What is the real key to recovering successfully from alcoholism?
I struggled with this question for many years, both before and after I became sober myself. Spiritual River is really the answer to this question.
I believe that there are a few universal concepts that apply to everyone in recovery.
There are many different programs of recovery other than just the traditional 12 step programs of AA and NA. If you look carefully at all of these programs you will see that there are several areas of overlap. Each program may be a bit different, but they also contain many similarities. It is the similarities that are important to look at because these are the fundamental concepts of recovery. These are what actually keep people clean and sober.
The universal principles of long term success sobriety
The first universal principle that I discovered was that of surrender. I learned this one the hard way, because I struggled myself with addiction for many years before I finally surrendered to the disease. I did not really understand how this was a universal principle though until years later I worked at a drug and alcohol detox center for 5 years. During that time I was able to see many people try to get clean and sober, and I was also able to see the results of that struggle for the most part. This revealed to me just how important surrender really is in recovery.
If you go to any given program of recovery (12 step based, religious based, therapy based, behavior based, etc.) it doesn’t really make any difference–you are still going to have to surrender to the disease if you want to overcome your addiction. Regardless of which program you choose or path that you want to follow (perhaps no program at all?) you are still going to have to figure out how to let go completely, to let go of the need to drink alcohol, to let go of the fear of living sober, to let it all slide. This is the crucial moment of surrender and no one can become sober in the long run without first experiencing this. Surrender is fundamental to recovery. It is not program specific.
The second major principle that I discovered that was fundamental in recovery was that of personal growth. Really I was looking at different examples of people who were successful in recovery and I discovered that many of them were what you might call “go-getters.” They were taking action. They were doing things. They were not just sitting back with their feet propped up, waiting for a good life in recovery to come to them. Instead they were creating that life that they wanted through the use of positive action. This was true both in and out of recovery programs. Likewise, there were plenty of failures (people who relapsed) who were in various programs of recovery, and the universal problem with these people was always a lack of action. You might trace it back to something even more fundamental (such as a lack of surrender), but on the outside it was always a lack of action. They were not doing enough for their recovery. They were not taking action every day. And even if they were, their heart was not in it or they were not really serious about it or they were holding back. And they could always look back after a relapse and say “no, I was not doing what I knew I was supposed to be doing. I knew in my heart that I was screwing up.”
It is so important to take positive action in recovery that eventually it becomes a lifestyle. Personal growth is based on self improvement. You have to move forward in recovery. In traditional recovery circles they have a saying: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.” In other words, there is no middle ground. You have to be moving. It is just a question of whether you are making positive progress, or if you are sliding back towards relapse. You don’t get to sit idle and do nothing, because if you do that then you are actually slipping back towards relapse by default. The only way to avoid this slippage is to keep pushing yourself forward, to improve yourself.
Personal growth comes in two flavors, because we live our lives on at least two different levels. I tend to break it into the internal and external world.
The internal world is what you will work on if you go to AA and work through the 12 steps. You can also do this sort of work without actually using a recovery program. Therapy or counseling can certainly help. What I am talking about here is getting past all of the mental garbage that may be stored inside of your brain. Obsession, shame, guilt, anger, fear, self pity–all of that stuff that runs your brain each day and threatens to drive you back to drinking.
What the founders of recovery programs realized is that if you stop drinking but then you do not address any of that stuff, you are going to end up relapsing. Not “fixing” any of that mental garbage will drive you back to drinking. This is a fundamental principle. You can use the 12 steps to address this internal garbage, or you can use other means to do it (such as counseling, therapy, or whatever). But you have to do the work. You have to sit down and identify what your mental games are that you play in your mind. You have to figure out how to eliminate those mental issues and those negative thought patterns. You must take action to eliminate them. If you don’t address the internal issues then eventually you will go back to drinking again.
These internal issues are one half of the personal growth that fuels your recovery. But depending on the program you are in, this may be the entire focus of personal growth.
The other half of personal growth is the external world. You can think of this as being your life situation.
For example, even if you do a lot of the internal work in order to clean up the garbage that runs loose in your mind, it will not do much good if you are still living in a toxic environment, hanging out with people who abuse drugs and alcohol, being in relationships with toxic people, and working in an environment in which everyone is drinking or using drugs.
This is why you must change both your internal and your external world in recovery. Each task is part of your effort at personal growth. Both are critical for your long term success in sobriety. If you don’t change your life situation in recovery then eventually the old patterns will creep back in (even in spite of being mentally and spiritually “right”) and this will cause you to relapse.
So you must live congruently. You must fix the internal stuff, but you must also address the outside world as well.
And this is always from a holistic perspective, meaning that you must:
* Eliminate toxic relationships.
* Grow spiritually.
* Take care of your body physically, pursuing good health.
* Strive for emotional balance.
And so on. You can’t just change one thing in the outside world and be done with it. It is a continuous process of growth and refinement.
Addiction attacked our whole world, our entire person. This is why recovery is a holistic endeavor. You must grow spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially. You must make an effort in all of those areas over time so that your addiction does not have a way to sneak back and get you to relapse.
Deconstructing what really works for people who maintain sobriety
When I first got clean and sober, everyone basically told me to go to AA meetings.
So I started out going to meetings. Every day. I went to 90 in 90, as they call it. Some days I went to more than one meeting. And I lived in a long term rehab that required me to do so.
I kept attending meetings for about the first year, perhaps the first 18 months. After that I stopped. I have not attended a meeting now for over ten years straight, and I am still sober to this day.
So what changed?
Basically, I got sick of the meetings, and I decided that I did not want to have to rely on them for my sobriety.
There is a subtle difference here but it is an important one.
Everyone told me to go to meetings when I was a struggling drunk. They were right. If you want my advice I will probably tell you the same: Go to rehab, go to meetings, dive into the program. Give it a chance.
But in the long run my advice is a bit different. Don’t depend on meetings. Don’t depend on recovery programs. Don’t become so dependent on daily meetings that if you miss a week or two of them that you suddenly relapse. That’s not real recovery, in my opinion. If it is, then there is another level of recovery out there that has far less dependency in it. Think about that for a moment if you are still dependent on meetings. Your recovery could be stronger if you were not depending on meetings every day.
So when I had a year sober I wanted to leave the meetings. But I had to figure out how to do that without relapsing. Everyone told me that if I left the meetings that I would relapse. So I had to prove them wrong. You know how stubborn us alcoholics can be, right?
So I started to “deconstruct” sobriety by watching the winners. The winners were my peers in recovery who seemed to have the sort of life that I wanted.
Surprisingly, even though many of them attended AA or NA meetings, most of them did not go every single day.
In the beginning they did. They all talked about how they used to practically live in 12 step meetings during their first year of recovery. But now that they had 20, 15, 10 years sober, most of them had scaled back on their meetings quite a bit. I met some people who never went at all any more, yet they still were active in recovery in other ways (sponsorship, online recovery, etc.).
That was the sort of recovery that I wanted in my own life. Staying sober without being tethered to the idea of the daily AA meeting.
So I simply “deconstructed” what these “winners” in recovery were doing. What were the similarities between all of the successful examples?
These became the fundamental principles that I describe here. The surrender, the personal growth, the internal and external changes that are necessary to stay sober.
When you make consistent changes in your life, and keep pushing yourself to grow on a regular basis, it turns into a habit.
Your daily habits become your daily practice.
This is a big part of what builds your new life for you in recovery.
You are what you do every day. You become what your habits lead you to.
This is as true in recovery as it was for us in addiction.
Therefore, everyone in recovery should be mindful of what their daily practice is.
Finding a daily practice that works for you
Remember when I mentioned that recovery is holistic? That your effort towards personal growth should be more than just spiritual, more than just emotional? It should be social, physical, and mental as well. There are all of these different areas in your life in which you can grow. In order to move forward in recovery, you need to consider all of them. You must grow holistically.
Why is this necessary? If you do not pursue holistic growth in recovery, then it means that you are leaving one area of your life completely stagnant. For example, maybe you are putting all of your effort and focus into spirituality, but you completely neglect your physical health. I have watched this exact thing happen many times in recovery among my peers. You may notice that some people in recovery will continue to smoke cigarettes. Or eat poorly. Or never exercise. Or maybe they do all of those things, even while pursuing spiritual growth.
What is the result of this? Their addiction tries desperately to find a way to get them to relapse. Because they are strong spiritually, it will look for other avenues to attack. So they might get sick. They might fall ill. They might keep smoking and eventually develop cancer. I have watched all of these things happen among recovering alcoholics, and I have watched the consequences of it all turn into relapse. One friend of mine became so sick for so long that it drove him to drink. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t be social, and he couldn’t go to AA meetings very often (which he may have been depending on too heavily anyway for his sobriety). He had several years sober leading up to this but it caused him to relapse.
The point is that a more holistic approach could have helped him. It could have prevented the illness, it could have spread out his personal growth in recovery, and it could have saved him from relapse.
Your daily practice is what you do every single day in order to take care of yourself. Not just spiritually (which is the angle taken in most recovery programs), but also mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially. If you are not addressing all of these areas of potential growth in your recovery then you are leaving the door open to potential relapse.
Your daily habits in recovery will shape you into the person you will become in the future. 5 years ago you were engaged in the daily habits that got you to where you are today. We are all a product of our past actions.
Therefore if you want to improve your life and build a strong recovery, you must take positive action each and every day that leads to that end. And that is only done by taking care of yourself in a holistic manner, so that your disease can not find a foothold for relapse. If you leave yourself vulnerable then relapse will find a way to sneak back into your life. The way to prevent this is through holistic growth.
Taking suggestions in early recovery and keeping the ideas that really help you
You can easily discover all of the ideas that I am bouncing around in this article by simply going to AA meetings and taking suggestions.
The principles that I am suggesting are universal. They are fundamental. So if you just go to any recovery program and put forth a serious effort you will discover these things on your own. There are no secrets here, just similarities that I have noticed among the people who stay clean and sober for the long run (the “winners” in recovery programs).
In order to discover this path for yourself, you can simply go any recovery program and start taking suggestions. This is really how my recovery started out as well. I simply listened to other people in recovery who told me what to do and how to live. I ignored my own ideas and I took their advice instead. I did this for at least a year before I allowed myself to start thinking for myself again.
I think this is a really important concept that many “intellectual” alcoholics overlook. You have to kill your ego for that first year. If you don’t then you will just sabotage your own recovery with your own lousy ideas. It is not that your ideas are lousy really, it is just that your brain wants to drink so badly during that first year of recovery. So it is going to try to trip you up at every turn. You have to deny it that opportunity by telling yourself that you will only take advice from other people, and never from yourself. Put your ego in a cage for the first year. Shut it out entirely. Only listen to others. You will get stronger and stronger in your recovery if you do this.
After a year or so of living this way you will become strong enough to start testing out your own ideas again. And you will have a much better idea of what will actually keep you clean and sober, and what will lead to relapse. Pay attention during your first year of sobriety and you will (unfortunately) watch most of your peers relapse. That is true if you go to rehab and get sober with a bunch of other people (typical). Most of them will relapse over time and if you pay attention to why and how this happens then you can learn a great deal about yourself. Kill your ego and take advice from others.
As you move into long term recovery, you can start paring down the advice you take more and more. After a full year you will already know a great deal about what really helps you and works for you, and what does not. Therefore you can start relying on your own ideas more and more. You can start to explore holistic health more and more. You can explore your own path in personal growth more and more.
How to get honest with yourself so that you give recovery strategies a fair chance
In order to give recovery strategies a fair chance, you must get yourself out of your own way. The only way to do this is to make an agreement with yourself first.
Tell yourself for the first year that you will only take advice from other people, rather than trusting your own ideas. This way you can properly evaluate ideas for your recovery that you may have otherwise overlooked.