noun: recovery; plural noun: recoveries
- a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
- the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.
January 20, 2021 was an amazing day. There was a change in government here in the United States. One president left and another took an oath of office to preserve and protect. Songs were sung. Speeches were made. Flags fluttered in the wind. Even the weather cooperated, providing snow, sun, and wind on a chilly midweek morning.
Our future stood proudly at a lectern and uttered words that dipped and swirled like leaves in a spring storm, her outward appearance of youth unmasked by the old soul revelation of her poem. Our present, reflected in purple hues, stood erect and in antiphonal response, committed their whole selves to returning us to the familiar and predictable, even though the times we live in offer neither familiarity nor predictability.
And I watched. Tears streaming down my face from the majesty of it all. Tears welling up from having held back my pain and fear over the past years. Tears of joy. Tears of relief. Tears of hope. And then it was over.
There are moments in our lives when time seems to freeze. I know time was very different for me after my husband died. I seemed to be operating in a different reality. I have tried to explain it to others. Sometimes it was like the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. That moment when he realizes he is suspended over the canyon but gravity has not pulled him back to earth. Sometimes it was like riding an escalator, where everyone else is moving at a different pace in different directions, and I am motionless, being moved along by unseen forces toward an end point that is unknown. These last four years had moments like that for me.
It was as if I went through the motions, but never really quite got into the rhythm. By definition, this is an unsettling experience. My coping mechanisms included withdrawal, over-eating, and numbing myself with too much screen time. I was able to distract myself with work some of the time, but mostly I just waited for it all to be over.
Reinforcement and Acquiring New Habits
One of the great behaviorists, B. F. Skinner, demonstrated how we become habituated to certain routines. If the routine is reinforced with any level of frequency, we tend to repeat it. If we stop reinforcing the routine, it loses its appeal and disappears. Skinner also discovered that it takes a while to learn a new routine, and it is vital that what he called reinforcement schedules be maintained, so that the habit becomes stronger.
As an example, four years ago most of us didn’t tweet and only paid attention to tweets if we had younger people in our lives who made fun of us. Then the president started tweeting and each and every day brought new tweets (frequency) and we “learned” to pay attention to these tweets and we were reinforced in this behavior by listening to the news and reading about the tweets in the media. All of a sudden, four years later, we are all Twitter-heads!
Yet another of Skinner’s brilliant observations was what he called the rebound effect. This is basically a counter-intuitive result to having a stimulus removed (extinction). You would think that when the stimulus is removed, the behavior would stop, right? What he observed, however, is that when the stimulus was removed, the individual (in Skinner’s case it was pigeons and rats) actually increased their acquired behaviors, almost as if they thought, “If I just do the same thing more, it will suddenly reappear!”
This principle has been used in early childhood development programs, in drug and alcohol recovery programs, and in advertising and gambling establishments. Especially in the last two! Turns out, human beings easily embrace this process and can be manipulated to insure that there is always just enough reinforcement and just enough withdrawal to keep us hooked to a particular brand of clothing, music, political party, and social media platform. When it is removed, we scramble to fill the void by doing more of the same and expecting everything to just return to “normal”.
After four years of daily bombardment of emotional pleas, threats to our safety and security, demands for change, and finally, at the last, an organized attack on our nation’s Capitol, one of the stimuli has been removed. There is an expected rebound effect occurring. People are scrambling to fill the void and return to previous levels of arousal. This will remain for a bit; perhaps only days or months, or possibly longer. Then we will enter into recovery.
Much of what I know and understand about recovery has come from attending courses on substance use and talking with people who have renegotiated their relationship to substances that have taken control of their lives. Both of these sources of information suggest that recovery is on-going. It is not a single terminus.
One prevailing theory (Prochaska and DiClementi) suggests that there are stages of change:
- pre-contemplation (no awareness of problem or need to change)
- contemplation, (awareness of problem, but no commitment to change)
- preparation (ready to change in future, remains ambivalent)
- action (first signs of behavior change)
- mastery/maintenance (working to incorporate and sustain changes)
- relapse (reverting to previous behaviors)
What is useful about this model is that it allows for variability. A few of us are not even aware that change needs to happen. Many of us understand that things need to change, but are waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows. Some of us have come to the conclusion that SOMETHING needs to change and so are contemplating something new, but honestly, it may never happen, so we aren’t putting much effort into it.
Action is an interesting stage of change. For me, action happens first in my mind and my friends may not see much difference in what I do. But then, seemingly all of a sudden, I do make changes (e.g., start writing a blog, retire) and move into a different, more creative side of my life. Cowering underneath all of this is a frightened child who is unsure and gun-shy. This is a fragile and vulnerable stage, often filled with lofty statements and grand intentions. To make it through this stage requires patience, tolerance, and regular reinforcement of preferred new habits.
Mastery is one of those things that is recognized (by me, anyway), only after the fact. I notice that it doesn’t take as much effort to produce a desired result. This is also a vulnerable point in change, because I can easily start taking my new behavior(s) for granted. But if I tend to them as I would a newborn, then I can get the reinforcement I need to sustain the change.
Which Stage Are We At, America?
I think the last four years was a relapse. We took so many things for granted and left many things to look after themselves. We experienced the consequences over these past four years and now have an opportunity to renegotiate our relationship to each other in order to form a more perfect union. My friends who are in recovery remind me to take things one day at a time. To accept the things I cannot change and to have the courage to change the things I can. And to find the wisdom to know the difference. Recovery will be the outcome and it can’t come too soon.