How does a person go about achieving balance in early recovery from addiction?
Is this even necessary at all? What is the point of having a balanced lifestyle if you can instead have extreme focus (for example, on spirituality) and remain perfectly happy and sober by doing so?
I would argue that balance is an important part of recovery for a few different reasons.
One, I think you will be happier in the long run if you have more balance in your life. It is nice to have some leisure time, it is also nice to work and feel like you have purpose and meaning. It is nice to practice self acceptance and feel like you are OK in terms of where you are at, but it is also nice to challenge yourself to achieve personal growth. I think the dynamic between these sorts of things (those are just two examples) can certainly bring about more satisfaction and happiness in your life.
Two, I think that balance is extremely important in terms of relapse prevention. More on this below as we delve into the ideas behind the holistic approach and having what I call a “daily practice.”
Three, anyone who is severely out of balance in their life is basically a red flag for relapse. It’s just not healthy.
Extreme focus in early recovery cannot last forever
In early recovery you are generally very focused on learning how to live a sober life. Depending on the help that you get this may involve a deep focus on spiritual growth and development (such as in AA or religious based recovery programs).
So during this time you are not generally focused on the other areas of your overall health. Instead you focus exclusively on spiritual health in the hopes that this will enable you to remain sober.
This works for some people but I think it is important to remember that this extreme focus is not good in the long run.
For example, many people in early recovery come to use the daily AA meetings as a sort of crutch. They rely on them for their continued sobriety. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s a good thing while it is working, of course. If you have to attend AA every day for the rest of your life in order to remain sober, then by all means, do that.
But it’s also a bad thing because it is another dependency of sorts, and I do not really believe that it is necessary. There is work that you could do that would eliminate that dependency and free you up from having to go to AA meetings every single day in order to be sober. Not that meetings are bad, but if you depend on them in the long run then this exposes a weakness in your sobriety (in my opinion).
I have heard people who have ten years of sobriety or more say at a meeting “These AA meetings are my medicine. I have to go to them every day or I will get sick and relapse.” To me that is not a strong recovery. If you are living in sobriety for ten years and you are in danger of relapse because you miss too many meetings, then I would argue that you lack balance in your life.
Because if you achieve better balance then you will become stronger in your recovery and not have to rely on daily meetings as a crutch. You will have other resources and other outlets in your life other than the daily meeting. This is important in my recovery, and it became so important that I eventually eliminated the daily meetings altogether. It is not that I have anything against them necessarily, it is just that I have filled up my life with other positive actions. I see nothing wrong with hitting a few AA meetings, even after decades of sobriety. But if you are depending on them to remain sober after a decade then you are missing out on the idea of balance.
Recovery is not just daily AA meetings. Recovery is holistic. You can’t find this holistic approach without at least some balance added into the mix.
A question of timing and the transition to long term sobriety
When I was in rehab for my alcoholism I had about a week sober at the time and I attended a lecture about “balanced lifestyle.” The man who was giving the lecture would later become my sponsor, and he still is to this day. Great guy.
When I heard that lecture at one week sober I thought the guy was an idiot.
I couldn’t believe that he was suggesting that I spread out my efforts in recovery and try to achieve any kind of holistic approach. That idea was a disaster in my opinion. Why should I strive for balance when obviously the solution was entirely spiritual?
That was how my thinking went at the time. I thought that the idea of balance was a massive distraction.
Now to be fair, I was only in that rehab center for about 14 days or so, and that is not really enough time to give people a handle on the concepts of both early recovery as well as long term sobriety.
In my opinion those are two different animals. Hat tip to Earnie Larsen and his “stage 2 recovery” ideas.
He is right though, in that the first few months or years of sobriety are nothing like the later years when you have decades of sobriety under your belt.
Early recovery is all about focus. I don’t debate this. You need a powerful solution to remain sober when you are struggling with two weeks sober. You need extreme focus. If you need to, go to 3 AA meetings every single day for the first year. I highly recommend that, actually. My record was 4 meetings in one day. The last one was a midnight meeting, those were always fun and interesting.
But at some point you have to switch gears. You can’t keep doing the same thing that got you sober because you will change and evolve in your recovery.
Think about that. Many people miss this point. They think that hammering on AA meetings every day is a lifelong solution. It’s not necessarily. Because you are going to grow and change over time. You will evolve. Your life will get different and you will find new outlets and new ways to grow. It’s not all about AA forever, and it doesn’t have to be. And that might even be a liability if you try to double down on AA and force it to become your lifelong solution.
I knew a guy who was always at the meetings, he was a die hard AA fanatic and a Big Book thumper, and he relapsed after 18 years. It happens. Don’t get me wrong though, complacency can happen to anyone, regardless of what program they are using. It is not specific to AA. This guy just happened to get complacent after 18 years of very dedicated AA attendance.
No, if you want to thrive in recovery then you need to grow, change, evolve. Learn new things, find new outlets, challenge yourself to grow in new ways. Maybe you can do that entirely in AA, or maybe you need to explore some of the edges a bit. Me, I went out to the edges. Kept going. It’s working.
Balanced lifestyle in terms of your daily practice
I talk a lot about the daily practice. Your daily habits define who you will become in the future. You are creating your future self right now by what you do every day.
Ask any athlete what their daily practice has been like and how that has sculpted their body and their physical health. Results don’t lie. They worked hard to get where they are.
The same is true with someone who has lots of time sober and they are living an awesome life. Results don’t lie. They worked hard to achieve their current lifestyle and they continue to work hard (hopefully). When you stop working hard on personal growth we call that “complacency.” This usually leads to relapse eventually.
So the usual prescribed route in traditional recovery is to focus hard on spiritual growth. This works for some but not for all. I think there is an implication that if you are following the traditional path in recovery that perhaps you will also take care of yourself in other ways. In other words, not just your spiritual health but also your physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
Or you can abandon the traditional dogma entirely and simply accept the fact that your addiction affected your entire person, so therefore your recovery efforts should affect your entire person as well. Spiritual health is important for this, but it is not the only piece of the puzzle.
If your health in other areas of your life starts to suffer–be it emotionally, mentally, socially, or physically–this can lead to relapse. In other words, you don’t only relapse due to a spiritual malady. People can relapse for other reasons as well. Other complications to your holistic health can create holes in which addiction can attack through.
A great example of this is with relationships. You want to see a very common relapse trigger in early recovery? Go live in long term rehab for a year. Watch what happens to your peers as they meet people of the opposite sex and try to establish relationships with them. It’s like watching toy robots march through a mine field. I was really blown away by just how dangerous this was to my peers in early recovery.
Another good example is with physical health. Get sick, get medication, get drunk. It happens. Another very common trigger and path to relapse that doesn’t get enough attention. It’s dangerous and I watched it happen a lot. Physical health matters.
So why, in traditional recovery, do they harp so much on the idea that spirituality is the solution? It’s bigger than that. The solution is holistic.
And that means balance.
If you are taking care of yourself in all of the ways I describe then you are well protected against the threat of relapse. If you do this on a daily basis and you form good habits around these ideas of holistic health then it will transform your life over time.
But if you neglect one of these areas of your health then you are setting yourself up for vulnerability. Addiction attacks you through the holes in your defense. Wherever you are weakest is where the relapse will sneak in from. Therefore it doesn’t work so great to focus exclusively on spiritual growth if you do so at the expense of your overall health, your holistic health, your emotional health, and so on.
Self acceptance versus personal growth in recovery
The serenity prayer gets said an awful lot in recovery but most of us don’t really consciously apply it that much. It’s a shame, because the prayer has great wisdom in it.
It’s the line between change and fear. It is the line between pushing ourselves to grow through a challenge, or deciding that it is not worth the effort. Self acceptance, or personal growth. Which should we embrace? What does the situation call for?
Sometimes I have pushed through some hard stuff that normally I would have backed out of a long time ago, and the results were amazing. Other times I have let certain things go in my life and I gained a great deal of peace and contentment as a result.
Of course knowing when to do these things is the real challenge. But you can always ask for help.
I have had some great mentors and teachers in my journey. People who knew more than I did, so I looked up to them and took their advice. I did not always agree with their advice, but sometimes I took it anyway because they seemed to have the results in their life that I wanted. This is a very wise thing to do. If someone has the sort of life that you want then you should probably listen to them and act on their advice. Simple and effective.
You can learn a lot about yourself by writing in a journal every day. This is a tool of exploration. There is other writing that you can do in the 12 steps of AA if you choose to do so. And in doing this work you can find out where you need to practice acceptance and where you need to push through the challenge. It’s not always easy. But generally you get better at knowing with practice. And in recovery you will get a lot of practice at this!
Living your values and focusing on priorities
In long term sobriety you should be trending towards greater and greater happiness as a result of living your values every day.
If you are not getting happier in recovery then you may not be living your values. You may have to take a step back and re-evaluate what your priorities really are.
And your priorities will change over time. For example, when I first got sober I was smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes every day and I never exercised.
Those behaviors reflected my values at the time. But over time in my recovery journey, those values started to change for me.
How? Because I was feeling better about myself, and I was starting to help other people and making a difference, and so I felt like my life had more value. This is how self esteem worked for me. I had to start living a better life and then I started to realize that I had some value to the world. So then I felt like I wanted to take better care of myself.
My mind used to have this backwards. I used to think that I would have to take care of myself first and then somehow give back to the world. But it didn’t work that way. Instead I had “live my way into good thinking.” I had to start living the new values before I even realized what they were.
Many people like to pay lip service to certain values in their life, but then when you look at what their actions are, they don’t always match up with their words.
This was a problem for me in addiction and it was also lingering in my early recovery. But I was going through changes and I was transitioning to a better life. To a healthier life. And I was slowly learning to love myself.
That is what it really comes down to for me. In very early recovery I did not yet love myself. Heck, I didn’t even like myself. So why would I care about having a cigarette habit? No big deal. I deserved no better than that.
So I had to give it time. I had to give myself a break. I had to give myself a chance to start loving myself again.
And this all comes back to balance. Because in order to really love yourself, you have to take care of yourself in a million different little ways. You have to take care of yourself physically, eat better foods, get good sleep, get some exercise. You have to take care of yourself spiritually and practice gratitude every day and maybe do some prayer or meditation. You have to take care of yourself emotionally and give yourself permission to feel your real emotions, and possibly share them with others. You have to take care of yourself mentally and review your life and generate ideas for how to improve yourself. You have to take care of yourself socially and eliminate the toxic people from your existence and also surround yourself with people who love and support you.
You have to do all of those things. If you skip one of those categories then you open the door to the risk of relapse.
So your values in life, the things that you really and truly value, are reflected in the daily practice, in the positive habits that you establish for yourself every day. If that is not congruent with your current reality then you may need to make some changes. And you might need to ask for help in order to do this. So you might talk to your sponsor and ask them how you can improve your social health. Or your emotional stability. And so on. And then you take their advice and you listen to their suggestions and you put the positive action into practice.
Some suggestions will work out for you and others will not. The ones that don’t can be dropped. The ones that seem to help you can be kept or developed even further.
This is how you can grow in recovery. If you are asking for advice from the winners in recovery then those people will naturally be able to see where your life may be unbalanced. So they might say “Yeah, you are doing great with this, this, and that….but have you thought about doing THIS?” And you will think about “this” and think that is sort of stupid, maybe not relevant to your recovery at all.
But then a year later you will look back and realize that this person was a genius, and that they really helped you a lot. Of course it is not that they are a genius, they just had a perspective that you could not see for yourself. Because you are too close to your own life in recovery, and they had already lived through some of your challenges. So you asked them for advice and they steered you in the right direction. They steered you towards balance.
What about you, have you found balance to be important in your recovery journey? Why or why not? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!