with cravings and the decision to stop using. From the moment they stop ingesting their drug of choice they will have to face some, or all, of the following:
- Accept they have an addiction
- Deal with withdrawal
- Develop coping skills for dealing with cravings
- Become active in self-help groups
- Understand the stages of relapse
- Get rid of friends who are using
- Understand the dangers of cross addiction
- Develop healthy alternatives to using
- See themselves as a non-user
In the second stage of recovery, the main task is to repair the damage caused by addiction. In contrast to the abstinence stage where your character is likely to feel increasingly better as they finally take control of their lives, the repair stage can involve your character feeling worse. Here, they must confront the damage caused by addiction to their relationships, employment, finances and sense of self-worth. Steeped in this process is the sense of guilt and negative self-labelling that their addiction has fuelled. It’s not unusual for individuals to think that they are so damaged by their addiction that they can’t, or don’t deserve, happiness, confidence or positive relationships. These are some of the tasks your character will have to address:
- Using therapy to overcome negative self-labelling and catastrophizing
- Understand that they are not their addiction
- Repair relationships and make amends where possible
- Learn to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable (psychologists call this ‘distress tolerance’)
- Develop a healthy and balanced lifestyle
If the repair stage is about catching up, then the growth stage is about moving forward. This stage can be up to three to five years since stopping the use of drugs or alcohol, and can last a lifetime. This is the time that past traumas and family of origin issues are dealt with. Although your character may be eager to tackle these issues, if they haven’t developed the necessary skills to cope with these hurdles they may relapse. It’s during the growth stage that your character will develop skills that they may never have learned, and predisposed them to addiction in the first place (now there’s a nice little character arc!). Some of the tasks will include:
- Identify and repair negative thinking and self-destructive patterns
- Understand how familial patterns have been passed down, which will facilitate your character in letting go of old resentments and move on
- Set healthy boundaries
- Begin to give back and help others
- Periodically re-evaluate their lifestyle and make sure they’re on track.
Stephen Melemis goes onto identify Five Rules of Recovery based on his experience of working with patients for more than 30 years. He believes that most relapses can be explained within the framework of these five basic rules, and these rules have the capacity to provide the foundation of your character’s development, whether they overcome their addiction or don’t. What’s more, they will give you an authentic rationale for the trajectory they follow.
Change your life
The reality is, your character won’t achieve recovery by just not using. They are going to have to build a new life in which it’s easier not to use. Examples of this may include changing negative thinking patterns, avoiding people, places and things associated with using, and ultimately, incorporating the five rules of recovery. Melemis notes that his clients often begin recovery hoping they don’t have to change. He frames wishing for their old life back as wishing for relapse. Seeing the need for change as essential, but also as an opportunity, underscores the path to recovery.
Be completely honest
Addiction requires lying – not just to others, but to ourselves. Your character has had to lie about getting their drug, hiding the drug, denying the consequences and planning their next relapse. Ultimately, your character will be as sick as their secrets. Honesty, with others and themselves, will be challenging, but important in their path to recovery.
Ask for help
Your character is likely to try and start the recovery process on their own. It’s a way of proving they have control over their addiction and they’re not as unhealthy as people think. What research shows is that joining a self-help group significantly increases the chances of long-term recovery. Recognising that you are unlikely, and don’t need to, do this alone is crucial and ultimately liberating
Although this rule seems obvious and beneficial, it tends to be one of the rules that is most overlooked. Recovering individuals tend to be ruthlessly critical of themselves or feel they don’t deserve to be good to themselves so put themselves last. Your character started using drugs to escape, relax, or reward themselves. Acknowledging these benefits will motivate them to find healthy alternatives. Within this sphere, self-compassion is going to be just as important as exercise, a healthy diet or discovering another way to meet the needs the drugs have served.
Don’t bend the rules
Just one glass. Just this once. Just one teeny-tiny shred of toilet paper…Addiction is powerful, and doesn’t tend to work in increments. All or nothing tends to be the theme, and if your character is looking for loopholes in recovery then relapse is a likely outcome. Adhering to abstinence, and the rules that underscore it, is what your character is going to have to do to be successful in their recovery. I guess this means our toilet paper eater is going to have to install a bidet…
Do you have a character that needs to stop using? Or one that has already been down the road to recovery? How much have you reflected on the addictions you see in the people around you? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,
I’ve been invited to be a Resident Writing Coach for Writers Helping Writers! Writers Helping Writers is a wonderful website with a massive collection of articles, resources and tools for writers – I love it as a resource and was deeply humbled to be invited as a regular contributor. I’ll keep you posted of upcoming articles.