I am going to say that I officially had two of these moments during my recovery where I really felt that “aha” feeling and got excited and amazed at the same time. These were moments when I was excited for and about my recovery from addiction and alcoholism.
My first real “aha moment” was at around 6 months into my recovery. I was living in long term rehab at the time, and I suddenly realized that a miracle had occurred–something that I was convinced would never happened had finally happened: I went a whole day without thinking about using drugs or alcohol.
This was a huge deal for me because when I was struggling to get clean and sober I told (anyone who would listen) that it would forever be an impossible task for me. Why? Because I loved to get drunk and high, and I would never stop thinking about drinking and using. That was my reasoning anyway, and I really believed it at the time. And even when I finally sobered up “for good” I still believed that I would have this problem hanging over my head for the rest of my life, and that the cravings and thoughts of using would never go away. I really thought that I was doomed to think about drugs and alcohol every single day for the rest of my life.
So when I finally had that day during my first year of recovery where I discovered that I was free of cravings, I was absolutely astounded. I was amazed. And I realized that the worst of it was over, and that I could actually live a better life in recovery. This was a huge revelation for me, because now I realized that recovery was not only possible, but that it was also desirable.
You see, when I was still using drugs and alcohol, I did not really care if recovery was possible. I just wasn’t interested. So what if I could get sober and be happier? I did not care, because my addiction had made me so incredibly miserable. So when people tried to convince me to get clean and sober with the promise of a better life in recovery, I wasn’t even excited about it. Not even a little. Because I was basing my happiness at the time on being drunk and high, and I believed that I would be miserable if I had to go without and deprive myself of drugs and alcohol. “I must be different from these other people” I thought to myself. My thinking was: “They claim that they are addicts and alcoholics like I am, but they say that they are happy now that they sobered up, but I still don’t think that this is possible for me, because I am just wired different.”
So when that day finally came (it was around the 4 to 6 month mark I believe) when I realized that my cravings were all gone for a whole day, I was simply amazed. And I was astounded that I was not completely miserable either. In fact I had rather enjoyed that day and would consider myself “happy” at that time. So I had proven myself completely wrong–happiness was possible in sobriety!
That was my first real “aha moment” in recovery.
My second came at least a year later when I realized that I could create my own path in recovery by doing my own thing, and being successful at it and staying sober. The real revelation came not when I figured out how to do this, but when I finally let myself off the hook in terms of the guilt and the fear that I was on the wrong path and that I might relapse because I had left traditional recovery.
So in other words, I first found myself wanting to leave traditional recovery and find another solution. So I started to explore how I was actually staying clean and sober and really focusing on what was truly helping me. In doing so, I actually started doing two things:
1) Experimenting more and trying more things in recovery that might help me based on other people’s suggestions (meditation, exercise, journaling, etc.)
2) Doing more of what worked and then leaving the rest behind, while also seeking out more suggestions.
Some of that may sound a bit like traditional recovery. No surprise there! But part of the big revelation for me was that I could find this personal growth on my own, without the framework of traditional recovery (getting in the way). This in itself was really one of my “aha moments.” That recovery programs are not the actual solution….they only point towards a possible solution. Many people that I have met in recovery get this totally wrong, and never figure it out. They believe that their recovery program that they were first introduced to is the one and only solution to addiction or alcoholism recovery. They don’t get the idea that the solution is something else, beyond the ideas or the concepts or the steps in their program, and that all of that stuff only points towards the real solution.
The real solution is action. It is personal growth. It cannot be summarized perfectly in 12 steps, nor can it be instructed in that way for every individual who really needs help (imo). What works for some individuals may not work for others. I worked in a treatment center for over 5 continuous years and watched thousands of struggling addicts and alcoholics come through. The rehab had a full range from detox to long term treatment. So I got to make a lot of observations in order to test my assumptions about recovery, and I got to watch things play out for a full five years. Because this was my peer group as well and I was involved with the recovery community at the time, I got to know a whole lot of these people. That is an awful lot of observational data to back up my ideas, thoughts, and opinions about how recovery really works.
At first I was misled in my observations, during my first few months of recovery. This was because I had not yet seen any results. So I would watch people in the AA meetings and I would be impressed by some people who gave a really enthusiastic message in a meeting. And I would think to myself “that person is going to make it for sure!” Then I would hear other people who did not sound very excited about recovery and I would not really picture them staying clean and sober for very long. I figured that whoever was most passionate about AA was bound to stay sober the longest. This was just how I was perceiving things when I first got into recovery.
As time progressed though my eyes were slowly opened. I realized that the people who spoke the most enthusiastically at the meetings were not always the ones who stayed clean and sober. I lived in long term treatment at this rehab for 20 months, then I worked there for over 5 years, so I got to know many, many examples of people who relapsed over and over again (and also some who “made it” and stayed sober for the long run). What I learned is that you cannot predict success based on that first week or two of sobriety. Anyone can fool you with enthusiasm by talking a good game in the meetings, but that doesn’t mean that they are fully surrendered and committed to their recovery. In fact, sometimes it was the quiet people who said nothing or very little at the meetings (like myself) who had actually surrendered the deepest, and were the most committed to total abstinence for the long term.
So my second “aha moment” was essentially that I did not need the framework of AA or NA in order to maintain long term sobriety. After less than 2 years in recovery I drifted away from the meetings and started developing my own recovery strategy based on personal growth, holistic health, and daily positive action (really all the same thing when you boil it down!). It probably took me a full year or maybe two of living this new recovery philosophy before I finally gave myself permission to feel confident about the path that I was on. Initially I was terrified that I would relapse after having left the 12 step program, because everyone had said that I would. But now that I am clean and sober at over 12 years of continuous sobriety and counting, I have (at some point) given myself permission to not feel terrified of relapse due to having left traditional recovery. I am not cocky for having left AA successfully, but I am also not living in fear of relapse any more about it either. And that whole process was a huge deal for me. I am not sure that I would even still be clean and sober at all if I were still relying on traditional recovery.
So the question is, how can we discover our own “aha moment” in recovery, and what actions can we take to bring them about more quickly (so that we can grow in our recovery)?
Raise your awareness and pay attention
The first thing that I would suggest in order to have these sort of revelations in your recovery is that you need to start raising your awareness. One way that you might do that via a simple exercise is to simply meditate. This is a tactic pulled straight out of traditional recovery. It works for some people but not for everyone. So just give it a try and see if it helps you.
There is no right or wrong with meditation. The basic idea is to sit quietly, eyes closed, and not sleep. That’s the whole idea. If someone tries to take it further than that then they are just complicating the process. Really there is nothing more that you have to do in order to get the benefits of meditation. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Don’t sleep. That’s it.
You will notice that your thoughts are still going, you can’t stop them. Don’t bother. Just watch them. And then notice the empty spaces in between the thoughts. But don’t judge. Don’t be mad at yourself for having certain thoughts. Don’t be mad at yourself for not being able to “quiet your mind.” None of that matters, it is all beside the point. If you just sit for 5 or 10 minutes with your eyes closed, you have done it.
Now do it every day for a week, and see if it changes any thing for you. If not, then move on and try something else (my next suggestion is exercise, which is not so different than meditation actually).
What you might notice when you meditate is that you get no real revelation while you are meditating, and at first you might feel disappointed from this. But then eventually if you keep doing it you might notice that your ideas and mental clarity will go up even when you are not actually meditating. It is like you are giving your brain a little extra charge each day. And this can have an impact on how you process your life and make decisions. It may help you to see things more clearly. It may lead you to make connections much more quickly.
When you meditate each day, it is not so much the time that you actually spend meditating that is important–it is the heightened awareness that you get afterwards. You are turning up the sensitivity on your brain.
If meditation does not work for you (I actually left it behind in favor of exercise) then you can try other things.
Another good suggestion is to try keeping a journal. If you write about yourself and your life each day then this will automatically force you to raise your awareness. Because now that you are recording your life, you are measuring your life. So you become more aware of how you are actually feeling each day, simply by writing it down each day. It is force into awareness.
I wrote in a journal for years and years before I switched to writing online (similar results and similar process for me). My sponsor had actually suggested that I write in a journal. I did not have any hard requirements about what I had to write. I would just talk about what was going on in my life, how my day was going, and how I was feeling. This was extremely helpful for me and it definitely raised my awareness.
You can only raise your awareness if you are willing to pay attention to what is going on in your life. Most of us get caught in the trap of just living out our daily routines without thinking too much about what is really going on in our lives. We don’t examine our lives as much as we should, and this creates a lack of awareness. “What gets measured gets managed.” So if you want to raise your awareness then you need to find a way to pay more attention to the present moment. Meditation, writing in a journal, and even exercise may be techniques that you could use to do this. There are other techniques as well (that you can discover by talking with others).
Stop listening to people and start watching their behavior instead (and their results!)
When I was very early in my recovery I was busy listening to other people. I wanted to soak up all of the information that I possibly could about how to stay clean and sober. I wanted to know exactly how the process worked and exactly what I needed to do in order to insure that I never relapsed. This was my goal, and so I listened very closely.
I soon realized that this was not going to be the ultimate answer for me (listening to people). There were several problems with this approach, in my opinion:
* Some people in the meetings were shooting from the hip, and had very little real world experience at recovery themselves.
* Some people in the meetings would talk about the problem more than the solution.
* Some people in the meetings had a unique approach to recovery that worked for them, but did not work for others. So you would hear conflicting advice in some cases.
* Some people in the meetings would say one thing, but then do another. Their actions would not align with their words. The results of this would often speak for itself, though this was not clear right away in most cases.
So ultimately I learned that you could not build a complete recovery solution based on what people said out loud in AA meetings. Some of them had some good advice, but listening carefully to a full meeting (or to 30 full meetings in a month) was a case of information overload. It was too much. What were you to focus on? There were so many angles. I was a fast student who was living in long term rehab (with no job at the time) and could dedicate all of my time to recovery. And yet I still struggled to try to take all of the suggestions, study all of the literature, and do everything that was being suggested at the typical meeting.
My problem was that recovery seemed like this giant mish-mash of suggestions, so many that no single person could ever follow and implement them all. So what is the problem in that, you ask?
Lack of focus. Give me a clear solution, and if I am determined I will hammer that solution out with fierce conviction and quick execution.
My initial frustration with recovery was that there did not appear to be this sort of clear path. And the information that I was getting came from multiple sources, every single day, while sitting in traditional 12 step meetings.
So at some point I realized that listening to people in recovery is not the solution. But at the time I was still committed to attend the meetings. So instead of just listening to advice, I started watching people. I started measuring who was “the real deal” and who was full of it.
We are told in AA not to do this. We are told to listen to the message and to ignore the messenger. But I started to examine people’s actions and their results instead of just blindly following their advice. And I am glad that I did so.
In doing so, it helped me to quickly zero in on the actions that actually produced positive results in recovery. I found that a lot of people in the meetings were just regurgitating stuff that they had heard from other people. I found it more helpful to see what people were doing, rather than what they were saying. So I was able to raise my awareness by looking deeper into people’s recovery. Sometimes this required asking them questions as well.
This also biased me towards people who had more clean time (rather than less). This, too, is discouraged in AA, because they tell you that you can learn something from anyone, even the guy who just walked in and doesn’t even have a single day sober. But at some point you will want to start filtering if you want to focus on personal growth, and move forward in your own recovery.
Find what truly works for you in recovery
In order to have a revelation you have to have that breakthrough where you discover what really helps you in your recovery. The best way to do that is to keep experimenting and trying new things. They may not be obvious, and they may not be widely talked about in AA either (my example of this is exercise, which has helped me tremendously but is rarely brought up in AA).
If you run out of experiments and new ideas to try, then seek suggestions from others. But be sure to watch what they are actually doing in their own lives, rather than what they tell you at the meetings.