It is my belief that recovery from addiction is universal. That is, that there are certain principles that are common among all successful people who have overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. They are using many of the same concepts to recover, even though their methods may vary by quite a bit. The methods that they are share are the fundamental concepts.
The 12 steps of AA hint at this idea, though I don’t really think they paint a full and accurate picture. There are some fundamental principles that are not explicitly stated in the 12 steps, and there are also what I would consider to be “extra steps” that are not critical to the recovery process. Of course this is just my opinion based on my own experiences and observations. I am not implying that the 12 steps will not work for someone, only that they are not the most accurate description of what it really takes to recover.
When I was in very early recovery I could sort of sense this. I had this general idea that something was not quite right. Something was a bit off. Here I was in early recovery, trying to learn how to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction, and I was in rehab and going to AA meetings every day and collecting information. And I was paying very close attention and I was treating it all like a sophisticated science experiment. I had surrendered fully to my disease and I was willing to make a supreme effort with any solution that was offered to me.
Part of my problem was that I wanted to know why everything worked. It was not enough for someone to tell me to go stand on my head for 8 hours each day and read the Big Book. I wanted to understand how my sobriety would be achieved. I wanted to know why I was doing the things I was supposed to do in order to build a new life in recovery.
To some extent you have to let go of this stubborn attitude. You can’t always know the “why” for every suggestion that you get in early recovery. You have to take some blind leaps of faith. If you don’t take these leaps of faith then you will miss out on a lot of discoveries that you otherwise would have explored. For example, no one could really explain to me exactly how daily exercise would help me to remain sober. They said vague things like “you will feel better” and “It will give you more confidence about yourself if you exercise every day.” The reality was that daily exercise made a huge impact, and a positive impact, on my recovery. But I had to take a leap of faith. I had to take the suggestion and just do it. I could not get enough evidence for it to work beforehand. No one could really convince me of the full benefits in advance. I had to make the leap and then find out for myself.
This is why the ultimate path in recovery is one of exploration and testing. Take suggestions, implement the suggestions, and then evaluate them. Give everything a fair chance. They recommend for example that you do “90 AA meetings in 90 days” when you first start in recovery. This is an excellent suggestion–not because AA meetings are necessarily “the answer,” but because the testing method and the consistency will teach you a great deal. After the 90 days you will know exactly how helpful the meetings truly are in your recovery. If you skip days or you only do it for a week then you will learn far less.
Now take this method and apply it to other suggestions. Someone tells you that daily exercise is critical for healthy recovery–so test it out! Start exercising every day and do it for 90 days straight. This is not going to kill you or really inconvenience you in any way. The time is going to pass by anyway; you may as well learn something, right? So you exercise for 90 days straight as you have made this new commitment to yourself. And you learn a great deal. Maybe exercise is not your thing. Or maybe you go from the gym to walking around outdoors. Whatever. The benefit is not just in the exercise. The benefit is in the commitment you made to yourself. Can you do something new, every day, for 90 days straight? Can you make a change like this and stick to it?
If this is the only technique that you ever used in your recovery you would probably do quite well. The 90 day trial. Go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Then start taking suggestions from people who are successful in recovery and implement those suggestions for 90 days each. If this is all you ever did then your life would get a whole lot better in a very short period of time. And you would learn a great deal about yourself in the process. You would learn how to master the art of self commitment. You would learn discipline.
And therein lies one of the fundamental principles of recovery from addiction: Discipline. Some people confuse this with “willpower,” thinking that some amount of willpower is still necessary to recover. It is not really willpower that is required, but it is similar. Rather it is self mastery. It is discipline that you need. And you can build this up, like a muscle. You can strengthen your discipline through daily practice. One way to do it is to start doing 90 day trials. Take a suggestion for making a positive change in your life and then stick to it. Rinse and repeat. This is how you build your discipline muscle.
Can you imagine a more valuable thing to work on in terms of overcoming an addiction? This is incredibly valuable. And all you have to do is listen to others, take suggestions, and follow through. Consistency is the whole key. And the amazing thing is that in the meantime, while you are building this new discipline, your life gets better and better.
Different methods, same outcomes
There is a recovery program that is based entirely on exercise and fitness. It is not very popular and widespread like AA or the 12 step program, but it does exist. And actually there are a few variations of this program out there.
There are other programs of recovery that are based on religion. And there are programs that are based on therapy or counseling. And there are even recovery programs that are based on creative arts.
Now you might look at all of these various programs and say to yourself: “Surely we could rank these programs in order of their effectiveness.”
The truth is a lot messier than that, because:
1) It is very difficult to get accurate data in terms of success rates among recovering alcoholics and addicts.
2) It is largely up to the individual as to whether they recover or not.
3) Finding the perfect program for a certain individual is probably not as important as we might believe (see Project Match study for evidence of this).
4) Depth of commitment and level of surrender are what largely determine outcomes, not which program is used.
In other words, let’s say we have 100 alcoholics who say that they all want to try to stop drinking. We might send them all to these various programs and then judge the programs based on the outcomes. Some people relapse and some will stay sober. So we judge the programs accordingly, right?
But that is not the truth. The truth is, some of those 100 alcoholics were at rock bottom and had truly surrendered to their disease, and some of them were not. And so this was the REAL determining factor as to whether or not the person remained sober. It did not really matter which treatment center they attended or what methods were used, all that really mattered was if the person was truly ready or not.
My own experience backs this up. I went to rehab 3 times, and on the third try I finally remained sober. Each time I attended a 12 step based rehab that used AA meetings. And the second rehab I attended was a world renowned treatment center that is one of the best in the industry. But it didn’t matter because at that time I was not in a state of total surrender. So later on when I fully surrendered I went to a much less reputable rehab and was able to turn my life around. The quality of the rehab (and the type) did not matter nearly as much to me as the level of my own surrender. This is an important concept and it points to one of the most fundamental principles of all: Surrender.
Everyone who is successful in recovery can look back and describe their surrender. They had to stop fighting to win. They had to give up on the idea that they could control their drinking or drugging. Surrender is fundamental to recovery.
The core principle that keeps every person sober is the same
When I was in early recovery I started paying attention to how exactly successful people in sobriety recovered. I wanted to get at the real truth. How exactly were people staying sober?
I decided after a short while that the most important thing in early recovery is the commitment to total abstinence.
Does that seem obvious?
It should. It was pretty obvious to me. But discovering it on my own was still a revelation. And I also noticed that it was never explicitly stated in the 12 steps.
For example, I wondered why step one in AA was not:
“Made a commitment not to drink alcohol or take addictive drugs no matter what.”
Why was that not step one? Why was that not the most important step of them all? It was nowhere to be found!
And yet, this is what I decided to be the most important “step” in my entire recovery. This was the main priority. And yet it was not one of the 12 steps.
This is the core principle upon which abstinence based recovery rests. This is also the number one priority.
I have heard so many people in AA who do not understand this, or even believe it. For example, if you listen to people in AA meetings talk, you will find that some of them have a different number one priority. For example, many consider their connection to their higher power to be even more important than maintaining abstinence. They will say things like “the most important thing in my life today is my connection to my higher power.”
Not me. The most important thing in my life today is that I do not take a drink or an addictive drug. Period.
Priorities. This is another fundamental concept. The people who are successful in sobriety have their priorities straight.
Personal growth is the fundamental to recovery
One of my best tips for recovery is that everyone should adopt a strategy of personal growth. They have a saying in AA: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”
This is true. You cannot stand still in recovery. If you stop working on positive change then you are slowly reverting back to your old self (the one who self medicates with alcohol or drugs). Obviously we do not want that. Therefore, we need to prevent this slow change back to addiction by making forward progress.
Recovery is change. You either change or you relapse. Our default state in life is to self medicate. Relapse is the default option. If we do nothing then we eventually relapse.
Therefore you must make progress in life. You must create positive change.
How do we do this?
First of all you need to choose a direction for change. Then you need to choose an intensity. Those are really the only two variables. How are you going to change, and how hard are you going to try? How consistently are you going to make an effort?
The direction is actually not as important as you might think. This goes back to the idea that no single recovery program is the perfect solution. Pretty much any abstinence based recovery program will work just fine, so long as you work it.
And why is this the case? It goes back to commitment and discipline. If it is an abstinence based program, then your number one priority is to not drink or use drugs every day. You start stringing days together and this builds discipline.
It doesn’t matter if you are going to AA meetings or attending church services or doing exercise based recovery or whatever. If you make this commitment to yourself and build discipline and take positive action then you will be able to recover. If you lack consistency then you tempt relapse. It is as simple as that.
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol is not tricky. It is difficult and it can be challenging but it is not complicated. You build new discipline in your life one day at a time through simple abstinence.
Your goal with any recovery program is to rebuild your life. You do this by establishing healthy habits and taking positive action. No single program seems to have a monopoly on the correct way to do this. You might go to meetings every day or you might find a higher power through religion. You might find that exercise really helps you to recover. But in all cases, you start to do some fundamental things in order to rebuild a new life in recovery:
1) You make a commitment to yourself that you will not drink or use addictive drugs.
2) You make a commitment to yourself that you will strive for better health. You take care of yourself. Self esteem. You begin to care again.
3) You decide to improve your life. You make positive changes. You take suggestions from other people.
4) You follow through on all of this. Consistency. Through this consistency you build discipline. You get stronger.
These are the fundamental principles as I see them in the process. Of course you have to surrender in order to take step one. This is just as true in the program of AA as it is in any other program. If you do not surrender then you cannot start making positive changes and have them “stick.”
Complacency is the only long term threat to sobriety
Believe it or not, regardless of which recovery program you choose, there is a pretty level playing field in long term sobriety.
What I mean by that is this:
After you are clean and sober for a few years, everything evens out. You are now sober every day and it the threat of relapse is no longer a daily threat (like it was in the beginning). You have figured out how to live a sober life.
But one challenge still remains. You might get complacent. You might get lazy in your approach. And that leaves the door open for relapse to sneak back into your life.
This is going to be the same no matter which program of recovery you use to get sober. Complacency is a universal threat.
So everyone has the same challenge in long term recovery. Everyone has to find a way to keep moving forward, to keep learning, to keep challenging themselves. If you stop doing these things then it increases the chance that you will become complacent.
Again, the answer seems to be summarized by the phrase “personal growth.” If you are taking positive action and improving yourself and your life situation then you are well protected from complacency. If you fail to do this and you are just coasting along and not making positive changes then you are in danger of relapse.
So you might ask yourself: Does a recovery program address this threat? If so, how? For example, AA addresses it by suggesting that you “carry the message to other alcoholics” in long term sobriety. This is a powerful suggestion and it really works if you apply it. Working with others in recovery and carrying the message can help you from becoming complacent. Of course, there are other ways to fight complacency and you have to find the path that works best for you. Getting stuck is easy to do. One way to avoid it is to simply take new suggestions from other people. This requires a bit of humility and courage.
The solution is what works among all recovery alcoholics. What are those principles?
If we look at the overall picture and study the success stories then we can determine the fundamental principles.
They have another saying in AA: “Stick with the winners.” When they say that they are suggesting that you find people in AA who have established sobriety and they are living a good life and that you should follow their advice. Whatever they are doing is obviously working. Don’t take advice from the guy who just relapsed last week. He doesn’t have what you want. Stick with the winners.
What I did in early recovery was to start watching “the winners” and seeing what they did on a day to day basis. Many of them pursued a lot of things outside of the AA program. Many of them exercised and pursued spirituality in their own way. I learned a lot by watching what these people did rather than by just listening to their verbal advice. That is a key point: Watch the actions more than you listen to the words. See what the successful people are doing on a day to day basis, then model those habits. Because that reveals the fundamental principles that will help to keep you sober as well.
What do you think? Are there certain principles in recovery that are universal? What have you found those to be? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!