I have always found that the best path in recovery from addiction is the one that is focused on personal growth.
This was something that I concluded after living in long term treatment for two years and watching many people in recovery relapse. I could not understand what the big secret was to staying clean and sober, nor could I understand why some people “made it” while others ended up relapsing.
I watched my peers in recovery very carefully to try to figure out what the key to recovery was. I am not sure that you can ever really boil it down to a single principle or not, but I certainly tried to do so. If there is one thing that I could say it might be something like “conviction to remain sober” or possibly something like “having a zero tolerance policy for using drugs or alcohol.”
An extreme focus on abstinence from chemicals is just the baseline though. Obviously it takes more than just that. I watched so many people relapse who had been living in long term rehab with me, people who had everything going for them, recovering alcoholics who had every advantage given to them. Why would they just relapse all of a sudden? It was truly baffling. And the disease of addiction may never really reveal this secret to me or to the world; it may just be that it is a self destructive disease and that some people are determined to screw up their life.
That said, I think there are ways that you can avoid relapse, prevent it, work towards a healthier life and a healthier recovery–if you are willing to put in the work. This requires you to focus on personal growth and to try to become a better person.
I realize that the term “become a better person” is fairly vague and useless by itself, but I will attempt to define it a little better here as well. Plus, I also believe that we do not necessarily need to define it, people just need to do it, and they will get all the feedback that they need by how they feel about their life and their actions. In other words, when you start taking positive action, you will know that you are on the right path because your self esteem will get such a healthy boost. Personal growth is not really rocket science–you set a goal for yourself, work hard, and then reap the rewards of a life well lived. Do this over and over again and it becomes a strategy for recovery from addiction. Such a lifestyle is enough to prevent relapse.
Your baseline of success: Why you need a zero tolerance policy
Your path of personal growth in recovery starts with a baseline of pure abstinence. Obviously you do not want to be using addictive drugs or alcohol, period. If you do then you have relapsed, you have completely failed, and it wipes out all progress that you have made and resets everything back to zero.
There is no point in trying to soften this blow. Relapse is bad, and you need to label it as such. In fact you need to label it as “one of the worst things that can possibly happen in your life.” If you try to soften it in some way or cut other people slack when they relapse then you are opening the door to cutting yourself slack when you relapse.
The idea of the “zero tolerance policy” is rather simple. What you need to do when you get clean and sober is make a mental arrangement with yourself. You need to get really clear in your mind that you will not put any addictive drugs or alcohol into your body, no matter what. Now there is a fine line between what constitutes a relapse when you are talking about some prescription medications but that is the topic of an entire article. Suffice it to say that if you need medications for anything then you need to be brutally honest with your doctor and make sure your doctor understands that addictive medications are dangerous for you, and if you still have to take such medicine that you follow the prescription without indulging in excess amounts. In other words, even a doctor prescribes you addictive medication then you need to take them as prescribed without going crazy with the pills, as most addicts would do. Even then you are walking a fine line and the better path in some cases is to be honest with your doctor and let them know that you really would like a non-addictive alternative if possible (hint: it is usually possible!).
I figured this concept out very quickly when I was living in long term rehab with eleven other guys. The problem that I was seeing was that many of my peers were relapsing. Some of them seemed to have a stronger “program” than I did, and some of them were more deeply spiritual than I was, so this was baffling to me. So what I did was to figure out what I had to do in order to stay clean and sober, and that was to “not put drugs or alcohol into my body, period.” Thus, this idea of a “zero tolerance policy” was born and I also figured out that this concept had to become my highest truth.
This is an important point because this is not what is preached in the AA meetings. Instead, the highest truth that is preached in “the program” is that you must rely on a higher power for your sobriety. I was observing the results of this by watching my peers in long term rehab and I was just shocked and amazed at how nearly all of them relapsed. It was then that I started to realize that having extreme faith in a program or in a higher power might not be the best (or only) choice, as was being preached to me at the time. The results were speaking for themselves and I was not impressed with this path of faith and its apparent lack of results.
So in my mind I made this decision. I formed a zero tolerance policy. I made a mental agreement with myself. My highest truth was this: “I will not use addictive drugs or alcohol, NO MATTER WHAT.” This essentially became the first half of my recovery program. This was my “step one.” Step two is what follows and that is basically “become the best person that you can in recovery.” But for me this zero tolerance policy was really the first step and it was also the most important step, because it established a baseline of sobriety from which I could then build a better life.
I liked this 2 step approach because it was so much more simple than the long list of 12 steps that were toted in AA. I noticed too that there was this tendency among people who were recovering: you first got clean and sober, then the question became: could you learn to deal with life in sobriety? If not, you relapsed. If you could learn to cope while sober, you “made it.”
It was like you could boil recovery down to 2 steps. First you became abstinent from your drug of choice, then you learned how to live sober. That’s it. There are really only two steps in the process. I believe this is why most relapse prevention focuses on “coping skills.” They are attempting to teach you the second part of the process, which is how to deal with your life now that you are sober and can no longer rely on drugs or alcohol to self medicate.
So many people in recovery did not seem to separate this out, they instead saw recovery as being a process that hinged entirely on their faith in a higher power. This may or may not work for a given individual, but I was watching it fail for many, many of peers in early recovery. First you get clean and sober, then you learn how to deal with life. Step one, step two. Most people instead got into detox, sobered up, then attempted to have a spiritual experience and pushed the rest of their recovery effort into the realm of faith. The practical application of learning how to live your life sober, without resorting to self medicating, was not the emphasis for them. Perhaps it should have been.
This is not to say that no one can ever get clean and sober using the 12 step program, because I do know of some people who successfully traveled that path and worked the steps and found a better life in recovery. But I would argue that such people silently adopted some of the concepts that I have discussed here (such as the zero tolerance policy and the push for self improvement).
Evaluating the negative habits in your life
Once you have successfully established your zero tolerance policy with yourself, it is time to expand your recovery effort and start improving your life. Part of the problem is that “improving your life” is vague and so we need a way to better define that term.
The first place to start is by evaluating yourself and your life situation.
Doing so and finding your highest impact change is somewhat counter-intuitive. What you actually want to do is find the negative things in your life first, and then tackle your biggest problem or issue.
There is a good reason for this. The reason is because in recovery, you are struggling to restore yourself to health and in order to do so you want to eliminate the negative things that would hold you back. People are essentially happy if they can drop all of the baggage and problems that they tend to pick up and drag along with them. There is not so much that you have to actually do in order to be happy, it is more that you have to simply eliminate all of the garbage from your life. You were born to be healthy and happy and achieving this state of being is more about eliminating the negatives than it is about chasing the positives. Like I said, it is counter-intuitive.
So for me I had to take a look at my life in early recovery and start to see how I could move toward greater health. One of the big things for me (and for a lot of other recovering addicts and alcoholics) is with nicotine addiction. I had to give up the cigarettes and of course this was no easy task. I struggled with it for a few years in recovery before I got serious enough about it and realized that this was the most important thing that I could do in order to move forward in my life.
I had another negative habit and I would say that this was something like “slothfulness.” Basically I was lazy and out of shape. So I had to get honest with myself and evaluate my life and really take a look at what I was doing. So I come to the conclusion at some point that I was out of shape and that this was not as healthy as I could be. So I started to exercise on a regular basis and this too was a great struggle. It is hard to get into shape, it is hard to generate the discipline to exercise every day out of thin air, it is a tough road to follow. But ultimately I stuck with it and eventually I found myself in much better shape and at some point I even loved to exercise.
Really my recovery foundation is based on these 3 habit changes. I eliminated drugs and alcohol, I eliminated smoking, and then I eliminated my laziness/inactivity.
So many people in early recovery are focused on the wrong things. They are chasing a positive goal that they have when they have not even cleaned up their life yet. Thus, they get ahead of themselves and they miss the important changes that they should be working on instead. Their priorities are not right. If you get clean and sober and yet you are still smoking cigarettes, then quitting smoking is very likely to be your next major change that you need to make.
Why? Because that change would have the most positive impact for you. Sure, you could ignore this potential change and instead focus on something else, such as your spiritual growth and development. I have seen many people state exactly that, in which they choose to keep smoking cigarettes so that they are not distracted in their recovery and can focus on spiritual growth instead. What a cop out! In fact they just want to keep smoking and they are still stuck in “disease thinking” when they make such an argument.
The real spiritual growth for them would be to get really honest with themselves, take a good look at their life (self evaluation) and realize that the most important thing that they can do right now is to get off the cigarettes. No other change in their life could have a greater positive impact. No other change in their life could bring them more freedom. And even though they are claiming that they do not want to deal with their nicotine addiction right now because they want to focus on spiritual matters (or focus on their recovery) this is all a big cop out–their recovery and their self esteem and their spiritual growth would all be enhanced if they faced this problem (nicotine addiction) and confronted it successfully.
Recovery is practical. If it’s not, then you end up relapsing eventually. So it pays to make an honest self assessment and then take action. Many people are hiding from taking action in recovery, they hide behind “the program” or they hide behind a spiritual quest. They are claiming acceptance rather than seeing a need for change in their lives. They might argue that they are vulnerable in their recovery and that they do not want to “rock the boat” by trying to make big changes (such as quitting smoking). Many addicts and alcoholics also hide behind the idea that if they try to quit smoking in recovery that they will become stressed out and this will cause them to relapse. In face they are simply in denial and they want to hang on to their nicotine addiction rather than to face the challenge of quitting and getting healthier.
So in order to be the best person that you can be in recovery, you have to make these hard choices. You have to get really honest with yourself and engage in self assessment. I had to look at my own life and say “OK, I got clean and sober, so what now? What is most important in my life?” And I had to get with the idea that my health had become important to me, and I was still holding myself back in many ways due to my cigarette addiction. So I had to face that and deal with it. And in doing so, when I finally conquered that goal, it empowered my life even further, and the resulting boost in self esteem was enormous.
What is the one big goal that would change everything?
At some point in your recovery journey you will probably take care of most of the negative things in your life and then you will be left with an open slate. Your path could lead anywhere at that point. In my opinion there are two ways you can approach this point of your recovery.
The first way is to ask yourself “What is the one goal that, if I achieved it, would change everything for me?”
Sometimes our daily lives just fill up with stuff and we find ourselves busy, busy, busy. And yet we may not actually accomplish anything that we really want to do. This can be especially true in recovery, when we are slowly learning how to rebuild our lives, and our life is filling up with good stuff again, and so on.
At some point I had to set my own priorities and decide what I really wanted to accomplish. When I did this I was in the nice position of having already cleared out almost all of the negative stuff in my life, I had stability in my recovery from drugs and alcohol, I had eliminated my “laziness” and was exercising on a regular basis, and I had also quit the cigarettes. So I was in a position to create something positive in my life, and I had also gained the discipline that was necessary in order to make something happen. (I chose to start a business, which I did so successfully, but your particular life goals may be different). The point is that I had to clear away all the garbage first so that I could get to a point where I could make something amazing happen in my life.
How can your gifts and talents help or serve others?
The alternative to asking yourself “What is the one goal that would change everything?” is to instead ask yourself “How can my unique talents best serve other people?”
I some respects this is also what drove my success in long term recovery, because I found out how I could best connect with others in recovery (online), and then I put more effort into those unique paths. This was done instead of trying to fit a square peg into round holes (which would be me, forcing myself to go to AA meetings, which was not serving me or anyone else).
You would be amazed at how many counselors and therapists tried to get me to adhere to the more “traditional” path of recovery, and just fit in and go along with the masses. Instead I found my own path in recovery based on what I could best do to help other people in recovery. Thus I found my true calling (online) and this has made all the difference for me.
Find your own path. Become the best person that you can, and then see how your talents can help and serve others. Finding such a path in recovery is both challenging and rewarding.