The following is a case study of my alternative path in recovery. Most people are more familiar with “traditional recovery,” which generally means attendance at a 12 step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
My path in recovery has differed in that I have found other ways and means of maintaining my sobriety. Understand that I am not knocking 12 step programs, but only outlining what has worked for me in recovery.
I have found a unique path in sobriety, and it is not 12 step based.
What follows is a detailed account of my last 9+ years of successful recovery. I hope you find it useful.
* What it was like, what happened, what it is like now.
* Using massive action and overwhelming force to power through early recovery.
* Building real self esteem rather than focus on relapse prevention tactics.
* Seeing the holistic path and observing winners in recovery.
* Integrating the physical aspect.
* The struggle between self acceptance and personal growth.
* The need to evolve in recovery.
* Observing what doesn’t work in the struggling field of substance abuse.
* Using unique talents to give back to others.
* Staying flexible enough to grow and to change. Avoiding fundamentalism.
* Finding your vision and purpose in life.
What it was like, what happened, what it is like now
I want to give a complete picture here of my path in recovery. This is the traditional method that is used in 12 step meetings when a newcomer shows up for the first time in an AA meeting. The group typically will go around and each tell the newcomer “what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.” The idea is to help the newcomer identify so that they can see that others have struggled with addiction, too, and that there is hope.
My story is already documented on this website but I will say again that I was thoroughly addicted to drugs and alcohol. I wanted to keep using them forever and had no real intention of stopping. I did not want to stop. I did not really want to consider stopping, mostly due to fear, and a general anxiety that I was medicating with drugs and alcohol. It has taken a long time in recovery to be able to look back and say that “yes, I did not want to stop drinking and drugging because I was afraid.” Fear was the motivator.
So what happened? I struggled and flirted with the idea of change a few times, and went to a few rehabs. I was not ready to change at the time and did not stay clean. Others in my life urged me to go get help, and I was somewhat desperate, so I obliged them. But deep down I was not yet ready to change, and I was still paralyzed with fear. It was easier for me to keep self medicating with drugs and alcohol than it was to face my fear and learn how to live sober. It was easier to keep drinking. My fear of change was overwhelming. My fear of sobriety kept me stuck.
At some point something shifted and I became willing to change. I think part of the key was that my enablers had temporarily left me, for whatever reasons. I was alone for the first time in a long time and I had to see–really see–what I was doing with my life. I was suddenly alone with my drinking and could not remove the focus from myself. I had to face what I was becoming, and what I had become was a miserable drunk. This was my moment of clarity when I finally surrendered and agreed to, once again, get help. This time it stuck. This time it worked, and I have been clean and sober ever since.
Keep reading for the details. The rest of this article deals with the specifics of how I got clean and sober, and how I have stayed that way.
Using massive action and overwhelming force to power through early recovery
In the past, I had tried to get clean and sober, but ended up failing miserably. Why did that happen?
Well, for one thing, I did not take massive action on my previous attempts. When I finally got sober for good, I knew that I needed a full commitment to recovery in order to make it work.
I had picked up on at least this much through my failures. I came to realize that recovery is a pass/fail proposition. Either you remain sober or you drink. Either you stay clean or you go back to full drug use. There is no middle ground at all. None whatsoever. You either turn your life into a success, or you fail miserably.
This is due to the nature of addiction and alcoholism. We are extreme in that we overdo things. Period. Our disease is defined by excessive consumption. Moderation is out of the question.
I slowly learned over a few failed attempts at rehab that if I was going to be successful in recovery, it would take a tremendous effort. A 100 percent commitment. These are not just fluff statements in an attempt to be dramatic. You really do have to dedicate your life to recovery if you are going to succeed. And that means that you have to take massive action.
Massive action will be different for each person in recovery. Using “overwhelming force” in order to conquer addiction will vary from person to person as to how it is implemented. For me, I knew what needed to be done: I had to live in rehab for a long, long time. I knew this was the answer because every therapist and counselor I spoke with was recommending that for me. They all urged me to go to long term rehab.
When everyone around you is telling you something, and you resist it, that is a clear indication of denial. “The whole world is wrong and I am right.” No, this is denial. Everyone thought that I should go to long term rehab and live in treatment for several months.
I resisted this for many years until one day I became willing to change. I became willing to do whatever it took to recover, and that meant taking massive action.
Does this mean that every person needs to go to long term treatment? No. The path will be different for everyone. I had to face my fear and do the thing that I was never willing to do. I had to break through my denial and stop resisting those who were trying to help me.
I had to surrender.
So that is what happened, and of course I ended up living in long term treatment for many months, and building a foundation for recovery that has lasted for many years now. Massive action was the key for me.
I used to think that long term treatment was overkill. That living in rehab was too extreme, too much of a commitment. But now I see that addicts and alcoholics have to get extreme in order to recover. It requires massive change. Making small incremental changes does not work. You have to change everything. Taking massive action is necessary to make that happen.
How this has helped me in my recovery: Massive action was a huge key to my success in early recovery. I took massive action by moving into long term rehab, and dedicating my life to recovery in several different ways. Through meetings, therapy, and complete immersion in everything recovery, I was able to build a strong foundation early on that allowed me to avoid relapse.
Building real self esteem rather than focus on relapse prevention tactics
Most every addict and alcoholic suffers from some form of low self esteem. Some of us hide it quite well by covering it up with cockiness or overconfidence, but there is a root problem with self esteem with nearly everyone who is addicted.
Therefore, a huge part of the recovery process has to include the generation of real, healthy self esteem.
Contrast this with what usually passes for relapse prevention tactics: teaching people to anticipate their trigger moments and then helping them to devise a plan to deal with those triggers. This type of approach is practically worthless in that it can never fully anticipate the various curve balls that life will inevitably throw at us. Instead of using pinpoint tactics to prevent relapse, a better idea is to boost your overall sense of self worth, and learn to truly value your sobriety. If you place a high value on your life in recovery, then you are less likely to throw it away on a relapse.
Valuing your sobriety requires that you value yourself. You have to value your own life. And that means building up healthy self esteem.
The process of building healthy self esteem is what is important. For example, consider some of the things I have done in order to build self esteem in my recovery:
1) Helping other recovering alcoholics and addicts.
2) Taking better care of myself through regular exercise, quitting smoking, etc.
3) Going back to school and finishing up a degree.
4) Finding meaningful work in my life that involves working with others in recovery.
And so on. It is not just the resulting self esteem boost that is valuable here, it is the entire process and all of the benefits that go along with it. Essentially, this becomes a journey of personal growth and development. You should be striving to become a better person in recovery. The striving, and the results, all have a direct impact on your ability to stay clean and sober in the long run.
It is the striving part that keeps you growing and keeps you moving forward. It is the process of building self esteem that actually keeps us clean and sober.
How this has helped me in my recovery: Building real self esteem rather than using relapse prevention tactics has been an “inside-out job” for me. I started doing some things at the suggestion of others and my life has improved immensely. For example, regular exercise, going back to school, and a strong focus on helping others in recovery were all suggestions that I took from others without seeing the clear benefits right away.
Taking the action to build my own self worth has been time well spent. My life just keeps getting better because of the strong foundations I have built in early recovery. Healthy habits continue to breed success for me. Feeling good about myself feeds into more positive action.
Seeing the holistic path and observing winners in recovery
I have had the luxury in my recovery of being able to watch what does not work. I have seen many, many people relapse.
Part of what does not work is being too narrowly focused. Now that might sound like a contradiction, but what I mean is that some people get too caught up in one aspect of recovery and can no longer see the bigger picture.
For example, this can happen at times with the whole spirituality versus religion issue. For some people, religion can become a distraction in recovery that eventually leads them to relapse. Now this can be a tricky topic because for others in recovery, practicing their faith is all that they need to do in order to remain sober. But for others this can spell disaster, especially if they decide that their faith is all that they need, and pursue it at the expense of other forms of growth.
What do the winners in recovery do? They seem to welcome growth experiences on several different levels. What does this mean? It means that they do not limit themselves in recovery or become too narrowly focused.
There is something to be said for balance in recovery. Addicts and alcoholics don’t always do the idea of “balance” very well, as we tend toward the extremes. But it makes a lot of sense in terms of achieving stable growth in recovery.
What is the holistic path? It is simply a way to live that invites personal growth in many different areas of our lives. “Holistic” just means that we are treating the “whole person” in recovery. Instead of focusing just on spiritual growth, we will look at emotional stability, physical health, exercise, improving our habits, improving relationships, and so on.
Fact: it is short sighted and dangerous to focus exclusively on spiritual growth in recovery. We need to push beyond that. We need to embrace holistic growth.
Prove it to yourself: watch the “winners” in recovery. Observe their actions in everyday life. I can guarantee that you will see balance and personal growth. The winners have a healthy balance between acceptance and pushing themselves to change. The winners in recovery are not stagnant.
Pursuing holistic growth only means that we are trying to be healthier people in any way possible. Do not make the mistake of limiting yourself in how you may grow in recovery. Explore your options and seek to improve your overall health in recovery. Doing so forms the balance that will keep you stable in recovery.
How this has helped me in my recovery: In early recovery, I would have dismissed the idea of holistic growth as being a distraction from real recovery. But now I can see that the longer you stay sober, the more you need balance and an holistic approach. Having a laser focus in early recovery is fine. But as you continue to maintain sobriety, you have to branch out and start growing in new directions. One dimensional growth is not really sustainable. A more holistic approach has allowed me to experience some great new things in recovery–such as the massive benefits from regular exercise, for example.
Integrating the physical aspect
The physical aspect of recovery is huge. So many people miss this (because they are stuck focusing on spiritual growth at the exclusion of all other things).
Let me give you a hint: vigorous exercise is spiritual. The body is sacred and we should treat it as such. We only separate spiritual matters from our physical experience as a matter of convenience. But really, pursuing physical health as well as spiritual growth is all part of the same journey. It is all about holistic health in the end.
I am not saying that the physical aspect of recovery is everything. But it is more important than most people give it credit for.
Think about it:
First, it all starts with physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol. This is always the first step in recovery, and everything can be destroyed by physically ingesting drugs or alcohol again. The disease starts and ends in the physical world. Abstinence reigns supreme.
Second, our physical health in recovery can be enhanced by considering the physical aspect and making life changes. For example, quitting smoking and improving nutrition are two physical changes that only serve to enhance our life in recovery. Are these critical for staying clean and sober? No. But they may be important for someone to improve their overall health and wellness in recovery. In particular, they have made a huge difference for me.
Third, physical fitness can play a huge role in recovery, but most of the world is far too lazy to accept this. They would prefer to stay lazy and pay lip service to spirituality instead. The fact is that vigorous exercise can practically conquer addiction all by itself, as demonstrated by recovery programs that focus exclusively on exercise such as Racing for Recovery. Sure, there is a bit more to it than that, but the fact remains that exercise is one of the biggest overlooked components of holistic health in recovery.
I am not saying that you have to exercise in order to recover. I’m just saying that you are making it so much harder on yourself if you do not. In addition, almost no one else will tell you this, because let’s face it: most people are lazy. They would prefer to shun holistic growth and instead offer you spirituality as the only key to recovery. The fact is that holism includes spirituality and is much stronger and more comprehensive as a means of recovery.
How this has helped me in my recovery: During the first few years of my recovery, I did not exercise regularly. Thus, I do have a frame of reference for just how much exercise has helped me in my recovery. And I can definitely say that the impact that it has is tremendous.
To be honest, I tried to start exercising during my first year of recovery and failed at it. A therapist that I was working with at the time encouraged me to work out. I just could not seem to motivate myself to stick with it, however.
I am not sure exactly what changed but at some point I started to run on a regular basis. Regardless of what inspired this, it was a blessing. I have never looked back since and would never consider stopping for any reason. Regular vigorous exercise helps me on so many levels….from producing plenty of “feel good chemicals” in my brain, to helping me to sleep better at night.
The struggle between self acceptance and personal growth
We already mentioned this but it deserves closer examination. There is a mixed message that you will encounter in recovery: that between “acceptance of self” and that of “personal growth.” The two concepts can easily come into conflict, and this can become particularly dangerous for some people in recovery.
For example, take someone who is driving themselves crazy, trying to change way too much about themselves all at once, and what they really need to do is find a little acceptance so that they can experience some peace in their life.
On the other hand, take someone who is riding the acceptance train just a little too far, and is using their “acceptance of self” as justification to avoid looking at themselves or pushing themselves to change.
What is the proper balance here?
Well anyone who has heard the serenity prayer understands what the core issue here is: changing the things that we can, and knowing what to let slide. And yet so many in recovery do not push themselves in the direction that they need to go. Here is a shortcut to rapid growth, however: Eleanor Roosevelt said “you must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Courage is the path of true growth in recovery. Sure, you can make small, incremental gains by skirting the big issues in your life and simply trying to remain positive. But in order to grow by leaps and bounds in recovery, you have to face your fears head on and come out stronger for it. This means challenging yourself on the issues you would most like to avoid.
Real growth in recovery demands this pruning away of our greatest blocks. Whatever we most fear in life is what is blocking us from becoming our best self.
How this has helped me in my recovery: To be honest, I am no expert at pushing myself to grow. In fact, I am quite stubborn and fearful when you get right down to it. But I have had moments where others have pushed me to grow, to make a decision, to stretch myself and rise above what I am comfortable with. I am still in the process of learning when I am facing a block and being able to summon the courage to confront it. I do not follow through every time. But I do see the opportunities for growth more clearly now.
The need to evolve in recovery
So many people in recovery end up relapsing.
Most of them can look back and see that they definitely stopped growing as a person. They got stuck. They got stagnate.
In many cases, they may have continued to go through the motions of recovery, but their heart was no longer in it. They were no longer passionate about growing and improving as a person in recovery. Somehow, they lost their way.
I can look back at my first year in recovery and see exactly how I was helped through this tough time. I went to a lot of therapy, counseling sessions, and I spent hours and hours talking with others in recovery on a regular basis. Everything I did revolved around recovery. Heck, I was living in a rehab for the first year and a half.
My routines, actions, and behaviors back then helped me to stay sober, but they are not suitable for me today.
Because we change and grow in recovery. What got you sober will not keep you sober. If it does, then that means you are stuck in recovery. Stuck in the mindset of a true beginner, one who refuses to grow and evolve in recovery.
You don’t want to get stuck like that. I am not saying that you have to abandon everything that is working for you in early recovery. What I am saying is that you need to allow yourself to grow naturally as you continue to stay sober. As they say in traditional recovery, “more will be revealed.” Do not be so stubborn that you turn away from new knowledge and wisdom as you grow in recovery, simply because it is not in line with what got you sober.
Keep a sharp eye as you remain sober. Watch what works (and what does not) for others. Much can be learned by watching others, rather than by listening to them.
How this has helped me in my recovery: While living in long term rehab, I had the opportunity to watch about 30 or so of my peers fall victim to relapse. Thus, I slowly learned over time that staying stuck as a “beginner” in recovery was not going to serve me well in the long run. I quickly noticed that the successful people in recovery were changing and growing. Ultimately, this awareness about complacency helped me to avoid a similar fate.
Observing what doesn’t work in the struggling field of substance abuse
As I have mentioned, I get to see a lot of failure in recovery. Over and over again, I unfortunately get to watch people struggle in recovery, only to relapse. But of course, this has taught me a great deal about what does not really work in recovery.
Here are some things that I have noticed in particular that do not seem to work very well:
1) Going through the motions without real conviction. For example, I know of many people who continue to attend 12 step meetings on a daily basis, and yet they continue to relapse, over and over again. What they are doing is not working because they do not want it to work. They keep showing up but their heart is not in it.
2) Passionate conviction and overconfidence. On the other hand, those who are too confident in early recovery do not stay sober. This is just what I have observed. If they are too excited about recovery early on, then they are going to relapse. I see this over and over again. I do not take joy in predicting this, nor do I know how to stop it, or how to help the person. It just seems to happen with those who are overly enthused.
3) An emphasis on medication. We are trying to get clean and sober, but some people hold too much hope for a magic pill that can “cure” them. Doesn’t happen. It might help, of course, but anyone who is too eager for any sort of medicine that helps with addiction does not seem to do as well in recovery. Maybe there are studies that prove otherwise, but from what I observe every day, those who seek out pills for addiction do not experience good success rates.
4) Overly religious in early recovery. Not that religion is a bad thing, or that it is detrimental to recovery, because that is not the case. What I have noticed is that those who become overly religious early in their recovery do not seem to fare well. Those who acquire it slowly are still going strong in their recovery. Again, just what I have noticed.
5) Overly dependent on 12 step meetings. This might work well in early recovery, but as you progress and stay sober, having a strong dependency on a recovery fellowship becomes a liability, not a strength. While it can be a great way to give help to others in recovery, there is life and personal growth outside of 12 step recovery. Some people get stuck “in the rooms” and this can limit their growth and even threaten their sobriety.
How this has helped me in my recovery: I have definitely been helped in my recovery by being able to watch what is not working for others. You start to see patterns over time and notice certain attitudes….what essentially are blocks to recovery. Then it becomes all about having enough awareness to keep yourself in check, so that you can catch yourself if you start to behave the same way. I count myself as lucky, fortunate, and blessed to still be sober today, because for a long time, I did suffer from many blocks to my recovery.
Using unique talents to give back to others
So it should be obvious by now that once you are in recovery and you are living clean and sober, that “something more” is required in order to enjoy long term sobriety in the future. It is not enough to merely stay abstinent and expect your life to just keep getting better and better without putting forth any effort.
Part of that “something more” is helping others in recovery. But how?
This is where I personally got sidetracked for many years. You see, I was always trying to help people the way that “traditional recovery” thought that I was supposed to help them. For example, by chairing 12 step meetings, sponsoring newcomers, and so on. But it turns out that this is not always the ideal format for reaching out and helping others. It all depends on your natural strengths and talents.
For some people the traditional path is great, and works well for them. But for other people, their strengths may lie in different areas.
I met a man once who was the driver for a world-renowned, very famous treatment center. His job was to pick up incoming clients at the airport and drive them to the rehab facility. Let me tell you, I was absolutely blown away by this man and his effectiveness. I think he should have been counseling people inside the rehab, and I told him that. But he had found his niche. He was not a counselor, or a therapist, but he had his job and he did it well. In fact, I think he did his job better than any other person I met on that trip to rehab. He was content to keep being “the driver.” And I am sure he has had a positive impact on thousands of people by now.
Likewise, I am helping addicts and alcoholics today, but not in any “traditional” sense of the idea. I have found other outlets, other media to reach with.
So do not feel like you have to fit into a mold when it comes to giving back. Find out how you can best give back, and then do it.
How this has helped me in my recovery: I had to find my own path in recovery. Others made suggestions and some even tried to define a path for me, but I had to use my strengths in order to help others in unique ways. Luckily, I was able to finally see the value in doing so, even though I almost fell into the trap of believing otherwise.
Staying flexible enough to grow and to change. Avoiding fundamentalism
Recently, I witnessed a relapse from someone whom I had thought had a rock-solid recovery. This person had been sober for several years and they were incredibly dedicated to their recovery program. But the key difference between us is that this person was essentially a hard-line, AA fundamentalist….this person could have chewed up a cranky oldtimer in AA and spit them out, even though they were relatively young. In spite of being “rubbed the wrong way” by their fundamentalism, I had always been impressed with this person and their level of study when it came to the 12 step program, and their tendency to quote various passages of the Big Book. They really were dedicated.
Well, no more. This person relapsed, and took their fundamentalist ways with them on the way out the door. And this has become a huge lesson for me in recovery, because there is a tendency to meet a wide variety of people who all claim to have the answer when you are first investigating recovery. And so I have always been one to question myself, to question my program, to question my recovery efforts. I stand in awe at the confidence of the typical AA fundamentalist, that their way is so right.
This stuff is always driven by fear. We want to assure ourselves that we are sober, and that we are doing what we need to do in order to stay sober. We want that reassurance that we are going to be OK in our recovery. This is the fear that drives fundamentalist beliefs in recovery. We narrowly define the truth and then we cling to it as our saving grace. Essentially, we are saying “This is what works and what has kept me sober, so there is nothing that can make me deviate from it, because I am terrified of relapse.” And then of course we project these fears onto others.
So you can see how this can create a problem when it comes to getting stuck in recovery. Sometimes our beliefs need to change slightly, or be revised, in order to move forward in our recovery. Sometimes we learn new things, or get a clearer understanding of a spiritual principle.
Traditional recovery tries to protect against this trap. They try to emphasize open-mindedness, and say things like “more will be revealed.” But some recovering alcoholics shut themselves down to these ideas, and cling with blind conviction to that which helped them get to finally get sober. Remember that what got you sober will not keep you sober, and we have to keep changing and growing in our recovery if we are to succeed. Fundamentalism is a trap where you stay stuck in the basics, never evolving into the progress that was intended.
How this has helped me in my recovery: Fundamentalism was, and is, a real threat to someone like myself, because I do have the same fears as other people and have a need to be “right” and a need to feel secure. It would be so nice to pretend that I had all the answers and that there was no need to keep seeking and pushing myself to learn more or to refine my beliefs. Luckily I have been able to stay at least open minded enough to keep exploring new ideas in recovery, some of which do turn out to be beneficial for me.
Finding your vision and purpose in life
One thing about recovery: the journey does get exciting again. When I was still using drugs and alcohol, I never thought that would be possible for me. I thought that excitement was gone forever, because for so many years, the only thing that got me excited was getting high.
It takes time, but our passion for life does return. Life becomes interesting. Our relationships with other people become exciting. And our ability to enjoy the simple things in life comes back to us as we remain sober.
Many recovering addicts and alcoholics come to have a realization in their recovery. They look around and see that a very low percentage of people actually choose to get clean and sober, and even fewer are actually able to stay that way. For some reason, they have been blessed with recovery. Against heavy odds, people in recovery are very lucky to be enjoying recovery, when most of them can look back and say “Really, I should be dead or in prison after what I put myself through.”
And so the recovering person gets to this point where they think to themselves: “I must be sober for a reason. I am not just here to punch a time clock and consume sitcoms all night.” And so many in recovery reach out and start helping others. Most of the time, this will be helping others in recovery. There is no shortage of newcomers in addiction recovery.
I am not saying that everyone needs to push themselves to help others in recovery. Just that many will. There are other ways to find purpose in your life. But finding your own way of reaching out and helping others in recovery can be very powerful. I have seen it work for several people in recovery, including myself.
How this has helped me in my recovery: Acquiring vision and purpose has allowed me to get excited and passionate about life again, in almost exactly the same way that scoring drugs used to make me feel. Helping others in recovery can have that same level of euphoria at times, and so life is once again a meaningful adventure for me. I did not feel this way during my first month or even my first year of recovery. It takes a bit of time to start reaping the benefits of recovery. Put in the work during early sobriety and the positive changes that you make will pay huge dividends down the road. We may be bored for a moment in early recovery, but then it all takes on new meaning, and life gets good again.
So these are the results I have achieved through non-traditional recovery. It is possible to get clean and sober through alternative paths. You don’t have to follow the crowd in order to have an awesome life in recovery. Probably most important is that you get started somewhere and at least take action and get professional help.
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