51 Things You Should Know About Addiction Recovery
* Most of these “facts” that follow are just my opinions, but they are backed up by over 9 years of continuous sobriety, and my results in terms of personal growth are very exciting (at least for me). Basically: this is what I have learned, this is my model of the world (and of how addiction recovery works)….take it for what it is worth.
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1) Getting sober and living sober are two different things. In fact, they are two completely different phases of recovery. Early recovery is nothing like being 2, 4, or 8 years sober. It is so different that many people relapse because they never move past the initial phase of recovery where they are just hanging on for dear life to stay sober. This no longer works after a few months in recovery and eventually you have to start growing as a person in order to maintain positive direction in your life. Beware staying stuck in early recovery strategies. If you depend on group therapy after a few years in recovery, then something is wrong….
2) Convincing others to take action in terms of getting clean and sober is very, very difficult. Most people would say that it is impossible to force another person to give up drugs and alcohol, and that the decision must come from the individual alone. It is possible to influence an addict through practicing detachment and becoming aware of how not to enable the person in your life. This takes practice and most people need help to learn how to do it well.
3) Spirituality is but one piece of the solution. An holistic path makes more sense. Do not get so wrapped up in a spiritual quest that you neglect the other basic elements of your life. Balance is key. Most people who become overly zealous regarding spiritual matters in early recovery end up relapsing. Holistic growth is a stronger path.
4) Most addicts and alcoholics in early recovery are going to relapse. There is hope for everyone, of course, but time spent in recovery will reveal the truth of this numbers game to you. This is why most recovery programs advocate strength through a fellowship rather than through an individual. Individuals have a tendency to fail. “The fellowship” remains sober. Only individuals screw up and relapse…..
5) Dependence on programs, group therapy, counseling, or meetings is certainly better than active addiction if you manage to stay clean and sober, but it is still not an ideal lifestyle for most people. If you want to experience real growth in recovery then eventually you will need to lose these dependencies. Note that you can still attend meetings, therapy, etc. without being dependent on it. It’s about balance and keeping your “need for recovery” in check. Recovery is about living, not about therapy…
6) Almost everybody makes the mistake of crediting success in recovery with the tactics that got them sober. They might say “This program saved my life.” This is faulty logic. The truth is any sensible program would have saved their life, because they were finally willing to put in the work. No program of recovery has any magic in it whatsoever. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your salvation lies in the method. It is only in the application that you will succeed or fail in recovery.
7) Progress is vital in recovery. If you are not improving, chances are you are regressing toward relapse. Traditional recovery programs emphasize this as well. Stagnation is poison. If you get too comfortable, too bored, too complacent….then you are no longer really growing. If you are not facing some fear in your life then you are likely not making huge growth. The path of growth is a path of courage….
8) Clean time matters. Many will claim it does not, and nearly everyone will pay lip service to the idea that clean time is not important. This is all a big show. Don’t believe it for a second.
In my opinion, what matters regarding clean time is that some people have what we could call “significant clean time,” and others do not. Now what is “significant?” Well, say there is a person who tends to relapse every couple of months. They might even make it to a year or 18 months, but they have been continuously relapsing like this while being in and out of recovery over the last ten years. Right now they have 9 months clean again. Is that “significant clean time?” Not in my book it is not.
Time matters. I am not sure we can put a number on it, and say that “2 years or longer is significant” or anything like that. But I think in the real world it is pretty easy to identify those with significant time in recovery, and I think it is important. Clean time matters. Having significant time matters.
Many people will also argue and try to say that clean time does not equal “quality recovery,” or that long years of sobriety do not impart special wisdom, and so on. I pretty much disagree with this as well, though I realize there are exceptions. When I was brand new in recovery, who do you think I was taking advice from?–people with 10 years of sobriety, or people with ten days?
Yeah….clean time matters. When they tell you that it doesn’t, RUN.
9) A spiritual guru once said: “If you only have time to either meditate or exercise, always choose the exercise.” The reason he said that is because exercise includes meditation, but has additional benefit as well. My best meditation sessions have always been while exercising. Not that meditation is useless…it is just that exercise is usually superior for most people (though they hate to admit it due to laziness!).
10) They are racing to find a medical cure for addiction. So far they have not found anything that even comes close to being a “cure.” It seems likely that the pharmaceutical industry will never fully “cure” addiction. So, don’t count on it. Also, realize that existing medications that are used to help treat addiction are nowhere near as effective as people would hope them (or expect them) to be.
11) Going to rehab is not a cure. But, it is usually better than nothing. And, it might be the necessary break that a person needs to get a clean start in life. But if you pin all of your hopes on a trip to rehab, you may be in for disappointment. Rehab cannot produce willingness. It cannot change a person’s desire to get clean and sober. It cannot force people to want to live a new life.
12) Surrender is important. No one can be forced to get clean and sober against their will, until they are fully ready. There is one organization that specializes in helping YOU to help your loved one to get more “ready.” That organization is called Al-anon. You can’t force them to change, but you can stop enabling them, and thus bring them closer to their moment of surrender based on your actions. Consistency is key.
13) Switching from one drug to another trips up many addicts and alcoholics in recovery. They rationalize that their real drug of choice is something else, so they think they can get away with one pill, one puff, or one drink of some other substance. The insidious thing is that they actually CAN get away with it at first…..what they don’t realize is that the process of addiction has already started over, and will take but a short time for them to be back to their drug of choice. Substances that fall into this category of addiction include alcohol, marijuana, opiates (painkillers and heroin), and most anxiety medications (such as Xanax, Valium, etc.). Some sleeping medications can trigger people too. And of course all street drugs are cause for relapse as well. It is all about what sets you “off to the races.” Best to be really clear about what you are NOT going to put into your body….
14) Bias is rampant in recovery. Learn from this, and do not be misled by it. For example, the people in any recovery group are self selecting, and are going to be clean and sober, obviously (else they would be out getting drunk instead). But this does not necessarily mean that everyone who attends that group or that program will meet with success. Yet, this is the manner in which many people try to justify their choice of recovery program, through this error in logic that deals with self selecting groups. The winners stick around, but this is true of ANY recovery program.
Other types of bias can misinform people in recovery as well, such as the “successful path in recovery bias.” Anyone who got clean and sober through method X thinks that method X is the only way that could possibly work for anyone else. These are potentially very dangerous biases that can mislead others in early recovery.
15) If you have lots of friends in recovery, most of them will relapse, and a few of them will die. This will repeat itself every 5 to 10 years. Suggestion: find a mix of stable friends outside of recovery too!
16) Part of the path in recovery should include quitting smoking. Why? Because it is another step toward wellness. The holistic path will eliminate bad habits such as smoking. Many in early recovery hang on to this habit for a few years, but eventually people realize that they are still using nicotine to self medicate with, and that it is killing them. Also, those who manage to quit smoking in recovery have less tendency to relapse on drugs and alcohol, too. So quitting smoking is like insurance against relapse.
17) No one has a monopoly on recovery strategies. That is why some people recover in AA, some recover in religious programs, and some just get creative and carve their own path. If someone tells you that their program is the only way to recover, RUN. They are dangerous.
18) Success builds on itself in recovery. Those who are experiencing good things in recovery tend to experience more good things, in other areas of their life. The process is holistic. Negativity is a disease that will drag you down. Thus, you have to find the motivation to be positive and remain positive in order to make good things happen in your life. Once the ball is rolling, more growth becomes easier to achieve. Trying to add too much “success” all at once is probably a bad strategy. Mastering one positive change at a time can be very empowering, however. For example, stop using drugs and alcohol, then find some stability. Then, start exercising again. Go slow and achieve a rhythm in your life. Master one positive change at a time, or risk being overwhelmed in early recovery.
19) We are nowhere near a cure for addiction. Treating substance abuse and addiction is a very young field. The best recovery programs in the world offer poor success rates. There is no magic cure as of yet. Drug rehabs can help, but success rates remain low. The best bet in recovery is to hit bottom, become willing, and ask for help. No one has figured out how to make all of that happen at will.
Interestingly, there is one recovery program that does offer a 70 percent success rate, but it is targeted only at doctors. Some people look at this program (known as PHP) and argue that we could replicate this for other people in the general population, but I disagree. The program consists of a 5 year plan and includes many traditional forms of treatment and therapy and 12 step support. However, the reason I don’t think it can be replicated is because of the accountability. The doctors have to do frequent random drug screens for the entire 5 years, and they risk losing their livelihood if they fail a drug test. This, combined with the fact that they are doctors living a certain level of lifestyle, is what produces the 70 percent success rate.
Try to replicate this among the general population. Try to replicate this among people who scrape change together every day to buy a half pint of gin. Try to replicate this among a truly random group of addicts. You won’t get anywhere near 70 percent success rates.
We still have a long way to go….
20) Willingness cannot be manufactured out of thin air. The addict has to earn it through pain. Generally, the addict does not choose to change their life and quit drinking when everything is going good. This is part of why learning how to stop enabling them is so critical. If you are constantly putting band-aids on their problems, it allows them to continue their addiction without having to make major changes.
21) Religion is not the answer for most people. It does work for some, but it fails for so many people as a solution that it should definitely not be forced on people as the only path to sobriety. If it does work for someone, that is great, and there is nothing wrong with that. But do not expect it to become the default solution for recovery in the future.
22) Outpatient rehab is less than ideal. Long term rehab is very powerful. Mysteriously, success rates for these different types of treatment do not differ by large amounts. It is all about willingness and surrender, rather than the methods we use to get clean and sober. One rule of thumb: if a certain level of treatment has failed for you in the past, then try a more intense solution next time (counseling, outpatient, inpatient, long term, and so on).
23) Gratitude is a powerful strategy. You can get by without it and stay sober, it is just harder to do so, and less enjoyable. When you practice being grateful, good things keep happening, and they get emphasized in your mind. Remember another of our tenants here: success breeds success. Choosing to recognize the good in each situation will spur you into positive action. Give thanks, and life will give you more to be thankful for.
24) Success in early recovery can be measured by the amount of massive change the addict makes. If they make little changes, then they will probably relapse quickly. If they make huge changes in their life, then they have a shot at success. Huge changes would include things such as living in long term rehab or completely restructuring your life from the ground up with recovery and helping others in mind.
25) Fellowship is important (finding others who are on the same path as you are, with the same basic goals) but it is not the only thing in recovery. For many people, the fellowship in a recovery program becomes the driving force in their recovery. You cannot stay sober in the long run unless you find your own path of personal growth outside of the fellowship. That does not mean a person has to quit going to meetings, or that they cannot attend a recovery program. It just means that they have to find the drive to grow as a person outside of those programs. You cannot live in recovery meetings for the rest of your life. Life demands living.
26) Being cocky in early recovery is almost always a sign of impending failure. Being overly confident or even modestly confident is a sign that the person is not yet at their bottom, and cannot possibly go through the massive change that is necessary to stay sober. The sacrifice is too great, and the person has to really be miserable in order to commit to the level of change we are talking about. Being well educated about recovery is not a problem, but being sure of what you know about recovery when you have 30 days sober is a huge warning sign.
27) Intentions are worthless in recovery. Only action matters. Find a few positive actions that you can take every day, and then do them. Execute. Don’t dream about a nice life in recovery, actually put the steps down in front of you that you need to take to get there and then start moving forward. For me this meant living in long term rehab, getting a job, going back to school, regular exercise, and so on. It was not about manifesting stuff through happy thinking. It was more about setting some simple goals and then moving toward them. Take action if you want results. Be prepared to take a long slow road to success. It is much more stable once you get there…..
28) The typical addict or alcoholic is motivated to change primarily through pain. Offer them a lavish lifestyle and all the money in the world if they stop using drugs and this will never be enough. But if they become miserable they just might do something about their problem. This is why in Al-anon they teach people to stop enabling others. If you are denying an addict of their pain then you are preventing them from moving closer to change. You don’t have to deliberately try to hurt the addict. Just let them have the pain they create for themselves. It will be the thing that drives them to change one day.
29) Feeling sorry for yourself? Better knock that off, and quick. Really that is the entire solution to self pity and anyone who notices that they have a tendency to feel sorry for themselves had better watch out in recovery. It is as destructive as resentments and a whole lot easier to justify, so you need to have a hyper-awareness when it comes to self pity and have a zero tolerance policy for it. Do not allow yourself the indulgence, ever again. Time to make progress and move forward in your life, rather than dwell on how the world has done you wrong. Self pity leads only to relapse…..
30) Forgiveness can be a huge part of recovery. Depending on your resentments and how much they influence your addiction, forgiving others might be a really big factor in your recovery. For some addicts and alcoholics it is like the entire key to their new life in recovery. In such cases, their addiction has been fueled by massive resentments against others, and they cannot find any peace in their life until they let go of this anger through forgiveness.
Forgiving someone is a process that can be deliberately chosen. It might take some work, and it might take some therapy. But it can be done, at will, and it can bring tremendous relief to some people. It will vary from person to person as to how much this might influence their recovery. But for some, it is potentially huge.
31) Reaching out to help others in recovery is probably in the top 3 most effective strategies (the other 2 being gratitude and exercise). Helping others in recovery is really powerful, because of the benefits that the individual gets from doing so. First of all it makes you feel good to help others, and directly protects you against relapse. Second of all it actually helps someone else, so it is a win-win situation that helps everyone. Third of all, you are spreading good karma when you help others that can (and often does) come back to directly help you out in the future. Finally, if you are teaching others when you are helping them, then this helps you by reinforcing the lessons for your own self improvement. You learn more deeply when you transfer your knowledge to others.
32) Considering overall health is important in recovery. What good is it to quit drugs and alcohol if you are going to get even sicker by some other means? Sometimes we make the mistake in recovery of equating a relapse with death. In fact, death is a lot more serious than a relapse, and anyone who disagrees with this is not doing their math correctly.
For example, I have seen smokers in recovery who had congestive heart failure, but could not stop smoking because they thought it would cause them to relapse on alcohol. They have since died.
Many alcoholics and addicts who end up relapsing end up doing so after a medical complication sends their life into a tail spin. Overall health is important for maintaining recovery. This is what makes the holistic approach so important. Diet, exercise, and nutrition should never be completely off the table. These are things that should be central to our recovery strategy. Good health gives us a better chance at recovery. Poor health leads to complications and increases the chances for relapse (and death).
Success in recovery should include a push for greater health. If it does not, then there are self esteem issues holding you back.
33) Real self esteem in addiction recovery has to be built from the ground up. There is a school of thought out there that believes that self esteem can be generated through thought alone. I am not of that belief. My opinion is that real self esteem is generated through taking action. My own experience has proven this for me time and time again.
Action is the key. In fact, I have tried things, and failed, but still benefited with an increase in self esteem simply from having taken action. To do nothing and sit idle is the worse thing when you are trying to affect change.
What type of action? Well the core principles for me have always been focusing on these three things: personal growth, pursuing greater health, and helping others. If you take action along those lines every single day, then you are going to start gradually feeling better and better about yourself.
But the key, for me, was not to expect miracles from affirmations alone. I had to get out there and actually do some stuff in recovery, in order to start feeling better about myself.
34) Simplifying your life can boost your recovery greatly. Reducing chaos is a great strategy. Minimalism has many advantages in recovery, though it is not necessary to be an extremist about it. You might try reducing clutter (physical stuff), eliminating toxic relationships from your life, and reducing your overall obligations. Doing one of these (or all of them) can free up a tremendous amount of mental energy and reduce chaos and stress in your life.
You don’t have to go overboard with minimalism to reap the benefits. Just give a few things a try and see what affect it has on your level of serenity.
35) Complacency kills. In fact, this is the only real long term challenge in recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. Everything else is just mere details. But getting lazy about personal growth is the final challenge, because it is really the only way to regress back into our addictive mode. If you are not pushing yourself to grow in recovery, then you might be getting closer to relapse. One of the best ways to fight against this is to constantly challenge yourself to improve your own health and to reach out and help others in new ways. Doing these things is a hedge against the danger of becoming complacent.
36) Always be in learning mode. This is critical for success, especially in early recovery. So much of what it is going to take to stay clean and sober in the long run is a mystery when you are first entering recovery. Therefore it makes sense that you should focus on learning as your main priority. Figure out what works for you and what actually helps you to stay clean and sober. You might want to politely ignore most suggestions and instead see what actually helps you instead of just taking other people’s word for it. For example, physical exercise has helped me a lot more than 12 step meetings, but can you guess which one gets recommended more frequently?
Everyone has different needs and priorities in their life, and so certain recovery strategies might work better for some rather than others. Experimentation is key. Be ready to learn about yourself and how recovery works best for you. If you are not open to experimenting and being eager to learn then this process will not go as smoothly.
37) The younger you are, the more you need long term rehab. Also: the longer you’ve been using, the more you need long term rehab. I’m a big believer in long term rehab, even though it does not really work as frequently as I think it should. The bottom line, for me anyway, is that long term rehab is the most comprehensive solution we have for addiction right now. In other words, you can’t get more intense or higher quality treatment than living in a long term treatment center. This becomes especially true if the long term treatment includes regular therapy with an individual therapist. While I don’t necessarily push the 12 step program, living in a 12 step based long term treatment center is still a really good option, in my opinion.
There are many who would probably disagree with these ideas. But what are the alternatives to long term rehab? If nothing else works then I think it is worth it to give long term a try.
Because young people are so heavily influenced by peers, I think long term is almost necessary for them to get a clean break from their environmental influences.
I wish long term treatment where the ultimate solution, but it is definitely not. It’s just one of the more powerful tools that we have to fight addiction with. But most people who attend long term will not take advantage of the massive amount of support and structure that they are given there, unfortunately. For what it is worth, long term rehab really helped me (when other solutions had failed).
38) New relationships can be dangerous in early recovery. The tendency for single people to enter into a new, romantic relationship in early recovery and then relapse is so much more common then anyone would first guess. You have to see it to believe it. I lived in long term treatment and watched literally dozens of people relapse in early recovery, almost always due to a failed relationship. This is a very strong tendency and the reason is because a new relationship completely replaces the need for recovery.
In other words, if you can latch on to a new romance in early recovery, then the need to work on yourself and push for personal growth completely vanishes. Someone loves you exactly as you are, and it feels wonderful! So why should you push yourself to grow and change, when you could just kick back and enjoy this awesome new feeling called love?
This happens over and over again in early recovery and it never ends well. If it is too early then it is too early. Some say wait a year….I say, wait until you are happy and content with your life while being single. Only then can you safely contribute to a meaningful relationship.
39) Your idea of fun will shift after staying clean and sober for a while. For the longest time, I did not believe this would be true for me if I stopped using drugs and alcohol. The problem was, I had used drinking and drugging as my means of recreation for so long, that I refused to believe that anything else could be fun for me again.
This is typical of addiction. When you are addicted to a chemical (such as alcohol or any other drug), then you get into the habit of using it to medicate nearly every situation in your life. Going to the movies? Gotta get drunk/high first. Going out on a picnic? Only if I can bring the booze along. A round of golf? Only if we are getting loaded. And so on.
We train ourselves in addiction to only have fun when we are using drugs and alcohol. Without the buzz, we feel out of sorts and cannot possibly enjoy whatever is going on, because we are too disgruntled at not being intoxicated with our drug of choice.
So it should come as no surprise that addicts and alcoholics believe that they will never have any fun again if they get clean and sober. They think they are facing a life of gloom and misery if they can no longer get high.
But the truth is, getting high stopped being fun a long time ago, and they might only recapture that level of “fun” every once in a great while, when they are lucky enough to get almost totally smashed on their drug of choice without going totally over the edge. And even then, the “fun” only lasts for a few hours at the most, and they are back to weeks and weeks of misery, trying to chase that perfect moment.
This is addiction. It is the constant pursuit of that perfect high, and stubbornly hanging on to the memory of it, while turning up your nose at normal ways of having fun.
Bottom line is this: you get clean and sober, and stick it out for a while, and normal “life” starts getting fun again. Believe it or not, life gets good again. And fun again. But it takes time, and part of this is the learning process, and allowing room for experimentation in our lives.
40) They say you have to give it a way to keep it. I say you have to keep pushing yourself to create an awesome life for yourself, one in which you help others with your personal strengths. If you can attend meetings and give advice to newcomers, then that is great. But if you can push yourself to go further than this and really make use of your skills, then that is where the real growth can occur. Everybody wins when you push yourself to reach out to others in a way that is unique to you. This is a huge part of finding your path in recovery.
41) They say it is a spiritual program. I say it is a holistic path. There is a difference. Some people get so caught up in what they like to call “the spiritual side of the program” that they screw up or neglect other parts of their life. My opinion is that a spiritual approach to recovery is too narrow. An holistic approach makes more sense, and can be used to great affect. For example, there are programs of recovery based just on proper nutrition as a means of overcoming addiction. There are also programs based only on exercise. There are also programs based only on processing our emotions. And so on. So why choose a program that is limited to only the spiritual approach, when there are such tremendous benefits to be gained by growing in other directions? Spirituality is important, but it is not the only thing.
Incorporate an holistic approach for best results. That means staying open to all forms of personal growth.
42) Traditional recovery is not enough to keep some people happy. Therefore they relapse, fail to “work the program,” or just plain give up. I say, find your own path in recovery, one that leads you to happiness and contentment. It is your responsibility to do so.
43) No rehab can help every addict and alcoholic. The path to success is far too personal for a “one size fits all” program. Personal growth can be pursued in so many different ways. The best we can do in some cases is to experiment and try, try again. Eventually, something may “click.”
44) Gratitude is at least twice as powerful as other spiritual principles. The moment right before a relapse, gratitude is no longer present. If it was, it would have prevented the relapse all by itself. Be grateful, every single day, for anything and everything.
45) Dealing with emotions might be a huge key to a person’s recovery. This will depend on their level of emotional maturity at the time that they get clean and sober. Most addicts and alcoholics can benefit greatly from simply learning how to identify an emotion or feeling and simply learning to accept it for what it is rather than to try and fight it or medicate.
46) The more confident (and boisterous) someone is in early recovery, the less likely they are to succeed with long term sobriety. This becomes even more true for those who are adamant about telling others how they should recover. From my experience, the loudest “preachers” in my early recovery have all relapsed at this point. Many of them warned me that I should “follow the program.”
47) Being overly enthusiastic early in recovery is often as dangerous as not being enthusiastic enough. You want to be desperate and defeated when you first get sober, not ready to conquer the world.
48) If you rely on sponsorship after a few years of recovery, then you are doing something wrong. No one should “need” a sponsor, expect for possibly in very early recovery. After that, you need to learn how to push yourself to grow and learn more. If you can’t (or won’t), then you missed something critical. Recovery is about personal growth.
49) 12 step fanatics will try to steer you away from religion…..religious fanatics will try to steer you away from 12 step programs. Ignore them all and find the path that works for you (which may include 12 step programs, or religion, or neither, or both….).
50) There are a whole bunch of people who stay sober through exercise alone. This should be a big clue. Doubters of “holistic recovery” will not even take such an idea seriously, because they are lazy and complacent in their group therapy approach. But if exercise works as a solution for some, it could certainly help just about anyone in recovery.
51) Take your purpose in recovery and turn it into a vision for the future. What does that mean? It means that you can have an awesome life in recovery if you figure out what you are good at in terms of helping others, and then start doing it in a really big way. This is the big prize in recovery. This is how you become the person you were meant to be.
Turning your purpose into a vision for the future is also how you do God’s will. Your natural gifts and talents were meant to be put to good use. So use your creative energy in recovery to make a real difference in the world. Find your outlet. Find your connection with others. Maybe that will be through 12 step programs and sponsorship. Maybe it will be through volunteering at a homeless shelter. Go find what “does it” for you and then do it.
Find your path.
I want to take a minute here and thank some of my biggest supporters out there in the recovery world:
First is my friend Art who writes about heroin addiction and recovery.
Next is my friend Madison who writes about addiction recovery over at The Recovery Princess.
Also my good friend Mark who is coming up with some great ideas on his website about living the clean life in recovery.
And I definitely want to give mention to my friend Vern, who writes about exercise, living in peace, finding joy, and Hawaii living.
Finally I want to mention my friend Bill over at Addiction Recovery Basics.