There is an obvious solution that anyone can use in addiction recovery and that would be the 12 step program. This is the dominant solution for addiction and alcoholism today and so if you seek help you will most likely be directed toward the 12 step program. There aren’t any widespread solutions that are noticeably more effective than AA or NA, but they are not exactly foolproof solutions either. That said, if those programs are not a good fit for you then you might want to consider how you might recover without them.
I did exactly that after sitting through meetings for the first 18 months or so, and then drifted away from AA and NA entirely. During this transition I was terribly scared that I was going to relapse as die, as was predicted by most of the people that I heard speak about the idea in AA (They were not talking about me, just about people who left AA in general).
Lucky for me I was able to leave the program successfully without relapsing, and to this day I can look back and see the journey that I took and what steps it involved. They are not necessarily a mirror of the 12 step program, though some of the concepts certainly overlap. Let’s take a look at the alternative steps that could lead you to sobriety (as they did for me).
Agree to get help
This is one area where there is going to be some overlap, as the concept of “surrender” is a fundamental principle of recovery. You cannot get clean and sober no matter what program you try to use if you are not fully ready to surrender to your disease. So long as you are fighting against your addiction instead of surrendering to it you are never going to make any progress whatsoever.
What is the defining characteristics of true surrender? It is more than just giving up. It is giving up the struggle against addiction and agreeing to get help. There has to be some willingness involved as well. You have to become willing to go seek help for your problem. If this willingness is missing then you have not yet reached “full surrender.” It is possible to flirt with the concept of surrender but not give yourself up to a solution 100 percent, thus doing a little test drive in recovery but ultimately relapsing because you are not really ready to get clean and sober. This happens frequently in the world of recovery as an addict or alcoholic gets fed up with their life in addiction, decides that they want to get help, but they end up relapsing anyway in spite of their efforts. What went wrong? Most likely what happened is that the person had not fully surrendered to their disease. They only partially surrendered.
If a family stages an intervention and their intention is to try to talk someone into going to rehab and seeking help, the level of surrender can be judged by how quickly this person agrees to go get help. If they are extremely hesitant and are basically against the idea of treatment then seeing them get clean and sober at this point is going to be a long shot. This is not to say that there is never any hope for the person, it just means that now is not the right time. They have not had enough pain, misery, and chaos due to their addiction yet. Notice the key word “yet.” In time nearly every addict and alcoholic (who is not killed or hospitalized first) will eventually reach this breaking point and surrender. Some addicts and alcoholics are more stubborn than others, and will hold out much longer and endure much more pain before they are willing to get help.
The act of surrender has to be done with complete abandon. The addict has to be willing to do nearly anything to get help. They have to become willing to go to nearly any length. This is a fundamental concept in recovery and is not dependent on specific recovery programs. In other words, every addict and alcoholic who wants to get clean and sober has to go through the surrender process. It is critical to everyone’s path in recovery.
Commit deeply to abstinence as the solution
Now just because you have surrendered and asked for help does not mean you are home free. Many people who get to that point eventually end up relapsing anyway–a fate that we obviously want to avoid. So what has to happen in addition to surrender so that a person can remain clean and sober?
What additional steps need to be taken in order to maintain sobriety?
Again, there is an existing solution for this which would really be steps 2 through 12 of the AA or NA program. Step one is surrender, the remaining steps are a program for living in recovery. If you want to give those programs a try or if you enjoy going to meetings every day then I would urge you to go give that a chance. You can get a lot of help and support in 12 step programs, so if they work for you then that is great. Go to meetings and work the steps. Perhaps the 12 steps will keep you clean and sober. They were not a path that was working for me and so I had to find my own steps.
My own second step in recovery was to commit deeply to abstinence as my solution. This was perhaps an extension of the surrender that I felt in the first step and it had to do with a deep acceptance of the idea that I could never use drugs or alcohol successfully again. My commitment to total abstinence had to be absolute.
In traditional recovery they touch on this concept but they do not give it nearly enough air time, in my opinion. This should be like the entire program, people! We need to focus on the idea that we are committed to 100 percent total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, period. This should be huge. Therefore I had to give the idea special consideration in my own mind by developing what I came to call “the zero tolerance policy.”
What I had noticed in early recovery is that when I allowed myself to daydream about getting drunk or high, it made me miserable. Why? Because I was committed to total abstinence! So when my mind entertained the thoughts of using drugs or alcohol, it only served to make me miserable as I realized that I could not go through with it.
I had to find a way to deal with this, and I figured it out on my own: I had to create a mental policy for myself that did not allow these thoughts of using drugs or alcohol. Sure, cravings could still pop up from time to time, but when I noticed them (became aware) that I was entertaining the thought of using or drinking, I immediately shut it down.
These cravings and fantasies are what eventually could lead to a relapse. You would never relapse without first entertaining these thoughts in a big way. So the solution (for me) was to shut down these thoughts.
Now how do you go about doing that?
I did not have a guide for how to do so, but I figured it out easily enough: simply raise your awareness of these thoughts (start noticing when you are fantasizing about getting drunk or high) and then stay hyper vigilant about it. When you realize you are entertaining such thoughts, shut them down immediately. Recoil from the fantasy as your hand would from a hot flame. This is how you must treat these seemingly “innocent” little fantasy episodes where you think about using your drug of choice. They are not innocent episodes because they will make you miserable in the end. Therefore you need to shut them down immediately.
If you have surrendered to your disease then you are already in the mode where you are practicing total abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Now you just have to get yourself mentally in alignment with that decision. If you are still allowing yourself to entertain thoughts of using drugs or alcohol then you are not “in alignment with the decision to be clean and sober.” In order to get into alignment with this new decision you have to eliminate those cravings and fantasies. Sudden urges can (and will) still pop up from time to time, but it is what you do with those mental cravings that really matters. If you allow yourself to entertain the thought (even a little bit) then this will make you miserable in the long run. The only cure for that misery is to relapse.
The solution is to mentally manage those cravings. Raise your awareness and shut the thoughts down immediately when you notice them.
This is a decision that you can make. This is a step that you can take. You have to realize that this is happening and decide that you want to fight against these mental cravings and urges. This is your battle plan against relapse. You can choose to take an active role in preventing relapse in this way.
Nobody explained this to me in AA or NA. Perhaps this is because their solutions are different than this, and they would advise you to seek external help when you get an internal craving. So they would suggest that you call your sponsor, go to a meeting, or talk to your peers in recovery. I was not willing to seek an external solution to an internal problem, so I decided to manage it mentally myself. Therefore I use the idea of a “zero tolerance policy” in order to mentally manage any cravings that I get rather than relying on external solutions to the problem.
Obviously, do whatever works for you. If you relapse then you are doing it wrong. Try another approach next time.
Become willing to do something new
I had to become willing to do something new in recovery. In the past I had been very much against treatment and I was especially against the idea of living in long term treatment. To me the idea sounded like the equivalent of going to jail or prison.
When I finally got clean and sober this time around, I had to do something different. In fact I had to do a lot of things different. So one of those changes was to embrace this idea that I had avoided and fought against for so long. For me that idea was living in long term rehab.
At my point of surrender I was willing to do anything to stop the pain and misery of addiction. This included living in long term treatment. In the past I had never been willing to make that commitment but the point of surrender changed all of that. My willingness had increased and I was willing to try something new in life.
There are so many points at which your recovery can fall apart. For example, you may surrender at first but then refuse to ask for help.
You may surrender and ask for help but refuse to follow through with treatment.
You may go to treatment but end up not really following through with aftercare.
You may do all of that stuff and then get out of treatment and never pursue more positive changes in your life, thus leading you back to eventual relapse.
And you may even do all of these things and be on a decent path in recovery with a few years clean and sober and then suddenly get lazy and complacent, leading you to relapse.
At any given point in your recovery journey the possibility exists for you to fall apart and just start drinking or drugging again.
In each case that leads to relapse there was a lack of something on your part that could have led to that.
In one case it may be a lack of surrender. In other case it may be a lack of willingness. In another case it may be a lack of action and positive changes. And perhaps it really all boils down to the same basic concept or principle, which would be something like “willingness/action.”
Recovery is really just a long series of positive changes in your life. Those changes require action and that action requires willingness. Before you can become willing you have to surrender to your disease. You also have to become willing to try to live a new way of life.
Recovery is willingness followed by action followed by more willingness. If you stop at any point in this cycle then you run the risk of reverting back to your old ways (relapse).
Seek feedback and advice
One of the critical steps in any person’s recovery is to seek feedback and advice from others.
Why is this necessary?
In early recovery this is necessary because your own ideas are not sufficient to bring about recovery. If they were then you would not need to ask for help and you would not have a problem to begin with. The fact that you have a problem with addiction or alcoholism indicates that you need new ideas, new input, and new information in order to recover. Anyone who does not need these things does not have a problem with addiction.
The need for feedback and advice continues after early recovery, though it is greatly reduced at that point. But you can still benefit a great deal in terms of personal growth by asking others for advice and direction during long term recovery.
If you actually want to “reinvent your life” in recovery then you need to get serious about this step. You may believe that you are sacrificing too much of yourself to ask others for advice, but if you skip this step then you are missing out on a lot of potential growth.
Part of what you need to realize is that when you ask others for advice and guidance you are not sacrificing yourself. You are not becoming less of a person by asking for guidance. In fact you are always going to be the decision maker and all final decisions are going to be up to you. You do not become less of a person by seeking feedback from others.
In doing this you open the door to a huge amount of wisdom that you otherwise would have missed out on. Maybe you have one year sober and you are talking with someone who has multiple years into recovery now. Ask them what they would have done differently in their journey and what they think you should be focusing on right now. Ask them for advice and then go find someone else and ask them for advice too. Get lots of feedback and use it to help you to plan out a course of growth for yourself in recovery.
Test and experiment
Recovery is a very personal journey. You can find evidence of this by talking with many different people who have overcome addiction. They have done so in different ways and different strategies and techniques are important to them.
This should lead you to an obvious conclusion: we are not always going to know exactly what will help us in recovery. For example, I lived for a few years in recovery without doing any exercise at all, and I did not think much of the idea. Sure, I thought, perhaps daily exercise would be helpful or useful to my recovery, but I did not suspect that it would make a difference in any real meaningful way.
I was wrong. Later on I discovered that regular exercise was an important foundation block of my recovery strategy. It was more beneficial to me than meditation, meetings, counseling, or sponsorship. This was not obvious to me when I first got clean and sober and I did not discover this until my third year or so of my journey. In order to discover this strategy I had to be willing to try new things and keep testing and experimenting in recovery.
They have a saying: “Keep what you need and leave the rest.” This is good advice for your entire life. But in order to make use of this advice you have to get outside of your shell and keep trying new things. I readily admit that I am not usually eager to do that but when I have taken suggestions and tried new things I have always learned something (either it helps, or it doesn’t!).
Willingness and action. You have to have both, and you have to maintain this willingness to keep trying new things.
One thing that catches people off guard in long term sobriety is that our problems in life keep changing and evolving. Therefore you have to keep looking for new solutions in life. Isn’t that strange? You would think that we could eventually figure it all out and be done with this recovery stuff, and that we could stop learning for a while. But in reality the problems that we face keep changing and evolving, and that is why recovery is an ongoing process. You don’t get to finish. You will have new problems in the future that you have never faced before. Embracing recovery means that you are willing to embrace this process of change, realize that there will always be new challenges in life, and being OK with that. In face if you have the right attitude then you will look ahead to those future challenges and even be excited about them.