Traditional recovery promises us serenity if we apply ourselves and learn acceptance. I believe that there is a straightforward process to achieving this reward if someone is willing to put in the effort. The path can be traditional or non-traditional though, as you don’t have to follow in the exact footsteps of AA if you do not want to. That said, if you avoid the traditional 12 step program, you are still going to have to work very hard to achieve peace and serenity in your life.
I think that there are two sides to this serenity coin: One side is being able to summon peace and serenity even “amid the storm,” the other side is minimizing storms in your life. Both of these are important to the overall approach in my opinion. This is the same concept as working to improve both your life (internal) and your life situation (external) in your recovery journey. In other words it is not enough to just work on resentment and fear and anger, you actually have to take a look at your everyday life and also eliminate the sources of those things. It makes no sense to do the internal work of eliminating resentment if you are just going to be creating new ones on a regular basis. Better to cut things off at the source and start living healthy instead. This is what I mean by using “a holistic approach” to recovery–so you don’t just learn how to deal with life, but you also make an effort to change your life and make it better. Eliminate drama and chaos and stress to begin with. Sure, it is helpful to have the tools to deal with the madness when life throws you a curve, but it is also important to be able to minimize the problems to begin with.
So many people in traditional recovery get the first part of this concept but not the second part. So they may go to meetings every day and they have learned how to deal with negativity while sober, but they don’t take massive action in order to avoid future negativity. They changed their internal life but not their external situation. The external stuff is what they mean when they talk about “people, places, and things.”
At any rate I believe there is a way to achieve balance between these two types of growth and there is a process that you can follow. Let’s take a closer look at this process.
Establishing a foundation of recovery
The first part of any recovery process is surrender. You have to give up the fight against addiction if you have any hope of overcoming it. This is very counter-intuitive and most people have to take quite a beating in life before they finally get it. Surrender to win.
Once you surrender then you are in a position to build a foundation in early recovery. This can only be done by taking massive action. You cannot make it through early recovery as a thought experiment. You cannot quit drinking by sitting on your couch all day and thinking about it. This doesn’t work. Instead, you have to take action. You have to go out there and get recovery, you cannot expect for it to drop into your lap just because you get a little sick and tired of your addiction.
Instead you must get really, really sick and tired of your addiction. To the point where you would do anything to make it all go away. This is the point where you can ask for help and actually take directions and listen. Are you truly ready to listen? Most people are not ready. They think they are but then they “take their will back” and want to do their own thing. If you take your will back in early recovery then it is most likely that you will relapse. You must be willing to “turn your will over completely” and that means taking advice and direction from other people. You must kill your ego.
The third step of AA is about turning your will over to a higher power. In reality you don’t necessarily have to do it like they describe in the AA literature, you can actually just kill your ego and listen to the advice of others. This gives you the same functional recovery as the suggested path: You remove your own ego from the equation and you take advice and direction from others. Follow directions and your life will get better, it is as simple as that. The question is, are you willing to kill your ego and follow directions? Are you willing to listen to other people rather than to use your own ideas? Most people are not willing to do this, which is why so few succeed in recovery.
When I talk about taking “massive action” what I really mean is that you need to take suggestions from other people. Who you take suggestions from matters very little, so long as they are pushing you towards abstinence and recovery. This would include counselors, therapists, most friends and family, people in AA, sponsors, people who work at rehabs. All of these people will give you advice that is better than your own advice. In other words, if you simply do what they tell you to do and ignore your own ideas then your life can’t help but get better and better.
Taking advice and following through on it is the quickest way to get clean and sober. It is a shortcut to wisdom and it will lead you to serenity if you follow the path. But obviously you have to be willing to take directions from others, which is not easy for most people to do.
Eliminating the negative elements of your life
When you are in early recovery there will be decisions to make. One decision is: “What should I work in my life right now?”
To be honest there is a strong case to be made that you should only look at the negative stuff in your life and seek to fix it. This is also counter-intuitive. Focus on the negative. No one wants to do this but if you look carefully at the 12 step program it sort of forces people to focus on the negative as well.
Why? Because it works. Look at it this way: You can fix the negative stuff or you can chase your dreams. Which one gives you a better return on your effort?
Everyone thinks that they should ignore their problems and chase their dreams. This is clearly wrong. If you do this then you may achieve some of those dreams, but you will still be miserable because you did not fix your sources of misery. The negative stuff still clings to your life. You must eliminate it if you want true happiness.
You see, what we are striving for is not happiness, but contentment. Peace and contentment is the real goal in recovery and that is what will make you “happy” in the end. And if you have negative things in your life then it doesn’t matter how much happiness you manage to dredge up because you will still be held back by the negativity.
Therefore you should seek to eliminate the negative. I am talking about negativity in terms of both internal and external problems. In traditional recovery they would label these as:
Internal: Guilt, shame, fear, resentment, self pity.
External: People, places and things that got us into trouble in our addiction.
So we need to take a step back in early recovery and look at our life. We need to also consider the internal stuff and realize if we have negative thought patterns that need to be corrected.
For example you may realize that you are suffering from huge amounts of resentments. If you cannot figure out how to get relief from these then you need to ask for help from other people. Find others who have worked through their own resentments and are now living a life of serenity. Find serene people and ask for their advice on eliminating resentment. Then follow through and actually do what they suggest you do. This is a shortcut to wisdom. Model those who are already successful at what you are trying to accomplish.
You may also look at your life and realize that there are external problems with it as well. Maybe the job that you work at every day creates all sorts of additional stress in your life that is not helping you. In that case you make an effort in the long run to find a different job, one that does not create mountains of stress for you.
There is such a thing as a toxic relationship. Maybe you are in one right now. If that is the case then the people that you spend time with can have a real impact on your serenity, and you may just need to wake up to this fact.
One of the tools for figuring out what the sources of negativity in your life are is to keep a written journal. If you write down your thoughts every day then it can help you gain a great deal of clarity over time. But again this is another suggestion that involves taking action. You can’t just think about the stuff, you have to actually write it down each and every day in order to make the process real. Over time this will reveal certain truths to you that you otherwise may not have noticed.
Lowering your tolerance to stress and chaos
Maybe people believe that they should be able to handle more stress in their life, or that they need to become stronger so that they can handle things better.
I am told that this attitude is actually unique to the western world, and that in other cultures they actually believe it makes more sense to lower your tolerance to stress so that you change your life and experience less of it.
This is certainly a helpful attitude shift for alcoholism recovery, because stress is definitely something that can lead to relapse if it is left unchecked.
So the next time you are feeling stressed out you should pause and ask yourself: “Am I being hard on myself here and feeling like I should toughen up, or do I realize that I need to give myself a break and actually move away from some of this stress instead?”
In recovery we need to learn to take care of ourselves. This is the whole point of recovery, to improve our health and take better care of ourselves. Our decision to stop drinking is the first step in that direction. But our recovery efforts need to build on this idea. We need to take action to improve our health from a holistic standpoint. This means taking our decision to stop drinking and then building on it to include better physical health, better mental health, emotional stability, improving our relationships, reducing stress, and so on. If we just stop at “quitting drinking” then we are likely to fail in the long run. It takes more effort than that. And so the question is: “How do we make that effort? What can we do in addition to not drinking to improve our recovery?”
The answer is: Holistic health. Look at your overall life. Look at all the dimensions of health in your life: Mental, emotional, social, spiritual, physical. Are you taking care of yourself today in every way possible? Are you checking off those boxes and making sure that your recovery is not just one dimensional? Recovery is about more than just living the spiritual life, it is about achieving holistic health and balance.
Establishing positive daily habits
Certain actions lead to chaos and misery and other actions lead to peace and serenity.
In recovery it is your job to figure out which actions and which and then to apply the concepts you learn.
This is done through a process of testing.
You might also refer to this as “taking suggestions.”
So you try something new in recovery and you take certain action based on the idea. Maybe someone suggests that you meditate every day. So you try seated meditation and you maybe give it a 30 day trial to see if it helps you or not. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. If it does then you can keep doing it and use it as a way to boost your serenity and peace in your life. If it doesn’t help then you might find an alternative or take a new suggestion.
Thus you should always be testing new ideas in your life. This is how you “discover” a new life for yourself in recovery. You try new ideas, you take action. You have to have willingness for this to work. If you are not willing and open minded then this technique cannot work for you at all.
Your life today is the sum total of all your past decisions. Whatever you focused on over the last 5 to 10 years has got to you to the point you are at today. Whatever your daily decisions added up to is what made you into who you are now.
So you have to decide who and where you want to be in five years. Because your daily habits and the actions that you take each day will get you to a certain place. Your life can be shaped and sculpted based on your daily actions. Therefore you have a deliberate choice in the matter and a lot of power in the long run.
In the short run this will not seem like much power. For example you may go out and exercise today but if you are not in shape then it will probably not feel very good to you. But if you do it every day for five years and stick with it then going out and exercising will make you feel great afterward. This is another good reason why you cannot just dismiss ideas out of hand without really trying them or giving them a fair chance. You can’t just meditate once and decide that it is worthless. You can’t just exercise once and decide that the benefits are not worth it. You haven’t even experienced any of the real benefits yet! It takes time to reap the rewards of these things. It would be like someone getting sober for a day or two and deciding that it is not worth it. Of course they don’t feel great yet, they have only been sober for 24 hours and are still going through the discomfort of withdrawal! You have to give yourself a chance in some cases.
One way to learn how to do this is to talk to other people. Take suggestion and use this shortcut to wisdom. If someone suggests that you exercise, for example, ask them how long it will take before you recognize most of the benefits of this exercise. Should you give it a week? A month? Six months? How long will it take for you to feel good about yourself from this? If the person has done it themselves then they will be able to advise you on this (in my opinion you should stick with exercise for at least 6 months before you dismiss it as being wrong for you).
If I would have evaluated exercise after one month then I would have said “This doesn’t help me become more peaceful or serene.” But after six months I could see the light. After six months I realized that distance running had a meditative quality to it and it was very peaceful. It was a way for me to unwind emotionally. It was a form of meditation. But I basically had to get into shape before I could realize these full benefits. It did not happen overnight and I had to give it enough time.
Going to your happy place
One of the tips for recovery that I often hear is that you have to make yourself a happy place that you can go to when you feel the need to rejuvenate.
Our old happy place was probably the bar or wherever we drank at, but that turned out to be a place of misery instead. Our new happy place needs to be more of a sanctuary, a place of peace where we can relax and unwind.
If you cannot find a place that fits this description physically then I would suggest that you find it figuratively instead. You will have to use the idea of testing new suggestions in order to find this. It may turn out to be seated meditation or it may turn out to be distance running (like it was for me). Your “happy place” may be a type of exercise or a form of meditation rather than a physical location. But it is up to you to figure out what this is and to discover it for use in your own life.
What about you, have you been able to find serenity in your journey of recovery? What has worked well for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!