So much of the foundation of a sustainable recovery is about learning how to tolerate, engage with and move through adverse emotions; learning how to cope with the inevitable pain and discomfort, anger and grief that comes in a way that is life-giving, rather than life-threatening. It is a process that takes unwinding, unlearning, and rewiring established thought patterns, and is incredibly hard work. That is why any person who continues committed to their recovery is a warrior, and even just setting out on that journey to begin with takes incredible strength.
But to keep going, to persevere on the road to healing, takes an understanding of a very important principle. That is: recovery is not about a destination, but about learning how to ride the wave. The waves of emotions, of hunger and fullness, of desires, of urges. Bringing balance, not perfection. Many who seek perfection in recovery end up disappointed and in despair because they believe falsely that once they commit to recovery, they’ll reach a place with no more pain, anxiety, fear, frustration or temptations. But recovery is not a fairy tale land full of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns. Trust me, I wish it was! One of the most valuable and empowering lessons that I learned on my own journey was that my strength did not come from performing recovery perfectly, but in learning how to ride the wave well, and if I fell off the surfboard sometimes, to hop back on, and get ready for the next wave. Because life doesn’t promise still water.
What does “riding the wave” look like? It begins with being mindful, so we can recognize the wave when it comes. Practicing mindfulness is taking time to observe thoughts, breathe, find quiet moments to be present throughout the day, and does not have to be (though it can be) long sessions of meditation. Then, when mindful of rising emotions, tension in the body or urges, bringing presence to the moment and instead of reacting immediately, breathing through the crest of the wave. Meeting it with subjective observance, the thought or feeling is a part of you but is NOT you. Bringing in the knowledge that you know from past experience that the wave will pass and this current state is not permanent. It is temporary. Being able to feel then the recurring ebb and flow with our feelings and thoughts, develops our strength in tolerating adverse emotions and confidence on the metaphorical surfboard. And our minds and hearts grow stronger each wave we ride.
The accompanying principle to riding the wave is finding balance. Because sometimes lives’ waves do knock us off the board, or sometimes because of the intensity of fear or emotion, we jump off the board straight into the water! It happens. Recovery isn’t perfect, and neither are we. It is all about finding balance. Somedays we feel strong, other days weaker. Sometimes we don’t meet a personal goal we’ve set for ourselves, sometimes, we crush it! Life is struggle toward equilibrium, and rather than asking ourselves, have I reached this destination yet? We should ask ourselves, what do I need to add to my life to bring balance in this moment? Not in some distant point in the future, but in this moment? Here again, mindfulness plays a key role. Staying in touch and in tune with our mind and heart, even when we’ve fallen off the board, allows us to bring balance and self-compassion when we need it most. It is also a key part of growing stronger.
I invite you to reframe your own recovery journey, or that of a loved one, as a daily practice of finding balance, and riding the wave of emotions, thoughts and urges. Gradually the waves grow smaller, but sometimes life can trigger a bigger storm. Either way, a sustainable recovery depends on you trusting your healthy self and your body to carry you through, even when the waters get rough. So ride the wave, warrior in recovery, and see how strong you really are.