What is the victory dance of recovery? What does successful recovery look like?
I must admit that when I first got clean and sober in my recovery journey I had no idea what successful recovery consisted of. In fact I was completely miserable and I really did not care at that point what a new life in recovery could become. I just knew that I was sick and tired of chasing my own tail in my addiction and I wanted out. I wanted something new, something different–anything other than the pain and misery that I was currently experiencing.
It is also interesting that at one point before I got clean and sober, I went to a rehab and I was not yet fully surrendered to my addiction (but of course I did not realize this at the time). While I was there I heard a man speak in an AA meeting (he had come in to chair the AA meeting from outside of the facility) and he had many years sober and he had a great message.
I was quite hopeful when I heard that man speak because he was excited about recovery and he was excited about life. He said that “it just keeps getting better and better every day” and that “just when he thinks that things could not possibly get any better in recovery, they do!” This sort of talk gave me hope and inspiration and I was hopeful that some day I might realize that same attitude toward life.
When I left that particular rehab I did not take the actions that I needed to in order to remain sober and I ended up relapsing right away. That message of hope that I had heard had slipped through my fingers and I did not really believe that it applied to me anyway. I was stuck in that diseased thinking of addiction that says “I am unique, other people are not like me, this man was able to get clean and find a new life because he must not have liked drugs as much as I do” and so on. I had talked myself out of this man’s message of hope before I could even give it a chance. Such is the way of the addict. Sometimes we prefer to stay stuck in our misery, especially if we have not hit bottom yet and made the decision to change our life. It would be several years later that I had finally had “enough” and was able to start taking some suggestions that would move me closer to that ideal life that this man had described.
After finally surrendering to my addiction, I entered a treatment center and started on a path to recovery. This time I was serious and I had hit my real bottom and I was determined to do something different with my life. Thus started a new chapter for me and I have been clean and sober ever since (over eleven years and counting now).
Continuous sobriety has been good to me and even though the first few years were somewhat challenging, these last several years have been incredible. As a good friend of mine always says in recovery: “I am blessed beyond measure.” I have finally achieved the life that I heard that man speak about over a decade prior. My victory dance is not exactly as he described his, but I can say that I have achieved everything that he promised me and more. Life is good today, and I owe it all to the last eleven years of continuous sobriety. Had I relapsed, I would not have enjoyed the new life that I have today.
Physical health should be one of your biggest priorities as an extension of recovery and greater health
One of the biggest gifts in recovery for me has been physical. I was never in shape when I was using drugs and alcohol and in fact I was a heavy cigarette smoker. This was obviously not a good combination for long term health and I recently looked up the data: a heavy drinker combined with a heavy smoker can expect to live about 20 to 35 years less than a “straight person,” and they can also expect to have about a half million to a million dollars more in medical bills over their life time.
But actually quitting drinking and then later quitting the cigarettes have just been the tip of the iceberg for me in recovery. I actually became a runner in my recovery journey and have since taken to running decent distances (six mile minimum) at least three or four times per week. I have also completed three marathons in recovery, a feat that I never thought was even remotely possible for someone with my physical limitations (moderate to severe asthma).
I must admit that when I first got clean and sober, I did not see much point in pursuing better physical health for myself. This did not strike me as a priority or anything important, at all. My focus was entirely on “spiritual matters” because that is what I was told was necessary if I was to remain clean and sober. I was guilty of zeroing in on the one thing that I thought would help me in my recovery, and that was the pursuit of a spiritual experience. So I largely ignored suggestions of pursuing physical exercise, eating healthier, and so on. When people in an AA meeting would speak about how they were pursuing exercise as part of their recovery, I naively dismissed the idea as being “off track.”
A therapist of mine in early recovery tried to get me to work out. I started doing some basic exercises on a machine that we had at the treatment center but it never really took off for me. Maybe the timing was just wrong or I was not ready for that as a solution in my life. For whatever reason the exercise bug did not grab hold of me at that time.
Later on I started running with my father, and suddenly everything clicked. I got past that horrible feeling while running (you know, the one that makes you say “I hate running! Why am I running? I hate this!). Suddenly running six miles was easy, natural, and fun. I could take in the countryside, chat with my dad, and relax while I was running. It was suddenly no longer painful.
This was a gift. It has been one of the greatest gifts of my recovery. I do not know why it took me so many years to “receive” this gift, but now that I am a runner I can never really go back to being a “non-runner.” Regular exercise has become a way of life for me. It has transformed my recovery in profound ways, and also in a way that is very difficult to describe to others.
The “benefits of exercise” are not easily described to the non-runner. People who already run or work out vigorously “get it” and it works for them, and they would not have it any other way. They get a certain boost from their workout and that boost affects them much more than just during the workout–the effects of it can last throughout the day and even into the next day. Indeed, I have found that a vigorous run every other day is just as powerful for me as going every single day. Due to the occasional injury over the years I have also gone for a whole month without any running at all–this is torture for me now and I can tell that my recovery, my attitude, and my self esteem suffers as a result. Vigorous exercise makes me feel so good that it actually affects my sobriety (by strengthening it significantly).
Before I became a runner in recovery, I did not have this benefit and so I was lacking in this department. I did not know that I was missing out on anything. I tried to “get into it” a few times and do some workouts but nothing clicked for me until later on.
The takeaway here is that I believe vigorous exercise is one of the great gifts of recovery. It is probably not for everyone, but I believe that anyone in recovery should investigate the idea and give it a fair chance before they write it off completely. This is really what I was doing for the first 2 years of my recovery; I was writing off the idea of vigorous exercise as being “not important to my recovery.” Later I found out that it was absolutely critical to my recovery and engaging in regular exercise strengthened my sobriety a great deal.
Vigorous exercise has a tipping point, probably unique to each person. Once you reach that tipping point, exercise becomes easy, fun, and necessary. Getting to that point can be tough and challenging, to say the least. But if you can achieve this breakthrough in your recovery then it is a huge gift, and for me it is part of the victory dance.
Improved relationships make life exciting and enjoyable again
To say that your relationships improve in recovery is generally a pretty big understatement.
The problem with addiction is that it “forces” us to lie to others. We try to minimize our addiction and thus we lie, cover up our drug or alcohol use, manipulate other people, and so on. Addiction is great at destroying relationships.
In a way, recovery is all about relationships; it is all about people and interacting with them. No man is an island. If you were trying to recover from addiction a deserted island, the process would be much different than what we typically go through in our modern day society. Our relationships enhance and complicate the recovery process (sort of a double edged sword!).
In early recovery you may not exactly be a world class communicator. I know that I was certainly not during my first year or two of recovery. But I met a therapist along the way who really helped me out when it came to relationships. She taught me about how important it was to communicate my feelings (not my opinions) and how this could help to prevent relapse. In fact, her theory was that no person ever really relapsed over anything except for their emotions. Thus, her theory was that if you can learn to clearly communicate what you are feeling to other people, then this will enable you to experience freedom from negative emotions and thus you can avoid relapse.
I have to admit that her advice has actually helped me, a lot. What it has taught me to do is to learn how to clearly communicate with others, and in a way that gets to the heart of the matter. So instead of staying bottled up and angry or resentful, I have learned not to keep those negative emotions bottled up. This is sort of “healthy relationships 101.” Really there is not much more to it than that–if you can communicate your feelings to others and have the guts to do so (without just throwing your opinions around) then you can really get a lot of emotional relief in your life. It is hard to stay angry at someone if you can clearly communicate what feelings were driving your anger. If you can calm down and tell them exactly what upset you, then it does wonders for releasing the tension. Of course sometimes you have to avoid doing so in the heat of the moment, and come back to a problem later in order to communicate calmly and rationally. But this technique helped me a lot and I still use it at times to this day.
Being honest with other people is obviously critical. Actually learning how to do this and communicate your feelings is not easy though. It has taken me several years to make progress at this and it is certainly not automatic for me. It takes deliberate effort to communicate well enough to experience this total freedom.
Personal growth is self discovery
In my experience the real gift of recovery is personal growth itself.
This is the process of discovering what your real potential is, what you were supposed to become while you were busy abusing drugs and alcohol. Now that you are clean and sober you have the time and the energy to go discover what it is that you should be doing with your life. This is what recovery is all about.
For me this has been a process of self improvement. It started with complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol but then it started to evolve from there.
The spiritual journey was first for me, and I set out to discover and explore what it meant to live a spiritual life in recovery. What I discovered years later is that it (for me) all about taking positive action. My spiritual journey did not turn out the way that I thought it would, and I doubt that many people would even label me as being a very spiritual person these days. I had to discover what worked for me in recovery, what gave me guidance for living, and what prompted me to pursue personal growth. The path that I ultimately found myself on is not what you would label as “traditional.”
Shortly after I got clean and sober I realized that some of my goals and priorities were badly out of alignment. One of the biggest issues that could not be ignored was that I continued to smoke cigarettes, even in my recovery. This made no sense to me on any level and so I set out to try to fix it. Quitting smoking was a long struggle that spanned a few years time but eventually I was able to bring this part of my life into better alignment. What I mean by “alignment” is that getting clean and sober from drugs alcohol is one goal, but then continuing to smoke cigarettes is a conflicting goal. It sort of goes against the ideas and concepts of recovery. Nicotine is still a drug, I would use it when I was stressed out, it was slowly killing me, and it cost a lot of time and money to smoke. None of it fit. It was not congruent with my goal of living a clean and healthy life in recovery.
Later on in my recovery I found other ways to pursue personal growth that did not conflict with my goal of sobriety. Running was a prime example of that. So was going back to college and finishing up a Bachelor’s degree. Both of those goals were very well aligned with the idea of taking positive action in recovery and continued sobriety.
Regardless of what you do in your recovery from addiction, you are still going to have to prioritize. You cannot have a thousand goals and give them all enough attention. In fact, you can probably only have one or two major goals at a time if you want to remain effective.
My strategy was always to layer my success stories. What I mean by that is simply that I would “lock in” an existing change before I attempted to move on to new goals in my life. So for example, I focused on quitting smoking for quite a while until I had fully mastered that change. I did not overwhelm myself during that time while I was trying to quit by taking on additional projects or goals. I simply focused on quitting smoking. That was my one major goal and it was worth more to me than any other goal in my life at the time. So I sort of brushed everything aside and focused exclusively on that one goal until I was sure that I had nailed it.
You have plenty of time in recovery. Therefore, you should pursue a similar strategy with “layering success” in your life. Figure out the one goal in your life that would change everything, that would have the biggest impact, and then work your tail off to achieve it. Clear out all distractions in order to focus on achieving your most important goal. After you achieve it, give yourself time to lock in the new change and get comfortable with it, before trying to take on a new project right away. Slow and steady wins the race.
It is important to realize that you do not want to take on too much, lest you start to backslide. For example, it would have done me no good at all while I was trying to quit smoking if I would have went back on drugs and booze. This is backsliding! Obviously you do not want to do this. This is why it is helpful to think of personal growth in terms of “layers.” Your sobriety is the first layer, and you must lock in that change before moving on to tackle new goals. Then later on, once you have found some stability in recovery, you can add in additional layers of personal growth, one at time.
Recovery is a series of gifts that you give to yourself
It may sound a bit cliche, but recovery really is a series of gifts that you give to yourself. Each “gift” has a price, however, and if there was not a serious cost in attaining each new gift, then recovery would not be worth much, would it?
In other words, each challenge that you face in your recovery journey is going to exact a cost from you. Your path in recovery may be difficult, you may pay a price to experience more personal growth, but that growth will be well worth it.
Recovery is a series of challenges and rewards. Eventually you will come to take joy in the process itself. This is the real victory dance in recovery–pure joy and gratitude at just being alive!