Not everyone experiences resounding success in their addiction recovery journey. Many struggle just to remain clean and sober, while many others will maintain sobriety while staying generally unhappy with things. In order to for recovery to keep getting better and better over time, certain conditions need to be met. Namely, daily growth has to be happening in such a way that we are continuously improving ourselves and our lives.
People in traditional recovery can experience this often when they attend 12 step meetings every day but refuse to “do the work.” They will show up every day and they may even share about their struggles in recovery but they are not really being proactive or anything. In some cases people are just sort of “whining their way through recovery” and are not really focused on their own personal growth and progress. They cling to their sobriety through the daily meeting routine but they are not exactly building strength for the future. Obviously this is a situation we want to avoid.
How we hold ourselves back in recovery
What typically happens in recovery is that someone will ask for help, perhaps either go to treatment or rehab or meetings, and then they will find some amount of stability in their lives. They stop using their drug of choice and they establish some sort of baseline of recovery.
Now if you happen to be working a 12 step program at this point then your path should be clear enough: you need full immersion in the program, you need to get heavily involved in sponsorship, in working with other recovering alcoholics, in studying the literature and in working the steps. Most people in AA do not go this route and instead they sort of “hang out around AA,” just enough to keep themselves sober but not enough to really experience the awesome growth that recovery has to offer.
Notice that I am not suggesting here that everyone necessarily has to go to AA and dive head first into their program. What I am suggesting here is that the intensity with which you attack recovery must be much higher than what most people predict or envision. The fact is that when you think about how much dedication it will take to have an awesome new life in recovery you are probably aiming a bit low. And even if you are not aiming too low, what would you have to lose by setting your sights even higher and saying “I am going to push myself even harder to grow, to become a better person, to be healthier, and to protect myself from the threat of relapse.” The vast majority of people relapse due to lack of commitment and lack of total surrender, so why not error in the other direction on this one? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. No one complains that they over-committed in their recovery, but many regret the fact that they under-committed.
Another way that we hold ourselves back in recovery is out of sheer laziness. What if I told you that daily vigorous exercise is one of the single most important things that most people could do in order to protect themselves from relapse in long term recovery? I know, I know…..you try your best to exercise here and there but you don’t really do it as often as you like, right? That might not describe you but it is the average response to this question, because most people are just too lazy to prioritize getting into great shape. We make excuses about our busy lives and how we don’t have any time but if you look at the dedicated fitness freaks in the world you obviously see that this is just an excuse. The fitness crowd that is fully dedicated to being in shape make their health and their fitness their first priority, then they build the rest of their lives around this, squeezing in the rest of their schedule around their exercise. My belief is that daily vigorous exercise is one of the strongest forms of relapse prevention, but I have also found over the years that this is one solution that most people simply do not want to hear about. “Can’t you give me a meditation book to read that has little sayings in it each day or something?” they might ask. They don’t want to do the hard work. They want the easier, softer way.
So we hold ourselves back because we typically take “the path of least resistance” in our lives, and the biggest growth experience is often found in our greatest challenge, or when facing our greatest fear. If really want to accelerate your growth in recovery then look squarely at your fears and attempt to face them head on. I have to admit that this technique is even a bit too scary for my tastes, and I fully admit that I hold myself back in some ways, preferring to confront my own fears only when I am left with no alternative choices. Some people recommend that you actively seek your fears out and confront them head on, thus accelerating your personal growth beyond what your normal path in life would have produced for you.
A continuous learning process
Recovery keeps getting better over time only when we are actively engaged in the growth process. This means continuous learning and therefore if you stop learning in your recovery then you will also stop making personal growth, and you will not be as happy with your results.
The end of learning can happen based on “guru-ism” in the 12 step program, when someone believes that they have learned all that they can in that particular circle. They may pay lip service to the idea that they never stop learning in recovery, but deep down they may have studied the steps and the literature so much that they actually believe that they have learned everything that recovery has to offer them. If they start to turn up their nose at the newcomer and say that each person has nothing new to teach them, then they are in trouble. The reason for this is because the recovery process generally involves continuous learning based on our evolving experiences. We need to keep learning and in some ways we need to keep relearning old lessons as we change as a person. Sometimes we have evolved and become a new person in recovery and so therefore we may need to relearn an old lesson in order to keep “getting it.” In some ways we have to keep reinventing ourselves in recovery because if we do not then we will slowly revert back into that default persona that likes to self medicate all the time.
This is why they preach about humility in recovery, because those who shut themselves off to the learning process have sealed their own fate and are now on a slow path to relapse. When we stop taking in new information about how to live successfully in recovery we basically are saying that we have all of the answers and that there is nothing new that we can learn about how to improve our own life. Obviously we do not want to have this attitude because in doing so we will be restricting what we can learn and how we can grow in our recovery journey.
Commitment to daily positive action
If your recovery has stalled for any reason and you do believe that you have made any growth or progress for some time, it is time to take corrective action.
You cannot change your situation by sitting around and thinking about it though. Instead, the only thing that makes sense for you to do is to decide on a course of positive action and start pursuing it with great enthusiasm and commitment.
You have probably heard the saying “two steps forward, three steps back.” Think about this in terms of your growth in recovery and realize that many people do exactly what is suggested in this phrase, thus sabotaging their efforts in recovery. They might make some growth in one area, such as spiritually, but then they might take three steps back in another area, such as by hanging around with an old drinking buddy. This is just a random example, you have to think about your entire life and realize that there are many different areas in which you might make positive growth, and also many things that you could do that might hurt your recovery effort.
So there are a couple of goals here: one is to make each day a net positive, to take positive actions every day without taking too many steps backwards (if any). My way of thinking about this is to “lock in the gains.” For example, with the regular exercise stuff, I did not just approach it with the idea that I might exercise for a month or two. I approached it with the idea that I would keep doing this forever, and if it was not what I wanted then I would find a different exercise, a different way to be healthy, but it was a lifetime commitment, something that I wanted to lock in permanently.
The other idea that you should embrace is to get a specific goal for yourself that will help to motivate you to take action. For example, one of my goals was to start a business so that I could escape from my day job. This took a lot of focus and commitment and most of all it took persistence. I had to persist, I had to keep taking those daily actions, every day I had to put in more effort in order to build something that was positive and successful, and I had to keep doing this for a long time.
Probably any goal that you have in recovery that is actually worthwhile is going to demand this intense level of commitment and persistence. In becoming a runner and getting into shape I had to have that same level of commitment and that same drive and persistence.
Another goal that I conquered in my own personal recovery journey was to quit smoking cigarettes. Again, do you think that this took commitment and persistence? You bet it did. It took a whole lot of commitment and it was actually this goal that opened up the floodgates for me, causing me to realize that I could conquer nearly any goal that I set for myself.
Do you notice a pattern here?
Find a goal in recovery, something that matters a great deal to you, something that would mean a lot if you were to achieve it, and then work your tail off to meet that goal. Commit fully to that goal, just like you committed to your recovery and abstinence. This new goal that you have for yourself, whatever it may be (quitting smoking, getting into shape, losing weight, career advancement, getting more education, etc.) is really just an extension of your commitment to sobriety and recovery. You have dedicated your life to sobriety but really what you have done is dedicated your life to a better YOU. That is the recovery journey and that is the recovery process. It is not about quitting drugs and alcohol, that is the not the point. The point is to grow as a person and to learn new things and to become the person that you are really supposed to be, a much better person who is learning new things and experiencing growth. That is the real point of recovery and so abstinence from drugs and alcohol is merely the prerequisite for that to happen. You can’t even get started on that until you get clean and sober and find some stability. It is only then that you can enter this recovery process where you make continuous growth and your life starts getting better and better.
You did not get clean and sober to just sit around all day and exist and maybe watch some television. That is the not the point of sobriety and if you sit idle in your recovery and avoid all growth experiences then you are not going to feel that “recovery keeps getting better and better.”
Your life should keep getting better and better and if it is not then this is a clear sign that you are not challenging yourself enough. You have to take action and you have to push yourself to grow and you have to set some goals for yourself.
Get some goals (or just get one big goal) and then start making daily action to achieve it. Take positive action every single day and your life will get better and better. Lock in the positive changes in your life and keep striving to make more positive changes. Take two steps forward every day and rarely (if ever) take a step back. You can do this by choosing deliberate growth in your life. You can do this by setting a goal for yourself, a big goal that would actually make a real difference in your life and have a big impact, and then pushing yourself really hard every single day to achieve that goal.
What is the point of recovery if you merely exist and sit by idle as the world passes you by? The point is to change, to grow, to evolve, to take positive action. If you are bored or frustrated in your recovery journey then I can assure you that you are not doing this growth process, you are not pushing yourself toward an exciting goal for yourself, and you are not going to feel that your life gets better and better every day. It is only through taking deliberate positive action every day that your life will get better every day.
Figuring out what you want versus avoiding what you do not want
So how do you do this?
How do you take positive action every day, and then have your life get better and better?
It sounds awesome, right? So how can we achieve this?
First, let me tell you how NOT to achieve it. Do not say to yourself “I want to avoid drugs and alcohol, so I will avoid relapse and maybe if I hang around a recovery program that will help me.”
You can still find success in a recovery program but the attitude here is all wrong. Instead of trying to avoid something (relapse) you need to be much more pro-active about your relapse prevention effort.
You need to build something.
You need to create something.
The best defense is a good offense.
If you are scared about the possibility of relapse, you might sit around in 12 step meetings and hope that some magic rubs off on you, or you can get active, set some deliberate goals in your life, and start taking positive action to achieve those things.
(This can actually be done both in and out of 12 step programs, I just cite them as an example because so many people use meetings in the wrong way, as a daily venting session without doing any actual work in recovery. Sorry to pick on AA, you can certainly apply these ideas both in and out of that program).
When we made the decision to get clean and sober, we were moving AWAY from something. We knew that we were sick and tired of addiction, but we did not really know what to expect in recovery.
Now that we are in recovery and we have some stability it is no longer enough to move AWAY from addiction. We need to start building, creating, moving toward something positive. This is how relapse prevention is most effective.
If you want to prevent relapse, if you want your life to get better and better every day, then you need to create or build something positive in your life.
For example, pursuing fitness is an act of positive creation. It takes deliberate focus, you have to take deliberate actions, you have to commit to the goal and persist every day and after several weeks or months you have created something that is incredibly positive in your life.
Keep in mind too that if you set a goal like fitness and you follow through with it and persist and achieve greater health, you have actually benefited in a secondary and even more powerful way than in just achieving your desired goal to begin with. The “secret bonus” that you got from setting and meeting this difficult goal was the discipline you earned.
Normally I would not get excited about a concept like “discipline” but in recovery this stuff is like rocket fuel. Once I mastered the discipline needed to get into shape and quit smoking cigarettes, I realized that I could apply this new found discipline to anything that I wanted. At the time I choose to build a business for myself and that was an amazingly positive journey and growth experience for me. But I never would have taken that path unless I had first developed the discipline that I did when quitting smoking and getting into shape.
I never used to think of myself as being very disciplined but it can obviously be learned. Or rather, I believe that it is earned, not learned. You earn it when you set a tough goal for yourself and then you commit and persist and you muscle through until you meet that goal. Once you have done that then you have earned the right to do it again with another tough goal, a goal that is meaningful for you and will bring you much joy.
For me, this is the process of growth in recovery and this is how your life gets better and better over time. If you cannot tap into this process of challenging yourself to grow in recovery then it probably means you are complacent in some way. Coast along for too long in recovery and your drug of choice might start looking attractive again. On the other hand, push yourself to keep growing and the idea of relapse will be a very distant threat.