One of my favorite analogies that I have heard while in recovery is that working through a recovery program is like playing a game of whack-a-mole – the minute one addictive behavior is pushed down (or quelled for the time being), another one pops up to be dealt with. I heard this analogy while sitting in a 12-step meeting and, while it made me laugh to visualize my addictions popping up and me bopping them with a toy hammer, it also gave me a sense of ease, knowing that my experience was not abnormal.
Describing my path in recovery as an ongoing game of whack-a-mole is a very accurate description. When I first got sober from alcohol and substances, I started smoking cigarettes. When I stopped smoking, I cross-addicted into relationships. When I finally decided not to date while in early recovery, I turned to sugar. When I stopped eating sugar in nauseating excess, I started exercising more and more. When I injured my back after training for and running a half marathon, I threw myself into work. The ongoing game of cross-addiction whack-a-mole is something I am still actively working on, partly because not all of my cross addictions have entirely negative consequences — at least not initially.
When I found recovery in 2012, I was entering my last year of law school – a rigorous degree that in its very nature requires excess. A year later I entered the legal field – an industry that (like many other industries) rewards long hours. When I first worked for an employer, I was given accolades for the long days that I would put it, and the number of billable hours I worked. I was provided remote access and a laptop so that even when I was not in the office, I could still work — and I would, often up until it was time to go to bed and, of course, on weekends. This practice was met with bonuses and the general sentiment that I was meeting the base standard for what it meant to practice law.
In 2016 I started my own firm. Becoming a business owner added fuel to the fire of working long hours. The positive affirmation and rewards that came with long grueling hours now felt more amplified, if not more necessary. Friends and family would voice concern about how much I worked, but having my own business served as the ultimate justification for working 90+ hour long weeks. This approach to my career (which I defined as my “high drive and work ethic”) had a number of positive outcomes.
My business grew quickly – I was practicing the law the way I wanted to, with clients I loved working with. I was becoming well known in the communities I worked in and building a great reputation. The work itself was immensely rewarding and gratifying. As time went on, however, I started to realize the thin line that existed between my “high drive and strong work ethic” and my “addictive behavior.”
For me, a cross addiction or cross addictive behavior is characterized by the fact I do that thing, or behavior, to excess, and to the detriment of my well-being, relationships, and recovery. Even as my business became more established, my hours did not decrease. My relationships were impacted, my health suffered, and I was taking on more work than I could reasonably be expected to handle – which just led to more hours. All I did was work. All I talked about was work. Heck, all I thought about was work. Starting to sound familiar?
Much like my substance use, I found myself stuck in a tailspin. I would set a business goal, and say “Ok, once I hit THAT goal…I will ease up.” Only I set another goal as soon as the previous one was achieved. I mention the positives that came along with this behavior because these were elements that served to make addressing this cross-addiction even more challenging.
One day, when discussing my work hours and business goals, my husband looked at me and asked, “How do you know when you’ve made it? What is enough?”
It dawned on me – for me, there is no “enough.” We hear this commented on frequently when discussing substance use disorder. People with substance use disorder often relate with the sentiment that they do not have an “off” button or “enough” point when it comes to drugs and/or alcohol. But, for me, this is not necessarily limited to drugs and/or alcohol. While I have been fortunate to have maintained my sobriety, learning to navigate cross addictions and “addictive tendencies” and live in active recovery has brought its own unique challenges.
In recovery, many of us find ourselves dealing with a cross-addiction where abstinence is not an option – such as when it comes to working and/or eating (work addiction and/or food addiction). I had to up the ante with my recovery work. I leaned into my recovery program, and I started facing past trauma that I had been avoiding. When I first started working less hours, I struggled and, you guessed it, my sugar intake increased. Then I stopped eating sugar and started kickboxing 6 days a week…and so continued the game of whack-a-mole!
It has not been a straight uphill journey, and I don’t anticipate that it will ever be “smooth sailing” indefinitely – after all, I have learned to strive for progress, not perfection. I continue to have a high drive and strong work ethic. I love working because I enjoy the work that I do. I receive genuine gratification from serving my clients and running my business. However, I am learning to identify which behaviors are in line with those traits, and which are fueled by my addictive tendencies. I set firm office hours, and actually follow them. I schedule my self-care. I put 6 days of kickboxing on my calendar, and then go back later and remove 3 days. Progress. Not perfection.
I share this aspect of my story because it is not something that I anticipated when I first started on my path in recovery, and it is something that took me years to identify as even being part of my path on recovery. My substance use was never just about the substance. It was about avoidance, managing (or not feeling) emotions, and chasing a “high” – three things that I have found can be achieved through a variety of excessive behavior…not just substance use.
Substance use disorder, as a disease, can insidiously touch every aspect of my life. For me, I find it to be constantly changing, growing, and evolving – meaning that my recovery program must do the same. Fortunately, the programs of recovery that I am familiar with are designed to be applicable to all aspects of our lives. For me, working a consistently active program of recovery has not always been easy, and the longer I am sober, the “deeper” and harder that work sometimes seems to become. Oftentimes it feels like 2 steps forward, one step back…but at least I am still moving forward. As I continue to “trudge the road of happy destiny” (one of my favorite lines from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous), the rewards are always worth it.
I share my story with gratitude for the growth I’ve been fortunate to experience through the struggles, and with the hope that it may inspire and help others on their journeys of recovery. After all, it is largely from the honesty and humility of others in recovery that I am sober today…and continuing to move forward, one step at a time.
Rachel T. Schromen is an estate planning attorney and owner of Schromen Law, LLC in St. Paul, MN (www.schromenlaw.com). Ms. Schromen speaks frequently on the topic of Addiction Trust Planning, including providing training on the topic to attorneys in the Metro Area.