Little Breakthroughs that Add Up to a Lot in Recovery

Little Breakthroughs that Add Up to a Lot in Recovery


Recovery is a journey made of up lots of small changes. Positive change is the key to changing your life, and the little breakthroughs can add up to a lot.

You need one big change (total abstinence) followed by lots of little ones. Another way that you might look at it is that every time that you say “no” to your drug of choice throughout the day you are making another key change. You are choosing not to self medicate in a situation where you normally would. Must like quitting smoking where you have to make it through each trigger moment without using a cigarette until you get comfortable with being clean.

Even after you have achieved physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol, there are still challenges to face and changes to make. You cannot just sit idle in recovery and expect great things to happen. I have met many people in early recovery who were not happy with the results that they were getting and therefore they ended up relapsing. But the lousy results were largely their own fault and lack of patience–good things do happen if you are putting in the proper effort. One saying around the tables is “it gets greater later.” This saying refers to the fact that there is a sizable delay between when you make the effort to create positive change and when you actually receive the benefit or reward.

Take, for example, something like distance running. Maybe you are out of shape and cannot even run a single mile without being completely winded. But after a few years of training (or possibly even less!) you might successfully run a marathon. When you have built up to that point you can then run a single mile with ease and your perspective has completely changed. But obviously there is a whole lot of growth in between those two points–when you are completely out of shape and then later when running a single mile is easy and fun for you.

Such it is with recovery–there is a significant delay between the effort that you put in and the rewards that you receive. Therefore you need to build momentum in early recovery and have faith that things will start to get better. There is really nothing that anyone can say or do to convince you of this if you are just entering recovery and you are fairly miserable. I know because I was once at that point myself, and I had to simply give recovery a chance to work in my own life. I started taking positive action, not really expecting it to work out, but not having a good alternative at that point. Self medicating was clearly not working for me any more and I was miserable from drinking and drugs. To be honest this was the only reason that I became willing to stick it out during early recovery–I was miserable and I knew that the drugs would not really help me any more. They had stopped working for me. It was time to change.

The one big change that opens the door to recovery

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Recovery may be made up of thousands of little changes, but there is still one big change that is the entryway to all of this: physical abstinence. Without going through the detox process, no recovery is possible at all.

This is part of the dichotomy that rules early recovery: You must make this major decision to give up all addictive drugs and alcohol, but then you must find a million little ways to live with your decision and find happiness in a sober life. It is a lot to try to take on all at once and this is why you must first reach the point of surrender.

If a person is not ready to take on this major change (sobriety) then it is likely that they have not yet experienced enough pain in their addiction. Unfortunately this is almost always the case when someone is “not ready.” It is simply because they believe that they can still make addiction work out for the best somehow. They are still playing that game where they hope to be able to control their addiction and somehow enjoy it at the same time. They are still holding out hope that they can one day use their drug of choice successfully.

The person who finally makes the decision for physical abstinence has let go of all of those old ideas. They let go completely of the idea that they might one day be able to use their drug of choice successfully. Everyone around them has probably been telling them to give abstinence (and sobriety) a chance, and they have been fighting against this idea with all of their strength (because it is such a threat to them).

Some addicts who get a taste of recovery believe that they can somehow have the “best of both worlds” and go back to their drug of choice while keeping the new growth concepts that they have learned in recovery. They are thinking along the lines of: “Wow, look at all of this progress and growth that I have made in recovery, and just look at how much better I am at dealing with life in recovery, I should be able to take these new ideas and use them to be able to go back to my drug of choice and thus self medicate more successfully!” Of course we all know how this experiment turns out.

The reason that it turns out so badly is because relapse destroys and erases all of the progress that we have made in recovery. We may fool ourselves into thinking that we can retain some of the benefits of our recovery during a relapse but this is not true. Eventually a relapse will take away everything that you gained during recovery and if you keep going then eventually addiction will take your very life as well.

Therefore your task is clear: Make the big decision to get clean and sober and stick it out, then you have to put one foot in front of the other each day and start making positive changes. Little breakthroughs. You made one big one when you chose to get clean and sober, now you have to make lots of tiny positive decisions each day in order to build this new life in recovery. If you could do it all at once then it would probably be easy. But you can’t just recover all in one day, it is a process that has to slowly unfold in its own time. The only way to make the best of it is to be committed to taking positive action each and every day.

How to make your first little breakthrough in recovery

As mentioned above your first breakthrough in recovery is actually the big one–the decision to get sober itself. After that it is all daily actions and building this new life.

My suggestion is to focus your first few weeks, months, or even years on simply establishing stability in your sobriety. In other words, it is enough when you first get clean and sober that you are maintaining sobriety itself. Just not drinking or using is enough in the beginning. The length of time that this is valid for your unique situation will depend largely on how long you have lived with your addiction. I had been in active addiction for about ten years and when I finally got clean and sober doing a week in rehab was simply not enough. I ended up living in transitional housing (a type of long term treatment) in order to successfully make the transition back to the real world. I needed quite a bit of help and I am glad that I got it.

The lesson here might be that if you have been abusing your drug of choice for several decades, do not expect to be “cured” after a weekend in detox. It takes time to establish sobriety and when you are attempting to do so you may need to be in a controlled environment. This certainly helped me in my own journey.

So the first breakthrough is establishing sobriety and it could very well take several months or even a year or two to really find your footing in this new reality. But once you have done so it is time to start making positive changes. Once you get to the point where you can make it through a whole day without constantly struggling with relapse or the urge to self medicate, you are ready to take a look at your life and start making decisions.

You have a choice in sobriety: you can either make positive changes and become stronger in your recovery, or you can sit idle, make no changes, and slowly become weaker and closer to relapse. There is no middle ground. If you attempt to try to find a middle ground then you will end up being relatively idle in your growth and you will move closer to relapse. Personal growth is the path to recovery. A total lack of growth is the sure path to relapse. There is no middle ground in between these two ideas and if you think you have found the middle ground then you are likely headed for trouble.

In my opinion the best way to make your “first little breakthrough” in early recovery is to seek advice, guidance, and feedback from other people. This is tough to do from the perspective of your ego and it may be downright impossible to do if you have not yet surrendered to your disease.

Look at what your decision to get clean and sober really was–you finally gave in and agreed to do what everyone was already telling you to do. All of your friends, family and loved ones knew that the best path for you was to stop using drugs and alcohol entirely. Of course while we are in denial we resist this suggestion and continue to self medicate and try to control our addiction. Eventually we “give in” and agree to give this suggestion from others a chance to work in our life.

Your growth in early recovery should work in much the same way. Find people who can help you to build this new life in recovery and then seek guidance and advice from them. This is especially helpful if they have walked the same path that you are on and have built a successful life for themselves. If you take their advice and suggestions then you give yourself a huge advantage in your own journey.

Without seeking feedback and advice from others you are just thrashing about without any real course in your recovery. You may get lucky and stumble on a healthy path, but you might also just thrash around for quite a while without making any real progress for a long time. When you get advice from others you give yourself a huge shortcut in getting to the actual growth and benefits in recovery.

So my first “little breakthrough” in recovery was when I started to take advice from other people. A few people suggested that I go back to college now that I was sober and so I took that suggestion. A few people suggested that I start exercising on a regular basis and I took that suggestion as well. These were some of the “little breakthroughs” that I made in early recovery, based on taking advice from others. I call them “little” breakthroughs only because they pale in comparison to the decision for sobriety itself. That remains the most important thing in your life because without your physical abstinence everything will revert back to chaos and misery (regardless of growth made in other areas of your life).

Successful recovery really boils down to taking advice from others, especially in the early stages. Everyone has probably been suggesting that you give abstinence a chance, so the decision to get clean and sober is simply taking that suggestion. Your next step is to seek advice and guidance from others so that you can start to build a new life in recovery through positive action.

Planning for success and positive change

In early recovery it is best to let others plan your growth for you. This is because self sabotage is so prevalent in early sobriety and your own thinking is likely to trip you up. Relying on others advice for guidance is probably the smartest thing you can do for your first few years of recovery.

At some point though you will clearly leave the stage of “early recovery” and find yourself living in long term sobriety. At this point you are no longer depending on advice and guidance just to get you through each day sober. You should no longer be clinging to support like you had to do during the early days of your journey.

Long term sobriety may be more stable than early recovery, but it can be still be dangerous in terms of potential relapse. No one is ever fully “cured” from the threat of relapse. The only insurance you can “buy” against relapse in long term recovery would be continuous growth. Positive action and positive changes can help keep you clean and sober over the long haul. This requires willingness and continuous learning. In particular you have to remain willing to keep learning new things about yourself, even after you have years or decades of sobriety. Always be learning.

Therefore you can plan for success and create a plan to fight against complacency by taking a pro-active approach to recovery.

What is a pro-active approach? It is one in which you push yourself to keep learning new things and growing in recovery, even when you are not necessarily facing immediate challenges. Maybe you have cleaned up the wreckage of your old life and things are going good now. Should you sit idle and just enjoy the ride? Probably not. Instead you should try to look deeply into your life and your experiences and find ways in which you might improve things. There is always more to learn about ourselves if we are willing to look. There are always improvements that can be made.

Experimenting based on feedback and advice

Long term recovery should become a testing ground of experimentation for you. The idea is to keep trying new things, learning new things, and exploring new avenues of growth.

Lots of stuff will be a poor fit for you. This is OK. For example, I was heavily encouraged to meditate during early recovery. It was even baked into the 12 steps of AA. I had lots of people telling me to try meditation. So I did. I studied up on it. I read several books. I practiced it a lot, even several different techniques. It seemed to help my life in some ways but it did not really click for me. I gave it a fair chance and I was not thrilled with the results.

Later on I took another suggestion to start exercising. I got into the habit of jogging and this new routine “clicked” much better for me. In fact it was a form of meditation in itself that really was giving me all of the same benefits that I was told seated meditation would bring me.

Note that I had to experiment in order to find a path of growth that worked for me. I had to try and fail. I took early suggestions to meditate and I tried it and it did not really work out for me. No big deal. I moved on and tried another suggestion and in doing so I found positive action that really made a difference for me. Exercise is now a pillar of my recovery strategy.

Cut losses quickly and move on to more positive ideas

In order to benefit from these kind of “little breakthroughs” you have to be willing to try new ideas that may not work out. Learn to cut these losses quickly and then move on to other ideas. There is no shortage of suggestions out there. Just go to a 12 step meeting and tell them what your current life situation is and ask for advice–you will get some feedback. If not then find a sponsor and do the same thing with that person. Seek advice and then act on it. This is an iterative process and the more you do it the more you will learn about the process of growth itself. You will also start to learn what to avoid and where the real answers probably are at in the future. Thus in long term recovery you start to find your own path and realize that you don’t necessarily need the advice any more, you just need to face the hard choices and do the footwork.


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