Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is about a process of continuous and evolving change.
Overcoming addiction is not a one-off event, as many outsiders may perceive it. To the outside world, it looks as though a drug addict or an alcoholic just makes a single change. To them, it looks like they simply decide one day to stop abusing drugs or alcohol, and so they do that, and then go on about their lives, never giving it much thought again.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Recovery is about continuous change. It is a constant reinventing of one’s self as a person who is living in sobriety.
If recovery was just about abstinence from drugs or booze, there would be no need for recovery programs. People could just stop drinking or using drugs and be done with it. They could move on without another thought about it. But obviously that does not work, and the issue of addiction and recovery is far more complex.
In order to be truly successful in long term recovery, we have to become open to the idea of change–continuous change. We have to be open to the idea that we are going to continuously grow as a person in our recovery. This is the path to success.
Changing your entire life from the inside out
They have a saying in many recovery programs:
“The only thing you have to change in recovery is EVERYTHING.”
It’s sort of a funny little saying that really points to a universal truth about people in recovery. Anyone who has managed to become clean and sober can look back after a year or so in sobriety and say to themselves:
“Yes, I really did have to change everything. Every single thing in my life changed when I got clean and sober.”
Now obviously, this is not really true in a literal sense. Most people do not change every single thing, such as their car, their hairstyle, their wardrobe, and so on.
Instead, they are referring to the fact that their perception and their reactions to life is what changed.
Life continues on in recovery, whether we are sober or drinking. Life keeps showing up and it keeps on happening. Things happen, events occur, people come and go in our lives, we have jobs, relationships, and so on. All of this stuff happens both in and out of recovery.
But when people say that they had to change “everything” in recovery, what they are really referring to is the fact that their reactions to life are completely different in recovery. Their behavior changed 100 percent.
In their addiction, everything was an excuse to self medicate.
In recovery, everything is a challenge that must be dealt with sober.
Just this fact is enough to make us see our reality through a whole new lens. We know longer use drugs and alcohol as our solution for everything, so our entire life changes based on this.
So obviously, the process starts with physical abstinence. We stop putting our drug of choice into our bodies. This is the start of our journey.
But then, we start to live again, and deal with our life on a regular basis. This is when “everything changes.” Because now we are experiencing our life again, and we have to meet all sorts of challenges and deal with various issues, and we have to do it clean and sober, without resorting to self medicating. This is why everything seems to change, because we are now living every aspect of our lives in a sober way.
As we continue to live in recovery, we are challenged to grow and change in other directions. For example, we might try to quit smoking or go back to college or get into better shape. These changes are a natural extension of our new positive outlook in recovery.
Again, this is a big part of how “everything changes.” In our past life of addiction, we were not seeking out new positive changes to make, but were content to just keep self medicating. In recovery, we shift over to a more positive mindset, one that challenges us to keep finding and making new positive changes and creating new growth experiences.
The reason “everything changes” is because our attitude changes. We perceive the world differently in recovery and we start acting and behaving differently. This is why we say that we have to change “everything” in recovery.
Addicts who refuse to grow and change in recovery fall by the wayside and relapse
The number one killer in recovery is complacency. Those who stop growing and making positive changes in their program are the ones who are in danger of relapse.
Think about this for a moment and realize how continuous positive change is a protection against relapse.
When you are living in recovery, you have this baseline of existence based on the stuff that is going on in your life. It is a continuum of sorts. On the one end, you might be fully engaged in your recovery and making lots of positive changes in your life on a regular basis. On the other extreme end, you might have not tried or cared to make any positive changes for a very long time. It is at this “non-changing” end that you run a high risk of relapse.
Why is this the case?
Because our natural state of being is to drink or use drugs. Our natural state is to self medicate. That is what we always revert back to. Hey, we are addicts and alcoholics! That is what we do! We self medicate. If we just give it time and do not do anything to work on our recovery, we will eventually revert back to our normal state, which is to drink or use drugs.
For us, that is normal. Relapse is normal. It is expected. Relapse is what should happen, unless we do something active to prevent it.
That “something” is continuous positive change.
Think about the continuum again. If you go for a long time without ever pushing yourself to make any positive changes in your life, then you are in danger of relapse.
Let’s look at a real world example.
Say that you are in recovery after quitting drinking. It has been about a year or so and you have not had a drop of alcohol. You are working a program and you are taking action to stay sober.
But further, you also gave up smoking cigarettes. And you also started running and exercising on a regular basis. And you also started working with other addicts and alcoholics on a regular basis.
Each of these positive changes is another layer of protection from relapse. Do you understand why?
If you go through the effort to quit smoking cigarettes, this has a lasting effect on you. It was a difficult change to make and it took serious effort and you don’t just want to throw that change out the window. You realize full well that if you were to relapse on drugs and alcohol, all of these positive changes that you made (quitting smoking, exercising, working with others in recovery) would instantly fall by the wayside?
If you were to drink, then you would also smoke, and you would quit exercising and also quit working with others in recovery. It would all fall apart, and any addict or alcoholic would fully realize this.
And that is how it helps to protect you. Each positive change that you make in your recovery is another layer of protection against relapse. You do not want to sacrifice all of the progress that you have made by relapsing.
On the other hand, consider the person who is in recovery and they do not make all sorts of additional positive changes. They get clean and sober and then they do nothing. They do not push themselves to grow in recovery, they do not push themselves to live a healthier life, they do not push themselves to seek positive changes, they do not try to improve their life in any other way, other than to quit drinking or using drugs. What of them?
They are in danger of relapse, because they are not going to have those added layers of protection against their disease. They will always be one step away from a drink or a drug, because they do not have those extra “layers of positive change” that could help to protect them from relapse.
Various parts of your life can bring you down and cause you to relapse if you ignore the holistic approach
Recovery from addiction is a holistic process. What does this mean?
It means that the solution for overcoming addiction is a holistic one. That it must address all aspects of a person’s life and of their disease.
Addiction destroys people in a number of ways. First, it breaks them down physically, and their drug or alcohol use punishes their body. But obviously, addiction goes further than that, and it also affects people mentally, socially, spiritually, emotionally, and so on.
Because addiction affects nearly every aspect of our lives, it makes sense that a recovery program must also do the same.
Anyone who believes that the solution for addiction is merely abstinence is missing this key point.
Abstinence is the solution for addiction in a world where drug addiction is ONLY a physical problem. But we know that addiction affects our lives in many more ways than just the physical aspect. It also destroys us spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and so on.
I have seen it happen over and over again in recovery where a person ignores one aspect of their life, and this drags them down into relapse.
A common one is with physical health. I have seen many people relapse in recovery due to health problems that could have been prevented with a more holistic approach to recovery.
Someone gets sick in their recovery, and so they seek medical attention. Many times they get prescribed medications that might be risky for them in some ways. Other times, people just get sick in recovery and it leads them back to self medicating with their drug of choice. At any rate, they could have prevented the relapse by taking a more holistic approach to their recovery to begin with.
Relationships is another big one. How many people ignore this problem, and simply think that they need to focus on physically abstaining from their drug of choice instead? Out of all of the people that I have watched relapse over the years, the vast majority of them did so because of relationship problems.
The holistic approach to recovery would seek to prevent this relapse by taking an active role of growth. The holistic approach would force the addict to ask themselves:
“What positive change do I need to make next in my life? What are my trouble areas? What threatens my serenity lately, and how can I fix it?”
These questions are a continuous process in the holistic approach to recovery. You never stop asking them, and you are always pushing yourself to make positive changes.
If you ignore this idea of the holistic approach in recovery, then you run the risk of relapsing due to unforeseen complications in your recovery. Things like relationships, career changes, or illnesses can throw us for a loop if we are not actively pursuing positive change in our life.
When we take a more active approach towards our personal growth, we can better anticipate these changes and help to control them and sculpt them ourselves, thus giving us more power in our recovery. Random events can still happen to us, but we are much more prepared to deal with them if we are actively pursuing a better life in many different ways.
Stagnating growth in long term recovery is a warning sign of possible relapse
I mentioned earlier that complacency is the big killer in long term recovery. This is true, because those who relapse in long term recovery end up doing so as a result of inaction.
Lack of positive change is the warning sign for relapse. If you stop growing in your recovery, then by default you are moving closer to relapse. Remember that we can not really stay still in our recovery–we are either working on positive changes or we are sliding back towards relapse.
If you find yourself stagnating in your recovery, what can you do?
Here are some possible suggestions:
* Start with rigorous self assessment and scanning for trouble areas in your life. If you have negative things happening then your biggest payoff in recovery is to fix them. For example, maybe you are still smoking cigarettes, or wishing that you were in better shape physically. Or perhaps you used to go to regular meetings and connect with others in recovery and lately you are isolated. Scan your life for negatives, then vow to fix them.
* Force yourself to find a way to reach out and help other people. This is huge, and is essentially the 12th step in a 12 step program. If you can find a way to help others, it will transform your life in recovery, and do a lot to help protect you from the threat of relapse.
* Get some positive goals in your life and start working hard towards them. I would suggest starting with your overall health as the first thing to try to improve. Exercise, relationships, education, career–these are all possible areas to try to make progress in. Your health in particular should be a top priority for new changes.
* If you have gone through this entire suggestion process and cannot find anything in your life to work on, then ask for help and advice from someone you trust in recovery. Ask them to help you take a look at your life and see where you might need to be headed.
Recovery IS positive change
The process of recovery from addiction actually IS positive change. It starts with abstinence from drugs and alcohol, but it quickly evolves into more positive changes that can help you live a better life in recovery. Without these additional positive changes, your risk of relapse becomes much greater.
So embrace the idea of change in recovery. Seek to find ways to improve your life, and always be pushing yourself to find that next thing, that next area of discomfort that you need to tackle in order to keep growing. This is the path of success in recovery, the true holistic approach that will allow you to embrace a new life of positive change, one that is both exciting and fulfilling for you.