What is it like to be in recovery from addiction?
You may be wondering that if you are addicted to alcohol or other drugs and you are sitting on the fence as to whether you want to try to change your life.
Of course in this case, “sitting on the fence” most likely means “being in denial.”
I know because I used to be sitting on that same fence of denial, wondering how badly my life would suck if I were to get clean and sober.
To be honest, I really thought that my life would get worse. This is why I was trapped in addiction. I did not want to get clean and sober because I truly believed that I would be miserable.
So I stayed stuck in my addiction for many years due to this stubborn belief…the belief that I would be even more unhappy if I were to give up my drug of choice.
But of course eventually I reached the ever elusive “turning point” and I made the decision to give recovery a chance anyway. Even though I was sure that it would not work out for me. Even though I was sure that I would be even more miserable while sober. Even though I was dead set against the idea of quitting drugs and alcohol and thus “giving up my freedom.” (even though being clean and sober would actually give me much more freedom, I could not see that at the time).
What my life looked like in very early recovery
In my very early recovery I simply asked for help and then went to rehab.
This was all I could do to try to straighten my life out. I was at a point where I no longer cared much about my own well being. I was miserable from drugs and alcohol and so I had no self esteem left. I was thoroughly sick and tired of being sick and tired, as they say.
So I finally asked for help and the people around me arranged for me to go to rehab. So I went to treatment.
This had happened before, this going to rehab thing. Twice before, actually. Both times I was lacking a very important ingredient, which was “total and complete surrender.” Because I was not fully ready to change my life, those two previous attempts both failed miserably.
But this time was different. I was thoroughly whipped. Beaten. I had enough. I wanted out. And I was willing to do whatever it took in order to build a new life.
Including listening to other people and actually following their advice.
So I went to detox and residential treatment. At the time this was no longer a 28 day thing, instead it had been reduced to roughly 10 days or so.
While I was there I knew that I needed more help than a 10 day program. A lot more help.
The counselors and therapists in the past had always pushed me to go to long term rehab, but I had always refused.
This time was different. This time, I was willing to do whatever it took. And I knew that I needed to make a major change if I was going to escape my old life.
So I agreed to go to long term rehab. The place I was going wanted a six month commitment at the minimum, up to two years at the max.
I ended up living there for 20 months. Best decision I ever made. By far, the best decision I ever made. It was really the turning point of my life.
Not just going to detox and short term rehab, but making the decision to enter long term treatment and sticking it out for almost two years. That was the real turning point in my life. After that, everything just kept getting better and better.
During this time in treatment I was required to do certain things. I had to do the “90 meetings in 90 days” thing and I did so very willingly. I also had to get a sponsor and start working through the steps. I did this things to the best of my ability.
After the 90 and 90 I was required to do 3 meetings per week. I generally did between 3 and 1 meeting per week during my stay there. They did not seem to check very closely how much I was attending meetings, which was fine with me. They did random drug and alcohol testing nearly every week as well.
So I lived in long term treatment for the first two years. I went back to community college. I got a job. This was my life in early recovery.
What my life looked like at 18 months sober
At 18 months sober I was still living in long term rehab but I was starting to transition out of it. I was also starting to transition away from the daily meetings, though it would be about another six months until I left them entirely. But I was definitely only going once or twice a week at this point.
I moved in with another recovering alcoholic who had more sober time than I did. This worked out well until he moved on.
Then I lived with another person in recovery. He too moved on eventually, moving in with a romantic pursuit and then eventually relapsing.
So eventually I ended up living by myself, which seems to suit me pretty well. Less drama that way, especially when you are living with others in recovery who may not be as stable as you are.
A day in the life of a drug addict at a few years sober
So I have been sober for 12 years+ now and during the first 18 months or so I went to daily AA meetings. Since then I have quit going entirely.
This does not mean that I have “no recovery in my life,” however.
I still do a lot with recovery online. I interact with many people who are struggling to get clean and sober.
For about 5 years during my recovery I also worked in a rehab. That was an interesting experience and it taught me some deep things about recovery as well. Not only do clients relapse but sometimes the staff does as well. Interesting stuff, and you can learn a lot if you are willing to pay attention to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lessons.
So what did I do all day if I was not going to meetings and talking with my sponsor all the time?
I lived life. I worked. I went to school and finished a 4 year degree. I built a business that later became very successful. I worked hard and enjoyed time with friends and family. I wrote about recovery and I kept a journal. I pushed myself to learn and to grow in recovery, without the framework of AA in the background.
Recovery is not about recovery…..recovery is about life. You are supposed to live your life. If you cannot do that without a program, then find yourself a program. But understand that the point of a recovery program is so that you can……recover your life. That’s the whole point. To live life, to love others, to enjoy your freedom from addiction. I think some people miss that when they get wrapped up in recovery programs. Not everyone, but some people. They can get carried away.
One of my favorite analogies in recovery has to do with the old Zen proverb about “the finger pointing at the moon.” The master says: “what is that?” while pointing up at the moon. The student answers “The moon.” Incorrect. That is just a finger pointing at the moon!
Don’t make that mistake in recovery. Your daily AA meetings are not recovery. They are only trying to point you toward recovery. The thing that points is not the thing itself.
And so this is what I tried to follow in defining my life in everyday recovery. Live, learn, grow, help others, enjoy life. Don’t mistake your recovery program for real life. It only points you towards real life. But it is not the thing itself.
What my life is like today after over a decade of recovery
After a few years in recovery it becomes less of an issue. You no longer have to struggle through each day to remain sober. It is no longer a daily challenge to resist alcohol.
Then you are living life. You can still relapse, of course. No one is ever fully immune. No alcoholic is ever cured. This is why people still relapse after 5, 10, 20 years sober. It happens.
It happens because they get lazy and they stop growing. A perfect storm hits right when they are vulnerable and weak, before they realized that they had been backsliding for several months or even years.
How do you stop yourself from backsliding?
You do so by staying vigilant.
People talk all the time about “relapse prevention.” It is a buzzword. What can we do to prevent relapse? What are the proper steps to take? Etc.
Personal growth is relapse prevention. Period. That’s the whole secret.
If you are partial to AA then steps 10 through 12 can be used as a formula for lifelong recovery. That may or may not be a good fit for you. If so then you have a set of instructions for how to keep pushing yourself to learn and to grow. Daily review, helping others, spirituality. It’s all there. You can maintain sobriety with those 3 steps alone if you choose.
But it’s not for everyone. I have to frame my “sobriety maintenance” in a different light in order to make it work for me.
Personal growth is the key. If you stop growing then you are not learning. If you are not growing and learning then you are stuck.
Keep in mind that your natural state is to drink and use drugs. That is normal for you. That is your baseline.
If nothing changes then you will eventually revert to that. Relapse is inevitable if you do not take action. It is certain to happen in the long run unless you take action to prevent it.
And the way to prevent it is to move away from it, each and every day.
Every single day you must move in the other direction.
Think of a line. In the middle is the zero point, this represents the day you got clean and sober. Somewhere down around negative 10 is a relapse. If you are at negative 5 then you are in the danger zone and you are already hanging around the wrong crowd, fantasizing about drinking, etc. Up around positive 10 is where you are completely protected from relapse and you are taking action every day that helps to keep you sober.
When you start out and get sober on day one you are right in the middle. If you start taking positive action and going to meetings and pushing yourself to grow then you move up into positive territory. You move further away from relapse.
If you suddenly stop going to meetings and you are no longer taking any positive action in your life then you start to go back down the scale. If you really get lazy then you fall into the negative. At some point you will relapse if nothing changes.
The way to work this game is to take positive action each and every day. This insures that you do not fall into relapse.
If you are excited about life and excited about the growth you are making and you actually start looking forward to new challenges then you are nowhere near a relapse.
Think about that for a moment. If you are excited to wake up each day and you know there will be challenges but you are bursting with joy and happiness and excitement to meet those challenges then it is impossible for you to relapse. This is relapse prevention done right.
So how do you get there?
It takes work. It does not happen overnight. You don’t get to this point after one week sober. It may take one year, it may take a few months, it may take several years. But it will come if you keep working at it.
Recovery is about accumulation. You take positive action and you get benefit from doing so. Usually the benefit is so small and delayed that you cannot notice it. But after 2 years of taking positive action every single day, it all adds up. Suddenly you are living an awesome life. This is what happened to me. I one day realized that I had graduated college, I had built a successful business, I had amazing relationships in my life, I was exercising every single day, I felt amazing and life was full of opportunity. And this did not happen overnight. It took lots of work. But after you build up these positive changes over time they start to multiply on themselves. This is why I advocate for holistic growth rather than just spiritual growth. If you take a holistic approach then everything starts to work together eventually. Your “wins” multiply with each other. Life gets really, really good. But it takes time. It takes time and it takes persistent effort. In the beginning you will be bored and you will not see the tiny progress add up at first. Therefore patience is key.
Each day is a gift and an opportunity. You must remain grateful for it or lose it all
Gratitude is the final frontier in recovery. It is the endgame.
If you miss out on this critical lesson then you might lose everything.
Be grateful for your life in recovery and you can live to enjoy another day.
Turn up your nose at the rewards of recovery and you will eventually choose alcohol or drugs again.
Gratitude has amazing power but it takes work, just like everything else.
You can cultivate gratitude. You can learn to use it. You can practice it. It is something you grow, and develop.
Each day is a gift. If you never feel excited to get up in the morning in anticipation of the day, then what good is that? Misery can grow until you relapse if you are not careful.
Therefore you must find a way to get excited, to become passionate about life, to be grateful for existence itself and the opportunities that it brings.
Life gets better and better in recovery if you take positive action each day. The right attitude makes all the difference.
Be grateful and life rewards you. If you are not grateful then all you will notice are the bad things. Thus your journey in recovery becomes framed by your attitude and your perception.