I can distinctly remember being in very early recovery–the first six months or so of my journey–and being confused about what was truly important.
I mean, the problem was that I was actually paying attention, and trying to figure it all out at the same time.
I actually wanted recovery to work for me. I wanted desperately to stay clean and sober.
I knew based on my past that if I was going to succeed at recovery then I was going to need to understand it. It was a lot like a new form of math that I had never experienced before in school–could I actually learn this and figure it out? I knew that if I could not understand it then I was not going to be successful at it.
Not everyone has this deep need to know exactly how the recovery process works. In fact most people in traditional recovery programs are content to be told something like: “Don’t worry about how it works, just work it. So long as you do what you are told then you will be clean and sober and have this happy new life. You don’t need to understand it, just do it!”
That was not good enough for me. I had to understand why it was working or what was actually happening in order to feel confident in my actions. I was willing to experiment and to do what I was told but not on a permanent basis without figuring out what was really going on. I had to know what was helping me to recover.
For me, going to an AA or NA meeting every single day was not a light time investment. It was a huge time investment. Now most of the people that I spoke with in early recovery were comparing this one hour meeting to their life in addiction. They would say something like: “Look, you used to be getting drunk and high all the time and basically wasting your life away. Now you are in recovery and in order to stay clean and sober you go to this one hour meeting each day. But just look at the benefit you are getting! You have this whole new life and you never have to get drunk or high again if you don’t want to! Going to a meeting each day is a great deal!”
Then I spoke with someone else in recovery who looked at the daily AA meeting as a form of insurance. They said to me something like: “Look, you have a choice each day in your recovery. You can stay clean and sober and you can go to this meeting, which will help to insure continued sobriety, or you can choose to NOT go to a meeting in which case you are possibly one step closer to relapse. Going to the meeting is a no-brainer because just look at how much better your life is now that you are clean and sober! How could you NOT go to the meeting? It just makes sense to go every day, it is such a small time investment for such a huge benefit….”
But I knew that there was some sort of flaw in this logic. The reason I felt that there was a flaw was based on my observations both in and out of AA/NA meetings. For one thing, I was living in rehab at the time and I was exposed to a lot of daily meetings and had sort of an “inside track” on the entire local recovery community. I lived with eleven other guys in early recovery and we all went to meetings each day (we had to) and there was a lot of overlap between the people that you saw at all of these various meetings. So I got to know the recovery community pretty well and I also happened to live in a rehab center so it was quite obvious to see when people relapsed and then checked back into detox.
My observations were exposing this flaw in the “just go to meetings every day and you will be fine logic.” The flaw was that “meeting makers make it” was turning out to be wrong. It was false. I watched many people who continuously attended meetings in between relapse. Meetings were just one part of their pattern, and they were definitely not “making it.” They were stuck in a cycle of relapse. The meetings were not the answer for them.
At the same time I noticed that some old timers in recovery actually attended very few meetings, maybe once a week in many cases. And so I started to question the ideas that I was hearing in the program, especially the idea that everyone should go to meetings every single day (again, I did not feel like this was a trivial time commitment. An hour each day + travel time is a LOT).
So I started to have thoughts during that first year or two of recovery in which I wondered: “What is truly important in recovery? What is the most important concept to grasp in order to really understand recovery and remain clean and sober? What is the big secret of recovery?”
If you just went by “wisdom heard at AA meetings” then you would get a huge list of things that were all claimed to be “the most important part of recovery.” Each person had their own opinion about what was truly important. I know this because I started asking people what they thought was the real secret of sobriety. I heard all sorts of answers with no real consensus:
“Your connection to a higher power.”
“Working the steps.”
“Going to daily meetings.”
“Having and using a sponsor.”
“Reading and studying the Big Book.”
And so on. If you asked the question of a dozen people (which I actually did) then you will get roughly a dozen different answers.
The question is very, very difficult to simplify. “What is the real secret of sobriety?”
“What is truly important in order to beat alcoholism?”
Apparently no one could boil it down.
This was not good enough for me. I got to a point in my recovery where sitting through AA meetings was a betrayal to myself. I resented the meetings and refused to accept them as a lifelong solution. It was at that point that I realized I had to “figure things out for myself.” It was not good enough to just accept this program on blind faith and go through the motions, expecting it to work out for me. Not good enough. I wanted to understand recovery, understand the process, and be able to apply it in my life.
A journey of discovery
I decided to look at people who were successful in recovery. My sponsor who had a decade of sobriety, his sponsor that had two decades of continuous clean time, and so on. I looked at these people as models, but instead of asking for their help in working the 12 step program, I started examining what they were doing in their lives outside of 12 step recovery.
If you strip away the 12 step stuff, what is left?
Quite a bit, it turns out. Once I approached it from this angle I realized that they really just had the 12 step program sort of “on the side” now that they had decades of sobriety. It was no longer the central focus of their lives. One of them only attended meetings maybe once a week.
Instead they were focused on all sorts of things outside of 12 step recovery, such as:
* Helping others.
* Exercise and fitness.
And so on. They were actually well rounded people. And they were both in the process of improving their lives, even after decades of sobriety.
And so I had this light bulb moment that probably spawned this entire website and really simplifies my entire philosophy of recovery:
“Recovery is not about spirituality. It’s about personal growth.”
That was my great revelation. This is what I learned by looking at everyone around me in recovery, from the chronic relapsers who attended AA every day, to the old timer with 20 years sober who only attended one meeting a week. Everyone that I had asked about what was really important had failed to say it this succinctly: “The answer is personal growth.”
Instead I got all sorts of indirect answers that only hinted at that core truth (“You need to have faith in a higher power.” “You need to go to daily meetings.” etc.) But no one had been able to sit me down and tell me:
“Look, the real secret of recovery is personal growth. If you are growing, learning, and improving your life then you have a shot at staying sober. But if you are not making personal growth then relapse is very likely in the future.”
No one could explain that to me during my early recovery.
Or perhaps someone did tell me that, but it was lost in a sea of misinformation. I had twenty five other people in recovery telling me that the secret was actually something else! So even if someone had that critical piece of information for me, I would not have recognized it as being the real truth. I was getting a barrage of other suggestions that were not necessarily consistent with that idea. For example, having faith in a higher power is not the same thing as personal growth. They may be somewhat related at times, but for the most part they are two completely different things. And if you are talking about the actual secret of sobriety, the number one truly important concept to maintain recovery, for me it is personal growth.
But I had to figure that out over a period of about two years. I had so many other suggestions and so much information to sort through that the answer of “personal growth” was not obvious to me for at least the first year or two of my journey. Everyone was making suggestions to me but nothing seemed to tie them all together. Spirituality was nothing but a red herring. Note that spirituality is still important in recovery, but it is only one part of a much greater whole (personal growth). The mistake in traditional recovery is to focus in on spirituality as being the total and complete solution. It’s not. It is only one part of a solution that is actually much bigger.
If you want to understand how recovery actually works, then you have to accept that it is complex, it is more than just spiritual growth, and it is an ongoing process that depends on personal growth.
I wanted for recovery to be simple. The people at the AA meetings told me that it was, but I learned that they were wrong. It’s not simple. Addiction is complex and recovery is necessarily complex as well.
We all want for recovery to be simple and tied up in this neat little box so that we can explain it and understand it in one little sentence. This is not realistic and those who try to simplify it too much do everyone a disservice.
The one simplification that I had been searching for was the answer of “personal growth,” but obviously that solution can entail your entire life, many holistic angles, and encompass much larger concepts like spirituality, physical fitness, relationships, and so on. If someone asks you “how do I achieve personal growth in recovery?” your answer to that could fill several books. It is not simple. The solution is not simple and is necessarily complicated.
If someone asks me “How have you stayed clean and sober for the last decade?” I would say “oh, that’s easy. Personal growth!” And then they would say “OK, well, explain what personal growth is and how I go about attaining that in my own life.” Now that is a challenging question that cannot be simplified. The answer is complex. The answer may evolve over time. The answer may depend on the person, their environment, and their circumstances.
We can only simplify down to a certain point, and that point is “personal growth.” The implication behind personal growth is that we are going to be making positive changes. Look at your life and seek to improve it. In order to do so you have to make positive changes. Eliminate bad stuff, create more good stuff. We do this over and over again in recovery and thus we reinvent who we are in recovery. This is the process of positive change and personal growth. This is as simplified as it can get.
Personal growth is truly important to the recovery process, and in fact it IS the recovery process.
What else is important?
An absolute commitment to physical abstinence
The most important part of recovery is personal growth, but the most important part of that process is physical abstinence.
If you want to build a new life in recovery then the most important thing in your world should be to NOT put addictive drugs or alcohol into your body. Period.
This has to be the number one most important thing.
In early recovery I met a guy who claimed that the connection with his higher power was more important than physical abstinence. He relapsed.
Every single person who relapses has lost sight of this simple truth. Physical abstinence must remain our number one priority. Personal growth is the process by which we recover, but the most important part of that process is our baseline of physical abstinence. If you aren’t clean and sober then you don’t have a prayer. Abstinence must come first.
Simple but true. This is the most important thing. Don’t put addictive drugs or alcohol into your body no matter what.
Realization that this is a full lifestyle change and probably the hardest thing you have ever done
In early recovery you would do well to realize that you are up against the hardest change you have ever tried to make.
Realizing this should give you a clue: You will have to try harder at recovery than anything you have ever done before.
So many people who get into early recovery treat it like it is no big deal. These people do not have a prayer of staying sober. You have to get serious about recovery. Dead serious. More serious than you have ever been before in your whole life. Anything less than that and you are sure to relapse.
The reason is because this is a lifestyle change. You are not just changing one thing, you are really changing everything. Everything must change if you are to succeed. That is a very tall order and in order to pull it off you have to make a huge commitment to yourself.
Willingness to take action and follow through
We can frame a relapse in all sorts of different terms. One way that makes a lot of sense is to frame it in terms of willingness (or lack thereof).
When an alcoholic relapses we can almost always point to a lack of willingness. They may have been doing certain things for their recovery but obviously they were not willing to go that extra mile in terms of personal growth. They may have taken some action but they should have been willing to do a lot more.
There is an old joke in AA about this. It goes:
Newcomer: “How many AA meetings should I go to each week?”
Old timer: “Just go to one less each week until you relapse. Then you’ll know.”
Now obviously I don’t believe that the solution is centered around meeting attendance but the concept in this joke still applies. In other words, if you are pushing yourself to make personal growth in recovery and you slowly start to push yourself less and less, then eventually you will relapse. Thus you would then know how “lazy” you can be in recovery until it causes you to relapse.
Obviously we do not want to go there, and would prefer to stay clean and sober. Therefore we need willingness in our recovery. We have to be willing to make personal growth and to stay on a path of positive change. We have to be willing to keep taking action and actually doing things in our recovery.
If you stop everything and just kick your feet up then you are headed for relapse. We don’t always know exactly how hard we have to push (for personal growth) but if you do nothing at all then you can expect to get zero results. Complacency kills. Therefore willingness is key.
Long term personal growth and fighting complacency
This is just another way of saying that your job in recovery is never fully finished.
Believe it or not people have relapsed who had several decades of sobriety under their belt. What happened? They got lazy.
Recovery continues for a lifetime. This is true no matter how you work your program or what you consider to be truly important (daily meetings, personal growth, whatever you choose to focus on).
Perhaps this is the most important phase of the recovery journey because it is also the longest. Detox is over in a flash and early recovery flies by pretty quickly too. Before you know it you will be “living the rest of your life sober” and that is where this complacency threat comes into play.
In order to overcome it you need to have a proactive strategy–one that can adapt and evolve as you grow in this life. If your guiding principle is “personal growth” then you should probably be OK so long as you remain willing to take action and make positive changes.