The famous saying of course is that when man makes plans, God laughs. This is probably doubly true in recovery from addiction, when life has a way of throwing us curve balls over and over again as we learn the ropes of staying clean and sober in a brand new world.
To some extent the old wisdom is certainly true: planning anything in our recovery can lead to trouble and disappointment. There are definitely times in recovery when you should go with the flow and be open to any new changes, and other times when you should grab the reigns in life and try to dictate the changes on your own (and thus make plans). The key is to know when to assert your planning and when to back off and let the universe show you who is boss. Believe it or not, I think there is a way to do exactly that, and learn how to get what you want out of life while continuously making growth experiences.
So let’s take a closer look at how the concept of “planning” works when it comes to addiction and recovery.
How planning works in “pre-recovery”
When you are still stuck in active addiction the concept of planning is just about useless. You have probably proven this to yourself time and time again with the idea that you might make an unpleasant decision at some point in the future, and it will somehow be easier in the future than it is for you now.
This is especially evident when it comes to the decision to get clean and sober. Just think, how many addicts and alcoholics have said “oh, I will plan on getting clean and sober in a few months, when the timing is right.” Nearly every one of us has tricked ourselves in this way before, thinking that we could plan our moment of surrender to addiction at some point in the future, and hoping that it would somehow be easier at that time.
The truth is that it never gets any easier to make a life changing decision like this, and that we are just trying to play a mental trick on ourselves that never really works. You cannot make a future decision to get clean and sober. You cannot decide that you will get sober after another week, month, or year goes by. This is impossible. If you fool yourself into believing that you have made this future decision, then guess what? The joke is on you, because after that week, month, or year goes by you are going to be stuck firmly in the present moment again, facing the choice all over again: should I surrender to my disease or keep running on the hamster wheel of addiction? Which is it going to be? You thought that you could make this decision in advance for yourself. You thought that you could plan your surrender to addiction in advance. But when the moment of truth arrives you are going to realize that you fooled yourself, because it never gets any easier to surrender, it is always going to be that same difficult choice: continue to self medicate or abandon everything and dive into the unknown world of abstinence and recovery.
You can only make this choice in the present moment. You can only surrender RIGHT NOW. You can not plan your surrender to this disease. You cannot choose to surrender in a week or two after you have had your last bit of fun with your drug of choice. This is merely a mental game you are playing with yourself. It doesn’t work this way. You cannot plan your sobriety date in advance.
The only time you can choose to change your whole life and ask for help is right now. If you are not ready to surrender then you are not ready, and it will not happen, and you will go on self medicating with your drug of choice. But there is no way to predict how much more pain and misery and suffering you must go through in order to get to that moment of surrender. You cannot declare that you simply need another month of partying before you decide to get sober. This is a mental trick and a basic form of denial. You are kidding yourself. Surrender in the present moment, or don’t. You cannot plan it out in advance.
How planning works in early recovery
The concept of planning is downright impossible for surrender and getting started in recovery from addiction, so it should not come as much surprise that the idea of planning works pretty poorly early in recovery as well.
As a matter of fact this is a major point to make that you should definitely keep in mind:
* The earlier you are in your recovery journey, the less you should make plans.
In other words, very early recovery is not a good time to be making plans.
Because we are not so good at making plans–yet–in early recovery. We are a new fish, just tossed into the tank, and we don’t even know how to swim yet. It takes time to get our bearings and start to figure out how to live sober successfully.
I had the luxury of living in long term rehab for almost two full years and then working in a treatment center for another five years after that. So I had the opportunity to watch lots and lots of people try to recover from addiction and alcoholism. I also had the opportunity to see how successful (or not) many of them were. This was an enlightening experience because I learned through simple observation what worked in recovery for the masses and what did not. I saw the proof before my very eyes as certain people succeeded or failed in their quest to stay sober.
One thing that became painfully obvious while working in residential rehab was that people who attempted to take the reigns in very early recovery always relapsed. You could be excited and you could be enthusiastic in early recovery but only up to a certain point. Along that same line you could be excited for your future in recovery and you could start to shape it and plan it out a bit but only to a certain point. The people who were too aggressive in designing their own recovery program always failed.
Keep in mind that we are discussing early recovery here, say from the time to detox to the end of the first year or so. I am sure the time frame various from person to person but the bottom line is very clear to me based on watching hundreds of people relapse: if you try to do your own thing in early recovery, if you try to take the reigns in life too soon, if you try to design your own program, you are setting yourself up for failure.
A sure sign of this happening in early recovery is when someone walks away from the help that is offered. I watched this happen over and over again while working in rehab and it was always the same outcome. Someone would come into rehab and thus be asking for help for their addiction. Suddenly, during their short stay at rehab they would get the idea that they did not need this help, and that they could “do it on their own.” So they would leave rehab despite all efforts to talk them out of it.
In essence, they had a plan. They got it into their head that they could do things a different way. And they always insisted that they were not going to go relapse, that they were going to maintain sobriety, and that they did not need treatment.
Every single one of these people went out the door, relapsed, and most all of them eventually came back later for more treatment. And every one of them said that they regretted their hasty decision in the past.
Very early recovery is a terrible time to make plans.
So what is the alternative? What do you do instead, if you are not supposed to make plans?
You ask for help.
You ask for help and then you take advice. Take direction from others.
In essence, you let others design a plan for you.
This is ego crushing. It is not fun to do.
There are not people out there in the world who enjoy doing this. It is not easy for anyone to surrender, to crush their ego, to ask for help from others and take advice about how they should be living.
This is the alternative to planning. You throw up your hands, say “I don’t know how to live, please show me” and then you take the advice you are given.
This is the alternative to planning and it is the price you pay for an awesome new life in recovery. For too long, the addict or alcoholic has been living according to their own plan, their own design, and IT HAS NOT WORKED.
Think about that for a moment.
If you are a struggling addict or alcoholic, where have your plans got you?
What have your ideas about living really amounted to?
It is an ego crushing admission to believe that our best ideas about living have resulted in the misery and chaos of addiction.
It is OK to make this admission. I made it myself. I admitted to myself “Hey, I thought doing drugs and drinking was the way to be happy, and obviously I have screwed up my life. I gotta do something different. My plans have failed. I will ask for help and follow someone else’s plan for me. I will follow their design for living instead of my own ideas. Even though I thought I was a smart dude, and could figure out how to live. Obviously that was wrong, and I need help. So I will ask for help, and I will take the advice I am given.”
That is the essence of surrender.
And so now your task in early recovery is NOT to make plans for yourself (not yet), your only task is to make that decision, that one decision that you want a new life for yourself and you want something other than the drugs and the booze. And so you must allow someone else to plan your life for a while.
I did this directly by moving into long term rehab and living in treatment for 20 months. You may not need that much planning and help in your own life. Maybe you just need two weeks of detox and short term rehab. Or maybe you just need to go to a few AA meetings. But every struggling addict and alcoholic needs some sort of help….otherwise they would just sober up on their own, and not even carry the label of “addict” or “alcoholic.” Those labels are there when people can not do it on their own. Those labels designate people who need outside help in order to recover.
Do not try to plan out your early recovery. Instead, surrender completely and ask for help with the full intention of taking any and all advice you are given. You need a new way to live and you are going to have to follow someone else’s plan for a while. While this is damaging to the ego it is also very liberating. Because over time you will find that following someone else’s plan gives you total freedom again.
This is what I discovered after I was living in long term treatment for a few months. I thought that it would be like a prison. I thought that surrendering and letting someone else plan my life would be very constricting and very limiting. It turned out to be the exact opposite though. In taking advice from others and following their plan, I gained back my whole world and had total freedom at my fingertips. I quickly got stable in my recovery, overcame the cravings, got a job, got a car, and suddenly I was truly free–freer than I had ever been in my active addiction. All because I had let someone else do the planning for me. By giving up control I was able to achieve total freedom.
The transitional phase
At this point in my journey I was still following someone else’s plan for recovery. They had made lots of suggestions and laid out all the rules and I was following all of them without any argument.
But I was also growing in my own recovery and I was figuring things out a bit. I was able to slowly start deciphering what was working for me and what was not in my recovery.
Looking back, I can see that this is what the planning process of recovery amounts to: Take suggestions for positive action, apply them all, and then keep what works for you. They say as much as this in traditional AA meetings: “Take what you need and leave the rest.”
For example, my therapist in long term rehab encouraged me to do many different things. One thing he encouraged heavily was meditation and another thing he encouraged was exercise.
I tried them both as per his suggestion. I gave them both a very fair trial and in the end I ended up building a large part of my recovery efforts on regular exercise. I tried meditating for a few months but ultimately I felt that I got the same mental benefits from running that I did from seated meditation. So I used one his suggestions and I discarded the other.
This is perhaps the essence of how recovery should really work. Ask for help and take suggestions from others. Implement those suggestions in your life and then keep the good stuff while discarding the bad things.
This is different than “planning” because you are not necessarily coming up with the ideas on your own. You are taking suggestions from others about what worked well for them in their recovery, and you are trying it out for yourself. Then you evaluate and discard what doesn’t work.
The people who relapse in early recovery are those who only try their OWN ideas, and are not taking suggestions from others. Keep that in mind.
So at some point in your recovery journey you will get to a point of stability where you will see lots of options. You will have received lots of help from others and you will have heard dozens or even hundreds of suggestions about recovery. It is at this point that you can start to pick and choose, to plan a bit, and to actually take some direction of your own making in recovery.
So you can plan in recovery, and you can be successful at it. You just have to make sure that you are not trying to “take the reigns” to early in your recovery, when you are vulnerable to relapse.
Only after you have made much growth based on the suggestions of others should you start to plan your own course. This is just my opinion but I have also seen many people relapse who tried to “do it all themselves” much too early in their recovery journey.
How to make plans in long term recovery
In my opinion, the time for successful “planning” in recovery is once you have established a stable recovery. It is then that you can start to make plans for yourself and design your own life.
If you try to do it too soon you run the risk of relapse.
So how do you make plans in recovery?
My suggestion is this:
Ask yourself: What is the one goal in your life that, if achieved, would change everything?
This is the question that should drive action and change in your life.
When I was living in long term rehab I knew clearly what my most important goal in life was: it was to quit smoking cigarettes.
I knew that this was the biggest impact and most important change that I could possibly make.
There were other potential goals that I had but this one had the most potential benefit and the biggest impact.
So my suggestion to you is to sit down and really think about the goals in your life, and prioritize them by impact. Prioritize them based on which one would have the most impact on your life.
Then, single task it. Focus entirely on that one goal and work like a dog to achieve it.
Notice too how this is best done when you have already established your sobriety. If you are still struggling to learn the ropes in early recovery then you should not be trying to overwhelm yourself by taking on another big goal.
I used this approach in my own life and was finally able to quit smoking cigarettes when I focused on it as my most important goal.
After experiencing success with this, I took a step back and evaluated again. I looked at my entire life and thought about all of my remaining goals. Which one would have the biggest impact on my life? I decided that becoming a distance runner would have the most positive benefit to my health, so I took that up next.
And so on. Later on I used the same planning process and single-tasking focus to build a successful business.
You may have lots of goals in your recovery but there is not need to rush and get overwhelmed. Use the power of focus and just tackle your highest impact goal first, and see it through to completion. This is a strong and stable path in recovery and it is also one that will help to fight off complacency as you keep challenging yourself to achieve new things in life.
The later in recovery you are and the more stable you have become in your sobriety, the more you need to plan. This will help keep you on a path of growth and positive change.