It’s a real challenge for someone in early recovery to make a good decision in a difficult situation.

Okay, that’s not easy for anyone, period. But particularly for those who happen to be coming up for air after a long period of active substance use.

It’s fair to say that addictive disorders are characterized by both impulsive and compulsive behavior. You find yourself either making decisions without enough forethought —  the addict’s legendary “strength of whim”– or influenced by compulsion to repeat certain behaviors that actually worsen your dilemma (like using more drugs). In this context, even super-smart people are known for making horrible bad awful decisions. They just have more complicated excuses.

That’s why I was interested in this article, which suggests two circumstances where everyone, in recovery or not, is especially vulnerable to a poor decision.

  • When the level of anxiety is high, and
  • When considering the prospect of exceptional reward

Well, duh. Who didn’t already know this? But then I realized that just knowing better isn’t enough. It has to be put into practice.

Otherwise it’s akin to what happens when someone gives that talk to rehab patients on the hazards of substance use. The message: Keep this up and bad things will happen. But of course, the audience already knows that. It’s not like anyone puts their hand up to dispute it.

Yet somehow, a number of those in attendance will go back out into the world feeling healthy and strong and confident, and proceed to make the same bad choices they made before.

Conventional wisdom attributes this to the usual suspects: lack of education, flawed reasoning, absent values. But according to the authors, that’s not what the research says. Instead, it appears to be a problem of perception.

Under certain conditions, we lose our ability to accurately perceive the inherent risks in a given situation. Our perceptions have become distorted. Suddenly we’re missing obvious warning signs, ignoring key markers of danger, or simply deciding to take a leap of faith at exactly the wrong moment.

Afterwards, we scratch our heads and wonder: What was I thinking?

It strikes me that early recovery itself could be characterized as a time of “high anxiety”. Your nervous system is struggling to adjust to operating without drugs, at the same time as you’re contemplating a major repair job on your life. If your perceptions are off-kilter, so will be any choices you make based on those perceptions.

Not good.

The authors do offer a few suggestions. One is to consciously remain on the alert for either of those two high-risk situations. Another one that I liked:

“Before making decisions, we should ask a trusted friend or even an outsider for an opinion. When situations allow, consult an independent expert.” And, may I add, listen to their feedback.

Now all we need to do is translate that into action.