There is a saying in recovery that when people make plans, God laughs. There is some wisdom in that saying because of the random nature of life–you just never know where your path is going to lead you until you get there.
But I still take issue with this particular cliche because it makes it sound as if planning is completely useless in recovery, and I do not believe that it is. In fact I think that planning can be quite helpful and even essential to your success in recovery.
The bottom line in recovery is that you have to take action in order to change, and you can (obviously) only take action in the present moment. But there are still times when you can effectively plan and set yourself up for future action in a way that is pro-active and helpful to your overall goals.
There is a difference between procrastination and planning. Unfortunately for us recovering addicts and alcoholics it can be a very fine line! Even so, I think it is still worth considering the topic of planning to see how it might apply to your recovery journey.
Of course like anything, we have to start at the beginning.
Plan to surrender?
First of all, can you really plan to surrender to addiction? Is that even possible?
I don’t believe that it is, based on my own experience. So if you are still struggling with active addiction or alcoholism then you should probably forget about the idea of planning altogether and just focus on the concept of surrender instead.
Why? Because you can only surrender in the present moment. You probably know what the results are like if you tell yourself that you are planning to quit drinking or using drugs next week. Or next month. Or next year. It doesn’t work. You can only quit when it is “right now”…..no planning allowed. It just doesn’t work.
That said, you can still do some things and take certain actions in order to move yourself closer to surrender. First of all you need to start focusing on your level of happiness (or misery) and start actively measuring it. If you allow yourself to be stuck in denial then you will not want to actively gauge just how miserable you truly are. Focus on your misery in order to bring yourself closer to surrender. This is a bit counter-intuitive because everyone is always saying that you need to “think positive.” But if you are still abusing drugs and alcohol then all of that positive thinking is just a mask and is covering up the real issue: that you are trapped in a cycle of pain and misery with your addiction. In order to break free from that cycle you have to first acknowledge just how miserable you truly are, then take action to get help. We are not moved to seek help until we can admit to ourselves that we are truly miserable because of our addiction.
Second of all if you are still stuck in addiction then the most important thing that you can do is to ask for help and then follow through on the advice. Admit to yourself that what you have been doing (trying to medicate your way to happiness) has NOT been working. If it has been working then there is no problem, right? But obviously there is a big problem, and you need help in order to solve it. That help is most likely a form of professional treatment, such as a trip to rehab.
So you cannot necessarily “plan to surrender” but you can definitely take a few actions that will move you closer to surrender. But just keep in mind that you can never surrender in the future, you cannot plan to do so, you can only do it “right now.” That is the only time that you can make the enormous decision to change your whole life and seek help–right now. That “now” might be in the future, but when you arrive at that point, it is still going to be “right now!”
Building the ultimate foundation for recovery
Once you have surrendered to your addiction and made the decision to get help you are in a position to start planning things.
Now in early recovery your plans should be based almost entirely on other people’s ideas. In order to be OK with that you may have to push your ego aside for a while and take advice and guidance from other people. Remember that your way has not been working for you for a long time now, so it is time to incorporate some new ideas and fresh thinking into how you are living.
In other words, you have to be willing to allow others to dictate your plans for a while. This is especially important when you first get clean and sober because the tendency for self-sabotage is so great.
What is self sabotage? It is the tendency for addicts and alcoholics to make poor decisions in early recovery–decisions that lead them back to their drug of choice and relapse. The problem is that they often cannot see that these are poor decisions when they are making them–their thinking is too clouded or they have already “snapped” and are on a path to relapse. So they will make poor decisions that they know (deep down) will lead them to their drug of choice again, even though they are supposedly trying to recover.
In order to avoid this fate you need to be proactive about your recovery. The best way to do that in early sobriety is to take your ego out of the equation and do not even give your “mind” the chance to screw up your recovery. The way to do this is to take advice from other people, rather than to follow your own advice. This is simple to do but it may not be easy for you.
I have seen evidence of this happen over and over again while working in a treatment center–someone who is going through treatment who only has about a week sober will get the idea that they should leave rehab early. This is their own idea and they have their own reasons (excuses) as to why they need to leave rehab. The therapists, counselors, staff, and peers all try to convince the person to stay. But many times the individual is too stubborn and so they leave rehab anyway, which always results in a relapse (in a case like this). Leaving treatment early is always a mistake.
The individual who wants to leave early is trapped in their own thinking. They cannot see that they are sabotaging their own efforts at recovery. Somehow they believe that their idea is better than the 20 people who are trying to convince them to stay in treatment. “I am right and all 20 of you people are wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Well think about that for a moment. Really think about it. Would 20 people all be wrong, while the individual is the only one who is right? Not likely. The numbers don’t lie. And this is exactly why you should rely heavily on feedback and advice from OTHER people when you are early in your recovery.
Your plans should be dictated by others at this point. If you try to create your own plans when you have one week of sobriety then you are going to screw things up. You can’t create a solid plan for yourself yet as you do not know what works and what does not!
Think about that for a moment. When you are in your first week of sobriety, how are you going to plan for the future while not even really knowing how recovery works at all? You have no idea what it takes to stay clean and sober yet, so how could you make plans? All you can do at this point is guess.
But your peers in recovery have been through early sobriety, and many of them will have years or even decades of successful recovery. These people know how to make plans, because they know what works and what doesn’t. Listen to them if you are in early recovery. Find the people who have made it into long term sobriety and find out what your plan should be. Take their advice and follow it.
In other words, your “planning” should be outsourced during early recovery. Borrow plans from other people (those who have achieved success in recovery).
Planning your transition to long term sobriety – figure 5 years of experimentation
So at this point in your journey you have:
* Surrendered to your addiction and asked for help.
* Gone through the detox process and found stability in early recovery.
* Asked others for advice and followed it. You have ignored your own ideas in the short term in order to take advice from others.
Hopefully by this point you have reached a point in your early recovery journey where you are fairly stable. You know that you can make it through the rest of today without relapse.
At this point you can start thinking about the future and start planning for yourself. The way to go about this is to realize that you are in a transitional period.
Roughly five years from now if you remain clean and sober then you will likely be living in a state of “long term sobriety.” But in order to get to that point you have to go through some things. Keep in mind that it is possible to be five years into recovery, have five years of clean time, and still be a hot mess. There are such people in various programs out there. They have not relapsed in five years, but they also have not made much progress or growth.
We want to avoid this outcome. Therefore we need to be proactive in our recovery journey. In early recovery we used other people’s advice in order to dictate our plans. During this next phase of our recovery we can start to incorporate our own ideas, and thus we can start to plan a bit for ourselves. But in order to do so we have to focus on positive action and personal growth.
You can do this by first looking carefully at your life for “points of misery.” What is a point of misery? Just what it sounds like–something that makes you miserable. For me in early recovery one of these points was my nicotine addiction. So during this transitional period, one of my plans was to quit smoking.
Sometimes your points of misery are much less obvious than this. For example, I was not thrilled to be working a day job and believed that there was a better path out there for me that was more meaningful as well. I was not exactly “miserable” at my day job but in the long run I was dissatisfied enough that I decided to make new plans.
There is a progression during this transitional phase where you will eliminate the obvious points of misery first. This process actually began when you first got clean and sober. This growth and planning stage is an extension of your healthy decision to get sober. Now you are simply extending that idea and seeking better health and a better life for yourself. Thus you will try to make changes that reflect this ideal.
Not every change that you try to make in your life will work out as planned. That is OK. Simply regroup and then move forward. Do what you can to eliminate your points of misery, one at a time. Focus on the biggest one first, and put all of your energy into overcoming it. Then move on to the next one. Do not try to tackle them all at once or you will fail and be overwhelmed. Instead, use the power of focus to achieve one goal at a time.
Eventually if you keep doing this then you will eliminate all of your “points of misery.” This is the clean up phase of your life after addiction. As stated above you cannot just dive right in and do this all in one day. Before you can even start this process you have to get stable in early recovery and find your footing. Then you have to tackle each goal, one at a time, and dedicate all of your energy and resources to each challenge that you face. This was definitely the case for me with quitting smoking. That was not just a casual decision on my part that was easy to do. It took a lot of hard work and I had to dedicate all of my energy and focus to it.
Planning to overcome complacency – the cycle of incremental improvement
So far in your recovery journey you have:
* Surrendered to addiction and asked for help.
* Found stability in early recovery.
* Took advice from others about how to get started in early recovery. Took action.
* Gone through the transitional phase that leads to long term sobriety. Experimented with changes and growth for about 5 years or so, all while remaining sober of course.
* Eliminated all of your major “points of misery,” or things that can hold you back in recovery.
At this point you are most likely living in “long term sobriety” and hopefully you have taken enough positive action that you are stable in your recovery. The rewards and benefits of recovery should be fairly abundant by now. If this is not the case then you have probably been “coasting” a bit too much when you should have been pushing yourself to try new things, to learn new things, and to grow in new directions.
So having made it into long term recovery you have a new challenge facing you: complacency. What is complacency? It is the threat that comes in long term recovery when a person gets too lazy, too comfortable, and it causes them to relapse eventually.
Obviously our goal is to avoid complacency and thus to avoid relapse. But how do we go about doing this?
To beat complacency you have to take action. And the simple fact is that if you wait until you notice the problem then it is very likely going to be too late to do anything about it. Therefore you must take a proactive approach to battling complacency.
So how can we create a proactive approach? This is where planning comes in.
In long term recovery, you are free to make your own plans and then try to achieve them. Set goals, have ideas, pursue new trajectories. You have earned the right and the stability to do so.
However, the key to beating complacency is that now you HAVE to do that stuff. You do not get to just prop your feet up and be lazy any more. Now you have to grow. You have to keep pushing yourself a bit.
If you have eliminated all of your major points of misery, then what is left?
There is always room for more growth. First of all, you may have goals that you wanted to achieve in the past, but you were held back because of your addiction. You may try to achieve those goals now in long term sobriety.
Second of all, even if you have eliminated all of your major points of misery, there are likely still some smaller issues that you could deal with. Long term recovery is about incremental improvement.
If you really cannot find something to work on regarding yourself, then look instead to your life situation. Is it perfect? I would doubt very much that it is! There is always room for more growth, for incremental improvement.
And if you truly cannot find anything to work on as far as self development, then look to service. How can you help others? How can you use your talents and skills to help other people in this world? What is your gift to the world? Are you living that gift right now? Are you serving others and making a difference? If not, that is a journey that will likely last you a lifetime.
Self improvement moves in a cycle. You will notice this if you continue to try to grow in long term recovery. You may push hard to reach a particular goal, and then after reaching it you may not do much of anything for a while. You experience some down time and it may even worry you because you worry about complacency. But this “down time” is actually more than just idle time–it is a chance to reflect on what you have achieved so far, and also to plan for your next challenge in life. That’s right, you get to make plans! Notice that the further you are in your recovery journey, the more you can rely on your own thoughts, ideas, and plans.
So when you notice yourself in one of these down times, do not scold yourself to harshly for not being in active growth at the moment. Recognize the need for a bit of down time and reflection. But do start planning again. Look carefully for points of misery in your life as a possible direction for future growth. Figure out what your next move should be, then start getting yourself in gear to take action again. You cannot sit idle forever. Recovery is personal growth.