Through canoeing, you’ll find a way to help your recovery.
It had been too long.
That is what I found myself thinking as I turned off the ignition and clients started to spill out of the van into the gravel parking lot. We could see our outfitter guides Bretton and Winston beside the canoe trailer unloading paddles and life jackets and could glimpse Coon Lake through a leafy veil of trees.
This was our first canoeing day trip of the season for the clients of Canadian Health Recovery Centre. With the help of Bretton, who is co-founder and chief expeditionary officer of The Land Canadian Adventures we offer our clients a day of wilderness canoeing once every 6 weeks from June through October.
It had been too long since I had been in a canoe enjoying the wild beauty of the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. I am quite at home in the wilderness. Over the years I have spent a lot of time canoe-tripping and it has become something I am very comfortable doing. Anyone who appreciates nature should try it, it would help your recovery.
This year’s CHRC day trips* are introducing a new element – the portage. Portaging is the process of carrying your canoe and your luggage on a trail from one lake or river to another. As we headed towards our first portage, I realized that all of my canoeing adventures in the last 15 years have been with my own 50 pound Kevlar canoe with a custom padded yoke. Today however, I would be tackling portages with a 70 pound canoe and a standard wooden yoke. I began to worry about how much difference twenty extra pounds over a long portage could make.
As I heaved the canoe up on my shoulders and started up the steep trail of the first 700 metre portage I was immediately aware of how much heavier the canoe was and how the yoke was biting into my shoulders. I found myself fixating on how dumb I was for not bringing my own canoe. I was quick to cast a creative string of curses at the mosquito’s feeding from my exposed wrist. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath from the initial exertion of tackling the steep rocky hill at the beginning and my wheezing for air seemed only to make the weight and pain worse. Discouragement crept into my head, stealing my self-confidence and replacing it with despair. I thought to myself, “What is it that I love about this again?”
My conclusion in the parking lot ‘It had been too long!’ came back to haunt me. I had been bearing this weight too long. I had been enduring this pain too long. Mosquitos had been draining my blood for too long. The trail was too long.
As I hovered between giving up and persevering, I had a realization. I was wrestling not so much with what my body was capable of carrying, but with what my mind was willing to endure. The more I reflected on it, the more I had the sense this was not just a portaging thing – this is a life thing.
My experience on the portage trail echoes the conclusions of Amanda Lang in her recent best seller “The Beauty of Discomfort” where she comments on Judson Brewer’s research on addiction:
“The vast majority of his patients, whether they were addicted to alcohol, drugs, or food, were reaping the same reward from their addictions easing unpleasant thoughts, memories, or feelings. Pleasure wasn’t the point…. On the contrary, patients talked about wanting to avoid their feelings, and about succumbing to the pull of their cravings. It wasn’t the language of happy people. It was the language of people who couldn’t handle discomfort – who were in fact so driven to avoid it that they were doing something that even felt worse: destroying their lives.”
My ability to persevere dramatically increased after I made the decision to accept the discomfort instead of resenting it. Instead of thinking about how I could escape I began to focus on my breathing. I began to have a conversation with myself about where I felt the pain, what kind of pain it was, and how I might compare the pain to other uncomfortable experiences. By using mindfulness techniques I noticed that the pain didn’t grip me as tightly – it was like I had given myself permission to get more comfortable with my discomfort.
I asked, “When you feel like you are hitting the wall – that you can’t bear the discomfort any longer – is there anything that could help you push a little farther?”
On a more recent canoe trip I came upon one of our clients standing beside his canoe on the trail. I could tell he didn’t want to let on that he was struggling with the idea of finishing the portage of his canoe by himself. He awkwardly manhandled the canoe from the ground up on his shoulders and began to walk. I walked with him and started to ask him questions. Could he describe where he felt the discomfort exactly? Could he compare the pain with other pain he had experienced? How is the discomfort of a portage similar to that of an addiction craving? An interesting discussion developed as we made our way down the winding trail. After awhile I could tell that the pain was getting to him and he was contemplating taking a break. I asked, “When you feel like you are hitting the wall – that you can’t bear the discomfort any longer – is there anything that could help you push a little farther?” My friend was quiet as he processed the question and searched for answers. I broke the silence by asking him “What if I told you that I can see the next lake through the trees?” He confirmed that hearing that the end was in sight was all he needed to press through and not give in to his body and mind that were telling him to find immediate relief from the discomfort. His face was beaming with a new sense of pride as he stepped out from underneath the canoe he had endured for 700 metres. He turned to me and said thanks for helping him go further than he thought he could.
What I experienced on the trail is just a shadow of the discomfort that people with addiction can expect to experience throughout their recovery. Learning to manage cravings and anxiety instead of running to the relief of drugs and/or alcohol is called ‘Distress Tolerance’ and is an important DBT skill that we focus on at Canadian Health Recovery Centre.
How do you handle discomfort? What do you ‘use’ to escape discomfort? What kinds of discomfort are you most allergic to? Are there some discomforts that you have become more comfortable with over time? How did you develop that tolerance?
How would the world be different if we all became a little bit more comfortable with discomfort?
We would love to hear your thoughts on this and any questions you might have about growth, health and addiction.
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Please keep Canadian Health Recovery Centre in mind the next time you connect with someone who’s life is being impacted by addiction. Help your recovery and share this article to help others.