I should really start this article by asserting the fairly obvious fact that the similarities far outweigh the differences when it comes to talking about men’s recovery issues versus women’s recovery issues. Of course, some would say that there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) any differences at all. Fine, but deep seated questions of biology and culture are above my pay grade. I work with an experiential model and the following is the first of several articles that detail the things I’ve noted over the last 15 years of working in the field, that tend to trip up men in particular when they’re in early recovery.
BE CAREFUL OBSESSING ABOUT WORK WHEN YOU ARE NEWLY SOBER
Men seem (on average) to be more obsessed with work than women. Perhaps this is cultural, and perhaps there will be more women also doing this in five or ten years-time, but for now, it’s a problem I encounter mostly seriously with men. It goes like this …
Let’s call our guy in early recovery ‘John’. John has got through the worst of it. He detoxed heavily for two weeks in the initial phase of his treatment at rehab. By week three he was fully engaged in group and one to one therapy, and making crucial insights. Whilst he was feeling pretty grumpy at times, and emotional, that was partly good news. To be able to feel again is a good thing even if it’s a little overbearing at first. By week five these turbulent emotions had started to calm down and he was actually feeling good!
And here’s where the trouble starts. Psychologist Terence Gorski calls this period (or pitfall) of early recovery, the “Flight to Health”. This is the bit where the temptation is to say “I’m cured … it’s OK … the panic is over”. Well … not quite.
John starts getting twitchy about accessing his phone and emails. His head is not quite in the process whenever he’s in group. His mind is turning more and more to how things might be ‘progressing’ at work without his input. I think we can take it as a given, that these ‘progressions’ at work (as John is imagining them anyway) are not a good thing. Like many addicted people, John has difficulty with control issues. He wants to ‘take back the reigns’.
Of course this is a very black and white example, but you get the picture. Whilst in reality, John might not suddenly decide he’s cured for life, discharge against medical advice, and run off home with no support network at all, he might do a sort of ‘mini’ flight to health.
This, subtler, more hidden form of “I’m cured” often comes by way of slowly but surely turning our priorities away from the recovery focus we’ve had so far. ‘Romance’ and ‘money’ are usually the two big distractions, but there are many more, and there are some very subtle ways that these non-recovery priorities can take over again very quickly.
My observation (and obviously this is corroborated by plenty of research into male work patterns) is that men can become obsessed with their work in early recovery for a number of reasons.
1. SOME MEN JUST PUT WORK BEFORE EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THEIR RECOVERY
There are a certain subset of men who always have, and always will, put work (status) before absolutely everything. They put it before family, they put it before health, and they definitely put it before happiness. So why wouldn’t they put it before their recovery. The amount of men who are willing to do this is far, far higher than the amount of women who are (although this is changing, with correspondingly terrible results in young women’s mental health).
The reasons for this are surely not just cultural. There are probably evolutionary drivers too. A man’s best chance of passing his genes on, e.g. successfully attract mates, is too amass resources with which to attract them. People don’t want to hear this these days, but that’s not my problem. My job, is to explain to men why they act the way they act, and get them to calm the hell down.
2. PREVIOUS UNDERACHIEVEMENT / FAILURE TO LAUNCH
Men, and most especially young (ish) men who perceive themselves to have underachieved, often give themselves a mightily hard time about it, and as soon as they’re feeling energetic again, and they’ve had the mood lift that typically comes a month or so after detoxifying, they want to “get after it”. Good instinct. Bad timing. There’s plenty of time for that later. What you need to do NOW is ‘consolidate your gains’.
3. PARENTAL PRESSURE TO “GET YOUR LIFE TOGETHER”
Yes, this is a big one. For every parent who understands that recovery must come first, or else they risk losing the loved one they’ve tried so hard to save, there is always one who doesn’t quite get it. That’s OK. It’s all a matter of raising awareness and education. That, essentially is the job of a counsellor or family therapist in the rehab or sober living home.
If you are in a 12 step mutual aid group, with no institutional support then it is probably you who is going to have to hold that boundary. But make sure that you get feedback from your peers or sponsor, in how to deal with such a situation. Ask them how they dealt with it. Seek out people who’ve had similar issues. And of course, this same issue might very well be coming from a partner, not a parent. Same difference. Recovery comes first. Whatever you put before your recovery, you will lose anyway. Tell them that!
None of this is suggesting of course, that you shouldn’t “get your life together”. It’s all a matter of being able to realistically see yourself. Given that all recovering addicts (no matter how much clean time they have) are pretty bad at seeing themselves sometimes, then this is obviously the ideal point to enact that other recovery staple – “checking your thinking”
Checking your thinking with others (and preferably with other clean and sober people) really helps to get rid of some of those habitual mental filters that have tripped you up so many times before. Maybe you just can’t see that you overwork. Maybe you just can’t see that you’re obsessed about money, status, or getting on. Maybe you need to do some of those things, but not RIGHT NOW. So … check you thinking.
In the next article I will discuss other potential pitfalls of early recovery for men.