One of the amazing things about recovery is the incredible progression that you make as you remain clean and sober. Of course this is only really amazing if you stay on a path of growth. If you are stagnate or heading for relapse then obviously your results are not going to be as impressive. But the thing that is interesting is that recovery sort of polarizes the issue–you either make it or you don’t. So you either get these awesome benefits in your recovery or you end up sliding back towards relapse. You don’t generally get to stand still and be miserable. The misery forces the issue–either figure out how to grow in recovery, or the misery will eventually drive you to relapse. This is why they typically say in traditional recovery circles that “you are either working on recovery or you are working on a relapse.” You don’t get to just sit there!
I would also note that we don’t have a good sense of time when it comes to making projections about our personal growth. Nearly no one is any good at this, especially in terms of predicting our own progress. The problem is that we overestimate what we can do in short periods of time while also underestimating what we can accomplish in longer time frames. People consistently think they can do more in a year than what they really can, but the also underestimate what they can do in five years. So you can imagine how much we are off when we try to predict our growth for an entire decade in sobriety. Most of us are way off the mark, and we tend to underestimate what we can accomplish. Ten years is a long time.
My own personal experience
My own experience in ten years of recovery has been amazing to say the least. And looking back I can see that the first year was really just a warm up, none of the major growth had even really got started at that point. At one year sober I was just getting rolling. But at five years sober I had accomplished quite a bit, for example, I had quit smoking cigarettes and I was also exercising on a regular basis. Those are the kinds of growth experiences and positive impacts that I am really talking about here.
I am going to risk being a little judgmental here and say that I think this sort of progress should be expected in recovery. I don’t say that to be mean or to try to make people feel bad. But I really think that if you are clean and sober for five years, for ten years, for fifteen years–that you should be making those sort of healthy changes in your life. Certainly if you enter recovery as a cigarette smoker then that should be one of your number one goals (to quit). The benefit that you get from quitting is just so enormous. Likewise, I think nearly everyone in recovery should eventually start getting into the swing of regular exercise. I just cannot imagine living the rest of your life in recovery without tapping into the benefits of regular exercise. There is a curve of resistance at the beginning (in order to get into shape) but after that the benefits to your life are just enormous. You cannot predict how much of a positive impact something like that will have ten years down the road, only to know that it will be very significant. On the other hand if you fail to establish a healthy new habit like that then you can expect to have more problems down the line, be less healthy, be less active, and so on.
In a sense my time and years in recovery have acted as a multiplier for me. What I have focused on has grown and the resulting benefits have been beyond what I ever could have predicted. In starting to exercise I ended up running marathons. I am not an over-achiever or anything, nor am I super competitive. It has to do with the time and persistence that comes along with recovery. At one point in my recovery I started a side business and worked hard on it for several years. That business turned into a life changing success and again–I don’t think I ever could have predicted this outcome. I am just blessed with the benefits of recovery and really I never could have imagined some of the outcomes.
This is based on a simple principle in recovery that is actually very powerful. I label it as the principle of “accumulation.”
This same principle actually works all the time, and it was working for you during active addiction as well. When you were drinking or using drugs on a regular basis, what you were doing is accumulating more and more negativity in your life. The outcomes of your actions tended to mount up and accumulate over time. Negativity breeds more negativity. Addiction becomes a negative cycle that fuels and feeds on itself. If you abuse drugs or alcohol for a decade, it will show in your life. Your life situation and your mental and emotional state will reflect ten years of drug abuse. The consequences that you have experienced will reflect ten years of abuse. Things get progressively worse over time, even though you may have some “good” days thrown in there as well.
Recovery works the same way. Accumulation can work in a positive way as well. This is why my own personal philosophy of recovery is based on positive action. Not just positive action, but daily positive action. My theory is that you should push yourself to take positive action every single day of your life, simply based on the outcomes you will receive from that in five years, in ten years. I already know how this works because I started doing it ten years ago (I am now at over 12 years of continuous sobriety). So I know what happens when you take positive action every day for ten years straight. I know what kind of outcomes you can expect. You can run marathons even if you are not a runner at all! You can start a business and turn it into a huge success, even if you know nothing about business. You can overcome addictions like smoking or make tough lifestyle changes regarding fitness or nutrition. Yes, you can do all of those things and more if you are looking at a ten year timeline rather than a one year timeline.
I think in some cases we set ourselves up for failure when New Year’s rolls around. We set our resolutions and of course we are basing them on a single year. In some regards I think this sets us up for failure. We should make a five year resolution or a ten year resolution instead. We should set bigger, loftier goals and then push ourselves towards them.
My question to you is “why the heck not?” You have nothing but time in recovery. Even if you are supposedly busy in your day to day life, you still have nothing but time stretched out before you in recovery. If you remain sober for the next ten years then that is a whole lot of time and a whole lot of opportunity. What are you going to create in that time? Shoot, you could start a successful new career in ten years, including the educational aspect of it! You could do just about anything in ten years time. Why do we set one year goals and think so small, when we should be looking at the long term in our recovery and thinking big?
My experience in recovery was interesting because at one point I realized that the years were just starting to fly by. I suddenly had 4 years sober and the before I knew what hit me I had 7 years sober. And I realized that I had nothing but time, I had this huge opportunity to create whatever I wanted in my life. And at the same time I felt an urgency because my recovery was flying by so quickly and all of a sudden I was closing in on my first full decade of sobriety!
I am very pleased with what I accomplished in my first ten years of recovery but now that I understand how accumulation works I am determined to create even more positive benefits in my life over the next ten years. Now I understand what a gift and an opportunity each day is. There were many days during the first ten years of my recovery where I did not understand this, where I was just sort of drifting, and I was not excited or passionate about anything in my life. Now I know better. Now I know that each day is a gift, and I understand how the days multiply over a period of five or ten years. I understand how our daily actions can impact us on a longer timeline.
Lines of growth
When I finally realized the power of accumulation and how our daily actions can multiply on a longer timeline, I had to reconsider what I was doing with my life. Because now I understood a little better that what I was focusing on in a day to day basis was going to multiply out and create bigger results in the future. I could see the correlation between daily actions and long term growth. I understood the principle on a much deeper level.
So one of the lines of growth that I embraced was physical health. To me it just makes sense that someone in recovery who loves their life would want to embrace this as one of their main lines of growth. It doesn’t necessarily have to be all about exercise, for some it may be more about nutrition, yoga, or something else entirely. But I think it is important that everyone in recovery at least consider their physical health as one possible line of growth. If you focus on your health and strive to improve every day for the next ten years, you are bound to be happy and pleased with the results. Ignoring this line of growth can be dangerous, as was evidenced by some of my close friends in recovery who have already passed away (far too young). They ignored this line of growth and they suffered the consequences for doing so.
Another line of growth in my recovery had to do with my work. This was also mixed in with my personal freedom, because I could not help but notice at one point that I was dedicating at least 40 hours of my life each week doing something that I was not necessarily thrilled about. Again, you have your whole life stretched out in front of you during your recovery and so you have nothing but time. Why not fix this problem? That was my attitude at one point and I realized that if I wanted to be happy with the work that I was doing that it was going to take some serious action and some serious dedication. In other words, I was stuck in a job that I did not really like, and I wanted to do something more meaningful and something that gave me more freedom. And I was willing to make this change over a five or ten year timeline. I realized and accepted the fact that I was not going to change this situation overnight. I was not demanding instant progress on something that normally takes years and years to produce results.
And so I pursued this as one of my lines of growth–moving towards the work that I was truly meant to do in my life. In order to do that I had to work at the goal for several years. In fact I had to do a lot more than that, because initially I was not even sure what that “dream job” was for me. I had to discover it. So part of that journey was in going back to college and finishing up a degree. This was all part of the process for me, and was part of this line of growth. It may sound like a lot of extra work in order to discover the right path for myself but in the end it was worth it. Again, you have nothing but time in your recovery. I am glad that I pursued that particular line of growth (regarding my career and my work) because it has created freedom and benefits in other areas of my life as well. The positive outcomes of “getting this right” have extended beyond the kind of benefits that you normally associate with work and a job. In fact this line of growth has changed my entire life and positively affected who I am today.
So one line of growth may be physical health, and another may be your work or your career. For me these two lines have played a major role in my recovery. But there are other potential lines of growth and you do not have to limit yourself in any way. I would urge you to think bigger than what you have been though, and consider a more long term perspective. Just imagine what you can accomplish in five or ten years if you take daily action towards a specific goal.
Synergy and the expansive benefits of recovery
One of the things that is impossible to predict is the synergy effect that you get from the various lines of growth in your recovery.
What is this “synergy” stuff? It is the idea that positive growth in one area of your life will positively affect the growth in another area.
For example, I noticed a correlation between my fitness level and my ability to pursue the career that I wanted. I was building up my fitness and I was working to run a marathon. At the same time I was trying to build a successful business. In pursuing both of these goals (and reaching the fitness goal) I realized that they were really the same thing, and that the same principles applied to each goal. Not only that, but the discipline that I gained from building up to marathon distance was the same discipline that I needed to use to push my business to the next level. The moment of clarity when I realized this was really astounding. Suddenly it all fit together and made sense. It was like training myself to run all of those miles and get through that challenge was a way to prove to myself that I could work harder on my business and create success in that area as well.
So getting positive results in one area of my life had spilled into another, seemingly unrelated area of my life. The success that I had with fitness was positively affecting my other goals and pursuits. And that is when I realized that the holistic approach to recovery makes a lot of sense. Because then you have incentive to try to create positive growth in more than one area of your life. In long term recovery you may have several goals and you may have several positive changes that you want to make. Without getting overwhelmed, you should tackle those goals and realize that progress in one area can enhance your success in another area. This is synergy. The sum of your individual goals is worth more than the total, because of the way that your success in each area enhances your success in the other areas.
How your perception and preferences will change
In ten years of recovery your perception and preferences will change a great deal.
When you first get clean and sober you will go through a transition period. This is going to be a challenge because you have certain things left over from your addiction that are going to affect you in the short run.
For example, when we are in active addiction the only way that we can have fun and enjoy ourselves is if we are self medicating. If we are not self medicated then it doesn’t really matter what we are doing at the time, we are not going to be comfortable. We learned to base our comfort and our happiness on the fact that we were drunk or high.
When you first get clean and sober, this ability to self medicate is suddenly snatched away from us, and we are left wondering how we will ever be comfortable or happy again in our lives.
Of course, we eventually learn how to be happy and content again in our lives without needing to be drunk and high all the time. But this transition takes time, and it does not happen overnight. Therefore early recovery can be a bit of a challenge, and many addicts and alcoholics don’t see a light at the end of this particular tunnel. They believe they would be miserable forever, so they don’t even try to get clean and sober.
This perceptual changes happens in the first few months of addiction recovery. But changes occur in the longer term as well, and you will likely have different preferences at ten years sober than what you had at one year sober.
What makes you happy and content in your recovery will change and evolve over time. What really happens is that you learn to appreciate the process itself, rather than the results. This is an amazing change to go through and learning to appreciate the process is a real gift.
If you choose to take positive action every single day, then your results in five or ten years will be amazing beyond anything you can imagine. Certainly it will be better than what you are cautiously predicting at the start of your recovery. But you have to have faith that taking positive action each day is actually worth it, and is building a better future for yourself…..