Your first choice in addiction recovery begins with the choice to leap out of your denial and into recovery itself.
I am not so sure that this is a choice, however. I was lucky enough to break through denial and ask for help, which led me to inpatient rehab. I have been clean and sober ever since that moment. But I am not so sure that I chose it for myself. It may have been fate or divine intervention. Because I seemed to be on a path of self destruction, and I struggled for years to try to pull myself out of it. I am not sure why I suddenly was able to move past my denial.
But it happened. I asked for help, and I was serious. I wanted to live.
So they sent me to rehab and I started to make a new set of choices. In fact, the only real choice that mattered was one that I made when I had about 3 weeks into my recovery.
I was at an AA meeting and I was listening to a man talk about the disease of addiction. He seemed like a very sharp and smart man. And he was talking about you could just never trust yourself, because even as smart as this man was, he could easily talk himself into a relapse if he was not careful. And he was explaining that he had to somehow step aside, away from himself, so that he was no longer in charge of making his own decisions. Because he just screwed everything up and his addiction would take over and cause him to relapse.
And so I made a decision, right then and there in that meeting, that I was not going to trust myself for the first year of my sobriety. I would ignore my own ideas completely. I would only listen to the advice of people in AA, my therapist, my sponsor, or my counselor. I would ignore my own ideas and I would, instead, trust others.
This was essentially the third step of AA or NA, which is “made a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God.” I was actually making a mental decision to work the third step in my life. I was going to trust others rather than myself. I was going to step out of my own way.
And so that was a choice that I made during the first 30 days of my sobriety. And here I am, over 16 years later, still clean and sober.
So if there is a critical choice that you can make in your own recovery journey, I would think that it is the choice to trust in your mentors, to follow their advice, to live by their suggestions rather than your own ideas.
Because my ideas about how to live my life always got me into trouble. All of my own schemes ended in relapse or misery or chaos. It was time for me to trust someone else for a while.
So that was the first choice: Outsource my decision making in early recovery and trust other people. That made a huge impact on my recovery.
Second of all was a decision that I made after about 2 years in my recovery. At the two year mark I went through an interesting transition which I would like to label as the transition from “short term to long term recovery.”
So up until that point in my recovery I had been living in a halfway house, I had been attending AA and NA meetings every day, I had been working with a sponsor, and I had generally been immersing myself in recovery nearly 24/7.
At the two year point I started to step back and evaluate my life, and my recovery program. I was doing this because of what I was observing.
And what I was seeing, at the time, was a number of the peers that I looked up to in the AA and NA program had been relapsing. Some of these people had been my heroes early on, and I was amazed at their recovery program and I really looked up to them as an example. And some of these people were failing.
So I was going through this transition in which I was questioning “the program.” You know, the program that says “go to AA meetings every day and don’t pick up a drink.” I had no problem with the abstinence part of that idea, but some of the people who attended meetings religiously were failing. And I wondered why.
So I started to explore that idea. I started to observe “the winners” in recovery, and then to compare them with the people who were relapsing. What was the difference?
Because I had assumed that it was all in meeting attendance. If you quit going to AA you relapsed, if you kept going then you stayed sober. Right?
That was wrong, and I was seeing the evidence of that as my peers were relapsing. And so I started to question what truly kept a person sober, if it was not daily AA attendance.
It turned out that my journey led me to the idea of personal growth. It wasn’t the specific AA program or even the 12 steps that kept people sober, but it was the progress and the forward momentum that did the trick (of course this was just my opinion, but it seemed valid to me). And so I discovered that there were other recovery programs, alternatives to the 12 step program, and that people could work a recovery through other means. But the common thread was that “the winners” in recovery were people who were engaged in continuous self improvement. They were growing. They were humble, they were learning, and they were becoming better people.
Therefore I figured out that the real key to sobriety, the real key to avoiding relapse, was personal growth.
This had to do with self esteem as well. If a person had little to no self esteem then relapse was a perfectly valid choice to make. In other words, if you do not care about yourself that much, or if you do not value your own life that much, then there is nothing to protect you from relapse.
Therefore, in order to succeed in recovery, a person has to rebuild their life such that they slowly come to value their life, and value themselves. With no self esteem you have no chance at sobriety.
So your personal choices in recovery have to rebuild your life in a positive way. Once you start to care about life again then you will start to care about yourself again. Hopefully you can find a path in which you have meaning and purpose, meaning that you have found a way to reach out and help others. That way you will know that your life makes a difference, that your life has purpose, and therefore your life is worth protecting. If you do not value your life then it is impossible to avoid relapse.
This takes time, of course, which is why most recovery programs focus on hope and faith. The first year or so is all rebuilding. You start from a point of surrender, which is really a point of zero self esteem. From there you must make the choices to listen to advice, to slowly take positive actions to rebuild your life. After you have done this for about a year your life will have value and be well worth living again. And even then, it may take a few months for you to realize that your life has value again and that you are a worthy person.
This is how self esteem is tied into recovery. Not in the sense that you are chanting about how you are a good person, or trying to convince yourself of that. But in the sense that you are making positive changes every day, helping others, and rebuilding an actual life. If you keep doing the next right thing for a whole year straight then you are going to feel better about yourself and about your life. And that is a great way to build self esteem that will protect your sobriety.