Success in alcoholism recovery is cumulative.
In other words, “it keeps getting better.”
This is exciting. Most people don’t really stop to think about it though.
If you do the work in recovery then your life just keeps getting better and better over time. Pretty amazing really.
Some people think of it as one percent improvement. Just imagine if your life improved by one percent each month. That probably seems like it is reasonable, right? Improving your life by just one percent each month?
If you can do that, and you can keep doing it consistently, then the math starts to work in your favor. Of course it doesn’t really seem like math because you are simply making positive changes in your life: Improving your relationships, exploring spirituality, exercising more, eating healthier foods, and so on.
But if you keep doing those kinds of things and you keep pushing for at least one percent improvement, where will that put you in five years? In ten years?
I can tell you what happens when you do those things: Your life gets amazing. Because it will just keep getting better.
And positive things will start to happen in your life that you could never have predicted as a result of these tiny little one percent changes that you have been pushing for.
In other words, when you pursue a path of holistic health and personal growth, the rewards will come to you in ways that you could not have predicted. The interactions are too complex.
This is why, for example, I could not really understand the benefits that people were telling me about in terms of exercise.
People tried to get me to exercise in early recovery. I wasn’t having any of it. What was exercise going to do for me? I needed to stop drinking. I didn’t want to go work out and be sore and get all sweaty! How was that going to help me in sobriety?
But it did, of course. And I could not really see how exactly until I had done it. Until I had made a commitment to exercise and gone through the motions and adopted a new routine for myself. And it was more than that too: I had to make other positive changes along with this.
I couldn’t just take one suggestion and try to exercise a few times. I had to take lots of suggestions. I had to eat healthier foods. I had to quit smoking cigarettes. I had to start sleeping more consistently.
I had to do all sorts of these healthy things along with the exercise. And then several months or even years down the road I could look back and really gain some serious perspective. Now I can look back and see how all of it helped me, together. Not just the exercise but all of the positive changes.
It was a cumulative effort and the effects of all of these positive changes started to work together. They started to interact. And that is where the real magic happened.
A great example of this is in terms of discipline. I tried to quit smoking cigarettes in early recovery and I failed, many times.
How could I quit smoking? It was impossible. I kept trying and failing.
I was missing something. I was missing a critical piece that would allow me to quit smoking. And for a while I could not figure out what that was.
Well, the solution turned out to be exercise. I started jogging even though I was still smoking. And I kept jogging. And I noticed that after I finished running I did not feel like smoking as much. It would usually take a few hours after finishing a run until I realized that I wanted a cigarette.
So this was a huge breakthrough for me. I had to exercise in order to beat the cigarette addiction. And this is really what allowed me to finally quit smoking. I had to get into shape first, and then quit smoking.
I think it is important to note that the order of operations here is counter-intuitive.
As a drug addict and an alcoholic, my usual excuse would have been something like: “Well I can’t get into shape because I am still a smoker. I have to quit smoking before I can consider trying to jog on a regular basis.”
That would have been my excuse in the past. But in recovery, I learned that this was a hollow excuse. There was nothing preventing me from jogging, even though I was still a smoker.
So I started jogging. And for a little while, I kept smoking. But eventually the exercise won out. Eventually, I pushed myself to run further and further distances, and the need to self medicate with nicotine became less and less.
So this was the order that I had to do it in. I had to make the positive change first (adopting exercise) and then I was able to finally put down the cigarettes.
And when I had finally put down the cigarettes I looked back at what I had accomplished. I had finally overcome nicotine addiction! It was really tough to do. In some ways, I think that was harder for me than actually getting clean and sober from alcohol and other drugs.
And so this gave me a new level of confidence. Because I had learned something in finally quitting cigarettes.
What had I learned?
I learned how to use discipline. I learned how to develop discipline in my life. How to use it like a tool.
So I took that lesson and I started to apply it to other areas of my life. I realized that I had power now. I had more control over myself than what I previously did. I realized that I could do things, I could create something, I could follow a plan and stick to it.
So I used this discipline to accomplish other goals in my life. I went back to school and I started a business. And I really felt like I was using this power, this discipline that I had learned from my quitting smoking experiment.
But I had to work up to this point. I did not start out in recovery by making all sorts of amazing changes overnight. It took time. It took hard work. I had to build up to this point.
Starting from ground zero and building from there
Everyone starts out in recovery from ground zero.
You hit bottom and make a decision to change your life. You ask for help and you start taking positive action.
For me, that meant going to rehab, going through detox, and taking the advice that they gave me while in treatment.
I had to listen. Really listen.
I had to admit to myself that I did not have the answers. I had to accept the fact that I did not know how to be happy. My way was not working. My idea of “fun” was to get drunk and high on drugs every day, and this had led me to misery. I had to admit to myself that this was no longer working out for me. I was miserable. I had to accept that.
As they say in the movie “Fight Club,” hitting bottom is not a weekend retreat. It was fair to say that I wished that I did not exist at one point. I certainly did not have the guts to kill myself, but I was thoroughly miserable. And I had very little hope for the future.
This was my bottom. This was ground zero.
I asked for help. I made a decision: Why not give rehab another try. I had been twice before and I had very little hope. I knew the drill: AA meetings, counseling, therapy, group sessions, and so on. I knew what to expect and I had very little hope for change. I was devastated. I was miserable.
But I went anyway. I went to rehab because I was tired of being afraid. I was tired of living in fear, and trying to chase the fear away with booze and drugs.
My family checked me into rehab and I started to rebuild my life.
This started with a medical detox. You gotta get the chemicals out of your system. This is the obvious starting point. You become physically abstinent and then you build on that sobriety.
Now the goal is to prevent relapse. You are sober, you made it through detox, now how can you remain sober without sabotaging your recovery?
In order to do that I checked into long term rehab. I lived in a long term facility for 20 months. Best decision I ever made. That said, long term rehab definitely does not work for everyone. Most of my peers relapsed, to be perfectly honest. But it worked for me.
But it didn’t work because it was long term necessarily–it worked because I was finally ready. It all comes down to surrender. Anyone who tells you different is flat out wrong. If you haven’t surrendered yet then it doesn’t matter how long you stay in rehab, or if the facility is world class, or whatever.
So this is the starting point. You ask for help, and hopefully you get it. Hopefully someone directs you to professional help.
Hopefully you get yourself to rehab. It is not a cure-all but it is still the best option.
Why so many people relapse in early recovery
Unfortunately, there is a massive time delay in early recovery between when you first stop drinking and when your life gets really awesome.
Alcoholism recovery is holistic. The path to sobriety is a holistic one.
This is not meant to be spiritual woo, I am serious here. You can’t just change your life in one dimension and expect to remain sober.
So in order to get sober and stay that way, you have to transform in many different ways.
Obviously you have your physical health. You have to stop putting chemicals into your body every day. And you have to eat better, get some decent sleep, maybe exercise your body a little. Some people don’t go that far but obviously you have to abstain from drugs and alcohol. This is the physical part of it.
Traditional recovery would have you believe that the solution is one hundred percent spiritual. If you go to AA then you will be told that the solution for addiction is entirely spiritual. I don’t believe this; my belief is that spirituality is one part of the solution. But the overall solution in recovery is holistic. It is more than just spiritual.
There is an emotional component. If you are upset in recovery then your chances of relapse skyrocket. So you want to be emotionally stable. This is separate from your physical and spiritual condition. Your emotional health matters, and is important.
Physical, spiritual, emotional. These are the first three areas of your health in recovery. There is also mental and social health, which can also have a huge impact on your sobriety.
So what happens is that in early recovery you start to make positive changes. You start to make improvements. Most of us have problems in all five of these areas. Most of us could stand to be healthier in each of these five ways. This is especially true if you are just starting out in sobriety.
So what happens? You go to rehab, get sober, start living your life. You start making positive changes.
And for a while, nothing happens.
Why is this?
The problem is that it takes time. It takes time for all of this stuff to start working together because it is synergistic.
In other words, just eliminating the drugs and the booze is not enough.
Nor is incorporating exercise enough.
In other words, if you just use spiritual growth as your only tool in recovery, you won’t get very far. Nothing much will happen. This is because your health is only improving along one dimension.
The solution is to improve your health in all five of those key areas. And this takes time. It is not all going to happen overnight.
If you are trying to make positive changes in all of these areas, it takes a great deal of time and effort before it “all comes together.”
This is what synergy is. It is when you are making positive changes in all of these different areas of your life, and the benefits and rewards of doing so start to interact with each other and multiply.
And this is when recovery gets really good. This is when people say “It just keeps getting better and better!”
But you have to be at that point where you are firing on all cylinders. You have to be using a holistic approach. You have to be taking care of yourself in all five of these areas, each and every day.
And it takes time. You start living this way, you start to rebuild your life, and you start to make these positive changes. And it takes time for the full rewards to kick in. It doesn’t happen overnight. And so you have to give yourself time to really appreciate this kind of growth in recovery. Give yourself a chance. Give yourself time to heal.
“It gets greater, later”
I am sure many newcomers in recovery are annoyed by this phrase.
Of course we all want it to get better right away. We want the rewards of recovery right now!
But if that were possible then do you really believe that addiction would even exist? I don’t think that it would. You could simply walk away from the drugs and the alcohol and your life would magically get better, without having to work hard for it and be patient.
Therefore it is pretty obvious that there is a delay. It is obvious that the full rewards of sobriety take time to truly kick in.
What we need to do, therefore, is to plan for this. To keep some sort of faith that things will get better.
There are different ways to do this. One way that is perhaps one of the most powerful is to focus on gratitude every single day. To practice gratitude like your life depends on it. Every day.
That way, you can celebrate the little victories. When you have one week sober and you are trying to claw your way out of the misery, what can you find to be grateful for? There are good answers to this question, but you might have to dig for them. You might have to exercise your brain a bit in order to find the gratitude.
I am grateful today for existence itself. I am grateful to be alive and breathing air right now. By all rights I could have (should have?) died in my drinking days. I went through some crazy stuff, but here I am! I made it. And so just the existence itself is a miracle.
And your gratitude can build from there. If you really want to knock yourself out, then make a list. Write down what you are grateful for. Do this every day until it becomes super easy for you. Build up your “gratitude muscle.”
Ask anyone who relapsed in recovery if they were grateful in their moment of relapse. When they finally said “screw it, I am just going to drink,” were they really grateful in that moment?
Of course they weren’t! They had zero gratitude at that moment. Because if they were truly grateful then they would not have had a need to alter their reality with drugs or alcohol.
Gratitude prevents relapse directly.
Think about that. If you are truly grateful, you can’t actually relapse. You wouldn’t relapse. It wouldn’t really be possible.
When you first get clean and sober you probably are not an expert at gratitude yet. Maybe you will feel grateful at times, but you probably are not a spiritual giant at this point. You are probably not practicing gratitude every single day.
It all takes time. You have to build up to this. And you have to work on all of these aspects of your health, and of your life, so that your gratitude is not just contrived and fake.
In other words, go do the work that will help you to be grateful.
It is true that you could potentially be grateful in any given circumstance. But why make it hard on yourself? Make it easier to find the gratitude. You can do this by taking better care of yourself, every single day, and in every way possible: Physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. If you are taking care of yourself in all of those ways on a consistent basis then it will make it so much easier to find the gratitude in your life. It will come automatically in ways that you could never predict. Life will get really, really good and you won’t be able to explain exactly how it happened or where the opportunities are coming from. But if you take good care of yourself (in all five of those ways) then the opportunities will come to you, and your life will get exponentially better.
Where would you be in 5 years if you took massive amounts of positive action each and every single day?
I don’t really feel like I am bragging when I say that my life is amazing today. I have 13 years sober and I have tried to be on a path of personal growth for the entire thirteen years.
Quite honestly, my life was already amazing after just a few short years in recovery (they flew by so fast after the first year!).
So ask yourself this question:
“What would my life be like if I improved it every single day for the next five years straight?”
It’s an important question. And hopefully you will use the idea of accumulation to drive your habits in recovery.
Because–believe it or not–it really does get greater, later.
I wish there were a shortcut to this but I never found one. I had to take the more difficult path. Holistic health, personal growth. Putting in the work. Being consistent.
But the rewards have been well worth it. Life is amazing today.