In my experience the key to success in recovery was in adapting a recovery program to fit my life.
To some extent I eventually took this even further to the point that I was designing an entire program of recovery from the ground up to personally suit my needs in recovery.
This personalization process is a journey of self discovery.
First, ask for help at your point of surrender. Go slowly.
In order to personalize your journey of recovery you cannot just jump in and decide that you want to do everything your own way.
This never works in recovery because we are not in a position to be designing our own recovery program when we first get clean and sober. The fact is that what we have been doing in our active addiction for years and years has NOT worked for us. What makes us think that we can suddenly become masters of sobriety and design our own recovery program when we have one week of sober time? We can’t, and that is not realistic.
Therefore, it is important to realize how you should be thinking when you surrender to your disease. In face, even if you previously had this idea that you were going to “do things you own way,” you will probably forget all about that when you do finally reach your moment of true surrender. The reason for this is because when you finally reach bottom, you are not going to be “on your high horse” any more about designing your own recovery program. That’s why they call it a bottom! You will be beat down, tired, and just about to give up on life as a whole. This is the moment of surrender and it is not a walk in the park. Instead it is a devastating blow to the ego that makes it very difficult for a person to hold their pride intact while moving forward and creating change in their life. Basically you can choose between one or the other (your pride or your sobriety) and when you finally hit bottom and surrender to your addiction what you are doing is you are letting go of the pride.
It is at this point of surrender that you must do the ego crushing thing that you dread to do: you must ask for help. This is the essence of surrender and it is only in asking for help from others that you can turn your life around and start to change.
In our active addiction we are grasping very tightly to the need to control our drug or alcohol use. We are struggling to both enjoy it and control it at the same time. For years or even decades many addicts and alcoholics have fought with themselves to try to maintain this control, so that they can both enjoy their drug and also not get too out of control. Their entire life is defined by this battle. But when they finally hit bottom and surrender they let go of this need for control. They let go of this struggle, of this fight within themselves. This is the moment of surrender and this is when they set themselves up with the ability to ask for help.
It probably sounds like I am trying to talk you out of personalizing your own recovery program. That is still coming, and you CAN in fact personalize your recovery. But when you are trying to get clean and sober you are not in a position to design your own surrender.
Surrender is tough. It is never fun, and you cannot make it fun. It is ego-crushing. And every addict and alcoholic must go through it, and find their own bottom, and become humble enough to realize that they cannot figure it out on their own. They must make this admission that they cannot figure out their own addiction, then they have to ask for help.
So in the beginning, there is no way you can customize your own program, or design your own moment of surrender. It happens in its own way and I do not really believe that you can even precipitate this event at your own time of choosing. Surrender just happens after you have finally had enough misery and chaos in your life from your addiction.
Start taking advice and direction and establish stability
After you finally reach that moment of surrender and ask for help, you are still not in a position to start customizing your own recovery. At this point you have finally hit bottom and then you asked for help.
At this time your best bet is to forget about personalizing your program for a while and simply follow the advice that you are given. Take the advice and run with it. Follow it to the letter and really try to do what people are suggesting that you do.
The typical addict or alcoholic will instantly object to this blind faith in others. “What if they do not have my best interests in mind? What if they have useless ideas about how to actually help an addict or an alcoholic?” These arguments are typical of someone in denial and they essentially miss the point.
The point is that you can’t really screw it up, so long as the people who are recommending action for you are basically competent. If you go ask for help from someone and they try to send you to counseling, therapy, AA or NA meetings, or drug rehab centers, then any or all of that is just fine. None of those things would be a disaster and in fact all of them will likely lead to the same path eventually.
The point is that it is not the specific advice that you get when you ask for help, but it is what you do with that advice and whether or not you are actually in a position to follow through with the advice. This follow through is based on whether or not you have truly hit bottom and surrendered or not.
So there are two possible scenarios here. Scenario one is that you are still in denial and you have not really hit bottom yet but for some reason or another you still ask for help (this happens all the time actually!). So your friends, family, or loved ones try to help you and they send you off to therapy or rehab or AA meetings or whatever. You go to where they suggest but then you do not really follow through with it. You start out strong but then you falter and you relapse. Some people would instantly jump on the advice you were given and find fault there, but this is completely wrong. They would say “oh, you should never have asked for help from your family, the totally steered you wrong when they sent you to AA because what you really needed was professional counseling, etc.”
So they are blaming it on the advice you were given, but in reality the outcome had more to do with the fact that you had not fully surrendered yet and hit absolute rock bottom.
Scenario number two is this:
You hit rock bottom and fully surrender and then you go ask for help. Your loved ones send you to therapy, counseling, AA, whatever. You go and because you have surrendered fully you take it very seriously and you hang on to every word like a drowning man who has been tossed a lifeline. It does not much matter what their recovery solution was for you, be it counseling, therapy, rehab, meetings, or whatever. If you actually need more care then whatever they sent you to would likely realize this and direct you to more treatment services anyway (This man is shaking from alcohol withdrawal, let’ send him to detox, etc.)
So realize that when you ask for help and start on this journey of recovery, the important thing is NOT what advice you are given or what direction your help takes you in. What is critical is the level of surrender that you are at.
Your goal at this point is to establish stability in your recovery.
You want to become clean and sober through the detox process, and then start living a new life in recovery for a while before you even start personalizing things for yourself.
Because if you try to start personalizing things before you establish sobriety you are likely to sabotage yourself. Addicts and alcoholics do this all the time as a way to subconsciously lead themselves back to their drug of choice. If you try to “do things your own way” too early in the recovery process then it is likely that you will just end up relapsing.
Your old ways of thinking led to self medicating. They did not work well for you and if you try to do your own thinking too early in recovery then you are likely to get one of your old outcomes, which will likely result in relapse.
Instead, take advice, take direction, and keep doing what people are telling you to do. You asked for help when you surrendered, now take that help and apply it in your life. When you suck up your ego and take direction like this you are buying your future freedom. You may feel like you will never be able to live your own life or personalize your recovery program but now is not the time. You have to crawl before you can walk! Following your moment of surrender, you need to ask for help and then take the advice and follow through on it. This is a blow to the ego but it is very necessary if you want to live.
After you take advice and direction for a while you will become stable in recovery. Being clean and sober will no longer be a daily struggle like it was in the beginning. At this point you have achieved meaningful sobriety and your life has returned to some degree of normalcy. You are stable in your sobriety and so now you can begin the process of personalizing your recovery by examining what works and what does not in your recovery program.
Once stable, decide on what is working for you and what is not. Ruthlessly eliminate the dead weight
I started this process myself when I had about 18 months into my recovery and I started to question the conventional wisdom that I was being told in recovery.
Part of the issue that I took at this point was due to a very large disconnect between what I was being told to do and what was actually working for others in recovery.
Notice that I was not only looking at myself and my own life (which is what ultimately matters) but I was also looking at other people and the results that they were getting in recovery.
When I considered others in recovery, I was looking for ideas and validation. Later I would apply the ideas to my own life and see if they really worked for me or not.
So the disconnect that I was seeing had to do with AA and NA meeting attendance. What I was observing was this:
As I continued to attend daily 12 step meetings, conventional wisdom was that “meeting makers make it” and that if you wanted to be clean and sober then you had darn well better attend a meeting every single day of your life.
What I observed though was that many people who attended daily meetings actually relapsed.
Then I noticed something else that went against conventional wisdom: some of the people who had significant periods of sober time actually went to very few meetings!
So I started to question things and wondered: “What is really going on here? Is it possible that I have been duped? That meeting attendance is not this critically important part of recovery?”
As I was asking myself these questions I started to explore new paths in my own recovery and new avenues of personal growth. I was actively pursuing recovery but not in the traditional 12 step manner necessarily. For example, I was pushing myself to start exercising, to finish a college degree, to quit smoking cigarettes, and to build my own business. These things directly helped my life and my growth in recovery, and yet the 12 step program had nothing to say about them. But were these pursuits not a valid form of personal growth? Did not they not enhance my recovery in the same way that, say, working with a sponsee in recovery might do? Did AA have the market cornered on positive growth experiences?
So I was slowly determining what was working for me in my recovery, and what was not. I determined that sitting in a 12 step meeting every day was not a good use of my time. So at this point I started to personalize my program and I deviated from the advice that I got in early recovery. I left the meetings and started “doing my own thing.”
Now at the very least you want to use RESULTS to judge your success in personalizing your program of recovery. Total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering drugs (including alcohol) should be your main measure of success. This may require some honesty on your part. If you deviate from your program in order to “do your own thing” and things actually get worse, then you need to be honest about that and realize that YOUR way is not as good as conventional wisdom.
Maybe I got lucky but after I left the 12 step meetings (over ten years ago) things started getting really good in my life. I was so afraid that I would relapse and prove everyone right (who told me not to leave the meetings) that I pushed myself really hard to make personal growth, and things worked out really well. I accomplished much and achieved some great things. I got a degree, quit smoking, got into shape, and built a business. Those were the main goals that I achieved but of course a lot of other good things happened as well.
So in my experience, the process of personalizing your own program of recovery is to do three things:
1) Surrender, ask for help, take advice, work a traditional recovery program, get stable in you recovery.
2) Eliminate what is NOT working for you in recovery. This may take some guts. Remember to be honest with yourself if you make a change and things get worse.
3) Start pursuing positive growth for yourself in recovery. For that, I recommend you consider the concept of holistic growth and/or your holistic health.
Start on a path of holistic growth. Eliminate bad habits and negative points of your life
“Holistic” just means “whole,” as in a “whole person.” So you are going to look for growth opportunities in your life in terms of EVERYTHING, not just spirituality.
This means that you might try to get into shape (like I did), or pursue better nutrition, or seek a more spiritual life, or look for emotional balance, or work on fixing your relationships, and so on.
You are treating your growth in recovery from the perspective of a “whole person.” Seeking holistic health just means considering ALL forms of health, such as mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, physical fitness, and so on.
This is starting point for growth in recovery.
In particular, you want to start by eliminating the bad parts of your life. Still smoking cigarettes? That would be a prime example of something to target for holistic growth in recovery.
Or maybe you are overweight and out of shape? This would be another possible area to tackle in your recovery.
Conventional recovery wisdom does not generally consider holistic growth. Conventional wisdom considers only spiritual growth. This is because traditional recovery programs consider addiction to be a spiritual malady ONLY, rather than a holistic disease that affects the whole person.
My experience with addiction was that it broke me down physically, but it also wrecked me emotionally, isolated me socially, left me spiritually bankrupt, and also introduced lots of bad habits into my life (such as smoking and being out of shape and eating unhealthy).
So if we look at recovery from a holistic perspective, there is more to the solution than just addressing the spiritual malady, isn’t there?
This was certainly the case for me and I got huge benefit from ignoring conventional wisdom in recovery and starting out on my own path. I sought growth in other areas of my life (such as in daily exercise, fitness, nutrition, business) and I got huge benefits from doing so. But more than that, I realized that many of these benefits indirectly helped me to stay clean and sober. Even though they may not all relate directly to my sobriety, all of those growth experiences helped in some way. In particular, the exercise habit and getting into shape had a huge impact on my sobriety, both directly and indirectly, to the point that I cannot believe that traditional recovery systems ignore the power of exercise.
For me, trading that hour per day of sitting in an AA meeting for an hour per day of exercise was well worth it, and it helped my recovery a great deal. Your situation may be different and therefore you might benefit more from the AA meeting than you do from the exercise. This is fine, and is the entire point of customization and personalizing our own path.
You have to do what works best for YOU. This is only going to be achieved by questioning the traditional norms that are laid down for us and doing a bit of experimenting.
Figure out what you want and go after it
Ultimately you have to figure out what you want out of recovery, and out of life, and go after it.
Wait until you have stability in your recovery before you attempt to do this.
Eliminate the parts of your recovery program that are no longer serving you. Doing so will require shrewd analysis and real honesty with yourself.
Figure out what you want out of life. Figure out what opportunity for personal growth gets you excited. Shift over to this new path while constantly asking yourself “is this working for me?” Be honest with yourself and if you falter do not hesitate to revert back to your “stable recovery program.”