Yesterday we looked at what you really need to know about complacency. Today we want to take that a step further and think about ways to find new interests and avenues of personal growth in recovery.
Your life is going to change in recovery. That much is certain. If you relapse of course all bets are off, you may not change at all and in fact you probably will not–you will simply go back to exactly how you were right before you tried to get clean and sober. And your addiction will of course intensify and progress a bit as well. In other words, if you relapse after trying to get clean and sober not only will you revert back to the life you had but things will get a little bit worse. This is well documented and can be reinforced easily by simply talking with people in AA or NA who have relapsed in the past. They all confirm that “it always gets worse, never better.”
Now if you manage to stay clean and sober then chances are good that you will start accumulating positive experiences in recovery. This is how your life will change–in a positive manner based on positive growth experiences. Your decision to stay clean and sober, followed up by the decision to keep taking positive action every day, will create a chain reaction of events in your life that lead to drastic changes.
Your relationships will change with other people. Old friends will drop away and new friendships will form.
How you spend your time each day will change dramatically. Instead of spending time on chemical addiction and substance abuse, you will have to find something else to fill your time with that is meaningful to you (sort of the purpose of this article!).
What you enjoy and take pleasure in will change. This will happen much quicker than you think. Many recovering addicts and alcoholics believe that they will never have fun again if they quit drugs or alcohol. Not true. You will start learning to have fun again very quickly.
Part of learning how to have fun again is the exploration aspect of it. You also have to be willing to try some new things, to take some suggestions, and to seek out new things to do in recovery. Part of this can be purely fun and non-productive, but part of it should also be seeking out new avenues of personal growth. In other words, positive changes that you might deliberately make for yourself. These positive changes that you deliberately make are really important to your long term sobriety. In my opinion, those potential changes are the driver of success in recovery, and are the very thing which can prevent relapse in the long run.
Why you need to seek new avenues of personal growth in recovery
I have watched so many people sort of “burn out” in early recovery after making a flurry of immediate changes, only to suddenly lose steam and find themselves drifting back towards a relapse. For example, when I lived in long term rehab, I watched dozens of people come into the treatment home with me, only to lose momentum and suddenly relapse for no apparent reason. Looking back, I can describe every one of those failures as “a lack of action.”
I suppose you can break recovery down into two main principles for our purposes of understanding: the intention and the follow through. The thought and the action. What you say you will do, followed by what you actually do. These two things need to match up if you are going to stay clean and sober. The problem is that these two things almost never match up for people in early recovery. This is why the relapse rate in long term rehab is almost just as bad as it is for 28 day and shorter programs. Just living in rehab for months or years does not necessarily insure your success–it is still all about those two elements that need to line up: your intentions and your actions.
Most everyone who walks into rehab–whether it is long term or short term treatment–has every intention of staying clean and sober. The problem is not with their intentions. The problem is with their actions. They fail to follow through. Their actions do not line up with what they say they are trying to accomplish. It is hard to be good. Yet it is easy to talk about what you would like to see become of your life.
So you might say that the problem is really about commitment. How deep is their commitment to sobriety, to abstinence, to exploring this new way of life? How deep is their level of surrender, and how willing are they to follow advice and suggestions? What is their true level of willingness? It is nothing to talk of positive changes, it is everything to follow through and make those changes each day. The success stories in recovery are those people who make the hard changes each day. It’s about action, about follow through.
There is more than one way to burn out in recovery. And there is more than one way for relapse to creep back into your life.
One of the biggest reasons that we need a holistic, well rounded approach to recovery is because the threat of relapse is so insidious, and can attack from any direction. Recovering addicts and alcoholics can relapse for all sorts of different reasons, such as:
* Being caught in a tempting situation where they have easy access to their drug of choice and almost no accountability.
* Experiencing major loss or emotional upset in recovery (so they have an “excuse”).
* Becoming sick or injured and getting hooked on a drug or medication that they never suspected could drag them back into addiction.
* Going through relationship issues such that they self medicate over frustration or emotional upheaval.
* Becoming bored or restless in recovery due to complacency and then relapsing because of this boredom.
And so on. Relapse can creep in from so many different directions that we cannot possibly prepare for each threat individually.
Therefore we need a recovery strategy that will hopefully fill in all of these gaps and prevent the various threats through a positive overall direction in life.
Think about this for a moment because it can help to dictate what areas of interest you may explore in recovery. The idea of a strategy that includes a “positive overall direction” is very important.
This is like an overall guiding principle to help you to judge what is good for your recovery, and what might be helpful for it.
I am lucky in that I managed to stumble through over a decade of recovery without relapsing, and following enough suggestions that I was able to make some positive growth along the way. So I would like to believe that I have a view from ten thousand feet now, whereas when I first started recovery I only had a view from about six feet! Today I can look back and see the whole picture, and realize what kinds of interests and personal growth have done well for me in my journey (and what avenues fizzled out or were not worth exploring).
For example, here are a few areas of growth that have served me well in recovery:
* Figuring out ways to reach out and help others to recover as well.
* Pushing myself to become healthier physically, mostly by exercise and by quitting harmful habits (smoking).
* Learning discipline and figuring out how to apply that to goals that I sought to achieve.
* Education and learning as a foundation of future growth, learning by doing things and experiencing them rather than just via study or memorization.
* Pursuing creation as a means of career development (i.e., entrepreneurship) and opting out of the usual work-spend-work rat race.
* Becoming financially competent and responsible.
* Becoming emotionally responsible, learning to set healthy boundaries with others, learning to eliminate toxic relationships, etc.
The thing about these growth experiences is that many of them had more than one positive benefit. For example, exercising on a regular basis did a lot more than just get me into better shape. It also taught me the discipline that I needed to succeed in creating a business, as well as improving my sleep habits, etc.
In much the same way, all of these areas of growth tend to have several second order effects that also help to enhance and boost other areas of growth in life. In other words, when you use a holistic approach and become open to pursuing these different avenues of growth, they call all work together and start to enhance each other.
Why the holistic approach and branching out is so important
Don’t be afraid of the term “holistic.” It just refers to the idea that recovery is about treating the “whole person” rather than just the spiritual part of that person.
The reason that you should seek holistic growth in recovery is so that you are well protected against relapse. The only way to do this is to “close all of the gaps” that relapse may seek out to try to infiltrate your life. There is no way to predict or anticipate every possible threat of relapse in your future. Therefore you need a good strategy which can be flexible enough and adaptable enough to overcome this ongoing threat of relapse.
Creative recovery is the idea that you can pursue growth in such a way that it will help to prevent relapse in the long run. In doing so you must remain open to suggestions and new ideas and new avenues of growth. If you are close minded then you will eventually get to a point where you are no longer open to suggestion and you are no longer open to learning new things. This is a dangerous place to be at in recovery because then you are vulnerable to self-sabotage. If you believe that you can do it all on your own and that you cannot benefit from others suggestions or ideas then you are likely headed for relapse.
There was a time when I was in early recovery, probably at about one year sober and still living in long term rehab, and I had a sponsor in the 12 step program who pushed me to start branching out a bit. I did not like this at the time and I thought he was foolish for suggesting it! I believed that I needed to focus on the 12 step program and just focus on going to daily meetings and such. My sponsor at the time wanted me to go back to college, get a job, and possibly even seek out a new relationship. I thought he was nuts for suggesting all of this and I did not feel that I was ready for all of those changes.
Of course I was wrong (what did I know, I was still early in my journey, right?). So I reluctantly followed his suggestions and I went back to college. I also went back to work. And eventually I got into a new relationship and started growing along that path as well. I also got some suggestions around this time to start exercising, which I did not really believe to be that important or relevant to my recovery. How wrong I was!
This was the growth that recovery was all about. I had believed that the path to salvation was paved with daily AA meetings and dedication to the 12 step program. For some people, perhaps it is. But I found my strength in other ways. I found strength in seeking growth and learning outside of traditional recovery paths.
How traditional recovery can limit people from exploring new avenues of growth
Based on my experience in early recovery, there is a trap waiting in traditional recovery for some people. The trap is in relying too much on AA as the only means of growth, and not seeking a more holistic path outside of the program. I almost fell into this trap and it was only in following suggestions from other people that I was able to avoid it.
What I can now see looking back at my early recovery is how so many of my peers in recovery actually did fall into this trap. They relied on daily meetings as their solution and never went that next step in pursuing the growth and learning that would keep them sober. I do not mean to bash the AA program as it is simply a framework for recovery–not necessarily good or evil by itself. But what people do in AA is going to determine their long term success and I saw many people who got stuck in the program. They failed to seek the kind of holistic growth that could protect them from long term relapse. If all you do is show up to meetings every day and vent a bit then what are you really basing your recovery on? How are you preparing yourself for future strength, independence, and success in long term recovery? Is dependency on meetings really a long term recovery solution? For me it is not, and I rejected that particular path.
Now there are also people in AA and NA who seek personal growth in a positive way. These people are the “winners” at the table who have a more balanced approach to long term growth in recovery. They may come to lots of meetings but they do not depend on the meetings for continued sobriety. Seek to be like these “winners” who have strength that goes beyond the lifelines of the program.
These people are “winners” because they are growing and learning outside of the meetings. Most people just talk the talk. The “winners” are people who actually walk the walk, experiencing growth and taking positive action outside of the AA framework.
Your most powerful tool: seeking advice and taking suggestions for growth opportunities
So how exactly do you go about finding new interests and personal avenues of growth in recovery?
My number one suggestion is simple and may seem a bit counter-intuitive:
Ask for advice and suggestions from others.
The reason that this is counter-intuitive is because we often believe that no one could possibly have our best interest in mind more than we do. Therefore our tendency is not to trust others too much or put much faith into what they are telling us to do.
This is where trust and willingness comes in. This is what open mindedness is all about. You have to become just a little bit willing in order to experience how powerful this can be in your recovery.
You may feel weak, vulnerable, or foolish by taking advice from other people. Push it all aside and do it anyway. Ask someone who you trust what they think you should be focusing on in your recovery. Ask someone what your next move in recovery should be. Ask them what advice they would give you in order to help you in your recovery journey.
Find people who are living the life that you want to live. Look up to the “winners” in recovery who seem to have the life that you desire for yourself. Then ask such people what they think you should be doing with your life. Ask them what your next learning or growth experience should be. Ask them for advice, ask them to tell you what to do.
Then, go do it.
This takes a whole lot of willingness and it may feel like it is taking a step backwards. But if you actually do this you will be amazed at your results. This is a shortcut to personal growth that most people never want to admit. You can learn and benefit from the experience of others, but you have to eat some humble pie in order to do it. Put your pride on the shelf and start asking people for advice and suggestions. This is the fast track to growth in recovery.
Don’t worry about your loss of freedom. Don’t worry about your wounded pride. Have the willingness to ask for advice and then to follow through on it, and your life will get better by leaps and bounds. Become willing to seek this type of growth and commit to seeing it through to the end.
Eventually you will look back on your life and realize that you actually stayed in control of your own decisions, and that you never really sacrificed anything when you took those suggestions and followed that advice. Your experiences was still your own and you even had to correct course and forge your own path, in spite of following other’s suggestions. It is still your life and you still owned your experiences. So do not feel like you are sacrificing too much by seeking direction from others. You will look back one day and see how much it empowered you to do so, and how you really stayed in control the whole time anyway.
Seeking advice and direction is really just the nudge that you need in order to get on the path of growth.
Running out of growth opportunities and stalling in recovery
If you ever run out of ways to learn and grow in recovery then you are in big trouble. Stagnation leads to complacency and they both can lead to relapse.
The only way to prevent this is to have a strategy for life that actively battles against it. Your strategy in recovery should therefore be to engage in a cycle of personal growth, one in which you are never done learning more about yourself. If you close yourself off to future learning then you are opening the door to relapse. Prevent this by adopting an attitude of continuous growth and learning.