Early sobriety requires both internal and external changes.
We define external changes as the “people, places, and things” in early recovery that you need to change.
We define internal changes as the things that go on inside of your mind that could drive you to relapse, things such as resentment, fear, self pity, anger, shame, guilt, and so on.
In order to be successful in long term sobriety you have to make both types of changes.
Why make changes at all? Why not just get rid of alcohol and move on?
This brings up a good question: Why bother to change at all? Why not just eliminate the alcohol and then simply move on with your life from there?
The reason that this doesn’t work is because alcohol (or drug use for that matter) are really just a symptom of the problem. The problem is deeper within, it is something that manifests as drug or alcohol addiction, but the root of the problem is some sort of sickness. We call this “addiction” and some people claim that it is a spiritual sickness but this is wrong (in my opinion). It is more than a spiritual sickness. It is a holistic sickness. When you suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction your whole “self” gets sick, not just the spiritual aspect of your life. We also suffer physically. Our relationships get all screwed up. We suffer emotionally. We are mentally obsessed with our drug of choice or with sickening resentments. We get sick in many different ways and each aspect of our overall health suffers.
This is why you can’t just put down the alcohol and expect for everything to work out well. The problem is much deeper than just the one symptom which manifests as alcoholism. The disease is actually a holistic sickness which affects every part of your being.
Therefore in recovery you have to treat this whole problem, each aspect of the sickness. You can’t just eliminate the physical drug (or alcohol) and expect for all of the other problems to instantly vanish. And because they do not vanish the need to self medicate in some way will still be there.
The only way that I have found to overcome this “sickness” is to start healing from a holistic perspective. I am not talking about holistic in the sense that you need to go out and get a hot stone massage or anything like that….I am talking about the holistic approach in terms of taking care of yourself every day physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. If you are ticking off the check boxes on all five of those areas of your health then you can (and will) do well in sobriety. But if you are neglecting even one of those areas in a major way then that will eventually lead you back into relapse.
I have watched this happen over and over again among my peers in recovery. My background is that I lived in a long term rehab for 20 months and watched about 30 other peers come and go in that time. Then I worked in a rehab for 5 and half years and during that time I got to know thousands of alcoholics and addicts who were struggling to turn their life around. So based on all of these observations (including my own sobriety journey of course) I am confident that this holistic approach is really important.
I have watched peers of mine in recovery who had (what I thought to be) rock solid spiritual foundations who later ended up relapsing due to physical illness. They got sick, physically sick, and this eventually led them to relapse. I was shocked when I watched this happen the first time to a peer of mine but then a year later it happened again. It still surprises me when this sort of thing happens but I would not say that it is shocking any more. Physical illness or injury can complicate a recovery in a hurry. It makes staying clean and sober much more difficult, especially when doctors may be trying to offer you medications that could lead you back into the disease.
So this is just one example of how holistic health can help to prevent relapse in a way that you might not have predicated. One guy I know was in AA for many years and he suffered a softball injury in his arm. The next thing I knew he was in an AA meeting confessing that he had relapsed due to the medication and painkillers that they had given him. He did not expect to be affected by the pills but they led him back to his real drug of choice which was alcohol.
Things like this are not impossible. They do happen. And we cannot always predict exactly how the disease is going to try to create relapse in our lives.
This is why the holistic approach is so important. We need to be an our toes, always on guard against the possibility of relapse. And in order to do that we have to be taking extra good care of our health in every way possible. Not just our physical health (although that is important) but also in the other areas that I mentioned: Mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
These are the sort of lifestyle changes that we need to be focusing on in recovery. On a daily basis.
These are not changes that you can put off until next month. Because next month never comes. And before you know it you may have relapsed.
People, places, and things in early recovery
We need to make external changes. What does that mean?
It means that we need to stop going to the corner bar and start going to AA meetings. That is just one example but it gets the idea across pretty well. We have to make real changes in our day to day life.
I had to stop smoking and instead I started exercising. That was a change that I had to make for long term recovery.
Because quite honestly, when I had two years sober I was still smoking cigarette and I never exercised. I still believed that the solution was 100 percent spiritual at that time. And as a matter of fact, my idea of what “spiritual” is has changed a huge amount since then as well.
What kept me sober at that time was the immense amount of support that I had. I was living in rehab. And I was trying, I was seeking, I was doing the work. I was taking suggestions and I was open to new ideas. But I did not really know what was important when it came to “spirituality” at that time.
Today I know what is important to be from a spiritual standpoint. I have a higher power and when I express gratitude in my everyday life then I am being “spiritual.” If I am not grateful or if I am being selfish or ungrateful then I am NOT being spiritual. That is my working definition and it really doesn’t need to get any more complicated than that to keep me sober.
Now as far as external changes are concerned, I have made a great deal of them. My friends that I used to drink or use drugs with are all gone from my life. I surround myself with much more positive people these days. I don’t really tolerate spending time with anyone who is getting drunk or high. I just can’t risk being around it at all. The temptation would become too great over time.
I used to work at a job where everyone pretty much drank after work or used drugs. I don’t work there any more and in fact my job has become much more meaningful since then in terms of recovery. I actually worked in a rehab for 5 years and I would say that the work I am doing now is even more targeted to helping people in recovery.
So I definitely made lots of external changes in my life and the biggest one came when I first got sober. I checked into rehab and I have not had a drink or a drug since that time. Rehab may not be a total cure but it definitely set me up for success.
What is the internal work? Why is it important?
Internal changes. These are the stuff inside of you, things like shame, guilt, fear, anger, self pity, resentment, and so on.
I had a big problem when I first got clean and sober. I realized that I engaged in self pity nearly all the time. It was my justification for drinking and using drugs.
But now that I was in recovery and living in rehab I had no need for the self pity. It was just dragging me down, making me obsess over pointless drama. And it wasn’t helping me. All the self pity was good for was for justifying a relapse.
And I did not want to relapse.
So I had a problem.
How did I fix it?
First, I had to make a decision to do so. This is obvious but still very important. I had to make a firm decision that I was going to overcome my self pity problem.
Many alcoholics struggle with resentment, but my problem was with self pity. So I had to tackle it.
Second of all I started doing research. I also started asking people in recovery for help with this. “How do I go about eliminating self pity?”
Surprisingly, most people that I spoke with had no idea. They were more knowledgeable about dealing with resentment.
So eventually I found some ideas online. The key, it turns out, is gratitude.
You cannot be engaged in self pity and also be grateful at the same time. It is not possible.
So there was 90 percent of my solution right there: I had to practice gratitude.
So how do you do that?
Many people in recovery could (and did) help me with that.
There is the idea of the gratitude list, which is extremely useful. Sit down and write down ten things that you are grateful for. Do this every single day. Do it twice a day.
And you might say “well I am no good at coming up with ten things to be grateful for.”
If that is the case then I suggest that you write out 20 things instead.
I am not saying that to be funny. I really want to help you. Because this is what helped me, I had sit there and brainstorm and keep writing things down. Because I had become so lazy in my life that I was taking everything for granted. And it was time to make my brain realize just how good I really had it.
And that takes work. So you might have to make your brain sweat a little. That is the point of a gratitude list. If you can write it out in 2 minutes flat then it isn’t even helping you! You have to dig a little. You have to make your brain work. So that it can realize WHY it is grateful, and for what things.
If you practice this every day then you will start to get good at it.
And then it becomes automatic.
And then one day you will be facing an imminent threat of relapse, and your gratitude training will step in and save you.
And this is how spirituality works in recovery.
Now many people will jump in at this point and say “no, there is so much more to it, what about faith in a higher power and so on and so forth?”
But in reality, those people who have that specific faith will end up relapsing if they are not grateful as well.
It is an attitude that saves you from relapse. You have to have the right mindset to resist temptation.
It is not about knowing the right thing, or even about having a strong enough faith.
It is about being grateful for your existence, and therefore grateful for your recovery. Without this core of gratitude you will not be able to overcome temptation in the future.
There are other forms of “internal work” that may need to be done in recovery.
This will depend on what is going on inside of you. If you have negative emotions that cripple your life then you need to deal with them. You need to do the work and move past that stuff.
In other words, if you have something in your life that is keeping you from being truly happy, then you need to do the work in order to overcome that thing. And whatever that thing is, it may be internal or it may be external. Either way you have to identify it and then eliminate it. This is why they “take inventory” in traditional recovery. Identify the negative stuff and then clear it up.
This is the path to happiness. It involves doing work. And it will keep you sober.
Who can help you to do this sort of work?
You might find a sponsor at an AA meeting. Or you might find a therapist or a counselor. Or you might even have a close friend or a family member who has experience with this sort of thing.
Basically you can find someone that you trust, and hopefully someone who has “done the work” themselves. That is, they have gone through early recovery and they are living a happy life in long term sobriety now. Such people will know what needs to be done and therefore they can help you to “do the work.”
Of course, getting a sponsor or just talking with a therapist once a week is not a magic cure for alcoholism. They are only a guide and can only point you in the right direction. It is still up to you to do all of the hard work yourself. You cannot escape this responsibility or outsource it entirely to other people.
If you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing in order to recover then you need to ask for help. Find a guide. Find someone who can work with you one on one.
Personal growth as a means of relapse prevention
Ultimately your path in sobriety should be one of personal growth. This is what prevents relapse.
What is personal growth?
Growth happens when we make changes. And specifically we make a positive change. In order to label something as “positive” we have to judge it.
You can probably benefit a great deal if you ask for help in making such judgments. So you can ask other people in recovery for their advice and their suggestions.
Start doing this just to see what you get. Start going to people and asking them for their opinion. Don’t worry, people love to give advice and they will not hesitate to shower you with their wisdom. Some of it will likely be helpful and some of it won’t.
So how do you tell what it useful and what is not?
Volume. Go ask many different people for advice, and then start listening for the similarities.
When you hear multiple people suggesting the same thing to you, then you should strongly consider taking that advice!
This happened to me a few times in my own journey. Once it was with cigarette addiction and people kept suggesting that I quit. Then it was with exercise and people were telling me that I should find a way to start exercising every day.
For a certain period of time I ignored both of these suggestions, but I kept hearing the same idea come up over and over again from different sources. So eventually I got the hint and I took a look at making both of those changes.
I think one of the big keys for me in recovery has been the idea of “reinventing myself.” This happens on a regular basis if you continue to seek out positive changes to make. If you make a positive change and it is a big lifestyle change then it can really make a huge impact on your recovery. Quitting smoking was like that for me. Daily exercise was also like that. Both of those changes really made it feel like I had reinvented myself, like I was a totally new person.
And I think that is a level of change that we should strive for in recovery. Of course every change that we make is not going to have that large of an impact, but we should always be open to those sort of breakthroughs. We should be seeking. We should be asking the question every day: “What is the biggest positive change that I could be pursuing in my life right now?” And if you have no idea what that might be then you need to start talking to other people, start asking questions, start asking for feedback and advice. Because people will be happy to guide you if you are willing to ask for their advice.
Finally, don’t fall into the trap of just making one sort of change or the other. Don’t focus exclusively on making external changes (people, places, and things) but then not do any of the internal work. If you do this then you will likely end up relapsing at some point. On the other hand, make sure that you don’t do the opposite of this either! Consider both areas of your personal growth–both internal and external, so that you are not leaving yourself vulnerable to relapse.
What do you think, have you been neglecting either form of change in your own life? Do you have negative emotions inside that you need to work through? Or do you have people, places, and things in your life that need to be changed instead (external changes)? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!