Embracing Discomfort is Where the Recovery Gold is
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“This capacity leads us to the very heart of what makes recovery sustainable, and life worth living, because almost everything that human beings deeply crave lies on the other side of avoiding discomfort.”

Very often, people come to treatment expecting to be fixed,…for all the struggle to just melt away and be replaced by an easy, comfortable life. Sounds great doesn’t it? Most human beings are partial to chasing this beautiful fantasy in some way, shape or form, particularly during times of struggle, but wouldn’t something incredibly vital be lost if we were ever granted such an instant miracle? Haven’t instant ’solutions’ proliferated in recent times with devastating consequences for the mental health and social fabric of our society? Are we not a culture drowning in the fallout from quick ‘fixes’ and bandaid ‘solutions’ to our despair? Indeed, ’some one in 5 adults in the U.S is taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem, … and addictions to legal and illegal drugs are now so widespread that the life expectancy of white men is declining for the first time in the entire peace-time history of the United States.’ (Johann Hari, Lost Connections, 2018). In Australia, the leading cause of death in 15-44 year-olds is suicide.

Treatment is about taking the band-aids off and actually tending to the wounds underneath…laying them bare, being authentic about how deep they are, how they came to be there, and the desperate ways we have sought to cover them up, hide from them, avoid them, and kill the pain that has leaked from them. It is about learning how to heal ourselves in connection and in community, because healing outside of connection and community turns out to be not very healing at all. It is the opposite of avoiding depression with a good Netflix binge, a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a romp through Facebook; the opposite of shooting heroin into one’s veins in search of a brief anaesthesia; the opposite of looking for answers to our suffering at the bottom of a bottle.

There is all sorts of wonderful in treatment….hope in abundance, safety on tap, as much support, connection and community as one can stand, loads of laughter and camaraderie, and so much healing, but rehab most definitely does not offer an instant miracle. What it offers is intensive support for the very beginning of an often long and sometimes arduous journey, help for people to map their recovery journey, become clear about what the journey is going to involve, work out what they might need for the journey ahead and and what they must leave behind in order to survive it. It is a place to learn and practice the skills required for a recovery journey, to build some muscle so that one is journey-ready, to take the first few steps and then walk back out into the world, and hopefully keep walking, one foot in front of the other, in the direction of recovery.

By far and away, one of the most vital muscles that needs to be built in treatment is the ability to tolerate feeling uncomfortable. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not. Most of us spend an awful lot of time, energy and money doing just the opposite….going to great lengths to avoid feeling uncomfortable. People entering treatment have very often taken this avoidance of discomfort to life-threatening lengths, even though paradoxically, the creation of more discomfort is almost a guaranteed outcome of going to such lengths. In recovery, so much of what we need to cultivate for the journey ahead,…the ability to delay gratification, to parent ourselves, to think things through, to respond rather than react, to live by our values and principles, to choose self-loving actions instead of a self-destructive ones,…rely on the ability to tolerate feeling uncomfortable.

And learning how to do this requires plain, old hard work… the work of little by little becoming willing to sit with, breathe through and be okay with, discomfort, so that day by day our window of tolerance expands. This is how we develop the confidence to know that we can face whatever comes. In the beginning, this may be the hardest work we have ever done, but the long trajectory of doing this boring, difficult, uncomfortable work is anything but boring, difficult and uncomfortable. On the contrary, this work gets us ready for a life where where we are not so preoccupied with the need to be safe, where we don’t need things to be easy and comfortable in order to feel satisfied, a life where we are much more resourced to take the road less travelled, or the path that is growth-rich. This capacity leads us to the very heart of what makes recovery sustainable, and life worth living, because almost everything that human beings deeply crave lies on the other side of avoiding discomfort.

So if you are on your way into treatment, it may serve you well to keep this in mind: Every time someone says ‘no’ to you, won’t give you what you want, or tells you something that you don’t want to hear, you have an opportunity to develop this most vital of capacities. When you feel like you can barely tolerate the experience because you don’t like a particular rule, or because you can’t have your phone right now, or because you don’t like another resident, you have the option of checking out and going to the Four Seasons, or you can stay, challenge yourself to tolerate the discomfort, develop a bit of grit, and actually begin to get well. It will be hard work, but is anything really valuable if you haven’t worked for it? Recovery becomes valuable precisely because we have to work at it, fight for it, grapple with it, cry over it, make sacrifices for it. And when we are wiling to do this, it gives back to us in ways we could scarcely have imagined, one of those ways being, paradoxically, a deep sense of comfort that travels with us, regardless of what we face.

About Anna Lloyd

Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private and a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Sydney’s Inner West, working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work, Anna is passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to recovery and wellness. Specialised in Addiction Recovery/Addictive Family Systems, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work. She is strongly committed to trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, and values warm, holistic, body-inclusive, life-affirming therapy grounded in mindfulness, practical wisdom, and the science of relationship systems and the brain.