What is the secret to living right in recovery? What is the solution to living a life that we can truly be proud of?
I struggled with this question when I first entered recovery, because at the time I was still without much direction (or even hope). So I wondered if I my life would ever “bounce back” from my addiction, if I would become excited about my life in recovery, if my life would become interesting and meaningful at some point.
Suffice it to say that I have not been disappointed. Things have improved greatly and I have an amazing and interesting life in recovery today. And I am not ashamed of the path that I am on or the things that I have done during my recovery. Things are going good.
In the meantime I continue to observe my peers in recovery–the people who have sobered up along with me and are on the same journey. Some of them have done well and others have relapsed or fallen back into old habits. We are all at different points on our journey. Some of us have more learning to do than others. But all of us could stand to learn something new.
Below are the concepts that have led to a successful life in recovery for me. These are sort of like the key points that have led to good things in my recovery. These are also the “failure points” that I have noticed in others who end up relapsing.
At first, surrender has to be enough to get your started in recovery
The main entry point in recovery is always going to be surrender. This is universal and will never change. If you are clinging to the idea that you might use your drug of choice successfully some day then you are not ready to get clean and sober. You cannot change your life if you are still clinging to the old way of living. When you let go, you must let go entirely; absolutely. You cannot hold on to even a tiny piece of that old life if you want to experience recovery.
Recovery is not just about change–it is all about change. It is about making massive changes. Most people seriously underestimate how much they have to change when they attempt to get clean and sober. This is why you have people who experience more than one bottom in their journey. They think that they have hit bottom and so they think they have “surrendered” to their disease. They go to rehab and try to get clean and sober. Then they relapse. Had they hit bottom, truly? No, they really had not, because they overestimated their own ability and they underestimated the disease of addiction. This happens all the time and that is why almost no one who attends a single rehab can stay clean and sober forever (being “cured” in an instant). Instead, the recovery process is just that–more of a process.
This does not mean that treatment cannot work, or that it can not help someone to recover, because it most certainly can. But we have to be realistic when it comes to the idea of “curing” addiction. One trip to rehab is not a typical path for “curing” alcoholism or addiction. Most people are still in the process of surrender at that point and they do not realize the enormity of the task they are facing just yet. After they leave rehab and relapse then they get an idea of just how difficult this transition is going to be, and just how much effort it is going to take in the future. This is what happened to me–I had to try and fail a few times before I grasped just how massive the changes were going to have to be in my life. I didn’t just have to change–I had to change everything. Surrender to addiction means embracing massive change as your solution. Anything less will cause you to realize that you were at a “false bottom” and then you will just relapse.
What do you really want in life? What do you want to accomplish?
So you have to start with the concept of surrender in order to get a new lease on life, to get another shot at living right. But then eventually you will find some level of stability in your recovery and staying clean and sober will no longer be a minute-by-minute challenge. They tell you to take it “a day at a time” and you will soon be able to do exactly that. In fact if you stick it out in recovery then you will experience entire days or weeks where you don’t have a single craving for your drug of choice. This is real freedom and this is the point of recovery. But along with that comes the responsibility to remain clean and sober. If you want your life to be free of cravings then you are going to have to put in some serious work and effort. Recovery takes work. Sustained sobriety takes work.
As such you have the task in recovery of taking positive action. Some people try to automate this as much as possible and so they simply immerse themselves into the 12 step culture. They live and breathe AA or NA meetings, get involved with sponsorship, and so on. If this works for you and gives your life special meaning then it may very well end up being your final solution: Simply embrace the 12 step program and devote your life and free time to it. I have a few peers in recovery who have used this path but honestly most of the hard core 12 steppers have evolved and expanded their recovery efforts quite a bit over the last decade. Nevertheless a few of them are still heavily involved as AA as well. The 12 step program is but one possible path, it is a valid path, and it may or may not work for you. If it does work then you still have to use the core concepts that keep anyone sober: take positive action, push yourself to keep growing and learning, etc.
So essentially if you want to remain clean and sober, you have to keep taking positive action. Period. You can do this either inside or completely separate from a 12 step program. In fact the program does not really matter much, your success is based entirely on the consistent and positive actions that you take.
Given that you need to keep taking positive action, you may ask yourself: “What exactly do I want to accomplish in life? What are my goals? What is my real purpose?”
The answer to those questions will no doubt evolve over the years as you remain clean and sober. This is not a problem; it is a gift. So what this means is that you have an opportunity to create something in your recovery. In fact you actually have more than an opportunity; you have a responsibility to create a new life for yourself in recovery.
When you get clean and sober everything changes. It has to change. Because your entire life in addiction was based on using your drug of choice. So if you are to remain sober then there is only one path forward: You must change everything about your life. Massive changes. Those who fail to embrace this concept simply relapse and revert to their old life.
Your only chance at sobriety and recovery is to create this massive change in your life so that you build something new, something worth living for. If your life sucks in recovery then guess what? Your are going to relapse for sure. And who could blame you? If my life sucked today I would probably go drink, no doubt about it! Why wouldn’t I?
We know that the solution requires action. We know that it requires change. And we also know that if you are not happy with your life then you run the risk of relapse.
Add those things up. What do they lead you to conclude? You need to be figuring out what you want to create in life. You need to figure out what will make you happy in this life. Because if you are bored or frustrated or miserable then your drug of choice will just seduce you back to the dark side. You have to take action anyway in order to make sobriety work, so you may as well create the life that you really want to live.
Figure out what you want in life. Then create it. Rinse and repeat. Continuously re-invent yourself in recovery. This is the path of personal growth that prevents relapse perfectly. It works because it is a learning process. It works because it will actually lead you away from selfish desires and towards helping others. It works because this path will make maximum use of your talent and energy to help other people. This is the life that you were meant to live, but you have to create it. You have to desire it and go after it. And there is no reason not to do this, there is no reason not to embrace this path of growth, because it is also the most solid form of relapse prevention you could possibly embrace.
Should you strive for balance or push yourself to create something with real dedication?
I am starting to realize that the idea of “balanced lifestyle” in recovery is a bit of a myth.
In early recovery the idea of balance may be useful for a while. You may need to embrace the concept of balance while you are trying to get stable and sort your life out again after detoxing. But in long term recovery I am not sure it is so wise to strive for balance.
More important is that we strive for creation. We all have a purpose inside of us, something that we can create. I have a friend who is dedicated to AA and he is not really balanced at all. He never has been. But he is going on 13 years of sobriety and he has formed his own AA chapter in his basement. He sponsors many people and his life is very much dedicated to helping people to recover. He has found his own path and his life is anything but balanced. Instead he is heavily focused and he has a definite purpose. He has succeeded in recovery precisely because of a lack of balance.
Some of my own accomplishments point to a lack of balance as well. I focused heavily on building up this website for a very long time, dedicating lots of hours to it, and interacting with thousands of readers over the years. The progress of the site and the eventual outcome has been more than worth it. But the approach was definitely not something that brought balance to my life. Instead, I had to focus in order to create something with lasting value. Extreme focus rather than balance.
If you question your life in recovery and don’t feel proud of what you have achieved, you may just need to zero in on your real purpose and find a focus. Don’t let the “need for balance” hold you back from achieving something deep and meaningful.
Taking action versus casual acceptance of everything
There is a very dangerous line in the Big Book of AA: “And acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today.”
People use and abuse that line out of the book to justify and rationalize all sorts of lazy inaction.
Don’t fall into that trap.
Don’t use the idea of acceptance to prevent yourself from making important changes in your life.
There is a place for acceptance and then there is a place for positive action. The struggle to know the difference is embodied in the Serenity prayer. Sometimes there is a learning curve and we have to gain some serious wisdom before we can look back and see where we should have just accepted something, or when we should have pushed harder to make changes. We can’t always be perfect.
Having said that, I want to caution you against the trap of becoming complacent and lazy based on the idea of acceptance.
If you are going to error in your recovery, then error on the side of trying to make too many active changes. Take positive action and fix stuff in your life. This is your main task during early recovery–to eliminate all of the negative stuff in your life by making massive changes. Don’t make the mistake of going on an “acceptance rampage” and just living with all of the negative stuff that really needs to be fixed.
For example, I was still smoking cigarettes when I first got clean and sober. I heard many of my peers justify this habit by saying “I just want to focus on my sobriety right now, I am not worried about quitting smoking yet.” Well, how long do you get to use that excuse? How long do you get to just “accept” that you are a cigarette smoker in recovery? Until you are dead from it? What is the point of that?
So at some point I had to get serious, I had to get a bit angry at myself, I had to get spurred into taking serious action. I had to put my foot down and say “no, I do not accept that I am a smoker in early recovery. I need to quit if I want to improve my life.”
There are a long list of goals that every person may have in their recovery journey. Some of the goals are to eliminate negative things from their life (such as quitting smoking), and the other half of the goals are to pursue more “positive” goals that they may want to achieve (such as going back to college).
The key is that you must never have acceptance about the negative stuff in your life. Don’t just settle for that negativity. Don’t settle for being a smoker. Don’t settle for being stuck in self pity. Don’t settle for having lots of resentments. It is your responsibility in recovery to fix that stuff, to actively work on it, to go find someone who can help you to overcome it if necessary. If you fail to do this then you are probably going to relapse anyway at some point in the future. You have to fix the bad stuff in order to create a new life in recovery. If you don’t take care of the negative stuff then it will always be there as a drag on your life, and you won’t be able to enjoy any of the positive stuff anyway.
The difference between improving your life versus your life situation
I think that every recovering addict and alcoholic should employ a two part strategy in recovery.
They should be trying to improve two things:
1) Their life.
2) Their life situation.
Those are two separate ideas. If you go to AA and get involved in the steps then you are addressing point number one: fixing your life. This is working on all of the internal stuff that has the potential to keep you sick. This is about getting things right in your head so that you are not obsessing over your drug of choice any more. For many it is a spiritual journey in finding their higher power.
But you also need to address point number two from above, and that is in fixing your life situation. This is a totally separate idea from working on your “inside.” This is more about working on the external changes. But these changes can be just as significant and important to your recovery.
When I finally got clean and sober I was lucky enough to check into long term rehab. This single decision went a long way in helping me make lots of changes in my life situation. It put me in a sober living environment, gave me a whole new set of friends, and even forced me to leave my old job (where I used drugs and alcohol frequently).
In my experience you will need to make an effort at taking action in both of these areas. Both your internal life and your external life need to go through massive changes in early recovery. It is also frequently noted that you cannot just change one of them and be successful in recovery, you have to change both. This is why moving to a new city does not insure sobriety–you take yourself wherever you go. So you need to change both the external as well as the internal.
Maintaining integrity in your relationships
One of the biggest factors regarding how you feel about your new life in recovery will be based on the quality of your relationships. If you want to be proud of your life in recovery then you certainly cannot treat people poorly or walk all over them. Instead we need to strive for the opposite of this and see what we can do to empower other people.
Some of the biggest victories that I feel I have achieve in recovery have come from helping other people. My biggest projects that I have accomplished are always about helping other people. For many of us this will be a measure of our own self worth and self esteem in recovery: “Are we making a difference in the lives of others?”
Either you are making the world a better place or you are making it a worse place. But it is very likely that you are not neutral! When I was stuck in addiction you can bet that I was not improving the world. Now that I am in recovery I make an effort to help others in ways that make use of my unique talents and abilities. I don’t just want to be helpful, I want to use my strengths to be as useful as possible. There is a payoff for others when this happens because they get a huge benefit from having come into contact with me. But there is also a huge benefit to myself because I know that I really did all that I could to help someone else. The resulting boost in self esteem from this is amazing, and goes a long way towards helping people to remain clean and sober. If you feel good about yourself and you are genuinely helping others then it is not very likely that you will relapse.
If you want to be proud of the life that you are living then you need to take positive action on a consistent basis. When we screw up we feel down on ourselves and beat ourselves up internally. The key then is to get on a positive path and stay on it for the long run. This will transform your life and you will feel better about yourself over time.