There are certain things that I can look back in my recovery and see that they had a huge impact on helping me to stay clean and sober in the long run.
Sometimes when we are getting clean and sober we will listen to advice from others and get helpful tips for our recovery. “Do this, it will help you to stay sober.” Or “Do that, it helped me to stay clean and sober when times were tough.” But ultimately we get so much advice and so many tips that it can be difficult to prioritize. In the end you may have to pick and choose; you cannot do everything. For example, going to meetings is great but if you go to a meeting every single day then it is unlikely that you can actually have a life AND use many of the techniques found here on this site AND pursue your own spiritual experience AND pursue your own personal religion, and so on. At some point you will run out of time in each day and therefore you have to prioritize.
So I have attempted to whittle it down to the things which had the greatest impact on my own recovery. Of course, some people who find success in recovery take a very different path from what I took. As always, your mileage may vary. It is important in recovery to experiment and do what works for you. If you try something and it fails, then try something else in order to achieve sobriety. If you give up and resign yourself to simply being an addict or alcoholic then you have truly lost the battle. Instead, you should be willing to try new things and find the successful path to long term sobriety. The benefit of doing so is well worth it.
With that said, here are my 5 ways that helped to insure that I stay clean and sober. Without them, I am not sure I would have made it in my own recovery.
Commit to regular exercise
For the first two years of my recovery I was not yet in the exercise habit. A counselor was attempting to push me in the right direction while I was living in long term treatment, but at the time the exercise thing did not quite take hold for me. He thought that it would really help my recovery and I believed him and made a serious effort to try to get into it, but it did not really happen at that time. I tried running and I also tried doing some weights but nothing clicked for me. It was just exercise, it felt like it always had to me, and it was just a chore. I guess you could say that I hated it.
At some point later though I started to run with my dad, who was a regular runner and has been for most all of his life. I am not sure what prompted me to start running with my dad. Perhaps it was the challenge of running six miles every day. Certainly when I started running with him the exercise was still a chore and it was not yet enjoyable.
Here is the magical moment though that you need to be aware of:
At some point the running got easy.
Six miles each day, and it was a real chore to do it and sometimes I was even miserable, but all of a sudden something clicked, something shifted, and I was suddenly in shape. I have no idea how fast this transition happened. All of a sudden though running was easy, it was a release, it felt like a necessary part of life. It was no longer a chore. And because the benefits of doing so ran so deep and reached so far into so many areas of my life, this was a huge blessing for my recovery. It helped me in so many ways. The biggest way of course was in how I felt about myself and how I felt physically after getting into shape like this. When you run six miles every day and it eventually becomes easy for you, this empowers your life in other ways that can be subtle. For example, I feel like I have more energy to take on other projects in my life that in the past may have seemed intimidating. But because I know that I have the energy (and the discipline) to be able to see most things through, I am empowered to take on other challenges.
I am not saying that every person in recovery needs to become a runner. Most should probably not; running is high impact and high risk as far as injuries are concerned. But I do think that every person in recovery should seek regular exercise in some form.
You will also note that this is the first thing I mentioned in my “5 ways that helped insure my sobriety.” I believe it is also the most important. It is difficult to describe exactly how this regular exercise has an impact on my sobriety, because it does so in so many different ways. On one level, the feeling that you get from exercise is a direct replacement for self medicating in addiction. On another level, the way that you feel after you exercise (being in shape, being energized from a workout, etc.) is a huge benefit to your recovery. On another level, the discipline that you build from getting into shape is directly applicable to the fight to remain clean and sober. This is because when you build up your “discipline muscle” you can then use that reserve of discipline for other things. Therefore whipping yourself into shape actually makes you stronger in your recovery.
There are a few groups out there that are even more extreme than I am when it comes to exercise in recovery, and they rely on exercise entirely as their main focus on recovery. For them, exercise IS their program of recovery. This should point to the importance of adopting regular exercise in order to enhance your recovery.
In my opinion the exercise must be regular (three times per week minimum) and it also must be vigorous. By “vigorous” I mean that it should feel like a decent workout, it cannot just be a light walk that barely gets your heart rate up at all. Obviously you will benefit from a longer duration. I run for close to an hour and I believe this longer block of exercise has huge benefits for me when I am not exercising. If my workout only lasted ten minutes I believe this would have less of an impact on my sobriety.
Keep in mind too that part of the benefit of exercise is mental. It is meditative. When you run for an hour your brain gets this chance to sort of drift about, it is a form of relaxed mental meditation, and this seems to help people on an emotional level. Regular exercise seems to double as a form of regular meditation.
Get in the habit of helping others in recovery on a regular basis
Another thing that will vastly help you in your recovery is if you can find a way to help others in recovery on a regular basis. In the 12 step program this would equate to the twelfth step where you are told to “carry the message to other alcoholics” and to try to help them to recover.
There is good reason for this suggestion. Helping other alcoholics actually works, it makes a huge difference, and in fact it is one of the highest impact things that you could possibly do for your recovery.
Part of the reason for this is based on “teaching.” If you want to get good at something, teach others how to do it. This is part of the premise here when it comes to working with others in recovery. If you really want to learn the ins and outs of the recovery process, then start working with newcomers in recovery and teaching them how to get through early sobriety. In teaching them what to do and how to deal with life you will learn those lessons much more deeply yourself.
Second of all is the idea of “reminding yourself to recover.” This sounds dead simple and most people will dismiss it as being unimportant, but it is actually a huge cause of relapse among many. This is also the reason that most people go to daily meetings in order to stay “plugged in” to the program of recovery. The problem is that, as an alcoholic in recovery, you will actually forget that you are an alcoholic.
This sounds a bit silly but it is absolutely true for every single alcoholic and drug addict. Of course you do not forget permanently that you are an addict. But what happens is this:
If you completely stop attending 12 meetings and you are no longer interacting with others in recovery in any way and you have no recovery program in your daily life at all, you will actually forget (for short periods of time) that you are an alcoholic or a drug addict. What happens then is that you will start to slowly entertain the thoughts of relapse when it comes up, when you see triggers or catch the tail end of a beer commercial on television you will allow yourself to entertain that thought of relapse for just a split second longer than what you should have. Of course a second or two later you will remember that you are in recovery and that you cannot just go get a beer but for a brief second there you had actually forgot about recovery and you imagined yourself drinking that beer.
This is what I mean when I say “you will actually forget that you are an alcoholic in recovery.” You do not forget permanently, you just forget it for a split second. And in the long run if this keeps happening then it will make you miserable, because you will be entertaining that thought of relapse over and over again and it will feel like deprivation.
The “cure” for this is to be more “plugged in” to the program of recovery. When you are more “plugged in” you shut the thought down much quicker and you do not entertain the idea of relapse as much. Therefore you will not feel deprived while thinking about drugs or booze and then become miserable.
This is one reason that people tend to go to AA meetings every day. They notice that when they stop going to meetings every day, something changes in their recovery and they are not as happy. One of the things that changes is that they are not as quick to shut down the thoughts or cravings for using their drug of choice. In the long run this will make a person miserable unless they can find a way to shut these thoughts down much quicker (no need to try to eliminate the thoughts entirely, you will always have them. But dismissing the craving quickly and moving on is helpful).
So all of this is an elaborate way of saying “you should find a way to work with other alcoholics and addicts in recovery.”
Because it will help to keep you “plugged in” to the recovery mindset. In fact, I believe that it helps to keep you plugged in even better than going to daily meetings. This is long term relapse prevention. If you work with other addicts and alcoholics on a regular basis, it will go a long way in protecting your own recovery from relapse.
Eliminate chaos from your life
If you want to have a long and peaceful recovery then at some point you may have to do some things in order to eliminate chaos from your life. In some situations this may mean that you have to say “no” to certain people or push them out of your life. Of course this will be even more true if you are actively trying to work with other addicts and alcoholics in order to help them. You are going to get some who succeed and many who will fail. Those who fail may just need to move on, go get another helping of misery and chaos from their addiction, so that they can one day have “enough” and decide to give sobriety another chance. But while they are out there getting another helping of chaos and misery you do not necessarily want to be a part of their life.
Some people talk about trying to “raise their tolerance to stress” so that they can handle more chaos in their lives. I think this is a mistake for a recovering alcoholic or addict. Instead, we should seek to LOWER our tolerance for stress. When we encounter stress and misery and chaos in our lives, we should not say “Oh great, an opportunity to work on my patience and tolerance!” This is the wrong approach in my opinion. Instead, we should simply seek to eliminate the cause and source of this stress, move away from the chaos, disassociate from those who are self destructing, and so on.
Of course there is a balance in achieving this life of serenity. Some people may argue that this idea conflicts with other suggestions, such as exercising and seeking personal growth. But I see them as working together well, and I think most of the stress and chaos in my life has been a result of people who are negative and toxic. You may try to change such people and help them but at some point you have to say “it is not worth the chaos and the stress that it is bringing into my life” and walk away from it. There is of course a balance there and you will need to find it yourself through experimentation. But ultimately you should try to lower your tolerance for chaos and misery, seeking to eliminate it from your life rather than learning how to live with it. In the long run you will be much happier this way.
Get addicted to personal growth
My theory is that long term sobriety hinges on the fact that you continue to make progress in recovery. When you stop growing, you are in trouble. When we stop learning, we are in trouble.
Traditional recovery programs seem to limit this idea to just spiritual growth. My belief is that you can go further than this and that a recovering alcoholic or addict will benefit from personal growth in other areas as well. For example, getting into shape and adopting the habit of regular exercise over a long period of time can be a huge step in personal growth (it was for me). This apparently had nothing to do with traditional recovery and it had nothing to do with “spiritual” growth and yet it was hugely helpful for me in my recovery.
Likewise, at one point I sought out higher education and then later on in my recovery I sought to start a business. Again, these things are not suggested in traditional recovery programs, as their focus is strictly on spiritual growth. But in my recovery journey these ideas seemed to play a major role and turned out to be very important for me. Getting my marketing degree helped me in my recovery in many subtle and indirect ways. Building a business did the same thing. In some cases I would even argue that doing these things helped my recovery in more direct ways as well.
For me, personal growth as been an answer to the question “How can I improve my life?” At one point the answer was “by not smoking these darn cigarettes.” At another time the answer was “by getting into shape and being physically healthier.” At another point the answer was “by pursuing education.” At another time the answer was “by creating a business that can help to sustain my life.” And so on.
So the process of personal growth has been one of refinement and improvement. I have said “I am in recovery, I am clean and sober, and that is great. Now, how can I become a better person? How can I improve my life? How can I reach out and help more people? How can I create a positive impact on the world?” And so on.
I think there is a bit of a balance with this idea too–you do not want to push so hard with the personal growth stuff that you are burned out. But on the other hand, you do not want to get to that point where you decide that you are “recovered” and that you can prop your feet up and do nothing. My theory is: Accomplish something, then pause and reflect. Then evaluate your next major change in recovery. Then, do it. Take action, then reflect on it, then evaluate. Keep striving to make personal growth.
Seek holistic health
If all you ever did in recovery was to seek, for example, higher education, then this would be a fairly narrow focus and a poor overall plan for recovery.
The key is to think about your whole life (hence the “holistic” health).
This is one reason that I believe exercise is so hugely important. It sets up the physical part of your life for better health and it also generally leads to better nutrition, better eating, better sleep patterns, etc.
But you should not stop there. Instead, consider all potential areas of growth. Look at your emotional balance and your relationships. Consider your education. Think about your spiritual growth and development. Do not limit yourself to one area of personal growth, as so many people do in recovery.
Instead, be open to growth opportunities in all areas of your life. Things that may not relate directly to your recovery (such as exercise or creative arts) may turn out to have a much bigger impact on your recovery than what you anticipated.