How can you figure out a plan for long term recovery? What is the best strategy for living well in long term sobriety while also preventing relapse?
In my opinion, and in my experience, you want to do at least 2 things in your sobriety journey. One, you want to stay clean and sober at all costs. That should really go without saying, because the benefits that you get from continuous sobriety are just massive.
But second, you also want to improve yourself and your life every single day. You want continuous upward progress in terms of personal growth. And I tend to measure my own personal growth along a holistic axis of five categories, though you could improvise and develop more than this: Physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
Those are the 5 areas of my life in which I think my health is critical. So for example, if my mental health becomes seriously compromised, not only can this make my life miserable and chaotic, but it can also lead to relapse.
The same is true of any one of those 5 areas. I have watched a lot of my peers in recovery get into a new romantic relationship early in their recovery journey, and after it failed, they relapsed. I would say that this is because their emotional health became so seriously compromised. You can also put that situation in terms of spirituality, because when you get involved in a new romance and you do not have a strong spiritual foundation established yet, that new romantic pursuit really becomes your higher power. You can’t stop thinking about them and you practically worship the person, ignoring your higher power and your own spiritual journey in the process. This is why they often recommend that a newcomer in AA or NA avoid any new romance for the first year, so that they can instead focus on building their relationship with their higher power instead. You cannot really do both at the same time if you are a newcomer in recovery.
Physical health is a key factor, because if you get sick, it can drag you down to the point that you relapse as a result. I have watched this happen several times, and it is a real phenomenon. People who get really sick and become incapacitated to some degree as a result of their illness are at a higher risk for relapse. I never would have believed it but I watched it happen to several of my peers in early recovery.
All of this is driving at the idea that, in order to figure out the best plan for your long term recovery, you need to come up with a strategy that can protect you from all of these different pitfalls that lead to relapse. How can we do this in a comprehensive way though? How can we watch out for all of these blind spots at once?
A couple of suggestions that helped me in this regard. One, when I was in the first, say, 5 years of my recovery journey, I really listened to my sponsor and to my therapist for suggestions about how I should be living my life. What this did for me was that I was exposed to lots of ideas about various things that could help me in my recovery journey, and instead of just listening politely and nodding at the suggestions, I actually took the ideas and tested them out for myself.
So my sponsor would suggest meditation, and I would go get a book about it and read it, start practicing, try various styles, try different techniques, ask the next AA meeting what their meditation practice looked like, and so on. So instead of just saying “oh, I don’t think that would work for me,” I would dive into the idea and try to fully explore it, really put a strong effort, and attempt to get everything that I could out of the suggestion. I actually did this with seated meditation, and I explored it for a few months and really tried to see if it would help me.
Ultimately, I ended up taking another suggestion from someone, which was to exercise regularly and get into shape. This is what eventually (for me) replaced the meditation idea, because I found that when I was jogging for 6 miles several days each week, that I got much the same benefit from the jogging that I got out of seated meditation. But I had to try both, I had to take these suggestions from my sponsor and my therapist, and I had to test the ideas out thoroughly and see how they affected me and my recovery.
This went on for at least the first few years of my recovery, and to some extent I am still doing this type of experimentation today. Ask for advice and input, take suggestions, and then do an experiment in your life. The experiment is: “Will this person’s suggestion help me to improve myself or my life?” And further: “Is the effort I am putting in worth the results I am getting?”
Sounds obvious, right? But how many people actually go around and ask for input, advice, and suggestions–and then actually put those suggestions into action and give them a fair trial before the render a verdict? How many people really live that way, constantly doing experiments in their life in order to find the optimal path of living, all while getting input and advice from other people?
I can assure you that if you live this way for a few years, or even for a few months, you are going to see drastic improvements in your life.
This is because we are all bad at knowing what is best for us.
We are. We are bad at it. But it is so easy to look at someone else and their life and tell them what they need to succeed. Isn’t it easy to judge others, to tell them what they need? And yet we cannot seem to be that effective in our own life.
The key is to find mentors and people that you look up to in recovery, people who have the life that you want, and then start taking their advice. Tap into their wisdom by asking them what you should be doing, what you should change, what you should be focusing on. Their suggestions can drive you to success in recovery.
As you do these experiments it will be obvious what suggestions you will want to keep versus which suggestions you will want to drop. Give things a fair chance, and if something isn’t helping you, then give it up and move on. But don’t dismiss it based on your ideas, actually give it a try, like I did when I meditated for a few months.
Your plan for long term sobriety has to include continuous self improvement. If you are not in learning mode, if you are not willing to learn new things and adapt, then eventually your disease will find a way to sneak back into your life. Part of your learning attitude and taking suggestions from others is to help protect you from the constantly evolving threat of relapse.
We often cannot see our own weaknesses because we are too close to our own truth. Others can see the flaws in our plans and tell us what we need to do in order to correct course. It is our job in recovery to be humble enough to listen to this advice and then take action. If you can learn how to do this one skill, of seeking advice and then doing experiments, you can build an awesome and amazing life for yourself in recovery. Good luck!