Sudoku and recovery

I am having a wonderful time here in Salzburg, and I can't wait to blog about many of the interesting speakers and latest research. However, given the fact that I've slept about 4 hours in the past 3 days, I'm going to wait until I have a little more brain function to deconstruct and build upon what I learned.

I had planned on live Tweeting the conference, but I was disappointed to learn that the conference center didn't have free wireless internet and I couldn't piggyback on any local free signals from hotels or cafes. So I will subsume my happy updates into my longer blog posts on the conference. I apologize as I wish I could have shared the conference with you in real time but I don't know I have enough karma yet.

Instead, I'm going to blog about (of all things) sudoku. It's one of my favorite hobbies and means of relaxing when I get worked up. Despite my being a writer, I'm not much of a crossword fan--in fact, I'm rather terrible at crosswords--but I love sudoku. I bought a purse sized book to bring with me on my trip as my usual book is pretty massive. As I was sitting on the plane and waiting in the Frankfurt Airport, I was working on some puzzles and it suddenly struck me how much working on these puzzles reminded me of recovery. And no, it wasn't just because recovery is so darn puzzling.

Sudoku has certain specific "rules" that guide you in filling in the 9 by 9 square of numbers. Everyone has a different strategy for filling in the numbers within the rules, and each puzzle requires you to pull upon a variety of strategies in order to solve the puzzle. Often, by switching between different tactics, I am able to see the solution much more clearly than if I had just stuck to one way of solving the puzzle.

So it goes with recovery. The rules I see as defining recovery start with physical and nutritional rehabilitation, and also involves an improvement in quality of life, a decrease in other psychological issues, and an improved flexibility around food and eating. These rules are meant less as constraints on what you can do (although if you could write any number in any box, there wouldn't be much point to the game) and more to provide a framework in which to create your recovery.

I have struggled with basically every aspect of recovery, but one of my biggest difficulties has been identifying different strategies to maintain my recovery and then the flexibility to switch between these different approaches as the situation requires. It's similar to my Sudoku solving skills (or even Spider Solitare, which is my other favorite de-stressing game), in that I often get so focused on filling in every last "3" or filling in one particular row or column or square, that I lose sight of the rest of the puzzle. So I get frustrated and give up, or make a really stupid mistake because I lose my ability to rely on logic and reason. This is pretty similar to how I get into trouble with relapse. I struggle with being inflexible (life should be this way not that way and I have difficulties adapting), which leads me to make dumb mistakes (skipping breakfast is no big deal, right?) because I'm not being logical (I've gotten in trouble every other time I've skipped breakfast, and there's no reason to expect that this time would be any different). Or I just chuck the whole recovery idea in the bin and say "Screw it. I'm going back to the restricting because this sucks and I can't get it so what's the point?"

The similarity that especially struck me on my trip was how I have learned to cope with my sudoku frustrations. In the more difficult puzzles, I often reach a point where the puzzle seems unsolvable. I can't seem to make heads or tails of the puzzle and no matter how much I stare at the numbers, none of the solutions seem obvious. I feel completely and utterly stuck, and many times get ready to write off the puzzle.

So it goes with getting stuck in recovery. I can look around and try different strategies and sometimes, there's no getting around the fact that I have no idea what to do. I feel like I'm never going to get anywhere, that recovery will be forever out of my reach.

Yet with my sudoku puzzles, I keep working the game, keep plugging away at it, and often the solution that so stubbornly evaded me becomes clear. The puzzle is by no means solved, but the way forward becomes much clearer.

Another reason I prefer sudoku to crosswords is that it's much easier to discover when you've gone wrong. There is one right answer. I suppose there is one right answer in a crossword, although it's possible to fill in different words and still have a puzzle that looks right but isn't. Sudoku doesn't have that uncertainty.

This is, I suppose, where recovery and sudoku diverge. There isn't one right recovery or one right way to reach recovery. Nor does recovery come with the "Eureka!" moment when you realize you've gotten everything in its place and you're going to be just fine. It's more of a slow unveiling of the solution and how much progress you've made towards your goal.

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Zach said...

Great post! Sudoku is so upfront but complex at the same time. It is a great game.

marcella said...

have you ever done any of the "set shifting" puzzles that Janet Treasure is working on? I haven't but according to my daughters who have for this study
but it sounds as if they could actually be fun as well as diagnostic.

Cathy (UK) said...

Glad you're having such a great time Carrie. I would have loved to have come to this conference... not the least because it is in one of my favourite cities.

I'd have loved to have met you too. I met Laura and June at EDIC 2010 - and it was a pleasure :)

Also, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE sudoku.

Marcella (above) - I recently went to IoP in London to do some of the puzzles you describe (+ some more) with Janet Treasure's group. The puzzles were really interesting to do. My results were rather predictable :D

Carrie Arnold said...

I will have to check out those puzzles- I've run into Janet Treasure several times and will ask her about that!

**emily said...

OMG Carrie. I LOVE THiS. Well, we both know how much I adore sudoku and obsessively do it as a distraction and distress tolerance tool.

I love the parallels you pull... i couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

I like how you are looking at recovery as an ongoing journey rather than an arrival. The journey can be a source of richness, I'm sure!

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

C said...

Interesting, I know a few people who do puzzles in this way to calm themselves down and focus their minds in a way to switch off from something stressing them out. That goes for me too, I do puzzle books when I cannot sleep at night for thoughts whirling around my mind, and my mum when she is flying (esp taking off and landing).

When I started to drive regularly for work, about 8 years ago, I had to force myself to get into a calm state in order to focus on my driving, so that I don't get fazed by anything unexpected that happens on the way. Now, that happens automatically when I drive. If only I can get in such a state while I am socializing WITHOUT relying on alcohol or any other meds, I'm onto a winner! Lol.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a sudoku person but I found "wordoku" at the store (with letters, which helps because I tend to mentally reverse numbers...)and not only found your insights about ED similarities fascinating, but the idea of putting the brain to work on a puzzle instead of ruminating about food a wonderful thing! So thank you, thank you, thank you!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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