I have come to the conclusion that recovery is personal growth.
Not that recovery requires personal growth, but that this is actually the essence of recovery itself. Personal transformation. Improving your life. This is what keeps people clean and sober.
I figured this out when I was living in a treatment center and I had a few months sober. I was going to AA meetings every day and I was desperately trying to figure out recovery.
It was not good enough when people would tell me to just follow directions, to just “fake it till you make it,” to simply show up to meetings every day and allow recovery to start working in my life.
This was not good enough. I wanted to know why it worked. I wanted to know exactly how each thing was keeping me sober.
And to be honest, no one could really explain it. No one could give me a satisfactory answer to this. No one could come out and explain exactly how sobriety worked in a very specific way. It was all very disjointed and disconnected: “Go to these meetings, get a sponsor, get a higher power, and……poof! Sobriety.” People would try to connect all of the dots for me but it was never good enough. I guess my scientific and analytic mind just wanted to know more. It wanted the details.
So at that time I started to ask these questions internally. I was done asking them externally of other people because I finally realized that no one had the answers. No one could pin it down for me and describe exactly how recovery worked.
So I started to explore my own recovery at this point. I started to do research online to find how other people were staying sober. And I was somewhat surprised to find that not everyone in recovery was working the same old twelve steps of AA. I found people in recovery who were perfectly sober and they were using some very different methods for achieving their sobriety. For example, some people were using nothing more than intense and disciplined exercise in order to remain sober.
“Now how can this be?” I thought. Because the folks at AA had told me that this was basically impossible. The folks at AA would have me believe that such people are doomed to relapse. And yet here are hundreds of recovering alcoholics who are using exercise as their primary vehicle of sobriety.
How can this be?
And so I started to dig a bit deeper. And furthermore, I started to ask questions of people that I met who were sober. I wanted to know what they were doing in their lives, what actions were they taking, and what the real theme of their life was. How was recovery really working for them? What made them tick?
Furthermore, I would even start to do this with people who were dedicated to traditional recovery programs like AA and NA. Strip away the daily meetings, and what is their routine? Take away the daily AA meeting, and then look at what is making their recovery tick.
Because quite honestly, there are two types of people who are going to 12 step meetings every day. This may upset some people but I really believe this to be true. There are two types of people at an AA meeting:
1) People who have a strong recovery and would remain sober even if they stopped going to meetings every day.
2) People who rely on the daily meeting for their sobriety and would relapse quickly if they stopped attending.
Those are the two types of people at AA meetings. Those who depend on them for sobriety, and those who are just there to “give back.”
I am not interested in learning from the group of people who are dependent on the AA meetings. I would much rather learn about recovery from the people who have stronger sobriety than that, from the people who are not actually dependent on the meetings.
Does that sound arrogant? It shouldn’t. It should sound practical.
When I was a few months into my sobriety, I started to wonder about people who were saying that “these AA meetings are my medicine” and how they “needed them to stay sober.” And I started to wonder to myself if it were possible to be strong enough in sobriety to not have to depend on a daily meeting.
Because even though daily meetings may bring you the gift of sobriety, it still felt like a dependency to me. And it was a dependency that I did not particularly want in my life.
And so this is what led me to dig deeper. This is what caused me to say “OK, let’s look at other people in recovery and figure out how exactly they are staying sober, independent of AA meetings.”
I admit that I did this because I did not want to attend AA meetings every day!
And so what I discovered, ultimately, was that the “winners” in sobriety are not necessarily people who attend AA every day (although many of those people are also winners!), but it is the people who are on a path of personal growth.
Personal growth can exist within AA, but it can also exist outside of it. And it is this element of personal growth that keeps people sober.
AA is just a framework. It is a big sign that points people towards personal growth. But the sign is not recovery. AA is not recovery. AA simply points to recovery. Helpful for many people, but not essential for all. And this was an important point that I had to slowly come to realize in my own journey.
Many people told me that I would relapse if I left AA.
But I did not leave AA to just flake out and goof off. Instead I left AA and discovered a challenging path of personal growth. I made a commitment to start improving my life each and every day. And to be honest, this started working really well for me while many of my peers in AA (who at the time lived with me in long term rehab) started to relapse. That was all the evidence that I needed that I was on the right path.
The continuum between addiction and recovery
There is a continuum between your life in addiction and the rewards of a life well lived in sobriety.
That continuum is separated by a whole lot of living sober and achieving personal growth.
Think about what happens when an alcoholic sobers up. Maybe they go to detox somewhere and go through treatment.
Then they leave rehab and they have a decision to make: Are they going to continue on with sobriety, or are they going to go back to drinking every day?
What does each decision look like?
If they go back to drinking we all know what that looks like. Their life spirals back out of control. It is a negative experience. Thinks get worse and worse every day. This can happen before they even pick up the first drink. Things get worse and worse and this allows them to justify relapse. Then once they start drinking it really accelerates and things get even more screwed up.
What is the opposite of this?
The choice for recovery is a choice for personal growth. You leave treatment and you make a commitment to yourself. That commitment is really one of personal growth.
You are basically saying to yourself: “I am not going to just say Screw Everything and take a drink. Instead I will find solutions. I will ask for help from other people. I will push myself to improve my life and my life situation. I will not make excuses, instead I will overcome.”
That is the decision for recovery. It is a decision to work hard rather than to take the easy way out. It is a decision to fix your problems rather than to medicate them away.
These two decisions are on opposite ends of a continuum. They are opposites.
And we obviously do not want to get too close to the end that creates relapse. To the end where you say “screw everything, I am just going to drink again.” We want to stay as far away from that point as possible.
So if we consciously identify that point and make an effort to avoid it, we could label this as “relapse prevention.”
What is the strategy by which we would avoid saying “screw everything, I am just going to drink?”
How do we get to that point? How do we make a plan to avoid this moment, and what is that like?
I can give you a good suggestion for doing so.
There are two ways that a person would get to this negative point in their sobriety where they say “screw it, I am just going to drink.”
First is their attitude. They are not grateful in this moment. They have the opposite of gratitude. This is a spiritual issue.
Second is their situation. They are saying “screw everything” because their life is not going the way that they want right now. They are not enjoying their present reality.
The first, the attitude, is internal. This is inside their head.
The second, the situation, is external. This is the events outside of them, in their real life. This is their life situation.
If you want to make a serious effort at “relapse prevention,” then you need to consider both of these things. Your attitude and your situation.
Your attitude should be one of gratitude. But you also have to clear away a lot of the garbage in your mind in order to get to a place of real gratitude. For example, you may have fear, shame, anger, resentment or self pity that is clouding your mind and causing you to lack gratitude. You may have to identify and work through those things in order to get to a place where you are consistently grateful.
It is easy for most people to experience a brief moment of gratitude. It is much harder to practice it every single day, to turn it into a habit, to make it part of who you are. This is what we must strive for in terms of spiritual growth. This is a big part of the personal growth that will help to keep us sober.
If someone asks me today “what actually keeps you sober” I would say that 50% of the solution is my spiritual condition, and practicing gratitude daily.
So what is the other 50 percent of my sobriety?
It is my life situation. It is that I no longer sit in bars, or hang out with drug addicted friends. It is that I no longer work at a job I don’t like, or hang out with people who are a bad influence. It is my external reality. It is the world around me, and that I have deliberately made choices to reshape my reality so that it supports sobriety.
This is my life situation. Yes, your attitude is important, and the gratitude keeps you sober, and you need to have your spirituality screwed on properly. That is important. But so is your external situation. Your life situation matters a great deal. This is what people are talking about when they say “people, places, and things.”
You can improve your attitude and overcome fear, shame, guilt, self pity, and resentment. Clear this stuff away and you are left with peace and gratitude.
You can also improve your life situation. You can push yourself to improve yourself and your external reality. You can reduce stress and create a peaceful environment. If you do this work then it becomes much easier to maintain that attitude of gratitude and that aura of peace and contentment.
Both of these strategies are important for recovery.
Taken as a whole, I label these two concepts as “personal growth.”
So when people ask me how I remain sober today, I tell them “personal growth.”
But what I really mean when I say that is: “Continuously improving my life situation while also practicing peace, contentment, and gratitude.”
It’s a little clunky but it works. And I think if you go do the same research that I did, you will find similar themes. In other words, if you go study the successful people in AA, you will find that they are in alignment with these ideas here. They strive for improvement both internally and externally. Both in their attitude, and in their life situation. That is what I found to be true.
What happens when you stop learning new things, even in long term sobriety
If you stop learning new things in addiction recovery then this can lead you to relapse.
Learning is tied to personal growth. If you haven’t learned anything new about yourself in an experience, then can you really label that experience as a “growth experience?” I don’t think that you can. Thus, personal growth and learning about yourself are inextricably tied to one another.
You would think that we might reach a point in our sobriety when we could stop learning new things about ourselves. You would think that we would arrive at a point in recovery that is “good enough” for us to kick back, relax, and remain sober forever.
Not gonna happen.
Here is another thing that I paid very close attention to during my first 18 months of sobriety and AA meetings:
I listened VERY carefully to people in AA who had accumulated multiple years sober and then relapsed.
Because this was a huge red flag to me. This was really something. These people had “made it” in my minds, they had over a decade of sobriety. And then they blew it. They relapsed and drank. How could this happen? I thought they were cured!
So when I heard someone at an AA meeting say that they had ten years sober at one time and then they relapsed, I listened up. Because this was the final remaining secret that I wanted to learn. I wanted to know “how to stay sober forever!”
So what I learned is this:
People who relapse after several years of sobriety got lazy. They got complacent. “Complacent” is just another way of saying “lazy.”
Some of these people had stopped attending AA meetings. Some of them had stopped working with others in recovery. But all of them could look back and say “I stopped doing the things that I needed to do for my recovery, and I was lazy.”
Obviously I wanted to avoid this. So I made it my mission to learn about complacency and figure out how to prevent it.
One thing that I learned in doing this is that you cannot react to a problem like complacency.
If you try to react to it then you will relapse. Reacting is too slow. The problem is already on top of you, and it is too late to do anything about it.
Therefore, we must live our lives in such a way that it prevents complacency from occurring in the first place.
How can we do that?
Again, the answer is:
If you stop learning, if you stop growing, this can lead to relapse.
If you stay in a process of personal growth, if you make it continuous, if you are always searching for that next step in your life, the next positive action to take….then you are protected from relapse.
Recovery is about momentum. It is about positive action and momentum. You keep moving forward or you slide back down the mountain.
We don’t want to slide down the mountain. Relapse is at the bottom.
And there is no top to the mountain. We just keep climbing. Continuous growth.
Overcoming addiction is about improving yourself and your life in the long term
My strategy is to keep improving my life.
The rewards of this strategy are amazing. You would think that it might get tiresome at some point, to keep trying to improve your life.
But it doesn’t. Because each time you push yourself to achieve a new goal, you get rewarded. You learn more about yourself. You learn how to enjoy life more deeply, to be more grateful.
And so this is a continuous process. And the bonus is that it protects you from relapse. You cannot relapse if you are truly grateful. You will not relapse if your genuinely excited about the growth you are achieving. You will not relapse if you are excited to wake up in the morning and see what challenges each new day will bring.
And so you might be asking: “How do I get to this state? How do I get that excited and passionate about life and personal growth?”
The answer is the process. You must take the action first and expect for the results to fall into place later. In traditional recovery, they call this “faith.”
You must make a leap of faith that your life will get better if you put in the work.
And it is hard. I know it is hard because I have been there. You take positive action and the rewards do not come. Because it takes time. It takes time for the benefits of sobriety to kick in. And this is why you need to have faith, to know that it gets better, that it “gets greater, later.”
What about you, have you found personal growth to be important in your own journey? Do you think of recovery in terms of personal growth? Why or why not? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!