Progress Sometimes Feels Like Going Nowhere – Part I - Plateaus of Progress / by Michelle Cowan

For me, progress in recovery is a funny thing.  I've described it as a slow spiral upward, where sometimes you're lower and sometimes you're higher, but you are always higher than where you used to be—on average.

Another way I see it is as a series of terraces or plateaus on our way up a mountain.  We find the mountain when we first get into recovery. This is a huge step, and we find ourselves on plateau one.  It's all new, all cool, and all special.  Early in recovery, we may even jump up two or three plateaus.  It's an awesome ride!  It all feels new... until it feels old...

Eventually, we end up on a terrace or plateau where we chug around for a while, trying to figure something out or just hanging out, it seems.  Some people call it the three steps forward, two steps back syndrome—or the two steps forward, one step back syndrome, where we feel like we're sliding back down the hill. 

While we're stewing in this place of zero-progress, we may get glimpses of that next plateau, but we can't figure out how to get there or why we sometimes don't even want to get there. During this time, some of our symptoms may, in fact, get worse.  We may not notice it for a while, but eventually, the weirdly elementary things we are doing grab our attention.  We feel like idiots in recovery, like we're stuck.  And we often overlook areas of our life in which we are improving. 

These plateaus instigate such a mix of emotions.  We might be doing all the "right" things, but we seem to be going nowhere.  Or we go somewhere and then fall back—repeating the pattern a dozen times.  When you are on the plateau, remember that nothing is lost or wasted, that you are learning.  Because, eventually…

One day we look around and – WOW! – we're on the next plateau!  How did we even get here? 

What happened?  It's like we had an epiphany or are just now realizing that we don't want things we used to want or do things the way we used to do them.  It's exhilarating and validating in so many ways…

And it's usually followed by another slow churn on a plateau.  Borrrring.  We may take a couple more quick leaps up the mountain, but the plateau is inevitable.

I've come to realize that these sudden jumps are not so sudden.  We do a lot of work as we circle those plateaus.  We learn many things, we try new ways of behaving, we fail, we succeed.  We experiment.  We learn.  And eventually, all these disconnected attempts and mistakes and learnings come together.  We arrive at a new place.  It's that moment of connection that makes it feel like we graduated all of a sudden. 

Life is about accepting that plateau and TRUSTING it. I have to learn to trust myself and my higher power.  In the beginning, recovery is all about releasing the self and relying wholly on a higher power.  Later recovery is no less about HP, but for me, more time in program has also required me to regain trust in myself.  Regaining that trust has entailed some mishaps, but I have come through those a better person, even if it meant extra pounds or other consequences I might not have liked or that really might not have been the healthiest way to go.

Continuing in recovery means believing that my higher power truly enables me to be the person I was meant to be, not the person covered up and weighed down by addiction and eating compulsions.  Whereas in the beginning of recovery, I am taught that I can never trust myself, later in recovery, I must learn that I CAN.  This is a difficult mental shift, and one that some people don't manage to make.  For them, they repeat steps one through nine of the 12 steps over and over, or end up having to act out so that they can start back from step one—the familiar.

If I see recovery as an evolving thing, I get to acknowledge the progress I make over time.  I don't completely lose touch with the old way I made decisions or think I know everything, but I don't discount myself and all the things I have learned.

For me, the twelve steps and recovery are useless if they are nothing but a big cycle I go through again and again in the same way.  I think programs of recovery are designed to take us to somewhere new.  As humans, we are designed to grow.  My recovery reflects that.  For instance, I use all 12 steps, but not in the same way or at the same pace or even with the same kind of attention as I used to.  But of course, it can be difficult to remember that when I’m on the boring, no-movement plateau.

It's a tricky thing when we get to this point of learning to trust again.  When our eyes have been open for a while, and we start seeing the cracks in some of our old recovery ideas, it can be scary.  Is this meeting that I've gone to every week since I started really not for me anymore?  Is this person I looked up to really full of crap?  Is this coping mechanism that used to work for me not working anymore?  Is the way I do my reflections and inventories still effective?  Are the habits that once kept me sober now weighing me down and discouraging me?

We have to ask these questions, and when we do, there might be a few steps forward and back again.  It can feel like we are making no progress or like we are losing something.  It can feel like we aren't being as "good" as we used to be.  But we have to take a holistic look at our lives.  Is EVERYTHING really going downhill?  Or are we struggling in some areas more than we used to and EXCELLING in others?  Are we improving anywhere?  If all we see is backsliding, there might be a problem.  If we have not found healthy ways to fill in the spaces left by the recovery techniques we have left behind, we may need to check ourselves and talk with someone.  When we feel ourselves sliding downhill, it might simply be a signal that we need to try something new—change therapists, change meetings, change some of our habits or recovery methods, change SOMETHING. It doesn't have to be a crisis. 

In any case, I live for those days when I feel like I finally "get" something that I didn't get before.  I know that those breakthroughs are products of weeks and months and often years of work, but they feel like miracles.  And I think they are.  They are slow-working miracles with big payoffs.

Take a look at your life.  Are you on a plateau?  Can you see the next step?  Do you not know how you'll get to where you want to be?  Maybe you don't have to know. Maybe you are in just the right spot, learning just the right things, laying the groundwork for even greater things to come.  Not all of recovery feels the same.  That's because you are changing.  Let yourself change and let it be slow if it needs to be slow.

I'll discuss this weird feeling of, "Am I making progress when it feels like all I do is make mistakes?" in part two of this post.