Recovery is all about change. If you are making positive changes then we could label this as “growth.” Therefore if you are serious about your recovery then you
should have a personal growth strategy.
What would such a strategy consist of?
In my experience there are several elements that are necessary for a successful growth strategy. If you try to ignore one of these elements for too long then life has
a way of auto-correcting. Of course if you ingore these subtle “hints” for too long then eventually you relapse or suffer other consequences. Experience itself can
be a guide so long as you listen to it.
A baseline for success
The first part of your strategy in addiction recovery is to get out of your own way. This can be difficult to do although in practice it is very simple. You might
describe this as “total surrender.” In practical terms this probably means inpatient rehab and/or detox for most people.
I had to come to grips with this as my baseline for success before I could make any sort of progress in recovery. The problem was that I resisted the solution so much
and did not want to hear anything about it. I did not want to hear that I needed to go to inpatient rehab. I did not want to hear about how I should be going to AA
and NA meetings and “giving them a chance.” I did not want to hear about any of those suggestions because, frankly, I was still in denial. I had not yet reached that
point of total surrender. Because of this denial that I was stuck in, I could not make any progress towards recovery at all.
This is one of the great truths of addiction recovery: it is pass/fail. You are either clean and sober, or you are in “full relapse mode.” You cannot just “sort of”
be in recovery, nor can you “sort of” be in relapse mode. It is all or nothing. Addicts and alcoholics tend toward the extremes. And if they are trying to hang on
to the middle ground, their addiction will take over and push them out to the extremes. It is just a matter of time. If they are able to hang on to the middel ground
at all then it is just an illusion, a temporary thing at best. Eventually their addiction is pass/fail. You are either “all in” on recovery or you are headed for
certain relapse. No in between is available.
Because of this pass/fail phenomenon, the first part of your growth strategy in recovery is to “go all in.” You must commit 100 percent and dedicate your entire life
to recovery. This may sound far too extreme to some people and if that is the case with you then you either:
1) Do not understand how serious addiction and alcoholism is.
2) Are in denial about your problem.
3) Are naive enough to believe that you can beat your addiction without much effort.
I have to admit that at different times in my life I have been guilty of all three of these things. In the early days of my addiction I did not realize how serious it
was, or that it would threaten to kill me one day. Later on I was in flat out denial about my addiction for many years. I knew that I had a problem but in the back
of my mind I believed that if I wanted to fix my problem I could probably do it myself (I just did not want to! This is denial by the way). And finally I believed
that if really wanted to overcome my addiction that I could probably do it without getting help from other people and group support. Of course I was wrong on all
three counts and so part of building my foundation in recovery was to smash through those three lies. Again, experience has a way of being a great teacher if you are
only willing to listen to it. Another way of saying that is “at some point, you may want to stop banging your head into the wall, and try something else.” I got to
that point finally and realized that what I was doing was NOT working. So I finally became willing to listen to other people.
Surrender is your baseline for success in recovery. This is a universal principle that applies to everyone. You cannot ignore this principle by choosing a different
recovery program. Everyone has to surrender in order to gain entry into recovery.
Learning as a foundation
Recovery is all about doing something different. It is about taking positive action.
As struggling addicts and alcoholics, we do not know what those positive actions are that might help us to recover.
As struggling addicts and alcoholics, we do not know exactly what we need to do in order to recover. If we did know, then we would simply do it, and recover.
Therefore, in order to recover from addiction we need to acquire new information. This involves learning.
Recovery is a learning process. Period. If you do not want to learn, then you may as well stay stuck in active addiction, because that is all you will ever know.
Therefore you must embrace the learning process. You must embrace the idea that others can help you with their wisdom and knowledge.
When I was first introduced to the recovery process, I have to admit that this was a huge turn off for me. I was stubborn, I thought I was smart, and I did not take
well to the concept of learning about recovery. In fact, I felt rather insulted that someone else was going to tell me how to live my life. How would they know what
is best for me anyway? No one could tell me what was best for my own personal situation, except for me….right?
Well, that turned out to be wrong. I learned very quickly in early recovery that I had been wrong, wrong, wrong….for so many years. Decades even. I had believed
that I was the center of the universe and that it was all about me. I thought that I knew what was best for me in my own recovery. I learned otherwise.
For example, when I finally surrendered in recovery and became willing to take advice and feedback from other people, I started to take directions. Instead of just
politely listening to suggestions, I started to actually take them. I took action. People told me what to do, and I did it. And up until this point I had never been
willing to follow directions like this, because I was too stubborn and arrogant.
What had changed? Surrender. I had finally admitted how miserable I was in my addiction, and that I did not know what was best for me. So I gave up control of my
own life and started taking direction from others.
Now here is the kicker: things started to get better. Fast.
And so that gave me great pause. Really, I had just sort of surrendered as a temporary experiment. I had started taking advice and direction just because I was so
miserable and beat down in my addiction, but I never believed that it would work, or that it would help. But now suddenly I was getting results, and my life was
improving drastically. Suddenly I was much happier than I had ever been in my years of addiction, and I could not really take credit for it. I was only following
suggestions from other people.
This is a process. It is the process of learning in recovery. You have to figure out how to deal with reality without self medicating. You have to figure out how to
be happy again in this life without depending on drugs or alcohol to make it so. And that involves a whole lot of learning. In order to learn you have to take advice
and direction from other people. This can be a humbling experience. If you dive in and just allow yourself to do it, you will get results very quickly and see the
power in taking direction from others.
Even today I try to ask for advice and direction from other people. “What do you think I should be doing with my life right now?” Or “What do you think I should be
doing with my recovery right now?”
Facing your fears
Perhaps we achieve our greatest growth when we face our fears directly in recovery.
For example, you may be intimidated to attend college even though you have always desired higher education. In such a situation, where do you think your greatest
potential for future growth may lie? So you push yourself to go to college in spite of your fears and hesitation.
Note that even if this is not the optimal path for you, and even if it does not lead you to direct happiness, it is still likely an important part of your journey to
face a fear like this. The reason for this is because if you fail to face such a fear, you will always be wondering in the future if you should have faced it in the
past. Thus it becomes a “block to total happiness” because you will always be second guessing yourself.
Your greatest accomplishments in recovery are from facing your greatest fears. Just look at the incredible reward that sobriety itself becomes based on facing the
fear of getting clean and sober. The greater your fear or hesitation is, the deeper the reward will be if you face it and overcome it.
Incremental improvement implies no backsliding
One of the most important growth strategies that I have found in addiction recovery is that of incremental growth.
While this may not sound very exciting to most people, it is perhaps a case of “tortoise and the hare.” When you make incremental growth in your recovery, it is very
much like the slow but steady progress of the tortoise. What you have to keep in mind though is that when you are making incremental progress, at least you are not
backsliding. This is actually a really big deal for those in addiction recovery.
Consider the pattern that most of us have faced in our previous life experience. Often we take one step forward and then two steps back due to our addiction. So our
happiness has been always just out of reach, and even when things went well in our lives we knew that the other shoe was always about to drop.
If you use this growth strategy suggested here the you will no longer have to live that way. You no longer have to worry about the other shoe dropping, because you
will be making slow and steady progress.
A holistic growth strategy in recovery should be based on a strong foundation. This means that your first and main priority is not to backslide. If you are going to
make progress today, great. But if you are not going to make any progress today, at least don’t go backwards. At least don’t go back to the old behavior patterns
that got you into trouble in the past. That way you are always adding to your positive experiences in recovery and not going backwards.
They have a saying in traditional recovery: “You are either working on recovery or you are working on a relapse.” Your strategy should be to make sure that you are
never working on a relapse. Always be moving forward, or at least preventing a major backslide.
My life keeps getting better and better, though the rate of positive change has slowed down considerably. This is because in my first year or two of recovery I was
making tons of progress in a very short period of time. In the years following that I have also made considerable progress, but the leaps ahead in growth are much
smaller now. This is because I have a new set of problems today. When I was struggling to get clean and sober, my problems were much bigger and more immediate. At
that time I was lucky to even be alive and not in jail due to my excessive addiction.
But over the last 12 years my problems have evolved a great deal. I am grateful for the problems I have today because they are so much better than the problems that I
used to have. Today I really just have new challenges and opportunities. Today my problems are trivial compared to the nightmares that I faced in my past.
When I face my problems in recovery today I am really looking to make incremental growth. I can no longer make the huge quantum leaps of growth like I made in early
recovery, because all of those gigantic problems have already been solved. I still have challenges today though and I still push myself to make growth through them.
Pushing yourself for long term growth
In my experience I can see three obvious threats to your sobriety, based on the stage of recovery that you happen to be at.
1) Early sobriety – you are threatened with immediate relapse during detox or shortly thereafter. This is when most people relapse. The solution for this is to get into treatment, detox, find support, stick with it, etc.
2) Transition – this is when you are trying to move from early recovery to long term sobriety. There is much to learn and absorb during this time. If you fail to transition and end up relapsing then you either failed to surrender fully or you failed to embrace the right attitude of learning and seek enough support for your situation. Many people fail to transition as well. The way that I really did this was to live in a long term treatment center, though based on my observations and my peers this is definitely not a cure-all.
3) Long term sobriety – the biggest threat here is complacency. A surprising number of people end up relapsing who have multiple years clean and sober. Sad but true. The solution for complacency is lifelong learning and positive action. You can organize this for yourself by employing a long term strategy for personal growth. If you try to react to the problem of complacency then you are too late. The only solution for this is a pro-active one. You must plan in advance to keep pushing yourself to grow in long term recovery. If you stop learning or stop growing then you are in danger of relapse.
The best strategy for long term growth is one that is based on a steady cycle. Some people achieve this within the 12 step program and some people do it outside of traditional recovery. Either way the pattern looks like this:
* Learn something new about yourself, observe something, see a challenge or an opportunity in life.
* Push yourself to move forward and conquer that challenge, to grow through the learning experience.
* Reflect on what you learned and how you responded to the challenge. Survey your life and look for the next growth opportunity.
This is a cycle of growth and reflection. Those who embrace it are neither completely idle, nor are they burning themselves out from too much action. Instead they find a healthy balance and keep pushing themselves ever so gently to keep constantly re-invent themselves.
This is the creative path of recovery. The constant re-invention of oneself. It is then that you are most protected from the threat of relapse, because you cannot be bothered to impede your future growth. You are too excited to see what the next adventure is in life.