3 Lessons I Learned During Early Recovery from Alcoholism

3 Lessons I Learned During Early Recovery from Alcoholism


Yesterday we looked at the 5 secrets of successful sobriety. Today we want to look at 3 of the critical lessons that I learned when I was in early recovery from alcoholism.

Lesson #1: It’s all about internal commitment and surrender

This is by far the biggest point here and the one that most struggling addicts and alcoholics should focus on.

It’s all about your level of surrender. How committed are you to your new life in recovery? The strength of that answer is what will determine your success. All else is secondary.

Another way to look at it is to ask yourself: “How much action am I willing to take in order to pursue a new life in recovery and overcome my addiction?”

Are you willing to go to rehab? Are you willing to attend meetings? Are you willing to talk with a counselor or therapist on a regular basis? Are you willing to work with a sponsor? Are you willing to be uncomfortable in order to move forward and make progress? Are you willing to live in long term treatment if it came down to that? What about living in prison for a few years, would you be willing to do that? How badly are you willing to cling to your life?

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I slowly figured this out while I was in very early recovery, in rehab, and attending daily 12 step meetings. The thing is, when you are attending AA meetings and there are a lot of newcomers there, everyone tries to talk a good game. People with a year or two of sobriety feel superior to everyone who just got in to detox and has less than a week of recovery. And yet, all sorts of these struggling addicts and alcoholics will end up relapsing, in spite of all of the good things that they say during the meetings.

So this is one of the lessons that I had to learn–what was really important in recovery? And what could predict who was going to be successful in recovery, and who was going to relapse? From what I could tell in very early recovery, there was no apparent pattern. Many people relapsed and very few stayed clean and sober. On the other hand, nearly everyone had an opinion and something to say during 12 step meetings, and many people seemed to have some really good things to say. But what I slowly started to figure out is that just because a person had good things to say during an AA meeting did not mean that this person was guaranteed to stay clean and sober. This was one of the lessons I had to learn through observation.

After watching some of these people relapse (in spite of their good speeches during AA meetings) I had to start questioning what was going on and why they were relapsing. What was causing them to relapse if they had such a good message when speaking in meetings?

I determined that the problem was internal. It had to be. On the outside, they were doing fantastic. They were going to AA meetings and they were talking a good game of recovery and they had really good stuff to share in the meetings. And yet, they end up relapsing. So the problem is clearly not on the outside. Their problem is internal.

Which is to say, they failed to make that 100 percent commitment to total abstinence. Period. If they relapsed then they did not keep this 100 percent total commitment. Simple as that. This is an internal problem. The person has failed to keep a promise that they made to themselves. The promise is simple. It is:

“I will not use addictive drugs or alcohol, no matter what.”

Isn’t this the promise that we all make to ourselves in recovery? Isn’t this what we tell ourselves in order to stay clean and sober? (By the way, why is this not the first step in the 12 step program? It should be!).

So I had to figure out this lesson on my own because I was watching and observing so many recovering addicts and alcoholics around me, and some of them had such a powerful message in the meetings that I was seriously impressed with them. But then such people would sometimes relapse, and so my entire worldview had to be shifted around. How did they relapse when they obviously had it going on so well in the meetings? It was not adding up. And so that is how I slowly discovered that the meetings are just a lot of hot air, for some people…..and that the real recovery springs from your internal commitment to yourself.

Every person who is in recovery has made a decision. They have decided not to abuse drugs and alcohol.

The strength of that decision is the most important thing.

Now, this is not about willpower. That would be like saying: “This is addict is going to just avoid drugs forever without any help at all.” That is the willpower method for overcoming addiction. But what we are talking about here is something else. We are talking about the strength of your commitment. Your commitment to what? To staying clean and sober.

So there is a subtle difference here. When you make a strong commitment to recovery, you are not saying “I will not use drugs no matter what!” What you are really saying to yourself is:

“Not using addictive drugs and alcohol is the most important thing in my life today.”

This leaves the door open to ask for help. This leaves the door open so that you can talk to others, get advice, and seek help on your journey. But all the while, the journey itself must be the most important thing in your life. By far. Your commitment to recovery has to be number one in your life. Period. It has to come first, before anything and everything else.

Now, what if you want to commit to recovery, but you find that you just cannot? What then?

If that is your issue then your problem is with surrender. The strength of your commitment is based on the depth of your surrender. If you have only surrendered a little bit to your disease, then you will only have a small amount of commitment to recovery.

On the other hand, if you have “fully surrendered” to your addiction, then the strength of your commitment will be very strong indeed.

So how do you force yourself to surrender? How do you surrender more deeply to your disease?

This is a challenge in itself, and is a lesson that I believe I was just “blessed” with. I did not make a decision one day to surrender. It just happened.

I suppose that you have to be willing to see past your denial. Because if you choose to stay stuck in your own denial then you will never surrender. If you hold fast to the idea that you can still enjoy your drug of choice then you will never surrender.

You have to realize on a very deep level that “the good times are over” when it comes to your drug of choice. When I say that this has to happen on a very deep level, what I mean is that you have to get a glimpse into your own future. This is very possible and this is exactly what happened to me when I finally surrendered. I looked into the future, and all I saw there was more chaos and misery from chasing that next high. I was able to fully grasp the futility of my addiction. I could see that it just wasn’t going to get any better.

Now keep in mind that this moment occurred after over a decade of struggle. My moment of surrender happened after repeatedly banging my head into a wall for over ten years straight. So I don’t want to make it sound like I just wised up one day and decided to overcome my addiction. I really have no idea how or why I suddenly was able to see past my denial. I understand that this is what happened, that I finally got realistic about my future and where I was headed, but I do not know how to reproduce that in other people.

All I can really suggest is that you try to increase your awareness, and your honesty with yourself. Start measuring your happiness in addiction. How many hours per day (or week) are you really happy while using your drug of choice? Start measuring. Keep measuring. The number of hours of “happiness” will be shockingly low. Perhaps this will shock you into seeing past your denial. Then you can do an amazing experiment: you can ask for help, go to rehab, and start measuring how happy you are in recovery. The number of hours you are happy while sober will be shockingly high, because most of us did not believe we could be happy AT ALL while we are clean and sober. But this is how it goes. We really can be happy in recovery if we only give ourselves that chance.

Lesson #2: Holistic recovery and why it really is about more than just abstinence

The second lesson that I had to learn in early recovery had to do with “holistic recovery.”

Now I admit that the idea of “holistic” sounds pretty new-age to me. It sounds suspect. I don’t trust most stuff that sounds “new-agey,” to be honest.

But I want you to understand that there is nothing fancy or mystical going on here. “Holistic” just means “whole,” as in treating the “whole person” and their “entire addiction” rather than just one aspect of it.

This is a very important lesson that I learned and I do not believe that most people in modern day recovery have even the slightest clue about this concept.

Here is the basic idea:

Modern day recovery is dominated by the 12 step program. In those programs the focus is entirely on spiritual growth and bringing about a spiritual experience. This is the solution as proposed by modern day recovery and AA and NA.

Addiction is not *only* a spiritual disease. It is a holistic disease, in that it affects a person physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and so on.

Therefore, the solution for recovery should not be so one-dimensional like AA and NA are, with their narrow focus on spirituality as the only solution.

Don’t be put off by the word “holistic.” This just means that we are treating the “whole person” and their “whole addiction,” and not just looking through the narrow lens of the disease being spiritual.

So why is this one of the “lessons I learned” at all, and how did it come about?

Well first of all I started to get suspicious of the one dimensional solution as I watched it fail for more and more people. What was especially disturbing to me was that some of the most spiritual (and sometimes religious) people that I knew in recovery were the ones who ended up relapsing. This data did not jive with what I was being told about success in recovery. According to the wisdom of the meetings and AA, it was all about your connection with a higher power. The more spiritual you were, the more protected from relapse you were.

But this did not jive with what I was observing. What I was observing was that many people who I thought were the most spiritual were actually relapsing. And in contrast to this, some of the “winners” that I looked up to in recovery were not that spiritual at all. For example, my sponsor in recovery had over a decade of sobriety and he was not all that into spirituality. He paid it lip service at times but for the most part he was all about the practical end of recovery. For example, he pushed me to go back to college rather than pushing me to go to more AA meetings. At the time I really thought he was foolish for this, but now I can see the wisdom of it. He was not foolish at all to push me towards practical growth.

I ran into a couple of guys at this time who were still quite young in their recovery, while I had about 3 years or so of continuous sobriety. I was no longer attending AA meetings religiously like they were. These guys and I used to sort of joke with each other and talk about recovery in general. I think we all believed that we had all the answers, and just wanted to prove the others wrong. In particular, these guys thought I was a fool to walk away from the meetings, and they warned me that I was destined for relapse. My solution was based on “personal growth.” My jogging routine was part of my recovery; they laughed at this idea as being foolish. They were stuck in the one-dimensional thinking that the only way to save themselves was spiritually. As it turned out, all of these guys relapsed within the next few months (!) and I am still sober to this day. Now I do not tell this story to brag in any way…..because at the time I was genuinely questioning my own actions and my own path in recovery. I was plagued by fear and I was never cocky at all. What I learned was that I had to find my own path, I had to push myself to make personal growth, and that the one dimensional path of “spiritual recovery” was not broad enough to sustain me. I needed something more. I needed a holistic approach.

One other example was with running/exercise. After a few years of recovery it was suggested to me to get into shape. I started running with my dad and typically would run between 20 and 30 miles per week (never less than six miles per run). I started doing this in about my second or third year of recovery and have never stopped since then.

What is the significance of this? Only that it helps my recovery effort tremendously, and probably does more for me than any other single action that I could take in my recovery! Come to find out, there are entire programs of recovery that are based just on exercise alone! Seriously, it can be that powerful.

Now the point here is not that everyone in recovery should run. Obviously we are all different and unique. The point is that we should all explore the holistic approach, because you are probably missing out on something that would be super helpful to your recovery effort. I failed to run during my first two or three years of recovery and had no idea I was missing out on this powerful tool. I had to become willing to take some suggestions and explore some new avenues of growth in order to discover this life-changing experience for myself.

Lesson #3: Recovery strategy changes over time as you remain sober

The final lesson that I learned in early recovery is that your strategy can, will, and should change over time.

We are not static creatures. What kept you sober at 30 days is not the same strategy that will keep you sober at 30 years.

When you have 90 days in recovery you will be taking different actions then when you have 9 years in recovery.

This is normal, natural, and nothing to be afraid of. Do not be afraid to change and evolve and grow in your recovery.

So many people in traditional recovery have this fear based response to this idea. They say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and refer to the idea that you should sit in daily 12 step meetings for the rest of your life.

I tend to disagree with this logic. Or perhaps, I believe that sitting in meetings for your whole life is “broken” and is a waste of time. Just because a recovery strategy works does not make it optimal. We could all stand on our heads for 16 hours each day and probably stay sober that way. Does that mean that we should? Of course not. There is a right and a wrong path to stay sober.

Consider the idea that someone could remain clean and sober but become miserable to the point of suicide. What, then, of sobriety? Surely their strategy was not optimal if it drove them to suicide.

My definition of success in recovery goes a little bit further than just maintaining abstinence. Some people stay sober but they also stay miserable. What is the point of that?

I want to enjoy life in recovery and get something good out of it. I want to help others and feel good about myself for doing so.

Therefore, my definition of success in recovery involves growth.

Personal growth is my answer for relapse prevention. If you want to stay clean and sober then do it in a way that challenges you. Sure you will still have some ups and downs this way, but it is better than being bored with your life and just passively sitting in meetings, no?

I also admit that you could definitely apply such a concept while being in AA or NA. But, you do not NEED those programs in order to recover based on personal growth. Feel free to use their framework if you like, so long as you are not “stuck” in your recovery.

The key is to keep moving forward, and continue to make personal growth. Once you start standing still (or worse, sliding backwards) then you are headed for trouble, and possible relapse.

So embrace the idea that your recovery strategy may change over time. Come to grips with the fact that what got you clean and sober may not keep you clean and sober (forever). For that, you may have to keep changing and evolving in your recovery journey. Luckily, doing so is challenging and is a whole lot of fun. Recovery is an adventure if you stay open to new growth opportunities.


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