If you’ve had some experience with addiction and recovery, one thing you’ve probably heard over and over is the phrase “addiction is a progressive disease.” I think the meaning of this is pretty clear-- most people consider addiction to be a chronic illness, almost like diabetes, that can’t be cured, but can be managed. But most importantly, addiction is progressive: it gets worse over time unless action is taken to manage it. But there is good news. Addiction can be managed, and recovery is progressive too.
I didn’t start out as the hardcore alcoholic and drug addict I was at the time I got sober. It was innocent enough at first: sneaking away to drink with friends in high school, smoking weed on the hill behind my house and using eye drops, hoping my parents wouldn’t find out (they did anyway). But as I got into my late teens and early twenties, things got a lot worse. It stopped being “fun” or “experimentation.” I used and drank more frequently. I started using more dangerous drugs. I started getting into situations I didn’t want to be in and crossing lines I never thought I would cross. I made lots of small compromises, until one day I was barely recognizable as the same person.
I can’t tell you when it happened, but I had transitioned into being a full-blown addict and alcoholic. My life was in shambles, and just kept getting worse. I used and drank to numb the pain and forget about how bad things were, but even that stopped working after a while. At this point, I had lost almost everything: I had no money, had destroyed relationships with friends and family, had flunked out of college years before, had lost job after job. It was time for me to make a change before I lost my life too. So I sought out recovery.
Some people go to inpatient rehab or their first AA meeting and something just clicks. They turn the corner and enter recovery, never to use or drink again. They become pillars of the community. I was not one of those people. I spent multiple years in and out of meetings and treatment centers, staying sober for a while, then relapsing and ending up even worse off then I was before. But I never gave up, and eventually things started to get better.
For me, recovery was like the progression of addiction in reverse. At first things were difficult, and I didn’t really want to be going to meetings, spend my time with sober people, or be sober in general. But day by day, it got easier. It didn’t feel like I was holding on to the steering wheel with white knuckles just to keep from using or drinking anymore. I can’t tell you when it happened, but I started to wake up in the morning feeling good, looking forward to the nice things in life I got to enjoy now that I had gotten things together. The strangest moment for me was recently, when someone new to recovery told me they look to me as a recovery role model, someone who has what they want. Only true, progressive, long-term recovery can make something like that possible.