When you first get into sobriety, the question of self identity can be like a slap in the face: Who am I really supposed to be? What is my real purpose in life now that I am no longer drinking?
Because when you are stuck in addiction this is not really a problem. Your purpose was a given; it was to chase happiness and try to stay self medicated as much as possible. The world was stacked against you and all you could do to fight back was to try to get a little bit of happiness from your drug of choice. It was pretty simple. Your purpose was to chase happiness via the bottle.
But now in recovery your excuses are all gone. You are no longer fighting against the whole world and declaring that you “deserve” a drink any more. That was the old you. The new you realizes that this is a self defeating attitude and that if you want real happiness then you are going to have to take real responsibility for it. So you can’t just blame others for your unhappiness in sobriety. Or rather, you certainly can try, but doing so won’t make you any happier!
And so in recovery you set out on a personal journey to discover who you really are. In your addiction you covered this up; you didn’t want to know. Because for one thing, you probably did not like yourself very much in your addiction. Again, this something that you work on, something that changes in sobriety. You learn to care for yourself again, even love yourself.
And some of this stuff takes time. You don’t just sober up and suddenly figure out who you were meant to be in a single weekend. This discovery is a process and you need to give yourself the space to let it unfold in its own time.
Creating the blank slate in early recovery
In early recovery you have work to do. If you don’t do this work then it is very likely that you will relapse at some point.
What is this work that I speak of? It is clearing away the negative garbage in your life that is left over from your addiction. In fact, even without an addiction you would still have some of this negativity that could stand to be eliminated.
So you have work to do.
For example, when I first got clean and sober I realized that I was always stuck in self pity. I would walk around and feel sorry for myself all the time. Why was I doing this? It wasn’t helping me. And it certainly wasn’t helping me to stay sober.
Later I learned that this was how I justified my drinking. If I felt sorry for myself then it made it easier to justify getting hammered all the time. I had an excuse. So my mind was always trying to generate this excuse for me to drink, and the way I did that was by feeling sorry for myself.
So that was my first revelation in early sobriety: This wasn’t who I was meant to be!
I wasn’t meant to sit around all day and feel sorry for myself, only to use that as an excuse to drink. That’s ridiculous. Who would agree that this is a good purpose in life, to feel sorry for yourself, play the victim card all the time, and use it as an excuse to get wasted? That’s not a very good purpose. If we are honest with ourselves then that is a path that completely lacks any sort of meaning. It is downright pathetic. I can own that today because I used to be there and I have since moved on. So let’s call it what it really is: Living to drink every day and making up some fake excuse as to why you need to self medicate is really pretty lame.
So how do you get to the blank slate in recovery? How do you press the reset switch on your life?
A big part of it is in doing the work. I had to identify this problem of self pity, figure out what I was doing to screw myself up, and then come up with a plan to eliminate it. So I talked with my sponsor, with a therapist, with my peers, and I was able to at least identify the problem. Then I started to seek out solutions. One of the key themes that kept popping up in discussing this was gratitude. I needed a way to generate more gratitude in my life if I was going to overcome self pity.
So this became a daily practice for me. I had to work at it. I had to take care of myself every day in certain ways, and this was one of those ways. I had to practice gratitude by writing out lists, by writing in a journal, by using negative visualization (that’s a technique that Stoic philosophers discovered for generating more gratitude). So I did these things and I also got help from other people and took their suggestions.
So this was part of my process. It was a big part of my process. I had to find the negative aspect of my life, the part that was really contributing to my addiction, and I had to come up with a plan to eliminate it.
Your process may be different from this, in that your fatal flaw might be different. For me it was self pity. For you it might be resentment. That is actually much more common among recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. So instead of practicing gratitude every day (still a good idea regardless) you might be working forgiveness and letting go of anger. In other words, your path in early recovery might be quite a bit different from mine. The important part to keep in mind is the process itself. You have problems, you have negative stuff in your life, and your job in early recovery is to eliminate that stuff and create the blank slate. Create a blank canvas in your life in early sobriety. You can only do that if you are willing to do the hard work and take care of the negativity and the problems. You must seek to eliminate those things if you want to eventually find your true purpose.
Think about it: “Who you were meant to be” implies a positive life. If you are unhappy and swamped with negativity then you are not living your ideal life. You have not achieved “who you were meant to be” yet.
In order to achieve your real purpose you have to eliminate the negative stuff. You cannot have things holding you back and keeping you miserable. That is not part of your real path in recovery.
Finding the themes of personal growth along which to grow in recovery
You might have some goals in early recovery and that is OK. There is nothing wrong with having goals. But sometimes you might set a goal and fail to reach it, in which case you might get discouraged and move on entirely.
So it’s about finding a mindset that works for you and keeps you motivated. One mindset shift that might help you is to think about having themes in your life rather than goals.
Who were you meant to be in this life? I was meant to be healthy and happy, therefore I try to exercise on a regular basis. This is a theme.
Now I could set specific goals and say “I want to jog 3 miles four times each week for the entire year.” That is a specific goal and you know when you fall short of it.
But the overall theme is important as well, and it may help you to think in terms of themes.
Thinking in this way helped me to find out more about who I really was in recovery. For example, once I started exercising on a regular basis I realized that my cigarette habit was not exactly congruent with my theme of fitness and health. It was out of alignment. So in thinking about this theme of overall health it helped me to gain perspective on my situation. Why was I exercising regularly but then filling my lungs with harmful chemicals? Something did not add up here. And the mismatch gave rise to the feeling of: “This isn’t who I was meant to be!” Something was off, because I was out of alignment. My values did not all add up.
Therefore something had to change. I eventually decided to quit smoking. And the theme of overall health has impacted other decisions. What are my sleeping habits like? What is my diet and nutrition like? Is it a match for the improved health that I am striving for in other areas of my life? If not, how can I change it?
So you may have a specific goal about how to improve your diet or that you want to quit smoking. But it is the overall theme of improved health that helps to dictate these decisions.
My belief is that if you became clean and sober (or even if you are just starting to try) then you have a clear purpose in life. The beginning of that purpose, the foundation of that new existence, is that you need to be happy and healthy.
Health is the currency of recovery. Without it you have nothing. Being sober doesn’t do you much good if you are deathly ill. And your decision for sobriety is really just one decision in a larger theme of greater health.
This is part of who you were meant to be. It is the beginning of it. This is also part of how you create the blank slate in early recovery. You stop drinking, start working on yourself, start eliminating destructive habits and diseased thinking, and you start to live a healthier life. This is how you build the foundation.
There may be a lot more to it. You may have a specific life mission, some goal that is way out there that you have yet to achieve. Your purpose may be really amazing. But you are never going to get there if you are not sober and healthy. Nor will you get there if you sober up but continue to live in resentment, anger, self pity, or fear. So you have to do the work, you have to build the foundation, you have to eliminate all of the negative stuff that is left over from your addiction. This is the path to real purpose.
Who do you most want to help in this lifetime?
What do you do once you have a foundation built in early recovery? How do you proceed from there and build your life that is worth living?
One thing that you might do is to figure out who you most want to help in this world. When you think about different groups of people that you want to help, how does it make you feel?
At some point you may think about a certain group of people (or animals?) and it will bring you to tears. You will be so overcome with emotion and you just want to do anything and everything that you can to reach out and help that group of people.
That’s your purpose. That is the work that you should be doing, that you should gravitate towards. If you can find a way to help that group of people then it will bring massive amounts of meaning and purpose to your life.
How you do this will not be clear when you first get clean and sober.
That is normal. Don’t expect to have this all planned out when you have 30 days sober. That is not realistic. I have 13 years in recovery now and I still don’t know if I have “arrived” at my true purpose just yet. I am not sure that I have landed at my ultimate purpose. That said, I have found some ways to reach out and help others and make an impact, which has been really amazing for me. I am grateful for the work I have been able to do. But I think that there is something more.
So give yourself a chance. Give yourself a break. Your first order of business in recovery is not to save the world. Your first order of business is to save yourself. So work on yourself. Work on your sobriety. Work on creating the blank slate, on eliminating the negative stuff from your life. That is your first order of business and if you build that foundation then your purpose will probably take care of itself in the future.
Your purpose may discover you, rather than the other way around. This is especially true if you are doing the work in early recovery and are open to the possibilities. Willing. Open to suggestion. Willing to experiment. Grateful for new opportunities. That is the mindset that discovers purpose.
Service work versus chasing happiness
The AA program has service work built into the steps as part of their recovery program.
The alternative to service work (helping others) is to help yourself.
To some extent you need a balance. Perhaps this is why service work is the last of the twelve steps. You have to help yourself first before you can help others of course.
But there is also something to be said for the idea that you will never be happy if you are completely selfish and only chase after your own happiness.
Who were you really meant to be? That question hints at the idea that the real answer is bigger than just yourself. The answer should expand a person in some way. It’s not all about you, it can’t all be about one individual and their selfish desires.
If you get clean and sober and then make it your life mission to maximize happiness, how would you go about doing it?
Would you chase after happiness directly, thinking only of yourself and what it is that you want from moment to moment? Do you think that living this way will produce any more happiness than what you experienced during your addiction?
I think most of us realize that chasing after happiness from a selfish perspective, even while sober, is going to be a dead end. You can certainly try to chase happiness in this way but each time you “reach it” the goal posts will move again and you will go back to being unhappy.
So what is the answer?
Remember the themes. If you set a goal and tell yourself that you will be happy once you reach that goal, then you are living in unhappiness. You are constantly wanting for something and you won’t let yourself be happy until you achieve it.
Instead of chasing goals you might adopt some new themes in your life. I would suggest that these three themes would make a very powerful starting point for anyone in recovery:
1) Improving your overall health. Holistic health. Physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social.
2) Helping others. Reaching out and making a difference. Find the group that you most want to help in this world.
3) Gratitude. Practice gratitude daily and cultivate it. This shapes your attitude to be more positive regardless of current life circumstances.
If you are practicing those three themes in your life then it would be difficult to see how you would fall victim to relapse.
The side effect of adopting this sort of daily practice is that not only would you be clean and sober, but you would also be happier. Just compare the person practicing these themes in their life to someone who is selfishly chasing after their own happiness.
If you practice healthy themes like this then over time the benefits of those positive choices will start to compound. Life will get better and better. This is who you were meant to be.
Using your unique talents and skills to help other people
Just like everyone else, you are unique. You have your own set of talents and skills that might be used to serve others.
Part of the journey is figuring out what those talents are and how you might use them best.
I know someone in recovery who sponsors people in AA and who speaks at AA meetings every day. He is fantastic at spreading a powerful message in that way and he has a lot of positive impact by doing so.
On the other hand, my own unique talents are completely different from that. I am not one to speak at meetings or sponsor people directly in recovery. But I have found other ways to reach out to struggling alcoholics and addicts and I have found a way to give them some hope.
Different approaches, different skills, but same basic message to the same group of people.
So your job is to figure out the best way to use your own unique skills to reach out and make an impact.
Most importantly: Give yourself time to do this. You won’t necessarily figure this out in the first year of your sobriety. It may take some time to build the foundation, to create the blank slate, to give yourself a platform of health and happiness from which you can finally do your best work.
Give yourself time to allow this process to unfold. There is no rush. You are becoming the person you were meant to be. Embrace the process, enjoy the journey.
What about you, have you discovered the person that you were meant to be in recovery? Are you still on the journey (as I feel that I am?) Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!