I am convinced that there is not single path in addiction and alcoholism recovery. This is especially true when you consider the different paths that people may need to take in very early recovery.
Everyone who becomes clean and sober and finds a way to “stick and stay” has to find their own unique path to recovery. This may or may not include a traditional recovery program. So the person may find AA or NA to be the thing that finally helps them to maintain sobriety. But even if this is the case, they still have to find their own path in applying that program to their own unique life situation. No two recoveries are really the same.
As such, part of your responsibility in overcoming any addiction is to find what out what really works for you and what does not.
In traditional recovery (such as in AA meetings) they say this all the time: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” They are telling you to figure out the parts of the program that seem to help you, and go with it. Do what works. Find the things that help you to stay sober and then focus on them. Ignore the stuff that is not helpful.
Simple enough, right? But implementing this concept actually takes some serious effort. This is because “taking what you need and leaving the rest” is actually a proactive strategy. Most people who hear that idea think of it as a passive suggestion. This is a mistake. In order to really discover your true path in recovery, you have to take action. And that means taking suggestions.
Surrender and taking suggestions
One of the most important things that you can do in early recovery is to take suggestions from other people. You can always spot someone who is destined to relapse quickly in recovery because they are completely “closed down” or “shut off” from the rest of the world, and they are dead set against taking any outside suggestions. For whatever reasons, they are overly protective of the idea that only their own ideas can possibly help themselves. They are not getting the idea that other people (and their wisdom and experience) may be able to provide them with helpful direction.
The first thing that you have to “discover” in early recovery is the concept of surrender itself. I know this because I struggled for years to try to surrender before finally “getting it.” The problem was that I was trying to understand the concept of surrender intellectually, and instead I just needed to DO IT. I had to let go and allow other people to help me, but I could not figure out how to go about doing that. I understood the idea of letting go, but I could not seem to actually put it into practice.
The turning point for me came not with new intellectual understanding, but with an experience of growing misery. I became miserable enough in my addiction and alcoholism that I finally surrendered naturally. I wanted for things to be different and I was completely sick and tired of chasing after a fleeting happiness with drugs and alcohol that I (now realized) that I could never reach. It was like suddenly I could see the futility of getting drunk and high for the rest of my life, every day. Suddenly I got a clear glimpse of that future and I decided that I did not want it. That it was not worth it. That even if getting sober were scary, it had to be better than this endless cycle of misery. They call this brief glimpse into the future a “moment of clarity.” I am not sure if it is truly possible to consciously choose to bring this moment on yourself, or if you have to just allow it to happen. There is no way for me to test such ideas. But I believe that there is one strategy that might bring you closer to surrender, and that is the idea of “measuring happiness.”
If you (or someone you love) is struggling with addiction or alcoholism, then whoever is struggling needs to start measuring their happiness. This is an increase in awareness. You will raise your level of consciousness if you actually start to measure your happiness.
Why measure your happiness? So that you can break through your denial. Our denial in addiction allows us to tell ourselves that we are happy when in fact we are living in misery. We want to avoid this delusion. So in order to do that we have to break through our denial and see the truth. The only way to do that is to be realistic about how often we are happy, and how often we are miserable.
One of the problems with addiction and alcoholism is that there are peaks and valleys when it comes to happiness. The addict will hang on to the memory of the happy “peaks” and then minimize the valleys. This is how denial works. As their addiction progresses, the number of happy “peaks” becomes less and less, and nearly all of their life is eventually consumed with the misery of addiction. Things get worse, because addiction is progressive. It always gets worse in the long run. But we can still fool ourselves and be in denial because become so skilled at minimizing the bad stuff and rationalizing it away.
The only way to get past denial is to see the truth and fully accept it. In order to move past addiction or alcoholism you will have to one day see the futility of it all–that it is never going to get any better. You will have to admit to yourself that you are usually miserable almost all of the time while you are trying to self medicate. You have to admit that self medicating is no longer working.
Exploring recovery strategies
My first attempts at getting clean and sober were to attend counseling. This failed because I had not yet surrendered to the disease fully. I was not ready to change my life and I was not ready to quit drinking and using drugs. So when I first went to get help, I failed miserably. Counseling did not work for me.
Later on I was forced to admit that my problem was more serious, and I attended an inpatient rehab. In fact I went to two different inpatient rehabs over the course of a few years, and I relapsed immediately after leaving both of them.
Finally I became miserable enough in my addiction that I became willing to take my recovery effort “to the next level.” This meant following a suggestion that had been made by the counselors and therapists all along—to finally attend long term rehab. So after 2 failed attempts at short term treatment, I finally agreed to attend long term rehab and live there for several months. In fact I ended up staying there for almost two full years.
This worked for me and I have been clean and sober ever since (over 12 years now and counting). Long term rehab worked for me when other methods had failed. I had to keep trying new things in my recovery effort until something worked. This is an important concept because it comes up over and over again later on in recovery as well. You have to keep trying new things in recovery in order to find out what works for you and what does not. This is true for me today at 12 years sober just as it was true for me when I was struggling to find my path to sobriety. The learning process never ends.
I like to differentiate between recovery tactics (such as attending meetings or seeking sponsorship) and recovery strategy (such as holistic health or personal growth). You will probably want to incorporate a mix of both into your recovery effort, but I think it is important to think carefully about your recovery strategy as you remain clean and sober. Your overall recovery strategy dictates where you will end up in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years. Your tactics will only determine what happens next week.
For example, my recovery strategy involves personal growth. I strive to improve my life and my life situation on a regular basis. In early recovery I sought out major improvements (such as quitting smoking) and now that I have made many of those improvements I continue to look for incremental improvements that I might make. In other words, I continue to push myself to try to improve my life and therefore my recovery. It is not enough for me to kick my feet up and say “OK, I am done with all of this personal growth stuff, I think I will just enjoy life for a while now.” I will not allow myself to get to that point because I do not want to miss out on the benefits of personal growth.
I have watched many people relapse on their recovery journey. In almost every case it is because they have stopped growing, they have stopped pushing themselves to improve their lives. Yes, they wanted to drink or use drugs, and this caused the relapse. But why did they let this desire win out over the desire to improve their life? It is because they lost momentum (or never had it to begin with).
In my experience, recovery is personal growth. Without growth and learning and improvement in your life, you are in danger of relapse. The only thing that keeps people clean and sober is a life that is better in recovery (than it was in addiction). Think about it: If your life is actually worse in recovery, why wouldn’t you relapse? I would not even blame you for doing so, because it is not rational to stay miserable in recovery when you could at least go back to the predictable misery and chaos of addiction where you at least get a fleeting glimpse of happiness, right?
So the key is that we want to improve our lives in recovery. And this has to be a continuous process. Because even if you are clean and sober for 20 years, why would a drink or a drug not improve your mood one afternoon, right? The threat will always be there. So you have to choose an alternative to this threat of self medicating, and that alternative has to have some hope to it. In my opinion that hope comes in the form of personal growth.
If you push yourself to make positive changes every single day, the benefits of this start to slowly add up over time. But after several years of this push for personal growth, you will be able to one day look back and really see enormous benefits and gains.
But in order to do this you have to take positive action. And you have to do so consistently, which is why I advocate for a strategy of personal growth. That is the guideline that allows you to say to yourself: “My goal is to keep learning, to continuously improve my life, and to live the best life possible in recovery.” Why settle for misery when you are in recovery? If that is the case then you may as well go back to drinking or drugging. This is why I push people to adopt a long term strategy of life improvement.
You may find a different recovery strategy that works for you. One popular recovery strategy is to pursue a connection with a higher power. If that is what works for you then that is great, go with it. This is about finding what works for you. All that matter is your success in recovery, your sobriety, and your happiness. Hopefully with all of that comes a life in which you can help others as well.
Pushing yourself to learn and grow in recovery
I found that I had to push myself a bit. This can be a tricky topic because many people do not like to be told that they have to “step up their game” and take more action. But this is exactly what I found to be true in my own life. In order to get awesome results in recovery I had to really push myself to go to that next level.
For example, I tried for years to quit smoking cigarettes and I continuously failed to do so. At some point I had to say to myself “OK, this is my biggest priority now, and I have to dedicate all of my life energy to solving this problem.” It was no longer acceptable to me to just keep flip flopping while trying to quit smoking. I wanted to quit, I needed to quit in order to be healthy and move forward in my recovery, and so I had to somehow take my effort to the next level. I did so with a new mental commitment to the goal that said “I will do whatever it takes to meet this goal, and I will not stop or give up until I have reached it.” In other words, I made a decision that I was going to meet that particular goal regardless of what it took, regardless of how long it took, and I was not going to take “no” for an answer. I was willing to fail and I was not worried about doing so, because I knew that I was determined to keep trying until I succeeded. So I was ready for a battle. I had made a real decision, one that I was determined to see all the way through.
It was at that point (of course) that I finally solved the problem of nicotine addiction, and was able to overcome it. I had to get serious. But really I had to get more serious than I had ever been before, and I had to elevate my efforts to a whole new level. This is necessary when you are facing a goal or a challenge in your life that involves a lifestyle issue (smoking, addictions, weight issues, fitness, etc.). If your goal is really challenging then you may need to “step it up” a notch. The way that you do this is going to be unique and potentially different for each individual. I had to discover that path to success on my own, and I am not sure that others can duplicate it directly (though the same principles will still apply).
A proactive strategy for overcoming complacency
One way to find your best path in recovery is to adopt a proactive strategy for beating complacency. This is important in my opinion because a reactive strategy towards complacency is not good enough—you will simply relapse and then realize that you screwed up. Instead, you want to avoid complacency before it sets in at all, and that requires a proactive strategy moving forward.
What is complacency? It is a lack of personal growth.
In order to avoid this you need to keep engaging with personal growth. But how can we do this over several years or decades without burning ourselves out? The key is to keep pushing yourself to improve yourself and your life, without doing so to the extent that you burn out or get overwhelmed.
I have found that the best way to do that in my own life is to keep pushing myself to grow as a person, but also to allow periods of reflection and inactivity. I also think of these “down times” as periods of acceptance—where I simply accept myself and my situation as it is, without struggling to change it.
But each period of reflection like this has to come to an end. You cannot stand still forever in recovery, or eventually it will lead to relapse. Therefore you should use each “down time” or period of reflection to start thinking about your next move in life—what do you want to change next? What do you want to try to improve in your life next? What is your biggest point of misery right now? What goals do you want to achieve that you have not been able to tackle yet (perhaps due to your addiction)?
So your strategy for staying clean and sober in long term sobriety should be to adopt a recovery strategy that includes some form of personal growth. This can be done in 12 step recovery but it can also be done outside of traditional programs. The important thing is that you are honest with yourself and that you stay motivated to keep making positive changes in your life.
Small, positive, incremental changes in your life may not seem like much. But if you keep making them for 10 years straight, imagine how vastly different and improved your life will be. The benefits are enormous when you make continuous progress for several years at a time, even if the changes seem minor. This is what happens when you move forward, make positive changes, and then you do not negate those changes with a relapse. Of course you have to maintain sobriety for such progress to keep accumulating. If you happen to relapse then it sort of resets everything back to your life of addiction, and most (if not all) of your progress will be wiped out. This is why sobriety must be your number one priority at all times.
In order to succeed in recovery you have to be willing to take positive action and explore the results. You have to be willing to try new things and then adopt the techniques that work well for you. This is all part of the learning process that is recovery.