I can remember when I was still using drugs and alcohol and I was on the brink of surrender. I was terrified to get clean and sober because I was so afraid of facing life without my drug of choice. I believed that I would be absolutely miserable for the rest of my life without drugs. How would I create happiness? What would I have to look forward to? There was no incentive for me to get clean and sober because I really believed that the way that I felt on the first day of abstinence would be the way that I felt forever. I had nothing else to base my opinion on, no prior experience with recovery to tell me anything different. I believed that I would be miserable in recovery.
Of course at some point I took the plunge anyway, even though I figured I would be miserable forever, because I had finally had enough of my addiction and I realized that I was going to be miserable forever even if I continued to use drugs and alcohol. That light bulb had finally gone on for me and I realized fully that I was always going to be struggling to be happy, that I was always going to be chasing that next buzz, and that even when I achieved the buzz that I wanted it was very fleeting. I realized that I could not be fully self medicated all of the time. In fact I realized that I could not really be fully medicated the way I really wanted to even part of the time. It was like maybe one day per month or so when I could really get fully buzzed and still be aware enough to enjoy it and not get into trouble. Having fun in my addiction required a perfect storm and I had finally realized the futility of it all.
So I took the plunge and I asked for help. I asked for advice and I started to follow directions. Enough of my own ideas, they were not working anyway. I decided to listen to others for a change. This turned out to be a very empowering decision.
I am still amazed at how this empowerment works. We think we are so smart, and yet we get trapped in the cycle of addiction, and it turns out that the only way out of it is to surrender our ego entirely and take direction from others. It is tough to do and some people are too proud to ever take the plunge. It takes guts and humility to get clean and sober, because you have to let go of the idea that you are in control of your life, that you are a smart and competent person, etc. You have to let go of all that for a while and listen to others and take their advice. The key phrase would be “show me how to live.” If you can ask that of others and genuinely take their advice then your life will start to get better.
Like I said, when I first got clean and sober I had no timeline for what was going to happen to me and I really believed that I would be miserable forever, whether I was using drugs or not. I had no idea what to expect in recovery and what sort of changes I could count on happening. The Big Book of AA offered a section that was referred to as “the promises” and so that was about all I had to on.
What follows is a bit more description about what kind of changes you can expect after the first few years of your recovery. This assumes of course that you maintain sobriety and do not relapse. If you do end up relapsing and taking a drink or a drug then all of your progress gets reset to zero and you start over at day one. This is an important concept in itself and one that every addict and alcoholic should think carefully about. All progress is erased in an instant if and when you relapse. Plus, if you do happen to relapse, there is no guarantee that it will not kill you outright or lead to prison, etc. Therefore all progress and all future rewards are based on the idea of continuous sobriety. People who relapse every few months but still stay in a recovery program do not realize the same benefits of growth as a person who maintains continuous sobriety with no relapses.
The accumulation of positive action
The most powerful thing that happens in addiction recovery is the accumulation of positive action. This ties in with the concept of “not relapsing” that I discussed above and if you do happen to relapse every once in a while then this benefit is largely reduced.
We can think of addiction as negative actions. Every day in our addiction we take more negative action. We put harmful chemicals into our body over and over again to try to self medicate. These actions have all sorts of consequences in different areas of our lives. First of all the booze or the drugs that we put into our bodies are physically harmful. Over time we can develop medical issues. Of course there are other consequences as well: our relationships suffer, our finances are in turmoil, our jobs and careers are threatened, we tend to isolate, less emotional stability, and so on.
And each of these consequences gets progressively worse over time. Addiction is repetition. We take the same negative actions every single day, over and over again. Thus these consequences that we experience always get worse and worse over time. Progression. It is a downward spiral. Negativity piled on top of more negativity.
That is how addiction works, and why it is progressive and cumulative.
Recovery works the same way. It is progressive and cumulative as well based on the positive actions that you take every single day.
This is a key concept in recovery that I have never really heard stressed enough in traditional recovery programs. This is so important and yet it seems to be largely ignored by most people.
The concept is based on accumulated positive action.
If you take positive actions every single day, and keep doing so consistently, amazing things will happen in your life.
I would go so far as to call this a “secret of recovery.”
There are two things that I want to stress about the power of “positive accumulation”:
1) It works in multiple areas of your life.
2) It is synergistic and builds on its own success.
Obviously you can apply this concept to more than just the idea of abstinence from drugs and alcohol. That is the baseline of course and you want to maintain that abstinence at all costs because it keeps the door open to future growth potential. If you relapse all of this positive stuff is wiped away and you are reset back to miserable. Not good.
But after you have established that baseline of sobriety you are free to start taking positive action in other areas of your life. For example, I decided to do exactly that when I went back to college, finished up a degree, got a nice job (in the recovery field) and then eventually started a very successful business in the field of addiction recovery as well. The ultimate outcome of this was well beyond what I ever could have imagined when I was still using drugs. This outcome went way beyond my wildest dreams and it was the result of several years of positive action in recovery. In this case, the positive action was applied to my education and career track. I kept plugging away (sometimes on blind faith) and some very good things happened as a result.
Some people might say that this is obvious but my results that I achieved were rare and uncommon, so I still maintain that this concept is something of a “secret.” I guess you could summarize the approach as simply “taking positive action + persistence” but obviously there is some secret sauce in there as well and if you push really hard then something amazing will happen in your life and things will get really good.
The career example is just one track of positive growth that a person might explore in recovery. I also explored the idea of my own physical health over the years in my recovery and so I started making positive changes along those lines. In particular, the two biggest goals that I achieved in that area were to quit smoking and to become a regular distance runner. Neither of these two goals happened overnight and they both required a long and challenging path. I had to persist, I had to take lots of positive action, and I had to have blind faith in some cases that I was even doing the right thing. For example, during nicotine withdrawal the brain actually rewires itself and plays a trick on itself to try to get the smoker to take more nicotine, and the only thing that can save you at that point is blind faith. Your own mind will question your decision that you made to quit smoking as your brain tries to convince you that you must not have been thinking clearly when you decided to quit. I think a certain amount of blind faith and hard core persistence is necessary in order to build up the mileage and actually become a distance runner. It does not happen easily and without any struggle for someone who was, at one point, completely out of shape!
So positive action taken daily can produce amazing results, and this can happen in various areas of our lives. But there is another concept here that was quite unexpected and gives a good hint of just how awesome your life can become after 5 years of recovery or so: synergy.
“Synergy” is a fancy word but really all it means is that the sum of all the parts equals more than the whole. The idea of synergy is that if you are making positive growth in one area of your life it will in turn enhance and help the growth that you make in other areas of your life.
This became very evident to me after I discovered exercise and finally build up the discipline to become a distance runner. If you would have sat me down beforehand and explained to me that becoming a runner would allow me to do better in my business career, I would have told you that you were nuts. But that is exactly what happened and I can look back and see how I eventually applied that discipline that I gained from becoming a runner to my business career. I absolutely took one lesson and applied it to my life in another area.
The same thing happened after I quit smoking. I had struggled for years in my recovery to quit smoking cigarettes….it was my one leftover crutch from my days of addiction and alcoholism. I struggled and struggled to put down the cigarettes and for many years I failed over and over again. Eventually though I was able to finally do it and I conquered the nicotine addiction and I was finally free from cigarettes.
At this point I had a tremendous revelation. I had done it! I had successfully quit smoking! Normally I would not pat myself on the back so much but this had been such an agonizing struggle; such an incredibly challenging goal. I suddenly realized that I had a tremendous amount of power to make positive changes in my life–not just in the realm of addiction but in anything that I wanted to pursue.
I had been out of shape my whole life and a chronic asthmatic smoker, and yet I had become a distance runner. I had been hooked on alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes for over a decade and yet I was able to overcome those addictions and leave them behind. I had been a college dropout and yet I went back to school and finished up a degree during my recovery. Really, what was stopping me from doing whatever I wanted to do in life? Where were the limitations? I could honestly not see any.
It all came down to focus and discipline. In overcoming addictions, quitting cigarettes, and becoming a distance runner, I had learned the discipline that was necessary to make big changes happen. I had learned how to create massive change in my life. It was all about positive actions, every single day, with ruthless persistence. Positive action taken every day without fail would lead to incredible changes. This took discipline and it was tough but I had learned how to master that discipline. There was no real secret to it. You just put your head down and carried through with it, day after day, until you met your goal. But I had to do that, I had to experience that a few times in different areas of my life before I realized that I could apply this method to nearly anything.
It is sort of like the new age stuff where they say that you can create anything you want, and that you can visualize your goals and then turn them into reality and so on. I believe that this is basically true and this is what the promise of recovery ultimately is: you can do and achieve whatever you want in recovery, so long as you are willing to put in the work to get it. There is no free ride and you do not automatically become a famous millionaire just because you are clean and sober. The real “secret” is that persistence and hard work and discipline are the keys to creating these positive changes in your life. It’s all about hard work.
But, that was still an exciting revelation for me in my recovery, because it truly opened the door for me. I realized that I could have anything I wanted, but I could not have it all. I had to prioritize. I had to decide what I truly wanted in my life and in my recovery. This is because I fully understood the cost of achieving a tough goal. Sure, you can be in great shape and become a distance runner and eat healthy. But you have to pay the cost for this, you have focus on those positive changes every single day for a really long time. You have to put a lot of effort and mental energy into such a change. You have to be prepared to have blind faith in your decision when you question yourself later. And you cannot have twenty goals like this one all at the same time and expect to achieve them all. You must prioritize, figure out what you really want in life, and then focus on it and persist like crazy.
Accumulation is real. Positive actions do accumulate, and you should take advantage of this idea. It is a way to leverage your actions. You are creating a powerful future for yourself because you choose a singular focus and a purposeful direction. If you want to, say, become an addictions counselor, then dedicate your life to this goal and start taking positive action every day towards it. Maybe this will involve pursuing more education and it may take several years but if you attack this goal with persistence it will still be a piece of cake. If you maintain sobriety and this is what you really want in life then it is a cinch that you will achieve it.
Life in recovery becomes easy. It starts out tough because we still have the shackles of addiction pulling at our feet, and it takes time to clear away the wreckage of our past. But positive actions accumulate, and this is the real promise and reward of recovery.
If you can maintain sobriety, good things will happen. If you can figure out what you want to achieve in recovery, then things really get exciting because the world becomes your oyster. Life is easy when you are not handicapping yourself with addiction every day. Most addicts and alcoholics are fairly sharp people but they are holding themselves back due to their destructive behavior in addiction. Once those shackles are removed then their potential is nearly limitless.
Learning a new freedom
The Big Book of AA promises among other things that “you are going to know a new freedom.” I believe this freedom is what I have described in this article.
It starts with abstinence, and depends on it entirely. If you should relapse then all of this positive accumulation is instantly wiped away.
But the rewards in recovery build from there, and they are truly limitless when the addict or alcoholic realizes that they can create nearly any positive change that they want in their recovery. This becomes a reality after the baseline of sobriety is firmly established.
The addict or alcoholic must first surrender fully and ask for help. They are humble, they have surrendered their ego, and they are at the mercy of others. Ask for help, take direction, just tell me what to do in order to live. Complete abandon of the ego. This is the starting point.
From there, they start to make positive changes in their life, every day. Success slowly starts to build. Do not expect miracles at 30 days clean.
Somewhere during the first year or two, however, the addict will realize that they are actually living a life of sobriety, and not obsessing about their drug of choice all day long. They have realized a new level of freedom. This realization will strike suddenly, out of the blue, and the addict will look back and realize that they have, in fact, changed. Their obsession is gone.
It is then that they will realize the potential for growth and their potential to make more positive changes in their life. If they can overcome their addiction then they can do anything. No illusions, no new-age hype….they have to put in the work if they want the rewards. But now they know it is possible.
This is the gift of recovery. A life of personal growth with unlimited potential.