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Instant Gratification vs Delayed Gratification in Addiction and Recovery; Why Is It So Hard To Recover?

I want what I want, and when I want it, I want it yesterday. Sound familiar? In this day and age, our lives are completely and totally based on instant gratification. We can communicate with whomever we want at the drop of a dime, browse, and shop online, where essentially anything and everything is at our fingertips. Society has taught us that faster is better, it’s become the norm.

For someone who has battled addiction, it’s a constant chase for the “quick fix”. The stronghold that it has on an individual is directly correlated to the ability to change a person’s feelings almost instantly. Do you think we’d have an opiate epidemic if it took 30 days for the feeling of euphoria to kick in? My guess would be… NO!

Back in the day, when you wanted to take a photograph, you had to get in your car and drive, walk into a store, and purchase a roll of film. We had these things called cameras. Each roll of film either had 12, 24, or 36 exposures. You then had to be a mad scientist and figure out a way to get that roll of film actually into the camera properly. Ok, so the mission is complete. Now what? You had to snap 12, 24, or 36 pictures. I don’t have any idea how they came out. Back in the car, this time to a photo lab to drop off the roll of film for processing. You had to wait one week to get your pictures back. The longest week has passed, and it is time to see the finished product. Some are blurry; some have red eyes, and some have people with their eyes closed. You can’t do anything about it, and you must pay for them. Kinda disappointing, but that’s all we knew. Then, the best thing ever happened… ONE HOUR PROCESSING!! I still had to purchase the roll of film, take all the pictures, and return to the lab… But this time we only had to wait one hour for the results. Truly remarkable. What do we do today to take a picture? Easy… Grab our phones, snap a pic, modify if needed, throw a filter on, and boom! What if your phone made you wait one hour to see each picture you took, would you buy it?

Ok, so that was a long, drawn-out example of the way things used to be. How does this relate to the topic at hand? For people who have battled addiction, the concept of change is terrifying. The thought of not being able to control how they feel keeps people sick for a very long time. Everyone knows the old saying: “Good things come to those who wait”. The question then becomes… HOW LONG DO I HAVE TO WAIT??? When entering into a recovery program, the answer is typically… “I’m not quite sure”. That’s a tough concept to grasp when an individual is accustomed to controlling their feelings at a moment’s notice.

Addiction often involves a pattern of instant gratification, while recovery emphasizes the importance of delayed gratification, though both processes are complex and multifaceted. Addiction is… Feel good now, feel sh**ty later. Recovery is… Feel sh**ty now, feel better later. When an individual starts the recovery process, it’s a painful one. They are feeling feelings they’ve avoided for many years. After a few days, they tell themselves that it’s not working, that they are not “done” yet. The pain is becoming unbearable, it’s just easier to go back to the familiar and self-medicate. I unfortunately see this all too often, at times with fatal results. To truly experience freedom from active addiction takes TIME. The rollercoaster of emotions experienced in very early recovery is NOT an indicator of what life will be like in long-term recovery.

I have personally been on my recovery journey since June 19, 1996. On June 24, 1996, I so desperately wanted to give up, but a wise person told me to hold on for dear life and things would get better. I trusted this individual, as he had gone through what I was experiencing at the time. He was right. I stuck around long enough that the “rewards” of recovery started to outweigh the “rewards” of going back to my addiction. Without seeking that instant gratification at the time, it enabled me to build the life I have today with the foundation of delayed gratification. I kept telling myself… “I will make it through this; just hold on.” Over time, things got better and better. Eventually, that overwhelming desire to self-destruct dissipated, and I found a freedom that I didn’t think was attainable. My story is not a unique one, in fact it’s quite common. Tens of millions of people recovering today all started on day one. The one thing we all had in common was putting delayed gratification before instant gratification. Good things do come to those who wait.

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