Some of the most helpful articles on alcohol addiction are not what you would consider to be “traditional” or “mainstream.”
If you want traditional recovery then just wander over to your local AA meeting. There you can read literature all you like (The AA Big Book) and you can also talk with people during the meetings about how to live your life and work the steps. This is the traditional path and it is also the default path in our modern recovery environment. There are a few alternatives but the 12 step model is the dominant solution that most people are exposed to. If you want to learn more about it then you should not have to look very far. Just go to a few meetings and immerse yourself in the culture of daily AA meetings, sponsorship, fellowship, recovery literature, and stepwork. It has all been laid out for you and there is nothing to reinvent really. Do what they tell you to do and you may (or may not) get good results.
On the other hand you might want to dig a little deeper. There are alternatives to the 12 step program but they are much harder to come across. Here at Spiritual River I talk a lot about alternatives to the mainstream. This is not because I dislike the traditional approach so much, but rather because I find the alternatives to be better and more powerful than people give them credit for. For example, I was a hopeless drunk for many years because I truly believed that the only way that I could ever get sober was through AA, and I was terrified of AA meetings. So I felt like I was stuck when I was still drinking because I was too scared to embrace the solution that everyone was pushing me towards. I did not want to go to meetings and bare my soul and speak in front of other people. But at various times in my journey I was told that this was the only way and it was really my only hope. This gave me a great amount of despair.
Long story short is that I eventually became so miserable and so desperate due to my drinking that I agreed to give traditional recovery another chance. I did this long enough to be able to get some stability in my life and then create my own recovery program for myself. That might sound a bit arrogant, especially if you believe everything that you are told in the AA culture. Normally to go against AA and try to “do it on your own” is blasphemous.
So after about 18 months in traditional recovery I started to realize that I was never going to be satisfied on this traditional path in life. I knew that I wanted something different, a different path in recovery that did not involve dependence on meetings and sponsors and so on. So I set out with a raw determination to figure out what was really keeping me clean and sober.
You see, the people in AA told me to just do what was working for me already. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They warned me of leaving AA because everyone who has done so (according to them) ended up relapsing. And they told me that I was just screwing up a good thing and sabotaging my own recovery by trying to set out on my own and do my own program. They told me “you can’t figure it out on your own” so don’t even try. If you try to figure it out you will just relapse and then come crawling back to AA. That was the message I was hearing from my peers in AA.
Now to their credit they were just trying to be helpful. In reality they were just reflecting their own fears back to me. They were projecting their own fear of relapse on to the fact that I might leave AA and then relapse. So they were doing the only thing that they knew how, which was to warn me away from leaving by using the fear card. Try to scare me into staying put in AA. In reality they only wanted this so that THEY could feel safer about their own program, though no one would like to ever admit to that. It is too damaging to the ego to take a look at things like that and really admit that you have a motive underneath caring for another person in that way.
So with these sort of thoughts swirling around I managed to set out on my own and learn what really made my own recovery tick. This was a learning process and I went very slowly and carefully. I also made sure to keep taking positive action in my life so that I would not one day realize that I had relapsed simply because I had become lazy in my recovery. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge of all: overcoming complacency in the long run. Many people in AA fall victim to this final hurdle as well.
Everything that you really need to know about alcohol addiction laid out in one single page
So my journey lasted for several years at that point and I feel like I have learned a great deal since I left AA. In fact, what I really had to learn how to do was to reinvent myself over and over again so that I would not fall flat on my face and relapse after leaving AA.
There was a great deal of pressure that I felt in not screwing up. Everyone warned me that I would probably relapse if I walked away from the program, so I wanted to make sure that this did not happen. But how could I do that? All I really knew was that sitting in meetings and listening to the same things over and over again was not serving me well. I paid far too close attention and I listened far to respectfully to be getting much out of the daily meetings. Maybe if I went once per week it would have been different. But the consensus seemed to be that I should go every day, or close to it anyway. I knew that I wanted a different path.
So I started to study the “winners” in recovery. I mean really talking to them, but also watching them and seeing what kind of results they got in life. And then watching their actions to see what they were really up to. What were the “winners” in recovery doing outside of AA meetings, for instance? What did they do all day when they were not in a meeting? This was where I was going to find my answer.
What I found was that the real winners in recovery (including all of them who attended AA meetings) were actually engaged in what I would call “holistic recovery.” Instead of just pursuing a spiritual path, they were actually well rounded people who were achieving growth in many areas.
For example, nearly everyone that I found who had significant sober time was very health conscious as well. Many of them were into some form of fitness. They tried to eat healthy.
Most all of them worked on relationships. They actively worked to improve their relationships and to eliminate toxic people from their lives.
This was a very different message from what I was hearing in the meetings. In the meetings, everyone only paid lip service to one kind of growth in life: Spiritual.
It was all about spirituality.
But then when you actually start talking to people and learning about their real life experience, they were into all sorts of personal growth. Some of them were hardly into spiritual growth at all, and they were actually just trying to improve their lives on many different levels.
This is when I discovered the idea that “holistic health” in recovery may be just as important as the big push for spirituality that most recovery programs focus on instead.
So I started to use a more balanced approach when I finally left AA and started doing my own thing. Instead of just pushing hard to grow spiritually in my life, I started considering other areas of personal growth as well.
This worked really well for me, and I was sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, everyone told me that if I left AA I would surely relapse, right? So I was sort of in fear that I might be on that infamous pink cloud, that I might suddenly become miserable again and have to go running back to AA. Or worse yet, that I might relapse.
But that did not happen. I continued to explore the idea of holistic recovery. I continued to push myself to make more growth in my life in many different areas (including, but not limited to, spirituality).
And as I started to live this new life the fear slowly started to fade. I don’t know how long it was until at some point I realized that I had completely dropped this fear that I was going to relapse because I had left AA to “do my own thing.” Eventually the years ticked by and now it has been over a decade since I set out to discover an alternative approach to recovery that does not depend on daily meetings.
So here is what I have learned.
The recovery process explained
My ideas about addiction and recovery have been slowly refined over the years. As I keep learning new things and taking in more and more information, I continuously refine my model of how I think recovery actually works. I also blend this with my own experience in recovery, which I can’t really help but to do anyway. I am biased with my own experience and I admit that. But there are also other people who have explored alternative recovery methods, and you can read about those here at Spiritual River in the recovery forums, for example.
So here is my summary of the recovery process as it stands today (keep in mind that it is always evolving though):
5) Personal growth.
6) Daily practice.
I also believe that there are certain principles in recovery that are fundamental. So something like “surrender” is not exclusive to the AA program. Anyone who has ever overcome any sort of addiction or even limitation in their life has probably dealt with the concept of surrender. The idea was around thousands of years before AA even existed. And it is a fundamental principle of successful sobriety.
In other words, if you have not surrendered to your addiction, then there is no way you are going to overcome it. Surrender is fundamental. It is a prerequisite.
So the sequence follows the list up above.
First you have to surrender and break through your denial. If you are stuck in denial then you cannot change your life and overcome an addiction.
Then you have to disrupt your pattern. This can be a physical disruption. For example, you may check into detox and then go to residential treatment for several days. This is a way to disrupt your addiction. You force yourself (at least in the short run) to become clean and sober.
After you get through detox, most rehab centers attempt to teach you a new way to live. They try to educate you.
You need new information in order to overcome an addiction. If you had all of the information that you needed then you would not have a problem. You would have overcome your addiction simply by figuring it all out on your own. But real alcoholics and real drug addicts are defined by an inability to overcome their problem without help.
Think about that statement for a moment. A true alcoholic is someone who can not stop drinking under their own power alone. They need help in order to stop. This is what defines alcoholism. If you can stop on your own without any problems then you don’t really fit the description of a hard core alcoholic.
So after the learning process (which never really truly ends by the way) you move into what I would call the “support phase” of recovery.
You walk out of rehab and you need support in order to maintain sobriety. You need lots of support. Without that support you are going to have a very difficult time resisting temptation.
In mainstream recovery this is a huge part of the solution. This is why people go to AA meetings every single day of their lives…to get support.
I would agree that people in early recovery can definitely benefit from support. But I also believe that there may be a trap here, in that some people who rely on AA meetings for support need to find a way to break free from that dependency some day.
Let me say it another way to make it perfectly clear:
* If you depend on daily AA meetings in order to maintain sobriety, then your recovery needs a serious overhaul. You need to get to work as you are lacking in some area of your life.
Now in early recovery this is not true–I would urge you to get all the support that you possibly can. This goes for the first 1 to 5 years of recovery even. There is no problem with getting lots of help and support when you are new in recovery.
But after a while you have to get honest with yourself. Are you just using the meetings in order to stay sober because it is easier than taking an honest look at your life and doing the hard work?
There is work to be done in recovery. Some people have more work to do than others. I am not talking about punching a time clock and going to work. I am talking about fixing your life and improving your life so that you do not fall back into the pattern of abusing drugs or alcohol. This takes work. It takes effort. To be honest I believe that many people are too lazy to really get serious and do this work until they realize that they are in the fight of their lives.
So you surrender, disrupt your pattern, learn how to overcome addiction, and then find support.
Next you have to do two more things in order to become successful in the long run.
You must transition to a life of personal growth, for one thing.
And second you must find a daily practice. One that allows you to keep on growing in recovery.
Recovering alcoholics often go through those first four concepts but then fall short when it comes time to embrace personal growth. Again, it’s all about hard work and commitment. It is easy to be lazy. It is difficult to do the tough work and take an honest look at your life.
Transitioning to a life of personal growth
I had to learn how to take suggestions in early recovery.
And I had to learn how to keep taking advice and learning new things even after many years sober.
You never stop this process.
In my opinion you are always looking to improve two things in long term recovery:
1) Your life (internal stuff).
2) Your life situation (external stuff).
So improving your life could be summarized by “working the 12 steps” in AA. Of course I have found that I do not really need the 12 steps in order to do this sort of internal work and improve my life.
One thing that I had to do was to increase my awareness. I did this when I was transitioning out of early recovery and I also experimented with meditation at the time. I realized that I had a problem with self pity, and that this might eventually lead me to relapse if I did not figure out how to curtail the behavior (or thought process).
So I figured out a way to eliminate it. I did this by asking for advice from others in recovery (they taught me that the solution to this problem is to practice gratitude). Then I also figured out on my own how to shut down the negative thought pattern the second that I noticed it.
Really all this took was a firm decision. Then I also had to actually notice it. And I had to practice noticing it. And eventually I reached a point where I had eliminated self pity for the most part, even though it used to be one my brain’s favorite mental patterns to engage in. I simply had to decide to put a stop to it and then raise my awareness.
You can do this with conscious thought and action (making decisions) or you can do it through working the steps. Honestly if the 12 steps help you to work through your inner issues then I would advise you to get a sponsor and do the work. Me, I found that I was able to get some feedback and advice and work through my major negative thought patterns pretty much on my own. I had some help here and there and I was glad to get the feedback that I received. Of course you had to ask for help if you want to heal in this manner.
The other part of improving your life has to do with external things. So this is represented in traditional recovery programs when they say “You have to change people, places, and things if you want to recover.” Meaning that you have to stop hanging out at the bar, hanging around with drunks, etc.
But it goes a step further than this in the real world. For example, you might change your job to something that is much less stressful and is more conducive to a peaceful state of mind in your recovery. This is definitely an external change (your life situation) rather than an internal change (your life). But I would argue that both types of changes are important to your recovery.
In other words, if enough bad things happen in a row without any wins to counter balance them, you will eventually relapse. So even though you can overcome some bad things in life (bad life situation) at some point you want to correct what you can. No need to make the journey harder for yourself, right?
Finding your daily practice
Last of all is the daily practice.
This is the positive action and habits that you establish each day in order to maintain sobriety in the long run.
What your daily practice really establishes is a baseline of good health.
Without this, you would be amazed at the sneaky ways that relapse can creep back into your life.
Your daily practice should be focused on improving your health in many different ways. Holistically. So that you are protected from the many different forms of relapse.
This is how to live successfully in long term sobriety. Through taking positive action each and every day.