Yesterday we looked at how most people underestimate their disease of addiction, and how you can avoid doing that. Today we want to look at a way that you can simplify your recovery strategy.
Why do you need a recovery strategy at all? Why not just follow the advice and directions you are given?
We need a strategy for recovery from addiction and alcoholism. It cannot just be a collection of tactics (such as relapse prevention tips). If this is our overall approach to recovery then we are doing ourselves a disservice.
Note that many people who first get into traditional recovery believe that this is the best approach–to simply follow a bunch of tips and sayings and cliches that they hear in the meetings. For example, calling a sponsor or a friend in recovery when you have a craving to use your drug of choice. This is a tactical approach to relapse prevention. You get a craving, you call someone and talk it through.
I am not saying that this is a bad approach to recovery, but what I am saying is that your overall approach should NOT just be a collection of such tactics. If it is then you are going to have lots of little holes through which relapse will eventually find its way.
Remember that the disease of addiction is very insidious and patient. If you try to outsmart it by simply having an answer for every little contingency, you are probably going to lose. The disease of addiction is so crafty that it can infiltrate your life from any number of different avenues. Trying to shut down all of these individual avenues of attack is a losing battle. The solution therefore is to develop a strategy that provides resilience to all of them. Instead of merely reacting to each threat that pops up in your recovery, you must strive to make yourself a stronger person to begin with. You must protect yourself from relapse from the inside out, rather than from the outside-in. Using tactics attempts to medicate the problems of your outside world and treat the external stress factors as the pop up. Using a recovery strategy would be to live in such a way that such external complications are minimized to begin with, giving you a much lower stress level and less problems to react to.
When you do not have any sort of recovery strategy you are basically fighting the disease blindly, reacting to everything that life throws at you. You are reacting rather than living strategically and planning. Reacting to things generally has a poor outcome, as you are not in a position of strength when you merely react (unless you happen to get lucky, which will not happen every time).
Furthermore, there are some reactions in recovery that are too little, too late. You cannot react to lung cancer very well after you already have it and you are told that it is stage three or four and you should probably not have smoked cigarettes for the last four decades. Any reaction to this is too little, too late. A recovery strategy would address a problem like this and seek to prevent it through healthier living.
Therefore you should pursue and actively think about your own recovery strategy. Do you know what it is? Think of your strategy as the overall guiding principle (or principles) that guide your tactics and reactions to live in recovery. It is not the tactics themselves (such as going to meetings, calling your sponsor, etc.) but it is the overall direction and reason for such tactics. Your strategy in recovery should govern and guide your individual actions.
If you are in the 12 step program then your strategy is likely based on spiritual growth. This is what is generally taught in 12 step programs, anyway. Your overall goal in life is to achieve the highest level of spiritual growth that you can, such that you can bring about a personality change that is drastic enough to overcome your addiction. This is the strategy that guides most people in the 12 step program.
I tried this strategy for about the first year of my recovery but I eventually shifted and adapted this strategy to something else. The spiritual quest was too narrow for my tastes and I saw missed opportunities in recovery that could have been achieved with a broader strategy.
I have simplified my recovery strategy down to the following statement:
* Pursue holistic health and personal growth.
If you want to turn that into a complete program of recovery, then just add a step one to it: “Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.” Then your second step is to pursue holistic health and personal growth by taking positive action every single day. That’s it. Two steps and you are done. Fairly simplified and it seems to have worked quite well for me over the last decade of continuous sobriety.
Now you might exclaim “but that is cheating! Saying not to use drugs or alcohol no matter what insures your success, but what if I cannot live up to that?”
Ah, well that part of it is really just an obvious tactic, not the strategy itself. The strategy here is in the idea of always pursuing greater health (not just spiritual health, but all areas of health in your life) and in taking daily action to achieve personal growth. This is the strategy.
In my strategy I value three things:
2) My health.
3) Personal growth.
Therefore you can view your entire life through this lens, or this strategy. You face a decision: should I smoke this next cigarette? Well, you would have to check with your strategy first. And my strategy tells me to value my health as one of my highest values (the highest value being sobriety and the third value being personal growth).
So I know based on my recovery strategy that I really should not be smoking cigarettes. Therefore I should make a serious effort to quit them.
Now obviously just having this strategy cannot answer every single question in your life, as you will still need to prioritize in order to choose which actions to take. Let’s say that you want to improve your health and you have ten possible projects and ideas for doing so. Obviously you can not do them all at once, you have to prioritize.
I tend to prioritize based on what I predict will have the greatest impact in my life.
Holistic health and personal growth are two separate categories. When examining my overall health, I might be looking at possible changes such as:
* Quitting smoking.
* Starting an exercise routine.
* Eating a healthier diet.
But in looking at personal growth for my future, I may be looking at some possibilities such as:
* Going back to college to finish a degree.
* Starting a side business.
* Working with others in recovery on a daily basis.
* Sponsoring someone in recovery or attending AA meetings.
Of course there may be some overlap between the two categories of “health” and “growth.”
The important thing to realize is that you have to prioritize because you cannot do everything that you want to do, or even that you should do, all at once. You must pick a project or two and attack it.
The way to prioritize is to simply estimate which project would have the biggest positive impact on your life, and choose that. Then attack it with everything that you have.
When you have mastered one goal (or change in your life) then move on to other goals and projects. This is a fantastic way to live in recovery, and it also follows a strategy.
What you may not realize is that you are actually preventing relapse by living this way. By deliberately setting and achieving goals you are insuring that you do not relapse. Each positive change in your life is more insurance against the backslide into relapse.
Your strategy is essentially:
“I want to learn new things, grow as a person, and take positive action every day. I want to pursue better health in every area of my life.”
Designing a recovery strategy that does not work against itself
Everyone who is living in recovery has a strategy, whether they are conscious of it or not. One strategy is basically choosing never to think about recovery strategy at all, and thus just react to life challenges without much thought about your own reactions. You choose to fly blind.
Now many other people will do a bit better than this and they will have at least some strategy to help guide them, but it may not be a complete recovery strategy. Or they may not be willing to fully follow the principles that have been laid out to guide them. In such cases, people are bound to end up sabotaging their recovery efforts.
For example, take the person who is living in recovery from addiction but continues to be overweight, smoke cigarettes, and refuses to exercise. Such a person may have a strategy that guides them in actually preventing relapse, but they obviously are not following a strategy that moves them towards greater health.
Why would this be a problem? Because addiction is so insidious. This example is actually something that I have witnessed over and over again in my own recovery journey with my peers, and some of them have even died because of it.
People get sick in recovery, and you would not believe how much of a trigger to relapse this can become. Illness seems to be a massive stumbling block that takes people in recovery by surprise. Because many illnesses require medication or involve pain, many recovering addicts and alcoholics actually relapse on painkillers when they find themselves falling ill. I have seen this happen many times over the last ten years. I have also seen it lead alcoholics back to the bottle and heroin users back out to the streets to buy dope. Getting sick is a major stumbling block.
So let’s go back to the strategy now. Our example person in recovery had a strong strategy in terms of going to meetings and reaching out in times of need, but they did not have a strategy that considered their overall health. Their strategy in recovery did not address their smoking, their weight problem, their lack of exercise. Their lack of proper strategy led them to relapse indirectly, because they did not realize how sneaky their addiction was going to be. They thought they would be protected by simply focusing on sobriety and basic recovery tactics. They did not realize that their overall health was just as important as their sobriety.
This is another thing that your strategy in life should reflect: your overall health is actually the top priority. Sobriety is worthless if you are dead. So many people do not grasp this and therefore they say stupid things in meetings such as “I would rather die sober then go through the misery of addiction again.” What? Suicide is hardly a good relapse prevention strategy. Trust me, I have been through the misery of addiction and been very close to throwing in the towel myself…..but I realize today that there is ALWAYS hope for a better tomorrow. Anyone can recover and live a better life. Therefore your overall health is really one of your top values, right up there with sobriety. Do not be confused about this. Once you are dead it is game over, folks! It is shocking to see how many people fail to grasp the implications of this.
Can we whittle it down to a mere two step program?
Let’s see the two step program:
1) Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Take positive action every day to pursue holistic health and personal growth.
That’s it. That is an entire program of recovery, in just two steps.
The overall strategy could be described as “moving towards greater health and personal growth.” Those are your guiding principles. Obviously you must hold physical abstinence (sobriety) as your highest value in life. Nothing can justify relapse, unless someone has a gun to your head and is holding booze up to your mouth, forcing it down your throat. Not a very likely scenario!
Obviously we can tell someone to not to use drugs or alcohol no matter what, and if they follow through, they are going to be successful with it. But the key is in seeing if their recovery strategy helps them to actually follow through on this and accomplish continuous sobriety. This strategy has worked in my own life and been flexible enough to handle every situation I have encountered.
How to accumulate positive benefits in long term recovery
By following this simple strategy of recovery (pursuing health + personal growth) you will eventually start to accumulate many positive benefits.
This will start very slowly. This is to be expected, because it is difficult to see your own growth and progress in life, being so close to the source of it all. It is difficult to see the changes from day to day, even though such changes may be significant.
Rather, what happens is that some day you suddenly wake up and realize: “Oh my gosh! I have come so far in recovery, and my life is so much better today than it was 18 months ago! This is really amazing!” This will happen over and over again in recovery if you continue to live by this strategy.
I have been clean and sober for over eleven years continuous now, and I still have this same sort of revelation over and over again. I can look back at my life from 3 years ago and say “wow, look at how much has changed since then! Look at how far I have come, what I have accomplished, etc.”
You would think that this might only happen after you first year or two of recovery, when you make all of the big changes in life and really clean up your act after the chaos of addiction. But I have found that this continues to happen even after ten years of recovery, and it is shocking to me because I guess I expected less growth to happen later on in the journey.
But things just keep getting better and better. Life keeps getting better and better in recovery, if you are living by a strategy that promotes personal growth.
The idea is that you are going to keep learning continuously. Therefore you will always be engaged in active growth in your recovery. If you stop learning then you are in the danger zone and this could lead you back to relapse eventually. People who are complacent in recovery are people who have chosen to stop learning and growing.
Your strategy in recovery has another benefit to you that is very hard to explain, but it is significant in that all of your goals will tend to point in the same direction. What will happen in the long run is that the benefits that you achieve in life will start to accumulate and even accelerate because all of your goals will be aligned with each other. This happens when you are no longer fighting against yourself and all of your actions that you take in life move you towards greater health and personal growth.
Usually what happens in life is that we have at least one or two areas in which we stumble and therefore hold ourselves back. Without realizing it, these stumbling blocks can hold us back from making growth in other areas of our life.
If you are following a good recovery strategy then eventually you will address such problem areas, and at that point the benefits that receive in recovery will multiply and accelerate. There will no longer be stumbling blocks that keep you from achieving your full potential. This happens when all of your goal and actions are in alignment.
For example, at one point I was exercising and jogging on a regular basis in my recovery journey, but I was still smoking cigarettes as well. You can imagine how my benefits multiplied when I eventually quit smoking as well. Now my goal of exercise and not smoking were in alignment with each other, whereas before they were still sort of fighting against each other. One was holding me back from fully achieving the benefits of the other.
This can happen in much less obvious ways, which is why you need a recovery strategy. You will not be able to predict or see all of the potential connections between these various things in your life (such as exercise and smoking), but a good recovery strategy will weed out the inconsistencies and problems over time as you move towards better alignment.
Long term recovery is about straightening out your alignment. You get all of your goals pointed in the same direction. This takes time to happen on a massive scale. You have to be conscious and aware in order to see the things that need to be addressed. For example, I continued to smoke during the first few years of my recovery, not seeing it as a critical change that needed to be made at first. It was only after pursuing some other goals of health (like pursuing fitness and exercise) that I realized that this one thing was still holding me back.
I may never have arrived at such a conclusion (the need to quit smoking) if I only looked at my addiction recovery from a tactical standpoint. Arguably I was still doing quite well at staying sober and maybe the smoking was actually helping this cause, right? Such is what a person might argue if they do not have a strategy to govern their actions.
But my recovery strategy that I slowly discovered told me different, and it told me that I should be pursuing better health and personal growth, and so this led me to make better choices that brought my overall life in recovery into better alignment.