In my opinion everyone who is trying to overcome alcoholism or drug addiction has to have a strategy.
This is different from a series of tactics, such as “attend AA meetings every day.” That is not really a strategy for your overall path in recovery, it is just one tactic.
Now the key is that you will probably not suddenly decide to recover and then automatically have this great strategy for your life. Instead what will happen is that you are going to sort of ease your way into a new strategy for living. In other words, it must be discovered. You cannot just declare that it will be a certain way and then live happily ever after. You have to grow and learn and evolve in early recovery in order to find your lifelong strategy.
The tactics are the day to day things that you do and the actions that you take in order to maintain sobriety. So this would include things like talking with a sponsor, going to meetings, writing about recovery or writing in a journal, and so on. Those may be a part of your strategy, but they are not the whole strategy itself.
It pays to give your strategy some thought, because most people never even consider the idea at all–they simply do what they are told to do in recovery and believe that creating a set of guidelines for living is beyond them. In my opinion this is sad and is a missed opportunity. The reason for this is at least two fold:
1) If you think about recovery strategy and give it the attention it deserves then your chances of staying sober in the long run will greatly increase.
2) If you consider recovery strategy and actively work to follow it then you will enjoy much greater benefits in your life of recovery and be happier.
In other words, you may not really need a strategy for recovery, but you certainly could benefit from having one and from thinking about this.
One of the main benefits of having a recovery strategy is that it helps you to make decisions. You can analyze a situation in your life and then think about how that situation fits in with your overall recovery strategy. We will explore examples of this in a moment. If you do not have a recovery strategy, then you are simply at the mercy of a random decision or you may have to rely on your peers in order to guide you every time. In my opinion this is no way to live in recovery–you can do better, and you can think for yourself. And if you have the right recovery strategy then you can actually make sound and healthy decisions.
But first, a word about timing.
Surrender first, strategize later
Let’s say for example that you just got sober last week. Is this a good time to run out and start thinking about your new recovery strategy and how you want to live in recovery? Probably not, actually.
My experience is that the later you are in recovery, the more you benefit from having a deliberate strategy. The earlier you are in recovery, the more this sort of thing can actually trip you up a bit.
Why is this? Because in early recovery there is a little thing called “self sabotage.” We can trip ourselves up without even realizing it. Not to mention the fact that we are new in recovery and we are completely vulnerable and we don’t know the first thing about staying clean and sober.
Think about it this way:
When you first get into recovery, you need new information. You need to learn how to stay sober on a day to day basis. The purpose of a recovery strategy is not really to help you stay sober from day to day. Instead, the purpose of a strategy is long term. The strategy is what will help you avoid complacency when you have ten years sober. The strategy is what will help you avoid relapse when you have 5 years sober. But in very early recovery, you don’t necessarily need a “strategy.” Instead, you need to be flat out told what to do. You need clear instructions. You need tactics and you need to execute on those tactics.
If you just got clean and sober and you have it in your mind that you are going to develop your own recovery strategy then you are probably fooling yourself. At this point in your journey you should not have the confidence to want to forge your own path just yet. It is too early. Instead you should be seeking to build a foundation.
Early recovery is the time to build a foundation, not to develop a strategy. There is an important reason for this, actually several:
1) In very early recovery you are not in a position to decide what to do on your own. If you do then you will sabotage your own efforts and relapse. Therefore, creating your own strategy is bad timing at this early stage of the game.
2) Everyone who gets into recovery has to “learn to crawl” before they can walk. In other words, you need to build a foundation of recovery before you can start to create a long term strategy. What would you base your strategy on if you only have one day sober and you don’t know what the heck you are doing yet? You need to get some wins under your belt first, you need to prove to yourself that you can make it through the week without drinking, you need to learn that there are certain resources and actions that can help you when you are at your low points. All of this “foundation building” is critically important and you can not build a long term strategy without having gone through it. Everyone has to go through some sort of process in order to get clean and sober. Everyone has to learn the basics of sobriety and abstinence in some way. You cannot build this foundation by just thinking about recovery. You have to actually live it. You have to actually go to rehab, or go to meetings, or talk with a sponsor, or call up your peers, you have to dip deeply into this pool of recovery and actually get your feet wet. Without doing this first there can be no strategy later on, because you will have nothing to build upon. You have to learn the basic knowledge of how to stay sober on a day to day basis. This must be learned first and experienced before you can create a long term strategy for sobriety, and for living.
So your first priority in your recovery journey is to surrender to the disease of addiction. It is only after surrender that you can start to rebuild your life, and have any sort of chance at living according to a strategy later on.
You can live and enjoy your life at different levels. When you are early in recovery you have to take suggestions from other people and do what they tell you to do. We do this in order to learn a new way of life so that we can remain sober. Later on you get the freedom to be able to design your own path of living, and this is a very nice place to be and an incredible amount of freedom. But you have to go through the first part in order to arrive at the second part. You have to “take your lumps” in early recovery and take direction from other people in order to be able to create a powerful and effective strategy for living later on. You must have the foundation before you can create your own path in recovery.
Surrender first, strategize later.
Building your foundation from suggestions
So how exactly do you build a foundation in early recovery?
You take suggestions. It starts with the moment of surrender, when you decide that you are so miserable in your addiction that you will do anything in order to avoid future misery. At that moment you should ask for help. When you ask for help, you cannot ignore or dodge the advice you are given. You must follow through on it. This is the measure of true surrender. When you ask for advice, do you actually follow it? If so then you are fully surrendered, and ready to change your life.
So you ask for help and then you take the advice you are given. For most struggling addicts and alcoholics this is going to involve a trip to rehab. Detox and then residential treatment will be the most common setup for this. Generally it will last 28 days or less. There is also something known as “long term treatment” that typically runs 3 months or longer but most people will not be exposed to that option (though if nothing else has worked for you in the past then you might consider long term, it certainly worked for me!).
So you take the suggestions and you go to rehab. There are a million and one excuses as to why a person cannot attend rehab. As someone who worked at a treatment center for over five years I have heard them all. Not a single one is valid because the alternatives are so severe. For example, take the alcoholic who is struggling to get sober and they are too afraid to come into detox. So they make an excuse that they cannot miss work and so they avoid rehab and go get drunk instead. They get into a car wreck and die due to this decision.
Is this a far fetched example? Hardly. Addicts and alcoholics die all the time! So this is not unrealistic. It does happen. And treatment could have prevented it.
So when a person makes an excuse as to why they cannot attend rehab (or as to why they must leave rehab early, right now, this very moment) it is almost laughable. You cannot fool me, I am a recovering alcoholic myself who used to be terrified of rehab and I made those excuses myself! I know what it feels like to be afraid of sobriety, of recovery, of AA meetings. I know what it feels like to want to avoid change, to go back to my comfort zone, to go back to self medicating. There is no valid excuse for avoiding rehab because the alternative is death. You drink and you die. Eventually the disease kills you. In the end it will get everyone. So don’t make me laugh when you say that you cannot go to rehab, you cannot afford it, or you can not afford to miss work, or you cannot go for some other made up excuse. It is all garbage. The money is no object either, you will be dead if you keep drinking, so find a way to make it happen. Get on the phone and find a rehab that will help you or find you funding. Don’t stop until you have a solution. Don’t stop until you get the help you need. The alternative is death. Alcoholism kills. Stop making excuses.
So after you are in rehab and you have taken that first step and that first suggestion (“…..maybe you should go get some professional help”) it is time to follow through on early recovery. You have started to build your foundation but you are by no means through with this process. For me it took about 18 months of taking suggestions from other people and taking advice before I was ready to start thinking on my own two feet. Your mileage may vary with this, I have no idea by how much though. You may need to take it easy for 3 full years and just follow direction from others during that time, or it may only take you 3 short months of following advice from others. But what I am saying is that there is this period of time during your early recovery when you need to take advice and direction from others and sort of ignore your own ideas for a while. In other words, “get out of your own way.” I actually made a point of doing this. I was conscious of the fact that I was going to get out of my own way, that I was going to defer to other people’s advice during this time of early recovery, and therefore I was not going to allow myself the chance to screw up. I had figured out enough to realize that if I was living according to someone else’s suggestions and design that I would not relapse during that time.
In other words, it is like someone else is saying to you “you poor thing, you are struggling to stay sober and rebuild your life. Here, let me help you. Just do exactly what I say, and nothing more, and your life will get better and you will not drink.” But the question is, how many of us can be humble enough to actually follow through with that? How many of us can get out of our own way and put our ego up on the shelf so that we can take this sort of direction? I am telling you that I was able to do it in spite of having a big ego and a lot of pride in my life. The reason that I was able to do it was because I was so beat down and miserable from my addiction. I had proven to myself quite thoroughly that I did not have all the answers, and that I did not know how to make myself happy. So I had become willing to defer to someone else. I became willing to get out of the driver’s seat and let someone else dictate my life for a while. And so after I surrendered and went through detox I was able to stay in this mindset of “I don’t know how to make myself happy, therefore I will get out of my own way and follow the advice of others.”
Even after a year or two in recovery I was still taking suggestions. My sponsor told me to go back to college. I did so. My sponsor told me to think about quitting smoking. I did so. I was told by several people to think about exercise and getting into shape. I did that too. I took many suggestions from different sources and many of those suggestions worked out well. Some of them did not though and this turned out to be no problem at all.
Ruthlessly eliminate. Ruthlessly explore new options.
Once you get relatively stable in your early recovery you should enter into “exploration mode.” This should happen during the first year of your recovery at some point. When it happens you should start to explore new ideas and take suggestions from other people. Try things out. Try new ideas. Try to learn some new things. Invest time in personal growth projects. See what works for you and what does not.
Then, start eliminating stuff. At some point you will realize that you are stretched to the max and you need to eliminate and declutter your life. For me this started with AA meetings, but those might be something of great value to you that you hang on to for life. There is not necessarily a right or wrong here. The key is that you find what is working well for you and actually helping you in your recovery. Me, I was getting more out of other things that I was pursuing than I was out of the meetings, so eventually I eliminated them. This may not be the case for every person in sobriety, as we are all unique.
In addition to elimination I would urge you to try to “fill in the gaps” that you create. After you discard the stuff that is no longer serving you, you will free up time and energy to explore new things that may be able to help you to grow. So you take on new personal growth projects and explore new things to learn. This is still the foundation building of early recovery, to some extent. But now you are beginning to transition into long term sobriety. You have taken lots of suggestions in early recovery and you are doing many different things. But now you are shifting to a point where you can start to prioritize a bit. You understand how day to day sobriety works and how to be stable in recovery and maintain abstinence. You get a feel for what is truly necessary in order to maintain that abstinence. And you are eager to experience new growth in your life and to learn new things.
At this point I would still rely heavily on feedback from other people. To be honest, when I was at this point in my recovery (18 months or so of clean time) I was not yet in a position to create my lifelong strategy for recovery. I was still benefiting from taking suggestions and ideas from other people. But things were different now, because I no longer had to follow those suggestions blindly just to stay clean and sober. Now I had some stability and I could prioritize and made some decisions. Now I was starting to think for myself a bit more and decide on what direction I wanted to go in. I was starting to think about personal growth and what I really wanted to learn in life.
At the same time I could not help but notice that my biggest gains in life were suggestions that I took from other people. I was still getting my biggest growth experiences from suggestions from others. This is fine, and you should not be critical of yourself for not “thinking for yourself” or anything. There is great power in taking suggestions from others.
Building on what is already working for you
At this point you really only need one more step to start creating a life strategy for recovery:
Start building one what is already working for you.
Do you see how this will build on the foundation that you created in early recovery?
Whatever works, focus on and expand. This will lead to stronger recovery and more growth.
This is also how you turn tactics into a long term strategy. For example, my strategy is to become healthier in all ways that I can. This builds on several suggestions that I took in early recovery that led me to better health.
In that way, your long term strategy for recovery is an extension of the foundation that you created from the point of surrender.