I wanted to limit myself here to the five concepts that have had the biggest impact on my recovery. Thus these are not necessarily just five “tips” but they are really the five ideas that held the most weight in helping me to stay clean and sober in my recovery journey.
Put another way, had I ignored any single one of these five concepts, I do not know that I would still be clean and sober today, and I doubt very much that I would. I can also cite examples of other people in recovery who relapsed based on a lack of each of these five ideas. Thus they all seem to be critical for success, in my opinion.
They also loosely follow a timeline. For example, the first concept listed is that of surrender, which is required to even get started in addiction recovery, and therefore has to come first.
So then, here are my five “tips” for recovery:
1) Hit bottom and surrender fully to your disease.
2) Become willing to take massive action and follow through with a plan.
3) Pursue personal growth, set goals for yourself, and achieve new things in life.
4) Hold your own health to be the highest form of currency in your life.
5) Give back to others and help out in some way.
Hit bottom and surrender fully to your disease
As I said this is the entry card into addiction recovery, without full surrender you cannot even get started on the proper recovery journey.
Many a false start is made in the recovery journey due to a lack of TOTAL surrender. Many, many addicts and alcoholics get to a “semi breaking point” and they wish that things were different and so they might take some action. For example, they might crash the car due to excessive drinking and then attend an AA meeting. Or they might lose their job over a failed drug test and then attend inpatient rehab. So they experience a consequence and then they take action to try to fix their life as quickly as possible. The problem is that they are not really surrendering fully, instead they are just reacting and trying to patch things up and smooth things over.
People at this point have not surrendered FULLY. There is a difference. They wish that things were different, but are they willing to sacrifice their entire life in order to overcome addiction? Most people are not at that point until they have really hit bottom and been through a whole lot of pain, misery, and chaos. This is the “turning point” that they talk about in AA and this is the point of surrender that must be reached before someone can really get started on a new life in recovery.
I know that false starts are prevalent in recovery for two reasons:
1) I had at least two major false starts myself – attending inpatient rehab both times for the wrong reasons, and not truly being ready to do anything to change my life. I failed both times and relapsed very shortly after leaving each rehab. I wasn’t ready. I was not ready to change and nothing that I or anyone else could have done differently (at the time) would have changed that. There was no missed opportunity there. There was no tragic miss on me getting clean and sober. What I had to do in order to surrender fully was to go back out into the real world and experience a few more years of chaos, misery, and pain before I would become willing to try something new. I am a stubborn person but I know that there are other people out there that are even more stubborn than I am in some cases. You cannot sweet talk a person into changing their whole life and giving recovery a chance. They have to be begging for recovery, they have to be begging for help, they have to want to change for themselves, and the only way to accumulate that kind of motivation is through pain and suffering. Unfortunate but generally true. If you want to encourage an addict or an alcoholic to attend rehab then get out of their way and let them screw up their life some more. Eventually they will want the change for themselves.
2) When I worked in a drug rehab center for 5 years+ I learned a great deal about the true nature of recovery (and thus found out just how blessed I really am). The fact is that most people do not get clean and sober and stay that way permanently after a single trip to rehab. If you actually work in a rehab for several months then you will see that this is clearly the case because of how many clients relapse and then return to rehab again for a second or third trip. I was frankly shocked at how much this happened and after working in a rehab for over five years I saw evidence of this over and over again. Repeated attempts at getting clean and sober was the norm, and people who made a single attempt to get sober and were able to nail it on the first try were definitely the exception. This is just what I observed based on my experience while working in rehab, but it was so evident and so extreme that it was quite shocking to me. False starts in recovery are quite common.
If there is one “tip” here that is the most important then it is probably related to surrender. If you want to get clean and sober then you have to surrender fully and deeply to your addiction. If you do not know what this means then chances are good that you have NOT fully surrendered yet. When you do so it will feel like a defeat and a relief at the same time. You will cease to struggle with the idea that you should control your drug or alcohol intake, and instead you will embrace the idea of abstinence. You will give up the struggle to control your addiction, bypassing the problem entirely. It is a very ego-deflating state to be in.
Full surrender is the ticket to entry. Without it, you cannot enjoy this new life in recovery.
Become willing to take massive action and follow through with a plan
Willingness is the second concept that really played a critical role in my own recovery journey.
The best story that I can tell related to this concept has to do with long term rehab.
Now long term treatment is not necessarily the solution for every struggling addict or alcoholic, but it played an important role for me in particular, mostly based on my unique situation. Your situation may be different and you may not need long term rehab in order to recover, but for me it was very important. This is because:
1) I was somewhat young when I was trying to get clean and sober.
2) I had lots of friends in my life and all of them used drugs or alcohol.
3) I had a job in which everyone I worked with used drugs and alcohol with me.
4) I had no other outlets where I could interact with clean and sober people. My entire life revolved around people who used drugs.
So I was very much entrenched in a drug and alcohol culture. In some ways I believed that this was how the whole world lived, and that only the rare person out there did NOT self medicate with drugs all the time. I really believed that, simply because I had surrounded myself so much with the drug culture.
Because of the way my life was set up, when I spoke to therapists and counselors who were trying to help me to get sober, they immediately saw what was necessary for me: I had to escape this lifestyle completely if I was going to have a shot at recovery. I needed an environmental change in addition to the regular recovery efforts. I needed long term treatment, or a sober living environment.
When this was first suggested to me I was not willing to hear anything about it. I thought that the idea was absolutely absurd, that a person would go live in a rehab center in order to try to achieve sobriety. I was stuck in denial of course but there was still this huge thinking problem that prevented me from seeing the value of long term rehab. Instead I saw it as a huge waste of time, as if I would just be sitting in a prison cell for two years and wasting my life away when I could be outside enjoying life.
The truth was that I was no longer enjoying life, but I was stuck in denial and could not see this. I still believed that I could chase down more happiness by using drugs and alcohol, and so being “free” and out of long term rehab at least gave me the opportunity to TRY to find some happiness. If I was stuck in long term treatment, I reasoned, then I would surely be miserable, and could not even try to pursue any kind of happiness. This was my logic and this was how I thought and what I believed when people were trying to help me to get clean and sober.
So this concept is all about willingness, and my suggestion to you is that you need to “become willing to take massive action and follow through” with it. So how did this work out in my life?
The way it worked out is simple: I surrendered fully, then I became willing to attend long term rehab. Up until that point I had fought against the idea because I thought it felt like a prison sentence, but after surrendering to my addiction I became willing to give the idea a chance.
I asked for help and someone proposed a plan that involved long term rehab for me. I was miserable enough and defeated enough by my addiction that I was willing to give their advice a try. What I was doing in my life was NOT working for me, so it was time to give someone else the reigns for a while, to let someone else drive my bus, to actually take some advice and follow through with it.
Previous attempts at getting clean and sober had never worked out for me because:
1) I had not fully surrendered, and therefore
2) I was not willing to take massive action and follow through with it.
When I finally got clean and sober “for good” I did both of these things. I surrendered fully and then I became willing to take massive action. I became willing to do whatever it would take in order to get clean and sober. For me, that meant living in long term rehab, because my life was such a mess and I was so entrenched in the drug and drinking culture.
Pursue personal growth, set goals for yourself, and achieve new things in life
After I got clean and sober I went through detox and then moved into long term rehab. As I was living in the treatment center I started to notice a very disturbing trend among my peers in recovery:
Nearly everyone relapsed.
This was alarming to me and I could not help but see the truth of the situation. I am a numbers guy at heart and I have no problem making simple observations and then seeing the data for what it is. I am not blind or stupid and when I had lived in long term treatment for only a few short months I quickly realized just how high the stakes were in this game. Nearly everyone relapsed and precious few made it in long term sobriety.
I wanted to be one of those precious few. I wanted to be one of those people who made it to long term sobriety, who stayed clean and sober for decades and beyond. I wanted to stay clean and sober forever.
I set out to discover the REAL secret to recovery.
Now if you start attending AA or NA meetings, you will find that nearly everyone you listen to has advice to this effect. “Just do this,” they will say, or “just do that,” and you will stay clean and sober forever! People in 12 step recovery have lots of suggestions about what the secret to permanent sobriety really is.
It is a bit appalling to me that you can sit in an AA meeting inside of a rehab center and someone who only has a week of sobriety will try to tell you what you need to do to stay clean and sober for the rest of your life. This is essentially the format that you are dealing with if you get advice from AA meetings. Of course this is why they suggest that you “take what you need and leave the rest” at AA meetings–they know that not everything you hear at meetings is going to be world class advice.
So I explored various meetings and I found one meeting where the average length of sobriety was over a decade. These people had some very good advice indeed but their messages to me still conflicted. If you asked such a group “what the real secret to long term sobriety is” you will still get a mixed bag of answers. Some would say “connection with your higher power” and some might say “seeking God’s will” and some might say “staying plugged into the AA program and attending regular meetings” and some might say “working with other alcoholics and addicts who need help.”
And so on.
So over the course of my first few years in recovery I had to discover what MY answer to that question was, because obviously it was different depending on who you asked. And so I eventually came to the conclusion that it was all about personal growth and achievement, at least for me.
My path in recovery is based on positive action and pushing myself to grow as a person. This has worked for me for over a decade now and if someone asked me “what is the secret to long term sobriety?” I would answer them by saying: “Personal growth.”
My theory is that personal growth is a form of relapse prevention. If you are making positive changes in your life then you are less likely to screw things up by relapsing. If you make positive changes in sobriety then you will value your sobriety more and more over time. Success and positive life changes will accumulate and this will form a barrier of protection against the threat of relapse.
Personal growth is cumulative. It builds over time if you continue to push yourself to make more and more positive changes. This is my theory of successful recovery and I really believe it is the best path to follow in long term sobriety.
Hold your own health to be the highest form of currency in your life
My theory of recovery is based on making “positive changes” but we need a system for deciding on what is positive and what is negative.
The way that I do that is to consider the idea of holistic health. The ultimate currency is your health, but this also includes spiritual health, emotional health, mental health, financial health, and so on.
Obviously your physical health is important too and I also believe that becoming physically healthy should be the foundation of all of your efforts in recovery (and in life). Becoming physically healthy would include things like:
1) Physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
2) Quitting smoking.
3) Regular exercise and fitness.
4) Eating healthy.
5) Treating and preventing disease, etc.
These are the most important values in my recovery because they set a foundation for a healthy life.
I learned this more deeply when I close friend of mine in recovery lost his life rather early due to poor health. He was abstaining from drugs and alcohol but was essentially ignoring the rest of the ideas listed above, and it cost him dearly.
Give back to others and help out in some way
Right from the start in my early recovery I was encouraged to give back and help others. At one point I was chairing an NA meeting that took place inside of a rehab, and I did that for over a year.
But this did not feel right to me and it did not ultimately fit my personality. It was a form of “giving back” but it did not play to my strengths.
Later on I found other ways to help people and to give back, and so the connections that I made became more meaningful. When I started writing about recovery and publishing online, I was able to connect with a much larger audience. I had found a medium that played to my strengths and allowed me to really share my most valuable advice.
If you can find a way to help others who are struggling with addiction and alcoholism then this is huge insurance against your own potential relapse. The idea is that you would not be as likely to relapse yourself if you are constantly teaching others how to be clean and sober. Believe it or not, we can easily forget how we came to be sober and we can also forget the things that we need to do in order to maintain our sobriety. Teaching others how to be sober is the best way to help us remember our own path in recovery.
It sounds a bit simplistic but even the smartest addicts and alcoholics will “forget” about their own condition over time and become susceptible to relapse. The only way to avoid this subtle tendency is to make a habit of helping others who are struggling with addiction. Find a way to “stay plugged in” and you will in turn protect yourself from the threat of relapse.
What are your own tips for recovery that have served you well? Let us know in the comments!