Life in sobriety is always going to have both ups and downs.
I think some of us expect for it to be all smooth sailing once we get clean and sober. As if, because we finally stopped drinking, the universe should no longer give us any chaos or negativity to deal with any more. And of course that is not the case, simply due to the random nature of life.
It’s not all bad in recovery, don’t get me wrong. Things tend to improve vastly when you overcome an addiction. But life isn’t perfect, either. There will still be hurdles, unexpected problems, and all sorts of issues that we will have do deal with down the road.
So the question is, how can you handle the inevitable bits of chaos that pop up without resorting to alcohol? How can we deal with life’s little surprises?
Dealing with life when it shows up without having to resort to drinking
When you get clean and sober, you basically make an agreement with yourself.
The agreement is:
“I am not going to drink or take addictive drugs today no matter what.”
That’s it. That is the whole agreement. You don’t really need anything more than that in order to get started in your recovery.
The problem, of course, is dealing with the repercussions of that decision. So you quit drinking, now how do you deal with life when it shows up? How do you live inside of your own skin when you are not able to self medicate with booze or drugs? How do you deal with life and make it through the day without resorting to your old coping mechanisms?
This is the main challenge that you face in recovery. The problem is not the quitting drinking. The problem is dealing with reality without booze. That’s the hard part.
So there are various recovery programs out there that attempt to guide you through this process. The traditional method is to work the 12 steps of AA and have a spiritual experience that will change your personality in such a way that you will no longer have to self medicate. This works for some people but certainly not for everyone. Luckily there are other approaches to recovery as well, some of which can even be self directed to some degree. This is especially true in long term sobriety.
By definition, you cannot really prepare for the unexpected. If you could, then you were expecting it! So we are all going to have little bumps in the road and various pitfalls that we did not foresee during our journey.
How can we prepare for this?
Another way that people phrase this problem is in talking about the things that you know.
There are things you know. Then there are things you don’t know. Then there are things that you don’t know that you don’t know. The unknown unknowns. How can you deal with those? How can you prepare for things that you could never possibly see coming?
It is a tricky problem, but I believe that there are ways to approach this that lead you to a stronger recovery.
How can you prepare for the unexpected in addiction recovery?
The number one way to deal with the “unknown unknowns” in life is to practice a holistic approach to recovery.
So in other words, instead of trying to guess or anticipate every potential problem in life (impossible anyway), you may as well create the best possible defensive structure with the resources that you have available to you. In other words, use a holistic approach to protect yourself in a reasonable way from virtually any potential threat.
In the world of alcoholism and drug addiction, this means thinking about triggers and potential avenues of relapse.
So therefore we are forced to think about relapse and the possible causes for it.
Why do people relapse?
I can tell you that I have watched a large number of struggling alcoholics and drug addicts who have relapsed over the years. Here are some of the areas in which someone’s life breaks down to the point that they take a drink:
1) Spiritually – the person is selfish, no gratitude, they are “me, me, me.” It’s all about them. They relapse because they are spiritually bankrupt.
2) Mentally – the person is unstable and their mental illness may be untreated, thus leading them to relapse over it.
3) Emotionally – the person is so emotionally upset that they want to medicate their emotions. They are angry or afraid or hurt and they want it to stop and go away.
4) Physically – the person gets sick or injured and they either get on painkillers or they become so weary and worn down from illness that they relapse. I was shocked at how common this is.
5) Socially – the person isolates so much that it leads to relapse. Or they have toxic relationships in their life that lead them to relapse.
Why do people relapse? Pick any one of the above five reasons. Plus there are others that often will combine two or more of the categories listed above.
So how does it usually go in traditional recovery? People will work a program that is generally based on spirituality, and therefore they are sort of ignoring the other four categories that are listed above along with spirituality.
And that is how relapse sneaks in. It doesn’t have to be spiritual bankruptcy. It can be any of those other reasons that trip people up and cause them to relapse.
And obviously it is not easy to predict this in advance. You don’t get sober for 28 days and then have this vision that you might get tripped up emotionally three months from now. None of us have a crystal ball.
But you can bet that every alcoholic and drug addict who makes the journey into long term sobriety is going to face certain challenges.
You can bet on it.
We don’t all face the same challenges of course. We all have a different path. And so there is no one suggestion that can remedy this, no one path in recovery that can insure sobriety for everyone.
We have to be a bit more flexible than that. Or rather, we have to come up with a better system for dealing with the unexpected.
You can imagine that a person in recovery might try to work on all 5 of those areas listed above. This is very possible.
You get into recovery and you stop drinking and taking drugs. You start eating better. You start sleeping through the night. You start exercising every day. Maybe you go to AA and you meet new positive people. You start talking with people and working on your problems. You start doing the work that you need to do internally, getting honest with yourself. You begin to eliminate toxic relationships from your life. You say “no” to the people in your life who drain your positive energy. You stop isolating. And you keep pushing yourself to take new suggestions, to try to improve yourself, to try to improve your life in all of these various ways.
This is the holistic approach. So instead of focusing in on just spiritual growth, you instead focus on improving your life in all of these other dimensions as well.
And this is how you deal with the unexpected. The holistic approach gives you the flexibility to be able to handle most anything that life will throw at you.
If I am facing a problem today that is new and unique to me I have an incredible amount of resources to be able to take on that new problem.
This is because I have been working on this holistic approach for a long time in recovery now. So I have physical health, I have emotional stability, I have a strong network of positive people in my life who will do whatever they can to help me through it. I have spiritual strength and gratitude for whatever shows up in my life, even if it is something that may seem negative at first. There is flexibility and strength in this approach because it draws power from so many different areas of life.
If the only tool in your toolbox is “spirituality,” how will you fare when your physical health falls into question? Or when you become emotionally upset based on events beyond your control? Or when the people who were closest to you are suddenly gone for some reason? How strong is your network? How strong is your physical health? How stable are you emotionally? How many resources and solutions do you have access to when things start getting crazy in your life? These are the kinds of things that a strong holistic approach to recovery is meant to deal with. You become stronger in your sobriety when you have a variety of solutions for every potential problem.
How to shift your attitude to go with the flow instead of resisting it
Another way to deal with the unexpected is to accept it instead of resisting it.
This all comes back to the wisdom of the serenity prayer, and in having the discernment to know when to take action and when to practice acceptance.
Sometimes you can practice acceptance if you have a shift in attitude.
One way this can happen is when you focus on learning. When you focus on the lesson.
The basic model for this is:
* Something bad happened. What can I learn from it though?
This is an opportunity to turn any situation around and try to get something positive out of it. If something negative happens then it is your job to find the silver lining in it.
You can improve at this by forcing yourself to practice gratitude every day.
If you really want to challenge yourself then every time you feel the negativity creeping in you can prompt yourself to say “What are 3 reasons that I have to be grateful for this situation I am in right now?”
And then you force yourself to dig for those answers. You force yourself to find the gratitude. Sometimes it is really hard to do so. That is kind of the point. If it is easy to be grateful then you don’t get much benefit from practicing gratitude! On the other hand, you benefit most from gratitude when you have to dig deep and really try for it. This is how to take back your power in a lot of situations. What can you learn from it? Be grateful for the lesson. Be grateful that you are smarter for the future, even though you might be suffering today because of something.
Of course there are times when this is not the right strategy. Those are the times when you need to put your foot down and demand change instead of acceptance.
Acceptance or action?
There is a story in the big book of AA where someone says: “And acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today.”
I tend to think that is a bit over the top. Acceptance may be the answer in a few cases, but certainly not all of them.
And I think it can become a dangerous attitude, to practice acceptance too often or too readily.
It can become a justification for laziness. For inaction.
We don’t want that to happen to us. Instead, we want to be willing to take action and to “change the things we can” in life.
Nearly everything is negotiable to some degree. You can change a whole lot.
I realized this after a few years in sobriety when I finally quit smoking cigarettes. I got a lot of power when I finally achieved that goal. I was actually a bit surprised at what I had discovered about myself in that experience. It was like “Hey wait a minute! I can actually accomplish things! I can do anything that I want! This is amazing!”
I realized that I could not do everything, that I had to in fact prioritize. But I also realized that I had more power than I thought. I could pick a goal, set my mind to it, and probably achieve it if I really pushed myself hard.
That was quite a revelation for me. I later used that power to set and achieve more goals in my life, simply because I had realized that I would not fail. Or rather, I realized that if I persisted and I dedicated my whole life to any specific goal that I could probably achieve it. That was what quitting smoking had taught me.
I can remember when I was still drinking and stuck in denial at one point. I was really miserable and some people were trying to talk me into going to rehab. I had already gone to treatment once before then and I had relapsed. And I can remember saying “I should just give up and resign myself to being a drunk. This is as good as it gets for me. There is no way I could ever be happy in sobriety. I may as well just drink myself to death.”
I can remember being at that point. I can remember being that hopeless. I really thought that I was doomed to die as a miserable drunk.
So what changed? Well at some point I had finally had enough misery, and someone suggested rehab again, and I had a faint glimmer of hope. So even after feeling hopeless for so long, I was eventually persuaded to give it another try. Why not? It couldn’t get any worse. I was already living in misery while I was drinking every day. How much worse could sobriety really be? That was the attitude that got my into treatment again.
So I think that you have to be a bit careful with the idea of acceptance. The whole concept of self acceptance can be used as an excuse for inaction. We obviously don’t want that. If you are using the idea of acceptance in order to justify your own laziness then obviously that is not good. The key, of course, is to “change the things you can,” as suggested in the serenity prayer. And part of that is knowing and believing that you can change a whole lot more than what you probably realize. You have power, especially if you are sober.
Planting both feet firmly on first base
My great sponsor once told a story about his own journey in recovery.
He made an analogy with a base runner in baseball who was leading off of first base.
This is dangerous of course. If you lead off from the base, you might get thrown out. It’s a risk. Every ball player knows this risk. You are allowed to lead off as much as you choose, but if you push it too far then you might get thrown out.
Recovery is a bit like that. There will be times when you are doing all of the things that you should be doing in your recovery journey, and you will have both of your feet planted firmly on first base. You are not screwing around. You are taking care of yourself every day, in all of the ways I talked about earlier (physically, spiritually, etc.).
But there will also be times in your recovery where you might lead off a bit. Where you are stagnant in terms of personal growth. When you aren’t really pushing yourself to make positive changes. When you have become a bit lazy in your recovery efforts. These are the times when you are leading off.
And so what happens is that, over the course of your entire journey in sobriety, there are going to be random life events. Things will happen. Some things will be good, some will be bad. And some may be outright disasters. And many of these events will be completely beyond your control. All you can do is react, try to pick up the pieces.
So you have to ask yourself each and every day:
“Am I leading off in my recovery? Or do I have both of my feet planted firmly on first base?”
Because life is going to show up. Life is going to happen. It may be smooth sailing today, and it may be smooth sailing tomorrow, but eventually there will be chaos. Eventually there will be a surprise. Eventually there will be ups and downs. It is simply a matter of time. We all have both good and bad days. Stuff happens. It is inevitable.
And you have a choice. You can be leading off, screwing around, being lazy….or you can be working hard on your recovery, using a holistic approach, taking care of yourself in every way that you can. So that you have the best possible chance to react to a new situation, and make the best of it.
What about you, how do you deal with unexpected chaos and negativity in your recovery? Have you been able to overcome these challenges and remain sober? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!