I had a unique path in my own recovery journey in that I did not just follow directions forever.
I started out by following directions. I went to AA meetings and I lived in long term rehab. I was told what to do, and I did it.
I took suggestions from people in recovery and I took action based on what they were telling me to do. This worked out really well.
But for some reason I also transitioned out of this “mode.” Instead of being passive and showing up to AA meetings every day, I started to go in a different direction. I am not sure exactly what was pulling me towards this “personalized path in recovery.” I can speculate on a few things that might have contributed though:
1) I was living in long term treatment and I was surrounded by people who relapsed. I was becoming more and more convinced that simply going to meetings every day was not the magic cure for addiction. It certainly helped most people but it was definitely not producing consistent results based on my observations. Many of my peers relapsed.
2) In the same vein, “spirituality” was not turning out to be the magic cure that I assumed it was either. My belief in very early recovery was that I had to become “more spiritual.” But two of my role models that I looked up to in recovery who I considered to be very spiritual ended up relapsing. Both of those relapses shook me to my core. I was once again lost and confused in recovery, because it was no longer clear to me what was really important.
3) It was no longer clear to me what exactly kept people sober. So I set out to sort of “deconstruct” successful sobriety, and figure out what actually worked for people who were living in successful recovery. What were the similarities? What were the fundamentals? And therefore, what should I really be focusing on?
4) I was frustrated with the overwhelming amount of information that you would get from a few AA meetings. Combine that with the suggestions that you get from a 28 day stay in an inpatient rehab, and you could easily get overwhelmed. I mean, what were you really supposed to focus on? You can’t possibly do it all. If you think you can do it all then you are not paying attention. The amount of information and suggestions that you get from traditional recovery is overwhelming. I have a few theories about that; one is that different things work for different people. Therefore if you listen to 20 different people (like at an AA meeting) then you will be overwhelmed with too many suggestions.
All of these things combined made me want to look outside of traditional recovery for a solution to my addiction. I wanted to find my own path, because I was not seeing enough strength and clarity in the path of traditional recovery. The people at AA meetings seemed to be saying: “Just trust us, show up to these meetings every day, and your life will get better. We don’t know exactly how or why it works, but just trust us!” Not good enough for me, I had to know the “why” in order to motivate myself to do the work. That is just how I am wired.
So I set out to discover what I could learn about recovery.
I discovered certain fundamental principles that traditional recovery has right. For example, you cannot replace surrender with a different concept. The AA program talks about surrender, but in fact any recovery program is going to have to address the concept of surrender as well. You can’t skip it. It is fundamental to recovery. Without surrender you cannot recover, period.
So there are certain principles that every recovery program must share. Another one that I think is especially important is the baseline for recovery itself, which is physical abstinence.
Your baseline for starting out in recovery
Everyone who wants to get through early recovery needs a baseline for success. That baseline is physical abstinence from all alcohol and mood altering drugs.
There are actually programs out there that attempt to teach moderation. For those programs, abstinence is not required.
I don’t believe in those programs, and I don’t believe that they ever work for “real” alcoholics and drug addicts. That is my opinion and the evidence may prove me wrong in the long run based on new research. I seriously doubt it though based on my own experiences and observations. I hope I am wrong but don’t cross your fingers. Abstinence seems to be the only way.
My suggestion for people is always to establish this baseline of recovery at an inpatient treatment center. Sure, you could probably do it a different way. But don’t bother. It is too much work and hassle to avoid inpatient rehab. Going to treatment makes it fairly simple, even though it is by no means easy. I know that it takes guts to check into rehab, I have done it myself. But it just simplifies what you are trying to do on so many levels. They detox you safely. You achieve abstinence, without any struggle at all, just by being in rehab. You get peer support from the other alcoholics and addicts who are in treatment with you. You get exposure to AA meetings and that possible future stream of support.
It is easy to stay sober while you are at inpatient rehab. Period. I don’t care how bad off you think you are, it is easy to stay sober in treatment. That counts for a lot.
While going to inpatient treatment is certainly not a cure, you could definitely do much worse than this. In most cases I think attending rehab is the best choice you can make.
And there is still plenty of time to design your own path in recovery, even after going to rehab.
A trip to rehab for 28 days is just a drop in the bucket. I have been sober now for almost 13 years straight and the rehab that I went to at the beginning of this journey is a very distant memory. In fact I stayed in a rehab for 20 months at the start of my journey and it is still just a distant memory.
Taking advice and direction from others
Now in order to get to the point in recovery where you are calling all the shots and designing your own recovery program, you have to first get through early recovery.
My belief is that early recovery is very, very different from long term sobriety.
My life during the first two years of recovery was so very different than what it is like today. Mostly because I did not know what in the heck was going on in very early recovery and I was scrambling around to try to figure out sobriety itself.
Now my suggestion for you is this:
* Take suggestions from other people in early recovery and then test their ideas out by taking action.
That’s it. Do that. Take suggestions. You have to push your own ego out of the way and actually listen to other people and use their ideas in your own life. It takes some humility. You have to really push your ego aside to do this right. You have to declare to yourself “I don’t know what is best for me, but maybe other people do.” And then you have to live it.
Live this way for the first two years of your recovery. You will not regret doing so. You will not get to the end of those two years and say to yourself “Gee, I wish I would have ignored everyone else for the last two years and just did my own thing instead!” You will not say that. Instead, you will be incredibly grateful that you listened to other people and learned from them.
Because what will happen is this:
You will take suggestions and then you will apply these new actions in your life, and some of it will stick and some of it will not. You will reject some of the suggestions, but only after testing them out in your life.
This is incredibly powerful. You are testing ideas. Instead of someone saying to you: “This is how you recover from addiction,” you are basically saying to the world “I don’t believe your idea, but I am going to try it out and test it for myself and see if it helps me or not.”
This is how you learn and grow in recovery. And by doing this you are actually doing two very important things:
1) You borrow wisdom. You get the best ideas from other people and you don’t waste time on useless ideas. It is a shortcut. And it is the only one in recovery. You may as well take it.
2) You carve your own path. At first you think you are a robot, living only for others. But after testing suggestions for two years and rejecting the stuff you don’t like, you look back and realize that you have become your own person. And you have carved your own path in recovery.
Therefore, my number one suggestion to you if you are in early recovery is this:
* Take suggestions from other people and then test their ideas out by taking action.
The testing process and how you should experiment
One way to use the testing process I am talking about here is to use the idea of 30 day trials.
So if someone makes a suggestion to you, you should turn that suggestion into a 30 day trial. You implement the action for 30 days, and at the end of that 30 days, you evaluate whether you want to keep doing it or not. But for the 30 days you commit to keep doing it.
This can be helpful for a lot of different things because the benefits of many actions are not visible right away.
In addition to this I would personally extend the 30 days to 6 months in the case of physical exercise or nutrition, because those changes take even longer to reveal the true benefits.
Another thing that you might do is when someone gives you a suggestion for recovery, ask the person how long you should wait before you evaluate your results. Tell them: “I appreciate your suggestion but I want to know how long it will take before I see the benefits of doing this. How long should I wait?” Then use their answer to help you gauge how long your commitment should be.
You have lots of time in recovery. I have been sober for 12 plus years and when I look back I actually have tons of down time when I was not really testing any ideas in my recovery. I consider that time to be somewhat wasted now. Why not test out new ideas? You are going to be sober for a long time so you may as well see what you can learn about yourself. Start taking ideas from other people and testing them out in your own life. This is the path to growth.
Seeing a strategy come together based on what is working for you and what is not
My overall strategy in recovery is “holistic.” I say that because it is what I would call a total approach to recovery.
I have to have gratitude in my life. And the gratitude that I have seems to fuel other parts of my growth. I have to take care of my physical body. I have to exercise and put healthy fuel into it.
I have to work on my relationships. I cannot just coast through life and randomly bump into people and be completely selfish. I have to put effort into improving my relationships with others. And when I notice a toxic relationship I have to put distance in between the person and myself. I have to avoid the negative energy.
I have to maintain emotional health. I have to be mindful of stress and anxiety. I must use that as a guide to my actions.
And I have to do all of it. If I neglect one of these areas for too long then things start to fall apart for me. Or the disease of addiction finds a new avenue with which to attack me all over again. I have to stay vigilant in terms of personal growth.
The amazing thing that you will notice over time is that there is a synergistic effect from the holistic approach. That is a mouthful of words so here is what it means in plain English:
If you work on all of these areas (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social health) then eventually they will start to enhance each other.
In other words, the benefits will start to build on each other. They will multiply. This will happen in the long run and it will amaze you because it is like getting something for nothing. The benefits start to multiply and build on themselves and you will be amazed at how far you have come in recovery, and how well things are going for you.
Improving your health in all 5 of these areas is the idea behind the holistic approach. In traditional recovery the tendency is to focus only on spiritual growth. But in the holistic approach you make an effort in all 5 of these areas.
At first nothing will happen. Because you are not focusing on one area, because you are spreading your effort around, you will not notice impressive results at first. You will probably be disappointed. You may compare yourself to someone else in early recovery who is only focusing on spiritual growth. You may be tempted to jump over to “their program” instead and focus only on spirituality yourself. Don’t do it.
The better path is to pursue personal growth in all 5 areas. The stronger path is to build up holistic health in recovery. The saying is “it gets greater, later.” This is especially true when it comes to the holistic approach. It is a slow start and a strong finish. You finish much stronger than traditional recovery because your efforts are much more broad.
The reason I believe in the holistic approach so strongly is because I saw evidence in my own life that the traditional path is weak. For example, my spiritual peers in early recovery who relapsed. This is what led me to seek out a stronger path in the first place. I started asking “What is it about the spiritual approach to recovery that actually prevents relapse?” And in seeking that answer I discovered that there were other forms of personal growth (not spiritual) that could also help to prevent relapse.
Wait a second….really? You mean someone who is dedicated to physical exercise has a better chance in recovery of not relapsing? Why isn’t this taught in traditional recovery? In fact, maybe it is not true for everyone. But it was certainly true for me, but I did not even test this out until I had over two years of sobriety under my belt. No one had suggested it yet!
So this is another part of the holistic approach–you get to discover what really works for you and what does not. And that will be different for various people. Just as exercise really seemed to help me, perhaps seated meditation will really help you. But you won’t know until you get out there and test the ideas and take the suggestions. Explore, experiment, create your new life. This is the path of growth in recovery.
How to keep pushing yourself to refine your strategy and make more growth
In order to be successful in long term sobriety you must overcome complacency.
This is the final challenge. The last form of relapse. An alcoholic might stay sober for years or decades, then they “suddenly” relapse. Why did they relapse?
They got complacent. They got lazy in their recovery efforts.
So….how to prevent this? How to avoid this fate?
The strategy that you adopt is critical. Having the right strategy is more important than the actual tactics you employ.
And the right strategy is one of continuous personal growth. Constant improvement and testing in your life. Never stop exploring this.
You never want to say “OK, I am done with this growth stuff, I am sober now and stable so I will just kick my feet up and relax.”
Instead, you want to keep pushing yourself to improve your life based on changes. Taking action. Trying new ideas.
In long term sobriety you can get those ideas from your own experiences and you can also get them from other people.
Taking suggestions from others still works. Of course you still test everything for yourself. Keep the good, discard the bad.
It is a powerful way to live because you are always improving and growing.
So what about you, have you developed a strategy for long term sobriety? Do you even think that you need a strategy at all? What do you see working for other people in recovery? Have you done extensive testing on the suggestions that you were given in early recovery? What did you keep and what did you discard? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!