The point of addiction recovery is not just to remain clean and sober, but instead the point is to thrive and live your best life possible–a life that you never even dreamed could exist for you.
This is the real gift of recovery–not just that it is possible to find sobriety (because to be honest, the struggling addict or alcoholic probably does not even care about that when they are miserable and stuck in addiction), but that it is possible to find this amazing new life, one that is exciting and worth living.
Someone told me once when I was still struggling in addiction that this new life was possible for me, and I wanted so badly to believe that person. But in the end my addiction was too strong for me and I did not think that I could have this awesome new life that he was describing. My mind convinced me that “I was different” from other addicts and alcoholics and therefore I could never achieve what they could. I really believed that for some reason I was unique, I was special, I was the only person in the world who was truly addicted to alcohol and other drugs, and that all of these other people in recovery were not really “in love with getting high or drunk” like I was. My denial convinced me that this must be true. I found it impossible to get clean and sober. I grasped for excuses and explanations. The truth was that I was just not ready to push through the fear and give recovery a chance to work in my life.
Once you are ready to push through that fear (and your denial) then you can start to work towards your best life in recovery. It all starts with a decision of epic proportions: the decision to give sobriety a chance. The reason this decision is so “epic” is because the struggling addict or alcoholic has been holding on to their drug of choice for so long and doing everything to defend their use of it. To give total abstinence a try is a total defeat of the ego. It is an admission of “Everything that I thought I knew about how to live life and be happy was wrong.” But if you want to live your best life then at some point you have to move past your denial and admit that what you are doing in addiction is not working. Asking for help takes guts. You must smash your ego in order to move forward. This is what keeps people trapped in denial.
Establishing a baseline of sobriety as priority number one
Your journey has to start somewhere, and the best place to start is where you can establish total abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol. For me this meant that I had to check into rehab, I could not do it any other way. Perhaps your story will be different as there are people out there who have managed to get clean and sober without professional help, but I was not one of them. I had to have treatment.
In fact I went to three rehab centers before I finally “got it.” From what I have seen this is typical. Most people do not make it work after one trip to rehab. Most have to go more than once before it all sinks in. Really what is happening is that the person is putting forth what they think to be the minimum necessary effort in order to make sobriety work for them. Unfortunately the minimum effort with addiction recovery will always result in relapse. Every time. The exact opposite is what produces your best life in recovery, and that means putting forth a tremendous effort–to the level that you have never tried anything before in your entire life. You have to fight for recovery like your life is on the line…..because it is. Not only that, but you have likely never tried to accomplish anything before in your life that was this difficult. Learning to live clean and sober is a major undertaking that requires serious dedication.
Therefore the timing is important of how you approach recovery. Your first objective should be to maintain physical abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol at nearly any cost. This should be your main priority for the rest of your life, but it should also be your main focus for at least the first year or two of recovery. You should not really be distracting yourself during the first few months of recovery with other goals that do not relate directly to sobriety. For example, this would mean that you prioritize attending counseling or 12 step meetings over something like, say, going back to college. Keep in mind that this only applies for the first few months of your recovery, but it is a very important distinction. What you want to do in early recovery is to put ALL of your effort into learning how to stay clean and sober.
Does it still benefit your recovery to go back to college? Absolutely. But it does not benefit your recovery directly in the same way that counseling, therapy, or meetings might help you. Therefore you must learn to prioritize in your recovery journey and that means you need to pay attention to timing considerations. For the first year, try to focus heavily on things that relate directly to helping you stay clean and sober. Immerse yourself fully in recovery. Don’t worry so much about “holistic health” and “personal growth” at this time–instead just focus on getting as much “recovery” help as possible while staying busy with it all. So go to lots of meetings. Go to rehab. Get involved with the meetings, with sponsorship, with your peers and recovery activities and so on. Go nuts with all of that stuff during the first year and build a strong foundation. This will also help you to build a strong social foundation in recovery. It is other people that help us to stay sober in early recovery.
This is priority number one–to stay clean and sober at nearly any cost–and it should be your main focus during your first year of recovery.
However, it cannot remain your focus forever. If you are still focusing on this after five years sober, there will be a problem. You have to learn to grow and evolve. Physical abstinence will always be priority number one, but the tactics will change as you remain clean and sober. Your long term strategy must shift as you move through life in recovery. This is because early recovery is so incredibly different from long term sobriety. The threats may be the same but the way our disease attempts to trip us up is completely different. For example:
Early recovery – you are craving your drug of choice and thinking about it constantly. The urge to relapse is immediate and obvious.
Long term recovery – you almost never crave your drug of choice but you can still fall victim to relapse in a sneaky way. Your drug of choice may be alcohol but you find yourself addicted to pain medication because you never suspected they might be dangerous. You were not even “trying” to relapse but it may still sneak back into your life.
You need a different strategy and a different set of tactics to deal with different time periods in your recovery journey. Sobriety must remain your number one focus forever, but how you go about protecting your sobriety will have to change as you grow in your recovery. As you evolve, so much your recovery strategy. But don’t worry, as this is not nearly as complicated as it sounds. But it is hard work–and that is why some people still relapse in long term sobriety. Not because they did not know how to stay clean and sober (because obviously they knew how) but because they ran out of energy. They stopped doing what they needed to do (grow and change and learn).
In early recovery the rules are simple–don’t use no matter what and relearn how to live your entire life.
In long term sobriety the rules evolve a bit–you still don’t want to use/drink no matter what, but now you also have to start pushing yourself to learn and make new growth in your journey. To stand idle is to risk relapse. You must keep moving. Recovery is like a treadmill–stand still and you are doomed to fall off. You gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other in order to live your best life.
Eliminating problems and clearing a path to success
Job number one in recovery is to achieve sobriety and physical abstinence from all addictive drugs and alcohol.
Job number two is to start cleaning up the mess that has become your life and eliminate the things that seek to hold you back.
Do not start on job number two (clean up) until you are firmly established in sobriety. If you get ahead of yourself in recovery then reality has a way of correcting our course for us. This is also true of the next major leap you will make in recovery (from the “clean up phase” to the “personal growth phase”). Try to move too fast or get ahead of yourself and you are going to run into problems.
This is why you must deliberately try to fix these negative problems in your life–because they all seek to “hold you back” from living your best life in sobriety.
For example, take my own story where I continued to smoke cigarettes during the first few years of my recovery. This was clearly holding me back from future growth. I was clean and sober but I was still smoking cigarettes. I was also pushing myself to make other changes (such as to start exercising) but the cigarette smoking was clearly not fitting into my overall plan. It was not congruent with my current set of goals in life. Smoking was not well aligned with the rest of my life philosophy. It was holding me back in more ways than one.
Therefore I had to get serious about quitting and really make a serious effort at doing so. Even after I did this I struggled to quit and failed several times. I had to keep examining my life and asking myself if I wanted to be a smoker. “Is this really who I am in recovery?” I was slowly building up self esteem in my life and therefore I was starting to value my life more and more (when I first got clean and sober I was close to suicidal and did not value my life at all…..my self esteem was near zero).
As my life got better and better in recovery, the urge to quit smoking became greater and greater. It clearly was not in alignment with what I wanted to become. It was not part of “living my best life in recovery.” It was just more junk left over from my addiction that had to be eliminated. Quitting was a monumental effort but I finally pulled it off.
There have been other problems and “negatives” in my life that I had to eliminate as well–all steps to clearing out a path to my best life. Sure, I could still be doing most of the same things today if I was still smoking, but in some ways it would be holding me back. I would never be fully happy with my life if I were to hang on to a problem of that magnitude.
Here is the counter-intuitive part that may not be so obvious to everyone:
Eliminating the negatives is MORE important than chasing your dreams in recovery (or in life).
Most people do not believe this at first. They think they will be happier if they chase their dreams and achieve them while still having some of the negative elements (such as smoking for example) in their life.
But after my own journey in recovery I can tell you with confidence that this is clearly not the case. Your happiness is NOT based on achieving your dreams, but instead it is based on finding peace and contentment through the elimination of these negative things in your life. We are our own worst enemy. It is not our unfulfilled dreams that hold us back, it is the fact that our goals are not in alignment. The smoker who exercises (or the smoker who loves their life) is never at ease. They never have true peace because they know that they are fighting against themselves. They are not living congruently.
But you do not have to be a smoker to have this sort of battle raging within your life. You may have other problems that are holding you back. Maybe you are horribly out of shape. Maybe you are not in good physical health. Maybe you have a gambling problem that is ruining your finances. Maybe you have spending addiction and your financial stress is killing you. There are all sorts of issues that may be holding you back from living your best life in recovery.
The key is that you must systematically eliminate these problems, one by one, until you are left with peace and contentment. It only then that you will feel like you are living your best life in recovery.
So you are probably asking: “How do I go about doing that? How do I eliminate these negative problems in my life, to leave me with peace and contentment?”
There are two strategies you should embrace:
1) The cycle of personal growth.
2) Feedback and advice from others.
How to push yourself into the cycle of personal growth and holistic health
Personal growth is the goal of long term recovery. If you stop trying to grow (or learn) then you are at risk of relapse.
Therefore your long term strategy should be to embrace personal growth.
But you may have noticed that it is not possible to keep growing every single day, day in and day out, without ever taking a breather. This is normal. We are not superman.
What you want to do is give yourself some allowance for reflection as well. The cycle of personal growth includes down time where you stop pushing for a while. You can pause and reflect.
But when you do this, you must have a knowing that you are planning your next move. You must not just kick up your feet and say that you are done with learning and growth forever. That is the attitude that leads to relapse.
Instead, you must take a break with the knowledge that you will soon start a new project, start a new lesson in life, try to learn something new when the opportunity presents itself.
Life has a way of moving in cycles. What I want for you to do is to embrace that cycle of growth and realize that there will be down times of reflection. Embrace these times and allow yourself time to pause and reflect. Use these times to think about your next move in life. What lesson is presenting itself to you? What issue are you struggling with lately? Maybe there is nothing, and you just need to be watchful and aware for that next life lesson to come forward. But it is this state of watchfulness that insures that you are on the right path in recovery. You are eager to learn something new, and you are ready for the lesson when it presents itself.
This is the cycle of growth and reflection. Recognize that there will be down time. See the cycle for what it is. Always be looking forward to the next lesson in life. Sometimes it creeps up subtly (I should really start exercising some day), and sometimes it smacks you on the head (I gotta quit killing myself with drugs, etc.). You gotta watch out for both!
How to use other people to inspire you to take action in recovery
Find someone that you trust in recovery, and start talking with them.
It really can be as simple as that. This is the entire idea behind sponsorship. Find someone who is already (by your estimation) “living their best life in recovery.” Obviously they know how the process works! They know how to live their best life, so perhaps they can teach you to do the same thing.
So, find such a person and ask them for help. Ask them for advice. Ask them for feedback. Tell them your position in life, what you are all about lately, where you have been and where you think you might be headed. Then ask them for advice and guidance. Ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes.
And here is the real key: Take their advice and actually act on it. This is the shortcut to unlocking wisdom. You simply “borrow” that wisdom from others.
We all want to be in the driver’s seat, and rely on our own wisdom. But if you are smart enough to know that you can benefit greatly from others experiences, then you can take a massive shortcut. Borrow wisdom from others and accelerate your growth in recovery. Sometimes this is the only way that we can see past one of our problems, too.