What are the best practices for overcoming an alcoholism addiction? Furthermore, is there a daily practice that the recovering alcoholic should be engaging in? What would that practice be like? How would it help them to remain clean and sober?
When I was first getting clean and sober in a rehab center I was attending AA meetings every day. At that time I would have thought that the “best practices” for recovery looked something like this:
1) Goes to 12 step meetings every day.
2) Reads recovery literature.
3) Prays and/or meditates.
4) Work with sponsor on a regular basis.
5) Reach out to others in recovery.
I have no doubt that some people can stay clean and sober based on these practices. These are essentially the things that you are told to do if you follow a traditional path of recovery and attend AA meetings.
And, it does work for some people.
But my own experience in recovery has led me to a different sort of daily practice. This is a daily practice that works for me, and it may not work for everyone.
But it is certainly an alternative to mainstream recovery.
The thing is, no one ever told me about an alternative. In fact, when I spoke with one therapist that I had years ago, he basically told me that “it was AA or the highway.” And I don’t blame him for that, looking back. I mean, here I was, messed up on drugs and alcohol, all of my friends were drunks and addicts, and my current job was filled with the drug culture as well. There was really no good option for me at that time, no support system that could effectively lift me out of that old life. My entire world revolved around drugs and alcohol. So I don’t blame my counselor back then for telling me that “AA was my only hope.” From his perspective, this was certainly true. (Eventually, I had to go live in long term rehab in order to get a new lease on life. This is what finally worked for me).
And in going to live in long term rehab, I also had to accept and embrace 12 step meetings as part of my solution.
But as I continued to live in long term treatment, I started to explore what was really going on. I was starting to figure out how recovery actually worked, and what really kept people clean and sober.
This was a process that spanned at least a few years time. I observed others in recovery quite a bit. This was easy to do because I was living in a long term rehab (that was also connected to a detox and short term rehab). After that I started working in the treatment center and stayed employed there for about 5 years or so. So I had the chance to really watch people, to explore my ideas about recovery, and to see what sort of things were truly important when it came to sobriety. Being in a treatment center for nearly a decade gives you quite a bit of data, even if it is all observational data. (Side note: My number one tip from all of that observation? You must surrender fully and completely to your disease, let go of everything if you want to recover).
As I observed others in recovery I watched a lot of people fail and relapse. Nearly everyone, in fact. But at the same time I spoke with many people and got to know “the winners,” a small group of people who did not relapse and who were living an awesome life in recovery. In observing both sets of people (those who relapse and those who remain sober) I started to develop my own set of best practices, for myself. I started to refine my own system of recovery, because (to be honest) I rejected the traditional system of AA.
In doing this I can look back and realize that what I do today (at 12 years sober) is not so different than what my peers in AA are doing either. I believe there are several fundamental concepts in recovery that we all share, regardless of which program we focus on (such as surrender, personal growth, holistic health, etc.).
So what are my best practices for recovery?
We have to start at the beginning, and there are no great secrets here. Support is important in early recovery.
Early recovery and the need for support and structure
I tend to be pro-treatment but against traditional programs such as AA and NA. Why would that be?
The biggest reason is because I believe that the former is needed for support and structure in recovery, while the latter can breed dependency and stifle growth in the long run. In other words, I believe that alcoholics need lots of support and structure in early recovery, but then they need to learn to embrace their own “best practices” and embrace personal growth in the long run.
I have watched too many people relapse who were dependent on daily meetings for their recovery. This is not how the program was intended. Bill Wilson did not envision 24/7 meetings around the clock, with people going to a meeting every single day like clockwork. Instead, he believed in the steps and the resulting spiritual transformation. Back in his day, meetings were rare. They were lucky to meet once or twice a week. People stayed sober based on the steps, on spiritual conversion, on a new life of change. They did not depend on meetings.
Contrast this with today, where we can easily go to AA and NA meetings every single day, year round, without ever taking a day off. People in AA today say things like “these AA meetings are my medicine, and if I miss a dose, then I get sick.” People today worry that if they stop coming to meetings then they will quickly relapse. What kind of recovery is that, really? What good is your sobriety if it depends on daily meetings? This is dependency all over again. Surely we can do better than that, no?
This was the line of thinking that got me discover my own best practices. I was slowly rejecting AA as I realized that there was something deeper going in recovery. For one thing, many people who attended the meetings religiously were also people who relapsed. So I knew there was something deeper going on that I had to discover.
So what I slowly realized was that, while treatment and support were critical for me (and for others) in early recovery, a dependency on meetings in the long run was not necessarily a good thing.
I believe every alcoholic can benefit from treatment. I also believe that they need to grow beyond the basic ideas that they learn there, and that they do not have to rely on a lifetime of AA meetings to stay sober.
Transitioning to long term sobriety
I have written much about the transition from early recovery into long term sobriety, because statistically most people fail and relapse before they finish this transition.
My own transition to long term recovery involved a number of things that I did. I was taking action. I was changing my life. I was trying hard to make positive changes. And I was branching out, away from recovery concepts, away from spiritual growth (and into personal growth).
When you start in early recovery there is a strong focus on:
1) Staying clean and sober one day at a time. Not using. Abstinence.
2) Spiritual growth or spiritual conversion. This is the primary method taught today.
When you first get sober these two things are the main focus. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that.
But in order for you to stay sober for a year, for five years, for ten years….you are going to have to move beyond this.
What I discovered is that the transition to long term sobriety is all about the development of personal growth. So this goes beyond just spiritual growth and the drive to abstain from drugs and alcohol. You have to go further than that and pursue different kinds of personal growth.
And this drive towards personal growth is what will help you to develop a daily practice in life.
Recovery demands consistency. If you are not consistent then you will relapse.
This is why you need a daily practice. This is why you need structure and support in early recovery.
Developing a daily practice that works for you in recovery
For a time I was going to AA meetings every day and that was pretty much the extent of my recovery. This was working for me at the time but not real well. I could tell that I had to find a different long term solution. I would not be happy going to daily meetings for years and years on end.
So I started pushing myself to make growth in other areas. Actually, my sponsor and other people that I took advice from in recovery pushed me to start exploring growth in new areas. For example, people were pushing me to start exercising. Now regular exercise is part of what I would call my “daily practice.”
Someone suggested that I write in a journal, that I write about my recovery, that I write about my sobriety. Now that writing is part of my daily practice.
I try to reach out and connect with others in recovery, every single day. Based on my daily practices, this happens rather automatically now.
I try to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep. I try to eat healthy food. I quit smoking cigarettes almost ten years ago.
So I have all of these things that I do each day, and I keep doing them consistently. Some of those things are fairly automatic (like not smoking cigarettes) but some of them require a fair bit of action on my part (like writing and reaching out to others in recovery). But all of those things become a part of my daily practice. I exercise every day, even if I don’t feel like doing it. Because I decided at one point that this was healthy, that this was leading me to a better life, and if I could commit to it then things would get better and better.
My daily practice is made up of things that give me positive benefit. Not benefit in the short run (that was how I lived during addiction), but benefit in the long run. When I exercise every day, when I eat healthy food every day, then my life is significantly better 12 months from now, 24 months from now, etc. If I don’t do that as part of my daily practice then certain things will get worse in the long run.
So you need to figure out what those things are for yourself. Your own daily practice. It will vary depending on who you are, what your situation is, what your unique needs may be, and so on.
For me, distance running is a big part of my daily practice. Obviously this will not be true for every person in recovery. But you still need to find a daily practice that helps you to build a more positive life in the long run. You need to find the things that will grow into huge long term benefits.
Your habits make you into who you are
Our habits shape us over time. This is really the foundation behind the idea of a “daily practice.”
So you want to carefully examine your habits. When I first got into recovery I had a bunch of unhealthy habits that were leading me nowhere. Even without the drugs and the alcohol, I still did not have a very good set of daily actions.
I had to change all that.
Recovery is about change.
So I had to adopt new habits.
I had to listen to people and their suggestions. I had to try some new things. I had to experiment with new ideas, try things, and discard what did not work for me.
I had to be willing to try new ideas. I had to develop willingness, which was awkward and scary at times.
This is how I built a life of new habits. By making one change at a time, trying new things, and keeping the changes that seemed positive.
And I had to commit. I had to make strong commitments. Writing about recovery every day takes a huge commitment. Running six miles on a consistent basis takes commitment.
But after making these commitments, such things became habit eventually. Now I do such actions almost automatically. And those actions help to shape the life that I am living today.
Seeking feedback and advice from others
When I first got clean and sober I had no clue what to do in recovery, or what kind of life I should be living.
I had no clue what sort of daily habits would bring about long term sobriety.
I don’t think that many people in the 12 step program really knew either. Most of them were just parroting what other people had told them, without really thinking or seeing how those habits had shaped their own lives.
But certain people were different (in AA, they call these people “The winners”). Certain people were actually speaking from experience, and they knew what habits and changes worked for them. So they spoke with authority, with confidence.
There is no need for you to make every single mistake that you could possibly make in recovery. Others have already made those mistakes, and you can benefit from their knowledge. This is one of the big advantages of AA. You can benefit directly from the wisdom and experience of other people. Even outside of AA, you can learn from other people who have become sober before you did. You can learn from their mistakes, rather than make them yourself.
Therefore you should definitely seek advice during early recovery.
You need new ideas. You cannot recover based on your own power and your own ideas alone. If you try to do so then you will relapse.
Your habits in long term recovery should be shaped by ideas that you have collected that have worked out well for you. You can seek advice and feedback from other people, who will tell you what they think you should be doing.
Ask others in recovery: “What do you think I should be doing in my life, in my recovery? What do you think I should be doing every day to stay sober, to gain personal growth?”
Listen to their feedback. Seek feedback and advice from many sources. Try their suggestions. Find what works and seems to help you, then commit to it. It is not enough to merely bounce around from idea to idea and try things, you have to find what works and then make a commitment to it. This is how to build daily habits. This is how to build a new life in recovery based on change.
Designing the ultimate recovery program for overcoming complacency
In long term sobriety there is always the threat of complacency.
Complacency causes relapse when the recovering alcoholic stops growing in recovery. When they stop making progress. When they stop making positive changes.
Therefore, the ultimate recovery program has to encourage you to always be seeking new changes, to always be looking for that next growth experience.
One way to keep this loop going is based on feedback and advice from others. You may run out of ideas yourself, but you will never run out of ideas if you keep tapping into other people, seeking feedback, and actively looking for new ways that you might grow in recovery.
There is a cycle between acceptance of self and personal growth.
On the one hand you want to practice acceptance in recovery. You want to accept the things that you cannot change (as said in the serenity prayer).
But on the other hand you do not want to use this idea as an excuse for inaction. You do not want to just accept a miserable state in your life, when you could get active and change things.
The other end of the “acceptance spectrum” is personal growth, and change.
Instead of accepting things as they are, you get mad. You get angry. You get inspired. Or you just decide to get busy. And so you start making positive changes and taking action.
You don’t want to be angry every day, of course. You don’t want to have to get upset just to take positive action.
And that is the entire point. You want to push yourself to make positive changes, even when things are going well.
You want to stay tapped into that cycle of positive growth at all times.
What can you improve in your life today? What can you work on that will improve your life situation?
What can you do in order to grow?
If you don’t know, then ask someone. Seek feedback and advice. There is always something positive that you could be working on.
This then becomes part of your daily practice: the search for personal growth. You don’t ever want to kick your feet up and say “OK, I am done making positive changes now.” As soon as you do that you are in danger of relapse.