Most people in early recovery are going to need some form of support. In fact, I don’t know of any specific examples of people who have overcome an addiction entirely on their own without using any outside help at all. Maybe there are examples out there but if there are I am not aware of any. I suppose it is possible.
For the vast majority, however, getting through early sobriety requires a lot of help. You need support.
There are multiple reasons for this. We all know that “it is hard” to get through early recovery, but how specifically does support help us with this? Let’s take a look:
1) First of all you need to be able to reach out and talk to people when you are at your most vulnerable. And one of the problems is that no one really wants to do that. No one wants to pick up the phone and call another person in recovery when they are truly struggling. We have things that stop us from picking up that phone. We are too proud. We are too embarrassed. We may feel stupid. We might feel foolish for needing help. We don’t want to appear weak to our peers. And on and on.
It is normal to NOT want to reach out and get help. That is perfectly normal. And so this is a huge problem.
So when people suggest things like “go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days” or when they say “Get a sponsor in AA and call that person every single day for the first 30 days,” there is a good reason for those suggestions. Actually there are multiple reasons for those two suggestions, but a big reason in particular is because it overcomes this barrier that I am talking about. If we commit to those suggestions then it forces us to reach out and connect, every single day.
So you don’t need an excuse to reach out to others. You don’t have to wonder if it will be awkward or if you will seem weird by reaching out. All of that is removed because you made some commitments: 90 meetings in 90 days, and calling your sponsor every day for 30 days. If you make those commitments and you stick to them then it sets a foundation of support for you. It removes the question every day of “Should I reach out and connect with someone?” and also “Should I go to an AA meeting?” You don’t have to wonder. You don’t have to guess. You just do it, because you made a commitment to do so.
Most of us overestimate our ability to reach out and connect with others without feeling weird about it. So at first we might not see the value in making these sort of commitments.
2) Identification. There is a big problem in early recovery and that has to do with the “unique factor.” Every alcoholic and every drug addict goes through this struggle at some point, usually very early in their recovery process. They struggle to identify. They feel like they are the only person in the entire world who has faced their particular problems. They feel like no one has ever truly loved their drug of choice the way that they do. And so they feel unique. They feel like their higher power has singled them out to be the only addict in the entire world. They feel alone in this battle. No one understands their plight.
I can remember feeling this way myself. I can remember trying to convince my family that if they only knew what I felt like then they would want me to drink alcohol every day. How ridiculous is that? But that is really how I thought at the time. I believed that I was cursed, that I was totally unique, and that no human had ever been through my struggle before. I really thought that in some ways I was the first alcoholic that ever walked the face of the planet. Those other people in AA? They must be different from me if they were able to somehow quit! That was really how I thought.
So what does this have to do with identification? Everything! You get sober and you start going to AA meetings or you are in rehab, and you start to meet other alcoholics and drug addicts. And if you listen to their stories you will start to hear some similarities.
Now at this point you have a choice. You can listen to their stories and you can focus on the differences that you hear, and this is how you stay stuck in denial. Or you can listen to their stories and you can focus on the similarities that you hear, and this is how you start to identify with them.
And identification is good. It is important. Because when you identify with other people in recovery, you gain massive amounts of hope from this.
Just picture sitting in AA meeting, and the chairperson starts talking and you feel like they are telling your story. They did the same crazy stuff that you have done. They have gone through almost the exact same struggles. And they talk about how it all felt and what they went through and it sounds exactly like your own battle with addiction.
And then you realize that this person has been sober for ten years and they are happy in sobriety.
That is the magic of identification. Without this experience you feel like you are the only person who has ever been addicted to anything. Without identification you have no hope. You are all alone in your battle. There is no one to help you because no one knows what you are going through.
That is the bottom line right there:
Does anyone really know what you are going through?
When you have been in a detox center for four days now and you are at your first AA meeting and you feel like your life is totally out of control, does anyone really know what you are going through?
If you believe that the answer to this is “no” then you do not have much hope for recovery. Because if you don’t think anyone else has been through the same battle then you can stay stuck in your own thinking, you can exclude any and all advice, you can say “well, you don’t know what I am going through so therefore you don’t really know how to help me.” If you fail to identify with others then it makes it very easy to stay stuck in denial. It makes it easy to be unwilling.
On the other hand, if you hear someone at an AA meeting or a counselor at the rehab who seems to be telling your story, and you can say “yes, this person went through the same basic battle that I am fighting,” then you have a chance at real hope. You can look at that person and say “I believe that it was just as hard for them to get sober as what I am experiencing now. And if they can do it so can I.”
Identification with others is the entire founding principle of AA. Struggling alcoholics coming together, realizing that they share the same plight, and getting hope from each other. It really can be that simple, and it is very powerful. If you don’t identify with anyone in recovery then it will make it very difficult (or impossible) to recover.
3) Learning. Another reason that you need support in early recovery. Who are you going to learn from?
And: What exactly do you need to learn now that you are sober?
When you get sober you start learning very rapidly. You have relearn how to live a “normal” life again.
Basically you have to learn how to cope with everyday struggles without resorting to booze. And you have to learn how to get on a path of personal growth so that your life does not slide back into oblivion and chaos some day.
How do you learn in recovery?
It’s real simple. Someone else tells you what to do, and you do it.
Horrible sounding, isn’t it? Take orders from someone else?
I know. I didn’t want to do it either. I resisted it for a long, long time.
But it is the path to salvation. It is the path to true freedom.
I don’t use those terms like lame cliches. I am serious. If you want total freedom in your life then you have to become more powerful. More disciplined.
So in order to gain this total freedom, what I did was to abandon my self for a while.
I deliberately ignored my ego. I deliberately ignored my own advice.
I said to myself:
“I have been following my own advice and my own ideas for several years now, and I have been miserable in my addiction and taking my own advice has got me nowhere. It is time to try something different. So I will ignore my own ideas, ignore my own advice to myself, and I will only take advice and suggestions from OTHER people. Not my own ideas.”
So I started doing that when I first got clean and sober and I have no idea how long I kept up with that mindset. Probably for several months.
And it worked. I fully admit that I no longer do this. Well, I sort of do it still, because I always consult with others and seek their feedback today. But I allow myself to have ideas again and act on them, whereas during my first year of sobriety I was holding my ego hostage. I would not follow my own ideas because I was afraid one of them would lead me to relapse. Or even just to unhappiness.
So what happened in that first year of sobriety is I started taking suggestions. Very simple stuff. My sponsor told me to go back to college. A therapist pushed me to get a job. My father encouraged me to exercise daily. Simple stuff, nothing fancy. But I had to do the work. I had to take the suggestions and do the work and squash my own ego in the process. My own ideas were pushed to the side for that first year. I only took advice from others and never from myself.
When I talk about “power” this is what I am talking about. The results of that first year or two of my sobriety were what made me powerful. Disciplined. I was running six miles every day. I was working a job and being dependable. I was knocking out a Bachelor’s degree like it was no big deal (I only took 2 classes each semester so as not to get overwhelmed).
And so one day after a year or two of sobriety I could look back and I was in awe of just how much power I had gained from this.
And the revelation was this:
I ignored my own ideas. I let go completely and put my faith and my trust in other people. They told me what to do. I didn’t necessarily like their ideas, but I did them anyway. I took the advice and I put in the time and I did the work. And this created massive power in my life. Two years later I had more freedom and power to do things then I ever could have predicted.
And the revelation was that I had nothing to do with it! None of it was my own doing. I just followed directions. I (almost) blindly followed advice. And yet I gained all of this power and freedom from doing so.
You can’t do this by yourself. You can’t even come close to these sort of results if you are by yourself in early recovery. We sabotage our own efforts and screw it all up somehow. That is what alcoholics and addicts do. The way to overcome this is to find support, learn from others (who have already walked your path) and take their advice. Learn from their wisdom.
There are two ingredients to success in sobriety. One, you have to know what to do. Two, you have to do the work.
Don’t spend any time on number one: “knowing what to do.” Don’t bother thinking about it. You will never figure it out on your own.
Instead, outsource that job entirely. Simply live by the advice of others for the first year of your recovery. Don’t think that you can find the perfect path, simply borrow the wisdom from other people.
Maybe there is a guy in AA that you really look up to, he has several years sober and seems happy. Ask him for advice! Ask him to be your sponsor. Or get a therapist or a counselor who seems to have it together. Get advice from them. Find someone that you look up to, someone who has some success in their life, and start getting direction from that person.
This is the shortcut to success that no one really wants to embrace. It takes humility to embrace this path. You have to first admit that you do not have all of the answers yourself.
What are you going to do if you do not attend AA meetings? Serious question….
I have never been a huge fan of AA meetings but I will admit that I went to AA quite a bit in the first year of my sobriety. The last 12 years I have stopped going entirely but the first year or two I definitely used them for support.
Now I have a serious question for anyone who is early in the recovery process:
* If you don’t get support from AA meetings, where are you going to get it?
That is an important question to consider. There are a few alternatives to in-person AA meetings, for example:
* Going to a church community for support.
* Similar groups with slightly different formats, philosophies, etc.
* Counseling or therapy
* Group therapy
* Long term treatment, living in halfway house, etc.
* Online recovery such as the forum here at Spiritual River.
So those are just a few ideas for ways that you might get support without attending AA meetings.
But for the majority of people, I would still suggest that you at least give AA a fair chance. If nothing else, it is a powerful tool to gain support. And it is a great way to identify with others in early recovery. Remember that it is almost impossible to recover unless you can identify with someone in recovery so that you get some hope for yourself from it.
Quality over quantity – or why you might not actually need a huge recovery network
After many years in sobriety I am starting to realize that it may be a question of quality over quantity.
If you have dozens of people in AA who are there to help and support you, that is nice and all. But I am starting to think that it might be even better to have a few (or even just one or two) really close friends in recovery as a form of support.
Now most people who are trained in traditional recovery practices will tell you that this is not good. They will tell you that “you don’t want to put all of your recovery into a single person” because what if that person then relapses? This is seen at times with sponsorship. A newcomer will put too much faith in their sponsor and then at some point the sponsor might relapse and so the newcomer also falls apart.
Anyway, I am just suggesting that this is how my own recovery has gone. I don’t have a huge recovery network, instead I have a small but focused recovery network. Quality over quantity. I am sure there are other trade offs as well but I don’t think that everyone in recovery has to have two dozen people in AA that they can call just to remain sober. We do need help and support but there is still room in recovery for introverts.
Take action and use these resources that are available to you
It doesn’t necessarily have to be AA that becomes a support system for you. You are free to explore the alternatives and find what works for you.
But make sure that you are actually taking action rather than just running away from your fears.
I avoided AA for a long time because I was afraid of it. I had anxiety. So I stayed drunk for many years because I was simply afraid. I was running away from myself.
So you have to be honest as well. Willingness alone will not work. You also have to be honest. And so if you start seeing a therapist (for example) and you don’t want to go to AA, then that is fine. But be honest with yourself about how it is all working out. If you are still struggling three months later then at some point you have to stop and evaluate. Is this really working for me? If not, then you need to get honest about it.
I was in counseling for a long time but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t ready to stop drinking and using drugs. So it made no difference. Finally one of the counselors said to me: “I don’t think you should come see me any more.” I was shocked at this: “Why not?” I asked. “Because you are not ready to stop drinking. I can’t help you. You won’t go to AA. You won’t go to rehab.”
And he was right. I was not being honest with myself. I was going to counseling and telling myself “at least you are trying.” Total BS! I wasn’t trying. I was drinking and abusing drugs and telling myself that it was OK because I was seeing a therapist for one hour each week. Ridiculous.
The therapist was right. I was wasting his time and my own. I wasn’t serious about changing.
And this is why honesty and willingness are also tied into being open minded. If you are truly ready to get sober then you will embrace all three of those concepts.
So that when the therapist told me: “You need to get to rehab, and then you need to hit some AA meetings on a regular basis” I needed to be open to that suggestion. And at the time I clearly wasn’t. I thought I was honest with myself, but I wasn’t willing. And I thought I was willing, but I wasn’t willing to do certain things (AA, rehab). And so the final key to the puzzle was that I was really not being open-minded.
You need all three. Honesty, willingness, and open mindedness. That’s how it works, and that is also why you need support in early recovery.