My opinion is that the best path in addiction and alcoholism recovery is to focus on improving your life.
There are at least two very important reasons for this.
The first reason is that if you can improve your life drastically then you take away nearly all of the excuses that you may have in the future for which to relapse. You eliminate excuses and temptations.
The second reason is that if you can learn to push yourself on a regular basis to engage in personal growth and improve your life then this will help you to remain clean and sober anyway. Just the act of personal growth itself, the process, the experience–this helps people to stay clean and sober.
Changing your life versus changing your life situation
Now when it comes to “changing your life” there are actually two different aspects to it that you might explore.
The first aspect is heavily discussed in traditional recovery, and this is the idea that you have to change the people, places, and things in your life. There is a saying that is often heard around AA meetings about “having to change the people, places, and things in our lives.” These are obviously external changes that need to be made in order to overcome your addiction. You cannot keep hanging out with the same old friends who get drunk or high all day long and expect to remain clean and sober. So this is one level of change that you need to make when they talk about “changing your life.”
But then the second level that you need to worry about are the internal changes that we need to make in recovery. This is typically characterized by the spiritual growth that is so often taught in traditional recovery. So we are talking now about the internal changes that you make and how you deal with life and react to it. This is what typically falls under the umbrella of “spirituality” in traditional recovery programs, but I like to think that the real solution is a bit more broad than what most people assume. In other words, prayer and meditation are not the only tools that should be used to address these internal changes. You can still make changes “on the inside” without it being a spiritually focused thing. Just my opinion though, take that for what it is worth. (If spiritual or religious pursuits help you to make internal changes, then focus on them!).
Why some people relapse even though they are working a program of recovery
I think the level of challenge in early recovery is really, really high.
It is not enough to just to go to a rehab center and dry out for a while. You cannot just take a passive approach to recovery and expect to remain clean and sober. It doesn’t work that way. If you are passive about your recovery then you will end up relapsing.
Most people who are “working a program” of recovery end up relapsing. Why is this? The real reason is because they fail to take enough action. They may be attending meetings but they are not really changing their life from the inside out. They need to make massive changes on several different levels and they have failed to do that.
Most people are absolutely shocked at what it expected of them in early recovery. They go into the process without the slightest idea that this will be a life-changing operation. Maybe they have heard of AA meetings and they believe that they can just sit in meetings for a few nights each week and somehow be cured through osmosis. They are hoping for a cure that does not require effort. And they certainly are not looking at the recovery process as a life changing event that is fueled by continuous personal growth.
It can be easy to be misled when you are in treatment from early recovery about what exactly is expected from you. The problem of course is that you are being overloaded with so many different suggestions all at once. It is a classic case of information overload:
Go to meetings.
Get a sponsor.
Study the literature.
Do 90 meetings in 90 days.
Follow through on your aftercare program.
And so on. It is no wonder that people are left wondering what they really need to focus on. It is a bit overwhelming and it is no surprise that most struggling addicts and alcoholics admit that they don’t believe they can accomplish ALL of the suggestions. So in a way they let themselves down.
If I had a message to these bewildered people in early recovery then it is this:
You only have two objectives. Forget all of those 12 steps for a moment and just focus on these 2 simple ideas:
1) You are going to abstain from drugs and alcohol each day, no matter what, and
2) You are going to take positive action every single day to improve your life.
That’s it. No need to complicate it any further than that. No need to get seriously overwhelmed with too many suggestions.
Those two steps are all you need to outline a dynamite program of recovery–one that is based on action and personal growth.
The problem with traditional recovery is that it is set up in such a way that you can easily dive into the program, dive into the meetings, and then be completely passive with it. Sure, you may show up to meetings every day, but what action are you really taking in your life? What changes are you making in order to change your life from the inside out? What changes are you making in terms of personal growth (other than simply attending meetings and loosely practicing a new faith in your life?).
My opinion is that it is far too easy to “be passive” in our modern day recovery. People who are passive end up relapsing, because they do not generate enough inertia to overcome the draw back toward relapse. Your disease wants you to relapse and you have to take a lot of action in order to overcome that tendency.
Therefore you must make a conscious decision that you are going to improve your life.
How to consciously improve your life in recovery
There are many ways to improve your life in recovery, but the first method should be an extension of your surrender.
What exactly does that mean? It means that you should be seeking advice and feedback from other people in early recovery. If you have a sponsor (not a bad idea in early recovery) then you should be seeking guidance from that person on what your next major goal in life should be.
You may be saying “I thought the goal was to remain clean and sober!” True enough, but remember that there are really only 2 basic steps in order to do that:
1) Remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol.
2) Improve your life daily.
So your decision to surrender and to become clean and sober pretty much takes care of step one. That is the surrender part, your entry point into recovery.
The rest of your energy should be consumed with pursuing that second step: improving your life every single day.
What actions have you taken lately in order to improve your life and your life situation?
Let’s say that you have a job that you don’t really like much, and you are just sort of going through the motions, showing up there every day, and taking home a paycheck. The rest of your life exists outside of this job, but you still spend at least 40 hours each week doing this job that you don’t like much.
OK, so at some point in your recovery you might want to address this. Number one, you don’t need another excuse to relapse (because you hate your job). Number two, you could be doing something more meaningful that gives you a sense of purpose or satisfaction in your life.
So this would naturally be something that could lead to a personal growth experience for you in recovery. Maybe it will involve a long journey with several steps, including getting more education. Or perhaps you will solve the problem much more simply than that.
Another example may be something such as a bad habit that is left over from your days of addiction. This is what traditional recovery tends to focus on (i.e., fixing character defects). So if you engage in self pity all the time then you would take steps to fix that, such as by working with your sponsor, making gratitude lists each day, and so on.
Or perhaps the bad habit is more external, such as cigarette smoking. In this case you have a huge opportunity to make a large amount of personal growth with one simple (but difficult) change.
In fact, this is how you should prioritize your recovery:
Sit down and make a list of all of the changes that you want to make in your life. Put them in order of most significant and highest impact changes to the least significant.
When you do this, however, realize that eliminating negative stuff from your life almost always has a higher impact than chasing your more “positive oriented goals.” So in other words, quitting smoking has a much higher impact on your life and your recovery than, say, changing your job or your career. This is very counter intuitive but it is absolutely true. If you have negative things in your life that are holding you back from happiness (such as addiction, cigarette smoking, sex addiction, gambling addiction, etc.) then you should make those things your priority and work on changing them as your first order of business. Doing so will have a much greater impact on your life than chasing your dreams (or more positive oriented goals).
Seeking holistic health and balance in your life
When I was in very early recovery I heard a therapist talk about “balanced lifestyle” in recovery. At the time I thought this was a silly idea, and I even thought that it was dangerous to people in recovery because I found it to be more important to focus heavily on spiritual growth at the time. Little did I realize that the message of balance would become very important to me later on in my journey.
What does it mean to seek balance in your recovery? In my opinion it has to do with the holistic health model. Now I know that this probably sounds like a bunch of gibberish, so let me explain.
“Holistic” just means whole, as in the “whole person” in recovery. So we are looking at your entire life and all of the areas that may be affected by addiction and recovery. We are considering all areas of your health, including things like:
* Physical health.
* Emotional health and stability.
* Mental health.
* Spiritual health.
My opinion on recovery is that you have to pursue balance by giving some consideration to all of these areas in the long run.
Traditional recovery only focuses on the last one–spiritual health.
My philosophy of recovery is that personal growth fuels your success. It is all about changing your life. And this cannot be a one time event. Therefore you have to be in the process of continuous growth. Most people get the idea that recovery is something that they do now, and then they are cured. It doesn’t work that way.
Holistic health is your road map for long term recovery. If you have neglected one of these aspects of health for too long, it will eventually become an issue in your life, and you will have to address it.
The key to beating complacency in the long run
The process of continuous growth in recovery is the solution for complacency.
I have talked to people in recovery who follow a completely different philosophy than what I do. I have to admit that we do not always see eye to eye. But that is OK, you explore different methods of recovery and then you use what works best for you, right?
Some of these people, they complain about the idea of having to pursue personal growth forever, that they can never really rest and just enjoy their life. They don’t like the idea that they always have to pursue personal growth. They see this as a lack of self acceptance.
Me, I don’t see it this way. I have enjoyed some incredible benefits in my recovery based on personal growth. A lot of these benefits have not really kicked in until the later years of my recovery. Things just keep getting better and better, and I see this happening as a result of striving for more growth.
My thought is: “Why would you NOT want to keep pushing yourself to make personal growth? Why would you NOT want to keep improving your life?”
If things get worse in my life then I know at some point, way down the road, I will eventually pick up a drink or a drug. I know this for certain. It is how I am wired. Given enough bad times, I will relapse.
So my solution for this is to protect against it. Focus on improving life.
Life takes energy just to live anyway, right? It is a struggle regardless. So you may as well push yourself to improve things, to make life better, to become a better person. At least that way you are enjoying the benefits of a life well lived.
That is my take on it anyway. How do you feel about personal growth in recovery? Do you believe there is a point where you should just accept yourself, and kick back and relax? Or should we always push on and continue to grow?