If you just got clean and sober then it is perfectly understandable if you do not yet know what it is going to take in order to remain clean and sober.
In fact, this was really the one thing that I struggled with in early recovery. I wanted to sort of “lock down” my path to success, and it was very difficult in order to do so.
For example, if you asked someone in AA what you had to do in order to remain sober, they would give you answers of course, but their answers were not very specific. For example, they would say things like:
* Keep coming back.
* Work the steps.
* Get a sponsor and call them.
* Read the big book of AA.
* Develop your faith in a higher power.
And so on.
These are “answers,” I will give you that much. But these are not exactly things that you can cross off a checklist.
What I learned in the long run was that such people were essentially correct in their suggestions. They were giving the best advice that they could at the time by telling me to get involved in AA and to work the program as best I could.
You see, the problem with overcoming an addiction is that it is a big, complicated mess.
No one in traditional recovery wants to admit this. People do NOT want to admit that addiction and recovery are both complicated things.
This has to do with fear.
No one wants to admit that the recovery process is actually complex. They cling to the idea that it is simple. “Recovery is a simple program for simple people” they will say. They say the same thing about the program of AA. They cling to the idea that recovery is a simple (if not difficult) process.
People are doing this out of fear. They don’t want to face the idea that recovery is complicated and therefore they must make a greater effort. They are forced to take on more responsibility. No one wants this extra responsibility. They would prefer for recovery to be simple so that they do not have to think too much.
Here is the real truth:
Addiction is complicated, messy, and it destroys various parts of your life. This last bit is important. Addiction is not just a physical disease (as the medical industry is hoping). And addiction is not just a spiritual disease (as AA and NA would prefer to categorize it as). Instead, addiction is holistic. It attacks the “whole” person. It affects you physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
This is very important information, and it is often overlooked. My main criticism of traditional recovery is that it overlooks this basic fact, that recovery should not be one dimensional but instead it should be holistic.
Relapse destroys your recovery. If you physically relapse and take a drink then it ruins everything and the alcoholic is back to square one (or worse). From an objective standpoint, addiction is a physical disease. If you don’t pour alcohol into your body then you at least have a chance at recovery.
Second of all, addiction is a spiritual disease. This is what AA is based on but this, too, is an oversimplification. If the only part of the person that addiction attacked was the spiritual aspect then I believe that AA success rates would be much higher. But I think using a “spiritual solution” falls far short in treating an addiction that is attacking every part of your “whole” being.
Just look at the way alcoholism can isolate people and destroy relationships. Just look at the way alcoholism forces you to maintain toxic relationships in your life. So the disease is attacking you from a social perspective as well.
Now consider the way that alcoholism limits your mental faculties. You stop learning when you drink every day. You stop growing as a person. You stop generating new ideas for how to improve your life and your life situation. All of that “positive thinking” is destroyed by alcoholism.
Also consider your emotions. When you drink every day you are basically using alcohol in order to medicate any negative emotion that you have in your life. Therefore you forget how to deal with “real life,” meaning that you can no loner handle any sort of stress, anger, fear, or frustration without wanting to resort to drinking poison. Alcoholism cripples you emotionally.
These themes are really just the beginning. They are the obvious ways in which alcoholism can destroy a person from the inside out. But in reality there are other themes as well. For example, alcoholism can lead to greater stress, or it can destroy people financially, and so on. There are so many different parts of your being that can be affected by an addiction.
This is why the solution must be holistic.
If you get into recovery and you find a program that has a spiritual solution then this might work out for you. But if it works then what you are really going to be doing is getting this “spiritual solution” in a program, but you are also going to be doing some footwork on your own in order to address these other aspects of your life. If you are to remain sober then you have to learn how to take care of yourself in more ways than just spiritually. If you neglect your healthy mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially then relapse is bound to find a way. Your addiction is clever and it wants you dead. The only way to prevent that is to take a holistic approach to recovery.
How can you set yourself up for success in long term sobriety?
Early recovery is pretty simple. It is in the transition to long term sobriety that things can get more complicated. Again, the typical person in recovery will resist this idea, they will try to claim that recovery is always simple, but I don’t believe that this is true. It is necessarily complicated because your addiction can attack from so many different angles.
In early recovery you disrupt your pattern of addiction. You stop putting alcohol and drugs into your body. You arrest the disease. You might go to AA meetings every day, you might go to an inpatient rehab center, or you might do both of these things. Or you might find some other way to disrupt the disease. But you basically stop drinking and get yourself stable in sobriety. This is early recovery. It is your baseline and your foundation of success.
The problem after this point is: How to stay stopped? Any alcoholic can land in jail and sober up for a week or two. The question is, can they stay stopped when they have their freedom back? Unless they do some serious work on themselves then the answer for a real alcoholic is going to be “no.” Therefore, the solution is that they must do some serious work on themselves!
This work starts with the decision to stay sober. This concept is most easily defined as being that of “surrender.” The alcoholic must admit to themselves in full honesty that they can no longer drink successfully. They must admit to themselves that drinking is no good for them. They have to want to change. Without this piece in place, no recovery is possible. They will simply relapse.
If the alcoholic truly wants to change and they have surrendered fully, then they are ready to go ask for help.
In early recovery they should not be picky in the least. The alcoholic should take any help that is offered to them. This means they should go to AA meetings, go to a religious community that is offering to help (even if they are not particularly religious), or whatever the case may be. Think about this:
If an alcoholic is belligerently rejecting help based on moral grounds or conflict with religion, then that person is nowhere near the point of surrender. Many people will argue with this concept and take issue with me. They will become angry with me to suggest this. Let’s say the alcoholic is offered help in a religious establishment, and because they are not religious, they refuse to attend treatment. The person claims that it is outrageous for me to expect them to brush their beliefs to the side in order to get the help that they need. This has actually happened before and people have argued with me and become angry.
I am sorry, but I have (myself) been to the point of true surrender. So I am not pointing fingers at anyone and suggesting that they go beyond what I myself was willing to do. I know what it is like to be completely defeated by alcohol. If you are at that point then you will know what it means to grab at a life preserver that is thrown at you. You’ll have to believe me when I say that if you are turning up your nose at the life preserver (no matter how wrong you may think that life preserver is for you) then you are probably not at the point of true surrender.
In other words, anyone who is resisting help in early recovery based on the details is simply not ready. They have not had enough pain and misery yet in addiction. They are not at the point of true surrender.
If you want to set yourself up for success in recovery then you must reach a point of total and complete surrender. This cannot be stressed enough because it is the single biggest point of failure that people struggle with in early recovery. They come into recovery and they “wish that things were different in their life” but are they really at a point of total and complete surrender? Not usually. It is somewhat rare for someone to reach their true bottom. Hitting bottom is a tremendous gift. Unfortunately, many of alcoholics seem to have a lower bottom in us at times, so we go back out and create more misery and chaos instead of staying sober.
What does real surrender look like?
The alcoholic asks for help, and they accept it. They take what is offered. They don’t manipulate or squirm for control.
What sobriety really depends on in the long run
In early sobriety, everything depends on total and complete surrender.
No surrender, no sobriety. Simple as that.
But in long term recovery things change a bit. Surrender becomes less important over time, and something else must necessarily take its place. Something else becomes more important as you stay sober for longer.
Now, what is that “something else?”
That “something” is holistic health.
This was the answer that I was seeking for during my first 18 months of sobriety. This was the answer that I was looking for when I talked to my peers, my sponsor, and the old timers in AA about what the real secret to sobriety was. This was the answer that I was looking for, but I never really found anyone who summarized it for me like this. It was too broad and too vague of a topic, apparently.
I admit that it is a lot to wrap your head around. Especially in early sobriety.
The idea is this:
As you stay clean and sober, your addiction is going to try to get you to relapse in many different ways. It will try via all of the different aspects of your health and your being, including socially, mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
In AA, they instruct you to pursue spiritual growth, but the rest is all up to you to figure out. It may or may not happen. There are no instructions to pursue those things.
“Those things” means that you need to take action every day in order to care for yourself emotionally, mentally, physically, and socially.
In my opinion, this is the missing piece in traditional recovery. This is what they need to focus on in order to teach people who to stay sober in the long run.
If you want to stay sober in the short run, then just stay in rehab longer. That is not difficult. Lock yourself up and throw away the key. Seriously, that worked for me (I lived in long term rehab for almost two years).
But after you leave rehab and get your total freedom back, you are going to have to learn how to protect yourself from the threat of relapse.
The only way to do that successfully is to take care of yourself in every dimension. Holistically.
So you have to take positive action every day in order to take better care of yourself. Not just take care of yourself physically (as the phrase usually implies), but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. You must learn to take positive action in all of these areas.
This is what long term sobriety really depends on.
If you are taking positive action on a regular basis in this way, we have a label for that. We tend to call it “personal growth.” It is a learning process. You are discovering new things about yourself and about your life as you learn to take better care of yourself.
So it involves learning. It involves taking positive action. And if you are going to be thorough about it then you will probably have to be willing to experiment and take suggestions from other people. This is the shortcut to wisdom. You can benefit based on the experience of others. They teach this concept in AA as well, but there is generally only applied in spiritual matters. We want to apply the concept to all areas of potential health (and growth).
The solution is holistic, not spiritual.
Finding your daily practice through experimentation and taking suggestions
If you want a shortcut to success in sobriety then start taking orders from other people.
Believe me, I know what it feels like. This is why I rejected recovery the first two times I went to rehab. I was not yet willing to listen to other people who were going to tell me how to live. I had not yet been beat down enough by my addiction to be that desperate.
Later on, I got more miserable and thus more desperate. So I became willing to listen to other people and their advice.
What did this feel like?
First of all, it felt bad. Part of it felt like failure. That is OK though, because it has to be done. You have to hit bottom if you want to relearn how to live properly.
Second, it involved a thought process. I want to describe my exact thought process to you, because I think it is really important.
My thoughts in early sobriety (when I managed to stay sober) was this:
“I am a failure, and I cannot figure out how to be happy on my own. Therefore I am DONE listening to myself, to my own mind, to my own ideas. Instead, I will only listen to other people and their advice. I will only act when someone else tells me what to do. I will not pursue my own ideas, because they only get me in trouble and make me miserable in the end.”
That was my thought process in early recovery, and it finally allowed me to kill my ego and get out of my own way.
That’s right, you need to kill your ego. At least in early recovery you want to kill it. Don’t worry, it will come back later! And by then you will have had the experience of taking advice and direction from others, and you will have learned the basics of how to stay sober.
What you need to do in early recovery is to learn how to live sober for the rest of your life.
So you need to learn that. Then you need to implement it in your daily life.
In order to do this, you need to experiment and learn. Because no two alcoholics are going to have the exact same path to long term success in sobriety.
Seriously, find a few recovering alcoholics who have at least five or ten years sober and ask them to describe, in detail, what their daily routine is like. Their day to day actions. Pin them down and ask them to describe exactly what positive actions they take each and every day in order to stay sober. If you want the real truth then ask them to describe in detail what they did yesterday to stay sober. That will give you a good picture.
And you will find that everyone is a little different. Some will exercise, some will do daily meetings, some will meditate in the lotus position, some will work with newcomers in recovery, some will journal and write a lot, some will read recovery literature, some will be religious, and on and on and on. Long term sobriety can look quite different.
So it is up to you to find these suggestions (what is working for other people) and apply it to your own life.
Then you just have to follow the advice: “Keep what you need and leave the rest.” But you have to take action, experiment, and do the work.
Continuous personal growth in long term sobriety is the key
Alcoholics have a problem:
If they stop learning and growing in recovery, they slide back towards relapse.
Therefore your challenge is clear: You must find a way to keep moving forward in recovery. Complacency is the biggest challenge in recovery.
If you can do that in AA, then by all means, do it!
If you can do that on your own using a holistic approach, by all means, do it.
But ultimately you have to do the work. And it never ends.
On the other hand, it keeps getting better and better in recovery.
Not such a bad deal, is it?
What do you think? Does your recovery keep getting better and better as time goes on? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!