If you are a newly recovering alcoholic, should you trust yourself and your own gut instinct, or should you trust your sponsor or those who would advise you instead?
The short answer, in my opinion, is that you should NOT trust your instincts in early sobriety. Quite honestly, your instincts are wrong. They are telling you to self medicate, to relapse, to drink alcohol. That is what alcoholics do. We have trained ourselves to want to self medicate our emotions away.
Of course, later in your recovery, you can start to trust your intuition again. But this is a slow process.
A question of timing
I had to get out of my own way in early recovery.
What does that mean exactly, to “get out of your own way?”
To me it meant that you had to stop listening to all of those ideas that were clamoring around in your mind. It meant that I had to stop acting on impulse, I had to slow down, I had to learn a new way of thinking.
My old way of thinking was pretty simple in addiction. I wanted to feel differently and I wanted to escape from myself and from my emotions, so I drank and used drugs. This was fun at first and then it became a necessity. Even later it became an instinct. When something bad happened in my life, I instinctively would reach for a drink or a drug. When I had unwanted emotions in my life, I would instinctively try to medicate those away. I did not want to feel my feelings. It was uncomfortable to do so. I preferred oblivion.
So when I first got clean and sober I had no idea what I was really doing. And all of those powerful urges were still there, those instinctual impulses to medicate my emotions. I was on a roller coaster of emotions in early sobriety, just as anyone else would be. And the instinct of course is to eliminate those wild emotions and feelings by numbing yourself with drugs and alcohol. This has become our natural response.
So as you remain clean and sober over the months and then years, you retrain yourself and you eliminate these old instincts. Your old impulse to self medicate every time a negative emotion comes up tends to slowly fade away as you learn new ways of dealing with it. This is a slow process though and it takes real work. You have to dedicate your life to sobriety and then you actually have to follow directions and start taking action. This is how you will retrain those old destructive instincts.
And so it is a question of timing. In the early days of recovery you don’t want to grab life by the horns just yet. You are not ready to be that aggressive. You are not in a stable enough place to guide your recovery with pure intuition yet. Frankly, you don’t have enough information in that first year of two of recovery to be able to make it on intuition alone.
I lived in rehab for 20 months, went to several 12 step meetings each week, worked with a sponsor and did a lot of therapy before I was willing to trust my intuition again. So I really believe that it is a question of timing. In very early recovery, you should be trusting your sponsor rather than your own instincts, because your gut level feelings can lead you astray in early sobriety.
How to develop your intuition in alcoholism recovery
So how do you go about developing this intuition in early recovery, so that it can protect you later in life?
My belief is that you have to give yourself time for this. Obviously you cannot just force it. You have to be willing to learn from other people, to follow directions, and to take some serious action.
I did this when I moved into long term rehab. I was scared to do that and I was afraid that it would be like being in prison. It turned out to be nothing like prison and it was the best decision I ever made. My intuition at the time was no good, quite honestly. My intuition was telling me that if I moved into long term rehab that I would probably just be miserable until I eventually relapsed. I was wrong.
But I started to develop a recovery program there, and it developed even further when I finally moved out and was on my own again. And quite honestly my intuition was put to the test when I left that long term treatment center and had a decision to make: Was I going to continue to attend AA and NA meetings, or was I going to strike out and do my own thing in recovery?
This is the sort of decision that would have killed me earlier in recovery. Not because I would have made the wrong decision, but because I would not have had the stability or the intuition to follow through properly. What I had gained in that first 20 months of sobriety was an insight into how recovery actually worked. I had studied the mechanics of staying sober that lay underneath the programs, the therapy, and the fellowship. I watched very closely when people relapsed and I immediately ignored everything that they had to say about how to remain sober.
Conventional wisdom in AA says that this is wrong. But I honestly did not care, I wanted to know how recovery really worked, I wanted to know WHY it worked. So if someone in AA had just relapsed then they were not giving me the information I really wanted to hear. So I ignored them.
At the same time I started to listen more closely to the people who had significant sober time, and who were also the people who had the sort of life that I wanted to be living myself. I listened closely to these people and I started to watch what they were doing in their lives. Not just what they said at meetings but what they did outside of the meetings, what they did in real life, how they interacted with their friend and families, how they spent their time, who they reached out to and helped on a regular basis, and so on.
And I started to get this image of success in sobriety, and this was refining my intuition about how to find my own path in sobriety. When I made the decision to leave the daily AA meetings, everyone around me was basically cautioning me not to do it. But because of everything I had observed and everything that I was experiencing I still went through with the decision to pursue my own path in alcoholism recovery instead. And it was another great decision on my part that I have never once regretted in the least.
I could not really give my peers in AA a rational reason that would satisfy them for leaving the meetings. But I knew that it was the right choice because I had just spent two years building up my intuition, building up my recovery, and learning exactly the things that were keeping me sober. And I found that it was all about personal growth and holistic health, not exactly the same as the spiritual solution being offered in 12 step programs. So at some point I got up my courage and I made the switch. It wasn’t really based on logic. It was based on my feelings.
Learning to trust yourself in situations which used to baffle you
The big book of AA talks about in the promises how you will one day (if you work a recovery program) be able to handle situations which used to baffle you.
In other words, in situations which used to make you drink (or want to drink), you will be able to handle those situations now thanks to a recovery program.
I am happy to report that this is true. I experienced it just yesterday at a party, when I wanted to eat a brownie that someone had made at home and brought to the party.
Why was that a baffling situation? Because I am allergic to nuts. And I have been allergic my entire life. And so a big part of my insecurity in life has been having that conversation and being embarrassed about it. In fact, being embarrassed about this as a child may have contributed to the anxiety which fueled my addiction later in life.
Anyway, I saw these brownies, and so I wanted to eat one, but I was hesitating of course because some brownies have nuts in them. Not often, but sometimes. And I never want to make a scene, I never want to draw attention to myself.
But I have grown a great deal and I am more confident because I have done the work in sobriety. So I asked the woman who brought the brownies if they had nuts, and she told me that they were safe. Then she started talking about her grand daughter who had a nut allergy, and she mentioned the emergency Epi-pen she carried.
I immediately told her about a new Epi-pen on the market, and I ran out to my car to discuss it with her. She was delighted at this, and I did not even feel any anxiety at all. It probably did not look like a big deal to anyone else at the party at all–I was just discussing nut allergies and showing off my medical treatment for it like it was a new toy. No big deal, right?
But it was a big deal to me. I looked back on that night and I was a little bit amazed that I had not been anxious or embarrassed at all. I was able to act natural, to have a real conversation about something that usually made me nervous.
And in my drinking days, that situation could have been smoothed out with alcohol. If I had been drinking just the right amount at the party (not too much or too little, mind you) then I could have had that same conversation and not been nervous about it. But obviously that is like walking a tightrope and in the end your alcoholic tolerance will betray you and the magic elixir won’t help you in those social situations any more. It will stop working. This is what happened to me in the end over 13 years ago and led me to surrender and give it up.
Then I had the long process of learning how to live sober, even though I had that fear, that anxiety. So for many years in my recovery journey I would have been afraid and anxious having that conversation in public about my nut allergies. It just embarrassed me, it called attention to me, I can’t really explain it any better than that. And yet somehow I was able to overcome this situation which used to create stress and anxiety for me, and I was able to deal with it with confidence. I was happy to talk to this woman and educate her a bit about a new medical product. And when I stop to think about it, that really was a miracle. As they would say in AA: “God is now doing for me what I could not do for myself.” He removed the anxiety and gave me life back, my freedom. This is simple a very specific example of how recovery is a gift to us.
The key is that I had to put in a lot of effort in order to make that happen. It took years of work in recovery. It took a lot of listening to others, following the advice of a sponsor, taking action, feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
It takes guts to recover from alcoholism, because it is a scary journey. But the rewards are amazing, and well worth the journey.
Learning new models for decision making
I like to explore strategic thinking, to try different models for making decisions.
When you do this over and over again in recovery you start to learn what works well for you and what does not.
One way to do this is to ask different people for the same bit of advice. That way you get different perspectives on the same problem and you will likely hear different ways to solve the same issue.
This is valuable. Over time, when you test these various models, your brain will start to absorb and digest what is effective for you. And this is how you build intuition.
Of course you need to have the right sort of experience in order to benefit from it. How do you get the right sort of experience in recovery?
Start out by asking for help. Surrender to a new way of thinking, a new plan for you life. Get out of your own way by letting other people tell you what to do.
Next, take massive action and follow through. They told me to go to treatment. I went through a 28 day program and then they suggested long term rehab.
That would normally scare me silly. But I was trying very hard to get out of my own way. So instead of turning away in fear (like I used to do) I decided to embrace the fear and walk through it. Maybe long term treatment would not kill me, would not be quite as bad as prison.
And the key is this: I was desperate enough to give it a shot. My misery had escalated to such an insane level that I was willing to try almost anything. This is the gift of desperation.
So I went to long term treatment and it was a very good experience for me. It was the thing I needed to get a new start on life. And I learned new ways of solving problems. One of the things that I learned in long term treatment was a new way to communicate with others.
This was totally foreign to me. The method was simple: Identify what feeling you have when dealing with another person: Sad, mad, glad, or scared. Then calm yourself down and tell them what you are feeling. Not what your opinion is (as many of us will do) but instead tell them if you are sad, mad, glad, or scared.
This sounded stupid to me at first. I did not think that it would help. But the therapist at long term rehab pounded this technique into us, and it led me to an amazing transformation in my relationships. Because suddenly I was actually communicating what really mattered, what was my highest truth. And that opened up a lot of new doors and wisdom in my life.
Bottom line: Trust yourself later
The bottom line is that you should trust your gut later in recovery, when your intuition in recovery has had some time to develop.
In early recovery you need to be extremely careful and very conservative. You need to get out of your own way. I was messed up in my addiction and the day I got sober I was still messed up, I just wasn’t putting alcohol and drugs in my system any longer. But it would take a long time before my senses came back, before level headed thinking would return, before I could effectively rewire my brain and start to make healthy decisions again.
So give yourself a break. Give yourself time to heal. Don’t try to do it all yourself in early recovery, because you will set yourself up for failure. Self sabotage is extremely common in alcoholism recovery. Don’t fall victim to that trap.
Instead, give yourself a break and listen to others who would try to help you. Listen to a sponsor, a therapist, a counselor. Ask them what you should do, then take their advice, and go do it.