Out of the box

…by Matt Robert…

There is a well-known unconscious defense mechanism in psychology—compartmentalization. All humans compartmentalize. It’s one of the ways we make sense of the world, putting things in little boxes, so we can understand and move through the world more effectively.

But compartmentalization can cause more harm than good. Especially when it comes to addiction. We learn that our addictive behavior provides us something we are missing, some relief from anxiety, some focus free of the stressful distractions of daily life. Then we notice we want to keep using it, using it in a way that may not be acceptable to us secretor to our community. We want the resulting ambivalence and cognitive dissonance to go away. So we put the addiction in a compartment, over to the side in our psyche. A little box of respite and relief when we need it, and no one else needs to know about it or disapprove.

The problem is that, in addiction, the compartment starts to leak. The tendrils of our secret start to surround us to the point where everyone else can see that it’s a problem–before we do. We think it’s still back in its box, there for when we need it. But now it’s taking up more and more space in our mind and in our life. And the leaky compartment is getting more and more difficult to manage.

Addictions aren’t the only thing we compartmentalize to our detriment. Sometimes we also compartmentalize our recovery. Our recovery is boxed away in the meeting we go to on Tuesdays, or the medicine we take every morning, or the program we went to for 3 months. organizerOur recovery is under control: it’s in a box. But unlike addiction, our recovery compartment doesn’t usually leak. It just sits there. It doesn’t become the central part of our daily life that the addiction was. In fact, with recovery, compartmentalization poses the opposite threat: the danger that it may dry up and disappear if left in its box.

Rather than compartmentalizing our recovery, we need to integrate it with the rest of our life if we want our addiction to shift. When we quit doing whatever we did, it holeleaves a very big hole that something else needs to fill. If nothing fills that hole, whatever it is we quit is going to come back. A compartmentalized approach to recovery is not enough to allow the strands of workable change, the tendrils of real transformation, to be established and maintained.

It doesn’t matter what you do, whether it’s HAT, MAT or Hazelden. It matters how you do it. It matters that you carry your recovery around with you like a precious jewel wherever you go, not leave it in a safety deposit box you visit on weekends. People say that spirituality shouldn’t be something you talk about in church every Sunday, then lose sight of the minute someone cuts you off pulling out of the parking lot. Neither should our recovery be. Recovery is about purposeful re-engagement and reintegration into this absurd enterprise we call life.

More effective treatment approaches actually fight the compartmentalization of recovery. They are integrative, and they fold treatment modalities that are effective for individuals into their daily life, their personal ecosystem. The community of caregivers, friends, family and fellow addicts are all connected and groupcan troubleshoot and collaborate to solve problems as they arise. There is the feeling that we are all in this together, all on the same team. When we feel this way, alienation tends to dissolve, and the need to compartmentalize, to control, lightens up. It’s safe for our recovery to emerge from its box, like a butterfly from its cocoon.

How do you compartmentalize your addiction, and why? How do you compartmentalize your recovery, and why? What would help you take your recovery out of its box and integrate it into all parts of your life? If we can find the answers to these questions, we can learn new ways of being that will take us beyond our addictions. As we learn to dissolve these boxes, we can build new lives. As I once heard an old timer say, “This isn’t a fucking dress rehearsal. This is it.” When we have everything to lose, we have to be open to anything that makes a difference. And compartmentalizing our recovery, putting it in a box, is unlikely to take us where we need to go.

24 thoughts on “Out of the box

  1. Patricia Cameron-Hill July 2, 2016 at 5:44 am #

    In our “Free Yourself” program for people with a gambling addiction, we use your
    your model Marc, with a “new road” (pathway) as a useful analogy. For example, in our last session we “laid extra rocks in the soggy parts”.
    I see how we can incorporate this “compartmentalizing concept” and I’m sure it will be helpful to all of us.

    Grateful thanks, Patricia

  2. Neil Hong July 2, 2016 at 7:40 am #

    This is such useful advice for me right now as I’m undergoing therapy for alcohol abuse and social anxiety. There are useful progress made. But you hit the nail right when you mention about not isolating recovery like we isolate our addiction and the eventual takeover. I have been trying to find an appropriate analogy for my recovery progress and reading this input puts a tangible cover to it. Thank you

  3. Lise July 2, 2016 at 7:49 am #

    Wow Marc, I love the way you write and explain things.

    This post really resonated with me because after several failed solo attempts at sobriety ( once for 5 months and then once for 6 months, I don’t need to tell you about the 1-2-3 days attempts ) I joined an online support group called LifeRing.

    I immediately connected with their approach that I was a powerful human being and that I had the freedom to personalize my recovery program . At about the 2-3 month mark my attitude shifted, I went from feeling like I was giving something up to embracing sobriety as a way of life. This attitude gradually permeated my life and my sobriety compartment grew!

    I made protecting my sobriety the TOP priority in my life.

    I made a point of noticing all the changes that were happening , big and small. Some things I wrote about to the group at that time were as simple as noticing the relief that I felt because I no longer needed to hide my beer cans in empty boxes of cereal (so the neighbors wouldn’t see them), to the relief I felt because I also no longer needed to park my car a certain way so I could sneak in my 30 pack of beer unnoticed.

    Even the simple fact that I now brushed my teeth before going to bed, something I had stopped doing because….really….beer and toothpaste don’t go well together.

    There was a mantra in the group that went something like this. DDNMW..Don’t Drink No Matter What! I changed it to : I will go to bed sober tonight!

    Seems like a small thing however for me it was BIG. It was part of that whole thing of embracing sobriety, not giving something up or telling myself I couldn’t drink. I was turning toward something better, something bigger. I was actively cultivating my new life. My sobriety compartment grew, actually I think the compartment blew up!

    And yes, there were many challenges! I relapsed 4 times, each time for about 1 week during the 3 year period when I was going for treatment for Complex PTSD. I returned to my sober life because there was no more denying that even when things were extremely difficult for me, they would only be worse if I drank.

    The changes that had occurred in me were profound and intense, I had managed to create a valuable circle of support of friends, fellow sober addicts, my psychologist, psychiatrist and even my family doctor. This is all in stark contrast of when I tried to go it alone and failed, when I compartmentalized my recovery, back when I thought that all I had to do was quit drinking…LOL

    Today, I am engaged in my life…I am a butterfly!!! I love how you used that analogy in your post, I have butterflies everywhere in my house!

    Thanks for all the great work you do Marc!
    Lise ( In New Brunswick, Canada, the lady that wrote to you in the past about the library)

    • Lise July 2, 2016 at 8:51 am #

      My apologies Matt, I just noticed that you were the author of this wonderful post rather than Marc!

      • matt July 2, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

        No worries, Lise. I take that as a compliment!

    • matt July 3, 2016 at 5:52 am #

      Thanks, Lise

      What you’ve described so well is an anecdote of the perfect recovery. Of coming to terms yourself. That attitudinal shift is so profound when you notice it….the change from feeling controlled to feeling in control.

      It sounds like you found your true intention to quit– to want yourself back. Intention precedes motivation. You can have all the motivation in the world (e.g., health, family, legal, job) but if it’s not coming from you, you’re not gonna quit.

      This may be one of the hardest things we ever do, but the benefits can be huge.
      And you did it! Yay!!

      • marie August 30, 2016 at 11:36 am #

        A big part of overcoming any kind of addiction, is being able to understand why you have an addiction in the first place. This really summed up why many people end up having addictions/dependencies.

  4. Tim Greenwood July 2, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    Love the boxes analogy. Working on projects related to developing resilience and resistance skills in young people so they will be less prone to finding these unhelpful ways of handling life’s stresses and hiding these away in boxes. There is some interesting work being done by some on teaching and exposing young people to alternative and healthy ways to deal with stress, perhaps take more interesting and positive risks and even “get high” but not with drugs or substances. Truth is human beings have this wired in urge to get out of their current state and get into more interesting states. Problem with substances is that they are limited and addicting. Lots of interesting resources out there to examine. Recently have learned about awesome guy named Wim Hof known as the Iceman who is worth checking out. I think one of the downsides of Sobriety is the whole concept “Sober” – it can feel boring and hard to maintain for some wired for excitement. Think there is something about finding alternative healthy ways to get into other states. Not for everyone but just adding this to the discussion.

    • matt July 2, 2016 at 9:02 am #

      It’s true. A “high” is a very valued thing in our world. Just not on dope. Young people usually see the flaws and hypocrisy at that recognition and rebel.

      One approach I’ve found that works better with young people is to start with what we get out of getting high, not the negatives. You can ease into the down side more easily. The truth is always more engaging, and kids respond to self-disclosure too, if you’re comfortable with that.

    • Denise July 2, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      Tim, You’ve touched on something that’s so relevant to me now. As someone who’s sober albeit maintained on Suboxone, I often find myself wanting to get high. I’ve narrowed this desire down to a craving for something Different. As an “older” person, my life and my emotions are more stable than they’ve ever been, yet sometimes I feel that if I can’t get into another state of mind I’m going to go crazy. Somehow meditating doesn’t do it. “…there is something about finding alternative healthy ways to get into other states.” I totally agree.

      • matt July 2, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

        Denise, you hit the nail on the head as far as my experience. When I first got high as an anxious young person–in retrospect– it wasn’t so much that I felt better as knowing I could feel different. I thought I would always feel that way–anxious and depressed. That’s how it ends up,too, when the habit pathways get ground in. It got old and unmanageable, and I was just trying to feel different, not better. Anything, but how I was feeling at the moment. But it gets better. It’s hard when you don’t have anything to compare it to.

        Keep experimenting. You’ll find something. I’ve found I have to do a combination of things: exercise, meditation, and something that I feel is engaging, meaningful and productive, and most of all…fun.

    • Carlton July 3, 2016 at 9:26 am #

      To add to that thought;

      Re-discovering genuine feelings free from the addiction , such as excitement, is something to be looked forward to.

      In Hindsight, the addicted-state of excitement, and other feelings, pale in comparison.

      This is probably why a large percentage of addicts do not choose to continue to maintain an addiction anymore.

      And discovering that it was the addiction, not sobriety, that requires maintaining, is a one of the life-changing realizations that may occur during the recovery process.

      • marie August 31, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

        I feel like once i became sober everything was easier. I wasn’t as frustrated or as down all the time and i realized that, in fact, maintaining a drug addiction and being dependent on drugs was far for demanding and work than living addiction free.

    • marie August 31, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

      If i wouldn’t have been young and uneducated about drugs, addictions and all that i wouldn’t have used them to cope with the trauma and hardships in my life. Sadly i did not have all the information i do now on drugs, addictions and things of that nature, and i certainly would not have learned about those things the way i did.

  5. Mark July 2, 2016 at 8:51 am #

    It’s easy for me to imagine a whole neurological remodeling going on inside the brain as I read the above accounts, especially Matt’s. It’s like a real estate developer bought an old prison and is tearing out all the cell partitions and metal doors in order to make one big, open community space where little is hidden away.

    • matt July 3, 2016 at 4:23 am #

      HI Mark

      This is a great image and metaphor! I like how you build honesty into it in the last sentence…

  6. Nicolas Ruf July 2, 2016 at 9:38 am #

    On the other hand, if it’s sloppy eat it over the sink.
    Check out Malvinas Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes” which your post reminded me of

    • matt July 3, 2016 at 5:32 am #

      There’s definitely a lot of ricky tacky, and if you step in it, it’s hard to rub off!

      • matt July 3, 2016 at 6:07 am #

        Ticky tacky! Damn you, Otto Correct. My apologies to Malvina…

  7. Edwin Evers July 4, 2016 at 3:08 am #

    Dit is behulpzaam. Doet me weer snappen wat ik aan het doen ben. De kracht om nieuwe wegen aan te leggen na een verslaving. Het in doosjes doen komt me zeer bekent voor. Ben weer blij met deze post

    This works for me.It gets me to understand what I am doing. The strength to overcome addiction and make new roads possble. Putting things in boxes sounnd familiar to me. So glad to get these posts

  8. John Fitzgerald July 23, 2016 at 6:49 pm #

    I wrote a blog post that speaks to your post about compartmentalization, please check out it out: http://addictionhelp.org/you-are-not-your-addiction-understanding-parts-of-self/

    Thanks for your insights!


    • Marc August 6, 2016 at 9:07 am #

      This is great, John. Very nicely said. And you’ve made an explicit and compelling connection with the AA ritual, I’m X and I’m a Y. I think it’s an excellent insight.

      If you’d care to, I’d welcome re-posting this piece on the present blog.

      The only thing I’m not sure I get is: “allowing our true self to lead life to the fullest” near the end. Why do we need to imagine a “true self” if we really become familiar with the family of parts? (I guess I sense what you’re saying, have had that feeling in meditation, but I still think it muddies the argument)

      • John Fitzgerald August 8, 2016 at 1:21 am #

        Marc (and Matt), thanks for the feedback. Your point is well taken, I should have taken more care in crafting this final part of the post. The goal is really to integrate the parts into the core (true, real, soul, etc…) self, and then live life from this integrated whole. The process of integration is really our life work. Each of the world’s religions delineate a point where self becomes non-self – where integration is complete, but this concept is really beyond the point of the post… Please re-post if you want, you have my permission. And thanks Matt for bringing the ideas to light!

  9. Heather July 24, 2016 at 6:50 pm #

    Very thought-provoking, Matt. This is where I have lost my way in the past. I love the idea of carrying your recovery round with you like a precious jewel. With alcohol I don’t think you are so much chasing a high, as trying to numb feelings. But whoever said that allowing yourself to feel feelings is a positive aspect, hit the nail on the head. It’s just getting through the rawness of feeling feelings that is difficult. Feeling and dealing, instead of subduing and avoiding.

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