Yesterday we attempted to explain the mechanics of sustainable sobriety. Today we are going to try to discover the best strategy for overcoming your drug addiction or alcoholism, and how you can apply such a strategy in your life.
Recovery is more than just meetings or basic tactics – why you need a unified strategy
I have seen a very common fallacy in early recovery among many people, and this fallacy is based on the idea that all you need to recover is a single tactic. For example, someone might argue that “AA meetings are all you need. Just focus on getting to meetings every day, and you’ll do fine.”
This may seem to work for some people, some of the time….but it certainly does not work for everyone in recovery, all of the time.
I have to admit that I was first entering the world of recovery, I did not know what to expect and I really did not understand how sobriety was going to work out for me. I also had no idea how it would work out for those around me, which was important to me. My peers and their progress in recovery was very important to me because:
1) I got hope from other people in recovery who were successful at achieving long term sobriety.
2) I learned from observation and if someone in recovery seemed to be doing well and achieving long term sobriety then I wanted to know what their strategy and tactics were.
3) If everyone around me was relapsing it could get a bit discouraging.
So it was not “all about me” in early recovery. I was very much aware of my peers and their progress (or lack of success) when it came to recovery.
And through all of my observations I was constantly judging and evaluating others. How could you not? I wanted to know what really worked. So much of the recovery process was shrouded in mystery for me. People would even say things in the meetings like “don’t try to think this thing through, just take our advice point blank, without asking questions, and your life will get better.” They would also say things like “if you try to take control of your own recovery you are likely to screw it all up. Better just to follow advice and do as you’re instructed in AA,” etc.
This general attitude did not sit well with me. It was as if the 12 step program was saying “here, follow these tactics blindly, just trust us on this, and do not worry about the overall strategy for your recovery.” In fact there did not seem to be any discussion of an overall recovery strategy in AA but rather just a list of tactics. Perhaps this is all part of the “keep it simple” idea, but following a list of 12 steps is not necessarily simple. We could also argue that the 12 step philosophy would have broke down in a much simpler strategy, such as:
1) Embrace abstinence and find God.
2) Work to improve your character defects.
3) Help others to recover and spread a message of hope about addiction.
Thus the entire 12 step program may have been better presented as just 3 simple strategies, those being abstinence, spirituality, and fellowship. Or as they say in the meetings sometimes: “Find God, clean house, and help others.” This is neatly summarized and allows for much flexibility. On the other hand, the 12 steps are presented as a list of actions to take and are not very flexible. Do this, then do that, then do this. I am sure this is by design and being specific does have some advantages.
On the other hand, during long term sobriety this set of 12 instructions becomes less powerful than a flexible strategy. Knowing that the idea is to “find God, clean house, and help others” gives you much more flexibility when it comes down to actually living your daily life, making decisions, and moving towards a more healthy life in recovery. If you rigidly stick to the 12 steps and cannot read between the lines a bit (seeing the overall strategy) then you will miss out on many growth opportunities.
For example, when I first got into recovery I was ready to study the literature, listen carefully at meetings, and “get this recovery thing down pat.” After a few months my sponsor was pushing me to do things that did not seem to be very recovery related. He wanted me to go back to college. He wanted me to start dating. He wanted me to get a job. He wanted me to start exercising.
I was confused by all of this. It seemed like too many distractions. But obviously it was time for me to shift from “early recovery, show me how to get through the day without drinking” to something more like “OK I am stable now in recovery, what am I going to do in order to grow and improve as a person?”
The tactics that were laid out in AA could only take me so far, but then recovery had to become about “living in the real world again.” This is not to say that I was suddenly ignoring the basics of recovery or forgetting where I came from. Instead, I think you get to a point where you have mastered the basic tactics in early recovery, and now it is time to grow and move on to that next level. Recovery is about personal growth and the suggestions that you hear in AA are not exactly comprehensive.
I needed a strategy at some point and I started to develop one as I watched certain people relapse in early recovery. When one person would fall to their addiction I wanted to understand why. How had it happened? How could I prevent it from happening to me?
One way is to simply look at what everyone else is doing and try to copy them. This can work up to a point but it cannot necessarily solve all of your problems in long term sobriety. This last point was very important to me and it was setting off all sorts of alarm bells in my mind. Why were people with multiple years of sobriety relapsing in AA and NA? How did that happen? Didn’t they get stronger in their long term recovery, rather than more vulnerable? Obviously I was missing something.
Could the answer just be “tactics, tactics, tactics.” If you listened closely at AA meetings then this was the answer. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There was a strong emphasis on the fundamentals, on the basics of recovery. If someone had 20 years sober and they relapsed in AA, people blamed it on the fact that the person had drifted away from the tactics that had worked so well for them in the early years. The common refrain is always “they quit going to meetings” and so on.
If you listen to the advice and wisdom around the tables of AA, then the answer is to go back to the basics, go back to the tactics that got you clean and sober to begin with, and do more of that. If you relapsed it is because you drifted too far from what initially worked for you. Go back to the basics.
I disagree with this concept. I don’t think going backwards is the right approach. This is just going back to the “kindergarten tactics” that worked in early recovery. The idea should be to move forward instead, to embrace personal growth and to get stronger in your journey.
This requires the ability to think on your own two feet and adapt in your life. If you see an opportunity for growth then you might pursue it, even if it is not an AA approved recovery concept. I built my own business at the advice of no one (most discouraged me actually) and in doing so found a way to connect with thousands of struggling addicts and alcoholics. No one in AA pushed me to do this and in fact they mostly cautioned me against it.
At some point you may find yourself in situations where the tactics that got you through your first 30 days of sobriety may no longer apply. Or you may find yourself in a situation where those tactics are temporarily rendered useless. Recovery literature typically acknowledges this possibility and they suggest that this is why you need a higher power. I would rephrase that slightly and suggest that this is why you need an overall strategy for your recovery. If you have some guiding principles in place that can help you to make healthy decisions then you will be that much more prepared for the inevitable twists and turns that you will experience on your recovery journey.
What would such a recovery strategy look like? I built mine on the following ideas and concepts:
1) Abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol has to remain my number one priority.
2) Personal growth is cumulative. Taking positive action every day yields incredible results downstream. Delay gratification and thus raise your overall happiness in the long run.
3) Holistic health should be a priority. This means seeking better health in all areas of your life, not just spiritual growth (as is dictated by AA/NA). Exercise, for example, can play a huge part in recovery if you are willing to take action and make a commitment (in particular, exercise has played a huge role in my own recovery).
Total abstinence while seeking holistic health and personal growth.
Relapse prevention is best accomplished by a proactive strategy. Most of 12 step recovery talks about reactive tactics for preventing relapse, such as by calling a friend when you have a craving, etc. My approach is to form a recovery strategy by which you are preventing relapse via personal growth. If you are taking positive action every day of your life then the chance for relapse is kept well at bay.
Ask any addict or alcoholic and you will confirm the fact that drug addiction and alcoholism are cumulative diseases. The chaos and the misery that you experience in addiction accumulates over time. It does this slowly enough that denial is able to creep in and convince you that things are not so bad.
At first, of course, we fall in love with our drug of choice and there is almost no hint of consequences. Things are fun and this is why we become addicted. We cannot yet imagine things turning miserable based on our drug or alcohol use.
As things progress we start to experience consequences. This is what they refer to as the progressive nature of addiction. It gets worse over time. If you drink and drive all the time then eventually your alcoholism will get worse and you will get into trouble. Keep doing it and you will suffer greater and greater consequences. Your tolerance will change over time and the way that your body processes your drug of choice will start to change.
Really if you look back over an addiction you can see how the negative consequences in your life were accumulating all along. They just kept piling up, getting worse, and leading to more and more negative consequences. For example, you might lose your job based on your addiction, but this in turn might create more negative consequences down the road, such as losing your transportation or straining a relationship to the breaking point. Thus the negative consequences of addiction can have more then just negative affects….they can create ripples of negative change. Thus the misery and chaos of addiction builds on itself. The negativity creates more negative experiences. It’s a downward spiral of destruction.
Recovery seeks to reverse all of this, and therefore your recovery strategy should reflect this. One of the important concepts to remember in early recovery is that “it gets greater later.” This is not just some dumb tactic though, this is a crucial part of your overall strategy! Life gets really, really good in recovery….but you have to give it time.
And, you have to put in the effort. Personal growth is cumulative. You cannot expect to just sober up one day and have this magical new happy life where everything is suddenly perfect again. It takes time to heal. It takes time to rebuild all of the broken parts of your life. Some may get discouraged and feel that it is an impossible task, that it may not even be worth it.
I can assure you that it is most definitely worth it. So long as you have a solid recovery strategy then your life will get better and better over time. If you take positive action every day then it will accumulate in the long haul.
Picture someone who goes from being completely out of shape to running a marathon. They don’t do this overnight. It takes time. They have a basic tactic (run a bit further each day or each week) but they are also governed by an overall strategy. Their strategy is one that guides them to make consistent choices, every day, in order to one day be able to run that race.
It’s easy to get discouraged, whether you are trying to recover from addiction, or get into shape for a race. You may have a tough day (or a tough training run) and just want to trash the idea. This is why you need to think long term. This is why you need to understand how your life is slowly transforming based on your overall strategy.
If you do lots of progressively longer training runs, then someday you can run a marathon.
If you take positive actions every day in your recovery, then someday your life will be transformed and you will be a great deal happier than you ever were in addiction. You just have to give it time to accumulate. It does not happen overnight. We will take all sorts of positive action in our recovery journey without seeing an immediate reward. “It gets greater, later.”
Form your recovery strategy accordingly.
How to form a recovery strategy
You could always just borrow someone else’s recovery strategy, or you could put in some careful thought and form your own.
I am still a firm believer that early recovery demands that you get out of your own way a bit. Every person who is struggling to get clean and sober should start by asking for help, and following advice.
This may seem a bit counter-intuitive to what I have said so far, because if you take advice from others then how are you really following your own recovery strategy?
Here is the truth of the matter:
Early recovery demands that you get out of your own way. Ask for help, humble up, and take advice. This is what you will hear in treatment and it is also what you will probably hear in AA. I agree with this approach for early recovery.
Where I start to differ though is in the transition to long term recovery. I don’t think you should blindly follow basic recovery tactics and just sit in church basements the rest of your life doing meetings and such. My belief is that you should develop and embrace your own recovery strategy, one that allows you to grow in your own way in recovery.
So here are some suggestions as to how you can make this transition into long term recovery. This is about “finding your own path,” but you will notice that other people can still be a big part of this if you let them (and I believe that you should, in most cases):
1) Embrace the cycle of personal growth
Is recovery all about pushing yourself all day, every day, without ever taking any rest or allowing yourself to simply enjoy the moment?
Of course not. Personal growth has to be balanced with reflection, relaxation, and enjoyment. My thought is that I generally am either in one mode, or in the other. But not both at the same time.
I like to set a goal, push hard to achieve it, then reflect for a while on what the outcomes were. This reflection includes some thinking along the lines of “OK, I achieved that goal….now what do I want to try to change next in my life?”
Thus you are embarking on a cycle of personal growth. You don’t have to wear yourself out. Allow time for reflection and also time to plan for future changes.
2) Explore recovery tactics
Seek advice, try new things, take different actions. Most people never act on the advice they are given. Buck this trend and actually take a few suggestions from others, trying different tactics in recovery. For example, I thought exercise (and in particular jogging) was pretty awful until I finally give it a fair chance. Now I would not dream of going without regular exercise, and it has a tremendous impact on my recovery. But I had to be willing to explore this particular idea, and I was not willing to do so until my second or third year of recovery.
3) Seek feedback and advice from others
Perhaps this is the most counter-intuitive suggestion when it comes to forming your own recovery strategy, but it still works: ask other people what they think you should do.
Don’t worry! You are still the ultimate judge of what your recovery strategy consists of. But you will open up new avenues of growth and tons of potential if you are willing to seek advice from others and ask for their feedback. You don’t have to do everything they suggest. You will not sacrifice your independence or own ideas just by listening to their suggestions.
All of this is part of the iterative process of self discovery, and finding out what really works for you in recovery and what does not. You cannot discover your perfect strategy unless you are willing to explore a bit. Set yourself up for success by exploring lots of options, being open minded, and giving things a genuine chance to work in your life. Follow these concepts for a few years (or even months!) and you will find yourself forming your own personal recovery strategy, and defining your own path of success.