These are my top three tips for remaining clean and sober, condensed into three action steps that form an overall strategy. As such, they are not super specific tips such as “go to meetings every day” but instead are more like overall guidelines that can apply in many different situations.
To some extent, I believe that every recovery program has to be customized by the individual to some degree. Sure, you can work “the program” but you still have to own it and make it your own in some ways. There may be one “truth” and one path to recovery, but it is up to each of us to interpret that path as we see fit. Therefore we all have to create our own success in recovery, even if we are being led and taught by others.
Can a handful of tips keep a person sober at all?
I think it is possible to reduce any recovery program down to just a few essential principles. For example, the 12 step program of AA can be reduced down to a few core ideas, such as:
1) Surrender to your disease.
2) Find God.
3) Work on your defects.
4) Help others in recovery.
These are powerful ideas, and they work (if you work them). But I don’t necessarily believe that they are magical ideas. There are other recovery programs that are based on similar ideas, most of which are based off of the foundation of total abstinence.
In other words, anyone can come up with a decent recovery program if it is based on the following two ideas:
1) Total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances, and
2) Some sort of positive action.
You can substitute all sorts of things for the second idea there of taking “positive action.”
For example, there is a program of recovery that is based entirely on fitness and distance running. So these people are finding a path to sobriety that based on two simple concepts:
1) Total abstinence, and
2) Extreme fitness.
Does this work for everyone? No it does not. But keep in mind that AA does not seem to work for everyone either, not by a long shot (you can research the numbers yourself, but certainly the program is not effective for everyone).
It is not so much that you need some “quick tips in order to recover,” but rather that you need a basic strategy for living in recovery. So these “tips” that you find here are really much more than basic action advice, instead they represent a deeper strategy.
Tip #1: Total and complete surrender
The first part of the strategy that I would advise is total and complete surrender.
This also carries the implication of “total and complete abstinence” from all mood and mind altering substances. No drugs, no alcohol.
This is debatable. Some people would disagree with this. There are programs out there that attempt to teach moderation. I am not a believer in such programs as they do not work for me. I have tried to moderate and I could not do it. I suppose if moderation works for you then I am happy for you, but that is not my reality. I found that total abstinence was the key for me. It was part of what I had to accept in order to surrender fully.
I worked in a treatment center for several years and this concept was greatly reinforced for me during that time. I witnessed many people who were struggling to get clean and sober, and what I learned is the importance of surrender. Those who did not surrender fully did not follow through, and therefore they did not tend to remain clean and sober. Even partial surrender seemed to always lead to relapse.
This is a strategy that becomes more and more self evident the longer you struggle with alcoholism. If there is no problem then there is no problem! But if you struggle to get sober and you find that you cannot maintain sobriety, then it is likely that you did not surrender deeply enough. The answer is more commitment, more willingness, and that means a deeper level of surrender.
You can try to avoid this idea of total surrender, but alcoholism and drug addiction have a way of asserting themselves and the truth on you. In other words, real alcoholics and addicts will generally relapse if they do not surrender fully and then they end up being miserable again. Addiction is, unfortunately, self correcting. The ends of which are always the same: “Jails, institutions, and death.” Not good outcomes for the average person who is struggling, unless they can surrender and ask for help.
This is one of the hallmarks of surrender, by the way: Asking for help. If you are humbly asking for help then you are probably at a point of real surrender. If on the other hand you are not yet willing to ask for help for your addiction then you are probably not truly willing at this point. Asking for help reveals your willingness.
Tip #2: Massive action
The second tip I have for you is to take massive action.
Again, this is self evident over time. If you try to get sober but all you do is go to a single AA meeting, you don’t go to rehab, and you don’t follow though at all, then you won’t stay sober. No big surprise there.
If, on the other hand, you go to rehab, follow up and do everything that they suggest that you do, go to AA meetings every day, get a sponsor, work through the steps of AA, and so on….then you will probably have a much better outcome. Put in the work, get good results.
Note that this is not necessarily dependent on specific recovery programs in order to work. In other words, it doesn’t have to be AA that you go to. You could take other forms of positive action. There are other program out there. Or you could find your own path. But the key is that you take massive action.
Recovery is all about change. Your life is a train wreck, things are going badly for you, and you have to turn it all around somehow. It is all about change.
Let’s talk about the idea of change. Do little changes help you in recovery?
No they don’t. Little changes are useless. They won’t help you.
Little changes are like switching from liquor to beer.
Little changes are like taking it easy on the drugs and just smoking marijuana for a while to tide you over.
These things don’t work in the long run for real addicts and real alcoholics. They are just other forms of the disease, ways that we fool ourselves.
Instead of little changes you need big changes. You need to take massive action.
As an example, here are some of the massive changes that I made in early recovery. Keep in mind that your path may be totally different from this:
1) Asked for help, checked into rehab. Detox and residential.
2) Talked with a counselor, agreed that I should move into long term rehab. Checked in and stayed for 20 months straight. Best decision ever.
3) Started going to daily AA meetings. Attended for first 18 months, then moved on. Chaired a meeting once a week for several months.
4) Got a sponsor and worked through the steps. Wrote in a journal daily. Read many books about spirituality and recovery.
5) Went back to college. Finished up a degree. Got a job.
6) Started exercising. Distance running. Committed to it for over ten years and still going.
These are things that worked for me, they may not be the same things that work for you. But the idea that you need to take massive action is definitely a good one. The key is to go big, make huge changes, don’t try to just tip toe into recovery and expect for everything to turn out well. You have to dive head first into massive change.
Tip #3: Personal growth
Personal growth is the key to long term recovery in my opinion.
Go back to the most basic idea of all, that most successful recovery programs and strategies can reduce down to:
1) Total abstinence.
2) Positive action.
The idea that you should pursue personal growth is just another way of saying “keep taking positive action in your life.”
In my experience this can happen on one of two levels. Internal growth and external growth.
So internal growth is where you try to “do the work” and fix the inner turmoil in your life. So you strive to eliminate anger, fear, resentment, self pity, shame, guilt, and so on. This is the sort of inner growth that every person has to go through in order to heal.
External growth is when you look at your overall life situation and decide that you need to make changes. So you might go to AA meetings, go back to college, get a new job that is less stressful or more conducive to recovery, and so on. Or maybe you eliminate toxic relationships in your life and surround yourself with more positive people instead.
Personal growth is the ultimate form of relapse prevention.
When do people relapse? They relapse when the chips are down, when things are going badly for them, when they are all out of hope and their faith is weak. They relapse when they are sick, when they are ill, when things are at their worst. They relapse when they are not being grateful, when they are selfish instead.
These are all things that you can work on. These are all indicators of things that you could pursue in terms of personal growth instead.
Ask yourself: “How am I taking care of myself today?” Or alternatively: “How am I loving myself today?” They are really the same question.
And if you can answer that question and say that you are definitely taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially…..then you are probably working a very good program of recovery. These are the main categories of personal growth that you should concern yourself with.
The idea is to pursue greater health in life, and in recovery. Simply avoiding alcohol and drugs is not enough. You have to do more than that in order to insure long term sobriety.
There is a long term threat in recovery that eventually threatens to take out everyone who has built a new life for themselves in recovery, and that threat is “complacency.”
Complacency is when you get lazy. When you stop doing the work. When you stop doing the things that you need to do in order to stay clean and sober.
Complacency is when you stop pushing yourself to learn and to grow in recovery. Complacency is when you get stuck in a routine and you believe that the routine is protecting you, but it’s really not. Because you are no longer learning and you are no longer challenging yourself.
So what is the solution? The solution is to get busy, to stay busy, to push yourself to learn and to grow in recovery. Personal growth is the only real solution for sustained sobriety. Notice that it is not a one-time and done solution. You have to keep working at it. No one said it would be easy, right?
No, you have to live the program of recovery. So the people who succeed in AA and other similar programs of recovery, take a look at what they do and what their lives are like today. They are not cured, but they are functionally cured because they remain active in recovery. They are on a path of personal growth and they are pushing themselves to reach out and help others. This is an active path of growth in recovery and if you are on such a path then you will remain sober. It’s about doing the work. It’s about a continued willingness.
This is true both in and out of programs such as AA. It is not that the 12 steps have magic in them, it is in how you apply those 12 steps that is magic. It works if you work it. That part is absolutely true. Of course it will work, abstinence is implied in the steps.
Other programs and approaches will work as well. So if you design your own 2 step program of recovery, consisting of:
1) Total abstinence.
2) Take positive action every day.
That program will work too if you honestly work at it. But it’s hard work. And if you say “I don’t really want to do AA, because I don’t like it” then you need to get really honest with yourself and figure out what the real truth is.
Because if you are just trying to avoid doing the work, and avoid getting honest with yourself, and avoid learning some new things about how to live a sober life, then I don’t think you are ready to turn your life around just yet. It is not about accepting or rejecting AA necessarily. The program itself is not magic, but definitely will work for you if you dedicate your life to the principles and living the program. It is about the application of the concepts, but the concepts themselves are not magic. If you want to be sober and turn your life around you have to do the work. Period.
People who stop growing in recovery and stop learning generally end up doing one of two things:
1) Becoming unhappy.
So one of those is “drunk” and the other one is being a “dry drunk.” Obviously you don’t want either outcome. The only way to avoid those two outcomes is to do the hard work. That can be in a formal program of recovery (such as AA) or it can be via your own holistic path. But either way it is a lot of hard work and an amazing reward.
Why holistic health is important for recovery
Relapse is very tricky in that it can sneak up on us from nearly any direction.
In traditional recovery programs they say that the solution is spiritual, but I have never found this to be 100 percent accurate. In many cases I watched people relapse due to reasons other than spiritual bankruptcy.
For example, I know of people who have relapsed on alcohol because they got very sick. Physically sick. And it wore them down over time and eventually it caused them to drink again.
I have watched even more people relapse in recovery due to relationship issues. I lived in long term rehab with eleven other men, many of whom found themselves in relationships with significant others in early recovery. Nearly every single time that one of them relapsed it was because of a failed relationship. The problem is that in early recovery it feels so good to get into a relationship, and then when it ends badly the only thing that can even come close to touching the pain is to go drink or use drugs.
We all believe that we are stronger than that, and that we are smarter than this, and that we will somehow be immune to this law of relapse and recovery. We all believe that we are special and that we can get away with a relationship in early recovery without getting “burned” by it. But nearly every relapse that I witnessed while living in long term rehab was due to a failed relationship. In all honesty this is one of the biggest threats to sobriety for single people in early recovery. I don’t know why they don’t talk about this more or caution people more about it in traditional recovery channels (AA, rehab programs, etc.). Relationships can be very dangerous.
And so it is with all of the areas of your overall health in recovery. This is what holistic health is. It is about the “whole person.” And relapse can sneak in from any direction, so the solution is to protect yourself in all of these key areas.
This is why you have to take care of yourself in so many different ways. This is why you have to pursue a strategy of holistic health in recovery. Personal growth is good, but if you only focus on spiritual growth then you are missing out on a great deal of “protection.” In order to truly prevent relapse you need to take care of yourself in all of the following ways: Physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, spiritually. If you are not doing all of those things then you leave the door open to possible relapse.
These are the tips that have served me well in recovery and I hope that they can work for you too. If you are not sure how to implement a strategy then you should ask for help, seek out others in recovery, and find out what is working well for them. Then take their advice and suggestions and see if they can help you out in your own life. If nothing works, move on and find new advice, new suggestions. This is how to keep growing in recovery even when you run out of ideas for yourself. Seek input and feedback from others and borrow their wisdom. Find out what works for them and use it in your own recovery. The worst that can happen is that you don’t end up using their ideas in the long run and you move on to try something else.
Personal growth and holistic health have been a huge part of my recovery journey. In fact I believe that they are the entire journey itself, and abstinence is really just the foundation for this sort of growth to occur in.