This is a surprising revelation to many people in alcoholism and addiction recovery:
You have to experiment in order to be successful.
In order to avoid relapse in the long run, you have to experiment and try new things.
I don’t think there is any way around this. No two people in recovery are exactly alike. No two paths in sobriety are exactly identical.
Just imagine two hypothetical people. One goes to AA meetings every day, reads out of the Big Book, and has a happy and sober life.
The other person never goes to AA meetings, never reads out the Big Book, and yet still manages to have a happy and sober life by doing other things.
Which person is “right?”
They are both right, of course. They are both living a good life in sobriety and they are happy and growing as individuals (hopefully).
They happen to be on vastly different paths in recovery. They use different strategies to remain sober but they both end up in pretty much the same “place.” They are both living sober.
And neither person would have found the success that they did unless they were willing to try something different.
Just getting clean and sober requires a leap of faith. Letting go of your drug of choice and choosing abstinence is definitely “trying something different.” It is a huge change.
So just to get started in recovery you are already doing a massive experiment of sorts. At the point of surrender you are basically saying:
“OK, I have been using drugs and alcohol for a long time now and it is no longer working for me. I am unhappy. So I am going to try something different. I am going to give abstinence a chance to work in my life. I don’t know if it will make me happy or not, and I seriously have my doubts about that. But I am miserable and I have nothing to lose at this point so I am going to give sobriety a chance.”
That is the basic leap of faith that you make when you surrender. The alcoholic does not know that sobriety will make them happy, and in fact they doubt that it will. But they are desperate enough to try anything at that point, because they are so miserable from their addiction.
And so the experiment begins.
The addict gives abstinence a chance. It is a blind leap of faith.
You don’t have all of the information that you need to remain sober forever
So after you make that first leap of faith and surrender, your whole world is transformed. Slowly you start to realize that there is life after drinking and drugs.
You don’t have all the information you need yet.
Now that is a bold statement because it blankets everyone. I am suggesting that NO ONE has all the information that they need in order to stay sober.
And I stand by that assertion. After 13 years of continuous sobriety in my own life, I am more sure of that than ever.
We are all on a journey with sobriety, and the path keeps unfolding before us.
None of us know what challenges lay ahead. None of us can predict exactly how our lives will unfold in sobriety.
And therefore you cannot make accurate predictions about exactly what information you need in order to remain sober.
In other words, life is going to throw you some curve balls over the next few decades.
And you have to be able to adapt to those curve balls without resorting to your old trusty drug of choice (whatever that may be).
The temptation to relapse will always be present. The opportunity to self medicate never goes away.
And your life will continue to evolve. The moment of surrender is just the tip of the iceberg. Your first year of sobriety is like the little boy who is learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Little does the boy know that one day he will drive a car and then maybe even fly a combat jet. We don’t know our future and this is why recovery from addiction is a continuous process of learning and adapting.
Your own journey in recovery is going to evolve and change over time. You need a strategy to be able to handle the curve balls that life is going to inevitably throw your way.
And this is where experimentation comes in.
Have you ever heard of someone who had several years sober and they suddenly relapsed?
What do you think happened?
I can tell you what part of the problem was. The person stopped experimenting. They stopped learning about themselves. They stopped growing in their recovery. They got stuck.
So how do we get unstuck?
How do we keep growing and learning more about ourselves?
We have to experiment. Not in the sense that you have to do a science fair project every month.
No, you have to experiment in the sense that you need to ask questions, get advice, try new suggestions, and in doing so keep learning more and more about yourself.
Have you done seated meditation every day for a month straight?
Have you exercised every day for a month straight?
What about going to an AA meeting every day for 90 days straight?
These are not necessarily great ideas. They are just suggestions that various people have made in the past (and I am sure they will be made again in the future). I am not saying that you need to go do those things. Instead, I am saying that you need to start experimenting. Maybe you will hear different suggestions. Maybe you have a sponsor in recovery who will suggest that you write in a journal every day. Or that you should read out of certain book every day and then meditate on it. Or whatever.
So you take such a suggestion and you try it out. You take it for a test drive. And you give it a real chance to work in your life. And if it does nothing for you, then discard it and move on….try something else.
This is how you learn and how you grow. This is how you get unstuck.
The people who get complacent have stopped doing this. They have stopped experimenting. They have stopped taking suggestions. And so they get complacent and they may even relapse as a result.
You don’t want to get complacent!
How to become open to taking suggestions and putting them into action
First of all, how about finding a hero?
Find someone that you look up to. Find someone in recovery that you trust. Find someone who makes you say “wow, this person has it together, I want to be like them.”
Then start asking them questions. Start asking them for advice.
And when they give you suggestions, you have to act on them. Put it into practice. Take the advice and act on it. Follow through.
It really is that simple.
I had a couple of different people who made suggestions to me in early recovery. Or rather, there were a few people that I actually listened to and acted on the advice.
I went to lots of meetings and I heard dozens of suggestions every single day in early recovery. I couldn’t act on all of them. So I had to prioritize.
So I narrowed it down to the people that I really looked up to. And I also started to listen for common themes.
My main influences were:
1) My therapist in long term rehab.
2) My sponsor from a 12 step group.
3) My peers that I lived with in long term rehab.
4) My family.
I got advice from all of those various people and groups. And I started to prioritize based on what I was hearing the most.
So one suggestion that kept popping up was “why not go back and finish up your degree in college?”
Eventually I heard that suggestion enough that I decided to act on it.
The same thing happened with the idea of exercise. People were telling me to exercise so I eventually put the idea into practice. I made a commitment to myself that I would keep exercising until it got easier (and it did become natural for me at some point, but it took a long time! Hence the importance of a commitment).
This all took a great deal of willingness.
So I had to say to myself: “My own ideas are not always so great. I need to listen to other people in order to benefit from their wisdom.”
I had to, in a sense, kill my own ego. I had to push my ego to the side and get it out of the way so that I could start to take advice from other people.
If you don’t squash your own ego then it will constantly get in the way of taking advice. Because you will always be second guessing everyone, wondering if they have your best interests at heart, wondering if your own ideas are better than theirs, and so on.
You have to somehow leap beyond all of that. You have to push your ego out of the way and say “I am going to ignore my own ideas for a while and just listen to advice from others.”
Make a commitment to do this for 90 days. Then watch what happens.
As they say in the Big Book of AA (in regards to working the 12 steps) “You will be amazed before you are half done.”
And all you have to do is get out of your own way. Ignore your own ideas and start taking suggestions from others in recovery. It is that simple. Get out of your own way and ACT. Take action. Take positive action based on advice. Do this for 90 days and it will blow you away. Your life will get better and better and you will not even realize how it is happening. You will feel as if you are somehow cheating the system.
The shortcut to wisdom in early recovery
One of the things that you should know about addiction recovery is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Many have recovered before you. And more will come after.
So you don’t have to figure out all of this stuff on your own. It’s not worth the struggle that it takes to do so.
Instead, just borrow wisdom from other people.
It is very easy to do this. Unfortunately, most of us are too stubborn to do this at first.
We like to think that we are smarter than that. We like to think that we can figure everything out on our own. And we probably can, if given enough time and chances. But this particular challenge is not worth it for that approach. In other words, you can’t afford to mess around in addiction recovery. You have to get it right, or it could kill you. So this is not a good thing to play around with.
Therefore you should go right to the source of wisdom.
But how do you do that?
For starters, I suggest that people seek professional help. If you go to a treatment center then you are going right to the experts. This is what they specialize in: Helping alcoholics and addicts. That is all they do. So naturally they are better at it than most people. They are the experts. Use them!
Second of all, the 12 step fellowships are much the same. Their primary purpose is to help the suffering alcoholic or drug addict. That is all they focus on. Therefore they are good at it compared to everyone else. Why not go to where the power is concentrated?
So my suggestion for anyone who is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction is simple: Go to rehab. Go check into a treatment center. You can’t get more concentrated help than that. Their only goal and mission is to help people like you.
Second of all, listen to their suggestions. They will tell you what you should be doing: Going to meetings, attending group therapy, following up your treatment with more services, seeing a counselor or therapist on a regular basis, and so on. They make suggestions and your best bet is to follow those suggestions. Put them into action. Most people fail at treatment because they do not follow through on what they are supposed to do. It takes action to recover but in order to maintain sobriety post-treatment you have to take the suggestions and implement into your life.
In other words, you have to do the work. Recovery requires work.
And again, not all of the suggestions will pan out. One example of this from my own life is meditation and jogging. I got separate suggestions from many people try give meditation a chance, and I also got suggestions to try exercise. Well I eventually tried them both and seated meditation turned out to not be as helpful to me. The exercise seemed to give me the same benefits as the seated meditation and a whole lot more on top. So I dropped the seated meditation and focused on exercise.
Was I wrong? Or right? Not necessarily. I was simply experimenting and finding what worked best for me.
And I was doing the work. I was taking action. I was trying things. And I had to give those things a chance.
The power of taking suggestions and doing trial experiments
One of the best forms of experimentation is when you do a timed trial.
An example of this is doing 90 AA meetings in 90 days.
I like to do lots of different experiments that go for 30 days. So for example, stating “I am going to exercise every day for the next 30 days.”
It is even easier if you just do them for a full month (regardless of how many days are in the month).
So maybe March becomes “meditation month.” You make a commitment to meditate every day for the entire month of March.
This is particularly helpful for things that may be tough for you to get the motivation to do (exercise is probably the best example). But then when you do them consistently over time the benefits can be really amazing.
And since it is so hard to do some things consistently, we need a way to trick ourselves into being consistent. So we use the 30 day trial. The 30 day experiment.
Another good technique is to get a wall calendar and put a black X over each day when you do your experiment for the day. This will create a chain of black X’s on the calendar and you will not want to break the chain. Get the whole month X’ed out with black X’es and you will feel the accomplishment in doing so.
Of course, 30 days is an arbitrary number, as is the length of a random month. For some things this is not long enough. Exercise is a good example. I had to commit to jogging for more than 30 days in order to realize the full benefits of regular exercise. I had to do more like 3 to 6 months to really see the benefits kick in.
So in some cases you might want to seek advice before you set your trial length for something.
So say that you want to try seated meditation as many people have suggested that to you. Instead of just setting the experiment to an arbitrary 30 days, you might go back to the people who suggested it and ask them how long you should make your trial period last. Because if someone asked me about daily exercise I would never suggest 30 days, I would suggest six months in order to assure them that they really get the full benefits to kick in before they stop and evaluate the experiment.
In other words, you don’t want to exercise for two weeks and then say “well, that isn’t getting any easier, and I don’t see much benefit, so I am quitting and moving on to something else!” It takes longer to realize the full benefits so you need to find out just how long you should make your experiments last for.
Most things work well with 30 days but some ideas take longer than that to realize the true benefits.
Also, anything that you do for 30 days is pretty much ingrained as a new habit, so if you find it to be beneficial then it is pretty easy to just continue and keep doing it at that point.
How to keep discovering your next positive action in recovery
Every day when you wake up in recovery you should be asking yourself:
“What is the next positive action that I need to take in my life? Do I know what it is?”
And if you don’t know, then you need to find out.
You can find out in various ways. You can listen to your inner voice, find out what is troubling you. Or you can talk to other people in recovery that you trust and listen to their ideas. You can do all of these things and get a list of potential directions that you want to go in. Then it is up to you to prioritize and decide.
You can’t do everything at once in recovery. If you try you will get overwhelmed. So you have to break your list down and focus on one or two key challenges. Figure out the one thing that will bring the biggest positive impact to your life today (quitting smoking? Daily exercise? Daily meditation? etc.) and then create a plan for how to tackle that particular challenge.
If you don’t have a list of positive changes, ask for help. Go brainstorm a list by getting feedback. Ask people “what should I be working on next in my recovery?”
If you don’t know how to prioritize your life, ask for help. Go ask your sponsor or therapist or trusted friends: “Here are the positive changes I want to work on. Which one is going to have the biggest positive impact on my life? Which change should I pursue first? Which one would you do first?”
If you don’t know how to implement a change, ask for help. Go find people you trust in recovery and ask them how they would go about overcoming self pity, how they would go about exercising every day, how they would make a commitment to daily meditation. Or whatever the case may be. Then follow their advice and implement.
Find potential changes. Prioritize them. Then pick one and execute. If you have problems with any of these things, simply ask for help.
This is how recovery works. This is how you experiment and learn about yourself.