If you listen to traditional recovery advice at AA or NA meetings, you will hear that recovery is simple. People love to say that the solution is simple, just follow this simple program, and everything will get better. They love to say “the solution is simple.” This is said mostly out of fear. In a way, we all want for the solution to be simple.
I am not so sure that addiction is a simple issue, and therefore it may follow that recovery is not necessarily simple either. But even if addiction is complicated, this does not necessarily mean that the solution has to be complicated. Then again, maybe it is complicated. Addiction is often complicated by side issues such as abuse, low self esteem, or even pain and health issues. My guess is that real addiction (and alcoholism) is rarely simple. Sure, we drink because we like to get drunk. And we get high because that is what we learned how to cope with life. But I believe that there may always be complicated issues underlying all of that.
What we can do though is to try to boil it down to a few simple strategies that can hopefully amount to big changes. Even if addiction itself is complicated, perhaps we can still simplify our recovery.
If I look back at my years of successful recovery, I can see that some things that I did were very helpful, while others things were just slightly useful. Not every suggestion that I took turned out to be a slam dunk success. That said, I want to pass on what was has been most helpful to me so that other people know better what to focus on for successful recovery.
For example, let’s say that you go to a few AA meetings and take notes while you are at them for suggestions on what to do for your recovery. If you try this (as I once did) then you will quickly realize that while you can certainly implement some of the suggestions, there is no way that you can possibly implement them all. There is simply not enough time in one day to make use of all of the suggestions. Even if you have the very best intentions and want to take any and every positive suggestion that you hear, there is no way that you can possibly do it all (or even try it all, really). You must pick and choose and therefore proiritize.
This is why I take some issue with the people in AA meetings who try to claim that “the solution is simple.” They want to tell you to just show up to meetings every day, take the suggestions, and follow through with positive action. This is true to some extent but obviously the real solution is a bit trickier to implement in your real life.
So in my early recovery I tried to take as many suggestions as possible, and in doing so I learned what worked well for me and what did not. But I also worked in a treatment center for several years and was also able to observe hundreds of other people in addiction treatment, and therefore was able to get some evidence of what worked and did not work for others. Because of the position I was in at the rehab I was able to talk with many people and get feedback about how their recovery efforts had worked out for them.
So I can look back at my early recovery and see what was truly effective and what was not. I am grateful that I discovered a few techniques that allowed me to have a successful recovery. The two strategies that have helped me the most are:
1) The zero tolerance policy, and
2) Taking daily positive action.
Let me explain in detail how both of these strategies worked and played out for me.
The zero tolerance policy
This sounds like a tactic at first but it can actually be part of a greater strategy. This is because it can change how you think in your day to day life, altering your entire mindset.
The idea of the zero tolerance policy is this: You do not allow yourself to use drugs or alcohol today, period. Therefore you must make a mental agreement with yourself that no matter what happens in each day of your life, you will not resort to alcohol or addictive drugs. To take this a step further and create an ongoing strategy, you can make a mental agreement with yourself as well:
If you notice yourself thinking about using addictive drugs or taking a drink, you will shut such thoughts down immediately. “But” you may protest, “how can I do that when such triggers and urges may just pop into my head without warning?”
You can still make a mental agreement with yourself to stop thinking about relapse after you NOTICE.
In other words, this is about raising your awareness. As soon as you notice yourself starting to think about what it might be like to use alcohol or an addictive drug, you force yourself to start thinking about something else. This is not impossible to do. You simply distract yourself and move on with something else. You do not allow yourself to dwell on thoughts of relapse.
It is easy to get caught up in a fantasy of getting drunk or high. It is easy to remember the good times that we had with our drug of choice. But if we allow ourselves to dwell on those thoughts, even for a minute or two, it will make us extremely miserable. The only way to “cure” such misery is to relapse. Obviously we want to avoid that outcome.
Therefore we must not allow ourselves to fantasize about using drugs or alcohol ever again. We may catch ourselves thinking about it, but we must make an agreement with ourselves in advance (like right now, for example) that if we ever NOTICE ourselves thinking about getting drunk or high that we will make every attempt to shift mental gears and distract ourselves. You may even take this a step further and make an agreement with yourself that if you cannot seem to stop thinking about drugs and alcohol that you will call a sponsor or peer in recovery and tell them about your cravings or urges to use.
This is the essence of the zero tolerance policy. First of all you do not allow yourself to tolerate relapse, but then you take it step further and do not allow yourself to tolerate continued cravings, urges, triggers, or thoughts of using. If you are having them it is OK, but if you cannot distract yourself from them after you notice them then you need to take action and get immediate help. This has to be part of your mental agreement with yourself. Promise yourself that you will not tolerate such urges and cravings if they continue. After noticing them you must shut them down immediately. If you cannot shut them down by yourself then you must promise yourself that you will share the thoughts and cravings with other people in recovery. This may make you feel foolish and you may believe that it does not apply to you or that it would not really help you, but you would be mistaken. This is, by my measure, probably the most important thing you can do in your recovery.
To recap the zero tolerance policy:
1) Don’t tolerate relapse for yourself.
2) Don’t tolerate thoughts that might lead to relapse, such as cravings, urges, triggers, etc.
3) If you cannot redirect your thoughts after you start having cravings, you must promise to yourself that you will seek help from others and share your secret that you are having thoughts of relapse.
Daily positive action
This is a very simple idea but the implications are far more important than I ever realized in the past.
Obviously this sounds like a good idea and common sense, to the point that it is not really a revelation. But you can not really theorize about these ideas, you have to actually live them in order to realize the true benefits.
The idea of taking positive action every day is certainly nothing new. But in recovery it has special implications because you are committed to a new lifestyle anyway. So in making a daily commitment you would do well to consider this idea of building something over the long term, of accumulating positive benefits.
First of all you will need to define what taking positive action really is to you. I would define it as all of the following:
* Taking suggestions from other people to try new things that may improve your life.
* Examining your life to find points of misery and then forming a plan to eliminate them.
* Re-examining your dreams and deciding what is worth pursuing. Taking real action to make them happen.
* Working hard to improve your life situation over time, even if it is only incrementally.
* Working hard to become a better person.
* Making an effort to help other people.
All of those ideas and concepts qualify as taking positive action.
Now the key in my opinion is that you have to do these things every single day. Your measure of success in recovery should include two basic questions:
1) Did I stay clean and sober today?
2) Did I take positive action today?
The second question is about building a better future for yourself. This is because the actions that you take today do not generally show positive benefits right away.
Let me give you some examples.
At one time I made an effort to start exercising. I was jogging and running with a family member who was already experienced at doing so. For a long time in my early recovery, many different people were suggesting to me that I start exercising. My sponsor was pushing me to get active. My therapist was urging me to start exercising. And I resisted the idea for a while because I was just not ready to take action.
But finally I got into the idea and I decided to give it a fair shot. In the past I had dabbled in the idea of exercise but it never seemed to get any easier. It was just a whole lot of work, with seemingly no real reward.
Now when I finally committed to the idea in my recovery and followed through on it, everything changed. So I started jogging with my family member and I slowly built up to a distance of six miles every jog. Over a period of several weeks I built up to this distance and I was even running every single day.
Now I want you to understand at this point that this was not easy or anything. It really was tough for me. And the reason that it was tough was because I was so out of shape. And there were no immediate rewards. None at all. It was just a lot of hard work and—for quite a while—it did not get any easier.
But eventually, after what seemed like forever, it DID get easier. And at that point all of the rewards of my efforts kicked in 100 percent. Now it was a joy to run. Now it was a gift. Now it was totally awesome. Suddenly I was in great shape, and running was a joy to me.
This did not happen overnight, it took several months. And it was not easy for me at all, in fact it was a lot of hard work and I was not certain that it would ever become easier. But today (over ten years later) I continue to exercise on a regular basis, and I would never dream of going without it. It is far too valuable to me.
Notice that I had to have a bit of faith (not knowing if it would ever become easier) and I had to follow through. I had to commit to something. It took persistent effort.
Another example is with building a side business. I started this out very slowly, in a very low risk venture that required almost no start up money but quite a bit of work on my part. Again, there was no certainty that it would ever pan out. I knew that I might just work hard for a long time and earn nothing, make no money at all.
So I poured a great deal of energy into a side business of mine for a few years without seeing much return to speak of. But eventually I started to see the sprouts of success pop up. It was at that time that I redoubled my efforts and grew the business into a real success. Today that decision has changed my life significantly and granted me a level of freedom that I had never imagined that I could reach. This transformed my life and it was all built upon one core principle:
* Taking daily positive action.
This is the method by which I built a successful business. It took several months, even years for me to receive the full benefits of doing so.
Perhaps your goals are different than mine were. I wanted to get into shape and build a successful side business. I accomplished both of those things by taking positive action every single day—often times for several years straight.
It is said that we often overestimate what we can accomplish in a single year, but we underestimate what we can accomplish in 5 years. So start thinking big. Think of a five year goal for yourself, rather than a new year’s resolution that will fizzle out in under a year.
If you cannot commit to a goal for 5 full years, then you might need to choose a different goal. Figure out what you really want for yourself, and find a goal that is worthy of a 5 year commitment.
When you commit to something for a full 5 years and take positive action towards it every single day, you will be amazed at what you can create.
Note that one year is not long enough for most goals of this caliber. If you are really shooting for the stars (and you should be!) then you will not reach success in a mere year. That is not typically going to be long enough. But if you commit to a big, life-changing goal for the next 5 years, then your results should be nothing short of amazing.
And now think carefully about the alternative for a moment:
What are you going to do instead? What if you don’t commit to a 5 year goal? What then?
Then you get nothing. You get no progress. You get no huge rewards. Your life may change a little bit, but it won’t get outrageously better. And who wants to settle for that?
Accumulating positive benefits over time
If you implement these 2 strategies in your life then further down the road all of the positive benefits that you experience will start to multiply. This is based on synergy and the network effects of all of your positive growth put together.
That probably sounds like a lot of baloney, but it is actually a very sound principle. You may have heard it stated otherwise as “success breeds success.” In other words, if you start making positive growth in several different areas of your life, then everything starts to do better as a whole. This is because the growth and positive action in one area of your life will tend to spill over and positively affect other goals that you are trying to pursue.
Let me give you an example of this “synergy” in real life recovery. I struggled for years to quit smoking cigarettes while I was sober. I could not seem to shake the habit for a long, long time. But then something interesting happened: I started running and jogging on a regular basis, even as I continued to be a smoker. I could tell that there was a correlation here: when I finished jogging, I did not feel like smoking a cigarette, nor did I feel the urge to do so—sometimes for several hours.
This was synergy. My goal of quitting smoking and my goal of getting into better shape were in perfect alignment.
You may have conflicting goals in your life, and if you do, this will be the source of much frustration. This is how you live when you are addicted to something. You take two steps forward and then three steps back, because your addiction is negative and is holding you back from your other goals (that are positive).
Living your life in alignment means that all of your goals compliment each other. I personally found that distance running was complimentary to building a business. In my experience, the discipline required to do both of these things was one and the same. When I learned how to build up more jogging distance, I was also learning the discipline necessary to create a successful side business. That might seem like a stretch to some people but in my mind it made perfect sense.
A life of serenity, challenge, and fulfillment
If you follow these two strategies then you will eventually be living a life of challenges that is fun and fulfilling. I personally love the challenge and growth that you get from learning more about yourself. At times it can be hard or even frustrating but you will come to learn that there is always a reward and a benefit for whatever it is you are struggling through.