A reader recently made a comment on an article here on Spiritual River and asked: “What am I supposed to do after my life inside of drug rehab?”
That is a really good question, and I think part of that is what kept me from trying to get clean and sober for so long. I was so terrified of what my life would become without drugs and alcohol.
I mean….what would I do for fun? What would I do with my time each day if I was not going to be self medicating?
It turned out that my fear of boredom was completely unfounded, but how was I to know that at the time? When alcohol or your drug of choice is essentially your best friend, the thought of giving it up is really tough to deal with.
Furthermore, no amount of convincing could help me when I was still stuck in denial. I was at a rehab once when I heard someone talk about how great their life had become in addiction recovery, and it made a big impact on me. But I also realized that what they said did not have enough power to convince me to change my life. I was not ready to get clean and sober yet so I went back to drinking at that time, even though the ideas had a big impact on me. It wasn’t enough. The promise of a better life was not enough for me, because I was still in denial and I did not really believe that it was possible for me. I was still playing those mental games that alcoholics and addicts play in their minds. I was saying “well, maybe recovery worked out for you and led to happiness, but I am unique and different so I doubt it would work out the same for me….” Therefore I convinced myself that I would be safer to just keep using my drug of choice rather than to risk my future happiness on the idea that I might find a better life through abstinence.
One of the biggest problems that I had before I surrendered to my disease was that I could not envision a new life in recovery in which I was happy without drugs and alcohol. The problem was that I had come to rely entirely on getting drunk and high in order to “be happy.” If there was an event happening then I would only be happy at that event if I could also be drunk or heavily medicated. I was not happy unless I was getting drunk or high at the time. And this had gone on for so many years that I had trained myself to only really care about the buzz, and not about anything else that might happen in life. I no longer cared if there was something real that might make me happy in life; all I wanted was to get drunk and high all the time. That was how I produced my own happiness–through self medicating.
So when such a person is facing the possibility that they might quit using drugs and alcohol forever, the thought of facing life completely sober can be a bit overwhelming. What are they going to do for fun in the future? I really believed for a long time that I would be completely miserable if I ever got sober. I thought that I was completely unique, that no alcoholic or drug addict had ever existed before me that loved the buzz as much as I did. So I would rationalize like this: “Well maybe these other addicts and alcoholics have learned how to be happy again after getting clean and sober, but they are clearly not like me, they must not have loved drugs or alcohol as much as I do, and therefore I am different and unique.”
The addict is trapped and stuck in denial because they cannot seriously picture their life with happiness and joy in the future if you remove their drug of choice from the equation. They have come to rely on their drug of choice for their happiness, and they do not see another way.
When I finally got clean and sober I had to relearn how to create happiness in my life without drugs and alcohol. This was a learning process. It did not actually take all that long. But it was the fear of facing life totally sober that kept me stuck for so long. It was the idea of facing life without the crutch of alcohol and drugs that was so intimidating.
Aftercare can help guide you in recovery
So you go to drug rehab and you get clean and sober. Rehab these days does not last very long due to the rising cost of health care (think weeks rather than months, even 28 day programs have become somewhat rare).
You leave treatment and are released back into the real world. Your goal is to remain clean and sober. So how do you go about doing this, and how do you build a new life in recovery?
The first and perhaps most important suggestion is to follow through with your aftercare. Most people don’t realize this, but your recovery journey really starts all over again the moment that you walk out of treatment. That is where the real challenge starts because now it is all up to you. The safety and support of inpatient rehab has been left behind, and now you must deal with triggers in the real world.
Every treatment center tries to give you recommendations for what to do after you leave. Every rehab plan includes some form of aftercare in which you are suggested to do certain things after you leave treatment. Your goal should be to follow through as best you can with any aftercare recommendations that they give you.
I screwed this up at least twice before I finally got it right. The first two times that I went to rehab I was definitely not in a state of full surrender and therefore I was not willing to follow through on my aftercare. The first time they told me to leave and start going to AA meetings every day. Had I done this with enthusiasm I may have had a fighting chance, but I was nowhere near ready at that time. So I did not go to any meetings and I quickly relapsed. The second time I went to rehab I was told to live in long term treatment for 90 days. I thought that this was an absurd suggestion at the time and I was terrified of the idea for some reason. So I promptly ignored this advice and ended up relapsing that time too.
The third (and final) time that I went to rehab I was finally willing to embrace aftercare. They suggested that I go to long term treatment and I agreed in full. I went to a long term treatment center and I lived there for 20 months, taking as many suggestions as I could and acting on them. My recovery did not go well until I was willing to embrace aftercare recommendations. I had to become willing in order to break through to success in my life.
The life that you create for yourself in recovery is about willingness. Without that element of willingness, you will not be able to succeed in creating new happiness for yourself.
Finding the right level of support that you need to maintain sobriety
Part of the journey in early recovery is about support. We can’t do it alone and this is evidenced by the fact that you are struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism until you finally check into rehab to get help. If you do not need to go to rehab in order to overcome your problem then that is great; you do not have an addiction. On the other hand if you find that you need professional help to get clean and sober (and stay that way) then you are a true addict or alcoholic and you will likely need additional support.
There is nothing wrong with the need for support and we all have a different set of circumstances in our lives. There are also going to be variations in terms of the timelines that you need support for.
For example, I needed a lot of extra support for the first two years so I lived in a long term treatment center for that time period. But then after leaving long term treatment I have found other avenues of growth and I do not attend meetings or need treatment any longer (though I still take action in my recovery, I just don’t seek out group support any longer).
Other people may be the complete opposite of me: For example, they may skip treatment altogether and attend AA meetings every day for the rest of their lives. So they are still in need of support but they are using it in an ongoing fashion rather than getting it all up front like I did. Whatever works for you. The key is that you need to realize that everyone in early recovery likely needs some level of support in order to remain clean and sober, and therefore it is your responsibility to test this out so that you can remain sober.
3 things to consider: education, career, fitness
There is more to life in recovery than treatment and AA meetings.
When I was living in long term treatment I got a sponsor in my life who was pushing me to do some things that made me uncomfortable. I am not sure what my problem was at the time but I did not want to be pushed to, for example, go back to college. But that is what my sponsor was doing, he was pushing me to go back to school and finish up my degree. I did not realize it at the time but this was a huge part of my recovery and this was the kind of real world growth that helps people to remain clean and sober.
One of my therapists in early recovery pushed me to exercise. Again, I thought that this was unrelated to sobriety. How wrong could I have been? Exercise turned out to be a huge part of my journey in recovery, and it is one of the pillars of my sobriety today. Exercise to me is the same as AA meetings are for many others. It is a huge part of my recovery.
And then of course if you work for a living then you have a huge opportunity to change your life in a profound way in recovery.
At one point early in my recovery I got a job that was not necessarily meaningful for me. Later on one of my peers in recovery encouraged me to apply for a job in the same treatment center where I had become clean and sober. I did this and my life took on more meaning while I worked there. But I pushed on even further after that I was able to create a vision for my life in which I was doing the work that I truly wanted to do. I had to work hard in order to achieve this new reality but it was certainly worth it in the end.
When I look back at my early recovery I can clearly see that these three things (education, career, fitness) were all a major part of what helped to shape a more positive life for me in recovery. They helped to answer the question: “What am I going to do all day now that I am sober?”
I am sure there are other avenues to building a new life as well. For example, most people in early recovery actually take much more of a relationship-focused path in building a new existence for themselves. In other words, they focus on the new relationships that they are creating through their peers, through AA, through their sponsor, and so on. I tended to focus less on relationships and more on the actual goals and the personal growth. But new relationships can certainly be a part of those new goals for you as well, if you choose. And this also goes back to the idea that “we all need different levels of support in recovery.” Some of us may be a people-person, and therefore we will tend to focus on networking and relationships. Others may be more independent and want to focus more on personal growth, reaching goals, and making individual changes. It is your responsibility in recovery to find a path that works for you.
Finding your purpose in life
My suggestion to you is this:
Don’t worry about finding purpose in your life. It will find you. This is true so long as you are striving to take positive action each day, being eager to learn more about yourself in recovery, and being willing to take action and do positive things in your life.
During my early recovery I was worried that I did not have a purpose. I compared myself to other people and I was disappointed in myself that I was not more passionate about a given cause like they were.
This was a mistake. Don’t beat yourself up because you think that you have no purpose. Your life will take on meaning as you remain clean and sober. It will take time, perhaps several years even. This is OK. There is nothing wrong with spending several years “finding yourself” in recovery. There is no rush for instant understanding. Remember: People who make progress too quickly in recovery often relapse. They are racing ahead for no particular reason, and they miss the whole show due to their hurry. What is the point of this?
Allow yourself to be where you are on the growth curve. Remember that recovery is all about personal growth. What can you learn about yourself today?
Purpose will come to you as you continue to create your new life in recovery. My belief is that addiction recovery is a creative act. We have to actually build a new life in recovery in order to replace the old life. This is an act of creation and it takes time and energy. You can’t do it all at once. Because you are doing it for the long term, it is important to have the right strategy. My suggestion is that your strategy be guided by the idea of taking positive action. That way you can accumulate positive changes over time simply by taking consistent action.
Someone who runs a marathon does so after they take consistent action for a long time. They run a little bit more with each passing day until they build up to a great distance and finally reach their goal. In essence, they are “accumulating fitness” on a daily basis as they train for the big race.
This is how you should view your recovery from addiction. You want to accumulate positive change on a daily basis.
Every day is another opportunity for you in recovery. Learn something about yourself. Take positive action. And be consistent, because you can only build an amazing new life for you if you maintain this positive momentum over the long haul.
What is your vision of the future?
You may not have a clear vision of the future in early recovery, and that is OK. If that is the case then you should simply keep taking positive action on a regular basis.
Follow suggestions from other people. Why do so many of us in recovery have such a distaste for taking orders from others? This stubborn streak only serves to hurt us in the long run. The fact is, other people have wisdom in recovery that we can benefit from if we are willing to follow their example.
My life got a whole lot better when I forced myself to start taking suggestions in early recovery. Every thing that my therapists, counselors, and sponsor told me to do, I gave it an honest try. Some things ended up working out really well and a few other suggestions fizzled out and produced nothing for me. But the key is that I was taking action. I kept taking new suggestions and implementing them in my life, trying them out, taking action. This is what led to my eventual success in recovery. Because I was willing to try, to take action, to do something different. I was willing to listen to others and to take their suggestions, even though I thought that I was smarter than they were in many cases. But it doesn’t matter how smart you are, because you can never know everything that you need to know in order to succeed in early recovery without seeking help from others.
Your vision of the future will slowly take shape as you remain clean and sober. Your life will take on new meaning and purpose on your recovery journey. It all starts by taking suggestions, becoming willing to take action, and being willing to learn more about yourself. Taking positive action every day will accumulate great benefits in the long run. You build a new life in recovery one day at a time.