Health is the ultimate form of currency in recovery. Once you are clean and sober and enjoying the good life, the most valuable thing in the world to you is…..more life. As you remain clean and sober in recovery this becomes more and more obvious over time. Why? Because some of your peers will fall ill during your recovery journey and some will inevitably pass away as well. This is very common in recovery due to the harsh lifestyle that we have lived during our addiction. Survival rates are not so good among recovering alcoholics, who have drank hard and usually smoked heavily for their whole lives leading up to recovery. Sure it is healthier to be clean and sober and abstinent, but in many cases there has already been a lot of damage done during the years or decades of addiction.
So it makes sense to focus on your physical health in recovery. What good is sobriety if you are dead? Your health is your greatest asset, even more precious than your recovery (many people in the program argue this point, but they have it backwards. These are the same people who say that they will commit suicide before they would relapse. Bad idea!).
Now I am not a perfect example of health in recovery but I try to move in the right direction, and I have certainly made some strides since the day I go clean and sober. Here is what I have learned so far and what I can suggest to you.
Priority number one: continued abstinence is your baseline for success
First and foremost in your recovery is the idea that your sobriety has to come first. This is especially true if you are considering your overall health in life. If you relapse then your health in general will fall by the wayside very quickly.
A relapse is absolutely devastating for health and in fact it could kill a person outright. This is because the negative health effects of drinking tend to compound in various ways. For example, most heavy drinkers are also heavy smokers while they are drinking. So a relapse back to alcohol may actually be a relapse back to two drugs instead of just one. If you take a glance at the statistics you will see that heavy smoking combined with heavy drinking kills you a lot faster than just one or the other. The two addictions sort of compound to make health problems worse.
This is why I like the idea of the “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to avoiding drugs and alcohol. In terms of your health, you cannot afford to relapse. It is far too dangerous and far too deadly in the long run. Many alcoholics who relapse find themselves in a deadly situation right away, and the relapse itself turns out to be fatal.
But there is another reason that the zero tolerance policy and continued abstinence is so important for your health. The reason is because of how it sets you up for success in terms of personal grown and development. If you are not clean and sober, then you cannot (or will not) pursue other healthy activities such as exercise, nutrition, and so on.
For example, since I got clean and sober I have started exercising on a regular basis. This would not have happened while I was still in active addiction. There is no way in the world that I could have taken up distance running while I was still drinking and smoking cigarettes. This gift of exercise was only made possible by my abstinence from alcohol and other drugs.
Another example would be in how I eat today. While I was still drinking and using drugs, my diet was absolutely terrible, and there were days when I would eat nothing but booze and potato chips. Obviously my diet has improved greatly from that point now that I am clean and sober, and I can even think consciously about my diet and nutrition today, and make an effort to eat healthier.
Because I am living a sober life in recovery I now place a greater value on my life. During my addiction my self esteem had become much lower and I did not place much value on my own life, so I was not as motivated to take care of myself. Now that I am in recovery I have built up more healthy self esteem and so now I am more apt to take care of myself. I try hard to create value in my life and so therefore I see the value in taking better care of myself today. Pursuing greater health in recovery now makes sense to me, whereas before in active addiction I had to reason or motivation to try to be healthy. I existed only to self medicate, and had no purpose beyond getting drunk or high. Improving my health during active addiction was not a priority.
Recovery itself is a choice for better health. You are saying “yes” to life rather than choosing the death and destruction that comes with active addiction. You cannot really be a health nut if you relapse and start trashing your body all over again. The only way to pursue greater health is in sobriety.
Therefore sobriety and continued abstinence is the only logical baseline for your journey to greater health. If you happen to relapse then you can just forget about anything that you may be doing for your health (such as exercise or better nutrition) and immediately focus on the problem of getting sober again.
If we have a scale of 1 to a 100 then proper nutrition has a value of maybe 10 and exercise has a value of perhaps 20 and maintaining sobriety is 100. I have met some people in my recovery journey who do not see the scale this way, some of them seem confused (to me anyway) and they put a huge importance on something other than sobriety. For example, they might think that proper nutrition is just as important as sobriety itself, and that a person who has relapsed but continues to eat properly is just as healthy as a person who is sober but eats junk food all day. In my opinion this is completely wrong and the scale I describe above makes much more sense (maintaining sobriety is at least ten times more important than proper nutrition, at least for addicts and alcoholics).
The point is that you should not be confused about your journey towards greater health in recovery. Abstinence from chemicals is priority number one, and it needs to always be that way if you are going to have a shot at successfully long term sobriety and happiness. Abstinence from chemicals needs to be the foundation of your healthy journey. Without it, everything falls apart. All of the other stuff is just minor details in comparison to your sobriety. It is important to keep this in proper perspective because I have watched many recovering alcoholics who have focused on the wrong things who ended up relapsing.
Priority number two: eliminate the negatives
The next big priority for chasing better health in recovery is to start eliminating the negatives from your life. This can be a bit counter-intuitive because many people in recovery believe that they should “seek out positive stuff” or try to make only positive changes.
Well keep in mind that when you eliminate something negative from your life you are still making a positive change.
But what is important to remember is that the human body is basically healthy as is, and it is largely our own actions and behaviors that screw it up and make it less healthy. In particular, you might say that some of us humans have a tendency to:
* Eat too much.
* Eat unhealthy foods.
* Not move enough.
* Put harsh chemicals into our bodies.
So when you get clean and sober you are making a decision to pursue greater health, but many times we have these other unhealthy habits in our lives that have come along for the ride along with our addiction. Smoking and lack of exercise are two common ones, though obviously they may not apply to everyone in recovery.
The point is that you need to do a basic self assessment in your recovery and find out where the negative drag is in your life. What is holding you back? What are your bad habits? What are doing (or not doing) that makes you less healthy?
If you are still putting chemicals into your body, such as in the form of smoking cigarettes, then that should become your first priority in recovery after maintaining sobriety. Now there is a popular and very dangerous idea around traditional recovery circles that recovering alcoholics should not try to quit smoking during their first year or two of recovery because it is too stressful to do so. The logic is that if they try to quit smoking this will stress them out and then they will relapse on alcohol because they tried to take on too much.
This has been disproved with studies that show an increase in sobriety success rates among people who also quit smoking cigarettes early in their recovery journey. If you think about it, it is a simply argument made by people who just want to keep smoking rather than to face another of their addictions.
Don’t get me wrong–it is very difficult to quit smoking, period. Doesn’t matter if you are a recovering alcoholic or not. Doesn’t matter if you are in early sobriety or not. Quitting smoking is hard to do, period.
But it is also one of the greatest rewards that you can get in life, simply because it is also one of the biggest things that hold people back from greater health. If you are already clean and sober and you continue to smoke cigarettes, then this is by far your biggest opportunity in life. Nothing you do could have nearly as much positive impact on your life as quitting smoking.
The same is true for any other negative habits you may have. For example, maybe you also have a gambling addiction, a sex addiction, or a compulsive shopping habit. Any of these have the potential to destroy your life and your health if you do not address them in your recovery.
The greatest gains that you can make in your recovery is by eliminating bad habits. Focus on your bad habits first, as your greatest priority. Doing so will offer you the greatest benefit in the least amount of time. It will also create the greatest boost to your overall health and well being.
Why exercise is so vital in recovery
In the first few years of my recovery I never exercised. At one point I tried to get into it and I just could not do it. I think this is an important point because I had sort of written off exercise as being “not that important to recovery” and then later on I discovered that this was probably false. In my early recovery, I was skating by without any exercise but in doing so I believe I was just making things harder for myself in recovery.
My belief today is that regular, vigorous exercise can actually keep you clean and sober. Others agree with me (such as Racing for Recovery) and in fact they base their entire program of recovery around the idea of exercise. In my opinion, developing a habit of regular exercise is the strongest thing that you can do for maintaining abstinence and promoting better health.
Some people might wonder why not focus on nutrition instead. I have met a few people who believe that proper nutrition is much more important than exercise and in fact is the better path to greater health in recovery. This may be true for them but I have not found it to be true for me. I have gotten huge benefit from exercise in my life and very little benefit from focusing on better nutrition. Indeed, some people have even been angry at me for saying that but this is just what I discovered for myself. Perhaps your results will be different and if you get huge benefit from proper eating and not much benefit from exercise then more power to you! Do what works.
Part of why exercise is so vital to me is that it also promotes better nutrition. When I run frequently and in large distances, I find myself wanting to put better fuel into my body, so I tend to eat better anyway. So engaging in regular exercise sort of leads to better health all around, at least for me.
Our bodies were ultimately designed to move and to do work so if you sit idle in recovery and never get into shape then I believe you are missing out on a huge opportunity. There is a lot going on when you engage in regular, vigorous exercise and it is not necessarily easy to describe all of the benefits that you get to your health or to your recovery. Those who “get it” would never dream of going without exercise–they do it regularly and they get huge benefit from it and they would not have it any other way. Just find a distance runner and ask them, talk to them, see how dedicated they are to having exercise in their life. It is no longer a chore for them, they do it because it makes them feel so good.
This is counter-intuitive as well because if you are new in sobriety then chances are quite good that you are horribly out of shape. If this is the case then as soon as you try to start exercising you are going to be miserable and it will be a tough road. Much like quitting smoking, there is an initial hurdle that must be overcome, a barrier to entry that is full of struggle and pain.
But just like with the ex smoker, at some point it becomes easy. Suddenly, not smoking is easy, and the withdrawal is over, and being a non-smoker is healthy and normal and natural. The same will be true for someone who makes a habit of regular exercise: at some point it becomes normal and natural and easy. It will cease to be a struggle. Until you reach that point with vigorous exercise, you are likely not enjoying the full benefits of it. It is only after it has become truly normal and natural for you to exercise that you will be receiving the full benefits of doing so.
My mistake in early recovery was that I did not push through long enough to get to this point, where exercise becomes “easy and natural and normal.” It was still a struggle for me and it was hard work and it was not getting any easier and so I gave up. Years later I tackled it again and something clicked the second time around and I have been exercising every since.
Apparently I just had to keep my head down and keep pushing long enough to have a breakthrough. Once I did this, I reached a point where I would never consider going without regular exercise. It had become vital to my recovery and to my happiness. If I fail to exercise today I don’t feel the same level of health and well being. It has become vital to my life and to my recovery.
Pursuing holistic health as a way of life
Recovery from alcoholism is, in my opinion, the pursuit of holistic health.
Alcoholism destroyed our health in so many ways: it affected us physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially, socially, and so on.
The disease of alcoholism destroys your entire life from the inside out, affecting you in all of these areas. Therefore the solution has to be comprehensive enough to restore your entire life and give you greater health in all of these potential areas.
Recovery starts in the physical realm. You have to stop putting chemicals into your body first if you want to have any kind of shot at recovery. It is only from the baseline of abstinence that you can even try to recover.
After you establish abstinence, the next step is to clean up the rest of your life, and your health. You have to address and eliminate the things that would hold you back from a better life in recovery. “Holistic” just means “whole.” You have to consider all aspects of your life and your health in recovery.
I had a close friend in my early recovery who remained clean and sober but neglected some aspects of his health. He continued to smoke cigarettes. He was overweight. And he justified those two problems by the fact that he was clean and sober. At least he was not drinking liquor and shooting dope, right? At least that was his rational.
Unfortunately he passed away, and this was largely due to the changes that he failed to make in recovery. A more holistic approach may have saved him, I am not positive of this but I have to believe that it is true. His medical doctors had told him as much. They told him to lose weight and quit smoking. They told him to stop smoking immediately, not to take another puff, period. He could not do it though, the changes were too overwhelming for him and he was already quite sick, and it cost him his life.
To me this is a powerful lesson that you should not delay the pursuit of holistic health. If you are new in recovery and someone tells you to “just focus on your sobriety, don’t bother trying to quit smoking just yet” then that is bad advice in my opinion.
Instead, start to pursue greater health today. Make sobriety your number one priority, and the quest for greater health should immediately follow that.