“Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” — Norman Cousins
One of the most powerful “mantras” I heard when I was new in recovery was: “Play out the tape all the way through to the end.” And recently, I was able to help someone out by sharing some of my experience with it, which then caused me to reflect upon why I and countless other people seeking recovery from alcohol or drug addiction hold this simple admonition in such high regard.
To begin, the value of this recovery tool can best be seen in the context of how easy it is for someone new in recovery to encounter “euphoric recall” – meaning, the tendency to remember or look back on a past experience(s) in a positive light, while forgetting the negative—often terrible or destructive—aspects of that experience(s).
For example, let’s say Janet is a nurse who is a few weeks sober and currently in an outpatient addiction treatment program for professionals. She has just finished participating in an online Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Zoom and is ready to start cooking dinner. However, she realizes she needs to get a few things at the nearby grocery store to make the meal. While she’s shopping and walking down the beer and wine aisle, Janet sees a sign marked “Half-off Sale!” right above an opened case of what had previously been her favorite wine. Suddenly, she thinks back to times when she’d get a bottle, invite a friend over to her apartment and have a relaxing evening catching up with each other. And along with that imagery, she also gets “warm, fuzzy feelings” about how good she used to feel when she’d drink a glass of fine-tasting wine. In the midst of this ‘tape’ playing through her mind, Janet hears her own inner voice exclaiming, “And now it costs 50% less!”
In this scenario, Janet, the person seeking recovery, was encountering the common psychological phenomenon known as euphoric recall. She was only seeing (on her mental tape-player) the joyful, positive memories of drinking… not the inevitable ‘final stages’ of what had eventually always become her reality whenever she’d drink, i.e., the complete mess her life, sooner or later, would become—the continuous lying and hiding, the ever-increasing shame and remorse, the degrading of her self-worth, and the hurtful decline and destruction of her relationships and career.
What any of us who are in recovery from substance abuse can do, right then—whenever we realize we’re caught up in the “happy memories” of euphoric recall—is keep playing that tape out, allowing it to go forward to the very end, in order that it reveal to us what our own history, our own ‘track record,’ has shown us to be the results we’ve gotten and we’ll very likely continue to get, over and over again. That is, unless… (Here’s the ‘good news,’ the solution that’s made possible if we play the tape all the way out to the end.)
…Unless we choose, in that very moment, to not drink or use, to stay in recovery, to reach out and ask for help, telling someone on the treatment staff (or someone in our recovery network or our 12 Steps sponsor) exactly what we’re going through. By doing so, we can get the assistance we need to shine a light on that ‘dark place’ we’re temporarily in, and get through that ‘euphoric’ set of thoughts and emotions without drinking or using.
In other words, if we encounter euphoric recall while we’re in recovery, we have a choice about how we respond. By playing the tape out in our minds all the way through to the end and seeing the truth of where taking a drink (or drug) will lead us, we can then take the appropriate action to maintain our recovery—abstaining from alcohol or drugs, just for today, and seeking help from treatment staff or people in our recovery network—and continue growing in freedom from active addiction, one day at a time.