My belief is that there are really only 3 simple principles behind success in addiction recovery.
To be honest the idea that there were 12 steps to take on in traditional recovery was a bit overwhelming to me. Not that I had a problem with going through that many steps or anything, it just seemed like the problem had to be easier to confront than that. I mean, 12 different steps….really? Why so many? Was addiction really all that complicated?
Maybe it is. I think in many cases that people in recovery like for the solution to be simple. And many people try to argue that AA is a simple program, designed for simple people. But something isn’t adding up there for me…..wasn’t the program designed by alcoholics? I think they created a solution that matched the complexity of the problem, and I don’t think that 12 steps qualifies as being “simple.” But if it works for you then that is great; by all means go with it.
On the other hand I found myself drifting away from the 12 step program during my second year of recovery. The meetings were getting way to repetitious for my tastes and I was not getting much value out of them. I consulted my sponsor and was informed that this was my own fault. He basically told me “if the meeting sucks, then see what value you can bring to it!” Good advice, actually, but I think in the end that I actually did him one better, by finding an altogether better use of my 1.6 hours each day (AA meeting + travel time).
At any rate my own personal “brand” of recovery seemed to evolve away from AA and into something that I was discovering for myself. Namely that I had to find a way to remain clean and sober without this daily grind of meeting attendance. In attempting to discover the path to strong sobriety I think I found the few principles that I could follow that would keep me clean and sober indefinitely. At the very least it has been working for over a decade now.
The 3 principles I believe are universal, and fundamental. This just means that if you are recovering using AA, or doing your own thing, or in a religious based program, you are still going to be using these same principles. They are universal in that I believe you have to use these concepts in order to avoid relapse in the long run. There is really no other way from what I can tell; though many will wrap up their recovery in various programs and point at those specific programs as the solution. This is fine but what I really want to do is to uncover the simple principles that lay underneath all successful recovery programs.
Principle #1: Surrender
The first principle of addiction recovery is definitely universal and no struggling addict can ever escape the necessity for it, and that is the principle of surrender.
In fact the very presence of surrender defines addiction itself. If you can overcome a drug or alcohol problem without coming to the point of surrender then what you were experiencing was not addiction or alcoholism to begin with. You may have had a “drinking problem” or a “drug problem” but by definition you were not truly addicted.
The rest of us who have a serious problem and a real lifelong addiction have no other choice but to surrender completely. This is the breaking point that you reach when you have finally broke through the last of your denial. You cannot get to this point casually. You cannot just decide one afternoon that things are not going so well and you think that you might like to surrender today and change your whole life forever from that point forward.
I mean, don’t get me wrong–the moment of surrender is exactly that–you make a decision and then your whole life changes from that point forward as you seek help for your problem and you finally leave your destructive addiction behind forever. That is exactly what happens. But what I am saying is that you cannot just make a casual decision to do this. In fact it is not clear to me that this is any kind of decision at all. It may be a breaking point that you have to achieve through the accumulation of chaos and misery.
We all have a different tolerance programmed into us for how much misery we want to accumulate in our lives (due to our addiction) before we are willing to admit that we are truly miserable and that it is now time to seek help. Some addicts and alcoholics have such a high threshold for this misery stuff that they actually die or get killed long before they would have made the decision to seek help. Other potential addicts and alcoholics may be extremely averse to such misery and so they may not even show up on the radar as having a problem at all–they get a taste of the chaos and misery of addiction and they immediately take action and back away from the problem. These people may become the “I just don’t drink, thanks” people. But they don’t develop into full fledged alcoholics or drug addicts because their personal threshold for misery and chaos is so much more sensitive than the average alcoholic.
So then you have the average drug addict and alcoholic, the people who are filling up the thousands of treatment centers and drug rehabs around the world right now. The people who are miserable, they know they are miserable, but they still cannot stop using yet. What is their problem? Their problem is denial. They are caught in a trap and they know that they are caught in the trap, but they cannot see their way out of it. They don’t like the solution. They are not yet ready to get so extreme as to swear off their drug of choice forever.
How do I know this? Because I used to be that struggling alcoholic and drug addict. I was in and out of rehabs for a few years because I was miserable and I could not accept that the solution was total abstinence. It is a bitter pill to swallow, if you will. It took me several years and a whole lot more misery in my life before I was willing to entertain the idea that maybe the therapists and the counselors were right–that I should go to detox and get off all the drugs and the booze and see if I cannot find a life of happiness in sobriety. I was just so darn scared to even try this though that my denial held me in check for about a full decade. During that decade I just continued to spiral out of control and experience more and more misery.
So every addict and alcoholic has to go through this process. They have to keep experiencing more and more chaos in their life until they finally break through their denial and admit that their problem is the drugs or the alcohol. But they have to go even further than that and admit to themselves that they are no longer happy while using their drug of choice, even if they take away all of their excuses and even if they had all the drugs in the world. They have to fully accept the fact that they would be miserable (and are miserable) even if everything goes their way and they have an unlimited supply of their drug of choice. They have to clearly glimpse into the future and realize that they are not going to happy again, in the long run, through the use of drugs and alcohol. They have to somehow take a step back and see the cycle of addiction from ten thousand feet up.
When they finally get their glimpse of their true misery they will be forced to make a choice: should they continue on being miserable for the rest of their life, with no real hope for happiness in the future, or should they face their enormous fear (which they will never admit to out loud) and go to detox and sober up and see if they can build a new life?
Surrender happens when the addict or alcoholic becomes willing to let go of everything, not just their drug of choice but everything in their whole universe….they let go of it all and they become willing to accept professional help. It is a rare event and you cannot build a new life in recovery until you have reached this point.
Surrender precedes recovery. Period.
Principle #2: Creation/creative recovery
It is my belief that we cannot just run away from drugs and alcohol.
This strategy (of running away from something) will work fine if you are not a true addict or alcoholic. For example, if you are just a problem drinker or you have a basic drug problem and you are not really a full blown addict or alcoholic who has spiraled out of control for years and years. If that is the case then you may be able to simply avoid drugs and alcohol, run away from the problem, and be just fine. I have seen cases where this is possible and I have come to understand that the people in such cases are not true addicts. They can have a beer one night and not end up in the alley then next day shooting heroin with some homeless guy. Me, if I were to drink even one beer then I know exactly what would happen: my addiction would rear it’s ugly head and I would end up using all sorts of drugs in a very short period of time and be right back at my worst by the end of the week. It happens fast and I have watched it over and over again among my peers. Real addicts and alcoholics are completely destroyed by relapse, no matter how innocent it may seem.
If you are a true addict or alcoholic you cannot just move away from the drugs and the alcohol. Yes, abstinence is still important but my belief is that you have to replace your addiction through the act of creation. You can’t just remove your drug of choice and leave a void there. If you do then that void will drive you crazy and destroy you eventually.
Therefore you must create something. Recovery is an act of creation.
Just ask anyone who has successfully overcome an addiction if they would say that “they have created a new life for themselves in recovery.” They will always say that they definitely have created a new life, because that is exactly what the process of recovery really is: an act of creation.
You may hear people in AA meetings talk about taking action. What are they doing when they take these actions? Are they tearing things down or removing things from their lives? Very rarely. In most cases when we talk about action we are talking about creation.
In my opinion the spiritual transformation that they try to lead people through in AA and in religious based recovery is an act of creation. You are creating faith in your life in order to overcome the need for self medicating. You are creating something positive in order to fill the void that is left when you remove your drug of choice. In effect our drug of choice was our higher power and when we get clean and sober we have to replace that with something else. If you do not replace it then you are going to eventually slide back into your old ways.
Addiction creates habit, and that habit can be very hard to overcome. Our drug of choice was our trusted solution. It worked for us whenever we demanded it. So we need to make a serious effort at replacing that solution in our recovery.
The general public (who has no experience with addiction or recovery) probably believes that if you are suffering from alcoholism or addiction that the solution is to eliminate drugs or alcohol from your life. This is only one half of the solution though because if you do not use the concept of creation then you are just going to return to your drug of choice eventually.
Think about it: What are you really doing when you are self medicating with your drug of choice? You are rejecting your current reality in favor of something else. You are saying “I would like to escape my current reality, so I will do so with this drug or this booze.”
In order to recover you have to stop rejecting your current reality. But how can you do that if you remain miserable? How can you do that if you are bored or restless all the time? The only way to stop rejecting your current reality is to take action and create the reality that you want. You have to DO something. You have take action, to create something.
Recovery does not just fall into your lap because you ran out of booze one day. You can’t just remove the drugs and alcohol (temporarily) can expect to stay clean and sober forever. Some action has to take place and the individual has to create something new in their life.
The whole world falsely believes that recovery from addiction is an act of elimination. It’s not. Successful recovery is an act of creation. You have to build a new life, from the ground up. If you all you do is remove your drug of choice you are not going to make it. It takes more than that. It takes creation.
Principle #3: Relapse prevention through personal growth
I believe all 3 of these principles are universal. Everyone has to surrender. Everyone has to embrace the concept of creation, and do something more than simply avoid their drug of choice.
And I also believe that every recovering addict and alcoholic is bound to relapse some day unless they are pushing themselves to keep making growth.
Long term recovery is an exercise in personal growth.
Complacency kills. If you get lazy in your journey then it is because you have decided that you have “arrived” and no longer need to push yourself to recover. This is always a mistake and this attitude results in relapse.
The solution is to pursue personal growth. It is only through personal growth that you can protect yourself from relapse.
This is the strategic view of recovery from far up above. When you go to a rehab center they try to give you the view of relapse prevention down at the street level. For example, they may say:
* Go get a sponsor in recovery and call them every day.
* Go to meetings every day.
* Find a therapist or counselor and work with them on a regular basis.
* Set goals in your life and achieve them.
* Seek better health.
* Make connections with your peers and help support each other in recovery.
* Discover new things that you want to learn or experience and go do them.
And so on. They make a list of tactics to use in order to prevent relapse, and they are not necessarily wrong in this. Those are good suggestions if you are trying to pursue personal growth.
What I am saying is that your overall strategy in recovery should be one of continuous personal growth. By all means, use their suggestions. But just realize that the people who relapse after achieving long term sobriety will do so because they stopped pushing themselves to grow. You want to make sure that you never stop pushing yourself to learn and to make new changes.
My belief is that recovery is based almost entirely on positive action. The act of surrender is one of positive action–you are deciding to give abstinence a chance to work in your life. From that moment you build on your recovery by making more positive decisions. Everything that you do in recovery should hopefully benefit your life situation or your overall health in some way.
Creation is all about improvement. You can accumulate more health and a better life situation incrementally. This is true because recovery is long (it lasts for the rest of your life, if you desire!) and you never have to stop growing or learning. Therefore things will just keep “getting better and better” if you remain clean and sober and you are actively engaged in the growth process.
For example, at one point in my recovery I started to exercise. In the past I had tried to adopt this new habit but it never really took hold for me until I was ready for it, for some reason. But then once the idea took off for me I was hooked. The benefits of regular exercise really impressed me, and even went so far as to replace meditation in my life. But I had to be willing to explore new possibilities and learn new things. I had to be willing to seek out creation in my life, to see what I could build or what I might do differently.
Part of this is based on taking suggestions. You do not have to be the originator of all great ideas in your life. In fact if you are honest with yourself you will probably realize that nothing great that you have done has ever been a truly original idea. Not to worry, as you can still benefit greatly from the suggestions of others. We realize this at first when we finally surrender to our disease (our friends and family have been telling us to do that for years, right?) and then we realize it again as we seek advice and make growth in long term recovery.
Long term relapse prevention is all about personal growth. This is the only way to overcome complacency so you had better make sure that you are pushing yourself to continuously create and refine the life that you really want to live. If you are not happy with your results (and this continues for long enough) then you may eventually resort to relapse.