What are some steps that you can take to lead a richer life in alcoholism recovery?
Are the 12 steps of AA the only way to achieve balance and meaning in recovery? Or are there other steps?
Also: are these concepts fundamental? Do they apply to everyone in recovery equally, regardless of the labels that we put on them?
First of all I believe that the entry point into recovery is almost certainly a fundamental principle, and that is the concept of surrender. No one gets into a better life in recovery unless they embrace this simple concept. No one can possibly break through their denial if they continue to struggle for control of their life. They must let go in order to heal. That’s just the way that it is and if they can find a way to power through their addiction while maintaining control then I don’t believe they actually have an addiction. You must let go in order to recover.
So surrender is the entry point; the necessary starting point for all recovery. But what happens after that? How can we move to a richer life in recovery? How can we achieve purpose, meaning, and depth in our lives?
Obvious steps to personal growth
Your first order of business in recovery is to take positive action.
Most people will go to some sort of addiction treatment center or drug rehab these days–though this is not truly “fundamental” because plenty of people have recovered without professional help. It is just the most likely path for most people and it is also the smartest choice that most people can make.
So the first step towards growth in recovery is about the willingness to change. Hopefully the individual in question has just surrendered to their disease and relinquished all need for control in their lives. If this is the case then they are in prime position to be able to recover. If they have not completely broke through their denial then it means that they are hanging on to some sort of reservation. They are maintaining the need for some control in some area of their life, and they refuse to let go. Once they let go of this and become fully willing, then can start to heal and get started on a new life in recovery.
Nothing happens of course without positive action. Growth is the basis for all potential results that you may get in recovery. Or rather, change is the basis for any results that you achieve. They have a pretty basic saying that can be like a slap in the face to someone who is stuck in denial: “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” The idea of course is to make positive changes. So this means not drinking, forming new relationships with people who may be a positive influence, doing something different other than your old patterns of behavior, and so on.
Recovery demands a foundation to be built. What you are doing is creating a new life. I had to rearrange everything in my own life in order to do that, so thank goodness that I had the opportunity to stay in rehab for so long. I had to get new friends, a new job, and a new way to spend my time each day. I had to completely change everything. This was the foundation that I had to build just to be able to avoid relapse during the first few years of my journey. If I had not made all of those structural changes in my life then I am not sure I would still be sober today. Going to treatment played a huge role in that because it set me up to make huge, sweeping changes in my life.
Someone who is stuck in denial may not be able to grasp the scale of this suggestion. So they may be drinking every day and say “OK, yeah I get it, I have to stop drinking every day, I know.” But they really don’t get it and they cannot see the enormity of the changes that they are up against. If all they do is quit drinking then they are just going to relapse–haven’t that proven that much to themselves in the past already? No, in order to change their life and really find sobriety they will have to remake their entire life from the ground up. They need a “reset” button on their life. They have to wipe out all of their behaviors, many of their associations, and start over from scratch in order to build something positive in its place. Resetting your life is very difficult to do if you are taking the approach that you can do it with baby steps. My opinion is: You can’t. You need massive action, not baby steps.
When I finally got clean and sober I quit my job. I moved out of my old place. I went to rehab and ended up staying for 20 months. I found an entire support community and built a new set of friends based on that. I did not just quit drinking–instead I changed everything in my life. Not just some things, but nearly everything. My entire day from the second I woke up each morning was completely different from what it was during my addiction. I think about the only similarities were that I still slept and ate meals. But everything else changed for me.
In my opinion this was the level of structural change that I needed in order to have a real chance at sobriety. Since I have been in recovery and started working with other alcoholics and addicts, I don’t know anyone who can just walk away from their addiction while keeping the rest of their life fully intact. People who are successful in recovery always say that “they had to change everything.” And they always emphasize the word “everything!” They are not kidding. This is the foundation of a new life. You can’t just take a shortcut and slip away from your addictive behavior without also making these huge structural changes to your life. And by “structural” I am referring to:
* Your behavior.
* The way you process thoughts, how you react to the world.
* Your relationships with other people in your life and how you deal with them.
* Your spiritual beliefs and how you manage your attitude in life.
* How you spend your time each day.
* How you solve problems and process difficult emotions.
If this sounds like an intimidating list, it is! Actually that is just a sampling of what all has to change in a new life of sobriety. The real truth is that there are many more changes that occur besides these.
Your success and happiness in recovery can perhaps best be measured by the quality of your relationships.
“No man is an island.” This is especially true in recovery where you have to get new information from other people in order to recover and avoid relapse.
If you could recover on your own without asking others for help then trust me, you would have. No one wants to sacrifice their ego in order to seek help from other people (if they can easily avoid it).
Therefore you need other people in your life if you are going to be successful in recovery. You need to reach out and ask for help, and you probably need to help others as well.
If you are to have any sort of purpose or meaning in your recovery then you are going to need to interact with other people as well. The real blessing in recovery is when you can receive help from someone one day, and then turn around and help someone else the next day, thus completing the circle. This is the real blessing of recovery and this is the entire foundation for 12 step programs. The idea is to help each other and gain strength through shared wisdom and experience.
Chances are that you already have various relationships in your life right now. The key is not to go find “better” ones, the key is to deepen and strengthen the ones that you already have. If you do this then you will probably attract more people into your life who are also trying to create positive changes.
There is a limit to how many people you can interact with. But there is probably not a limit to how deeply you can interact with them. Ask yourself: “What am I supposed to be learning from this person in my life, and what can they learn from me?
Looking for depth and having the patience to do so
It takes patience to look for depth and meaning in your life.
Most people just gloss over this step. Try not to do that. Always look for the hidden message, for the deeper meaning, for the life lesson in things.
“The un-examined life is not worth living.” Don’t just stumble and crash through life (even being sober in recovery) without examining what you are doing and what results you are getting.
The whole point to me is that you can step back, take an objective look at your life, and realize what is working well for you and what is not working so great. Then you can prioritize the negative things that you want to change or eliminate, and start working on them.
If you simply do this over and over again then your life will get better and better over time.
It is not too difficult to break through your initial denial (or at least to acknowledge that alcohol is ruining your life). This is obvious to everyone except for the person in denial, and if you are in recovery now then you obviously made this leap and realized that you should give sobriety a chance. So you have made it this far.
But it is time to go deeper now. Most of us still live in denial over various things, even if it is not always blatant denial like our alcoholism was.
For example, perhaps someone is out of shape and they secretly wish that they were much healthier, yet they do not take action and start exercising. In a way, this person lives in denial because deep down they know that they would be happier and healthier if they were to take positive action.
Hopefully your life in recovery is not comprised of “should’s.” As in, “I really should do this some day,” or “I really should do that some day.” Instead, the goal in recovery is to prioritize your “should’s” and then tackle them one at a time. This does not necessarily mean that you will fix and solve every single problem in your life. Some of your “experiments” may not turn out so well. But at least if you take this approach you will:
* Be exploring new avenues of personal growth.
* Prompting yourself to take positive action so that you do not become lazy or complacent.
* Discovering what works for your in recovery and what does not.
* Learning more and more about yourself at a very high level.
* Not have to live with the annoyance of regret that you “should have explored something” and never did it.
They have a chapter in the Big Book of AA that is simply called “Into action.” Do you think after reading the above that perhaps positive action is a fundamental principle of recovery from alcoholism? I certainly believe that it is. If nothing changes, nothing changes. Therefore you should structure your life in recovery to be set up to allow you to explore various changes that you might make. Test the waters, try new things. See what works for you.
If you sit still and do nothing in life then you relapse. Developing purpose and meaning requires action. What you do is not nearly as important as having the right attitude and the willingness to learn.
Taking feedback from others and turning it into action
If you are like me then you will not know exactly what you should be doing in early recovery.
There are times in long term sobriety where you feel like you have “hit a plateau” as well.
So what is the solution?
We already know that the secret to a richer life in recovery is to seek out depth, purpose, and meaning through taking positive action. But the question here is: “How do we know which positive actions to take? How do we prioritize?”
The easy answer to this is:
* Ask other people in recovery.
That is, seek advice and feedback from others. If you insist on doing everything for yourself and figuring out every little thing on your own then you will:
* Have a much more difficult time staying sober.
* Learn much slower than if you had sought out advice from others.
* Not develop as many deep and rich relationships that you could have otherwise had in life.
Asking advice from other people does not actually do much unless you act on that advice. And the truth is that you will not act on every piece of advice that you receive in life. But trust me, it is much better to be in the habit of seeking out feedback and acting on at least some of it than it is to be completely stuck in your recovery and sitting there idle. The one thing that you do not want to do in recovery is “stand still.” That can easily lead to relapse.
Seek advice and feedback from others. Act on that advice. If it is not a perfect fit for you then move on and try something else. At least you learned what did not work for you, right? This is how we learn and explore in recovery–by taking suggestions and trying new things.
Exploring the edges
The middle parts can be somewhat boring. How about finding the edges? This is where I have found richness in life.
What I mean by this can perhaps be illustrated through examples.
* I found an online recovery forum many years ago and liked the interaction there. So I built a website that now connects and reaches thousands of people who are seeking help. Going to AA meetings every day is “the middle.” Online recovery is on the edges. It is not mainstream.
* I did not just start exercising. Instead I built up to marathon distance. Most people don’t run that far. I went to the edges though to see if it was different, or how it was different.
* Instead of meditation I started jogging instead. I pushed the idea of meditation further to find deeper meaning for myself. Jogging worked better for me than sitting with my eyes closed, and accomplished the same thing.
* In trying to improve my diet I discovered juice fasting. Again, this is on the edges. In fasting I learned a great deal about myself and how I can sometimes eat emotionally. I would not have discovered this by doing a more mainstream sort of diet. I had to learn that information out on the edges, through fasting.
It is something to consider anyway. You can learn a lot more by going out to the edges of things and really exploring them deeply.
One final note is that the people in recovery who have achieve peace and happiness have also mastered acceptance. This is based on the good old Serenity Prayer and knowing when to try to change things and when to simply accept them.
If you want a richer life in recovery then you need some balance in between acceptance and growth. There are certain things that cannot be changed and these are the things that you must accept. There are some other things that would be stressful or a net negative if you attempted to change them and these are also things that you should simply accept.
Growth is not the answer for everything, because in some cases we need to let go and stop struggling over something that is beyond our control. The key is learning in when to do that, which is a process that never really ends. This is yet another reason why our task in recovery is never finished and we are never “cured,” we have to keep looking for the deeper meaning in all things so that we do not miss a learning opportunity.
When we stop learning, we relapse. The key to a richer life in recovery is to stay active, keep learning, and find purpose and meaning by exploring the edges.