How Long Do You Have to Be Told How to Live in...

How Long Do You Have to Be Told How to Live in Addiction Recovery?


The question today is this:

For how long do you have to be told what to do in your recovery?

Let’s consider two extremes:

1) You are brand new in recovery and in fact you are still in detox. Your last drink was yesterday. You don’t know how to recover but you are willing to do whatever it takes. Therefore you agreed to go to rehab and you are willing to take advice from others who can help you.

2) You have been clean and sober for ten years plus. You are living a successful life in recovery and you are very stable in terms of your ongoing sobriety. You pursue personal growth at your own leisure and you do not necessarily need advice or instructions on how to stay sober any more.

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Obviously it would be possible to start out as number 1 and then eventually progress to number 2. You start out completely dependent on others to help you to recover and you end up being very strong and stable in your recovery, mostly helping other people and telling them what to do to be successful.

Somewhere along the way you transition from being completely dependent on others to being dependent on yourself.

The question is, how do you do that, and how long should it take you to get through “early” recovery?

Early recovery is the perfect time to be told what to do

There is a real difference between having one week sober and having ten years sober. Early recovery can be very difficult on your pride, and on your ego. The best approach is to squash your pride and push your ego out of the way so that you can learn how to live your life sober. This is hard to do, but it is necessary if you want to succeed in early recovery.

Your ideas have not worked out well for you during your addiction. When you first get clean and sober, you have had exactly ONE good idea lately, and that is to finally take everyone else’s advice and try to get some help for yourself. Think carefully about this because it should show you a clear indicator of what the best path is for you going forward. Everyone in your life has been telling you to get help, to seek help, to go to rehab, to stop drinking and drugging. This is a given. So now you have finally decided to take their advice and to try to get some help for yourself. Smart move! I know it was difficult, and I know that this is already a massive blow to the ego. I have been there.

Now you have to take it a step further. Now that you have agree to seek help for your problem, you have to really go all out. Completely step out of your own way and give the reigns over to other people entirely. It is difficult to do this because we want so badly to protect our pride.

The way to do this successfully is to ask for help. When help is offered, take it, and follow through on it. It really is as simple as that…..but of course you have to actually DO it. This is the hard part. Ask for advice, then take the suggestion and actually follow through with it. Very difficult because most people do not like being told what to do.

Later on in long term recovery you will be faced with another challenge: that of overcoming complacency. In early recovery this is not your concern yet. Therefore there is no reason to hang on to your pride or your own ideas in early recovery. Let it all go so that you have a chance at recovery. Later on, you can take back some of that pride (just a little!) and be able to control your own growth again in recovery. But early recovery is not the time for this. You need to get through the challenge of early recovery first, and that requires you to put your ego up on the chopping block.

Ask for help and then do what you are told to do. Swallow your pride and you will have the secret of success in making it through early recovery.

Staying stuck in one stage of recovery forever

Now the question we are really asking here today is this:

“How long are you going to stay in early recovery? When is it time to move on and embrace your own personal growth?”

For me I stayed in this “early recovery stage” for about two or three years. I was sort of floundering to find that “next stage” of my personal growth.

Part of this was because I was confused about my direction. Everyone in traditional recovery (AA and NA) was telling me that the key to success was lifelong 12 step commitment, working with a sponsor, and so on. But to be honest this message did not really jive with me at the time. I felt that something was wrong, something was missing there. People in AA seemed to be saying to me “the solution is more AA!” It felt wrong to me and so I started to explore the idea that I might grow in my own way, on my own terms.

Now this is a very dangerous idea to embrace in recovery, because of the potential for self sabotage. For example, if you tried to “do your own thing” when you have 30 days sober, you are pretty much guaranteed to screw it up and relapse. Why? Because you are just too early in your recovery for this kind of decision. You’re not ready for it and you are not stable enough in your recovery yet. You lack information.

On the other hand, I have seen many people in AA and NA who are stuck in early recovery forever. They are too scared to progress out of that early stage. There is something wrong with this and it also rubs me the wrong way–it just feels so wrong (and maybe slightly pathetic at times). The reason for this is because such people are relating a fear-based message. The reason they stay stuck in early recovery is based on their fear. They are so afraid of relapse and failure that they cling to the idea that they are powerless, that they cannot overcome their addiction in any sort of confident way, and so they just cling to these weak ideas that they are helpless, powerless, forever dependent on meetings, and so on. They say things in meetings like “I know I need these meetings for the rest of my life, I would never consider not coming to these meetings!”

Really? Why not build up a little strength and independence in your recovery? Why stay so dependent on something outside of yourself for your solution? That is what I want to say to these people who are so rooted in fear based thinking.

If you are so dependent on AA and on daily meetings, then what kind of lame recovery do you really have?

Don’t you think that you could make progress in recovery?

Don’t you believe in the concept of personal growth? That you might evolve and get stronger and more stable in your sobriety over time, rather than staying stuck as this mindless robot who needs a daily feeding of AA just to get by? This doesn’t make sense….why keep going to meetings every day if they do not help you to grow and get stronger?

Such people, in my opinion, are not using the meetings correctly. There is a right and a wrong way to approach AA meetings.

If you use them as a daily crutch, and you openly admit that you are dependent on the meetings for your continued sobriety, then you are using them the WRONG way. This is not what AA meetings are intended for. They are not to be used as a daily crutch, as your daily vent session.

If you have multiple years in sobriety but you are so dependent on meetings that you would relapse if you stopped going for a month, then what is your recovery really based on? It is based on daily meeting attendance, and you are now fully dependent on them in order to maintain sobriety. You have traded one addiction for another, and apparently learned very little in the process. This is not the recovery you were meant to live.

Now don’t get all riled up just yet…..I am not saying that meetings are bad. I am merely pointing out that DEPENDENCY on meetings is bad. And if you look closely at modern day recovery, you will see that this is very common. Many people are dependent on the meetings for their sobriety, and some of them are even proud of it.

I am not saying that everyone should leave the meetings. What I am saying is that everyone in recovery should be moving beyond early recovery and embracing the stage of “personal growth.” When they do this they will become less dependent on meetings for their sobriety, and this will strengthen their recovery. Yes, they can still go to meetings if they want to! But at that point, they will be stronger in their recovery because they will know how to overcome addiction based on personal growth, and they can then share this information with others in the meetings. This is opposed to the idea that they go to meetings all their life, then tell newcomers that the secret of recovery is to go to meetings. That is an example of someone who has fear based thinking and is forever stuck in early recovery.

How to embrace personal growth in early recovery

You don’t just have to suddenly stop going to AA meetings in order to embrace personal growth in recovery. In fact, you do not need to stop going at all. This is the not the point.

The point is that you need to start taking action in your recovery that strengthens your sobriety in the long run. Growth oriented actions can do this. You can find such actions both in or outside of the AA program.

For example, someone once suggested to me that I exercise or get into better shape. I did not see how this would affect my recovery at the time, nor did I really care much. But at some point I decided to take this suggestion and so I started exercising.

At first I did not see much benefit, or point to it. I was taking action, but I was not yet experiencing any rewards. Not any major rewards, anyway.

But then later on as I continued to exercise, something changed. The exercise got easier and more natural for me to do. This new positive action that I was taking became a habit. And the benefits of regular distance running started to kick in and multiply in ways that I never could have predicted.

For example, I started feeling absolutely fantastic after I ran. This feeling of elation lasted longer and longer, eventually replacing a cigarette habit entirely. I was able to take more positive action based on the results of this initial change (running led me to quit smoking cigarettes). The positive benefits thus multiplied.

Another example is with my sleep patterns. After establishing an exercise routine I noticed that I slept much better than I ever had before in my life. Not a huge deal until you actually experience it, and can then appreciate such a change. These are the sort of subtle but profound changes that taking positive action can have on your life. You cannot predict all of the outcomes even though there are numerous positive benefits. This is why we should always be open to new suggestions from others, and be willing to try to take new positive actions based on feedback and suggestions from others. I could never have predicted all of the positive benefits from exercise, nor can I even explain them all. But they have had a huge impact on my recovery and I am grateful that I took the initial suggestion.

So this is a clue as to how you can embrace personal growth. Start by taking suggestions and following advice. If you are successful in your recovery so far then you already know how to do this–it is what got you sober to begin with. You asked for help and then you took some advice.

So, keep doing that. Ask for more help and feedback from others. Ask for opinions from people you trust. Ask for direction from people who seem to have the sort of life that you want to live. This is the entire idea behind sponsorship in recovery. Find someone who has the life that you want, and then ask them to help you achieve that life. Because they have already done so and have the necessary experience, they are the best natural teacher to tell you how to reach your goals.

But first you have to get some goals. You have to get excited about recovery and about pursuing a better life for yourself. What do you want to change? How would you like your life to be different? Figure out what you want to achieve and then start taking action, start asking questions, start seeking help so that you can move forward in life.

So many people get into recovery and then they just show up to meetings every day and sit there, treating the experience like some boring therapy that they have to endure just so they can continue to hang on to sobriety by a thread. This is not the point of recovery. You are not attending meetings just to maintain sobriety. What is the point of that? Abstinence from drugs and alcohol is only worthwhile if you take your recovery a step further and actually do something with your life. The point is to live life, enjoy yourself, help others, make connections, create something interesting. Recovery is not about recovery, recovery is about life! So go live it. Go take action. Find something positive to do, to achieve, to build, to create. Take positive action and then evaluate your results. Then do it again. Seek new ideas from others. Learn and grow. This is the point of recovery–to live. Recovery is not about idleness.

Why you should start to explore your own path in recovery

If you are stable in your recovery then you should figure out what you want out of life, and then pursue it.

Amazingly, one of the best ways to figure this is out is to ask other people what they think you should do, and what they think you should pursue in life. If you collect such feedback and then start taking some suggestions, you will be amazed at how your life starts to unfold in amazing new ways.

The point is that you need to take action. If you just sit still, show up to meetings each day, and coast along in your recovery then are you really living at all? If you are just going through the motions and you just settle with the fact that you are sober today, is that really enough to make you happy in life? Don’t you want to take action, make an impact, create something meaningful, or help others?

You should start on the journey of personal growth because this is ultimately the path of relapse prevention. If you want to be strong in your recovery then you can only get there by taking positive action.

The way to get weaker in your recovery is to cease taking positive action. Be idle in life, and you will slowly creep closer to relapse.

Take positive action every day, and you build a protective wall against the threat of relapse. This is true whether you are in AA or not. The “program” is simply a framework where someone might take positive action, or where they might slip into complacency and not really end up with much happiness in their recovery (in spite of staying sober).

I’m going to be honest here–I would rather be happy and drunk than sober and miserable. Who wouldn’t? We are guided by our own self interest. This is why I would urge you to take positive action in your recovery. The “easy” alternative is to go get drunk, but we all know that such happiness is VERY short lived (and quickly turns into misery).

Your happiness in recovery is not a given. Many people end up relapsing after not finding happiness in sobriety. Such people failed to take positive action. They failed to CREATE the happiness that they thought they deserved. Well, they only deserve such happiness if they are willing to put in the effort to create it.

It takes action. Positive action. If you want the rewards of recovery then you have to put in the effort. Simple as that. If you need to know WHAT to do, there is no shortage of people to ask. Seriously. Just go to an AA meeting and ask for advice. This is the easy part. Then, follow that advice. That is the hard part. Keep following it for a long time and keep seeking new ways to grow and take positive action in your life. This is how you build long term happiness in recovery. Through personal growth.

Whether you are in AA meetings or not is besides the point. If you are not growing in your recovery, if you are not challenging yourself to learn and to grow, then you will probably not be very happy in the long run. Evolve and learn, or wither and die. Your choice. But you have to choose, or the default choice is to be lazy, be complacent, and to slide closer back to relapse.

What happens to people who never embrace personal growth in recovery

If you never embrace personal growth and taking daily positive action, then there are two possibilities:

1) You relapse.
2) You don’t relapse. But you don’t get any happier, either.

The alternative to these two outcomes is to embrace personal growth, and start creating the life that you actually want to live every day.

Really, what else are you going to do with yourself in recovery? Why not be happy?


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