In order to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction you have to make massive changes in your life.
This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to implement the sort of changes that can lead you to a new life in recovery. If you think that you can do it all in a day (or even a week) then you are mistaken. Recovery is a learning process, and it takes time.
There is a right way and a wrong way to go about doing this. To complicate the matter, there are actually several different paths that will work for most people, and also lots of paths that result in relapse. Your job is to find one of the paths that leads you to success.
Early recovery in particular is a very tricky time to make it through sober. It is especially difficult because you are like a fish that has been suddenly caught out of water. Nothing makes sense at first and you have no idea if you will ever be truly happy again.
Before you can reach the rewards of long term sobriety you must first build a foundation. Much learning and experimenting must take place in order to build the sort of life in recovery that rewards you. If this were easy to do then obviously everyone would do it and success rates would be through the roof. Unfortunately that is not the case and therefore this lets us know that recovery is, in fact, a lot of hard work.
Is it worth it?
You bet it is. The rewards of sobriety are amazing once you have put in the effort to build a proper foundation. But you have to put in a massive effort, and most people underestimate this amount of effort at first.
The 5 areas of your recovery from a holistic standpoint
There are basically 5 areas when it comes to your recovery from addiction. These are all different parts of your overall health.
The currency of recovery is your health. Without health we have nothing. But this goes beyond just having your physical health (which is obviously important though!).
From a holistic standpoint, our health in recovery can be segmented as follows:
So those are the 5 key areas that make up our overall holistic health in recovery.
It is important that you make an effort in all of these areas at some point in your recovery. Ideally, we would like to progress in each of these categories on a daily basis. Hence we would establish certain habits that make up our daily practice in recovery.
However, there is a problem with this.
We need to prioritize.
The reason that we have to prioritize is because the amount of information that you get in early recovery is overwhelming.
For example, go to any AA meeting and ask at the beginning what you should focus on in your recovery. Ask for suggestions. What has helped other people in their own recovery journey?
If you actually do this then you will be absolutely overwhelmed with suggestions and opinions. There are so many different tactics that you might employ in early recovery in order to improve your overall health and sobriety. People will suggest prayer, meditation, sponsorship, stepwork, relationship work, relaxing, working hard, avoiding stress, taking it easy, building discipline, going to meetings every day, helping others in recovery, self discovery and self analysis, confession, and on and on and on. If you are not overwhelmed with the list of suggestions that you get in early recovery then you are not paying attention! It is a lot to take in.
This is not to say that any of it is wrong necessarily (even though some of the advice will be a bit conflicting), but only that there is information overload. If you try to take action based on suggestions then your actions may be quite scattered. It will be difficult to know what you really should be doing and focusing on at first.
So my suggestion is to prioritize based on what it is that you can control in your life.
There will be a few exceptions to my arguments here, but for the most part, I believe that you should start by focusing on your physical and spiritual health.
This is not to say that your mental, social, and emotional health should be thrown out the window or forgotten about completely.
But in early recovery you have to prioritize. You cannot work on everything all at once. It simple won’t work. That is why I speak of building a foundation. Master this one thing, first, then you can move on to other things.
I suggest this for a couple of reasons:
1) Traditional recovery is, for the most part, set up like this. Think of a traditional drug and alcohol treatment center. Basically two things happen: You go through detox so that you can get physically healthy, then they try to teach you how to rebuild your spiritual health. Treatment is typically all about spiritual growth. You need to work the steps, you need to have a spiritual awakening, or in some cases, you need religion (for religious based treatment centers). So traditional recovery is already set up this way, for the most part. They focus on physical and spiritual health as the main priorities.
2) Your physical health is under your direct control. You can eat healthier, improve your sleeping habits, get into shape, exercise, and stop putting harmful chemicals into your body. You are in direct control of all of these things. I realize that there are some exceptions–for example, someone in recovery who drank heavily to combat their insomnia. They can’t just improve their sleep by making a decision necessarily. But this is not to say that they cannot prioritize their physical health and start seeing specialists until they can get it fixed (or if they cannot afford sleep specialists, using remedies and techniques from advice or found freely online. The point is that they can work towards better health and it is under their direct control).
3) Your spiritual health is also under your direct control. In fact, this is even more true than the physical health argument, because you may get sick or suffer illness against your will. But you cannot really get “spiritually sick” against your will, not if you know the solution. And the solution is positive action, gratitude, taking suggestions, being open minded. These are all things that you can make a decision to implement in your life. Your spiritual development is under your direct control. It doesn’t really hinge on outside circumstances so much.
4) Your social, mental, and emotional health are all very important, but they all have less of an impact and are under your direct control a bit less. It is a complicated argument indeed to try to prove that your emotional state is less under your control than your spiritual state, but I believe this to be true for the most part. What happens to us is not always our choice, but how we react to it generally is, except when it comes to our emotions. We don’t get to choose our feelings. We can try to dampen the intensity of a feeling, but we cannot say “My dog just died, I am going to force my sadness to turn into happiness.” We can’t just do that. Our emotions choose us, not the other way around.
So we don’t have as much control over some aspects of our health. And more importantly, your physical and spiritual health are more important than the other three categories, at least in my opinion. It would be difficult to prove this to everyone, but I think there are several good arguments:
1) Spiritual health is especially powerful because it operates on hope and faith. If you don’t have any hope left then you are dead in the water when it comes to recovery; you will simply go drink. And in early recovery you absolutely have to make a leap of faith in order to realize that most of the benefits of recovery do not kick in for a long time. “It gets greater later.” This is a spiritual principle because you have to have faith that your hard work in recovery will pay off one day. And it does. But without that leap of faith you will just say “screw it” and go get drunk.
2) Physical health is part of the foundation, and most people underestimate it. First of all, abstinence from drugs and alcohol is a physical health issue. Stop putting chemicals into your body physically. Second of all there is the benefits of fitness, nutrition, and sleep. If you are lacking severely in any of those three areas it could lead to relapse. Third of all, vigorous exercise in recovery can be like a drug in itself and is a powerful coping mechanism for releasing stress and stimulating those pleasure centers in the brain. Finally, I have friends in recovery who have passed away because they did not embrace fitness and nutrition. What is the point of being sober if you are dead?
3) Momentum. Part of early recovery is about building momentum and building on your previous success. I think it is better to have goals in terms of your physical and spiritual health in order to make progress and get some quick wins in early recovery. Momentum is important. Part of the problem in early recovery is that you don’t feel like you are making much progress at first. Sure you stopped drinking, but when do the rewards get amazing? To be honest you will not notice it happen, one day you will look back and be amazed at how far you have come. But in order to get to that point you have to start by taking baby steps. Celebrate every victory that you get in early recovery and start building your success.
For example, I quit drinking and using drugs and I was living in rehab. I wanted to quit smoking cigarettes too but I could not succeed at first. So I took a suggestion and I started exercising first. I built up a regular routine of exercise and then I was finally able to put down the cigarettes for good. This felt absolutely amazing and it was because each success was built on a prior victory. I sobered up, then I started exercising, and finally I quit smoking. It was an amazing progression and each step depended on the one before it.
Which leads me to my next point, which has to do with momentum and confidence.
4) Confidence. Once you build some momentum in your recovery by making positive changes, you will become more confident. This happened to me in a big way when I realized that I had finally achieved my goal of quitting smoking. I was on top of the world and I realized that I could do nearly anything. At that time I asked myself “What do I really want in life?” because I knew that if I set my mind to it that I could most likely achieve it. This is because I had done the hard work of quitting smoking, which actually involved several steps including sobering up first, then exercising every day, then actually quitting. So in effect this taught me discipline. It taught me how to grow my discipline so that I could achieve a very difficult goal. So I knew that I could then apply this discipline to other things and create exactly what I wanted in life and in recovery. It was all a matter of prioritizing and then executing.
Building a daily practice
If you look at a successful recovering alcoholic who has a few months (or years) of sobriety under their belt, what did they do in order to get there?
I can tell you that if anyone is recovering and is growing in their sobriety then they are doing some sort of daily practice. In other words, they have some consistency. They have established positive habits. So they might do certain things every single day, such as prayer or meditation or exercise. Or they might do something once every week, like do a session with their sponsor and talk about their progress and their goals and such.
And it goes much deeper than that. I believe that every person in recovery should work on those five critical areas of our health each day, at least in some small way. If you neglect one area of your health then this becomes extremely dangerous. For example, if you neglect your physical health for too long then you can get sick and this can lead (sometimes indirectly) to a relapse. I have watched a lot of recovering alcoholics who relapsed due to sickness or illness. That was a theme in recovery that no one really told me about, I had to discover it for myself through observation. Getting sick is a trigger point for many people in recovery. It becomes dangerous.
The same thing is true of your mental health. And of your emotional stability. And of your social network and the company you keep. If any of these things gets too far out of whack then it can lead you back towards relapse. Usually it is not clear how such a problem can turn into a relapse but in retrospect it always makes sense. We see our mistakes when it is too late. The solution to this is to be proactive, to pursue holistic health, to take care of ourselves in all of these 5 ways, every day.
Therefore it is necessary for you to build up a daily practice. I have found that the more consistent a positive habit is, the more effective it is for me. If I have wiggle room as to whether or not I do something then it usually falls by the wayside. I have to commit. I have to make a positive change and then really own it, really stick with it. Then over time I start to see massive benefits from that change.
Or not. For example, I took a suggestion once to meditate every day. I did it for a while but I eventually replaced meditation with distance running. Jogging just worked better for me, and it seemed to give me all the same benefits as well (and more).
And this is how you build a daily practice–through testing. You must experiment. Recovery is about changing old behaviors into new, positive habits. How can you know exactly what will work for you if you don’t get out there and experiment? You have to try things, take action, in order to recover.
Where do I start? What do I do?
You might start to feel at this point like we are back to our original problem of being overwhelmed. A holistic approach? Take action every day in five different areas? How can I possibly manage all of that?
Relax. Remember that we are going to prioritize and build our foundation in just two areas to start with: Physical and spiritual.
I have suggestions for both of these areas, though you would be wise to seek additional feedback from people face to face as well (such as at AA meetings, a sponsor, a therapist, etc.):
* Stop drinking and using addictive drugs. If you need help with this, go to detox in an inpatient treatment center. Most will need help with this.
* Try to get a full night of sleep to where you feel well rested. I realize this will take time after getting sober. For me it took several months, maybe over a year, I can’t honestly remember. But my sleep was bad for what seemed like a long time after getting sober. But it gets better. And you should make it a priority.
* Eat healthier. I am not a nutritionist but everyone can make positive changes. Replace some junk each day with a healthy snack. Consult others, get feedback. Nutrition is important.
* Move your body. Exercise. Something, anything. Consult a doctor first, etc. This had a huge impact on my own recovery and I don’t know if I would still be sober today without it.
Each one of these things is not a deal breaker for sobriety but if you do them all together, consistently, every day of your life, you will transform.
* Kill your ego. Stop listening to the voice in your mind that makes decisions. Commit to one year of “no ego.” Only take advice from others. For those who have a higher power, they often say that “my HP speaks to me through other people.” This is that principle in action. Kill your ego.
* Practice gratitude daily. Every day you should practice gratitude in some way. You cannot relapse while you are truly grateful. It is impossible. Gratitude allows you to enjoy life, even when it may not be perfect.
Those two concepts alone are more powerful than all of the other stuff about spirituality that is normally thrown in our faces all the time.
If you take all of of these six suggestions listed above (both spiritual and physical) and you practice them all every single day then your life will get better. A whole lot better. And this will give you the foundation that you need to go on and improve other things such as your emotional balance, reducing stress, fixing relationships, and so on.
For me, this is how my recovery unfolded. I had to build a foundation first.
A big part of that is taking suggestions from other people. Their suggestions are always ways to improve your health if you are willing to take action and experiment.
There are no real secrets in recovery, there is only process. Going to treatment can get you started in the right direction, but it will not build the foundation. You have to do that through your own actions, through follow up, through experimentation.
Your health is the currency of recovery. You build a strong foundation for sobriety when you focus on physical and spiritual health.