When I first became clean and sober I got a whole lot of advice, some of which definitely went towards saving my life.
But there is a lot of information that you get in early recovery, and not all of it will apply to everyone. Therefore you have to be discerning on some things.
On the one hand, you have to trust others to help guide you to a new life.
On the other hand, you have to “take what you need and leave the rest.” So you must necessarily reject some advice as well.
What they don’t really tell you (most of the time, but which I am going to try to do here) is that you actually need to do both.
You need to take advice, and you also need to filter out some of that advice that you are getting at some point (keeping only “what works), but the critical element to all of this is timing.
In very early recovery, just after you surrender to your disease, you should not be “taking what you need and leaving the rest.” Now is not the time for that particular bit of wisdom.
After you have been clean and sober for a few months (or years) and you have some stability in your life again, that is when you can start to discern about the various recovery strategies and tactics. But not when you have two weeks sober. When you have two weeks sober, that is the time for you to sit down, be quiet, and take advice from others without questioning things.
This is difficult to do. It is hard to kill your ego. No one wants to willingly turn their ego off like they are flipping a switch. Yet this is exactly what will set you free in the long run.
It is strange how this works out in real recovery. You surrender, then you kill your ego and start following directions from others. Ignore your own ideas and simply take advice from others. If you do this for several months then eventually you will have complete freedom.
Why? How does this work?
Because you are gaining freedom……from yourself.
It is only then that you are truly free in this world. And the only way that you can get there (if you happen to be a struggling alcoholic or drug addict) is to find a way to protect yourself from your own ideas. From your own self sabotage. From your own desire to self destruct, to self medicate.
You can’t do that by listening to your own mind. You can’t do that by listening to your ego and what it wants for you. If you do that in early recovery then you will relapse every time.
It is like your addiction is sitting in your brain somewhere, trying to get you to drink or use drugs again, and the only way that you can establish a new life in recovery is if you learn to ignore him for long enough. After a year or so of ignoring this voice, it will become a habit. Every time you face a challenge in life you will have learned how to deal with it without resorting to your drug of choice, like you did in the past. But this takes time to relearn how to live a sober life. For me it took roughly a year.
A year of purposely pushing my ego to the side. A year of reminding myself that I was no longer in charge, that I was a danger to myself, that I had to take advice from other people rather than to rely on my own thoughts or ideas.
After that first year was over, I slowly started to trust in myself again. A few people warned me (the purists in recovery) that this was a dangerous path, but it has not become a problem for me yet. I suppose the lessons that I learned during that first year of recovery (when I was only trusting others and not myself) were enough to permanently change my way of living.
If you want to recover from addiction then you must first learn to trust others. Eventually you will learn to trust yourself again too. But if you screw up the order of these two things then you are going to relapse.
Disruption, assessment, action
There are 3 simple principles that I think are crucial to the recovery process.
The first is the idea of disruption. A long time ago, before rehab centers existed, a group of people from AA might do a “12 step call” on someone who is struggling with alcoholism. They would quite literally barge into this person’s life, stop them from drinking, sober them up on a couch somewhere, and cart them off to AA meetings. Many times, it worked. Of course sometimes it did not (because some people are just not ready to surrender).
The modern day equivalent of this is going to detox or rehab. The principle is the same though: You are simply disrupting your pattern of addiction. Your pattern of abuse. Remove yourself from the drugs and alcohol for long enough, and you are at the very least:
1) Sober and clean (at least for the time being), and
2) Able to make a real attempt at creating a new life in recovery.
Without the disruption, the intervention, the treatment, or the detox, you don’t have a very good chance of breaking free from your pattern.
Rehab is simply a way to remove yourself from the pattern. It gives you a fighting chance to break free from addiction.
Note that this is where it stops, really. They can teach you some things while you are in treatment and they can disrupt your pattern of addiction, but they obviously cannot insure your long term sobriety. If they could, then addiction would be cured and the problem of alcoholism would be solved.
But even though going to rehab does not cure anything, it does provide the needed disruption that is necessary to even a have a chance at quitting. There are other ways to disrupt an addiction but none of them are preferable in my opinion (jail, mental hospital, death, etc.). Rehab is therefore the best choice for disruption.
Why you need to establish positive habits on a daily basis
Recovery is about momentum.
That probably sounds funny. But it is absolutely true if you stop and think about it.
Your addiction had momentum as well. Once you were firmly in the pattern of using drugs or alcohol on a regular basis, it became much harder to stop. This is really the basis of how addiction works. You keep doing it, over and over again, and it becomes an ingrained habit. It becomes a part of who we are.
In order to reverse this you need to do a whole lot more than just put the bottle down. Most alcoholics intuitively realize this, but they normally do not have a good grasp on just how much effort that is going to require of them. You can get an idea if you go to an AA meeting and ask “What exactly do I have to change if I want to stay sober” and they whole room full of recovering alcoholics will shout at you “EVERYTHING!”
It’s funny because it’s true. The recovering alcoholics who have “been there, done that” all realize just how much work is involved in turning your life around. You actually do have to change everything. If you want to get really specific and break it all down, you are actually:
1) Changing many things in your external world (such as who you hang around with, where you spend your time, what you spend money on, etc.).
2) Changing many things that are internal (how you handle shame, guilt, anger, resentment. What you obsess and think about every day during addiction versus during your recovery, etc.).
3) Changing how you deal with day to day life, general anxiety, everyday problems, and so on. I.E., you no longer self medicate over every little thing in life, instead you find a new way to deal with it.
So obviously you don’t change everything in a literal sense (you don’t have to paint your walls a new color, for example). But it will still feel like you change everything because of the massive amount of internal changes that happen. You have to change how you react to the world. This means that every single thought is now on probation. You have to learn to monitor yourself on a constant basis until you can turn those old negative thought patterns into something healthier. This takes a lot of work, and it takes times, and it takes mental energy and consistency. If you do all of that then you will nod your head vigorously and say “Yes! I really did have to change everything in my life in order to become sober and stay that way!” It is, to be honest, no small task. For most people it is the hardest thing they have ever done in life. I know it was for me.
In order to make this transition smoother (it is a lot of work no matter how you approach it, really) the best thing that you can do is to start establishing positive habits every day. Figure out what you want in life and what will make you healthy and happy, then start turning those goals into daily habits. This way there is no question, no decision to make, no room for screwing up (unless you get complacent and lazy and stop doing what you know you need to do!).
This can be done by looking at your health and your life from a holistic standpoint. Every day you need to be taking care of yourself on many different levels. If you attend traditional recovery then they will harp on the idea that you need to seek spiritual growth, but they will not focus on all of the other areas (physical, mental, emotional, social, etc.). In order to really protect yourself from relapse in the long run you need to make a deliberate effort to grow as a person in all of those areas. When you ignore even one of those areas then you leave the door open to your disease creeping back into your life (there are many different paths that lead to relapse, many different triggers that can snowball into bigger problems). This is why the holistic approach is so important. It protects you from multiple threats that you could never possibly anticipate. This is also how you combat the problem of “not knowing what you don’t know,” or what you can never be aware of. The holistic approach seeks to expand the various ways in which you become healthier. It is not just a spiritual path, but also one that strives for greater health in every area of your life. My friend who relapsed had no idea that becoming physically ill for several months would lead him to drink eventually. How could you predict that? You can’t. Therefore you must adopt a holistic approach which is better at protecting you from a wide range of triggers and threats in recovery.
Why you need to seek feedback from others and get out of your own way in early recovery
Especially in early recovery, it is important to push your ego to the side and seek feedback and advice from other people.
This can extend though into long term sobriety as well. It is easy to become stuck and complacent in recovery and not really be growing as a person any longer.
Here is what doesn’t work: Waiting until you notice yourself becoming complacent, and then deciding to do something about it. That never works. That is like saying that you will remind yourself of something if you ever forget it. It’s too late, the thing is already gone!
The solution is the proactive solution outlined above regarding holistic health and personal growth. This is a never ending process. You can do this both inside or outside of formal recovery programs such as AA and NA. In fact, if you follow the 12 step programs and really work the principles into your life, you should be well protected from complacency as well. But this has more to do with taking positive action, working with others in recovery, and pushing yourself on a continuous basis than it has to do with any sort of magic in the 12 steps themselves. In other words, it is all about your daily actions and your commitment, not about the steps or the concepts themselves.
The other side of this coin is that if you are relying only on yourself in recovery to keep overcoming complacency then you are at a disadvantage. They have a saying in NA that “we are each other’s eyes and ears.” Sounds a little childish but it is actually very wise. There will be times in your life and in your recovery when you think that you are on the right path, doing everything correctly, and that everything is just fine…..but in reality you may be heading for trouble. Remember that addiction and recovery are both more than one dimensional. Hence the holistic approach to recovery that is so crucial. You may be concentrating on one thing while in fact you should be shifting your focus to address something more pressing in your life. We cannot always see what is most pressing in our lives so that we can pivot in time.
Now here is the thing:
Other people can.
And if you don’t take advantage of that, then you are weaker in your recovery then you could be.
Now I am not necessarily saying that you need to go to 3 AA meetings every day and have a sponsor and do all sorts of social things in your recovery. Everyone has a different level of just how “social” their recovery is. But I would argue that you need to have at least some of that feedback available to you. If no one can give you feedback on your life and your current goals in recovery, then you are sort of flying blind and just hoping that your own ideas are perfect and correct at all times. This is not realistic. Therefore you should seek advice, guidance, and feedback on your life at various points throughout your recovery–not just in the beginning (when it is obviously more crucial).
Don’t ever think that you have recovery all figured out, or that no one could possibly give you helpful advice that is not more valuable than your own ideas. If you shut yourself off from the world then you are missing out on growth opportunities. We never stop learning in recovery and some of that learning has to come from other people. Stay open.
Long term sobriety is built with personal growth
Regardless of what program you are following in recovery (or no program at all?), the way that you protect yourself from relapse is through personal growth.
Another way to phrase this is to simply say that you have to be making progress.
I suppose we should get technical here and say that we are talking about “progress towards positive goals” rather than “progress towards relapse or self destruction.”
But really this is what recovery is defined as. You are becoming healthier. First you start by quitting drinking and drugs. Then you extend that idea and start making healthier decisions. You clean up the mental garbage and the anger and the obsession and the fear in your life. You may try to fix your relationships or avoid toxic people. You may exercise or eat healthier. Everything that you do in recovery should be moving you towards greater health.
The alternative is the slope back towards relapse. If you go the opposite way then you are (by default) moving towards relapse and poorer health in your life.
Now here is a critical point to realize:
You can’t stand still. You cannot claim the middle ground. You must do one or the other, because doing nothing puts you back on the default path of relapse.
Many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts relapse, and this is what normally happens by default. In order to avoid this fate you must put forth a tremendous effort in order to create a new and healthy life for yourself. You must build the positive path and the positive experience that you hope to create in life. If you do not build it with hard work then it will never materialize, and that is when relapse will start to look enticing again.
Long term sobriety is built with personal growth. If you kick back and do nothing for too long, then relapse will creep back into your life. Complacency kills. The solution is continuous growth. Move forward or move backward. Recovery is always an uphill climb….if you try to pause for a while, you will slide downhill towards relapse. Don’t pause. Push forward for continuous personal growth.
Incremental improvement over the long haul
What happens after you make most of the major changes in your life?
What happens after you rebuild your life in recovery and become stable again while being sober?
One of two things can happen at that point:
1) You can get lazy and become in danger of sliding back into relapse.
2) You can keep making progress, keep moving towards greater health, and make incremental growth towards a better life on a daily basis.
Those are really the only two choices that I have observed in recovery. You can choose one or the other. Whatever you do, don’t try to fall in the middle of those two and expect to be happy and free in recovery. In order to remain happy and free you are going to have to work at it, to keep challenging and pushing yourself, to keep moving towards a healthier and better life.