Monday, February 07, 2005

As If

There's a fascinating discussion going on over at Fred's place, about Groundhog Day (the movie), Kurosawa, buddhism, existentialism, and acting as if. That last thing is a vital aspect of many recovery programs--individuals are told to "fake it 'til you make it" or "act as if," and I think it's a useful instruction, though it may seem at first to be at odds with the insistence on honesty that is the hallmark of recovery programs. But I think it gets to the heart of the challenge facing someone who has to, and wants to, change his or her life (and maybe even those of us who aren't addicted but who want to change something, anyway).

One of the first things that a person just starting out in, say, a 12-step program learns is that he (or she) doesn't know shit. That is, she has made her decisions on the basis of what she wants, right now--which is usually more of her drug(s) of choice--rather than on any evaluation of, for example, a future goal, or someone else's needs or feelings. His brain has been hijacked so thoroughly by the addiction that he doesn't really have a sense how other people make decisions or act. (For example: C thinks one of his coworkers is an alcoholic, because the coworker drinks significantly more than the people around him, and will always prefer an activity that includes alcohol over one that does not. The most important thing for this person is the consumption of alcohol.) Thus, one of the first steps of recovery--no matter whether it's a 12-step program or something else--is to realize that, not only is one "powerless" over the drug of choice, one's thoughts, behaviors, choices, and decisions have all been governed by the addiction to the drug of choice. You learn, in essence, that you can't trust yourself, because that self has made decisions based on the desire to use/drink for so long that there aren't many other desires left.

Any real recovery program also provides a path out, however--a series of steps (whether there are 12 or not) that help the addict learn how people who aren't addicted live their lives. The first part is generally some kind of assessment of one's own behavior and the effects it has had on one's own life and the lives of the people around one. It can be a "searching and fearless moral inventory" like the fourth step of AA, for example. (A good friend once pointed out to me that a good sponsor will insist that the inventory include the good as well as the bad--which is important, especially for someone who is finally coming to terms with and admitting the shit he or she did.) Making amends is a part of it, too--facing directly the people you've harmed with your behavior. The people I know who have done this and told me about it have said that it's incredibly powerful. And, for at least the first year of sobriety, you shouldn't make any major changes in your life--don't get involved with someone, don't get divorced or married, etc.--because, as noted, your decision-making abilities have been hijacked by your addiction, as have all your evaluative capacities.

But a big part of it is acting as if--I've come to think of it as a shorthand way of learning how to live by the golden rule. Act as if you were honest, even if you're used to lying the way some people breathe. Act as if you were compassionate, even though you're used to putting your own wants far ahead of anything else. Act as if you're capable of being responsible and trustworthy. In order to do those things, in order to act as if, you have to consider just what honesty and compassion and responsibility actually mean in the world. Because otherwise, they're just words.

Anyway, go read Fred's post and the comments.


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