I have to admit that I missed quite a few lessons in my early recovery. Luckily, I caught many of these important lessons later on, and I am grateful that I did so.
In fact, I don’t believe that I would be sober today if it weren’t for some of these “discoveries.”
Here are some of the things that I almost missed in the early days of my sobriety.
The first thing I missed in early recovery: Gratitude
When I first got clean and sober, I have to admit that I just didn’t get it. What in the heck was a “gratitude meeting?” What were all of these people grateful for, seriously? I just gave up alcohol and drugs, and I am supposed to somehow pretend like I am happy? How does this work?
At least I was being honest with myself at the time! I was far from grateful.
This slowly changed for me. Because I started to realize two critical things:
1) Looking back at my life in addiction, it was actually pretty miserable, nearly all of the time, and
2) Moving forward in sobriety, things were slowly and steadily getting better and better every day.
In fact, I believe that there is such a thing now as a “crossover point.” This is the point where you suddenly realize that you are happy now in your recovery than you ever were in your active addiction. And of course the amazing thing about this point is that you no longer need to do anything to achieve it–you don’t have to take drugs or alcohol in order to maintain this new found happiness, because it is based entirely on sobriety itself. You are no longer dependent on anything or anyone. You are truly free!
I can remember the day that I realized this for the first time. It was almost like a miracle to me. In fact, it was a miracle. Because I can remember back when I was still drinking every day and I was struggling to get sober, and I told someone at that time: “I won’t ever be free from the obsession of drugs and alcohol. I will always think about drinking and drugs, because I love them so much. I won’t ever be free of that. Ever. No matter what happens.”
And I really believed that at the time. Because of course my every thought back then was consumed with getting and using more drugs and most booze, all of the time. That is what addiction is all about, of course. Being self centered and selfish, I must have thought that I was different, that I was unique, that I was the first person to come along who ever truly fell in love with drinking or drugs. How foolish of me! And yet I think every alcoholic and addict falls for this trap. All of us think this way at some point.
So when I reached this point in my sobriety–I think I had about 6 months sober at the time–I was absolutely stunned. I was shocked to learn that here I was, at only about 6 months sober, and I had just gone through an entire day of my life, completely sober, and I never once thought about drinking or taking drugs. Not once! Never even thought about it.
At all. Not even a little bit.
That is a miracle! And to think that only a few months prior, I had told someone in all honesty that I would never, ever be free from the obsession to drink and take drugs. And yet here I was, six months into my recovery, and I had already achieved this miracle.
So that moment is something that I will never forget. I almost fell to my knees with emotion, to be honest. Because I was just so shocked that I could be….healed. For the first time, I felt truly grateful. Not grateful because I got an extra 40 percent off coupon in the mail, but truly, deeply, and genuinely grateful for my life and my sobriety.
That was real gratitude. Now I understood what people were talking about in AA meetings when they spoke of gratitude.
The second thing I missed in early recovery: The holistic approach
When I first got clean and sober I went to residential treatment at an inpatient facility. This was one of the best decisions I ever made, by the way.
While I was there I attended many different groups and lectures. One of the lectures was by a man who would later become my sponsor in NA, and this man gave a lecture about “balanced lifestyle.”
I am going to be honest here. I thought, at the time, that this was incredibly stupid.
Seriously! I thought it was really misguided, to try to tell a bunch of alcoholics and addicts who only had a week sober about how to live a balanced lifestyle.
My belief at that point was that I needed extreme focus. Everyone was telling us that the solution was spiritual, that the solution was in the steps, that the solution was a connection with a higher power. I thought that this message was the truth and that spiritual revelation was the ultimate solution for recovery. So in light of that conclusion, I thought the idea of a balanced lifestyle was just plain dumb.
Here is another way to frame my argument: If you spread yourself too thin in your recovery efforts and try to do too many things then you will be totally ineffective at everything. Instead, it makes more sense to focus entirely on spirituality, for example, so that you can have a better chance at actually recovering.
Or so I thought.
This was my attitude when I had one week sober. I thought that a balanced lifestyle and a holistic approach was a waste of time. Better to focus than to spread yourself thin, I thought.
And maybe I was partially right on this one. It may be a question of timing. Because honestly, I did focus quite a bit during those first few years of my recovery journey. I did not spread myself very thin. I focused hard. And it worked.
Today, looking back, I totally get it. The holistic approach is powerful, flexible, and probably necessary. And by “holistic approach” I mean that you need to be taking care of yourself in all of the following ways, each and every day, in order to sustain sobriety:
If you are neglecting one of those areas then you run the risk of relapse.
This is very true in long term recovery. In the short run, it doesn’t matter so much, seriously. Go to rehab, hit AA meetings every day, and just go nuts with sponsorship. That will work as well as anything else, probably better. But in the long run you have to branch out from that “newcomer strategy.” You can’t remain sober for decades and decades on the same thing that you did in your first year of recovery (I can’t anyway). You have to move on. You have to evolve. You have to learn, to grow, to challenge yourself a bit. And that means a holistic approach, which affords you so many different avenues of growth.
Years later after I got clean and sober, I quit smoking cigarettes. And I started distance running. Meditation. Emotional balance through writing every day. Working on relationships. Practicing gratitude. And so on. All of the pieces were there in long term sobriety, and I could finally think back to the lecture that I originally heard at one week sober about “balanced lifestyle,” and I could finally go “oh my gosh, I get it, I get it!” Because I finally got it. It really is all about balance, about holistic health. But you can’t dump that on the newcomer I don’t think, it is just too much, too overwhelming. It is too strategic and not tactical enough.
No, the newcomer has to take action, specific and focused actions, like “go to a meeting every day” or “call your sponsor every day.” These are tactics that can be necessary to make it through those tough cravings in early recovery. You can’t just say to the newcomer “use a holistic approach” and expect them to make sense of it.
And even if you explain the details to the newcomer, and tell them to take care of themselves in all of these different areas, that is still a pretty overwhelming order for someone who just quit drinking or using drugs. It’s too much to juggle, too much to handle all at once.
So in the long run, the holistic approach makes a lot of sense. To the newcomer who just sobered up, I think focus is more important. But eventually the idea of balance and holistic health is very important for sobriety.
The third thing I missed in early recovery: Exercise
This one kind of goes along with the idea of a holistic approach and balanced lifestyle, but it is important enough to me and my own sobriety journey that I feel it deserves special recognition.
When I had about a year sober my therapist in long term rehab pushed me to start lifting weights. I tried this for a while and I sort of got into it a bit, but it never really took off for me. I also tried to do a bit of jogging at this time and again, it sort of worked a bit, but it just never really took off. I couldn’t quite get into it like I wanted to. And I thought to myself “This exercise stuff doesn’t help at all in recovery. It makes no difference. I should focus instead on spiritual growth.”
So I did exactly that. I dumped the idea that exercise might be useful in my recovery, and I focused on spirituality instead. I forgot about exercise for a while. It never seemed to help me much anyway.
Fast forward to a few years into my sobriety. Maybe it was about my third year or so. And I wanted to quit smoking cigarettes. And in order to do that, I felt like I had to have some way to give myself a natural high so that I could replace that buzz that I got from cigarettes.
And I thought that jogging was the answer. So I started to jog with my father, who is an avid runner, and I slowly worked my way up to more and more distance.
At first, it was agony. It was no different than before. Exercise stunk. I did not like it. I hated it, actually. Because every step was agony, and it never got any easier. Or at least, it did not seem like it was ever going to get any easier.
And then suddenly, bam! I was in shape. I don’t know how or when exactly this happened, but suddenly it was joyful and easy to run six miles with my father. I no longer feared it. It was actually pleasurable, relaxing even in a way. In some ways, running six miles became meditative for me.
And just like that, I was a runner. I continued to jog for the next ten years, and I still run to this very day. I ran earlier today, in fact. This is over ten years since I started running. It has become part of my lifestyle, and a huge part of my recovery.
I think it is important for everyone to understand that I am not a born runner, I used to hate to run, and somehow I just pushed through long enough to the point where it became easy for me. This took commitment. I had to be willing to be miserable for a while in order to get to the part where running was easy and I was in great shape.
But just think, now I am a real runner. Now it is easy and fun. Now I go out every other day and run 4 to 6 miles like it is no big deal at all, and is never agonizing for me. I got through that part already. So for the last decade or so it has been a joy, a blessing, a fun part of my sobriety. I run now because it feels so good and it helps me to stay sober.
And to think, I almost missed this one completely. I almost never got into shape. And yet today it is such a blessing for me, and a huge part of how I stay healthy in recovery.
If you are ever on the fence about exercise and getting into shape, I would strongly urge you to stick it out, make it happen, make a huge commitment to yourself to see it through. Keep pushing yourself until exercise becomes easy. Once you get there, it is really easy to maintain it. Fun, even. And that is an amazing gift to give yourself in sobriety, the gift of health and fitness and energy and vitality.
The fourth thing I missed in early recovery: Fixing character defects (self pity)
When I first got clean and sober I was stuck in self pity mode.
I know that most alcoholics and drug addicts have a different problem: They normally resent others. They have anger stored inside, anger directed at other people.
Me, I was turning my anger on myself. I felt sorry for myself. I am an introvert by nature. My problem was self pity.
And it was destroying me. Or at least, it threatened to destroy me.
Because self pity was how I justified my drinking. This was how I felt like it was OK for me to take a drink. If the world had done me wrong, if I was the victim somehow, if there was anything bad going on in my life, then I would cling to that bit of drama and use it as an excuse to drink more.
That was how I justified my addiction, through feeling sorry for myself. It worked for me. Most people use resentments and anger. Me, I used self pity. Whatever works, right?
So when I got clean and sober, I noticed at some point that I was still doing this.
I was still walking around in rehab, feeling sorry for myself.
And I realized something. I said to myself:
“Hey wait a minute. The only good reason for this self pity is in order to justify my drinking.”
But that was no longer my plan. My plan, in fact, was to quit drinking forever, one day at a time of course.
And so I could no longer afford to feel sorry for myself.
And I realized now that the self pity was making me sad. What was the point of being sad if you could not drink over it? Why be sad? Why?
There was no good answer for this. If you are going to be sober, you may as well be happy, right? Why be angry or sad in sobriety? If you are going to be sober and be in control of your life and your emotions, you may as well choose happiness.
It turns out that this is possible, though it does take a bit of work. You can choose to be happy, but that means you have to do the hard work in early recovery that is eliminating your character defects.
You see, everyone has negative things in their life that threaten to steal their happiness away. For many people, it is resentments. For me, it was self pity.
And so I had to do the work. I had to identify the self pity, make a decision to eliminate it, and then do the work.
Would you like to know how I did that, in case you are suffering from self pity as well?
Here is what I did to eliminate my self pity:
1) Made a decision that I was going to eliminate my self pity. That was step one.
2) Step two was to increase my daily awareness of self pity. Because sometimes I would just notice that I was already feeling sorry for myself. I had to catch it the instant it started to happen. So I had to be vigilant. I had to pay attention to my own mind. If you are bad at doing this, daily meditation sessions can help a lot. I did that a bit, but I don’t think it is entirely necessary, though it does help a little.
3) Step three was to make an agreement with myself. I called it my “zero tolerance policy.” So every time I noticed self pity popping up in my life, I shut it down instantly. No argument. No hesitation. No indulging myself just to feel good (sad?). Self pity was off limits.
4) Step four was to make a plan to be able to eliminate the self pity from returning. This involved practicing gratitude every day. As in, prayers of gratitude. As in, writing down ten things I am grateful at every single meal, then tearing the paper up and throwing it out. Only to do it again. Practice makes perfect. Always be grateful. This is what really fixed my self pity in the long run, the counterattack was gratitude.
And how did I know to do all of that? I figured out a little bit of it myself, but I also asked for help. I highly recommend that you ask for help and get wisdom from others in recovery rather than trying to figure everything out for yourself. I am lucky that I have had some amazing teachers in my journey. Learn from the wisdom of others. Learn from the mistakes of others, rather than making your own.
It may be boring to follow advice and directions from others. But it’s also really smart, and generally very efficient.
The final thing I missed in early recovery: Online recovery
When I first got clean and sober I had no idea that recovering alcoholics and addicts had communities online at all.
Later on I discovered a discussion forum and started posting there. Today I am part of an online recovery forum that definitely has a positive impact on people’s lives, including my own.
If you need answers or are looking for a bit of wisdom, you might try registering and posting there yourself. The people there are quite nice, quite helpful, and they are eager to help others along in this journey. They have helped me tremendously, many of them without even knowing it! Check it out here.