One of the most important things that you need to do in your alcoholism recovery journey is to let go of all the negative things in your life.
This is counter-intuitive, actually. So a lot of people believe that if they just think positive thoughts and try to focus on the positive all the time that things will work out perfectly.
There is work to be done. Wreckage to be cleaned up.
There is stuff to fix. Every alcoholic and drug addict has lived through some serious chaos and misery. A lot of it was probably self inflicted damage, and some of it may have been from other people in their lives. But either way, there is bound to be plenty of shame, guilt, anger, fear, regret, remorse, self pity, and so on–with nearly everyone who tries to get clean and sober.
And if you don’t do anything about that mountain of negativity then it can threaten your sobriety. It can pop its ugly head up and threaten to create a relapse.
And obviously we don’t want that.
Therefore you have to learn how to identify all of these negative things in your life and somehow eliminate them.
How to turn your life from total chaos into something positive
The first step is always going to be surrender in some form or another.
This is true regardless of whether or not you go to rehab. This is true whether or not you attend AA meetings or work the 12 step program.
It doesn’t matter. Surrender is fundamental to recovery. You can’t really get sober without surrender.
If you try to do so then you are likely just fooling yourself. Because anything short of “true surrender” is just you trying to manipulate yourself into believing that you somehow have regained control.
When you fully surrender, you concede to your innermost self that you will never have control again. Ever. You are forever defeated by alcohol and drugs. That is true surrender. You accept the fact that you can never again successfully drink or take addictive substances. If you do then you lose control and your life devolves into total chaos and misery. To fully accept that is to finally work through your denial. That is real surrender.
And so this is the beginning of the recovery healing process. You cannot change your life unless you reach this critical point of surrender and accept the fact that total abstinence is the path to healing.
This is a crushing admission for many alcoholics. Everyone is afraid to swear off alcohol forever. But this is the essence of true surrender. You accept the fact that you cannot drink like normal humans. And so you must change.
Self assessment in early recovery and figuring out what your biggest problems are
After you surrender and ask for help it is likely that you will sober up, go through some sort of detox process, and then start living your new life of sobriety.
But how does this work? Is it automatically easy to remain sober once you stop drinking?
Of course not! If it were then the treatment industry would be solved in a snap. But it’s tough, because there is much work to be done.
There are a million ways to relapse and be triggered to drink again. There is a long uphill battle for any alcoholic who wants to achieve long term sobriety.
The work, in this case, is at least two fold:
1) Detox and early recovery. Eliminating the drugs and alcohol and finding a stable new life without chemicals.
2) Long term sobriety. Learning to live in your own skin without having to reach for the bottle. Problem solving without drinking. Finding purpose, meaning, and happiness without chemicals.
The second challenge is a bit more complicated than the first one.
In fact, any alcoholic can get thrown in jail for a week and be forced to sober up. This is no great trick. It is pretty simple actually. Anyone can make it through detox. Just lock them up if necessary. It is possible for even the hardest alcoholic to achieve short term sobriety.
But long term sobriety, on your own terms? That is a little bit trickier. Because now we are talking about your own free will. Now it is a battle in your mind, between the part of you who wants the benefits of sobriety and the part of you who wants to get rip-roaring drunk all the time.
It is easy to forget the negative consequences of drinking after you have been sober for a few weeks.
So what you need to do in early recovery is to start “doing the work” as I would call it.
This involves self assessment. Essentially what I think you need to do is to take a long hard look at your life and then start removing your excuses to drink or use drugs.
This takes work. One way to do this work is to get a sponsor in AA and go through the 12 steps with that person. If you do this properly then it will probably take more than a single afternoon and it will require a great deal of self honesty. You have to dig down and get into the nitty gritty details. You have to get uncomfortable and look at parts of yourself and your life that you would probably rather not consider.
There are a million forms of fear in your life and all of them have the potential to make you relapse. You need to identify and deal with these forms of fear so that you are not constantly under the threat and anxiety of possibly relapsing.
When I was in early recovery I realized that I had the bad habit of feeling sorry for myself all of the time. I was constantly engaging in self pity. Why was this happening? Why was I doing this?
I realized that I did it as a justification for drinking. If I felt like I was a victim then it made it easier to justify my outrageous behavior in terms of getting drunk every day. It was a way to justify my addiction. Self pity was the way that I did this.
But now that I was in recovery the self pity habit was no longer serving me. I had no intention of drinking. So the self pity was just making me unhappy. I had no use for it any more.
But how was I going to get rid of it? I had adopted this habit long ago and I used it constantly. It was a part of my personality. It had become part of who I was.
I talked to some people in recovery and figured out that I had to increase my awareness. In other words, I had to be able to recognize instantly when I was slipping into “self pity mode.” I had to catch my brain when it started to have those thoughts.
This required vigilance. I had to make a special effort in order to “watch my thoughts.” Meditating on a regular basis helped me learn how to do this. When you meditate, you basically sit still while you are awake and then you watch your thoughts. Everyone thinks that you are supposed to quiet your mind but your brain just keeps doing what it wants, and thoughts keep popping up here and there. So you learn to watch them. You don’t judge them. You just observe those thoughts. You become the “watcher” of your own thoughts.
And so if you practice this for ten minutes each day then you will eventually realize that you can monitor your thoughts when you are not meditating as well. You don’t have to be a victim to your own brain. You can see a thought about self pity pop into your mind, then you can say “huh, that is interesting, but I am not going to keep pursuing those thoughts today.” And then you redirect yourself.
So my next problem was:
“OK, I can notice the thoughts about self pity now that I have increased my awareness. I learned to watch my own thoughts. But now, what do I do instead? How do I redirect my brain when I notice that I am suddenly feeling sorry for myself?”
The next piece of this puzzle was solved with the idea of gratitude.
It turns out that you cannot be both grateful while also feeling sorry for yourself. The two feelings are not compatible. They never exist together. They are polar opposites.
So the key is to practice gratitude.
Every day. If your problem is self pity (or really, any other form of selfish thinking), then your solution should be to practice gratitude daily.
So part of my daily practice became a focus on gratitude.
I started to frame my prayers in terms of gratitude (thank you for….).
I started to write out gratitude lists every day. I would brainstorm more and more reasons to be grateful.
And this was what I redirected my brain to when I noticed the self pity. The solution was to be grateful instead. It was the antidote to the self pity (poison).
So that is just one example of how to let go of something negative.
First I had to get sober.
Second I had to figure out what the negativity was in my life. In my case it was self pity. Your case may be different. Maybe it will be guilt, or shame, or resentment, or fear. You may need someone else to help you identify what your problem is.
Third I had to take action. I had to decide to eliminate the problem and take action against it.
Keep in mind that raising your awareness will almost always be a part of this process.
I have 3 quick tips for you to raise your awareness:
1) Write in a journal every day.
2) Exercise every day (consult your doctor first of course).
3) Meditate every day. No rules, just sit quietly with eyes closed for 5 minutes and watch your thoughts. Don’t judge them. Just watch them come and go. You will never achieve a perfectly empty mind over 5 minutes. But watching your thoughts has value.
Eliminating unhappiness versus chasing happiness
You may be wondering:
What is the point of all of this hard work? Why not just cut to the chase, and go right after happiness directly?
Why not just get sober, figure out what you want in life, and focus on the positive?
Won’t that make me happier?
No it won’t.
I can promise you that you will not find happiness that way. You can’t just quit drinking, seek out happiness, and find it directly.
Happiness is not a goal that you can achieve directly. Instead, it is a by product of healthy living and a return to what I call “the clean slate.”
The clean slate is what you want to create in your life in early recovery.
The clean slate would be your mind without all of the negative garbage floating around up there.
You see, our natural state is to be happy. We are normally content.
We have learned to be unhappy.
So if you want to chase happiness directly you will never really find it. The goal post will just keep moving after you fool yourself into reaching your current goal.
As in: “If I just get this perfect job for me, I will finally be happy!” Then you get the job in question, and a month later you are unhappy again.
What happened? The goal post moved!
This is the problem with chasing happiness as a goal. The finish line will always be moving further ahead. You will never “arrive.”
The key, instead, is to choose happiness today, as a part of the process itself.
You can facilitate this by switching your focus to the negative stuff. That sounds pretty weird, right? As I said, it is counter-intuitive. Most people get this backward.
So in early recovery you have lots of stuff going on upstairs. Perhaps everyone has some form of fear in their life. Some of us have shame, guilt, self pity, resentments, anger, fears, and so on.
When you work to achieve the blank slate, you are working to eliminate those negative things.
And then when you do this work you open up the door for happiness to occur naturally in your life.
Because we are never really lacking happiness. We are always happy at the core, it is our natural state.
The problem is we are clouded with unhappiness. We have fear, guilt, shame, anger, and so on.
We have unlearned how to be happy.
So you don’t have to reach any outrageous goals in order to achieve real happiness in sobriety.
You just have to eliminate some of the negative stuff. Create the blank slate.
If you want to strive for something, don’t strive for happiness. Instead, strive for peace. Strive for contentment. Strive for gratitude. If you have those things then happiness will be a result of that state of being.
How to prioritize
So how do you prioritize this journey?
Do it in terms of impact.
So look at your life.
Make an honest assessment.
And then ask yourself:
“What is the one thing that I could change in my life that would bring me the greatest amount of relief right now?”
Or you might frame the question in terms of anxiety. What change would reduce your anxiety the most right now?
Or put it in terms of impact. What change could I make that would result in the greatest positive impact?
So the answer to this question will change over time in your recovery journey.
At one point, before you got sober, the answer to those questions was always “You should quit drinking.”
That was the single biggest change that you could make in order to reduce anxiety, in order to give the most relief, in order to have the greatest positive impact.
But as you stay sober the answer to that question will evolve.
This is why in the 12 step program of AA they have you do a full inventory on yourself. You list out all of your fears, all of your resentments, all of that negative stuff that is swirling around in your mind. A lot of that stuff has the potential to make you relapse. So you have to eliminate it.
So that is how you prioritize. Ask yourself what is the single biggest source of negativity in your life right now, and then prioritize that and make a plan to eliminate it.
If you don’t know how to do that then the solution is obvious:
Ask for help.
This is what sponsorship is all about. This is what talking to your peers in recovery is all about. You can go to an AA meeting and ask for help. You can get advice from people that you trust. You can seek advice and feedback from others who have been clean and sober for a long time. Or you could seek advice from a counselor or therapist. And so on.
I would urge anyone in early sobriety to ask for help. Talk to lots of people. Get lots of feedback. Above all, be cautious and leery of your own ideas. Instead, listen to others. Use their ideas instead. They will not steer you towards relapse. But you might sabotage yourself if you listen to your own ideas.
This is the essence of recovery from anything. It is a return to the blank slate. First you get sober, then you assess the negativity in your life. Then you work to eliminate that negative stuff. You return to the blank slate and you find peace, contentment, and hopefully gratitude.
A lifelong journey of learning more and more about yourself
This is a process of learning more and more about yourself.
In this way, it all comes back to honesty.
It is amazing to think that we had to get honest with ourselves in order to finally surrender and quit drinking. But then we have to go deeper than that. It is always a reach for more self honesty. Even after decades of sobriety, we can still benefit by getting honest with ourselves and going deeper. Self assessment never really ends. There is always more refinement to be done. Always another way to push ourselves to grow in recovery.
Complacency is the final obstacle. Those who get complacent are in danger of relapse. The solution is to never stop growing, to never stop learning about ourselves.
And we never reach a point where feedback is unnecessary. We can always benefit from the insight of other people. Our own ideas can only carry us so far, even if we have decades of sobriety under our belt. There is always wisdom to be gained by listening to others. There is always a new lesson to learn if we are willing to seek it out, to humble ourselves, to find the silver lining.
Gratitude teaches us how to find the hidden lessons. Because even if negativity still occurs, we can learn from it if we have the right attitude about it. And the right attitude is to be grateful for the lesson that is hidden in front of us.
How are you letting go of negativity today in your recovery journey? Have you found a way to be grateful each day? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!