Some things will probably never change in this world.
Overcoming an addiction is likely one of them. People joke that if they ever find a cure for addiction that they will probably just get addicted to it. Cute, but also containing a hint about the true nature of drug addiction and alcoholism. It is not an easy problem to solve.
In order to solve a “lifestyle problem” like addiction you need more than just a bunch of tricks and gimmicks. A list of tactics is not enough. Think about a lifestyle problem such as obesity–how does one solve that? You need a strategy for better health, probably one that includes both physical exercise as well as healthier eating and nutrition. It is not enough to just employ cheap tactics in the fight against a lifestyle disease. The problem is that the disease is too powerful and will simply walk all over your cheap tactics. For example, maybe your tactic is to work out every day in order to try to lose weight. The problem with that is you leave the door open to so many other temptations when it comes to your diet. So then maybe you try to “shut that door” with another tactic, but temptation just pops up somewhere else.
This is what they are getting at when they say that the disease of addiction is “insidious” and “patient.” The problem is that there are so many different avenues of temptation out there. This is why the tactical approach to recovery will always fail in the long run. You need a comprehensive strategy for recovery that can help guide you in all of your decisions. You need a way to improvise when life throws you curve balls. If you rely on tactics then all you can do is hit straight pitches in your recovery. If you have an overall strategy then you are able to adapt and improvise. Therefore you want a strategy for recovery, not just a bunch of tips and tricks.
The strategy that I use for my own recovery could be labeled a strategy of “personal growth and holistic health.” There are really two principles there that are intertwined:
1) Strive for personal growth, to improve your life and your life situation.
2) Use your own health as your compass. This includes mental health, emotional health, physical health, spiritual health, etc.
Of course such a strategy does not answer every single question in life and you will still have to weigh some decisions. But using a strategy such as this you will at least know what you are striving for and what is important to you. Personal growth is a constant goal because it helps to prevent relapse, and striving for it prevents complacency. Improving your health tends to help you avoid misery, which is not the same thing as “happiness” but in some ways seeking this level of contentment is much wiser than chasing happiness. Most of the misery in this world comes from things that could have been prevented–therefore your job in recovery is to prevent misery as much as it is to chase happiness. This is a non-obvious concept because most of us find ourselves miserable one day after we have been told all of our lives that we should chase our dreams and chase happiness. The truth is that it is much better to seek contentment and that should be included in your recovery strategy.
The phases of recovery are quite different, and that presents a unique challenge. For example, think about the person who is struggling to stop drinking and using drugs every day and is on the cusp of surrender, compared to someone who has been clean and sober for ten years but is struggling with complacency and is on the brink of relapse. These people have something in common in that their common enemy is alcohol, but they are also worlds apart in that one of them had ten years of sobriety under their belt while the other has never lived through even a single day of recovery yet.
Would you expect these two people to employ exactly the same strategy of recovery? Is there a universal strategy that can apply to both of their situations?
Part of our purpose here is to explore whether that is true or not. I am quite sure that in traditional recovery circles (AA and NA) they would attempt to answer this by saying “yes, the 12 step program would address both of these situations equally and it could solve both people’s problem.”
As we will see, even if the strategy is consistent (seek personal growth + holistic health) it is the implementation that is important. For example, what do you focus on in recovery and how do you prioritize? Depending on your phase of recovery you might do well to focus on certain parts of your recovery strategy over the others.
Because the different phases of recovery can be so unique I have broken them down into four stages here. In the most simple version there is “early recovery” and “long term sobriety” but for the purposes of this discussion I think we need more stages than that:
1) Detox/disruption – when you first surrender and decide to get help. First few weeks of your recovery.
2) Discipline/change – First few months to a year or so. All about change and simply sticking it out.
3) Accumulation – the benefits of recovery are kicking in now. “It gets greater later.” This is the “later.” First few years of recovery.
4) Personal growth – this is long term sobriety, from 3 to 5 years until you die. “The rest of your life.”
Any timeless strategy for recovery is going to need to address all four of these stages. Can your recovery strategy get you to surrender and go to detox? Can it help you to overcome complacency when you are struggling at 20 years sober? If so, then that is a timeless strategy that is strong enough to applied in nearly any situation.
Let’s look at these four stages and see how our possible strategy applies to each one.
The disruption stage includes surrender and this is really the defining moment that stands outside of any recovery strategy. If you do not have surrender then any possible strategy can be thrown right out of the window. It is meaningless without surrender because then there is no real willingness.
Whether the addict can see it or not, surrender is a necessary step before any real growth can occur in their life. They are stuck. In order to make positive changes in their life they need to surrender to their addiction. If they cannot see this simple fact then they are stuck in denial. When they finally grasp this fact then they have broke through their denial and surrendered to the disease.
Detox is a necessary step to move towards better health. The addict must realize at this point in their journey that getting their body fully detoxed is a logical step towards better health. In the past they were stuck in addiction and simply did not care about this increase in health, and even after they surrender they may not care much about this boost in health. As recovery progresses though their self esteem will slowly rise and they will start to enjoy sobriety and eventually come to care about their health a great deal.
This universal strategy applies to the disruption phase but it is almost as if it does not matter. All that matters at this point is surrender and willingness. Is the struggling addict at a point of surrender and are they willing to ask for help then recovery becomes possible for them. On the other hand if they are still stuck in denial then there is nothing that can be said or done that is going to put them on a path to greater health and personal growth.
Surrender is the gate through which they must pass. As is described in traditional recovery, “willingness is the key.” This is absolutely true at this early stage in the journey and without this surrender and willingness there can be no recovery.
Early recovery is all about change. After you get through the disruption stage you should be fully detoxed and ready to tackle your recovery journey. How can you go about building a new life in recovery?
This is the type of change that requires consistency. You can’t just work on your recovery every few days, then take a day off, then decide you will give this recovery thing another chance, and so on. It is all or nothing. If you are going to follow through then you have to keep following through with it, day in and day out, pretty much forever! This sounds overwhelming to the newcomer and so the “day at a time” concept was introduced to attempt to reduce this overwhelming task.
But for the purposes of devising a recovery strategy, we cannot afford to make a mistake here. Early recovery requires a radical transformation and a high level of consistency. One of the words that comes to mind is “discipline.” If you get through your first year of recovery and you don’t feel that you have learned any discipline in doing so then I would suggest that you are close to relapse. Why? Because early recovery demands the sort of living that will build discipline. You have to make positive changes and do so consistently. This will create discipline in the long run.
Our recovery strategy tells us that we should push for personal growth and also for holistic health. When people in traditional recovery refer to “footwork” they are really talking about this phase of recovery. Most people who make it through detox get to this stage of recovery and they drop the ball. Why does this happen? Probably because this is where you really make or break your recovery journey. Detox is easy, especially if you go into a medical facility. Surrender is tough. And making changes and being consistent for the first year or two of your recovery journey is tough. It is just a whole lot of work and most people are not ready to create that sort of discipline and change in their life. You do not necessarily need willpower in order to resist your drug of choice, but you still need strong willpower in order to “stay the course” in your recovery journey. The amount of change and consistency that this stage of recovery demands is very high. This is where most people fail.
Our recovery strategy is simple enough to guide us in these changes but that does not necessarily make it any easier to go through with those changes and stick with them. For example, my strategy was to seek greater health in my life and so in doing that I decided to live in long term rehab. I decided that this was the best choice for my improved health at the time. While I lived in long term treatment, however, I watched about 20 or 30 of my peers go out and relapse while living their with me. Even though long term treatment was an obvious solution for me did not mean that it was a sure win for recovery. In fact I watched it fail for most of my peers and therefore realized that in the end you still have to do the work and build discipline. In other words, there was no shortcut. Long term treatment was not a slam dunk solution. There was apparently no way around having to put in the hard work and make those consistent changes for the first few years of recovery.
All of recovery is about change but this phase of early recovery I label as “discipline.” The reason for that is because when you make it past this stage of the game you will have built a ton of new discipline in your life. You may go to traditional meetings, get a sponsor, and work the steps. Or you may find your own path in recovery and seek changes in some other way. Regardless, you are going to be a very changed person when you make it through this stage of recovery. If you are not changed then you can expect to relapse. This is the “sink or swim” stage. So basically if you avoid relapse then you need to learn “how to swim.” This is hard work and is not a trivial task–essentially you are learning how to deal with all of life, sober. If you make it through this task then you will acquire much discipline.
Positive change and accumulation
When you move from “disruption” into the next phase of recovery there is a clear line in between them. One day you are still in a detox facility and the next day you are back out, walking around in the real world, attempting to avoid your drug of choice. There is a clear separation between the two phases of recovery.
This is not true when moving from “discipline” to “accumulation.” At some point in your recovery you will look back and realize that you have started accumulating serious benefits in your recovery. In my opinion this is the “reward” or “accumulation” phase of recovery.
If there is a lesson to learn during this phase of your growth it is these two things:
1) Gratitude for your sobriety and for the changes you have made so far. You should feel grateful. Extremely grateful.
2) Start thinking ahead to how you will overcome complacency in long term sobriety. “The rest of your life” is sitting in front of you now, waiting.
Our recovery strategy really shines at this point because it helps to keep us focused on growth and positive action. If you ever get to a point in your recovery where you kick up your feet and decide to relax, you may be opening the door to complacency and relapse by doing so. Obviously we want to avoid that and so our strategy needs to have a way to keep us pushing for positive changes.
The search for personal growth should never end. There are always more incremental improvements that you can make to your life. Likewise, you will never be able to say “I am now in perfect health and there is nothing that I could change in order to be healthier.” There is always another level to attain, more exercise you could do, healthier foods you might eat, and so on.
I believe that the key thing at this stage of the game is to:
* Hang on to your gratitude and never lose your wonder at the benefits that you are receiving in recovery. Use this gratitude to inspire you to take more positive action and make more positive changes.
* Pause and reflect on what you have achieved, then look forward to your next growth challenge. Always look forward to the next positive change you might make. This is not the time to take your foot off the gas.
This is the final stage of the recovery process and you might also label it as “long term sobriety.” The key pitfall at this point is the threat of complacency. If you feel that you are done with recovery then you are in danger of relapse, because this is a process that never fully ends. People do relapse who have ten, twenty, and thirty years of sobriety and the reason that it happens is because they have stopped growing in their recovery.
More than anything else, this is why you need a recovery strategy rather than a bunch of recovery tactics. Tricks and gimmicks cannot solve the problem of complacency in recovery. They are not able to do so because by the time that you realize that you need to do something about complacency it is already too late. If you notice that you are complacent then you have failed and you might have already relapsed at this point.
Personal growth is the solution. Positive changes are the solution. Complacency is when these things cease entirely. Therefore the solution is simple: You must plan to keep making positive changes for the rest of your life, and you must plan to keep pushing yourself towards personal growth.
But how can you do this without driving yourself crazy? How can you embrace this strategy without pushing too hard, for too long, and burning yourself out?
The answer is balance. In all good things there are balance. You must find a way to both enjoy your life and practice acceptance while also pushing yourself to make continuous growth.
For me the answer is an intermittent resting period of reflection. So you push yourself to make growth, and you finally achieve your goal. So now, pause and reflect. Look back on your journey and see what you can learn from it. Compare your recent progress to the rest of your recovery journey. What has been most beneficial for you? What has not worked so well in your journey? What seems to help you the most?
During this period of reflection (when you are “pausing”) you should have this little voice in the back of your mind whispering “OK, what personal growth challenge are we going to tackle next?” If you do not have that little voice then you will have to start prompting those thoughts on your own. Alternatively, you could always seek out a sponsor who will challenge you to keep making positive changes in your life as well. But the idea here is simple: in order to fight complacency, you have to be in this cycle of never ending positive change. You have to keep growing in your recovery. You cannot just sit still and expect to have arrived at successful recovery. Instead it is a goal that you need to keep striving for.