What does it take in order to really feel your best in sobriety?
Is it enough just to stop dumping toxic chemicals into your body and then continue on your merry way as if nothing else was wrong in your life?
Or is it perhaps necessary to do a bit more than that in order to really feel your best on a day to day basis?
I think we all know that the answer is clearly the latter…that feeling good in recovery requires some additional effort beyond just “not drinking.”
So what is the formula for feeling good, and how do we go about achieving that?
First off let me just say that I am far from perfect. I would like to believe that I am doing my best in terms of personal growth, but there are still days when I feel like I have failed when I could have made real progress instead. Recovery is all about the journey and the process, not about hitting some perfect destination. That said, it still makes sense to me to “strive for perfection.” There is an ideal life out there, and it is up to each of us to sort it out and try to achieve it (even if we will forever fall short of it!).
When we discuss feeling good in recovery, I don’t really see how we can have a conversation about it without bringing up the idea of holism and the holistic approach.
Why the holistic approach to sobriety should matter to you
“Holistic” doesn’t have to be a scary word or anything for you. It just means that we are going to treat the “whole person” in recovery rather than just one aspect of that person.
If you look at many traditional recovery programs, they often times will attempt to treat just one aspect of a person in recovery. Many programs are strictly spiritual–they focus only on bringing about spiritual growth.
This is one approach and it does work for some people. But is it the best approach? I would argue that it is definitely not. The reason I argue this way is because there are so many other facets to addiction recovery, and there are so many other directions in which you can grow in life. Spiritual progress may help to protect you from relapse, but it is not the only tool in the toolbox. Nor should it be.
For example, I would attribute a great deal of my success in sobriety to physical exercise. That is not going to be the case for everyone, and I am not suggesting that this is the ultimate solution or anything. It is simply one thing that works really well for me. I did not even discover this aspect of my recovery until I had a few years sober under my belt. I had been seeking and searching so hard for spiritual enlightenment and then I stumbled on distance running, which was like a whole new world of meditation to me.
The holistic approach is a way that you can find these kinds of discoveries in your own journey. I am not suggesting that everyone go out and start exercising. What I am suggesting is that each of us needs to find what works for us in recovery, and that the direction that we choose to make progress should not be limited to only spiritual growth.
The holistic approach to recovery is all about growing and improving as a person physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Those are the main aspects of growth that you might experience in your recovery journey. To shun any one of them in favor of another is, in my opinion, a huge mistake.
Because if you close the door on one of those avenues of personal growth, you could unwittingly open up the door to a relapse in your future.
How many times have I watched one of my peers in early recovery relapse due to a relationship that went south?
How many times have I watched one of my peers in recovery relapse due to physical illness or disease?
How many times have I watched people relapse due to mental instability?
How many times have I watched people relapse because they were emotionally unstable?
I can assure you that all of these situations came up, over and over again, as I made my way through early recovery. I watched many people relapse for a variety of these reasons, and more.
Some of these situations could have certainly been helped by someone who was working harder on their spiritual program. I get that.
But I also believe that not every problem in sobriety should be solved with a spiritual toolkit. There are other tools in the box.
Sometimes you have to explore your feelings and talk about your emotions.
Sometimes you have to put distance in between yourself and another person who is toxic to your recovery.
Sometimes you have to take care of your body and get better sleep, quit a stressful job, avoid toxic relationships, get daily exercise, and so on.
Sometimes you have to quit smoking cigarettes in sobriety, and stop using them as a false crutch (false, because they don’t really help, and are slowly killing you).
Sometimes you need to these things and the answers are not necessarily spiritual. They are physical, mental, emotional, and social as well.
This is the holistic approach to addiction recovery.
My theory is that when you are moving forward in life and you are improving yourself and making progress in all of these areas then it helps to protect you from relapse.
I noticed this when I had about 18 months sober. I was trying to figure out why some people who seemed to be more “plugged in to AA” than I was ended up relapsing. Why were they failing while I remained sober? What was I doing different than them? Weren’t they “more spiritual” than I was? I thought they were. And yet they relapsed. What was the secret that I was missing?
Looking back now, I believe that the secret I was missing was that I was on a path of personal growth while they were not. They were still talking the talk and their recovery looked good on paper, but in the real world they had grown stagnant. They were no longer doing the work. And yet I was pushing myself to grow in some of these other areas, some of these holistic areas, in ways that it did not necessarily talk about in traditional recovery.
For example, traditional recovery programs don’t necessarily talk about exercise. Or getting better sleep. Or eating healthier meals.
And they might talk about emotions, but they might not dive into your mental stability, your emotional stability, your relationships, and all of those other holistic avenues of growth. Maybe they touch on some of it but probably not all of it. All of those traditional recovery programs seem to fall short of a total holistic approach.
There is a concept known as “synergy” that applies very well to recovery in my opinion. The idea is that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. So if you use this holistic approach in recovery and you add up the benefits from all of the avenues of personal growth that you explore, it will be far greater than what you would initially suspect.
This is because the various rewards that you get from a holistic approach will start to enhance and affect each other.
For example, let’s say that you quit smoking cigarettes in recovery, but you still have poor sleep habits, poor nutrition, and you never exercise.
With the holistic approach, it is pretty obvious that if you turn all of those negatives into a positive that you are going to feel better. No one would argue that. But what is amazing is that the sum of those rewards is going to multiply like crazy in a way that you could never predict. If you improve your diet then it will better fuel your exercise. If you quit smoking then healthy foods will taste better. If you exercise every day then your sleep patterns will naturally grow more consistent. And so on and so forth….
This is what we mean by “synergy.” If you do one of these positive things, then it certainly helps your life and your recovery.
But if you do all sorts of these things, then the rewards from these various activities start to tie together and enhance each other. And that is where recovery starts to get really good.
That is when you can get to “feeling good again” in your recovery.
It happens when everything starts working together.
But you have to build this sort of life from the ground up. You have to be willing to take suggestions, to try new things, to test out ideas that you don’t necessarily believe will benefit you immediately.
For example, I never thought that writing in a journal would be therapeutic for me. But it was. I had to give it a chance. I never thought it was a great idea, but others suggested it to me. So I tried it and I found it to be really helpful.
The same thing happened to me with daily exercise. I had to take that suggestion on blind faith, because I really did not think it would make a difference. And for quite a while, it didn’t! I had to keep at it. It got greater, later.
They say that in AA meetings a lot….”it gets greater, later.”
Regardless of what program you might be following, that is pretty much the truth. It takes some time. Put in the work, and it does get greater, later.
Feeling good is actually the art of not feeling bad
If you want to feel good in recovery then it might help you to start working backwards at first.
What do I mean by that, “working backwards” in recovery?
Here is what you do. First, figure out all of the reasons that you are unhappy right now. Find your blocks to recovery.
We always get this backwards it seems like. We all believe that we need to figure out what will make us happy in life, then chase after it and finally achieve it. Then we can be happy (we tell ourselves).
But it never really works out. Because as soon as we get to that goal, we just move the carrot on the stick further ahead. We find another goal to reach for in order to be happy.
And in the meanwhile, we all have negative things going on in our lives, going on within our minds. Guilt, shame, fear, anger, self pity. Toxic relationships. Stress at a job or with family. And so on and so forth.
In order to be happy and feel good about ourselves in recovery, we can’t allow all of these negative things to dominate our lives.
So there are two things that you can do when it comes to these negative elements of your life.
One, you can accept them. Find peace in the eye of the storm.
Two, you can change them. You can take action. You can fix the negativity. Eliminate it.
My recommendation is for you to focus mostly on number two for a while. You can practice acceptance later. For now, let’s take action and make some positive changes.
So how do you do that? How do you fix the negative stuff in your life so that you can feel good about yourself again?
If you don’t know where to start, I would suggest that you ask for help. Common sources of help would include people like AA sponsors, therapists, or counselors.
If you are not happy with your life, then ask for help. Someone can probably help you find the path to feeling good again.
Prioritizing positive changes for your life in recovery
I am not always good at prioritizing when moving forward. But I am excellent at it in retrospect, after I have watched the positive changes.
So here is what I have learned.
You need to prioritize based on your biggest source of negativity in your life.
For me, that almost always means my biggest source of anxiety. Stress. Negative energy.
Your goal should be to identify that source of negative energy (or stress) and then eliminate it.
If you can’t do that then I have two suggestions for identifying your biggest problem:
1) Finish the sentence: “The one thing that I could change in my life that would have the greatest positive impact for me would be __________.”
2) Ask a trusted therapist, counselor, or sponsor to help you identify your biggest stumbling block you are facing right now. Then work with them to eliminate it.
You might also try meditation, as third bonus here. Just sit quietly each day with your eyes closed. Don’t try to force an empty mind or anything. Just set a timer for ten minutes and sit quietly with your eyes closed. You will notice if you do this over a period of several days that some of the same thoughts tend to pop up. Those are likely to be your fears and your anxieties. Those are things that you will want to tackle and eliminate eventually.
I did best when I prioritized according to my greatest anxiety at the time. Whatever fear I was facing, I had to face it directly.
This was definitely true when I was struggling to get clean and sober. I was terrified of sobriety itself. I was terrified of facing myself and who I had become. My addiction was killing me and I honestly did not want to live any more. I was hopeless and defeated. That was the level of fear and negativity that I was at when I finally surrendered.
But it did not end there of course. I had to face other fears, I had to get honest with myself in other ways, I had to push myself to make more changes in recovery. I felt like I had to do this because many of my peers who got sober in a long term facility with me where falling by the wayside. They were relapsing and I was terrified that the same thing would happen to me. So I had to figure out how to keep moving forward.
And the way I did that was to look at my greatest fears. To look at my source of anxiety. And then, much as I hated to do it, I had to face that fear head on.
So I went back to college. I got a full time job. I chaired an NA meeting for two years. I was forcing myself to do some of the things that I was always afraid to do, because I knew that I had to clear those fears, clear that anxiety if I was ever going to be happy and free in life.
I also had help in prioritizing this work. I had a therapist helping me for the first 20 months of my sobriety journey. He helped me to prioritize and encouraged things like meditation, exercise, going back to school, getting a job, and so on.
I also had help from a sponsor in NA, though I did not really dive into that as much as I did with therapy. Many people get much more involved in sponsorship than what I was and it works well for some of them. I encourage people to get a sponsor in the 12 step programs and to work the steps, if that is the path that you choose to go. Though ultimately I choose a different path for myself and I largely sought out personal growth outside of the 12 step programs.
What to do if you get in a funk and are feeling bad
If you are in a funk in your recovery then the first and best thing that you can do is to tell someone else in recovery about it.
This is hard to do. We have all sorts of excuses as to why we do not want to burden or bother other people with our problems. But if you are feeling down in recovery then you need to talk about it. Peers, sponsors, therapists, counselors, it doesn’t matter. Talk to someone that you trust and just let them know that you are feeling down.
This is important on so many levels. One, it calls attention to the problem, even for yourself. Talking about it will make it more real, help you to focus on a solution.
Two, it gives you insight and advice that is probably more valuable than you might think at first. Other people will have insight that is genuinely useful. We like to think that we are smart and that we can figure out recovery on our own, but talking to others can make a big difference.
Three, you just get support when you talk to someone else. If you have a peer or a friend to lean on then it helps you to not relapse in a very direct way.
Four, you get ideas and suggestions for how to improve your life, how to implement the holistic approach, how to take your recovery to the next level. Almost all of the positive gains I have made in recovery have come to me in the form of suggestions from other people. I had to get out of my own way enough to be able to listen, then implement and take action.
What about you, are you feeling your best in recovery today? Do you feel like you achieve this ideal often, or are you still struggling with it on a daily basis? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!