If there is one thing that I have learned in my recovery journey, it is this:
Those who stop growing in their recovery eventually relapse.
That’s it. That is one of the most profound truths that I have discovered.
So many people get confused by this, because they do not see the truth that is underneath their own experience. For example, maybe they stopped attending 12 step meetings at one point, and so they ended up relapsing because of it. The reason that they relapsed is because they were dependent on meetings, and they were not really making much personal growth to begin with. They were just abstaining from drugs and alcohol while using daily meetings to sort of maintain their recovery. This dependency eventually failed them because they were not making growth outside of the meetings.
Growth in recovery should be exciting. Pushing yourself to make positive changes in order to remain clean and sober should be challenging, and therefore extremely rewarding. If you stay stagnant in your journey and try to slide by doing the bare minimum, you are missing the point.
It requires a ton of energy to overcome an addiction, regardless of what you do, what your approach is, or what program you follow.
Think about that for a moment. There are no shortcuts. There is no easy path to sobriety. No matter what approach you decide to take, it is going to require a ton of effort.
Once you fully grasp this and really accept it, then you can get serious about setting some challenging goals for yourself and making personal growth. It takes many people years or even decades before they finally figure out just how hard they have to commit themselves to their recovery. They dabble in sobriety here and there, but they never really “get it,” because they never fully commit to it like they should.
Once the addict or alcoholic does fully “get it,” then they finally see the light and realize exactly how much effort is required to maintain sobriety. Positive action is required on a continuous basis. They realize that you do not just get sober and make one change, but that you must keep reinventing yourself in your recovery through constant personal growth. This is the only path that will result in solid relapse prevention and allow them to stay clean and sober in the long run. Recovery is personal growth.
Explore the holistic health model for starting points
I would encourage most people to look at the idea that they are on a holistic path of growth in recovery. This is not a complicated idea (though it may sound like one at first).
Really it is a matter of priorities, and of focus.
The idea is that you could potentially work on a number of things in your recovery. You have become clean and sober and you’ve stopped using drugs and alcohol. This is your baseline for recovery. But what are you going to do next? What are you going to do to help insure your continuous sobriety?
That is where the holistic approach comes in.
Many popular programs suggest a program of spiritual development. Nothing wrong with this, I would encourage people to explore this avenue of growth in their own recovery.
However, I would also push people to take it a step further than this in regards to holistic health.
If you dive heavily into the idea of spiritual growth you will at some point be staring at the truth that all growth is really spiritual, and that you have a lot of work to do in many areas of your life. For example, if you are unhealthy, out of shape, eating unhealthy foods, overweight, and consume cigarettes every day, then are you really being as spiritual as you can possibly be? Are you really living the best life that you can in terms of a spiritual path?
No you are not. So part of the recovery journey (and therefore part of any spiritual journey) is to take a look at your overall life situation and your overall health and start making positive changes.
I am a big believer in pursuing better physical health as a foundation in recovery, and I put it as being almost as important as the spiritual journey that one makes in recovery. At the highest level of analysis, your physical health and your spiritual journey are probably one and the same anyway–we humans just separate them in our minds for our own convenience. In truth, if you are here to help others and make a difference in this world, then your physical health and your physical condition are your primary vessel for that work, and you should not think of them as being separate from the important work that you need to do while being on this earth. Take your physical health seriously because it is what keeps you tethered here!
Many addicts and alcoholics start off with a poor report card when it comes to physical health in recovery. They have been abusing their bodies for a long time in addiction, and they also tend to be smokers in a lot of cases who do not do much exercise (there are exceptions of course, but this is the general pattern for most addicts and alcoholics).
So in my opinion is it really important to address your own physical health in early recovery. I believe that every person should make it a priority immediately in their early recovery, and never stop focusing on it as an avenue for growth.
There are so many challenges in the area of physical health, probably because the patterns and behaviors are so incredibly difficult to change. Weight loss, quitting smoking, daily exercise–these are not trivial goals. They are real challenges and meeting them is no small thing. But the upside is just as incredible as well–the reward for achieving such challenges is absolutely enormous, and will have a huge positive impact on your recovery.
Health is the ultimate currency, especially to a recovering addict or alcoholic. Make it a priority to take care of your body first and foremost in recovery, because you have abused it for so long in your addiction. If you are truly going to “recover” then giving your physical health this extra attention is going to be a natural part of the recovery process for you.
Eliminate bad habits to get the best maximum initial return on your effort
So how does one prioritize in early recovery?
You have sobered up, you quit the drugs and the alcohol, and now you have to find ways to improve your life so that you do not slide back into relapse. What do you do? How do you get started? How do you prioritize the changes that you want to make in your life?
You cannot do everything all at once, right? You have to pick a challenge and then try to meet it, try to achieve one goal, and then shift your focus to something else. You can’t take on all of your problems and goals all in the first week of your recovery. You can’t even do it all in the first year.
So, how do you prioritize?
The answer is a bit counter-intuitive. The way to prioritize is to eliminate your biggest negative FIRST. That is priority number one.
So you might ask yourself something like:
“What is the one thing that is most holding me back in my life right now?” (Or in your recovery).
Then, set that as your ultimate goal in recovery for now, and focus all of your energy on eliminating that one thing.
Why do this?
The reason that this is the best way to prioritize is because this method will give you the most return on your effort.
It is a bit strange, but we get more benefit, more happiness, more growth, and more relief from eliminating a negative aspect of our lives than we do from adding in something positive.
Our biggest problems in recovery are always of our own making. When we strip away all of the junk in our lives, we return to being healthy and happy people. You don’t need to do anything very crazy or exotic in order to achieve peace and happiness in recovery. All you have to do is get rid of the negative stuff that you yourself have imposed that is holding you back.
Smoking cigarettes is a prime example. If you are still doing that in your recovery, that will be your next big step, your next real challenge of personal growth. Eliminating this bad habit will be a huge boost to your overall outlook in recovery. It will also be a huge boost to your physical health, and is actually the most important and urgent health change that a person can make, period.
Always start with the negatives. These are always going to be your biggest opportunities for growth in recovery. It seems a bit strange, because we may believe that we could get more growth or benefit from chasing after a positive goal (like going back to college) rather than seeking to eliminate a negative in our lives. But the truth is that we need very little in order to be happy and content in our recovery, so getting rid of the negative elements of our lives actually gives us a greater return on our effort.
Eliminate the negatives first. Then go chase your “positive” goals.
Start exercising on a regular basis and push yourself to go deeper with it
As you can tell by now, a lot of this theory about personal growth in recovery is pushing us towards the concept of exercise. Deliberately conditioning our body to be healthier and stronger is hugely important for long term health in recovery, though many people will never fully realize this or acknowledge it.
If you interview a hundred people in recovery from addiction, you will find that a certain percentage of them engage in regular exercise and physical fitness. If you were to talk with these people and ask some questions, you would find that they would never dream of going without the aspect of exercise in recovery now that they are in the habit of doing so. They would not dream of trying to live clean and sober without the benefits that they get from regular exercise. It would be unthinkable to them.
So why don’t they convince the others in recovery about how great it is? Mostly because they know they are weird. The others in recovery are not as active and do not make a big deal about exercise, so those who do it basically feel like the oddball. They reason that perhaps they are just different, and that they get a huge benefit from exercise, but others surely do not, or they would talk about it more.
After watching people and their fitness levels in recovery for over a decade now, I believe that most people are just inherently lazy. They do not embrace exercise and fitness in recovery because it requires too much effort and energy to do so. It is easier to sit around in 12 step meetings every day and simply talk, talk, talk about recovery from addiction than it is to go get out there and get into fantastic shape and use that to drive positive change in your recovery.
The fact is that exercise alone can be the driving force of change that creates a new life of sobriety. I know of at least two programs that focus on exercise exclusively as the solution to overcoming addiction and alcoholism.
Now I do not believe that people should abandon other recovery programs in favor of exercise, but I do believe that people should wake up and realize the opportunity here. Regular exercise and fitness is a huge part of relapse prevention that most recovering addicts miss out on completely. It is a gift in recovery and most people just never go through the pains to discover it.
Real growth in recovery is always a bit uncomfortable, in some way or another. Exercise can be like that. You may feel foolish if you have not done it for years, but you have to fight through that feeling and do it anyway. The same is true of many other types of growth that you might go through in your journey. The initial push into growth may feel awkward or scary at first, but the benefits are still there if we are willing to push through those feelings.
Consider nutrition and weight loss if these are weak points in your overall health
This simply continues with the idea that your physical health is probably the most important pillar in your holistic recovery. Start eating healthier if this is a weak point in your overall health.
Note that these changes are not really going to make a huge difference when you are two weeks sober. Instead, these are long term changes that will increase your chances of achieving long term sobriety. You are not going to suddenly relapse because you are eating junk food. But your long term health prognosis is definitely tied to your sobriety. People who get sick in recovery have a drastically increased chance of relapsing. Why? Because tend to take medications, or to self medicate, if we are seriously sick or if we fall ill for long periods of time. Sickness and disease can wear down your resolve to stay sober over time, and I have known many addicts in recovery who relapsed due to an illness. It happens.
Therefore your overall physical health is a very important asset that you have to actively protect in long term recovery. Your sobriety does not do you any good if you are dead, either. Keep that in mind, as many addicts forget this simple fact and end up cutting their life short due to things like smoking, being overweight, etc.
“At least they died sober” is no consolation. They could have lived sober, and gone on to help others.
Challenge yourself career and education-wise
After you are clean and sober for a while, my belief is that you should start figuring out what you want to do with your life. Another way to phrase this question for some people might be “Who do you most want to help in this world?”
Many people in recovery separate this “life mission” from their career. So they might bag groceries in order to pay the bills, but then they get huge benefit from working with other recovering addicts and alcoholics on a regular basis.
Why not shift into doing your “life’s work” for money instead?
So many people have a psychological block to doing this. They prevent themselves from pursuing the ideal career, usually because they have some sort of hang up or block against the money aspect of it.
In other words, the grocery bagger in the above example would feel guilty if he were to be paid for helping other addicts and alcoholics. So this block against money prevents him from pursuing a career in substance abuse counseling, or whatever the case may be.
This is a mistake, in my opinion. The block against being paid has to be overcome. The money is not evil, and it does not detract from the work that you are doing, or from the people you are helping.
In fact, think about it this way:
The guy who is bagging groceries may go to meetings at night and maybe has a handful of people that he sponsors in the program. So he helps a small number of people but he does not get paid to do it.
At some point he overcomes his block that tells him that “money is evil” and he goes back to college and gets his degree in substance abuse counseling. Now he is able to quit his job at the grocery store and is able to work full time in a rehab center. He works with approximately five to ten clients per week, or several hundred per year. In addition to this, he still attends meetings when he is outside of work.
The money he is paid does not detract from the help that he is giving to people. In fact, the money just allows him to help MORE people in a greater capacity. The money itself is not evil. We just have to get past the idea that we should live like humble monks in recovery and never try to pursue great things.
Part of your personal growth in recovery can come from your career goals. Figure out what it is that you want to do, and what group of people you most want to help in this life. Then start taking action to learn how to better help those people. Keep working at it until you can see an opportunity to be paid for your work. Career success happens when you are being fairly compensated for doing your “life’s work.” Work past any hang ups you have over this and realize that being paid allows you to help many more people.
Create something amazing in your life
Once you have laid out a strong foundation in recovery and eliminated many of the negative aspects of your life, it is time to get creative. What do you want to build, what do you want to achieve? A close friend of mine started his own AA group. I started a recovery website with an addiction forum where people can help each other. Maybe you will create art or start your own business.
If there is one thing that you get more of in recovery, it is TIME. You get free time. You get a whole lot of it, because we used to spend all that time using our drug of choice.
So now you have an opportunity to create something amazing in your life. You have time and you have energy.
Push yourself to take action. Find the growth opportunity and then pursue it. This is recovery in action.