Posted by: innerpilgrimage | December 9, 2010

Center Stage: If I’m White-Knuckling Abstinence, I’m Not Doing Recovery Right

Holiday Eating Season Countdown: 24 Days

      I have been enjoying the benefits of an OA friend passing along books–especially recovery books. One book I was given that I finally was inspired to crack and really read is called Stage II Recovery: Life Beyond Addiction by Earnie Larsen.

      I haven’t gotten far in it yet, but what I’ve read so far aligns with what I am looking for in recovery. The author discerns two levels of recovery, defining the first level (Stage I Recovery) and giving a process for a more in-depth recovery experience (Stage II Recovery).
      Stage I Recovery is, as I understand it, successful and sustained abstinence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t address the damage done to our psyches. We don’t get a magical cure by simply stopping the affliction. We still are missing that self-esteem and integrity we assumed would just appear when we got the addiction out of the way. Well, moving the affliction aside only reveals what we were using our drug-of-choice for. And it’s pretty clear to see people who are locked in Stage I, because they’re white-knuckling their abstinence/sobriety/withdrawal. Sometimes they’ve done the steps; sometimes not. The point is that there is a depth of recovery beyond simply halting the behavior.
      Stage II Recovery still involves doing the steps regularly, something we do for a lifetime–one day at a time. This isn’t a graduation beyond the 12 Steps. There never really is a graduation beyond the 12 Steps, because we have to practice the process to make it a fundamental part of our lives. As I have said before, here, the 12 Steps is pretty-much a grief process–learning to let go of yesterday and tomorrow by learning to live beyond the denial-based sadness and anger we feel. We have to finish grieving what happened to us, to learn how to have full lives of decision, not reaction. I appreciate that message which we get in “Our Invitation to You” from OA. I was clear from the beginning that I was seeking a life of action, not reaction, and a new way of living. Our path into a new life is spelled out in that invitation read at two of my meetings (the meetings I attend are different, and I encourage people to pick up at least two differently-handled meetings a week; it doesn’t matter if it’s literature or speaker, step study or writing). So, when I neared Year One of being in program and realized that I was stalled in the Steps, I took a moment to realize that I had already changed many ways I approached the world. I considered the Promises of Recovery (also considered, “Step 9 1/2”), and I understood that recovery isn’t just losing the weight and maintaining a food plan one day at a time for the rest of my life. It is a change in how I approach life, adding new ways to act in a healthy and sane way, then practicing those healthy and sane behaviors until they are as integrated as the addict messages. The goal, for me, is to have a choice–just like I have a choice to indulge the addiction or to make progress in my spiritual and mental recovery (my physical recovery is already achieved, and that tri-legged program stool can get pretty wobbly when I sit on it even now).
      So, then, what have I learned about Stage II Recovery, even from the very beginning of the book? Well, the definition is not as clear as Stage I Recovery, but it points toward an enriched life which uses the principles of the success I’ve achieved using the tools on more than just my addict substance. I think I already understood the nature of needing to do this when I learned about Steps Six and Seven. The whole goal of those Steps, to me, is to treat compulsive eating like any other character defect I have. It’s my responsibility to find an alternative to the affliction. With food, I chose an alternative (a food plan I could live with) to the affliction (eating whenever and whatever I wanted). Doing that with emotions isn’t so easy, but that’s why I’m working with this book on Stage II Recovery.
      Now, I’ve been doing a modified version of Stage II for months now, keeping my eye on the spiritual and mental changes I want to make so I don’t need to white-knuckle my food plan when things aren’t going well. I am actively changing attitudes. Before, I considered events which turned out in my favor to be flukes, and I always waited for the backlash, as if good things left a vacuum that needed to be filled with bad things. Now, even disadvantageous events and situations and mistakes I make have a positive twist, because they’re a learning experience. That one process of change has made me more willing to go out and experience life as a classroom. I know I will be facing real life-changing things in the next 20 years–from my parents’ generation in my family passing to becoming a mother-in-law to becoming a grandmother to facing deaths of friends as I get older to even having to deal with the economic issues surrounding the home I own and desperately want to sell. Though I can’t worry about them now, I am entirely aware I need to have a non-afflicted way of interacting with the people, places, and situations. That’s where Stage II Recovery comes in.
      Well, what does Stage II Recovery do? So far as I’ve read, it starts with awareness of behavior patterns and archetypes, identifies habits I gravitate toward which are still based out of addiction, and places into daily practice alternative habits which are sane and recovered. Once those alternative habits are in place and are used more than the addict-based habits, I hope that I will start to turn toward the recovered behaviors habitually–and, at worst, be able to step out of addict-mind by using prayer and meditation to shift gears long enough to consciously take recovered action. The book says that to effectuate real change, my recovery program has to be “concrete, practical, focused, [and] consistent” (p. 66, Stages II Recovery, pub. 1985).
      This is one of those “common sense” things that my addict mind rebels against. Concrete, to me, means that the actions I need to take are spelled out clearly (as opposed to that random hit-and-miss pattern development my addiction used to connect many unrelated events). Practical, to me, means that it’s sane and achievable (as opposed to the addict-mind insane belief I can achieve perfection if I just find the right mix of emotions and behaviors when the stars are aligned right). Focused, to me, means I need to specifically name what I want to change and have a sane and reasonable alternative ready to work toward (as opposed to wanting everyone else to change around me and playing pin-the-solution-on-the-problem not only blindfolded but with my ears blocked and hands tied behind my back). Consistent means I work the same framework every day, even if there is a slight variation in what’s said, read, and done (as opposed to trying it once, seeing it did not work, then blaming everyone and everything around me and giving up). The basic things should be completed daily in order to make lasting progress, and the recovery work does not need to take more than a couple of hours, if that.
      So, anyway, the first big work in this book that I took on was to answer these two questions:

(1) How do I define recovery?

(2) Where do I want to go in recovery?

      Since I had the advantage of having “Our Invitation to You” help me determine a rich recovery (as well as the not-published any more pamphlet about OA not being a diet and calories club). I am aware that working a plan of abstinence was only the beginning, and that working the 12 Steps can only get me so far. By supplementing the abstinence and Steps with a conscious and active plan to change the behavior which has me turn toward the affliction whenever I am under stress (which is all of the time, as it is for everyone), I have made my answer be more than “stop eating and lose the weight”. Adhering to a generally healthy food plan (based off of the USDA nutritional guidelines of the Food Pyramid) has given me the clarity of mind to do this work. The food is not there to hide the real problems. And the real problems need to be addressed–not ignored. If I hope they’ll go away, I am not using the Serenity Prayer. I am not changing what I can, which is how I personally approach the world. My goal is to emulate normalcy through recovered behavior, while maintaining an awareness that I could fall back to addiction at any time. I see the progress I am making, but I am thoroughly aware that I still have emotional triggers on a daily basis. Just because I will turn toward those bad feelings before breaking my food plan does not mean I am not having a sloppy abstinence inside those limits. How I eat reflects the troubles I am having with the emotional state I am in. Officially, I am abstinent, but I am white-knuckling it some days because I have not changed the eating behaviors.
      I’m going to be honest about my behaviors that I see right now (some I am missing because I am unaware of them). First, I eat standing up in the kitchen sometimes. Second, I eat with my family in front of the television most dinners instead of sit at a table. Third, my lunch is a moving feast (as opposed to a movable feast), where I putter eating for about an hour until I have to tell myself, “Stop!” Fourth, I sometimes eat out of sight of people, sneak-eating a serving of something. Fifth, I can identify trigger foods but do not remove them from my food plan (honey-roasted peanut butter, for example, is a recent addiction–I can burn through my day’s worth of proteins very quickly in three tablespoons and have to enter my discretionary calories if I want proteins for dinner). Last, I have to force myself to eat breakfast in the mornings even if I am hungry–something I have started doing. My breakfasts are small, usually one protein’s worth and one grain’s worth of food. Where I slide is at lunch, which I need to turn into a discrete sit-down meal with everything I plan to eat in front of me at the same time. These changes to my sloppy abstinence are concrete, practical, focused, and consistent. I can make a habit of a small, daily breakfast and a concrete, one-sitting lunch a reality by doing it in daily practice.
      Anyway, I am going to wait on revealing my answers to those two questions until tomorrow’s entry. I want anyone who wishes to answer those questions without my input to get a chance to do it without what I wrote influencing their own answers. An answer which does not reveal more than a desire to stop eating compulsively is more telling than my answer, because it is the first step in awareness that maybe the difficulties one has maintaining abstinence simply has to do with not realizing what they want out of recovery.
      If it’s hard to answer that first question, the book offers a series of follow-up questions if one answered “serenity”, “peace of mind”, or even “getting control of my life” to really develop a specific answer that’s more than a general sound bite:

(1a) What would give you serenity?
(1b) What has robbed you of serenity in the past?
(1c) What, for you, would constitute peace of mind?
(1d) Why don’t you have peace of mind now?
(1e) Is perfect peace of mind possible?
(1f) Why don’t you like yourself?
(1g) If you had “control of your life”, would you really be happy, or just worried about losing that precious self-control?
(1h) Is it really your life you want to control–or someone else’s?

(p. 10-11, Stage II Recovery, c. 1985)

      Books like this, non-conference literature, are where I find most of my deep recovery. The conference-approved literature gives me the tools I need to be sober/abstinent/in withdrawal and connects me to the fellowship through the published experiences of other members. Every time I read a book of stories, it’s like a mini-meeting in a book. I get something from most of these written shares, and I appreciate having that vast library available to me.
      But, just like the 12 Steps, it is only the beginning. I love the Hazelden books because they often give insights I am just not able to take from the core literature. Though Stage II Recovery is not a Hazelden book (it’s a HarperOne/Harper and Row book), it is still an excellent source for me to use in my journey of recovery. And, if I were only supposed to read conference-approved literature, that would limit my Higher Power’s ability. With an unlimited Higher Power comes unlimited sources from everywhere. I appreciate the conference-approved literature, but it can only take my recovery so far. And, also, if I was condemned for looking beyond conference-approved literature, that would make the 12-Step program feel more than a bit cultish. So, yes, while I agree the foundation of understanding how to use the steps and how to begin sobriety/abstinence/withdrawal is definitely served by using the program literature, it is only the beginning for my own recovery. Others may find that their own recoveries are best served by adherence to conference-approved literature. Mine isn’t. My spiritual journey isn’t limited to just eating within my food plan; it’s as expansive as the literature available out there to support my desire to have the promises achieved.
      Today, I am doing a Promises progress report. I am going through the 12 Promises of Recovery and seeing where they are already coming true for me. I hope to be able to look back as I move forward with each step and see the progress over time. While I’ve already done Steps One, Two, and Three and am in the middle of the beginning of Four, I do not lament starting them “late”. Where I am weak, I can learn. Where I am strong, I can learn. The changes from now until maintenance are going to be a testament to the changes I have seen in my journey of recovery through the program. I mean, in looking back to the beginning of the program, when the promises were a pipe dream that I longed to have be part of my own life, I can see changes in my attitude and actions. Before I was halfway through, I started to realize the promises are already coming true for me.
      Well, that’s about the size of it. Oh, yesterday I bought a couple of spiralbounds in order to begin my emotions journal. In fact, I picked up Stage II Recovery from my bookshelf because I was looking for books which taught how to deal with emotions and skimmed this book then realized that I wanted to work it thoroughly.
      Though I have only just started in this book, I am seeing it is an excellent tool for people who want to do the footwork to achieve the ability to practice recovered principles in all our affairs. It’s definitely something to look at if one is having trouble being more than their own program’s equivalent of a “dry drunk”–physically abstinent from the addictive behavior or substance yet not feeling serene because the mental and spiritual resources for change just aren’t manifesting themselves. By using a concrete method to make progress in my mental recovery, I have hope that I can create a lasting recovery which keeps my head out of my sense of frustration that the weight loss did not turn out precisely as I expected. I want to be grateful that I am able to function as I can, not be miserable that I don’t have a bikini body. And that, to me, means changing how I see myself, how I treat myself, and how I approach the world on a daily basis.
      I want and need mental recovery from my addicted thoughts and behaviors and patterns, and I am willing to do the footwork necessary to achieve it. That’s what entering Stage II Recovery is all about for me.
      My name is Jess and I am a food addict and approval addict. I strongly believe that freedom from addiction is not just about changing how I eat or interact with people. It is about changing the core belief system in order to make thinking and behaving outside the addiction a choice–just like working the program by using the OA tools and the 12 Steps has given me a choice to either exist in addiction or live in recovery. Each day, each hour, each minute I have the choice to stay abstinent or abandon my food plan and eat however, whenever, and whatever I want. I have chosen abstinence for a while now, and I want to make choosing abstinence easier by giving my mind the resources to choose recovered thinking and behaviors on a daily basis, as well.



  1. Thanks for your comments of second stage recovery and acknowledging that this doesn’t mean we’ve ‘graduated’ but that we’ve MORE WORK to do.

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