Yesterday we looked at how to make huge leaps of growth in your recovery. Today we want to look at the most important thing that you can do for your recovery.
The interesting thing to me about recovery is that the core of the solution is NOT obvious. This is true of mainstream recovery and you can easily test this out for yourself. Simply go to a few AA or NA meetings and go up to people (or simply bring up the topic yourself at the start of the meeting) and ask everyone:
“What is the most important thing for you in your recovery? In other words, what is the single most important thing that is helping you to stay sober today?”
Interestingly enough if you ask this of a dozen different people you will get a dozen different answers. This is especially true if the people are isolated and do not hear each other’s answers.
I am not saying this to prove that recovery is a sham or anything, but rather to point out that recovery is a very individualized thing. We might say that “no two paths are alike” in the recovery journey. However, part of the fear based message that you often hear in traditional recovery circles is that there is only one single and true path to getting clean and sober, and that anyone who deviates from this path will surely relapse. This idea is rooted in fear and the people who are saying such things are doing so because their own recovery feels threatened.
I can remember being very new in my recovery and “trying to figure it all out.” I was in treatment and then after short term rehab I immediately moved into a long term treatment center. So I had plenty of time to contemplate how recovery really worked while I was going to meetings every day, sitting in groups, and discussing recovery with my peers.
Everyone was obsessed with HOW it works in recovery. They were content to know that this program of recovery existed and they simply wanted to better understand and implement this program.
For whatever reason this was not good enough for me. I was a bit stubborn and I knew from past experience in my life that if I understood both HOW and WHY something worked then I would be better able to implement it in my life.
In other words, a child might understand that if they push the pedals on a bicycle that the bike will then move forward….they don’t have to understand exactly how or why this works in order to make use of the bike. But then one day their bike might break and if they do not have this fundamental understanding of exactly what propels the bike forward, are they going to be able to fix it? No, they won’t be able to.
And this is the basic idea of why I would not blindly accept the instructions that were given to me in recovery. I was told to “just work the program” without questioning why or exactly how it works. When I asked how does it work, I was only told WHAT to do, but not why I was doing it or exactly how it would benefit me.
I wanted a deeper understanding of recovery because I wanted to be stronger in my sobriety. I knew from my past experience in life that if I fully understood how and why recovery worked then I would be able to work harder on the parts of recovery “that truly matter” and not waste time on the things that were not really helping much. Find the lever and then push the button. This is how I have always operated in life and that is why I cannot accept a solution on blind faith. I have to understand how it works so that I can maximize my use of the solution.
And so I wanted to find this leverage point. I wanted to know and fully understand what was truly important in recovery.
If you just walk into an AA meeting and say “what is important in recovery? How does this really work?”….then you will get two dozen different answers and be led in a hundred different directions with so many different suggestions that it will make your head spin. Seriously, try this some time. Ask an entire AA meeting how it really works and then try to summarize the answer in a sentence or two without leaving out any advice that you hear. There is no way in the world that you can do this because the barrage of suggestions in traditional recovery is a mish-mash of stuff that might be helpful to different people:
* Go to meetings every day.
* Go to meetings when you get a craving or urge to use.
* Get a sponsor.
* Faith in a higher power.
* Faith in yourself.
* Call your sponsor every day.
* Call your sponsor if you want to use.
* Read the literature.
* Study the literature.
* Get phone numbers from the meetings can call people.
* Work the steps.
* Go back to church and find God.
* Don’t go to church, find your higher power here in AA. Go to meetings.
And so on. You may even notice that some of the suggestions are somewhat contradictory to each other as well. This is not unusual in mainstream recovery because there are so many different personalities all coming together in a meeting and sharing their own experience. While it is nice to get the variety of opinions, you are probably never going to get consensus on what is truly important for recovery!
So when I noticed this problem with mainstream recovery I refused to accept the idea that I just had to do what I was told (even though I was getting a barrage of different suggestions as to what I should do in order to recover). Therefore I started to investigate what really mattered in recovery and I also started looking very closely at people who relapsed. As I was living in a rehab center I was able to observe people relapsing on a regular basis. My question to myself each time was the same: “What was that person really focusing on, and what can that teach me about sobriety?”
In watching others who had relapsed I came to my own conclusions about recovery, and in doing so I learned what–for myself–was truly the most important thing in recovery. The following advice may not apply to everyone, because in reality I am just another guy in recovery who is doing his own thing, but this is what has worked for me in spite of all of the conflicting suggestions that I got from traditional recovery.
The following is my version of “how it works” and tries to go one step further to explain “why it works” as well.
Commit to 100 percent total physical abstinence from all addictive drugs
I mentioned at one point that I watched dozens of people relapse while I was living in long term rehab. I tried to learn what I could from these people and the bottom line is that all of them let go of this simple idea at some point:
“My life has a chance at getting better only if I remain clean and sober. If I drink or use addictive drugs then it all goes out the window.”
Every single person who relapsed–regardless of what their excuse was–lost sight of that simple idea.
Because if they had held on to that idea then they would not have relapsed. They would have figured out that it can only get worse if they relapse, not better.
The flip side of that coin is that the person may have still remembered this idea, but they no longer cared. They were simply so fed up that they no longer cared about the consequences of their actions.
With these concepts in mind I had to clearly form my own “step one” in my head. It was not based on the first step of AA but instead was based on what I believed would keep me clean and sober in the long run. It was based on what I understood about recovery, not based on what I was told about recovery (AA and NA).
So my highest truth became this:
“The most important thing in my life is not to use addictive drugs or alcohol, period.”
This became my mantra, my highest truth, and a huge part of my foundation in recovery. This concept worked where AA seemed to fail for other people.
Seriously, why is step one in AA not something like: “Made a commitment not to drink alcohol or use addictive drugs no matter what happens in my life.”
Why is that not step one? Can’t people see that this concept of physical abstinence needs to be more clearly stated as the most important thing in your recovery?
Don’t people realize that this is the foundation of sobriety?
Step one talks about the past. Perhaps I have simply rearranged it to focus on the future. In other words, let’s NOT put alcohol or drugs into our bodies in the future. That is the main priority and that is the foundation of recovery.
This has to become your highest truth and quite frankly everything else is a bit of a distraction. Why would you follow this up with eleven more steps and sacrifice so much clarity?
Every person who relapsed had lost sight of this mantra. Suddenly, avoiding drugs and alcohol was no longer their greatest priority. This was their mistake. They did not put their sobriety first.
The most important thing in recovery is your commitment to 100 percent total abstinence.
The most important thing in recovery is that you not put alcohol or addictive drugs into your body.
Mainstream recovery is obsessed with the idea that we must look at ourselves and our past and create this label (“alcoholic”). I am more concerned with the solution moving forward. We don’t need a complicated 12 step program with conflicting advice about how to remain sober. We need clarity and direction. Two or three steps would be plenty if you can be concise and figure out what really matters in recovery. I have done that for myself and perhaps you could break it down into 3 steps:
This first part is the “physical” step. Don’t put addictive drugs or alcohol into your body, period. That is step one. That is the physical step.
Step two is the mental part. Let’s look at that now.
Deepening this commitment with the zero tolerance policy
How do you implement physical abstinence on a daily basis?
You do it with a strong commitment to yourself. This is the mental game of recovery.
If your commitment to sobriety is the basis for step one, then the basis for step two is the idea of the “zero tolerance policy.”
Take a step back here with me and consider how this works in real life. I figured this out during my first year of sobriety, while I was living in rehab, and watching other people relapse on a regular basis. My challenge was in how to mentally manage my recovery, because the onslaught of suggestions that I was receiving had no real reasoning behind it. It was just a mish-mash of directives and no one could tell me WHY each suggestion was important. So I gave up on the suggestions and attempted to decipher my own manner of living in recovery.
The idea of the “zero tolerance policy” is the result of that.
My problem was not in quitting, because I had already done that. I had gone to detox and I was now living in rehab and my challenge was in simply “staying stopped.” The issue was one of relapse prevention.
I was still in my first year of sobriety and the concept of relapse was like the boogeyman. No one was completely safe from it. Anyone could potentially fall victim to it. I wanted to insure that I kept my priorities straight. I did not want to relapse.
At the same time I noticed that I could still have cravings. I could still find myself fantasizing about getting drunk or high on drugs. This would happen occasionally and I would find my mind wandering into one of these fantasies.
I reasoned it out at one point and I realized that no one ever relapsed without entertaining one of these daydreams first. You don’t just accidentally pick up a drink or a drug, you first fantasize about how nice it would be to get loaded again, and then you allow yourself to imagine it in great detail, and thus allow yourself to be drawn back into addiction. This is how relapse happens and this is well documented in literature as well–it always happens mentally first.
Therefore your first defense against relapse must be mental. This where the zero tolerance policy comes in.
If you want to prevent relapse, you must eliminate the fantasies about getting drunk or high. You must kill them entirely.
How do you do this? Simply make a decision that you will have zero tolerance of such fantasies. Realize that daydreaming about your drug of choice can only make you miserable.
Next you must increase your awareness. In order to implement this zero tolerance policy you must first raise your awareness. Heighten your consciousness.
Watch your mind. Watch your brain and what it is doing. It is only through watching your thoughts that you can take back control of them.
This is really quite simple:
As soon as you notice your mind starting to fantasize about getting drunk or high, you simply shut it down and redirect your mind. I practically scolded myself internally when I would notice this happening and thus I would recoil from these daydreams like your hand recoils from a hot flame. This is the level of awareness that you want in your life when it comes to relapse.
If you are mentally “on defense” against such daydreams and fantasies then you will eventually eliminate them entirely. This takes time and it takes a sustained effort. You have to commit to the idea that you are not going to allow yourself to fantasize about using your drug of choice. Doing so only makes you miserable. And ultimately you can not relapse physically unless you have already done so mentally. Therefore what you are really doing with the zero tolerance policy is you are eliminating the possibility of a “mental relapse.” Without a mental relapse you cannot relapse physically.
Now it is often said that before you relapse physically you actually relapse mentally, but before you relapse mentally you also relapse spiritually. Therefore we may have one more “step” in our program and that is the spiritual component.
The spiritual path of recovery
So our “unofficial” three step program of recovery now looks like this:
* Step one – don’t drink or use addictive drugs no matter what.
* Step two – don’t allow yourself to fantasize about getting drunk or high (mental relapse).
* Step three – spirituality.
The word “spirituality” is almost completely loaded and useless at this point. Allow me to redefine it in a way that has actually worked for me in recovery:
* Spiritual growth is personal growth.
* Spirituality is based on daily positive action.
These definitions will not appeal much to religious people, but they seem to work well in a universal sense.
For example, you might ask yourself if your definition of “spiritual” can encompass someone who connects with their higher power through physical exercise (as meditation)? Most people if you ask them for a working definition of spiritual do not go nearly broad enough. They say things like “prayer” and “meditation” and “higher power” and they miss out on the real working definition that might be able to help someone in recovery.
Distance running is one of my big anti-examples, showing how most people’s definition of spirituality is broken and limited. I explored a wide range of spiritual practices and religion before I “found my path” in recovery, and I was shocked to find that regular exercise played a bigger role in my spiritual welfare than I ever could have predicted. I believe that most people who are “exercise nuts” sort of “get this” but find it difficult to put into words–regular exercise has a powerful meditative quality to it. To compare it to religion, prayer, or traditional definitions of spirituality may seem blasphemous, but this is exactly what I have found to work well in my own life.
The other side of spirituality to me has to do with taking positive action on a regular basis. Do the world’s religions or spiritual concepts push people to make significant improvements in their own lives? I am not really sure and I don’t care at this point–my own spiritual path is one of personal growth and self improvement.
For many years in recovery I struggled to find a spiritual approach that worked for me, but I was also trying so hard to adopt someone else’s idea of what “spirituality” was and fit it into my own life. That did not work. What I had do instead was to drop my ideas about what was really “spiritual” and set out to find my own path of positive growth and change. It is only in looking back that I can define my “spiritual boundaries” and say what has made a positive impact and put me in tune with my spiritual side.
So this is how I have approached my recovery and also how I rationalize it all in my head. I can’t just take a program and use it on blind faith–I have to know why I am doing something in order to properly apply it in my life. I know why I use the zero tolerance policy (because it prevents physical relapse). Explaining why I pursue personal growth is a deeper topic and is the subject of most of the rest of this website. Essentially the “why” of personal growth comes down to fighting complacency in long term sobriety.