Some addicts in early recovery find the concept of mindfulness hard to grasp. For many addicts, working a program based on having a “spiritual connection” can bring about mindfulness. Some in recovery find mindfulness in meditation or prayer. While others find it in certain actions such as taking a walk into nature. How one person finds this state of being is not necessarily the same as the way another person would go about it. I would like to offer my experience and thoughts on this topic that will perhaps allow for those who are struggling with mindfulness to gain a better understanding of what it means in the context of recovery and how to work towards obtaining it.
The definition of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”. This is an important aspect when a person is working on their recovery from a substance use disorder. Most people who have had a substance abuse problem have trouble when dealing with cravings for their drug of choice. The problem many addicts face in early recovery is that when these cravings occur, they can be so overwhelming that they cannot get their mind off them. The thought of using becomes an all-encompassing urge that one cannot seem to shake. An addict will find it seemingly impossible to be present in these instances and all other thoughts cannot break through the overpowering thought. This inability to shake the cravings and focus on the present can lead to a relapse for the addict. The obsession of craving will run rampant if an addict does not find a way in which to get passed it. Which leads me to what brought me to my mindfulness.
Stays in medical detox facilities can be unpleasant. A person is going through withdrawals and even with the medication provided it can be uncomfortable to say the least. In my last stay at detox prior to getting clean I was miserable. I was in the middle of opioid withdrawals and there seemed to be nothing to do to take my mind off what my body was going through. Until in a common room I found a chess board. When I was younger, I had learned the game of chess from my grandfather. I would play as often as I could, it was something I deeply enjoyed. Then came the drugs. Things that I once enjoyed fell away and the only comfort or pleasure I sought was in drugs and alcohol. It was that way for years, so in that moment at detox where I had a clearer mind than I had in well over a decade (even with only a few days of separation from drugs) I found myself wanting to play the game I once loved. Eventually I found somebody there who knew the game. I played as many games as I could and to me at that moment it was merely a way to pass the time.
The day came where I finished my detox protocols and headed off to a rehab facility that offered a Partial Hospitalization Program. As I did my intake and met clinicians, I walked by an office with a chessboard. I inquired as to who’s office had the board, as I was hoping it could be somebody I would see on a daily basis so I could play. I was informed it was the office of the Executive Director, Matt Ganem. My hopes dropped. In these facilities you see clinicians and group facilitators, but you never see the director of a program. Imagine my surprise when Matt came up and introduced himself to me! I found myself almost immediately asking about the chessboard. He invited me to play anytime. Perfect. I found another way to just pass time. Or so I thought that’s all it was.
Fast forward a few months and I was in sober living and in an Intensive Outpatient Program at the same treatment center. I was miserable and wanted to use. The cravings were terrible. One day I was at my breaking point, I went and spoke with my therapist towards the end of the day. I told her how I felt and how I just wanted to get high yet at the same time I did not want to pick up and use. I was frustrated at how I felt because my willpower alone was not enough to get me through this. I was in pain. An emotional pain I cannot properly describe in words and only those who have gone through it can understand. My therapist listened to me. She was sympathetic and wanted to help but nothing she said made my thoughts any better. My mind was racing and although I heard her words, none of them stayed with me. As an attempt to get out my anger she took me outside to throw rocks at the ground. Despite her best efforts it did not help.
It was at this moment that Matt came outside and asked what was wrong. We went to his office and I told him how I felt. As I spoke, he set up the chessboard and moved a piece. We had played many games during my stay in PHP, so I instinctively moved a piece of my own. As we talked while playing game after game, I began to notice something. My thoughts had calmed and the cravings lessened. We must have played twelve games in a row. It could have been more, it could have been less but I know that we played for a few hours. Matt knew something that I didn’t at that moment in my life. He knew that cravings were a thought and would pass but I needed to do something proactive to take my mind off the drugs. This man had children, he had his own life, yet he stayed after work ended for over two hours with someone he barely knew because it would benefit me. He had been where I was and Matt knew I needed to find a way to be mindful and not think about my past mistakes and my uncertain future but just be present. When we finished playing chess, Matt advised me to stick around and listen to a speaker at an Alumni event the program was having that evening.
That speaker shared about the pain he felt in early recovery and how it made him want to quit. He spoke about how one day the pain just wasn’t as great and each day after that it got easier. I needed to hear that. I would never have been able to appreciate what that speaker said if I didn’t play those games of chess. I realized that the game helped me focus and be present. It allowed me to push the thoughts away. Today, if I ever find myself worried or stressed, I will play chess on my phone to clear my head. Now let me be clear, chess was not the sole factor in my sobriety. I work a program which helps me stay clean.
That day helped me better understand mindfulness which is a crucial aspect of my recovery. As an addict if I am not being present my thoughts wander, and I may find myself worrying over nothing. Some people meditate, I play chess. There are many ways one can work on being more mindful in recovery. You could pray, draw, write, play or listen to music, read, and even do crossword puzzles. Each person is different for what get them to a state where they can just be in the moment.