Revolutions of Thought/Resolutions of Spirit: Reprogramming Memories to Sustain Recovery Success

Revolutions of Thought-Resolutions of Spirit
We spent this year’s Turkey Day with family in San Jose, practically a stone’s throw from my hometown of Santa Cruz.  Like the lure of the Sirens’ song, the call of the ocean was irresistible and so we packed up early Friday and hit the beach side town of my youth– my wife, kids and our two dogs.

Hometown Blues
For some, back peddling down memory lane can be a mixed bag of pleasing and painful memories.  We visited Holy Cross Church where I received First Communion as a wee lad and was later Confirmed while a Junior in High school.  I remembered fondly the priests and sisters who gently shaped the foundations of the faith that sustains me today, despite my prolonged and repeated lapses.

We drove past Santa Cruz High School and the home on California Street where I grew up.  For nearly two decades, my father terrorized our family in that home with his alcoholic fury and the violence it created.  We later grabbed slices at the iconic Pizza My Heart and then walked along West Cliff Drive to “Its” Beach, where the dogs, and our kids, spent a couple of hours immersed in sand, surf and sun.

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As my dogs acquainted themselves with the sounds and smells of an ocean they had never seen before, I reflected fondly on the countless days and nights I’d spent there with schoolmates and others– boogie boarding, surfing around the corner at “The Lane” and at Cowells, throwing kegger parties and proudly proclaiming the sands and the town they bordered as my own.  As with each generation, there was a solidarity and a connectedness that linked us to one another and to our hometown.   I was surprised at the sheer volume of long forgotten, but suddenly vivid memories that came rushing back to me as I sat watching our lab skate along the shoreline.

A Small Awakening
In many ways, the town was the same, but as familiar as it was, that deep connectedness I once had to the place had not just eroded, but had vanished altogether.  Santa Cruz is always in my mind, but somehow, it is no longer in my heart.  Home IS where the heart is.  And with this small realization came the confirmation that Redding is my “home” and my “community” today.

Emerging research from the University of Pennsylvania and Freiberg University suggests the brain uses spatial information to categorize memories.  Put another way, there is now some neural evidence our memories are “geotagged” to the places they were formed.  One result is that awestruck feeling we experience when a place triggers a series of recollections and we find ourselves saying “Wow!  I haven’t thought about these things in years!”

Why is this significant?  One reason is, I think, because a community is only as strong as the emotional connection– the degree of caring and concern– its members have toward one another.  However, we live in especially transient times.  Many of our friends, a few colleagues, and members of my own family have become uprooted– forced to relocate to seek work and rebuild lives in other cities and even in other states.  Some hit the ground running, but not all.  And many of these transitions were involuntary.  They were unplanned responses to changed work, or other life-circumstances.

Recovering our Resolve
bigstock-Thinking-Shiny-Gold-5925201There is a familiar kind of perplexing pain– maybe what we might call a separation anxiety— when we leave the comfort of our familiar people and surroundings and head off into the Great-Who-Knows-What.  This sort of anxiety makes relocating and planting new roots an especially daunting task.  We might be reluctant to put ourselves out there, or to throw ourselves into supportive relationships with new neighbors, co-workers or with the strangers we run into at the gym or in the grocery line.  Perhaps we fear the carpet will again be pulled out from under us, causing us to relive the pain of our forced exodus. This sort of anxiety can act as a filter, causing us to view the unknown through the lens of negativity rather than neutrally. 

In my pre-recovery and early-recovery days, if I didn’t know what the future held, I tended to imagine the worst possible outcomes.  This either filled me with despair, or prevented me from taking meaningful action.  I would give up on many goals before I’d even begun, thinking that by doing so, I would avoid the pain of the impending doom I envisioned.  So today, the suggestion we make every attempt to “live one day at a time,” to “live in the now” and to “enjoy the present moment,” are not simply platitudes.   They are instructions for living and stepping stones to achieving each goal I set for myself.

Starting over in a new place presents the opportunity for us to “geotag” new memories within our new surroundings, to forge new connections and lay down new roots.  In fact, we don’t have to relocate to another area to make meaningful connections. We just need to be resolute.

When we experience strong feelings in our daily activities– either because of the residue of the past or speculation about the future, we can be robbed of the contentment of the present moment; or, we can lose the attentiveness that provides an appropriate response to the circumstances as they actually are, rather than as they appear to us through our emotional filters.

For those of us in recovery, our substances of choice were very often also our filters.  We may have used what we used to filter out things we were running from, trying to forget or attempting to avoid– constellations of fears, anxieties, feelings and emotions that drove our addictive obsessions.

“Relocating” from the familiarity of our addictive obsessions to the “serenity” of a “recovered” lifestyle can also leave us feeling as isolated, exposed, or out of sorts as geographically relocating from our hometown to a new and entirely foreign city.  The speed with which we make the transition is always a function of our resolve and efforts to mix into our new digs.

Recovery Resolutions
While the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holiday Season can be a source of joy and family rejuvenation for many, they can be especially difficult for those of us in recovery and also for our families.  The embers of old wounds and resentments may still be smoldering under the surface of the festivities.  We may feel shut out or cut off from the holiday good cheer everyone else seems to be swimming in.  Alternatively, we may find ourselves in new, unfamiliar or different surroundings without the “benefit” of whatever it once was that we depended on to help us through it all.

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If we anticipate problems for ourselves during the holidays, it goes without saying that we should avoid drinking and using.  We should always maintain our determination not to return to our former bondage.

However, it’s just as important to remind ourselves that the core of recovery stretches far beyond simply avoiding substances that once dominated our lives. Recovery also includes the kind of bottom-to-top mental and emotional transformation that starts when we accept that a better life is possible for us and we become “willing to go to any lengths” to attain it.

While that acceptance may occur in a short space of time, the transformation it promises occurs over a lifetime as the tides of honestly, open mindedness and willingness roll in and out of the circumstances and relationships we encounter.

Built into the recovery calculus is the requirement that we put ourselves out there and begin geotagging new memories infused with the knowledge a better life IS attainable for us and is something we deserve and can create for ourselves.

As I again walk down that difficult corridor stretching from November 20th to shortly after January 1st, I know the decisions I will make will be influenced by conscious and unconscious elements of my past.  So I find it useful to put a “framework” in place for responding to the “knowns” and the “unknowns” I’m sure to encounter wherever the Season may take me.

Below, I’ve shared a few strategies that have kept me sober and mostly serene through 10 successive holiday seasons now– including all the days in between!

If these ideas have some value for you, please call or email me and let me know how your holidays progressed.  I’d greatly enjoy connecting our shared experience, strength and hope.  After all, isn’t that what fellowship is all about?


1.            Make the Decision That’s Right For YOU and Share it.
I had an old MGB rag-top convertible I bought for $800.00 and something was always going wrong with it.   It cost me several thousand dollars to maintain over the 2 short years I had it.  Each time, I agonized over whether to fix what was wrong.

But each time I made the firm decision to correct whatever was the issue, I was immediately at peace.  This taught me it wasn’t the frustration or expense of constant repairs that was rattling me. It was the indecision itself.

Similar forces are at work in my recovery.  If I focus on the uncertainties of life, I am sunk.  They are too overwhelming for me.  When I make a decision, or set a goal, I am at peace because the plan provides a framework of predictability leading to a tangible result.  And study after study shows that those who list and communicate their goals to others achieve what they say they want to achieve.

This holiday season, commit to loving yourself. Spend the time with people that are truly good for you and supportive of your recovery goals.  Write down a realistic account of what you want your holiday season to look like and communicate your vision to at least one other person who is supportive of your recovery efforts.  Take little steps in the direction of that vision.

2.             Inventory the minefield
No matter how deeply I may have been stuck in the mud of denial about certain facets of my addiction- ridden obsessive personality, I always knew who, what, when and where slippery people, places and things could be found.  Very often, my insanity lies in the delusional conviction I could again expose myself to them with benign, rather than potentially disastrous, results.

When forming your holiday plans, sit down with your loved one, sponsor, priest, coach or trusted friend and discuss where the potential mines are likely to be found.  Is there a simmering conflict that will be reignited if you adopt Plan A?  Are there deep seated thoughts, feelings or emotions that may bubble up to the surface if you adopt Plan B?  Will Plan C bring you back to a place where a surge of disheartening memories will hit you like a tsunami?

What are some of the potential triggers, red flags or slippery slopes you are likely to encounter this season?   Talking or thinking about such contingencies can help you plan a reasonable response if they happen.

3.            Take stock of your recovery capital
Give yourself permission to leave the past in the past. Don’t get bogged down by it.  You can’t change it or its effects on others but you can change its effects on YOU!  Focus on what is presently good in yourself and your surroundings:  your family, friends and community.

List and discuss the tools you have available to you right now to REASONABLY adjust to circumstances as they unfold.  Start thinking of how you will ROLL with the punches instead of THROWING them!  If it helps, look at what you wrote down when you “inventoried the minefield” above.

What tools do you have that you can use if you encounter one of the mines you’ve listed?  If you can’t think of any tools, is walking through that minefield really a good idea for you at this time?  What are some other options you have this year that will allow you to avoid the mine but have the holiday that’s right for you?

4.            Write out your strategy
As silly as this sounds, I still do this.  If I know I’m going to be at So-and So’s house this year, then Uncle You-Know is gonna be there too and you can bet the conversation will eventually turn to Thus-and-So.  If it does, then I am going to do This, That and the Other.  I have it written down.  I can look at it if I have to. 

I have a couple words outlining a simply strategy for each mine that I might encounter.  And, in bold and allcaps, at the bottom of the list, I have written:  “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WILL I ALLOW MYSELF TO:  ________________________”  and I describe each potential behavior I am committing to avoid.

5.            Plan to Succeedbigstock-Leadership-and-business-vision-44452543

As simple as this sounds, so many of us in recovery have been so beaten down by life, and have grown so accustomed to continually failing that we no longer have a clear idea of what success means for us personally.  If we do have some vague notion, we are often more doubtful than hopeful we can make that vision of success a reality in our lives.

First, be realistic and honest about your situation, strengths and life circumstances.  Aim high in all that you doBut aim for something that makes sense given your unique gifts and talents.

Second, don’t stop believing your dreams can AND WILL happen for you if you just don’t give up.

Third, just don’t give up!

Bringing it all home, make the firm decision to have a joy-filled holiday season this year.  Think about what the season means to you personally, how you want to celebrate it and who you want to spend it with.  Choose the options that maximize your sense of joy and personal fulfillment and that minimize the potential for sadness, discontent or despair.

Be aware of your triggers and hot buttons and have planned strategies for keeping on course when they get pushed– because they will! And in all that you do, believe in your heart that life and its possibilities are larger than our minds can imagine.  As you struggle through life’s trials, remember, they too shall pass.

Allow your spirit to be moved by visions of your present and future successes, rather than by memories of your past failures and worst behaviors.

And you will find that slowly and steadily, your recovery goals will become every day realities in your life.

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