In long term sobriety there are many rewards. Some of them you would naturally expect, while others are far more subtle and unexpected.
Life is a journey and you cannot always predict how things are going to unfold for you. This is especially true in long term sobriety where there is a holistic element involved. Combining personal growth in different areas of your life can produce unexpected results.
The things that you might expect from a life of sobriety
Before I ever got clean and sober I had this image in my mind of what recovery might be like.
I pictured it as being very boring. This is because my idea of fun in life was based on getting drunk and high all the time. My goal was to always be as screwed up on chemicals as I could possibly be. So it was very difficult for me to picture any sort of fun in sobriety. How would I have any fun at all if I could not get drunk or high? I just couldn’t picture it.
So I imagined that life in recovery would be quite boring. I imagined that I would be miserable all the time because I would be depriving myself of alcohol and drugs.
I imagined that I would be sad in recovery.
Of course, the truth is that recovery has not been boring or miserable for me. Far from it. In fact, it stopped being boring almost immediately. And it wasn’t even that miserable for very long at all. Maybe the first few days of detox. But after that things started to turn around very quickly. And my denial was so great that it took me a few weeks to even figure out that I was not miserable in recovery just because I was depriving myself of alcohol and drugs.
When personal growth becomes an exciting adventure
What I never expected in sobriety was that it would become exciting.
This happened just a few months into recovery. I am not sure of exactly how long it took but it was less than a year of recovery. And I can remember being excited to just wake up in the morning to see what challenges the day might hold.
Perhaps this is the fabled “pink cloud syndrome” that they talk about, when everything seems to be going so well. But I can remember the excitement and the anticipation of tackling another day in life and seeing what opportunities unfolded for me. Life had become exciting again for me, and I wasn’t even sure how it had happened.
Actually the way that it happened was quite simple: I was staying clean and sober one day at a time, and as I progressed in recovery, my priorities were starting to shift. My values were changing.
I used to value getting drunk and high every day. That was my greatest value.
But now in recovery my values were slowly changing. I did not even realize it consciously at the time. But I started to care about other people. I started to care about my sobriety. I started to care about improving my life.
This was exciting. Because now the same excitement that I used to have for “partying” was now being channeled into something positive. Now I cared about the people around me, my peers, my friends, my family. Now they were important to me and I was excited to see positive changes happening.
Your priorities will shift in long term sobriety
In long term sobriety my values are very different today.
I care about the people in my life and I also care about improving myself. If I can learn something new about myself then that is an opportunity for growth. Self honesty is always going to be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for reward. When I get honest with myself and make the tough decisions I am rewarded with peace, contentment, and gratitude.
The thing is, I never thought that this life was even possible for me. I was in rehab once, long before I actually surrendered, and I was listening to someone talk about the good life in recovery. They were talking about how their priorities changed, about how everything shifted for them and now they were happy based on other things. And I could not relate to them and I had no hope for my future in recovery. I had no hope because my standard of happiness was based on getting drunk and high every day. I did not believe that my priorities would change in recovery.
I believe that this is why you need to have a bit of faith in early recovery. If you don’t have any faith at all then it is difficult to come up with enough hope to carry you through until this miracle happens. The miracle of course is that if you stop using drugs and drinking and you start taking positive action in your life every day that eventually you will be happy again in sobriety.
That is the miracle and that is the promise of recovery. You can be happy sober, but you have to work for it. And you have to believe. You have to have faith that this happiness in sobriety is possible.
I used to look down on people who were sober. I was stuck in denial and I was addicted to alcohol and I thought that people who were sober were somehow missing out. I felt bad that they could not experience the same level of “joy” that I was experiencing by getting loaded every day.
Of course, the joke was on me. They were actually feeling sorry for me, because I was chasing this false high every day that only made me more and more miserable. But when you are in denial you can’t see it. You don’t realize that you are only hurting yourself when you actually believe that you are chasing happiness.
I checked into rehab and I went through the detox process. It wasn’t too awful, though the first few days were pretty rough. It got better quickly.
I was still pretty upset about my life when I had a few weeks sober. I was living in long term rehab at that point. And of course I was worried about “my happiness.” Perhaps this is the problem with alcoholics, this selfish drive that makes them so concerned with their own happiness? And I can remember having a few weeks sober and still being very frustrated with my life, wondering if I was ever going to really be happy in sobriety. Because during those first few weeks I was distracted at best. Even after a few months in recovery I was still on the fence a bit, wondering if I could ever be truly happy.
I think the breakthrough for me came when I realized that spirituality was not the entire solution. Everyone around me in recovery was focused on finding their higher power and relying on that connection for their happiness. And quite honestly I just wasn’t getting it at that point, I was not seeing this huge spiritual breakthrough that was going to suddenly fill me with joy.
And I was trying. I was working the steps. I was meditating every day. I was reading books about spirituality. I was pushing myself so hard in this area because the solution, I was told, was spiritual.
Come to find out, this was just plain wrong. The reality that I have experienced in recovery is not that “the solution is spiritual.” That turned out to be fairly misleading for me.
So I ventured down another path. I did not know what this other path was when I started on it, I just knew that real recovery was based on more than spirituality alone.
I could see this by looking at “the winners” in recovery. I looked up to certain peers in recovery and I realized that much of their efforts were outside of the spiritual realm. The message I was getting in AA meetings was essentially: “The solution is 100 percent spiritual. Find your higher power or you are doomed to relapse!”
That was the message that I was getting in early recovery. But it wasn’t adding up for me, and I did not see it as being a long term solution for me. Faith was only taking me so far. I tried many different things in order to deepen my faith, but I felt like there was huge potential for growth in other areas of my recovery as well.
And so I observed the success stories in recovery all around me, and I realized that–quite simply–“faith without works is dead.”
So I started to focus on the “works” side of things. And I realized that it was all about action. Positive action. Personal growth. The people who were successful in recovery were the people who were pushing themselves to make positive changes. They were challenging themselves to improve their life. They were not just sitting on the sidelines and being passive about their recovery. Strangely enough, I knew many people in AA who were doing exactly that–being passive in their recovery. They showed up to meetings every day and vented but did little else in terms of challenging themselves with personal growth.
When I started on this path I was very scared. Because I had been in AA for 18 months and people told me that if I ever left the meetings I was doomed to relapse. But I could not ignore this new path that was calling me. I could not ignore the idea that it was personal growth, not blind faith, that was helping people to remain clean and sober.
I felt like I had unlocked this new secret of recovery. The real solution was personal growth, it was positive action. Faith was just a stepping stone to that new reality.
Defeating complacency by challenging yourself to keep growing
The bonus of living this way in long term sobriety is that you keep getting rewarded based on the actions you are taking.
It is possible to just coast along in recovery and not really grow much. They refer to this as “complacency.” You get lazy, you coast along, you may still go to meetings but you are not really pushing yourself to make positive changes.
There are a million forms of complacency in life. It is not just getting stuck in a pattern of daily meetings that can trip you up. You can become complacent with your physical health, in your relationships, and so on.
The key to detecting complacency is that you have to listen. You must listen to your inner voice, to your anxieties and fears. This is like a compass for where you need to go in your recovery journey. If you have anxiety over something then that is an opportunity for growth. Almost all of the major breakthroughs that I have made in recovery came when I faced my fear or anxiety and figured out how to confront it.
Of course our life keeps changing and evolving in recovery and therefore you need to keep challenging yourself to get honest. Because your situation will change over time, you have to stay vigilant about what is really going on in your life. No one on this planet will ever get to 100 percent perfect in all areas of their life. Therefore there is always room for growth.
And the bonus is that you protect yourself from relapse when you push yourself to keep growing, to keep getting honest. In fact, the only way that relapse can really sneak back into your life is through some form of dishonesty with the self. Practicing holistic growth on a long term basis is one way to keep being honest with yourself. In order to prioritize holistic growth you have to look at your overall life and decide what changes would be most helpful. This forces you to be honest with yourself about what your biggest issue may currently be.
Relapse happens when you go (usually a pretty long time) ignoring the major issues in your life. They can snowball out of control and your fear and anxiety can grow unchecked if you are not careful. This is why a path of personal growth helps to protect you from relapse. If you are paying attention to all of the problems in your life then it is more difficult for those problems to snowball out of control to the point of relapse.
No one who is complacent ever sees it in advance. They never see it coming. They end up back in treatment (if they are lucky) and say that they never saw it creeping up on them. The disease is so sneaky, so patient.
Given that this is the case, what can you do to help yourself out in long term sobriety?
My solution is to assume that you are complacent. Always.
This may sound like overkill, but think about it for a moment. What do you get if you make this assumption? How does it benefit you to assume that you are always complacent?
The benefit that it gets you is that it drives you forward in your recovery. It forces you to look more carefully at your life to see exactly how you might be complacent.
I never ask myself “Am I complacent?” any more. Instead, I only ask myself “How am I being complacent today?”
Because that changes over time. It shifts as you evolve in life and in recovery. This is really what complacency is. It is when one part of your life becomes a bit too routine and you get lazy in that area.
Most people believe that complacency only has to do with avoiding alcohol and drugs. They think of it as being very one dimensional, just the idea that they have to not relapse. But complacency is much more than that. It can sneak into your life in many different ways. And once complacency gets a foothold then it can snowball and create even greater problems. For example, if someone get complacency with their physical health in recovery they might end up getting sick or a disease. Now you might wonder, what does that have to do with relapse on alcohol or drugs?
I can assure you, people getting physically sick can be a huge trigger for alcohol or drug relapse. I watched this happen many times in my recovery journey. Of course it doesn’t always lead to relapse, but the correlation was quite shocking to me once I started noticing it. And in some cases I have watched someone in recovery get sick and this leads to a direct relapse due to medications that they are given. But even without prescription drugs in the picture I have watched many alcoholics go back to drinking after their physical health deteriorated. Physical illness has a way of making us much weaker in recovery.
This is just one example of why the solution to recovery should be holistic and not only spiritual. There are other examples as well.
One common example that I noticed a lot during my first year of sobriety had to do with relationships.
People can get complacent when it comes to relationships. They might be around people who basically toxic to their recovery, but because they are complacent, they fail to do anything about this. And eventually it can lead to relapse.
Sound simple? It is deceptively simple and very difficult to overcome. When I was living in long term treatment I would estimate that probably 80 percent of my peers who relapsed did so due to a relationship problem.
Physical health, social relationships. Those are just two of the ways in which you could get complacent and potentially end up relapsing. There is also your mental health, your emotional state, and your spirituality to contend with. People can become complacent in any of those areas and get tripped up in their recovery.
The solution, in my opinion, is to work on all of those areas of our lives on a regular basis. Personal growth. Holistic health. The solution is a multi-faceted approach. If you focus too narrowly on spirituality then you might become complacent in any of these other areas.
Uncovering the real “you” in long term recovery
The exciting part of long term sobriety is that you start to discover who you were really meant to be all along. The ideal you, the person that you aspire to be. This starts to emerge after you start to do the hard work on yourself in recovery. After you get honest and figure out what your fears and your anxieties are.
What about you? Have you discovered the real you in long term recovery yet? Are you still on the journey as many of us are today? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!