How to Get and Keep Momentum in Addiction Recovery

How to Get and Keep Momentum in Addiction Recovery


Yesterday we looked at the idea that recovery from addiction is not boring, even though we might expect it to be. Today we want to look at how to get momentum in recovery and also in how to keep that momentum going.

They have a saying in most recovery circles: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”

In other words, you don’t get to just stand still. You can’t come to a grinding halt during your recovery journey and pretend that you are still working on personal growth. You are either moving forward or you are sliding backwards. There is no standing still. If you stand still you are sliding back down the hill toward relapse.

Once you fully grasp this concept (and possibly see it in action a few times among your peers) you should realize the importance of momentum. It’s not just the idea that you are engaged in personal growth right now, it is the idea that you will achieve your goal and keep pushing yourself and then move on to the next growth experience in your life. If you meet your goal and then kick your feet up with the intention of coasting through your recovery for a while then you are in for a rude awakening. Relapse has a way of sneaking back into our lives when we least suspect it. Therefore the only real long term strategy is vigilance. That means you have to be proactive in your relapse prevention strategy.

Most people are not proactive about relapse prevention, instead they are reactive.

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So when they meet up with a certain trigger in their life, they attempt to use what they have learned and therefore choose and appropriate response to that trigger. So they might say “OK, let’s see, I am craving my drug of choice, what am I supposed to do in this situation? Oh, yeah, I am supposed to call my sponsor or go to a meeting, that’s right….” They react to the situation after it has happened in order to try to prevent a relapse from happening.

With a proactive approach in recovery we try not to rely so much on reactionary tactics like this, and instead live our lives in such a way that our self esteem protects us from triggers and urges. Think about it for a moment: if things are going well in your life and you feel really good about yourself and you are helping others, then are you really going to throw that all away on a relapse? No, you’re not. But you can’t just imagine such a scenario and expect it to protect you from your drug of choice. You have to put in the work and actually live such a life, one in which in you are placing a very high value on your own sobriety. If you don’t cherish your sobriety and see the value that you are creating in the world for other people then you will not have this level of protection. This is relapse prevention via personal growth, and it is a proactive (rather than a reactive) strategy.

In order to achieve this sort of life you are going to need to create some momentum. That just means that every time you experience a “win” in terms of personal growth, you immediately ante up again with another challenge for yourself. Get two “wins” in a row and suddenly you feel like you are unstoppable, and hopefully this will change how you approach future goals (“aim high, hit high”).

So living your life in pursuit of personal growth and momentum can actually change your outlook and your attitude. This is a powerful way to live and so I am hoping that in learning about it you will start to take advantage of it.

Surrender and early recovery starts out painfully slow

The first thing you have to realize when using this approach in recovery is that it is going to start out really, really slowly. In fact it is not going as slow as you believe it to be in very early recovery but your perception of your own growth (or lack of perception) is what makes it seem so slow.

You need to make an allowance for this and try to realize that you are doing better than you think. If you have made the leap of faith and are now struggling to stay clean and sober each day then that is a huge accomplishment and a fantastic start in recovery. Your sobriety is your foundation for success and you need to give yourself credit for it. If you are clean and sober now and trying to put your life back together then this is a huge step.

In fact, I would give yourself up to 2 full years before you really say to yourself “OK, I am stable now in my recovery, it is time to start pushing myself to meet some new goals.” You may start sooner than that of course, but my goal here is for you to not be beating yourself up if you have six months sober and you are struggling. That is perfectly normal. During my first year I was up and down and quite a mess. I was struggling at times just to keep going with sobriety itself–I was nowhere near the point where I could try to do what I am suggesting in this article (meet personal goals, set new ones, build momentum, etc.).

So give yourself a break. Give yourself time. Make an allowance for the first two years. It is during that time that you just need to hold on and stay sober and get stable in your recovery. The concept of “momentum” and personal growth really only applies to someone who is already past their early recovery and has some stability in their recovery.

Recognize that your foundation of sobriety is a huge success

At some point you need to realize that you have “made it” in terms of early recovery. Maybe this will happen at 90 days sober and maybe it will happen at 18 months. I would suggest that it will probably be sometime within the first two years.

Now you have to be careful here because I am not saying you are cured (and don’t ever say that to anyone in “the program,” they will take your head off!). What I am saying is that you get to this point where you are stable in recovery. You know you are not going to relapse today. You have that much stability where you can say “I am stable enough in my sobriety that I know I will not drink or use drugs for the rest of today.” Note that you are not making predictions about the future, you are simply being confident in the current day. This is the level of stability that we are shooting for.

Why do we need this level of stability? Because then it gives us room to run in terms of personal growth. You see, if you know that you are stable enough not to relapse today, then why are you not pushing yourself to make some additional positive changes in your life? You most certainly should be!

As we pointed out earlier, if you are still struggling on a day to day basis to maintain sobriety, then you don’t need any additional challenges. But once sobriety becomes “automatic,” then you need to start pushing yourself to up the ante. Personal growth is what fights complacency in the long run. Those who fail to innovate in their lives run the risk of relapse in the future. It’s time to get busy!

You can embrace this journey of personal growth with the idea that your sobriety is your first major “win” in this whole journey. And it is a huge win, don’t ever forget that. Your sobriety is your foundation of all future growth because without it, all of that growth is whisked away into chaos.

Recognize that you need to get a “win” in terms of personal growth

So once you reach this point of stability things are going to get boring unless you get to work. My thought is that you need to get another “win” in terms of personal growth. You need to look at your life, find a positive change that needs to be made, and then go make it happen. This will create momentum in your life and lead to future changes.

So how do you do that?

To be honest I was scrambling in my early recovery to find that next major “win,” and I did a bit of trying and failing. This was OK though because if the goals were too easy then I never would have failed at any of them, but the rewards would have been far less as well. So instead of choosing all easy goals I was also pushing myself to accomplish some seriously challenging things in my life. For example, quitting smoking, taking up distance running, going back to college to earn a degree, and starting a side business. None of these were trivial or easy goals but they are all things that I managed to accomplish in my recovery journey.

And I could not do all of these things at once. In fact, it all started when I realized a need to quit smoking cigarettes. This was just the next logical step in my recovery progression. I was clean and sober, but why was I still killing myself with cigarettes? It made no sense, and I saw a need to stop. So I tried to quit. Unfortunately I failed many times, but there was a good lesson about timing in those failures.

What happened to me was that I started getting discouraged about quitting, because I failed at it so often. At one point I decided to change gears and attack the problem from another direction. At the time I had never been big into exercise, and I thought “Maybe I was a runner I would be able to quit smoking.” And so I started to run on a regular basis, slowly increasing my mileage. Unbelievably I was still a smoker while this was going on.

It was only after I had built up to 30 mile weeks with running that I attempted to quit smoking again. After having failed so many times in the past, this time it finally worked. The timing was important. Having that foundation of regular exercise was what allowed me to finally kick the cigarettes for good (think “endorphin rush”).

This moment was huge for me. It was one of the most exciting times in my entire life, and I was on top of the world. This goal of quitting smoking had defeated me for so long and I was finally able to overcome it by first getting into shape and becoming a distance runner. It was really three big “wins” in a row: I got clean and sober, I started distance running, and then I quit smoking cigarettes. To an outsider who is not even in recovery this may look pretty boring: “Big deal, you don’t use drugs or cigarettes and now you jog every day.” But for me it was a huge transformation and it was 3 big wins right in a row. My mind was spinning with possibilities because now I knew that I could control my life to an amazing degree. I suddenly realized just how much power I had in creating the changes that I wanted to see.

Now I could say to myself: “What do I want to change in my life? What reality would I like to create in the future?” These questions were no longer meaningless to me. Now they were real drivers of opportunity, because I knew that I had the discipline that could turn such dreams into reality. This was not about “magical thinking,” this was about hard work and focus and discipline. I knew what it took for me to successfully quit smoking. I knew exactly what it took in order to achieve that goal. I knew how hard it was and I knew what level of commitment it took and I knew how much energy and commitment it required. This was a really big deal because other goals in my life had all been smaller and easier than this one. Quitting smoking was by far the hardest thing I had ever done because it really required the most discipline (had to get sober first and the take up distance running too).

And so this revelation about discipline changed my entire attitude. I now realized that there were no more limits, I could create whatever I wanted in life. This doesn’t mean I could become superman and fly around if I wanted, it meant that I was no longer holding myself back. Reality might hold me back (I can’t fly or anything!) but it would no longer be ME who was the limiting factor. Reality might stop me, but my own attitude was no longer the problem. This is an important mental shift that I want you to make (if you have not made it already).

In order to get to this point I had to achieve my toughest goal in life (which was quitting cigarettes). That might sound silly because smoking is a self-imposed problem, but it was still a huge win for me and it led me to conquer some other amazing goals. I really rode this “win” into the idea that I should create my own business, because why the heck not? I realized that I had the energy and the discipline to change my life around however I saw fit. Why not change it the way I wanted it? I used that momentum and that discipline that I had learned in quitting smoking to build a new future for myself, the one that I really wanted to live. I am living that future now and I can trace everything back to the momentum that I generated when I successfully quit smoking at about 4 years into my sobriety.

Build on each success that you experience in recovery

If you want to build momentum in recovery then you should also be looking to build on previous success in your life. Don’t just make positive changes randomly, look at what you have accomplished and then see how you might build on that.

This is how I sort of “unlocked my life” in terms of quitting smoking: I had built on the previous “wins” that I had. I could not start distance running until I had become clean and sober. And I could not quit smoking cigarettes until I had established the exercise habit. Each “win” built on the previous win.

Every time you achieve one of your goals in recovery you should pause and reflect on that success for a moment. Take a few days or even a few weeks to let such a success sink in. Try to see how your discipline and hard work led you to success in achieving that goal.

Then, try to build on it. Ask yourself “What is my next step in recovery, and in life? What is the most important thing that I could do next? What is the highest impact change that I could possibly make, given my current situation?”

The goal is to keep moving forward, without feeling the need to rush forward. If you rush too much then you miss out on the lessons. You don’t get a chance to absorb the success that you created so that you see how to apply it to future growth. On the other hand, you don’t want to slip into total complacency and stop growing entirely. That is why I believe we need to be in a cycle of personal growth. The cycle allows for down time and time for reflection, but it also encourages us to keep looking forward to future changes that might be made.

Seek feedback from others in recovery on what your next step should be

“What is my next big change in recovery going to be? What is my next “win” going to be in terms of personal growth?”

If you don’t know the answer to those questions, don’t panic. None of us in recovery will have those answers ALL of the time. And the people who are most effective at personal growth in recovery are the ones who will admit when they do no have those answers, and look outside of themselves in order to find it.

This means seeking advice and feedback from others in recovery, or from other people that you trust. It does not necessarily have to be a sponsor from the program, and it does not have to be the advice of a single person either. You can talk to several people and get opinions from them on what direction you could take.

You might ask such people:

“What do you think I should do next in my recovery in terms of personal growth? What direction should I go next?” See what they say. Then go ask someone else. Collect opinions and see if any common themes pop up. See which answers excite you and which ones bore you. Obviously the final decision is up to you but people who never do this are limiting their own growth in recovery. You will probably surprise yourself by seeking out this sort of feedback in recovery.

Use feedback from other people as a tool to keep you moving forward. Remember, it is all about long term momentum. Don’t rush, but don’t stop moving entirely either. There is no finish line of course. Sustained growth over the long term is the key.


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