Yesterday we looked at how to find new interests and growth opportunities in recovery. Today we want to look at how to pursue the right path in recovery without having any regrets, no matter what your outcomes may be.
Whether or not you stick close to a formal program such as AA or NA is probably beside the point. Sure, being in such a program is definitely going to alter your path in recovery quite a bit–including changing your relationships, how you spend your free time, and what type of growth you pursue–but ultimately you can still achieve a path of success in life whether you are in AA or not. The program is just a framework whereby you might succeed, but it is not the actual driver of success. On that same note, I know several people who have stayed in 12 step programs over the years and have no regrets at all by doing so. It is not the program of recovery that you choose to follow–it’s all in how you work it.
In other words, whether you follow a program of recovery or not is secondary. What really matters is the personal growth that you achieve in life and how consistent your sobriety is. I have found through careful observation over the years that this has little to do with your dedication (or lack thereof) to various programs of recovery. Some of the biggest success stories that I have seen in recovery are from those addicts and alcoholics who have abandoned formal programs.
Therefore this is not a rant to try to get you to follow a specific path in recovery and to either follow or abandon AA. Instead it is a way to urge you into action so that you can follow a path in recovery that will produce fewer regrets. Such a path can be found both in or out of AA.
So what we are looking for is a sequence of events that you need to go through in order to experience success in your recovery journey. The AA and NA program organizes this into a series of 12 steps, but those are limited to spiritual growth instead of holistic growth. The path outlined below has more of an emphasis on holistic growth.
Start with the obvious problem first: get clean and sober and stable
In my opinion the first “step” in recovery is to achieve stability while sober. The real challenge of course is to stay clean and sober for “the rest of your life” and with the proliferation of modern day detox centers the act of actually getting clean and sober is really pretty trivial. In other words, if you just call up local drug rehab centers and find out what you need to do to get in, chances are good that you can find a way to get into rehab and get detoxed. This is the natural start of many addict’s and alcoholic’s journey these days and it is probably the best course of action for most people who are seeking recovery.
Go to rehab. Get detoxed. Get stable in early recovery. Pretty straightforward.
Now let’s talk about regrets in terms of this idea. I worked in an inpatient rehab for over five years straight (full time) and while I was there I watched thousands of people come and go. One thing that I definitely noticed is that many, many people regretted leaving treatment early. This was very common and it was happening pretty much every time you turned around in rehab. Someone was leaving early, against staff advice (as it was called) and such people always relapsed. Every time. I am not one to use the term “always” lightly here, but I could not help but grow more and more cynical about this over those five years.
You see, many people who go to rehab and then relapse end up coming back. In fact, the amount of “repeat business” that I observed would have shocked you. I know this to be true because it shocked me. And even people who had worked in the rehab for several decades were still shocked at the amount of people who would keep coming back to the rehab, over and over again. It felt like a revolving door sometimes.
And so this was actually an opportunity, because such people would come back and be ashamed. And even though we told them that they had no need to feel ashamed, that they were welcome back and that we just wanted to help them, they felt the need to explain themselves. To justify why they had relapsed. To explain themselves.
And so over the years I heard hundreds of people explain themselves. And so what I am telling you is this:
People almost always regret leaving treatment early, or they regret not taking treatment seriously enough. Yet they NEVER regret putting their heart and soul into treatment, and giving it everything they have.
This is an important truth and it should point you in the right direction as to how to get started in recovery. Go to treatment, take it very seriously, and follow through with your aftercare recommendations. I have never met a person who regretted doing those things. But I met hundreds (and possibly even thousands) of people who regretted blowing off treatment, blowing off aftercare, and not taking treatment more seriously.
So your first step is clear: go to rehab, get treatment, seek help, and take it seriously. Put everything you have into it.
Where to go next in recovery? Eliminate the negatives FIRST
After you are clean and sober and stable in recovery you have to have a plan. They talk about this a lot in treatment, about the need for a plan in early recovery. If you do not have a plan, they point out, then you are almost certain to relapse.
This makes sense because the default state of being for an addict or an alcoholic is to be using drugs or drinking. This has become the default. This is what is “normal” for the addict. So it takes a great deal of deliberate action in order to overcome this tendency. There is a tendency for everyone in recovery to relapse, unless they are deliberately moving themselves further away from relapse.
So how does one move themselves further away from relapse? By taking action.
It takes deliberate action in order to overcome the tendency to relapse. Not only does it take deliberate action, but it also has to be positive action, and it has to be consistent action.
This is not easy to do. This is why there are entire programs dedicated to the path of recovery (such as AA and NA).
So my recommendation in early recovery is for people to make a plan in which they attack their bad habits and eliminate the negative things in their life as their first priority.
For the purposes of this discussion we can break all potential goals down into two categories: negative things in your life, and positive goals.
So the negative category might include things like toxic relationships in your life with unhealthy people, bad habits like smoking cigarettes, maybe a gambling addiction on the side, and so on.
Positive goals might include things such as wanting to learn a new skill, wanting to travel to new places, or wanting to develop a certain positive trait in yourself.
So everyone might have a bunch of different goals, and some of them are positive objectives, and some of them are negative things.
My suggested path of recovery is very clear on this:
Eliminate the negative stuff FIRST.
The reason for this is two fold:
1) The negative stuff holds you back. If you try to chase your positive goals first, you will find yourself sort of battling against yourself in some ways, because you will still have these chains holding you back from your negative habits. You have to eliminate those first and then go chase the positive stuff later on. Doing the opposite will just create frustration and anger.
2) Believe it or not, eliminating the negative stuff has a bigger bang-for-your-buck as opposed to chasing a positive goal. You will get more happiness out of eliminating a negative than you will from chasing a positive. This is very counter-intuitive but you will find it to true. The reason for this is because our default state is to basically be happy in life, so long as we do not have all of that negative baggage attached to us and dragging us down. Therefore we need to prioritize our recovery path by seeking to eliminate the negative stuff from our life first, as this will make us happier much more quickly.
I would suggest that you prioritize your plan based on potential impact in your life. For example, if you are a smoker then you might consider that quitting cigarettes would probably be one of the biggest impact changes that you could make in your recovery. There are other goals that you could set and achieve for yourself, but it is likely that none of them would have the same level of impact or bring about as much new happiness as it would if you were to quit smoking.
Therefore you should seek to find the biggest impact change that you could possibly make, and then do that first.
I would also advise that if you are going to use this approach and this path to recovery, that you seek to make one major change at a time. You do not want to overwhelm yourself and put too much on your plate at one time. On the other hand, you also want to push yourself a bit and keep moving towards greater health and happiness in recovery. Therefore, my suggested path in recovery is to basically use the “biggest rock theory.” If you have a bunch of goals in your life and they are represented by different sized rocks, choose the one that will make the biggest impact on your life, and then tackle that one goal by itself. Master that goal. Don’t try to carry a bunch of rocks at the same time. Just pick the biggest rock, and tackle that first.
And, always choose the biggest rock. When we were stuck in our addiction, before we got clean and sober, we ignored this advice. At that time, our “biggest rock” was our addiction to drugs or alcohol, yet we ignored it for many years. So now that we are in recovery we have to take responsibility and start choosing the biggest rock. Look at your life, find the stuff that you want to change, the goals you want to meet, and then tackle the biggest one first. Put all of your energy and effort into maintaining sobriety and tackling that next goal in your life.
If you live this way in recovery then it will definitely help you to have no regrets. Think about the process here for a moment:
1) First you tackle your problem of addiction and go to treatment and get stable in early recovery.
2) Next you figure out what other bad habits and negative stuff you have in your life, and you prioritize them in order of which changes would have the greatest impact on your life.
3) You pick one goal at a time and you put all of your energy into making that change until you master it. You always choose the biggest and highest impact goal as your next order of business.
4) After achieving such a goal, you evaluate what your next most important change to make is, and then you go tackle that goal next.
Can you imagine living this way and having any regrets? Such a plan is to consistently seek more improvement of the self, and to eliminate negative aspects of your life. What you are left with is happiness, joy, and contentment.
Before you chase your dreams, ask for suggestions. Experienced wisdom is surprisingly helpful
So what happens if you follow the suggestions above and seek to eliminate the negative stuff in your life? Eventually you should get back to a pretty clean slate….not a perfect person by any means, but at least you will have eliminated most of your major stumbling blocks. Hopefully you will no longer be fighting against yourself or holding yourself back anymore.
At this point, you may start to seek out more “positive” goals rather than seeking to eliminate the negative stuff. Hopefully most of the major negative stuff is gone by now. If not, keep hammering away at it to improve your life.
So how do you decide what “positive” goals to chase in life?
My number one suggestion for this is to seek feedback and advice from others. Many people will probably balk at this idea if they are seeking a more independent path in recovery, but this is still a powerful suggestion. Even if you are not in a 12 step program you can still benefit from a sponsorship or mentor type relationship.
The key is to find someone that you trust, someone who is living the life that you would like to live for yourself. Then, ask their advice. When they make suggestions to you, try to follow through with them and act on them. If you want the same results that this person got in their life, then you are probably going to have to take similar actions.
We can fool ourselves in recovery into thinking that we alone know the best path for ourselves in recovery. This is fallacy. Even the greatest kings and rulers of this world have had advisers and people to counsel them. You should do the same and therefore you should seek out advice about what goals you should pursue in recovery.
Keep in mind that this will not negate who you are as a person. Just because you ask for advice from others does not mean that you are giving up your independence or your right to think for yourself. Of course you are still the final decision maker. But you will benefit a great deal if you can force yourself to seek advice from others.
Nobody regrets doing this. Now, some people who blindly follow advice will have regrets, sure. But nobody who seeks additional advice and then carefully weighs it for themselves is going to regret doing so. No one is forcing you to make poor decisions. If you seek out advice and suggestions then this will help to balance your overall approach in recovery. Other people will see avenues of growth for you that you may have never considered, but which are still hugely important for your journey. I can all but guarantee that this will be the case, so it is rather foolish to never seek any advice or feedback from others.
Determine what you really want out of life and then make a focused plan of attack
There is nothing magical about your path in recovery once you have made it this far. If you are stable in recovery and you have sought to clean up your life and eliminate most of your negative habits, then it is time to start chasing your dreams. There is really no secret formula here to happiness. Simply figure out what you want and go after it.
If there is any hesitation at this point then seek advice and feedback as a matter of course. Remember that you can always weigh any advice you get and simply ignore it. If you keep asking people what they think you should do and everyone is telling you the same thing, then at some point you have to consider what you are hearing. This was definitely true when you were still abusing drugs and alcohol, was it not? Everyone could see your problem clearly except for you. The same could be true in recovery if you are careful enough to listen to what others suggest.
At one point I figured out that I wanted to purchase my own freedom in recovery by creating a business for myself. This was after I had lived in recovery for several years and had already taken many suggestions from other people. No one suggested this to me and it was purely my own idea and my own initiative. In fact many people were hesitant with the idea and even advised against it slightly. But it was what I wanted and so I applied the same principles to achieving this goal as what I did to all of my other goals in recovery. Because I had learned a great deal of discipline in recovery thus far, it was actually very natural for me to attack this new goal of mine and achieve decent results with it.
I had figured out what I wanted to create in life, and I set out to do so. I used what I had learned previously in recovery in order to be successful at it.
Review, reflect, and reevaluate
Once you are living in long term recovery then you will get to a point where you realize you are in a cycle. All of recovery is a cycle of personal growth. After you achieve a goal, you pause and reflect on what you have done. Then you idle for a while and reflect on where you might go next, what growth experience you might pursue next. You may have several possible goals and so you weigh and evaluate them all. You might seek feedback and advice from others as to what your next course of action should be. And then you move forward in life again, and push yourself to accomplish something new.
This is the cycle of personal growth in recovery. It never ends, and therefore it is the perfect mechanism with which to prevent relapse. Those who stop this cycle and choose to stagnate in their recovery run the risk of possibly relapsing. If you want to keep moving forward then you have to keep making positive changes. Thus is your new path in recovery. No regrets.