One of the things that I had discovered in my recovery journey is that you need a strategy in order to beat an addiction.
In other words, you need an overall philosophy of recovery to help guide you in your everyday decisions. It is not enough to simply change your behavior and then use a variety of tactics and reactionary measures in order to avoid relapse. That is not enough. Or at least, it has not appeared to be enough based on my own observations. And one of the problems with mainstream recovery programs is that they tend to be based on tactics. Have a craving to drink? Call your sponsor. Feel like using drugs today? Go to an AA or NA meeting. There is a threat to your recovery and you are told to react to that threat. This is how traditional relapse prevention typically works.
The problem that I have with this approach is that it is not always sufficient to protect you in every area of your life. They like to say that addiction is simple and therefore the solution is simple as well. I disagree with this though. I think addiction is rather complex, and this is why you need a strategy for recovery.
Alcoholism infiltrates your entire life
Alcoholism is not simple. It infiltrates your entire life. Addiction affects every aspect of your being.
Of course traditional recovery teaches that our alcoholism compromises us spiritually and tears down our spiritual character. So the solution in most traditional recovery programs is to restore our spirituality so that we can overcome our disease.
This approach can work for some people but in my opinion it is far too narrow. Alcoholism does not target your spirituality alone. Instead, it affects every area of your life and of your overall health.
Just look, for example, at what alcoholism can do to relationships. Look at how it isolates the individual socially.
Consider for a moment how alcoholism affects the body physically–how sleep, nutrition, and fitness are all compromised.
Consider the fact that drinking every day compromises a person mentally, and saps their ability to generate new ideas.
It is not just a spiritual malady. In fact, alcoholism affects every single aspect of an individual’s health.
This is not a simple problem. The reason it is complex is because after drinking for so long and suffering from all of these compromises, it begins to change who the person really is. So that when they suddenly stop drinking alcohol and try to quit, their lives are still in shambles. Things are all messed up due to their addiction and the behaviors that it changed in them.
In order to recover from alcoholism you have to stop putting alcohol into your body. Everyone knows that abstinence is the foundation of sobriety. But does it stop there?
Traditional recovery says that it doesn’t stop there, that you have to also make an effort to restore your spiritual health in sobriety. The traditional model says that this spiritual growth is what will then prevent relapse.
The holistic approach goes one step further than this and says “Why stop at spiritual growth?” If you really want to prevent relapse, then you need to seek growth in all areas of your health. You need to work to restore your physical health, your mental health, your emotional health, your relationships, and so on. Addiction was a total package and it affected all of these various areas in a negative way, so in order to recover you will need to restore all of these areas by taking positive action.
The solution is not spiritual, that is too narrow a focus. Instead, the solution is holistic. This includes spiritual growth but is also much wider than that.
Building a strategy for recovery based on your health
So if you were going to create a strategy based on the idea of holistic health, how would you go about doing it?
One way to do it would be to adopt a life philosophy based on improving your health in all of these areas: Physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual.
Your “health” is not just avoiding sickness and doing some exercise every once in a while. Your health is made up of all five of those areas, and you need to take care of yourself in every one of those ways on a regular basis.
Therefore your strategy for recovery can become one of personal growth. The direction of that personal growth is based on holistic health. Taking care of yourself every single day. Improving your health in life as one of your main priorities. Not just spiritual or physical health, but all of these areas.
There are other recovery strategies that you can adopt. For example, you might try adopting a strategy of trying to do everything that you can to help other people in recovery. This is the idea of doing “12 step work” in AA, sponsoring people, chairing meetings, and so on. You might adopt this strategy of doing everything that you can to help others to recover. And this might work for you, I don’t really know. I am telling you what worked for me, and that was to start rebuilding my health in recovery in all of these different areas. I tried a more traditional strategy in recovery based on traditional teachings and it wasn’t working out well for me. I needed a different approach. That is what pushed me to seek out personal growth and holistic health as a new strategy in life.
So you may have to experiment a bit to find what truly works for you. And you may have to test some things out in order to find your path in recovery and develop your own strategy. More on that in a minute. But first we need to look at how the journey begins in the first place.
Starting off in treatment and building from there
I have looked at various case studies of people in recovery and I notice one common theme: Almost all of them had some help in the beginning.
In long term sobriety everyone is doing their own thing. They have found what works for them. And at that point, they no longer rely on outside help as much. But in early recovery almost everyone had to get some form of help in order to become sober.
Much like anything else, there is more than one way to get started in recovery. But just because there are alternatives does not mean that all of the choices are equally valid. In this case I believe that inpatient treatment is almost always going to be the best choice for anyone who is struggling with addiction.
It takes a lot of guts to go check into inpatient rehab. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you need to go put yourself into a facility in order to stop using drugs or alcohol. But there is really no shame involved in the process and you should not feel badly for “having to go to treatment.” You should feel bad if you cannot summon the courage to attend, but if convince yourself to go to treatment and get the help that you need then that is truly the sign of a strong person.
I admit that going to inpatient treatment is more of a tactic than a strategy. But it is an important first step because in very early recovery you are not really ready to use a strategy yet anyway.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that when you have one week sober you are not yet in a position to be able to design your own recovery strategy. If you try to do this you will relapse. There are a few reasons for this:
1) You are still going through detox and your mind is not clear yet.
2) You are going through withdrawal and so your mind and body are craving your drug of choice. You are super vulnerable to relapse.
3) If you try to design your own recovery program at this time you will sabotage your efforts without even realizing it.
Early recovery is not the time to design your own recovery program. This is not the time to declare that you have your own recovery strategy.
Instead, you should follow directions.
Most people don’t really like following directions. They would rather go off and do their own thing.
But this is one time when following directions could literally save your life. Go to treatment, ask for help, and then do what they tell you to do.
But how can you do this? How can you learn to follow directions when you have been in control of your own life for so long. How can you shift away from the selfish desires of alcoholism to becoming willing to follow instructions from others?
It is simple enough. You need to:
1) Get desperate for change. This means being miserable due to your addiction.
2) Temporarily kill your ego. Set your pride aside and make an agreement with yourself that you are not in charge for a while.
3) Listen to advice and follow through on it.
This has nothing to do with strategy. This is a simple and brute force tactic. Go to rehab, listen to others, do what they say. This is simple action and it is hard to do because no one really wants to do it. No one wants to be told what to do. No one wants to believe that their ideas are not good enough.
Your ideas are good enough, but just not right now. Not when you have 3 days sober. Or even 3 months sober. At those times you need to put your own ideas on the back burner and listen to what others in recovery are telling you to do. If you do this then your own ideas can flourish later on and you can eventually design your own path in recovery. But in the first 6 months to a year of your journey you need to squash your ego and listen to others. Take advice and stop giving advice for the first year. Listen. Take action. Your ideas about quitting drinking did not work so well, so it is time to listen to other people’s advice on how to be sober.
This is how you build a foundation. Not by using your own ideas or even your own willpower. You do it by asking for help and then taking the advice and following through with it. Become a robot for a year. Become like a mindless robot that just does what it is told to do. I know that sounds horrible but the rewards of actually doing it are immense. And in the end you will still get full control of your life and be able to design your own path in recovery. You just can’t do it when you have two weeks sober. It just doesn’t work that way. It takes time to heal.
Your daily practice and how it protects you from relapse
One of the things that you should know about recovery is that your daily actions are what create your future life. Your habits dictate what you become in the future.
Therefore we need to be incredibly mindful of what our daily habits consist of. They are leading us in the direction of our future. We become what we do every day. This is why alcoholism and drug addiction are so bad for people. If you keep doing the same thing over and over then the results tend to multiply in the future. This goes for negative as well as positive actions.
But therein lies a gift, an opportunity. If you want to be fit and in shape then you simply exercise every day. You make a commitment and you never deviate or skip days and then after a year or two you look back and suddenly you are in fantastic physical condition.
The same thing can happen when you put consistent effort into the other areas of your health: Mental, spiritual, social, emotional. If you want to transform one of these areas of your life then the recipe is very simple: Take positive action towards it every single day. Don’t ever skip a day of effort. Don’t ever put your feet up and get lazy and stop pushing towards progress in that area. Every day is an opportunity for more growth.
When we were stuck in addiction we were trapped in this negative spiral. Everything got worse and worse over time.
Recovery is simply reversing this trend. We take positive action every day to improve these 5 areas of our health. So we get better and better over time. Life just keeps getting better and better if we take consistent action. This is what helps us to prevent relapse.
Our chances for relapse are closely tied to our self esteem. How good do you feel about yourself and your life? This starts with holistic health. Are you taking care of yourself every single day? Are you taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially? Are you improving your life in each of these areas over time? Or are you neglecting one of these aspects of your health?
If you take care of yourself in all 5 of these areas then your life will get better and better. You will find peace, joy, contentment. And you will not want to throw that away. You will build a life in recovery that becomes precious to you and you will not want to sacrifice this life to drinking or drugs. This is the most powerful form of relapse prevention. You improve your life and you improve yourself to the point where you place a high value on your sobriety.
This strategy starts to break down if you neglect even one area of your overall health. So maybe someone is doing all of this work and they are taking care of themselves in most of these areas, but then they also have a very toxic relationship in their life. The toxic relationship is bringing them down and causing unhappiness, even though they have all of these other positive things going on. That toxic relationship may even become so bad that it could cause them to relapse.
This is a really important point: A single negative thing in your life can spiral out of control. We do not necessarily seek happiness so much as we seek to eliminate negatives. You cannot allow something negative to ruin your life and drive you towards relapse. This is why the holistic strategy is so important. If you neglect one area of your health then it can unbalance your entire life. The strategy works best when you are taking care of all areas of your health.
Your daily practice are your daily habits. What are you doing each day in order to take better care of yourself? What are you doing in order to improve yourself and your life over time?
And perhaps the bigger question is: “What if you don’t know what your daily practice should consist of?”
How to expand your daily practice by experimentation
Think about how you become clean and sober.
You ask for help. Someone gives you directions. You follow the directions.
It’s that simple. You go to treatment, for example, and they tell you to stop drinking and go to AA meetings every day. Or whatever the case may be. Then you follow the advice and start living a sober life, one day at a time.
Ask for help, follow directions.
That is the simple mechanism by which you learn in recovery.
Notice that we don’t come up with our own ideas. We ask for help instead.
Notice that we follow directions. We take action. We take positive action. We have to do something in order to recover.
This same basic principle can be used to discover your daily practice.
In order to make this work you have to find people who are in recovery. You have to find people who are successful in their sobriety so that they have real knowledge to give you. Don’t bother taking advice from someone who is either:
1) Not in recovery from addiction or alcoholism, or
2) Not successful and happy in their life.
This is not to say that you could not get valuable advice from someone else, but there is a problem in general with taking advice: There is too much of it.
If you go to a dozen AA meetings and ask for advice, you will hear hundreds of suggestions. Literally hundreds of them! You cannot do them all.
Therefore you must filter them. So just use the criteria above, and only take advice from people who are recovering and living the sort of life that you want to live.
So how does this advice-seeking turn into a daily practice?
When you take advice from someone and try it out in your life, you are testing their ideas. You are applying their wisdom and finding out if it is a good fit for your life or not.
If it is not a good fit, drop the advice and move on to another suggestion.
Then your job is to monitor your daily practice as it evolves by asking the question:
“Am I taking care of myself today physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually? Socially?”
If the answer is “no” to any one of these areas then you know where you need to seek advice. Ask people how you can take better care of yourself emotionally. Or spiritually. Or how you can connect with health people in recovery (socially). And so on.
Find the problem areas (or the weaknesses) and then take action in order to fix them.
This is the strategy that has worked for me in recovery.
The theme is personal growth. The direction of that growth is holistic health. This is accomplished through a daily practice in which I take care of myself every single day. When I get stuck I ask for help, then I try to act on the advice.
What works for you? What is your strategy for recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!