What is the best strategy for long term addiction recovery? What is the best way to live your life so that you do not relapse and continue to grow and get healthier?
I first started to wonder about this question when I was living in long term treatment, fairly early in my recovery journey, and I was attending AA meetings every day. I was getting a great deal of advice from different people at the time, but most of it was a collection of different tactics rather than an overall strategy. So for example, people would suggest that I call my sponsor on a regular basis. Or they would suggest that I go to AA meetings every day. Or they would suggest that I would read the recovery literature and work the steps of AA.
Those are all tactics in the war against addiction. Those are specific things that you can do in order to help yourself to remain sober. But what about the question of “why?” Someone can tell you to do certain things, and you might do them and they could help you to remain sober. But do you know why you are doing those things? Can you figure out what other things might substitute for them if you had to? Those are questions that speak to a need for having a strategy.
If you have the strategy you can then improvise the tactics.
Do you really need a strategy for addiction recovery at all? What for?
I believe that your recovery will be more powerful and more secure if you have a strategy for living.
If you just follow the tactics that you are given (go to meetings, work the steps, call your sponsor, etc.) then you don’t have a way to make subtle changes on the fly. You can’t improvise.
On the other hand, if you designed your own strategy for living (or even if you adopted a strategy and you understand it deeply) then you can easily make minor modifications to the strategy in order to improvise on the fly.
This is very important because life is decidedly random in nature. Chaos insures that your life is going to have lots of ups and downs in the long run.
In the short run everything appears to be normal. You can handle nearly anything with a handful of recovery tactics.
But in the long run this is not the case. In the long run, life is going to (eventually) throw you a curve ball. It is not a matter of “if,” it is simply a matter of “when.” We all go through ups and downs.
So your sponsor might relapse one day and shock the heck out of you by doing so.
Or you might walk into your regular AA meeting and find the group completely disbanded.
Or you might be sent across the globe to some remote location and not have access to meetings at all for a certain time period.
And so on and so forth. I can’t predict the exact nature of the ups and downs or the chaos that you might deal with some day. No one can. That’s the whole point–life is random and you are going to face some unknowns.
And this is why you need a strategy for recovery. You need to understand what you are doing on a regular basis in order to protect your sobriety, but you also need to understand why you do those things and how they protect you. That way, when the chaos hits your life in a big way, you can improvise new solutions and continue to remain sober. You don’t have to fall apart and then relapse as a result.
The best strategy for continued success in recovery involves personal growth
There are definitely different strategies for addiction recovery.
Most people never think about this stuff. They are still stuck in the land of recovery tactics, following basic tips such as “go to 90 meetings in 90 days” or “Call your sponsor at least once a week” or things along those lines.
There is nothing wrong with those tactics per se, but you need to understand that there should be a strategy behind them.
So one strategy, for example, might be that of holistic health.
With this strategy for recovery you are viewing yourself and your life as being a 5 dimensional being, one who has physical health, mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, and social health.
And using this strategy the idea is pretty simple: You don’t want to become “sick” in any of those 5 areas. If you do then it can lead you to relapse.
So then when someone says “You should consider going to AA meetings every day, or doing 90 in 90,” you can understand how that fits into your strategy of holistic health.
Daily meetings might be useful for your social health in particular. You are reaching out to others in recovery every day, associating with others in recovery, avoiding the bar scene, and so on.
And it may help you emotionally to go to meetings every day and share what is going on with your recovery.
But then you would also consider the fact that going to meetings is not doing anything for, say, your physical health. So you notice this deficiency in that area and you decide that maybe if you walk to your meetings instead of driving there that you could get some exercise in. Or whatever….maybe you hit the gym instead. You get the idea.
In my opinion this is one of the better strategies for recovery (and life in general) because your health is not just about being disease free and in good physical standing. Your health is much more than that. Just consider those who are mentally ill and suffer greatly as a result. Or consider those who are emotionally devastated to the point that it is ruining their life. Or the person who is doing self harm because they are unstable. Or the person who is socially isolated and has no friends, family, or social interaction at all. These are not examples of healthy people, yet all of them may be in good physical standing and be completely disease-free.
What is the fundamental currency of recovery? Answer: your health.
Your health is your greatest asset in recovery. Nothing is more important.
When you make the decision to get clean and sober, you are basically making the decision to “choose life.” The alternative is to continue on with addiction into the slow downward spiral that ends in death. We all know (deep down) that addiction leads to death in the end.
The fundamental currency of recovery is your health. Let’s say you get clean and sober and you are happy but then you die from disease. Worth it? Not according to my math. Dead is dead…quite honestly, I would rather be alive and drinking than sober and non-existent. I am always confused in AA meetings when people say that they would rather die sober than to continue on in life after a relapse. That truly baffles me. I don’t think that those people understand the math involved. Once you are gone you are really gone. You may be miserable in addiction but there is always hope. My own journey has taught me that much. I was miserable and desperate but I found hope in recovery. If you commit suicide then all hope is gone forever. Period.
Therefore I believe that when you choose life and you choose recovery that your greatest asset is your health. Not just your physical health but all of the dimensions of your health. Because so many of these different areas of your health can lead to potential relapse.
I have watched so many people in recovery who have relapsed for all sorts of reasons. It is claimed by some that every relapse is due to a lack of spirituality, but I don’t necessarily believe that. I watched many people relapse after they became physically ill for a long period of time. I have known many who relapsed after a relationship they were in broke up. I have known many who relapsed because they were bored and restless. And some people were just plain selfish and ungrateful (a spiritual relapse). But there are definitely multiple reasons that a person might end up drinking again. And you cannot protect yourself from all of those reasons unless you are using a holistic approach to recovery.
One of the important things to note about improving your holistic health in recovery is that it also protects you from relapse. In other words, improving yourself and your life is a step towards personal growth. When you are engaged in personal growth you feel better about yourself and your self esteem goes up. This is how relapse prevention really works. When you feel good about yourself, when you really feel better about who you are as a person, you are far less likely to relapse. We medicate when we don’t like who we have become. We medicate when we don’t like to face ourselves and get honest. But if you can honestly face yourself and you start to like the things you are doing and the person you have become then it is far less likely that you will relapse.
So taking good care of yourself in recovery is priority number one. This is true on so many different levels and also for so many different reasons. The best strategy for recovery is to actively try to improve yourself and your life on all of these different levels (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially). There is always more room for growth in a person’s life. We are never done on this journey.
An iterative process that uncovers your daily practice
We become what we do every day. Our habits define the person that we become in the future.
And yet we don’t always judge the world this way. You may watch some skinny runner go jogging by, and say something like “well, it is easy for that person to jog, because they are so skinny!”
And yet that person has been jogging for years or even decades. Their daily habits have defined who they have become. They don’t run because they look like a runner, instead, they look like a runner because they force themselves to get out there and put in the miles every day. Discipline has created the future that they wanted for themselves.
The same is true in addiction recovery. You don’t just get lucky and fall into this easy and wonderful life in sobriety. You have to work for it a bit. But in doing the work you will eventually create that fun and easy life where everything just seems to work out. You can get there, but you have to work for it. It takes effort. Just like the runner who is in great shape and makes it look so easy when they go jogging by you, the person who is living this awesome life in recovery could sit you down and explain how they have put in years of hard work into their sobriety.
This process that I am talking about, this hard work that I refer to, is iterative. Meaning that you cycle through things in your life and you figure out what is working well for you and then you do it again. You test things out and learn, test things again and learn more things. It is an ongoing process that is always unfolding all around you. And so you continue to learn more and more and continue to improve your life. This is what recovery should be like. Personal growth is the direction you want to head in. Every single day you should be moving forward. Every day is another opportunity for growth.
My daily practice has evolved a great deal over time. When I first got clean and sober I was living in long term rehab. So I was mostly doing what other people told me to do. I was in therapy, I was going to meetings, I was working the steps, and I was reading recovery literature. That was over 13 years ago.
Today my life is a lot different than that, but I would not say that I am no longer working on my recovery. In fact, I may work on my recovery today even harder, or at the very least, I am putting in an equal effort. But the things that I do today are much different, because my life has changed and evolved since my first year of sobriety.
Today I no longer go sit in AA meetings like I did during that first year. It is not that meetings are “bad” or anything, they just aren’t the best use of my time in recovery any more. I do other things, such as online recovery, exercise outside, and face to face interaction with other healthy people in my life (who happen to be outside of AA).
When I made this transition away from meetings to the life that I am living today (and the new daily practice that I engage in now), I was really struggling with the idea of strategy. Because what was happening was that everyone who knew me in recovery was telling me to stay the course, stay in the meetings, and keep using the tactics that they knew to be effective.
And I was resisting that, and saying “Well wait a minute…what is the real strategy behind the meetings? Behind the tactics you are recommending?” Because if I can figure out what that strategy is then I can use different tactics to accomplish the same thing. If I understand why and how AA meetings help people stay sober then I don’t necessarily have to sit through meetings every day in order to get those same benefits. I can get them in other ways and from other activities (such as from online recovery groups, writing about recovery, exercise, etc.).
So throughout the last 13 years I have slowly re-sculpted my daily practice in order to make it more effective.
This is a very personal thing. The things that I do every day in my daily practice may not be the things that help you to stay clean and sober. They might only work for me.
Which is perfectly fine, so long as you can go find your own daily practice, and you also understand the strategy behind the principles.
For example, there is a principle in early recovery known as “identification.” You are alcoholic and you feel like you are going crazy because you can’t control yourself, and you feel like no one else in the world has ever felt like you do.
But if you go to an AA meeting and you hear others tell their story, you hopefully can identify with them and realize that you are not crazy. And this should give you hope, and strength.
You do not necessarily have to go to AA in order to identify with others in recovery. But it is certainly one way to do so.
For every principle in recovery there are multiple ways to learn it and integrate it into your life.
Another popular principle in recovery is that of surrender. This is not fundamental to AA. Instead, it is fundamental to recovery itself. Everyone has to surrender if they want to get sober, regardless of what recovery program they use.
So what you really want to do in your recovery journey is to test ideas out in your own life, see if they work for you, and simply drop the ones that do not. Then, keep pushing yourself forward to find and test new ideas. You can accelerate this process by taking advice and suggestions from other people in recovery, especially those who are living the sort of life that you want to live yourself. This is the basic idea behind sponsorship in AA, a model that can be very powerful and helpful to some people. If you find someone who is living the life that you want, then simply emulate them. Ask them for advice, and then take it. Follow through. Pretty hard to mess that up if you are serious about doing the work. What you see is what you get. Do what they did and you will get the results that they got……
Some strategies work better than others
What has your recovery strategy been up to this point?
Has it been to just take random suggestions from people in recovery to use a variety of different tactics (go to meetings, read the literature, etc.)?
Or has it been a strategy of personal growth and holistic health? A strategy by which you push yourself to take better and better care of yourself every day, in a variety of different ways?
Some strategies are better than others. And it may be the case that you have to find what works for you.
So above all, I would encourage you to do the following two things:
1) Think about your recovery strategy, period. Most people never consider it. Why are you doing the things you are doing for your recovery? For me, it is because I want to live, I want to be healthy, I want to improve my life. Personal growth and holistic health. That’s my strategy in a nutshell. Yours might be different, but you should at least consider it and try to understand it so that you can better apply it.
2) Test new ideas. Get advice, get feedback from others, and test out different things in recovery. This will reveal your strategy to you in the long run. Obviously you are going to discard ideas that don’t work for you. And you will keep ideas that work well, and perhaps explore them more deeply. This is the iterative process in action. You want to keep learning, keep trying new things, keep pushing yourself to grow and improve. Thus you can devise a recovery strategy that works well for you through this iterative testing process.
What about you, have you thought about your life strategy for recovery? What is it? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!