There are many cases (my own included) where abstinence in a process addiction is extremely elusive for a while, despite apparently throwing everything at it.
Here are some observations of having process addictions myself and sponsoring or talking to literally countless people who also have them. I hope these help. They helped me.
(1) Some people come to SA, OA, etc. and are abstinent from day one. Others take years of patient work and improvement, with distressing setbacks, before abstinence or the maintenance of bottom lines is achieved. This does not mean the programme does not work or works only on some people. It means, rather, that some people are deeper into the addictive process than others and take longer to heal. The book Alcoholics Anonymous refers to the 'Step Nine promises' coming 'sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly'.
(2) It is not necessarily true that one must acquire full and permanent abstinence before one can even engage in the process of recovering. This defeats the point. In some parts of recovery world, newcomers who can't stay abstinent on their own power (which is the definition of powerlessness!) are told they cannot start the Steps until they have achieved abstinence. I have known many friends who find this both shaming and exasperating: they're required to admit powerlessness in the same breath they're required to exercise power they're blocked from. The experience of many is that it is precisely the engagement in the process that provides release from the behaviour, and that seeking abstinence (or the maintenance of bottom lines) must take place hand in hand with working the Steps.
So, how is abstinence achieved?
I don't have a definitive or comprehensive answer, but here are some suggestions from my own experience.
(1) To be free of an addictive process, I must be willing to feel whatever feelings come up. Sometimes the reservation consists in not being willing to experience certain feelings. Emotion must not be allowed to steer the ship.
(2) Addictive processes involve both a degree of automation (the same type of automation that enables you to drive a car or chop vegetables whilst talking to someone) and a disrupted relationship between the reward centre of the brain (the bit that likes the dopamine hit and issues instructions to repeat whatever behaviour produced it) and the decision-making bit of the brain. The brain literally needs rewiring. This is a formidable task and is not achieved instantly. Patience and persistence are required.
(3) Surrender of old attitudes, thoughts, and behaviour patterns and the adoption of new attitudes, thoughts, and behaviour patterns must be at the level of heart. This is not about external observance but a change at a profound level. This cannot be brought about as an act of the will but can be brought about by persistent work to undermine the attachment to the old attitudes, thoughts, and behaviour patterns, which is what the Steps are about.
(4) The set of actions suggested by a sponsor in all three areas, recovery, service, and fellowship, must be complete and not selective.
(5) It is the process of the Steps as a whole, incorporated into a system of fellowship and service, that brings about recovery: no particular element is the magic key. It's not as simple as that.
(6) Here are some quotations that are apropos:
From 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions'
Having been granted a perfect release from alcoholism, why then shouldn't we be able to achieve by the same means a perfect release from every other difficulty or defect? This is a riddle of our existence, the full answer to which may be only in the mind of God. ...
When men and women pour so much alcohol into themselves that they destroy their lives, they commit a most unnatural act. Defying their instinctive desire for self-preservation, they seem bent upon self-destruction. They work against their own deepest instinct. As they are humbled by the terrific beating administered by alcohol, the grace of God can enter them and expel their obsession. Here their powerful instinct to live can cooperate fully with their Creator's desire to give them new life. For nature and God alike abhor suicide.
But most of our other difficulties don't fall under such a category at all. Every normal person wants, for example, to eat, to reproduce, to be somebody in the society of his fellows. And he wishes to be reasonably safe and secure as he tries to attain these things. Indeed, God made him that way. He did not design man to destroy himself by alcohol, but He did give man instincts to help him to stay alive.
It is nowhere evident, at least in this life, that our Creator expects us fully to eliminate our instinctual drives. So far as we know, it is nowhere on the record that God has completely removed from any human being all his natural drives.
Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn't strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we wilfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, of our sins.
If we ask, God will certainly forgive our derelictions. But in no case does He render us white as snow and keep us that way without our cooperation. That is something we are supposed to be willing to work toward ourselves. He asks only that we try as best we know how to make progress in the building of character.
Until now, our lives have been largely devoted to running from pain and problems. We fled from them as from a plague. We never wanted to deal with the fact of suffering. Escape via the bottle was always our solution. Character-building through suffering might be all right for saints, but it certainly didn’t appeal to us.
Then, in A.A., we looked and listened. Everywhere we saw failure and misery transformed by humility into priceless assets. We heard story after story of how humility had brought strength out of weakness. In every case, pain had been the price of admission into a new life. But this admission price had purchased more than we expected. It brought a measure of humility, which we soon discovered to be a healer of pain. We began to fear pain less, and desire humility more than ever.
We saw we needn’t always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering. A great turning point in our lives came when we sought for humility as something we really wanted, rather than as something we must have. It marked the time when we could commence to see the full implication of Step Seven: ‘Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.’
C. S. Lewis
We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God's help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.
Practising the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
When an occasion of practising some virtue was offered, he addressed himself to God saying, ‘Lord, I cannot do this unless Thou enable me’. Then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault saying to God, ‘I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself. It is You who must hinder my failing and mend what is amiss.’ Then, after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.
Charlotte Joko Beck
Zen practice isn’t about a special place or a special peace, or something other than being with our life just as it is. It’s one of the hardest things for people to get: that my very difficulties in this moment are the perfection. ‘What do you mean, they’re the perfection? I’m gonna practise and get rid of them’ No, we don’t have to get rid of them, but we must see their nature. The structure becomes thinner (or seems thinner); it gets lighter, and occasionally we may crack a hole right through it. Occasionally. So one thing I want you to do is to identify for yourself what it is in your life right now that you’re not willing to have be as it is. It could be troubles with your partner, it could be unemployment, it could be disappointment with some goal that has not been reached. Even if what is happening is fearful and distressing, it’s fine. It’s very difficult to get that. Strong practice is needed to make even a dent in our habitual way of viewing life. It’s hard to get that we don’t have to get rid of the calamity. The calamity is fine. You don’t have to like it, but it’s fine.
In prayer or treatment (as in most things), the less effort you make, the better. In fact, effort defeats itself. Pray gently, quietly, without strain. When a person tries for the first time to swim, he nearly always begins by beating the water violently in his efforts to keep afloat. Of course, this is quite wrong. All that happens is that he tires himself out, and never swims a stroke.
Later, when he has been shown how, by an efficient instructor, he enters the water, and, with a very few gentle, almost effortless movements, he is at the far end of the pool. After that, it is only a question of time and regular practice for him to become an expert swimmer.
So it is with treatment. Turn to God quietly, with confidence and faith, and affirm that He is opening your path in whatever is the best way, or solving that particular problem. Let your prayer be an unhurried visit with God. Remind yourself that He cares for you, and that to Him nothing is impossible; and then give thanks—and expect results.
‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The final meaning of negative theology, of knowing God by unknowing, of the abandonment of idols both sensible and conceptual, is that ultimate faith is complete letting go. Not only is it beyond theology; it is also beyond atheism and nihilism. Such letting go cannot be attained. It cannot be acquired or developed through perseverance and exercises, except insofar as such efforts prove the impossibility of acquiring it.
Letting go comes only through desperation when you know that it is beyond you—beyond your powers of action as beyond your powers of relaxation. When you give up every last trick and device for getting it, including this “giving up” as something that one might do, say, at 10 o’clock tonight. That you cannot by any means do it—that is it! That is the mighty self-abandon which gives birth to the stars.