Personal Growth in Recovery is Not Linear

Personal Growth in Recovery is Not Linear


We have already considered the idea that recovery is a process that actually changes and evolves over time, so it should come as no surprise that your actual growth in recovery will almost never be linear.

What is “linear” growth anyway?

The idea of linear growth is pretty simple. If you put in a modest effort over time, then you continuously get modest results from that effort as you go along.

Likewise, if you put in a very intense effort at something, then with linear growth you will get very intense results from that effort. In other words, your results that you achieve will always match your input.

There are many things in our lives where the results and our efforts match up in a very linear relationship. This is not uncommon.

But there are also examples of things in our lives where our efforts and results for something follow more of an “S” curve. Or at the very least they will share a curved relationship when you plot the effort and the results on a graph.

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This is an important concept to understand in recovery because it perfectly illustrates the following three ideas:

1) You need overwhelming force in order to get started in your recovery journey.
2) Holistic growth and positive changes tend to come easy once you have some momentum in your life.
3) After making several major positive changes in your life, the overall impact of additional changes begins to weaken.

Let’s look at all three of these ideas and see how they apply to your personal growth in recovery.

The slope of early recovery

Early recovery starts out very slowly, and is very difficult.

If you plot your results that you are getting in early recovery on a graph you will be very disappointed in the first few months of your recovery. You will not be getting anywhere real fast other than to barely stay clean and sober by the skin of your teeth. It is very likely that you will not be overly happy right off the bat in early recovery because your drug of choice will be suddenly stripped from your life. The amount of effort that is required to maintain sobriety at this early point in your journey is extremely high.

The idea here is that you get rewarded later, once you achieve stability in your recovery, and once life becomes natural, easy, and fun again while you are clean and sober. But you do not generally achieve this free-wheeling and easy going state of being during your first few weeks of sobriety. It takes time and it takes a lot of effort in order to get a stable and happy life back in recovery.

Thus the slope of effort and results in early recovery is somewhat depressing. You have to put forth a ton of effort just to get a few miserable weeks of sobriety under your belt, and from all indications it will not really seem to get any easier for quite a while. This is the reality of transitioning to the sober life. It is tough to do and if it were easy then addiction and alcoholism would not be a rampant problem.

So your growth in very early recovery is not linear at all. Instead, you have to put forth an unusually high amount of effort and make all sorts of sacrifices just to get what seems like a very small amount of progress. This is why people tend to fail over and over in early recovery, always underestimating what they have to do in order to remain clean and sober.

“Oh, I don’t need to go to inpatient rehab, that is just crazy, I could stay off drugs if I really tried without having to lock myself up, that is just too extreme for me.” So they underestimate what they need in order to get clean and sober and so the disease of addiction goes on dominating their life. They do not realize that they have to put in a massive amount of effort in early recovery just to get modest results.

People assume that growth in early recovery is going to be linear, and that if they put forth a modest effort that they will get modest results. This is not true. If you put forth a modest effort in early recovery you will relapse for sure.

Or even worse, people assume that they can put forth a very casual effort and still squeeze by with some decent results. This is completely mistaken and such people do not even stand a chance of getting clean and sober.

Eventually, over time and after many failed attempts to becoming clean and sober, most people finally figure out just how steep the growth curve is in early recovery. They finally figure out that putting forth a weak or a modest effort is just not going to cut it at all, and is not going to produce the results that they want (sobriety). So they finally become “willing to go to any lengths” and that generally means checking into an inpatient rehab facility and taking suggestions and advice from the people there.

The steep growth curve of early recovery is one of the toughest hurdles to success in getting clean and sober. Most people take at least a few attempts to sobriety before they really figure out that they have to use overwhelming force in order to overcome their addiction. In other words, they may have originally thought that they could beat their addiction by maybe attending counseling or therapy once or twice a week and simply avoiding certain people and places in their lives. In reality, they may later learn that they actually needed to go to inpatient (or even long term) rehab and that they had to change everything in their life, not just a few people and places but practically everything that they did and everywhere that they went.

For example, when I finally got clean and sober and managed to break through to successful recovery, I had to leave all of my “friends” behind, go live in long term rehab, quit my old job entirely and eventually find new employment, and find a whole new community and set of friends to become involved with. This was not a trivial amount of change. Instead, I changed my entire life, the whole thing, from top to bottom. Everything changed for me and that is just what it took in order to overcome my old life and my old addiction.

If the growth curve in early recovery were linear, then I only would have had to make a few modest changes, rather than to completely rearrange my entire life. But growth in recovery is far from linear. It is a demanding curve at first and that means that you must use overwhelming force and make seriously radical changes in order to make progress in very early recovery.

When things are going well in holistic recovery

Now later on in recovery things sort of change again and believe it or not the growth curve changes as well.

In very early recovery you had a steep growth curve and this meant that you had to put forth an extreme amount of effort just to get some tiny results. You practically had to move mountains just to string together 30 days of sobriety and in order to start making positive changes in your life and working on personal growth of any kind probably seemed like monumental task to say the least. Change is tough in the beginning and therefore it requires a ton of effort.

But after you are clean and sober for a few years then the ball starts to swing in the other direction. Suddenly all of that hard work and effort that you put in during early recovery is really starting to pay off and show better results for you. Not only that but you are increasingly aware of your personal growth in recovery and you are starting to see exactly how you can start to make your own changes and direct your own progress in life.

Recovery becomes a bit easier and personal growth becomes exciting. At this point the positive changes in your life are coming much easier than they did in the beginning and if you want to work on something in your life or make a positive change then you just go ahead and do it. You already know that it is very possible because of the success you had in overcoming your addiction in early recovery. Your limitations have been removed and therefore the effort that you have to make in order to accomplish anything is lessened a great deal. Now you know that positive change is within your grasp and you know exactly what you have to do to get it. You have learned how to direct your life in the direction you want it to go.

I experienced this point in my recovery when I had a few years clean and sober and I finally overcome my nicotine addiction. I had been smoking in my recovery for a while and I wanted to overcome the addiction very badly. I tried and tried to ditch the cigarettes and I failed many times. Finally though I put forth a massive effort and was able to overcome nicotine addiction for good. I was totally free from cigarettes and to be honest I was a little shocked when I finally achieved this goal.

And it was then that I had this revelation about personal growth in recovery:

I could do anything I wanted in life.

Really, this was not just some “motivational poster moment” stuff, I really saw, for the first time ever, that I could actually set goals in my recovery and accomplish them. I finally understood exactly how much effort and commitment was required in order to make these sort of positive changes in my life. I finally understood how to commit to something in order to follow through on it and make it happen and get the outcome that I desired. I really could achieve whatever I wanted in life and this was a direct result of my sobriety and my push for more personal growth in recovery.

At this point the ball had swung in the other direction. Suddenly it was no longer overwhelmingly difficult to make positive changes in my life. The growth curve was not linear, and it was not stacked against me any more either. Now it was working with me, it was making personal growth much easier than it had ever been, and I realized that I could make any positive change in my life that I really wanted too.

I set some new goals in my life because there were some things that I wanted. For example, I wanted freedom from my day job so I set the goal of starting a successful business. I wanted to be in shape so I set the goal of becoming a runner. Neither of these happened overnight but I achieved both of them because I understood how to do it now. I understood what the commitment process was. I had learned the really tough lessons already in very early recovery and now this was the easy part, really. I was able to benefit from these personal growth efforts so easily because of the foundation that I had already laid down for myself in early recovery.

And so I could clearly see t hat the growth curve in recovery was a little bit crazy. It did not really seem “fair” either.

In very early recovery, you have to put forth a ton of effort to get very little results.

Later on when you become more stable and achieve a few years of sobriety, all of the benefits of your early hard work fully kick in, and making additional positive changes becomes pretty easy.

Personal growth becomes easier once you are fully established in your sobriety. Things like quitting cigarettes or getting into shape become a no-brainer at some point and have a hugely positive impact on your life.

Incremental progress in long term recovery

So you start out in very early recovery and you make this monumental effort in order to get clean and sober.

Then you claw your way to a few years of sobriety and suddenly everything gets much easier. You set new goals and make lots of positive changes in your life. You eliminate bad habits and you create healthy new habits. Life is good.

So then what happens in long term recovery?

The growth curve shifts back one more time, and progress gets difficult again. You have achieved the obvious goals (such as quitting smoking, eating healthier, exercising regularly, seeking spiritual growth, etc.) and therefore it gets harder and harder to find an untapped area that you can make massive progress in.

Does this mean that you kick up your feet and declare that you have fully “arrived” in recovery? Of course not! That is a sure path to relapse.

No, all this means is that you need to be realistic about the growth curve in recovery.

It starts slow, with massive amounts of effort being needed to get over the hump and get started on making progress in recovery.

Then it accelerates as you find the right path in recovery. Growth becomes easy because you have set yourself up for success by struggling through early recovery and laying a strong foundation for future growth.

Then finally you reach “long term sobriety” where growth slows down again, but it is still necessary to push yourself in order to keep making growth in your life. But realize that the growth curve is not linear, and that long term recovery may have slow progress and very little gains.

In other words, once you fix most of your life in the first few years of recovery, getting additional major gains and benefit from personal growth gets pretty difficult. Can you still make positive changes and experience growth? Sure. But the targets are no longer big and easy (like overcoming addiction, quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier, etc.).

All of those big easy targets that offered a huge benefit to your life are now gone… conquered them all.

In long term recovery, you can still make positive changes, and indeed, you need to do so in order to survive and thrive in long term sobriety. But recognize that the payoff is going to get incrementally smaller as you progress, and that it will take more and more effort to get the same kind of impact that you experienced in early recovery. All of the “easy wins” are gone from your life. And of course, this is a good thing!

It’s a nice problem to have, when you have achieved such success and stability in recovery that making additional positive changes yields only tiny benefit. But those benefits are still worth chasing, because it is the process itself that is so valuable.

This is the prescription for success in long term recovery: to constantly examine our lives and to keep reinventing ourselves in recovery.

What non-linear growth in recovery means for you

So you get the idea that growth in recovery may not be perfectly linear. Life may not be fair, and you may have to struggle really hard during certain parts of your recovery for very little benefit. Later on you might seem to be “on easy street” and all of the positive changes just seem to be falling right into place for you.

So what, right?

Just be aware of it, and expect it. Realize that your personal growth in recovery comes in spurts, and that you may struggle for a long time without any apparent progress. Years later you can look back and realize that–while it may not have seemed fair to you at the time–you had to struggle for a long time in order to set yourself up for success later on.

And, don’t give up hope. You may be discouraged and realize that you have been working really hard in your recovery and pushing yourself really hard to make positive changes, and nothing seems to be working out for you. This is the exact case in which you should not give up hope, and remember that growth in recovery is almost never linear. It is not usually “fair” like we think it should be. We struggle for weeks, months, or even years before suddenly everything falls into place for us.

But it does happen, eventually. If you persist in your journey and continue to seek positive change in your life then eventually you will wake up one day and find yourself on “easy street.” Change will come naturally and easily to you because you will have fully realized and learned the process of how to make radical changes in your life, and you will be able to apply this learning process to anything that you so desire. You will struggle and struggle for months or even years and then one day realize that you are powerful enough to change nearly anything that you want in life.

Growth is not linear. It stalls and it struggles and it sputters on for what seems like forever, and then suddenly you break through and everything falls into place. This is normal. This is especially normal given the roller coaster ride that is recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Your positive changes will accumulate over time and one day reward you in a big way. This is what you must have faith in while you struggle through the tough times in your journey. If you continue to make positive changes every day then eventually the payoff and the benefits in your life will be abundant. We can now always see this process while we are stuck in the day-to-day struggle, but looking back over the years it becomes clear enough. We do progress in our recovery, even if we feel like we are stuck at times.


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