What is the one piece of critical advice that you cannot ignore when recovering from drug or alcohol addiction?
One problem with traditional recovery: information overload
I have always faulted traditional recovery because the overall presentation is so incredibly sloppy. This is a trade off that you make because their is so much free and instant support available at AA and NA meetings. You can’t have all of that free and instant support without some trade offs involved. And perhaps the biggest trade off is the information overload that you have to endure.
If you go the traditional recovery route then it is suggested that you attend 90 meetings in 90 days and don’t use drugs or alcohol in between those meetings. Not a bad suggestion, really. The problem though is that you are about to be completely overwhelmed by an enormous stream of suggestions, advice, and tactics for remaining clean and sober. In fact, you will hear so many ideas and suggestions that there will be no way that you could possibly follow them all. And what good is that? Now instead of just taking advice and following through on it, you now have to take advice, decide which advice is most relevant and helpful to your situation, and then decide if you want to follow through on it. Notice the extra steps in there that are a result of receiving too much information.
I slowly started sensing this problem of information overload during my first month or two of recovery, when I was attending meetings every day. I could tell that there might be a problem because I was trying to have the best attitude possible and I did not want to just blindly discard anything that was suggested to me. But unfortunately I received so much advice and suggestions that I realized that this was not possible. I was going to have to pick and choose which suggestions I followed. Even though I was given a lot of consistent advice in recovery, I was also given some inconsistent advice as well. So I had to sift through that stuff and try to determine what was really important in my recovery and what was not.
So I began to search for the truth. I wanted to zero in on what really worked in addiction recovery. Here is this book, the Big Book of AA, and supposedly it has all of the answers in it. But that is not a very elegant answer for someone who just wants to know how recovery works. The same can be said of the 12 steps. Why are there 12 steps? Why twelve? Really? Are all 12 of them necessary or you are doomed to relapse? None of this was adding up for me when I was early in recovery and seeking answers.
My problem was one of personality type. I had to know more than just “how” it worked, I wanted to know why it worked. This is the engineer in me, the scientist in me. Well, you would be amazed that the people in AA and NA do not want to dive into the “why.” They are only concerned with the “how it works,” and they cannot believe that a newcomers like myself would be so foolish as to question why. They would basically say to me “Don’t question why it works, just work it, and be happy that it is keeping you sober!” It was like they were terrified that I was poking around, trying to get to the truth of how recovery actually occurs. A part of those people wanted the mystery to remain. Me, I wanted to know exactly what produced sobriety so that I could stop wasting my time with things that were not really helping.
This was a big part of why I set out on this journey for the truth about recovery in the first place. I was sick of sitting in AA meetings and listening to the same people drone on about the same problems. Sure, I could extract value from a meeting, and I could even give value to a meeting if I pushed myself, but I did not see the point in doing so–especially on a continuous basis. I went to meetings every day for about a year or so but I could not see the point of doing it for a lifetime. Something was amiss here, something was not right about this. I thought “this cannot be the lifelong secret to recovery and sobriety….there has to be more to it than just sitting in meetings once a day.”
And so I set out to learn what I could about how recovery really works. I wanted to know the truth, I wanted to know what actually kept people clean and sober, I wanted to know what would really help me to increase my chances at sobriety.
I learned the solution over the next ten years or so, and that has become (in my opinion) the one piece of advice that you cannot ignore in recovery.
The advice is in two parts:
1) Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Strive for personal growth every single day.
That’s it. Ignore this advice at your own peril. I don’t believe that I have met many people in recovery who were not actively using both of those ideas in their life.
I realize that this is not a complicated or intricate piece of advice. I realize that it is not exactly earth shattering or original. But that doesn’t matter. This doesn’t make the advice any less important.
There is so much garbage in the field of recovery that could be reduced and pared down to those two short sentences. Really.
If someone is at “full surrender” and they actually follow those two simple sentences, they can recover and their life will get better and better.
Essentially, when I look back at my entire 12 year journey through recovery I see those two concepts at work. That is really what I have followed and that is really what has helped me the most in this journey.
I have taken a lot of suggestions in my recovery. I have read dozens and dozens of books about spirituality. I am convinced that it is a program of action, and that it is easiest to make big changes in your life based on taking major action. If you want to make a mental shift or change your attitude then you need to ground that change in the real world somehow. You have to start living that change rather than just theorizing about it mentally. Thinking about changes does practically nothing for you. Actually making changes and taking action always does something (even if it does not work perfectly the way you thought it would).
When we strive for personal growth every day we are taking action. Not just reading books about positive change and personal growth, but actually taking on some goals, doing some new things, and trying some stuff in your life. This is the kind of positive action that produces success in recovery.
If you are open enough to try this approach then you take some risk. Because some of what you try in life is going to fail. Some of it is not going to turn out so well, and that will feel like a risk to you. But you have to do it anyway because that is where you will also have some projects that succeed. You can’t get amazing results if you are not willing to have some failures in your life. You are going to have to put yourself out there at times and try some new things and be willing to fail.
The alternative is to do nothing. The alternative is to play it safe, to do very little, to not make changes in your life and just to maintain the status quo. This gets boring and eventually that boredom can potentially drive you back to your drug of choice. If you do not make forward progress in recovery then you risk relapse. It is as simple as that. This is why the second part of the advice is so critical: “Strive for personal growth every single day.” You have to be pushing yourself to make positive changes. If you stop pushing yourself then you will just invite the possibility of relapse back into your life. It may not happen tomorrow but it will slowly creep back into the picture if you stay stagnant for too long.
They have a saying around the tables of AA and NA: “We have a tendency to complicate this process, when in fact it is very simple.” If that is true then why are they settling for no less than 12 steps? This is outrageous for a group of people that needs to learn how to keep it simple! The advice posted in this article is only two sentences long, and contains just two simple ideas. Total abstinence and personal growth. You must embrace both of those ideas with all of your energy if you want to succeed in recovery.
Really what the 12 steps are doing is two things:
1) They are implying abstinence rather than stating it explicitly, as I have here (big mistake in my opinion).
2) They are trying to outline a path that leads to personal growth in recovery. This may be helpful for some but I have observed that this exact path does not work for everyone.
We all achieve personal growth in a unique way. Why is there nothing in the 12 steps about exercise, for example, when that it is such an important part of recovery (to me)? Notice the “to me” in that last sentence. This is about individuals. What works for some people may not work for others. Personal growth tends to be……you guessed it….personal! And therefore some exploration may be in order for people who are trying to make positive changes in their lives.
Cutting through the complexity: what really produces successful sobriety?
I had to ask myself what was really producing sobriety in my life. Unfortunately this is a complicated question and not every person will be able to point to something and come up with a quick and decisive answer right away. This is fine because recovery is necessarily complicated, just as addiction was very complicated.
If you frequent AA meetings you will hear people talk about simplicity. They want (and need) for it all to be very simple. They say things like “Just follow this simple program, don’t try to complicate it.” What they are really doing is just trying to control people and to help reassure themselves that they need not be afraid, because they have a solution for their problem. People in the meetings want and need for it to be simple, but that does not necessarily make it true.
Addiction is complex. In almost all cases there are additional issues that complicate the life of the addict or alcoholic. Things like abuse, secondary addictions, self esteem problems, and so on. These are not found with every single addict and alcoholic, but nearly every single addict will at least have one or two complicating issues in their life. And these secondary issues complicate the recovery process.
Just look at how the big book suggests that a person work through step four. Actually pull out your big book and read it. They have you making not only a list but actually a matrix, a full table with quite a bit of detail on it. Creating matrices in order to work through your past issues is not what I call “simple.” Having this be just one of twelve steps is not “simple.”
So there are probably two theories here that you might live by. One is that you accept that addiction is complicated and therefore recovery is complicated as well. In doing so you may be willing to venture through the entire 12 steps and work through them and apply them into your life.
On the other hand you may yearn for something more simple, and look to reduce the information overload that you get from traditional recovery circles.
Now some will accuse me and say: “All you have done is to summarize the 12 steps into your idea of striving for personal growth. You have not really simplified recovery, all you have done is to summarize it so that it sounds easier. But it is still just as complicated.”
I would disagree with this accusation, and point out that the 2 sentences of advice given in this article are much, much more simple than the 12 steps, even if that does not make them easier to follow. You see, I never said I had the super easy path to success in recovery–only that this path is more simple.
“Striving for personal growth every day” is a lot more simple than than the list of 12 steps, and it is also a lot more flexible. It allows you to pursue exercise, for example, which (for me) turned out to be a lot more important than most of the 12 steps were in my life.
Personal growth is the key to recovery
I believe that personal growth is the entire key to recovery, whether you are working a 12 step program or not.
For example, I have watched many people in traditional recovery (AA and NA) who have relapsed at various times during my journey. I have always tried to examine these situations and see what I can learn from them. When people in the meetings would come back and say that they had relapsed recently, I always listened carefully to what they said because I wanted to learn what NOT to do in my recovery.
Over the years I started to learn that complacency was the biggest problem in recovery. People would relapse because they “stopped doing what they needed to do in order to stay sober.” Rocket science, right? But it is tricky and insidious compared to most of the problems in recovery.
For example, some people get so angry in recovery that they “blow their stack” and end up drinking over a resentment that they have not fixed. At one time this was thought to be the biggest threat to our sobriety (it even says it is in the big book of AA). But we know today that this is not true–resentment is actually a pretty easy problem to overcome. You can react to it. You can notice your anger, or your peers can notice your anger, and then you can take action and fix the problem. Complacency doesn’t really work like that; it is much more insidious and tricky to deal with.
So what is the solution to overcoming complacency? Why does it cause so many alcoholics to relapse, and how can it be prevented? This was really the secret of recovery that I had to dig for so long in order to find.
The problem with complacency is that it sneaks up on you. You cannot just react to it in the same way that you react to, say, a resentment. If you have a resentment then you notice it and you deal with it. If you try this approach with complacency then you will relapse before you even notice that you are complacent! That is a problem.
Therefore we need a pro-active solution. What is “pro-active?” It just means we are going to take action in advance of seeing the problem so that we can prevent it from occurring. It is a preventative approach.
So how does this work?
Look back at the advice I gave earlier in this article. “Strive for personal growth every single day.” This is your proactive approach to complacency. I have watched many people who have relapsed in traditional recovery, and not one of them could claim to have been doing this. Instead, they always said that they had STOPPED doing something. That was a key part of their testimony that helps you see the real truth of this matter. They always say that they stopped going to meetings, they stopped helping others in recovery, they stopped studying the literature, they stopped trying to take positive action in order to grow. They stopped, they stopped, they stopped.
If someone relapsed then asked them if they had stopped doing something that led to this relapse. I can guarantee that they will tell you that they did stop doing something. They stopped doing what they needed to do in order to stay sober. Simple as that.
And therein lies the solution. You can’t stop. And this then begs the question: “Stop doing what exactly?”
Most people in traditional recovery believe that it has to do with meetings, and recovery literature, and working with others, and so on. They are both right and wrong in thinking this. They are right because if they really kept doing those things and stuck to it and pushed themselves then they probably would be OK in their recovery (and not relapsed). But they are also wrong because they believe that the required actions are such a narrow set of suggestions. They believe they need AA meetings when in fact they need personal growth. They believe they need to work with other alcoholics when in fact they just need to help people. They have defined personally growth far too narrowly, and they believe that “the secret” is AA or the steps.
But the real secret is much broader than that, as evidenced by a wide diversity of recovering alcoholics who use various methods of staying sober.
The key is in two simple ideas:
2) Personal growth.
We can complicate this all we like, but that does not make it any easier. We still have to commit, and do the work.