Addiction and Recovery: Failure to Thrive?
So you made it! (Figuratively speaking since recovery from addiction is a lifelong process.) You are clean and sober and have navigated that first, oh so long, period of time where managing cravings and not drinking, acting out or using needed most of your attention, energy and focus (not to mention some divine intervention in some cases). Sometimes, once fighting day to day cravings has subsided and a person has begun to establish their life without the substance or addictive behavior of choice, life can start to feel pretty good. In 12 Step meetings you will hear about the “pink cloud” or in other contexts it may take the form of feeling “My addiction was really causing lots of problems. Things don’t feel so hard, hopeless, overwhelming or ________.” Feel free to fill in the blank here if the suggested feelings don’t quite fit but the first part of the sentence does.
As an addiction specialist who works in my therapy practice with courageous recovering clients , I encourage you to count yourself fortunate and to keep working hard on your recovery and self care if the previous sentence describes you. Please feel free to read the rest of the article just in case but at this point you may not relate to it.
There is another possibility in this scenario. Despite successfully being abstinent from alcohol, drugs or acting out, you might read that first paragraph and think “I don’t feel as good as I thought I would when I began this journey of recovery.” This may range from mild dissatisfaction to “This sobriety thing sucks. Why am I doing this again?” If you relate to this feeling rather than the commonly discussed positive life changes of recovery, this article may be of help or give you something to think about. I’d like to talk about a concept called “Failure to Thrive.”
Failure to thrive is a medical term and generally used when a baby, for whatever reason, does not gain weight or grow like they need to in order to develop and be healthy. Failure to thrive in the recovery and addiction sense is not a failure at all. It is actually a stuck place or a condition that prevents a recovering person from moving away from merely surviving (envision fighting the urge to drink or use daily, staying sober but… it took up all your energy that day or week) to actually thriving (envision growing, increasing capabilities, setting goals and moving toward them, increasingly healthy relationships through repair and using tools, etc.) The most dangerous part about failure to thrive in recovery is that it preys upon you when you are most in need of some hope and support, when it is most needed to have something to lean on, something to remind you why you are working so hard on your recovery in the first place. It may sound like this would only happen to someone in early recovery but I see it happen in early, middle and late recovery depending upon one or more of the following factors:
- How much energy is being invested in recovery on a regular (daily, weekly) basis? Recovery is a central concept related to life balance. It requires ongoing effort and attention in order to thrive. There is no singular “right” formula for how much energy to put into recovery. You must find what type of and how much support works for you.
- How long were you in your addiction? The longer the active addiction, the more “wreckage of the past” there is to address.
- What is the quality of your relationships in recovery? Often family dynamics that evolved when in addiction need support to adapt to the changes that recovery brings or to heal from the pain and/or trauma that addiction created.
- Codependency increasing or developing as sobriety/abstinence progresses? Did you grow up in a family where addiction was a significant issue and start using early? If so, codependency may have been a part of your addiction but masked by active using.
- Has there been significant change or growth so far ? If so the routine that was working may need to be adjusted. Feelings may be “thawing out” and new tools for handling feelings in healthy ways may need to be learned or used.
- Has another substance or activity evolved into an addictive pattern that is progressing into unmanageability? Cross addictions can take the form of an immediate substitute addiction or your life gradually becoming out of balance because of another activity or substance.
All of these factors can result in failure to thrive in your recovery from addiction. Don’t let a stuck place, the wreckage of the past, a cross addiction or unresolved relationship or family issues take the joy out of your recovery or lead you to relapse. More is possible for you. Often the painful lifestyle while in active addiction makes people forget that we are here to live life to the fullest; to thrive rather than merely survive. Consider taking a recovery inventory, either with your sponsor, a therapist or a trusted friend who is familiar with recovery. Stuck places in recovery are not a failure but they can result in failure to thrive and compromised quality of life unless additional effort is taken to move past them.