Yesterday we looked at how to overcome common obstacles that might appear in early recovery. Today we want to look at 5 experiments that you should do in your recovery journey that can give you a ton of information and insight into your own life.
Why you should be doing “experiments”
Recovery is a learning process. That is really the bottom line and if you are not learning anything in your recovery then it is likely that you are not making much personal growth either. In order to make positive changes in your life you have to make a deliberate effort to do so.
This means that you have to elevate your level of consciousness. How do you do that? Simple awareness. You need to pay attention to something that you used to ignore or take for granted.
For example, you might take the suggestion of going to an AA meeting. Instead of just going to the meeting and then going on about your business, it pays to think about how that meeting is affecting your everyday life in recovery–is it helping you? Does it make you feel different? Does it give you a useful outlet? Is it a way for you to lower your stress level? And so on.
So instead of just blindly crashing your way through recovery, it pays for you to actually take a step back and measure what it is that you are doing. Are the things that you are trying in recovery worthwhile? What is working well for you? What is seemingly a waste of your time?
This is what I mean by doing “experiments.” It is not so much that you need to go out of your way to do all sorts of crazy things…..really the secret is in simply raising your awareness, measuring what is working for you (and what is not), and also taking some simple suggestions.
Let’s look at some examples of this.
Experiment #1: Give traditional recovery a chance (90 meetings in 90 days, etc.)
When I was struggling to get clean and sober I was terrified of 12 step meetings. I did not want to go to AA or NA meetings because I felt so uncomfortable in them. I was terrified of having to speak in front of others or of being put on the spot in front of them. I found that this would happen and make me uncomfortable even if I chose not to speak. The people running the meetings would eventually call on me and ask me if I had anything I wanted to add. Very nice and helpful of them, but not what I was looking for in terms of social anxiety!
I knew that this was the case based on my brief stints in rehab in the past. So I was nervous going into rehab this last time because I knew that there was pretty much no way to avoid the 12 step program and the accompanying meetings. I was afraid to face the meetings and I was afraid of being put on the spot. But ultimately I had realized that I did not have much choice. It was either face AA meetings or go back to drinking. I had spoke with enough counselors and therapists to realize that this was really the only valid option for me.
And so this was the hard truth that I had to embrace in early recovery: I had to give AA a chance. I am glad that I did. While I eventually drifted away from the 12 step program in order to do my own thing, embracing AA was what I needed to do at the time. Like I said, there were no other options for me, really.
And so in early recovery I moved into long term rehab and I started attending daily meetings. The social anxiety got just a little bit better (not much) and I was able to tolerate the meetings up to a point. I also noticed that I did get some benefit from being in the meetings and just listening each day. This became evident to me later on when I was no longer required to go the meetings each day. I would skip a day and then I would notice how I was feeling, and I realized that I was slightly more irritable when I went a few days without a meeting. Why was that?
This is what I mean when I say that you need to “experiment.” You need to pay attention to your recovery. This is what I was doing when I realized that I felt a bit “off” when I went a few days without an AA meeting. Later on I would choose to investigate this further and completely erase this “dependency” on meetings. As you can imagine, that process involved learning quite a bit about myself as well.
Most people in life (and in recovery) are mostly on auto-pilot. They are no longer questioning the basic choices and routines that they face each day. A lot of my peers in recovery said to me “Why in the world would you consider leaving AA? After all it has done for you and how much it has helped you, why would you abandon it? You’re just going to relapse, you crazy fool!” What these peers of mine did not realize is that I was no longer content just to go through the motions. They thought that I was flaking out but the truth was that I was paying very close attention to my recovery, probably much more so than most of them were. I was no longer content to just be told what to do in recovery–now I was “experimenting” and seeing what I could learn for myself. This was observation and awareness applied to the principles of recovery.
Right now the modern recovery landscape is dominated by the 12 step program. If you want support in early recovery then that is the best way to get it. If you want to find widespread support in recovery then going to 12 step programs is the ONLY way to get it. This is because it is the only solution that is actually widespread.
In long term recovery you can probably do your own thing (as I do now). But in early recovery you might be wise to “go with the flow” and accept whatever support you are given. In our modern world that means going along with the AA and NA crowd for a while. I did so for the first year of my recovery and I do not regret doing it. That said, I would not suggest becoming dependent on those programs for decades at a time. There is more to recovery than just being told what to do. It is possible to learn and to grow in your own personal way, without everything being dictated to you by a program.
So give meetings a chance, even if you are strongly turned off by them (as I was). Give traditional recovery a chance. Carefully observe yourself and your progress in recovery as you do this. Measure your success (or lack thereof). Use this information to plot a future course of growth. Try new things. Try a different approach if this one is not working.
Experiment #2: Seeking feedback from others for direction in your life
This experiment ties in heavily with the first one (of giving traditional recovery a chance).
Obviously if you are just getting clean and sober then you are going to be seeking help and advice from others. Based on my experience that advice is going to be overwhelmingly pointing you towards traditional recovery practices (treatment, 12 step programs, sponsorship, meetings, etc.).
But even after you get through “very early recovery” you are going to want to seek advice and feedback from others.
In fact, I would argue that this is one of the most important things that you can learn to do in your entire recovery journey. If there is one piece of advice that is perhaps more powerful than all of the others, it is this:
“Keep seeking advice from others about how to improve yourself as a person.”
This never ends. You don’t get to six months sober and say “OK, I’m done with all of this growth stuff now!”
Instead, you should continue to seek advice and feedback from others for the rest of your life.
Because there are growth opportunities in our lives that we simple cannot see by ourselves. We all have these “blind spots” in our potential for personal growth. No one is immune to this.
Therefore, if you are NOT seeking advice and feedback from others, you are simply going to miss out on lots of unique growth opportunities in the future.
At this idea, some people protest: “But won’t I become like a mindless robot, just doing what others tell me to do? When do I get to be my own self and direct my own life?”
The truth is that you are always your own self, and you are always in charge of your own life. All final decisions are always up to you.
Think of some of the greatest leaders in our world–nearly all of them have had trusted advisers that they sought feedback from on a regular basis. But do we think of such leaders as being mindless robots? Of course not! Even if you take advice from others, the final decisions are still yours. You are still in charge of your life.
Think of the disadvantage that a person is at if they refuse to seek any outside help, advice, feedback, or ideas in their recovery. By cutting themselves off from other people, they miss out on all of the collective wisdom that is based on everyone else’s experiences.
When I was in early recovery I went through a phase in which I sort of “turned my will over completely” and decided to take every suggestion that I got from a trusted person in my life. I became completely open and decided to totally “abandon myself” and just do whatever was suggested without hesitation.
The results of this little experiment were astounding. Here is what I learned in less than a 30 day period:
1) That taking suggestions does not invalidate your self or your ego. You are still in charge.
2) That taking suggestions from others increases your effectiveness. You no longer worry about “why” you are doing something. The advice takes care of the “why” and it leaves you with more energy and focus to actually execute an idea. Because it was not “your decision” you can focus on actually taking action, rather than debating the “should’s.”
3) That by taking suggestions from others you free up your own mental cycles to be more mentally productive. Again, you are no longer worrying about what you should or should not do–that has been taken care of for you. This is a mental relief and it immediately lowers your stress level.
None of this stuff matters in an intellectual sense…..you have to actually DO it in order to benefit.
So how can you proceed? Simple–find people you trust and ask them for advice. Ask them what you should be doing in order to be a better person. Then take action. Don’t hesitate and hem and haw over what you should or should not do–just trust the process and take action.
You get a ton of valuable data when you take action and then measure your results. You don’t get any valuable data when you just sit and think about what might happen, or how things might turn out. This is why seeking advice and feedback is so incredibly valuable–if it gets you into action then you are actually learning instead of just doing thought experiments that only lead to more questions.
When you take action in your life you get real answers. This is the whole point of “doing experiments” in recovery. Take action, evaluate, learn, and grow. Rinse and repeat. Recovery is personal growth.
Experiment #3: Make a one year commitment to regular exercise
This is just something that personally had a huge impact on my own recovery, and it took me many years to become open to the idea. Therefore this may not be a big deal to you in your journey. For example, maybe you will take the suggestion some day to give meditation a try. Perhaps you will start meditating and it will really have a huge impact on you and change your whole life for the better (much in the same way that exercise has done for me).
In fact, exercise basically became my meditation. The benefits that I get from regular jogging are exactly the same as what people describe as the benefits of meditation are for them. I can see no real difference. The only difference that I notice is that I am also getting an intense physical workout as well. Some monks throughout history have noticed as much (saying that they prefer exercise over stationary meditation).
Interesting enough, I tried and failed once to implement exercise. I was giving it a chance for a few weeks but I did not follow through with it. The benefits never kicked in for me and I gave up too soon. I think I may have made it for a month or two.
This is why I recommend that you make a full one year commitment to exercise. I don’t think anyone would argue that this is a total waste of time. If it is, then you can always evaluate later on and determine that you would be better off spending your time in other ways. After all, this is just an experiment right? If you give exercise a fair shake and it turns out to do nothing much for you then your energy might be spent better in other ways. The results speak for themselves, but you have to be sure you are not cheating yourself (like I was when I only exercised for two months and called it quits).
If you are out of shape (in recovery or not, doesn’t matter) and you start exercising then it is going to be tough and feel like real work. If you have the discipline to keep at it for a long time then eventually you will cross this point where the exercise becomes easy, light, fun–a true gift. My hope for you is that you can have enough discipline to get to that point with physical exercise. Based on my experience this point takes more than two months but less than a year to reach. Therefore I suggest you commit to a year.
Obviously this is not a requirement for continued sobriety. I went several years before discovering this in my own life. But now that I have embraced fitness, I could not imagine going back to any other path in recovery. It just makes such a huge difference for me in so many ways.
Experiment #4: Focus on personal growth
As was noted above, most people are on auto-pilot.
Even those who are dedicated to recovery and are in a routine of traditional recovery tactics (meetings, sponsorship, etc.) may be completely on auto-pilot and not really engaging in an effort to make personal growth. I was at this point once myself: I was going to meetings every day, I was doing what I was told to do, and I just wanted to maintain my sobriety.
At the time, my sponsor was suggesting things such as “going back to college” and “getting a better job.” I did not want to hear these things at the time because I was content to just stay in my little routine.
But recovery is about more than that. It is about personal growth. In fact, recovery IS personal growth. If you are not making personal growth in your life and learning new things about yourself, are you really recovering? I say “no.”
This is what leads to relapse in long term recovery, and they have a name for it: “complacency.” Those who get complacent in recovery are stuck in a routine. They have stopped challenging themselves. This is exactly what we want to avoid.
So how can you avoid this? The idea of raising your awareness and measuring your success in recovery is a good start. Taking suggestions from other people is also a healthy tactic. Actually seeking feedback and advice is one way to keep pushing yourself to make changes.
Ask yourself: “What is the one thing that I could focus on over the next few months (or years even!) that would have the biggest possible impact on my life?”
If you don’t have an answer for that question then you lack direction. Therefore, go to people you trust in your life (your family, friends, peers in recovery, sponsor) and ask them the same question. Ask them what they think you should be doing with your life. Ask them what they think you should do in order to be a better person. If they don’t have answers for you either, then go find some new people! Find someone who inspires you. Find someone who is living your ideal life. Ask them for advice and feedback.
When you stop growing in recovery you are in danger of relapse. Recovery is personal growth. When you make positive changes in your life you distance yourself from the threat of relapse. It is like building a protective moat around your recovery. If you are not pushing yourself to make positive changes then you are not building any protection from relapse in the future.
Are you living your life on auto-pilot? Or are you pushing yourself to make positive changes, and then measuring the results? In order to do this you need to pay attention and raise your awareness. Not too difficult, but it does require a dedicated effort on your part.