What does it even mean to be happy in sobriety, to be happy in life?
When I was stuck in my alcoholism I thought that happiness could only real exist if I was completely drunk. Of course everything had to be “going my way” at the time as well for me to be truly happy. That was really how I defined happiness: The universe had to be perfectly aligned for me to really enjoy the moment. I couldn’t have fear or worry going on in my life. And of course I had to be heavily medicated.
That all changed in sobriety, of course, because I no longer could rely on my drug of choice to create happiness.
And so my definition of happiness shifted over time. It changed. It was no longer this perfect and peak experience that I was chasing after when I was drinking and using drugs. Happiness was no longer this perfect fantasy of how I thought my life should be.
My definition was evolving. I was learning how to live a different sort of life, one in which peace and contentment and real joy were replacing the idea of this perfect happiness fantasy that I had during my addiction.
The question is: How do you get there? How do you go from your first day of sobriety to being able to appreciate peace and contentment in your life?
It all starts with a strong foundation.
You have to build this new life for yourself. It takes time, and effort.
Starting with a strong foundation in early recovery
If you want to be happy in long term sobriety then you have to start with a strong foundation in early recovery. It is as simple as that.
Most of us (being alcoholics) would love to skip right to the fun part of recovery. We would rather not be bothered with “doing the work” in early sobriety. Much nicer to just skip right to the rewards of recovery, right?
Of course it doesn’t really work that way. In order to be happy in the long run you have to build a strong foundation on which you can grow, learn, and change.
The first few months of recovery are pretty darn tough. One of the problems is that the alcoholic does not have any assurance that they will ever be happy again if they remain sober. Every day they are facing the same exact choice in early recovery: Struggle through another day sober, or just say “screw it” and go get drunk. It is a very tempting choice because they know if they go get drunk that they will get at least some tiny burst of instant happiness.
This is the allure of drinking and drugs. Instant happiness. You can medicate your mood instantly and go from being miserable, bored, or angry to instantly feeling good again. If it didn’t work like this then there would be no addiction! Of course it works. You drink enough booze or take enough drugs then it instantly changes your mood as if by magic. It is magical, actually. That’s what makes drugs and alcohol so good. They actually do something. They change your mood instantly. It is pretty amazing.
Of course we all know the downside to this (of which there are actually many). The biggest problem is that alcoholism and drug addiction do not scale well. So if you try to drink every waking hour of your life (which every alcoholic eventually aspires to do), it no longer works so well. Because now being drunk is the new normal. Now it is not so amazing any more, because you are drunk all of the time. And so there is nothing to compare it with. You are just always medicated and your brain will figure out how to function again and let the emotions shine through. So the negative stuff that you were running away from originally is still there. In other words, as your addiction progresses, the alcohol or drugs become less and less effective at medicating away your unwanted emotions. They stop working. And you are left with fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, and boredom. In the end, your drug of choice betrayed you because it stopped doing what you wanted it to do.
And this is when you reach that point of surrender. One day you wake up and realize that you are miserable anyway, all of the time, even while you are drinking! What’s the point? You may as well be miserable while sober, at least then you are no longer killing yourself and wasting your life on drinking. Miserable drunk or miserable sober, take your pick. And so you reach that turning point and you abandon the self and you take a risk on sobriety. Let’s go to rehab. What is the worst that could happen? You are already miserable beyond all recognition. It can’t get any worse. Give sobriety a chance.
So you go to rehab or you tag along to an AA meeting with a friend and you start to give sobriety a chance. This is how you start to build a foundation. Recovery only has one hard and fast rule, and that is completely and total abstinence. No more drugs or alcohol in your system, period. Just for today you are going to remain clean and sober. This becomes your foundation of success in recovery. Total abstinence becomes your highest truth in life. Everything else is secondary to this–including your spouse, your kids, your higher power, all of it is second to the idea that you can not allow yourself to take a drink or a drug today. Period. This is the one concept that you have to get 100 percent correct in sobriety. Everything else you can fudge a bit. Everything else is up for debate. You can wiggle and squirm around regarding any of these recovery concepts except for this one. Total and complete abstinence. That is the foundation on which you start to build.
I recommend that people go get professional help. That generally means inpatient rehab. It is not a perfect solution and it is not a total cure but it is generally better than all of the alternatives. It is the best choice we have at this time for most struggling alcoholics. Going to rehab is one way to start building your foundation in early recovery. You could certainly do much worse.
The decision to stop hurting yourself is the decision to pursue greater health
I didn’t really stop drinking because I wanted to be happy and healthy again. Actually, I was just running away from the misery and chaos of addiction.
I felt like I was going crazy, like I was losing my mind. I wanted it all to stop. I wanted a way out of the miserable life I had created for myself.
The decision to embrace total abstinence is really a decision for better health. Why else would someone stop drinking and abusing their body? It is a move towards better health.
To the alcoholic, they just want the pain to stop. They are sick and tired of living in fear. Most of us won’t even admit that we are living in fear. We just continue to medicate our fears away by drinking ourselves into oblivion every day.
In early recovery there is not necessarily a lot of healthy self esteem built up. Most people who are at the turning point and are just now trying to surrender are not in a position to want to take great care of themselves. They are not happy and healthy and thinking of the future yet. They just want to the pain to stop. They want to stop living the way that they have been living. They are tired of the rat race that has become their life in addiction.
Unhappiness and discontent is the enemy in addiction recovery
What does it mean to be happy in recovery? How does happiness occur in sobriety?
To understand how this process works we have to look at the polar opposite. We have to consider the idea of unhappiness. The idea of being discontent.
At any given moment let’s say that you are in one of three states:
1) Clearly happy.
3) Clearly unhappy.
In your addiction you start to ride this roller coaster. When you get drunk or high you get into this zone where you are “clearly happy” for a while. That is, until the drink or the drug wears off, and you are forced to either be unhappy at that time or take more drugs into your body. Thus starts the cycle of addiction.
Now when you are chasing after that high and that happiness in your addiction it starts to lead to extremes. So when the high wears off instead of being “content” you are comparing your state to when you were super happy and properly medicated. So you go from being happy to unhappy. There is no in between.
And eventually you reach a point where you are drinking and taking drugs for nearly your entire waking life, but your window of “happiness” has shrunk down to just minutes each day, if that. You are miserable 99 percent of the time. And yet because of your denial you keep telling yourself that you can create instant happiness just by drinking or taking the right drugs at any given moment.
Now in early recovery you start out being “clearly unhappy.” Of course this is the case because you were drinking and drugging all the time and suddenly you have stopped entirely. So based on your old model of happiness you are “clearly unhappy” when you first get clean and sober. This is understandable because you are comparing your state of sobriety to that “fun time” when you were drinking.
But as you stay sober in recovery things start to change. After a few days in sobriety you start to return to a more normal baseline of happiness. Now you are at least no longer miserable and you are feeling a little bit better. As you stay sober for longer the idea of being sober becomes normal again. You may not be “clearly happy” yet but at least you are content. This is simply a function of time. After being sober for a while you return to a baseline of contentment and happiness. The misery of addiction fades away.
Now let’s think about long term sobriety. What is the key to being happy now that you are stable and sober in recovery? How do you achieve happiness?
This is counter-intuitive. Most people believe that in order to be happy in life they have to figure out what they want to get, to achieve, to accomplish, and then set out to do those things. They need to create happiness. This is how we are wired to think.
This is wrong.
You don’t become happy, joyous, and free in recovery by chasing after your happiness goals. This is really just the proverbial carrot on the stick. You will never be fully happy because you will always be chasing happiness. You never get to “arrive” and enjoy the moment.
Instead, you need to think about unhappiness and discontent. That is the key to finding happiness. But who wants to do that? Who wants to focus on the negative?
Nobody does. Which is why this is so counter-intuitive.
If you go to AA and work through the 12 steps they will walk you through this process. At one point you take inventory and figure out all of your character defects, all of the things that you do that might sabotage your happiness in life. At another point you take action and work hard to remove those defects.
This sounds like a drag, right? Who wants to take the time and make the effort to get honest with themselves? Who wants to put in that kind of hard work? And what really is the payoff? It doesn’t seem like you get much for your efforts, at least not at first.
And that is why it is so counter-intuitive. It doesn’t seem like working to remove your defects will make you any happier. But in the long run it totally makes a huge difference. In fact, this is the whole secret to finding peace and contentment in recovery.
Think about it: How can you really be happy if you are angry all the time?
How can you really be happy if you are living in fear?
Or if you worry constantly? Or if you are constantly reliving a past that hurt you?
How can you be happy if you are racked with shame and guilt all the time?
How can you be happy if you beat yourself up and never forgive yourself?
How can you be happy if you are constantly feeling sorry for yourself?
How can you be happy if you are stewing with resentments and have a whole bunch of anger trapped inside of you?
It doesn’t matter how good your recovery is going or what happens in your outside world if you have these negative things going on inside.
Think about this carefully for a moment.
You want happiness. You think that if the universe lines up perfectly for you and everything falls into place, then you will finally be happy.
This is a lie. Real happiness doesn’t come from the external stuff that is swirling around in your life.
Real happiness comes from within. And if your insides are a blank slate, then happiness can blossom.
But if you are filled with regret, worry, anxiety, fear, anger, shame, guilt, self pity, and so on……then you are blocked from achieving real happiness.
And so this is the path to a healthier and happier you in recovery.
You have to do the work, unfortunately. You have to take a long hard look at yourself, at your life, at your insides. You have to peer inside and see what is really going on. You have to figure out what your defense mechanisms are and how you sabotage your own happiness. And then you have to commit to doing the work to eliminate these problems.
You can’t chase happiness directly. That doesn’t work.
Instead, look to find the negative stuff that lives inside of you. Strive to create “the blank slate” on the inside. Eliminate the garbage. Eliminate the defects.
Look at your life and at yourself and say “How can I become a better version of myself?” This is how you prompt yourself to do the work.
The daily multiplier and the power of positive habits over time
Every day is an opportunity.
In early sobriety you may be fighting just to get through each day sober. Every day is like a new challenge, something to be conquered.
In long term sobriety each day is an opportunity. You have this power that you can tap into. That power comes with consistency.
It is the power of positive habit.
Fitness is a great example of this. Physical health goes along with this. Look at someone who is incredibly healthy and fit from a physical perspective. How did that happen? Are they just lucky? Did they accidentally become super healthy and fit?
No, it is the power of habit. They have been living certain habits every day for a very long time. That person has become what they do each day, how they treat their body each day.
And so it is with you. So it is with addiction. So it is in sobriety. You become what you do every day. Each day is a multiplier. After a full year you have been adding up your daily habits, all year long, times 365 days. You become what you do every day.
Time is the great multiplier. You have a lot of time. 365 days is a whole lot of multiplying. If you treat yourself well every day, if you take care of yourself every day, this starts to add up. The benefits of recovery start to compound over time. The rewards of sobriety start to build on themselves.
This is why you need to take a holistic approach in addiction recovery. Every part of your health is important, because it affects and has an impact on every other part of your health. So being physically fit can have a positive impact on your spiritual life. Being emotionally stable can have a positive impact on your relationships. Being mentally healthy can help lead to better relationships and emotional stability. And so on.
All of it is connected. You have different aspects of your health, and yet the all work together. They are all connected. Consider the idea that you have, at the very least:
* Physical health.
* Mental health.
* Emotional health.
* Social health.
* Spiritual health.
Now consider the idea that if you are not cultivating better health in all of those areas then you are leaving yourself vulnerable to potential relapse.
On the other hand, if you push yourself to pursue better health from a holistic standpoint then it will create amazing changes in your life.
I am not using the term “amazing changes” loosely here. In all honesty, if you are growing by using this holistic approach to your health, then your life will become different and better in ways that you never could have predicted. And this will keep happening as you reinvent yourself over and over again in recovery.
That’s amazing. You start taking care of yourself in all of these five ways, and then you start to get new opportunities that you never would have predicted in the past. Your life starts to evolve and you experience new growth challenges. Life is exciting and fun again in ways that you did not expect. This will amaze you because you could never have foreseen it.
And so hopefully you become motivated and excited to continue on the holistic path once you start to see the rewards of this process. It is also exciting because you cannot predict all of the rewards. The different areas of your health will interact in ways to create unique opportunities that will surprise and delight you.
What about you, have you found a path to a healthier and happier you in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!