We can segment the addiction recovery approaches into two broad groups:
Traditional recovery, and
This is because 12 step based recovery is the dominant model of recovery today. Most people who try to overcome addiction or alcoholism will be funneled into the 12 step programs of AA or NA.
This is not necessarily good or bad, right or wrong….that’s just the current state of affairs today. The 12 step program is the dominant model.
That said, there are some alternatives out there, and some of them are really quite different.
The basic message here is that we can learn by watching others in recovery and seeing what works (and what doesn’t work) for them. Then we can apply those concepts to our own life and hopefully get stronger in our own recovery as a result of this.
What you can learn by watching others in recovery and what doesn’t work
There are a lot of things that don’t work in addiction recovery.
It is important to realize the role that personal responsibility plays in this however.
Also, the idea of surrender and denial comes into play here.
For example, I was going to see a counselor for a while while I was still struggling with addiction. Of course it did not help me at the time because I was still abusing drugs and alcohol.
Does this mean that counseling and therapy is useless though? Not necessarily. The key is that I was not at a point of surrender. I was still stuck in denial. And because of this, I was not in a position to take personal responsibility and make the difficult changes that I needed to make.
So if there is a lesson here, then the most important one is clearly this: Surrender and working through your denial comes first. That is by far the most important thing in terms of your future success in recovery.
It doesn’t matter what treatment approach you are using if you are still in denial. Period.
It doesn’t matter if you go to AA or you try some alternative to AA if you have not yet surrendered to your disease.
So it is not really a matter of looking at various treatment approaches and stating “oh, well that doesn’t really work, we should try something else.”
Instead, if you look at various treatment approaches and you look at everyone who is in a state of complete surrender, then you should see a 100 percent success rate. Alternatively, if you see someone who tries something like behavioral therapy or group counseling and they relapse, it is not necessarily a bad method. The person lacks surrender. It is likely that they are still in denial.
Several years ago there was a big study done that attempted to match people up to three different types of addiction therapy based on what would be the best fit for them. That study was largely inconclusive and could not really give a statistical edge to matching people up with treatment types. There was a slight edge given to 12 step based recovery but it was “not statistically significant.”
So one conclusion from that study seems to be that, in the beginning at least, the only thing that really matters is your state of surrender. You are either in denial, or you are ready to change your life. And if you are ready to change your life then the exact program or method that you follow is just not all that important. Of course it matters that you pick one and go with it, but statistically it is not easy to prove that it matters in the least which program or method you pick.
Who is staying sober and what exactly do they do each day?
One of the things that is interesting to me is if you find people who are in long term recovery and you ask them what they do all day long.
For example, go to a few AA meetings and casually interview people (just talk to them after the meeting) and ask them what they do every day. Do they exercise? Do they journal? Do they work with others in recovery? How many meetings do they go to each week? And so on.
What I found in my own experience is if you ask people who have maybe 2 or 3 years sober you will get a certain sort of answer. They are usually deeply involved in recovery related activities.
But then something interesting happens. If you start talking to people who have 5, 10, 15 years sober or more, you start to hear different sorts of things.
They are still taking positive action in their lives but it is not always focused around specific recovery programs.
I found this to be very interesting because it suggests that we evolve in our recovery journey.
How does recovery strategy evolve after different lengths of sobriety?
Of course everyone who first gets clean and sober is fully immersed in a recovery program (usually).
So they might go to AA meetings every day after they leave treatment. And they might see a therapist or a counselor once a week. Or they might be going to outpatient therapy for a while. Things like that.
And then they might settle into the AA routine, and start hitting meetings and seeing a sponsor regularly. Start working the steps formally.
And after a few years these things will run their course and the person may do a couple of different things. They might find a few different paths.
One path of course is relapse. This is generally blamed on complacency of some kind. They got lazy and stopped doing the work and so they drank again. Hopefully they make it back to recovery again, but that is not guaranteed of course.
Another path is that they work through the 12 steps and then they go on to do service work. They might sponsor newcomers in AA or start chairing an AA meeting for themselves.
And yet another path is that of holistic health and personal growth. This is more of the self motivated route that I have been on. I am still on a path of personal discovery and growth, but I am not formally working a specific program of recovery.
And then there are other alternatives, things that are on the fringes, like various therapies, counseling, group support (non-AA), exercise based recovery programs, and so on. Yoga or meditation. Martial arts. These are things that people can and do use in order to maintain sobriety, because it works for them.
I lived in long term treatment for 20 months at the beginning of my recovery journey. I noticed that a lot of my peers relapsed while living there, or shortly after leaving.
There is a transition of sorts, I believe.
You get into treatment and you start living sober. You are protected though. Soon, you will have to venture back out into the real world, and face the temptation of alcohol and drugs. How are you going to become strong enough to deal with that temptation when you leave treatment? This should be your focus when you are in rehab. How can I become ready to live a sober life? What actions can I take to make myself stronger and more stable in my recovery?
So there is this idea of early recovery, when you are in rehab or maybe you left recently and you are going to AA meetings.
And then there is this other idea which is long term sobriety, where you have years and years of sobriety under your belt and your life has evolved beyond “recovery 1.0.”
But somewhere in the middle is a transition.
You don’t just suddenly go from being in rehab and hitting AA meetings every day to being this strong and stable person in long term sobriety.
Something has to happen first. A whole lot of stuff has to happen first. And so you need to manage this transition in some way. You have to realize that you are not going to be stuck with six months sober for the rest of your life.
When you have a few weeks sober it is not necessarily easy, but at least it is simple. Just go to rehab, live in rehab, or go to AA meetings every day, call your sponsor, go, go, go. You hammer on the basics and you immerse yourself in 12 step recovery. This is not necessarily easy for everyone but at least it is simple to understand.
Long term sobriety is not like that. It becomes easier in my opinion but more complicated, if that makes sense. You become more stable and the threat of immediate relapse starts to subside, but in the long run it becomes a bit more tricky to manage your recovery. Now it is not just about hitting AA meetings every single day. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you can still do that after several years sober…..but you also have to evolve in other ways. I am not saying you have to stop going to meetings, that is not the point. The point is that you also have to grow, you have to evolve, you have to learn more about yourself and start finding personal growth outside of “recovery basics.”
I know people who have relapsed at 12 years sober. At 17 years sober. What where they doing? Why did they relapse?
I can tell you this much….they were no longer evolving and learning about themselves. They were stuck. They were complacent. They were no longer challenging themselves to learn and to grow in recovery.
They failed to make that transition from early recovery to…..something else. It is hard to pin down exactly what the “something else” is, because it might be quite different for various people. For me I would call it “personal growth.” It is life beyond AA….not that you have to leave AA or anything, but just that you have to somehow keep learning and challenging yourself. You have to find ways to reinvent yourself. Over and over again. And that means personal growth.
There is an attitude or a mindset that helps to facilitate these concepts. That mindset involves listening to other people and taking their advice and learning from it.
The mindset of taking suggestions and advice and experimenting with it
If you add up all of the great ideas that you came up with yourself, you would have a pile of great ideas, right?
Now what if you add in to that pile the great ideas that other people have suggested to you, and that you were smart enough to act on and benefit from?
Then you would have a bigger pile of great ideas!
OK so that is a bit silly, but the point remains:
If you cut yourself off entirely from other people’s ideas and advice, you will eventually suffer for it.
And if you allow yourself to take advice from others and learn from it, you will experience great rewards as a result.
One of the things that you have to figure out for yourself is that “you have enough time.” You have plenty of time to experiment, you have time to learn from other people, and that it won’t take anything away from you to listen to their advice and act on it.
For some reason we feel threatened by the idea that we should ask other people for advice and then do what they tell us to do. Our ego doesn’t like it. So we reject that concept in general. We don’t like taking advice or being told what to do.
The problem with this is that it is so incredibly beneficial for us to do exactly that in our recovery journey.
Rewind the clock with me if you will to 3 years before you finally quit drinking or taking drugs. Three years before your point of surrender. Now just imagine for a moment if someone could have sat you down (and you would have miraculously listened) and they convinced you to surrender at that time. So you would have quit drinking three years earlier than what you did. Think about how much pain and anguish and anxiety you could have avoided by listening to them and taking their advice. When I do this in my own situation it is practically unimaginable how much pain could have been avoided.
Now obviously you were not ready at that time, just like I was still stuck in denial. But now take this same concept and apply it to your recovery today: You are no longer stuck in denial, you are in recovery, and you are willing to learn and to listen to others. So why not take advice from others and benefit from it?
The nice thing about being in long term sobriety is that you can now afford to experiment. You have time, you have some stability, and you are likely much more flexible in terms of what you want to attempt in your life today. So if you want to try seated meditation, you can do that. If you want to try going to group therapy sessions you can do that as well. If you want to work with newcomers in AA you can do that. If you want to take up jogging or a yoga class or learn martial arts you can do those things. You have the power to make those choices today because you are finally free from addiction.
And the simple message here is that you should do some of those things. Or other things that are like that. Or just talk to people who have decades of sobriety and see what they do with their time. See what sort of things they are doing to take care of themselves. I know a guy who practices Tai Chi and it is absolutely critical to his recovery. It is a way of life for him. Not only is it physical but it is also spiritual and meditative at the same time.
Is this something that I am into myself? Nope, I have other outlets. I am into distance running and I journal and I do other things. But I can see the value in Tai Chi and I know that it works for some people. And so if someone suggests that I try something like this to expand my world and perhaps find another useful tool with which to combat addiction, I try to be open to those new ideas.
Revisiting your past failed experiments periodically
One final idea that I want to leave you with is this:
Don’t shut the door on every failed experiment that you have ever had.
I have at least two strong examples of this in my own experience.
One is the idea of recovery itself, and furthermore, of AA meetings.
I was terrified of AA and I went to treatment three times total. The first two times I failed and I remained terrified of AA meetings.
While I was stuck in denial and still drinking every day, I used to tell myself (and anyone else who would listen to me at the time) that I was a hopeless case. Recovery was simply not for me, there was no way I could ever get sober, because I was too afraid to face reality and go to AA and build a new life. I was a coward and I knew it and so there was no hope for me. So it was pointless for me to try to recover. This is what I told myself and others at the time because I was stuck in denial.
Well obviously those were all lies. I was lying to myself because I was in denial. Eventually I surrendered and I gave myself another chance. I gave AA another chance. I gave rehab another chance. And I went through the motions and even though I did not have a lot of faith that it would work, it did actually work. Because I was so miserable in addiction and I was so sick and tired of it all. And so the fear that had been holding me back was diminished. I no longer cared about the fear as much. Because I was so sick of it all. That is the point where you surrender and break through the last of your denial.
So that is one example of not giving up on a failed idea. I had tried AA and rehab twice before, but the third time it worked for me. Because I was finally ready.
The other example is with exercise.
I was in recovery already at this point, and various people were trying to convince me to exercise on a regular basis.
I tried to take this suggestion and I failed. I tried for a week or two but I ultimately gave up. And I said to myself “Well, I guess exercise is just not my thing.”
But then later on, I took the same suggestion again and tried to give it a go. Regular exercise. And for some reason, this time it clicked. Right place at the right time I guess. And it absolutely changed my life for the better and today I would say that physically exercise is one of the pillars of my recovery.
So don’t ever shut the door completely on a failed experiment, because it might come back in the future and prove you wrong. This has happened to me at least twice and probably more than that actually.
So look at what others are doing in their recovery (not just folks in AA) and see if you can learn something from them. It pays to experiment.
What about you, what have you learned about yourself by watching others in recovery? Have you successfully applied their ideas to your own life? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!