Keep Pedaling and Look Forward
I recently heard someone in working on their recovery ask, “Why is that I seem to get about a month’s sobriety and then relapse? I can’t figure it out?”. Many of you can relate to this person’s question, for it is a common frustration in the experience on the road of recovery. For some reason, a vision from my childhood came to mind; I could see my father and my two older brothers teaching me how to ride my bike for the first time.
My Dad had taken the training wheels off, and they had taken me down the street after dinner one evening, a brother on each side of my bike while Dad held the seat behind me. They were all coaching me to do this and that (Hold the handle bars steady, keep the front wheel straight, keep pedaling, etc.). Yet I kept doing the same thing repeatedly, looking back to see if Dad was still holding my seat. When I saw that he was actually jogging a few paces behind me, I would lean over and fall into the grass, to which my Dad and brothers would say in unison, “Why did you stop? You were doing it! You were riding the bike!”, to which my six-year-old brain would reply, “But you let go of me!”. Like all good circular arguments, this one went on for another two or three times before Dad, my hero, who later would be the best man at my wedding, lovingly if not exasperatedly said, “Let’s do it again, and whatever you do, keep pedaling and look forward. DO NOT LOOK BACK!
Needless to say, call it God’s providence, the star’s aligning, the fifth time’s the charm, choose your own metaphor, everything clicked, and I remember them all saying “You’re doing it!” as I sped off and left them in the dust, speeding home faster than the wind to show my Mom that I could ride a bike like the rest of my family, my excitement only momentarily dimmed when I crashed into the garage door, unhurt but realizing that I did not yet know the second most important skill in cycling: how to safely stop on purpose.
The reason this experience is so appropriate is because as people who live with addictions every day, we have periods where we can function fairly well, or in some cases even excel. We can live life pedaling forward. Yet, when the right amount of stress coupled with the right emotional and/or external trigger hits, we start to look backwards for a sense of comfort or security all the while continuing to pedal forward. Sometimes we have soft grass to fall into, often its hard pavement, and for some, we veer into oncoming traffic and the consequences are severe, even tragic.
As I sat there, lost in my own thoughts but still pondering my friend’s original question, it occurred to me as a little boy, it was perfectly appropriate for me to look back for my Dad. The training wheels were off, it was kind of scary, I was afraid of falling and being hurt, and who could protect me better than my Dad? To suddenly see that not only was he not right next to me, but more than a few steps away was frightening. In that moment, I was completely overwhelmed in emotion mind. I couldn’t see what my father and brothers were seeing. My mind and consciousness had not yet integrated what my limbs were doing onto one coordinated experience that my brain could file under the folder “Riding A Bike”. Some people call it the “Ah Ha” moment. Either way, I wasn’t there yet, and I was looking for reassurance. In a sense, this is a simplistic way of describing what we who struggle with addictive behaviors do; something in the life scares us and we are looking back for some reassurance, safety, and relief.
But this where the similarities with my bicycling metaphor end. Unlike my family, who wanted to help me grow as a person, the addict is looking to savior that isn’t there. In fact, because the addiction is a disease of the brain, faulty thinking is the symptom. The biggest dream of all is to be able to use successfully, to drink/smoke/use/gamble/eat/act out sexually without any negative consequences. We are always looking for the magic bullet, the new and novel approach that will suddenly turn the lights on fix the problem.
The truth is, we can’t outthink our way out of the problem. AA says that addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful, a secular paraphrase to the roaring lion in 1 Peter 5:8. To live and breathe is to pedal forward, to do so looking back is only to invite disaster, or in recover terms, relapse.
So, smart guy, what is the solution that will keep me from looking back? Short answer, there is none.
We cannot un-learn something once we’ve learned it. I can lose the physical capacity to ride a bicycle, but once I learned how to ride one, I will always know how to do it. I never once considered putting training wheels on any bike I owned after that. It would have been silly. Learning to ride a bike helped me grow emotionally as a person, gave me sense of accomplishment, which build my self-esteem. It expanded my world, because now I could ride to new parts of the neighborhood that I had never been to before, which helped me develop my own sense of self -reliance and independence. I grew physically because the exercise helped me strengthen my body which helped my physical development. I also knew that even though I could travel the neighborhood, I still had to be home in time for dinner, so I learned responsibility and to be aware of the time (though not always). There was no way I could go back to being the little boy I was before learned how to ride a bike. It was physical, emotional and cognitive impossibility.
Once an experience is created it is stored in our memory forever. The good, the bad, the ugly, the pretty, the wins, the losses, there all there. They are part of what make us who we are. To deny even the most painful experience is to seek to live outside of reality, that is why trauma therapy is focused on helping trauma victims integrate their experiences so they can no longer be stuck in the past but “catch up” and live their lives in today. Sometimes this denial behavior hides in plain sight by the language we use.
Often our inner voice phrases things in “Yeah, but” language. In those statements, whatever comes after the word but is really the main object of the sentence. “Yeah, I’ve been sober thirty days, but I always seem to act out.” The word “but” negates everything that came before it. A good dialectical suggestion that I found helpful is to substitute the “and” for the word “but”. This is acknowledging that there are two truths occurring simultaneously. Yes, I am tempted to act out, and there is more to me than my addictive behavior. Acknowledging that the temptation to use or act out is there and is powerful is acknowledging the reality of the situation. You wouldn’t treat a full grown male lion in the wild the same as your house cat. That is asking for trouble. If you want to change your reality, you first have to acknowledge reality. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to acknowledge reality for reality’s sake.
For the Christian this is especially important, because if we have been saved by the blood of Christ then our identity, who we are, is as a child of Christ, of God, not as an addict or an alcoholic. Does this mean that we do not struggle with our addiction? By no means. Just because we received salvation did not mean we no longer have to contend with the attraction and the works of the flesh. It means that my identity, that deepest part of my being, is as a child of God, washed clean by the blood of Christ. It also means that I contend with addictive behaviors as part of my salvation each and every day until I depart this world.
How do I do that? I KEEP PEDALING AND LOOK FORWARD BY ACKNOWLEDGING STEP ONE, that I am powerless (in my own ability, intellect) over my addiction and my life has become unmanageable. To put it another way, as that great character of the American cinema, Harry Callahan said, “Man’s got to know his limitations”. If I keep buying the false promises that looking back sells, I will always crash and relapse. Maybe not today, but eventually. Always.
As long as I Keep Looking Forward (Step One) and Keep Pedaling, I have a chance to grow and live in freedom. I Keep Pedaling when I do those things that build a life worth living. You can use the benefits I listed earlier that I got from learning to ride a bike: Emotional Maturity, Physical Development, Self-Reliance, Responsibility, and Enjoyment as a guide. If an activity builds you up in any of those areas, it’s probably a good thing to participate in and can enrich your life.
Recovery is hard work. Life is hard work. Sometimes the answer doesn’t need to be repackaged. Some of the lessons we learned as children are still relevant today if we stop and take the time consider them through the eyes of age and experience. Remember you are more than your problem, or even the sum of your problems. There is that deepest part of every person that is crying out to be heard, that wants more in life than to live in bondage to anyone or anything. It is that part of you that I hope I have had the privilege of speaking to today.
Thank you for taking the time to read this posting. I hope it has been a blessing to you. There is so much more that could have been written on this topic. If I can be of any further help to you please email me at Scott@recoveringhopecounseling.com.