If you attend AA meetings or talk to people in traditional recovery circles, you will probably hear the idea get mentioned that “it is important to stay busy in alcoholism recovery.” Is this statement good advice?
I believe that it is, for a number of different reasons.
What your early recovery should look like
Early recovery is different from anything that I ever experienced in my entire life. First of all you are surrendering completely which is a unique experience in itself. Most of us have gone our entire lives without ever really having to surrender. So this is, in itself, quite different.
Second of all you have to then take this decision of surrender (or is it a feeling?) and then you have to turn it into positive action.
I try to describe the amount of action that an alcoholic has to take in order to overcome their disease, and my best description of it is “massive action.”
You must take massive action in order to overcome a drug or alcohol addiction.
This is evidenced by the fact that everyone who has ever recovered successfully from an addiction can describe the amount of effort that they had to put into it. If you talk to such people you will hear them talk about “making a huge commitment” and “trying harder at recovery than anything they have ever done in their life.” So they are not just taking action, they are taking massive action. The intensity that is needed in order to recover is truly massive.
In other words, you cannot just casually recover from alcoholism. You don’t decide to overcome an addiction and then do so by casually sauntering down the street in a lazy fashion. That is not how recovery works. If you do this you will relapse. If you try to make only a modest effort at recovery then you will surely fail.
Most people have to try to get sober a few times in order to fully realize this. I had to try 3 times in total (serious efforts where I attended treatment) before I realized just how big of a commitment was really needed. It was like on the third try I realized “OK, so I have to try harder than I ever have in my life, and make a more serious commitment than I have ever made before, ever. OK, got it.” But it took me a few tries before I reached this point. I had to try and fail twice before that in order to realize just how deep of a commitment was needed.
So then what is early recovery from alcoholism, and what does it actually look like? Well from the perspective of the alcoholic, it is all about reinventing yourself. This is not just some feel-good language or special buzzwords we are using, we are actually talking about reinventing who you are as a person, both on the inside as well as on the outside.
So in practical terms that means that the recovering alcoholic has to:
1) Look inside at their shame, guilt, fear, anger, resentments, and self pity. They have to address these problems and take action in order to fix them or eliminate them. They have to do the work. You can’t walk around with garbage filling up your mind and your emotions and expect to remain sober. So you have to identify and then correct these internal problems.
2) Look at your external circumstances and make potentially drastic changes. So you consider the “people, places, and things” in your life that may be bad for you in terms of addiction. For example, I was working at a job where nearly everyone got drunk or high with me when I first got sober. I had to leave that job if I wanted any sort of chance at recovery. The same might be true for you in terms of a job, a certain relationship, and so on. Sometimes we have to make external changes in order to rebuild our life.
So these are the two broad categories of change: Internal and external. Every struggling alcoholic is probably going to have to make changes in both of these areas. And when you do both of these things and you continue to dig deeper and look for more positive changes to make (both internally and externally) then you start to reinvent yourself.
If you really want to accelerate your recovery then find someone who you trust that wants to help you, and ask them for advice. Ask them what your next and most important change that you need to make is. Ask them what they would do next if they were in your shoes. Then take that advice and put it into action. This is a shortcut to wisdom and the fastest way to reinvent yourself–to simply follow the advice and wisdom of others. Of course you have to find someone that you trust first, someone who is also successful in sobriety. This is the basic idea behind sponsorship in the 12 step programs. It does work if you apply it in your life and take massive action.
But again, you can’t just take one piece of advice and put it into action and then go prop your feet up on and be lazy. You have to keep doing this stuff. You have to keep pushing yourself. You have to make a positive change in your life, then wake up the next day and say “OK, what next? What now? How can I improve further?” This is how recovery works. You don’t just quit drinking or taking drugs. That is only a beginning. You have to follow through and turn each small “win” into a greater victory. You have to keep taking that next step, seeking the next positive change for yourself. This is how reinvention works. It is a process. And it keeps going.
Does this sound like a person who might be busy?
You bet. Because this is a daily process. If you try to put it off until next week then this will eventually lead you to relapse.
Taking care of yourself in recovery is a daily process. You do it every single day.
If you want to get into shape physically, for example, you don’t put it off until next month. You simply start exercising every day. Today. It becomes a daily process. The only time to do something like that is right now.
And so it is with all of the aspects of recovery. If you want to reinvent yourself, you can’t do that next week. You can only do that right now. You can only take positive action today. So you have to put these things into motion on a daily basis, and use the positive momentum to pull yourself through to a better life. And as you start to make positive changes, good things will start to happen and your success will build on itself.
Recovery starts out really slow. This is annoying, I realize that much. But you have to have faith that the positive action that you are taking today will build into something much bigger tomorrow. And it will take time but eventually you will be able to look back and realize that you really have reinvented yourself. But you can’t get there overnight, and you can’t get there by just making little changes. Or by making one or two changes and then being lazy. No, if you want success in recovery you have to push yourself every single day and keep doing it for a long time. Then one day you will look back and realize just how far you have come, and you will be amazed at the success you have achieved.
So when I say that “yes, you need to stay busy in recovery” this is what I am really talking about. I am talking about the need to constantly push yourself each and every day. I am talking about the need to take massive action and create positive changes. And I am talking about the fact that you have to keep doing these things, over and over again, in a constant state of reinvention.
If an alcoholic stops reinventing themselves do you know what will happen? Eventually they will go back to the default. And we all know what their default mode is–it is alcoholism. If you let the alcoholic mind idle for long enough it will eventually revert back to its old ways.
The only way to overcome this is to keep reinventing yourself, to keep pushing for more positive action, to keep making positive changes.
It may sound like a lot of work, and it is. But it is also a very rewarding way to live as well. You get to keep learning and growing as a person.
The wandering mind of an alcoholic
How can an alcoholic live without alcohol if their mind keeps wandering back to their old patterns of behavior? It is not easy in early sobriety and that is why you need the power of distraction.
AA can be useful up to a certain point, and it is definitely helpful for certain people. If you dive head first into AA and go to meetings every day and get a sponsor and get involved in the fellowship then it can certainly help to distract you from your disease. It can be a battle just to hang on to sobriety each day at a time and if you have a strong foundation in a program like AA then it might really help you with this.
Of course it is not for everyone but there is definitely power in the idea of distraction. And early recovery is a very difficult time in terms of the wandering mind. If you suddenly take the alcohol away from an alcoholic then their mind is going to come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses as to why they need a drink. You don’t necessarily have to go to AA in order to overcome alcoholism but you definitely need a way to distract your mind from the cravings. How are you going to protect yourself from yourself in early recovery? That is an important question to answer and everyone needs a plan of some sort.
When I finally got sober I lived in long term rehab for 20 months. I went to 90 AA meetings in 90 days and I also went to as many as 3 or 4 meetings on some days. I also had group therapy twice a week and a one hour counseling session as well. On top of all this I was living in a facility with 11 other recovering alcoholics and we all socialized together on a daily basis (mostly in the smoke room if I am honest here!). But those hours I spent out in the smoke room talking with my peers in recovery were actually really important, and were a big part of my recovery process. All of it was important. I was living in rehab for almost two years and I was going to all sorts of groups and meetings every single day. I also had a sponsor, went back to college to finish up a degree, and was spending time with sober friends and family.
Was I busy? Yeah, I would say that I was pretty busy. I also got a job and started working full time on top of the rest of that stuff.
And it all worked out. I did not relapse. I remained sober and have been now for over 13 years continuous. And I continue to stay busy, though my schedule is a lot more flexible today than it ever was in the past.
So when people are struggling to get sober today and they ask me how they should go about doing it, I want to somehow tell them everything that I just outlined and say to them: “Here is what worked for me. I lived in rehab for 20 months straight and I basically lived, ate, and breathed recovery every single day. You should do something similar.”
I am not suggesting that everyone needs to go live in rehab for years or even months at a time. What I am suggesting though is that if you want to overcome a drug or alcohol addiction that you need to take massive action. Not just quit drinking, not just a month in rehab, but massive action.
Let’s say there are 3 key elements here. One, you need the right direction. Go to rehab, sober up, start taking positive action. Find the positive direction to move in.
Two, you need intensity. How many meetings per week? How long in rehab? How much effort do you make each day towards sobriety? The answer is always “massive action.” You need to push harder than you have ever pushed in your life. If you don’t do this you will fail. If you don’t put in a massive effort you will relapse. The intensity of your effort matters a great deal.
Three, you need persistence. You have to keep this up for several months until it become automatic and you have established new habits, new routines, and have reinvented yourself completely. So you need duration. You need to persist. You need to make these positive changes and then keep them up for a long time. After you do it long enough it will become second nature. At that point your only enemy is complacency.
The first element is pretty simple. Just go to rehab. Go to detox. Do a 28 day program. They will show you the ropes. They will get you started in the right direction. This is not rocket science. Stop drinking, make positive changes in your life. Simple but not easy.
The second element is intensity. This is difficult to grasp. It took me two failed attempts after rehab in order to realize that I was not trying hard enough. You have to try harder, commit more fully. Massive action.
The third element is persistence. This is the final answer for every major problem in life. Keep striving until you hit your goal. Don’t give up. The stuff we learned back in the third grade. Commit fully to sobriety and be in it for the long haul. It takes persistence.
If you put these elements into motion, are you going to be busy? I think so.
If you are not busy in early recovery then are you going to succeed? I kind of doubt it. It takes action in order to recover. It takes massive action. If you do it right then I think, yes, you are going to look like you are pretty busy.
Some suggestions for things to engage in during early sobriety
Go to treatment. Don’t fret too much over where. Get on the phone and start asking questions. Look for detox and residential treatment. Don’t worry so much about the details. The details don’t really matter when it comes to inpatient rehab. That probably sounds crazy and I am sure people out there would argue with it, but I really believe it to be true. Just get on the phone and go get checked into rehab somewhere. The only details that really matter are your commitment, your level of surrender, your willingness to change your life. Those are the details that matter.
Next, build on your experience in treatment. You are going to learn some stuff. You will get suggestions. They will tell you to do this, to do that, to go to aftercare, to follow up with counseling, to go to meetings, whatever. Again, the details are not as important as you think. What matters is the follow through. The commitment. The massive action. So when you leave rehab you need to have a plan in place and you need to follow it with maximum intensity. Go to every follow up appointment, go get a sponsor, do the 90 in 90, whatever they suggest. Follow the plan you are given. Sweat the details (even though I keep telling you that they don’t matter!). In all truth, they could have given you a different aftercare plan, a different set of suggestions, and it would still keep you sober if you actually follow them and put the plan into action. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what the suggestions are, it matters that you follow them with an extreme level of dedication and commitment. This is how you recover. You are building your discipline muscle. Maybe AA meetings don’t really help you so much, but it doesn’t matter. Go to 90 of them in 90 days and sit there and listen. Maybe it is all garbage to you, but you are still building discipline, being around positive people, you are not at the bar, etc. This is how recovery works. They tell you what to do and then you do it. And you keep doing it every day and you get stronger as a result.
The aftercare suggestions that you get at rehab are like a weight training program. They might tell you to go to outpatient therapy, or AA meetings, or whatever. The details don’t matter, what matters is that you follow through consistently and take massive action. When you attend these aftercare recommendations you are building your “recovery muscle” for future sobriety. You are getting stronger and stronger and building a foundation for long term sobriety.
So don’t sweat the details so much, don’t worry if you are doing the right things, just take the suggestions and put them into massive action and make a huge commitment to yourself. After a few months or a few years the right path will reveal itself. In the meantime it is important that you take massive action (even if, say, the daily AA meetings are not a perfect fit) because this will help to build discipline for long term sobriety.
What do you think, is it important to stay busy in early recovery? What things have you done in order to take positive action and stay busy? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!