Life in recovery is easier in many ways because alcohol, drugs, and other addictive behaviors are not contributing to the madness. They are no longer a person’s habitual center of personal energy. The self-knowledge we acquire and the self-forgiveness we can give ourselves make us nimbler and more flexible, which in turn makes us better able to respond to the challenges we will face living in recovery. Flexibility is a virtue in recovery but so too is some degree of rigidity. Together, flexibility and rigidity provide stability. Too much of either may lead to problems. We need stability and flexibility to traverse difficult terrain in much the same way we may need a bridge to cross a divide. Addiction
The bridge that best exemplifies the relationship between flexibility and rigidity is the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. James would like this comparison, I believe, since he was in San Francisco in 1906 and was shaken from his bed by a 7.9 earthquake. To be a reliable and useful bridge, it must be responsive to the needs and goals of the people who use it, as well as respectful of physical constraints. It must be constructed to withstand both the wear and tear of everyday use and a major earthquake. The bridge’s proximity to two very large faults capable of producing significant earthquakes is one of the most salient considerations for its design and construction. Addiction
This self-anchored suspension bridge has only one tower, which is located closer to one side. The tower and deck are designed to move independently of each other, which is crucial in the event of an earthquake. The bridge is constructed to be able to sway. There are also piles driven deep into the water at angles to increase stability. Interestingly, the stability of this bridge isn’t a matter of being able to resist movement, but rather being flexible enough to withstand the movement that would happen during an earthquake. The bridge is designed to move with an earthquake and not against it. This motion increases the likelihood of its survival.
Stability through flexibility is a crucial aspect of good recovery, and I would argue any good life. Good recovery is designed to be responsive to the goals and needs of a person and to be respectful of physical, social, and spiritual considerations and constraints. It may at first seem strange to think one must have a design for recovery, but good recovery requires intention and planning. It does not happen by accident or happenstance. One starts to generate reasonable goals that can be met. The goals may seem really small at first, but setting goals and meeting them requires hard work. At some point, a person will be able to set bigger goals for herself about what kind of person she wants to be and how she wants to show up in the world. Addiction
Recognizing needs is crucial but often easier said than done. Here too, hard work and practice are necessary since failing to identify needs produces a design that is not useful. The nature of addiction makes the needs very hard to identify and/or prioritize. Addictions affect a person physically, psychologically, and spiritually so each of these dimensions will produce needs. The needs may be in competition. Consider a person who has an opioid addiction. Psychologically, she may need to be free of all drugs, yet the use of suboxone could help to alleviate her physical cravings. Which need is more important? How might she come to a good decision about how to treat her addiction? Furthermore, a person with multiple addictions may have different needs for treating each addiction. One may be willing to go cold turkey on alcohol but will need nicotine patches for her smoking addiction.
Instead of looking to make a person’s recovery fit a particular program, we need to make programs that fit our differing needs. Some programs will be better for an individual than others. Someone who has a strong Christian faith might feel immediately comfortable with Alcoholics Anonymous, while people from other faith traditions might need to stretch the concept of God to feel included. This book argues for a much broader conception of a higher and friendly power that includes anything bigger than our own small selves. Others who have left a faith tradition or do not come from one may find secular groups more inviting. Still, other addicts will find groups using a cognitive behavioral approach to addiction and recovery more conducive to their needs. Some addicts will be opposed to any sort of group activity and might pursue more solo therapy ventures or alternative practices. Some will quit cold turkey and never talk about it. Addiction
As James argues, we are always in process. Our material, social, and spiritual selves constantly change. We see changes in others and ourselves as we dry out, sober up, and start to live a life of sobriety. These changes can be significant. Recovery must remain responsive to these changes. If not, then one may be seeking stability in rigidity. Maintaining flexibility requires assessing needs and goals and looking at the means and methods for living soberly. Some people might start to find AA confining; others who have tended to be more solo fliers might start to want the company of others in recovery. Some may finally try acamprosate calcium (Campral) to help with the withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking, while others take naltrexone to block the high that comes from drinking. Addiction
Each of us will experience earthquakes in our own lives. If our stability is founded on flexibility rather than resistance, we have a better chance of weathering those earthquakes. Weathering earthquakes doesn’t mean avoiding damage. We will have the resources for recovering from and repairing that damage. One important reason we are able to do this is that we can meet the world with gratitude rather than grievance. Addiction
Peg O’Connor, Ph.D., is a recovering alcoholic of 34 years and has been a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN for 27 years. She believes that philosophy helped her to get and remain sober. She avoided Alcoholics Anonymous for the first 20 years of her sobriety because of the concept of a “higher power.” Dr. O’Connor is the author of the new book, Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering (Wildhouse Publications, 2022) and Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery (Central Recovery Press, 2016). She also writes a column, “Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken,” for Psychology Today that has nearly 2,000,000 total views and select columns have appeared in the print publication.
By Dr. Peg O’Connor, an excerpt from Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering