My best tips to help people stop drinking have evolved a great deal over the years. Of course when I first started out in sobriety, I had no “tips” at all to give to anyone, as I had no idea about what would actually help me to remain sober.
Therefore I had to test new ideas. I sought feedback and suggestions from other people in recovery. Later on I started to seek feedback and ideas outside of traditional recovery circles as well. Some things worked great for me while other suggestions did not pan out. As they say: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” I have done this in my own journey, and I have also watched other people as carefully as I could in order to see what it really working for others. As you may have noticed already yourself, there is a big difference (sometimes) between what people say about their recovery versus what their actual actions in life are. It is one thing to “talk a good game” in recovery when you are at AA meetings, but it is another thing entirely to actually follow through and take real action in your life. Most of the growth that we make in recovery comes from facing our fears, and that is not easy to do. For anyone. Ever.
Therefore, recovery is a tough road to follow. Not impossible, but certainly tough. And there are a number of different paths that you might follow in order to achieve meaningful sobriety. One of the things that I have noticed over the years is that there are certain fundamental principles that seem to be a common thread among all of the successful people that I meet in recovery.
In other words, I wanted to know what the common denominator was among people who were successful at overcome an addiction (or alcoholism). What were the key points that allowed some people to be successful, while others struggled with relapse continuously? What were the key concepts that kept people clean and sober? I wanted to find out what these were so that I could stop wasting time in my own journey.
And obviously I felt like I was wasting some time. In some cases I would take suggestions from others in recovery and I would feel like I was not really doing much to help my sobriety. For example, suggestions like:
* Go to a 12 step meeting every day and don’t drink or use drugs in between meetings.
* Get a sponsor and call them every day for the first 30 days.
* Work through the steps with someone.
* Go to rehab.
* Engage in meditation or prayer every day.
* Ask others in recovery for advice and then follow their suggestions.
And so on. I was taking lots of suggestions in my early recovery and I was taking a lot of action. Some of it helped and some of it didn’t. Ultimately I wanted to know which concepts really helped most people and which stuff seemed to be frivolous (or extraneous if that word fits better?).
Some of the concepts that I discovered that seem to be universal (or fundamental) to success in recovery are disruption, positive habits, personal growth, feedback from others, and self sufficiency. Not everyone who is successful in recovery will follow all of these concepts all of the time, but I think that I have found enough overlap among the success stories that all of these concepts are important.
Disruption in early recovery
What is disruption?
Taking the alcoholic and putting them in rehab for 28 days is disruption. You are disrupting their pattern of drinking so that they can get some breathing room in order to try to recover. Without the disruption (and the safe environment) the person may never even have a chance to try to become sober.
Addiction is a pattern. In order to break free from that pattern a lot of things have to happen. One is the idea of surrender. That is part of disruption. Most alcoholics and drug addicts are afraid to surrender. Something holds them back from doing so. The thing that holds them back is fear. Fear is what keeps people stuck in addiction. If the alcoholic tries to convince you that it is something else that is keeping them stuck, you can just sort of play along and nod your head. But deep down, realize that it is always fear that keeps people trapped.
There are different levels of disruption. For example, you can go check into a rehab for as little as 3 days in order to go through a medical detox. Then you can leave the rehab and be off on your own and hopefully stay sober for the rest of your life. Is 3 days of detox enough for anyone? It never was for me, and I have my doubts. In the end, I had to find a much higher level of disruption in order to break free from my own addiction. In fact, instead of the usual 28 day program, I had to live in rehab for almost 2 full years! That is a lot of disruption. But it worked when other efforts of mine had failed. I had to be willing to “go the distance.” For me, that meant living in long term rehab.
Does that mean that everyone should seek out maximum disruption? Not necessarily. Some people can get (and stay) sober with much less interruption in their lives. But I will say this much: The more you are resisting the idea of disruption, the more you probably need it. What does that mean?
It means that if you are completely against going to rehab for 28 days, then chances are good that you probably need to face that fear head on and just do it. In fact you may need even more than 28 days.
Me, I was completely against the idea of going to rehab. I went once and stayed for maybe ten days. Relapsed immediately. They told me that I needed more rehab. I went back later and stayed for 28 days and they were trying to convince me to live in long term rehab for 6 months. I would not hear of it. I was completely put off by the idea. In my twisted mind I equated long term rehab with prison. Why would I want to subject myself to that? But I could not see that my life was in shambles at the time and that long term rehab would have actually helped me a great deal. This is how denial works.
Later on, I finally got miserable enough in my alcoholism that I became willing to attend long term treatment. In fact, I became willing to do whatever it took to escape the misery of addiction. I just wanted out. I wanted something to change. And I was so sick and tired that I was willing to try anything to achieve that. Even living in rehab for several months.
General rule: If you have tried one form of disruption in the past and it failed for you, consider trying a more intense form of disruption in the future. In other words, if going to detox for 3 days led you to relapse, you might consider going to 28 day inpatient. If going to an AA meeting led you to relapse, you may consider going to meetings every day (or rehab, or long term treatment, etc.). If at first you fail, try a more intense form of disruption.
Finding the positive habits to fuel your daily practice
What is the daily practice?
It is what you do every single day in your recovery in order to stay healthy.
In traditional recovery they tend to focus on spirituality. This is fine, there is nothing wrong with spirituality. It is an important leg of recovery. But it is not the only leg.
Every alcoholic and drug addict who is fighting to stay clean and sober is fighting a battle against relapse. That battle is very tricky to define. At times, relapse can sneak in from the most unexpected places.
For example, a person can relapse emotionally, spiritually, or mentally before they ever actually pick up a drink or a drug and put it into their body.
Therefore this “first relapse” must be prevented.
And the only way to prevent that “first relapse” is to protect yourself from a holistic standpoint. Because that first relapse can come from nearly any direction. You might get really sick and this can wear you down and cause you to take a drug or a drink against your will. You may become isolated emotionally and socially and this could lead you to relapse. You may become so angry over something in one of your relationships that it causes you to relapse. Or you may suffer an injury and this could lead to addictive medications that lead you back to the bottle. And so on. There are a million and one ways for relapse to sneak into your life.
This is why you need the daily practice. You need to be taking action every single day in order to protect yourself from these various threats. But how do you do it?
You do it by taking care of yourself.
Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Taking care of yourself holistically.
Therefore it is all about holistic health. If you take action every single day in order to make yourself healthier, then you will naturally help to prevent yourself from these relapse threats. Your recovery will get stronger and stronger the more you take care of yourself. Relapse prevention stems entirely from personal growth.
You can build an entire life in recovery out of the pursuit of personal growth. This happens both internally and externally.
Personal growth both inside and out
Personal growth in recovery can be divided into two categories: Internal and external growth.
You don’t want to ignore one of these for too long at the expense of the other. Doing so will all but insure that you will become vulnerable to relapse.
First, let’s define internal versus external personal growth:
Internal growth = Working self pity, shame, resentment, anger, guilt, obsession, and so on. Things that dominate your mind and take over your mental cycles each day. Things that distract you from happiness. Eliminating these things takes work. Doing that work results in personal growth. This is internal work, because it changes you from the inside out. Often, it takes another person in recovery to help guide you through this sort of work. If you happen to be in AA or NA then this work will consist of the 12 steps and most likely be done with a sponsor.
External growth = Changing the people, places, and things in your life that can lead you to relapse. Your external world can have a big impact on the internal stuff. I think we all know and realize that. Therefore you have to realize that you cannot just focus on internal changes alone and expect for your life to straighten out entirely (without also making some external changes as well). One of the sayings is: “If you keep going to the barber shop, eventually you are gonna get a hair cut.” This refers to the fact that you may need to make an external change in your world in order to avoid relapse….such as avoiding a toxic relationship, or even an old hang out where you used to drink or use drugs. You need to make external changes as well as internal changes.
In early recovery it is easy to get distracted and just focus on one type of personal growth. Most people who dive into the 12 step program focus almost exclusively on inward changes as guided by the 12 steps. I think this is a mistake however and therefore I would urge you to also consider the external changes that you may need to be making as well.
For example, one of the biggest external changes that I have made in my life was to start exercising every day. This has had a profound effect on my health in recovery, and not just because it is physically healthy to exercise (although that is obviously a factor). This is a holistic change that has many positive effects on several different levels. For example, I am exercising with positive people. Second, when I am exercising I am burning off anxiety and nervous energy. Third, when I am exercising I am not doing other things that might be risky for my recovery (like hanging out in a bar, for example). Forth, exercising helped me to build discipline and this allowed to me to go after other goals as well.
These are really just a few examples and in reality there are many more benefits to that one change than what I could list here in this article. Needless to say, when a single change has many second order positive benefits like that, you can be pretty sure that it will have a very positive affect on your overall health in recovery. Another good example of this might be better nutrition. If you start eating a healthier diet it can have a lot of positive benefits that you might not even be able to predict or measure accurately (such as improved mental clarity, better sleeping habits, etc.).
All of this sort of alludes to the idea of holistic health as the cornerstone of personal growth in recovery. Most people believe that the answer to overcoming an addiction is spiritual growth alone. This is a simplification and an error in my opinion. Instead the real solution is holistic—of which spirituality is but one part. Yes, the spiritual path is important. But if you are missing out on things like holistic health then you are leaving a whole lot of personal growth on the table. In fact it may even lead you to relapse.
The way to protect yourself from relapse in the long run is to make an effort each and every day to check off those holistic categories: Are you taking care of yourself physically? Mentally? Spiritually? Emotionally? Socially? What are you lacking in lately? What have you been neglecting lately? Whatever it is, that is where you need to refocus your efforts. This will bring you recovery back into balance and make you stronger.
Seeking help and feedback from others to keep you moving forward
If you get stuck in recovery then there is a simple shortcut that no one really likes to take, but everyone should consider doing it. That is asking for feedback and advice from others.
If you are not really making much growth lately then you are either:
1) Not doing what you are supposed to do.
2) Don’t know what you should be doing.
Those are the only two options.
At some point, everyone in recovery runs into the second problem, of not really knowing what is next. What should they focus on next?
The answer is almost always the same: Find your biggest pitfall, your biggest negative, your biggest setback, and tackle it. Eliminate it.
Maybe you are prone to resentment. Or maybe you are prone to self pity. Or maybe you get mixed up in bad relationships. Whatever. We all have bad stuff in our life that could be eliminated, thus making us healthier.
If you don’t know what that is, then you need to find out. You need to ask for help. Simple as that.
Find someone that you trust in recovery, preferably someone who knows you well, and then ask them to give you advice. What exactly should you be working on in recovery? Ask them to tell you!
This may seem obvious but very few people actually do it. And even fewer people actually follow through with it and then take action based on the advice. It’s tough. But this is a huge shortcut to growth. If you ask for advice from others, then follow it, you will be amazed at the results. Do it over and over again for a year or two and you will be truly amazed…..Amazed that other people’s advice could lead to such a better life for you.
Learning to depend on personal growth rather than other people or programs
In the end you will need to depend on yourself rather than others. This comes down to the idea that at some point you will likely find yourself face to face with your drug of choice, and none of the social support will be there will you to help you resist that first drink or drug. It is only a matter of time.
This is not bad news necessarily. It does not insure that you will relapse. You can still avoid relapse. You must depend on yourself and on personal growth in order to do so. You must have a daily practice whereby you are pushing yourself to make positive changes every day. You must be taking care of yourself on all of the different levels: Physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and socially. If you let one of those slide for too long then you open the door to potential relapse.