Addiction is a form of personal slavery, there is no doubt about it.
The alcoholic or drug addict is trapped in a prison of their own making.
The way to escape from this trap is to take action and reclaim your freedom. But how can you do that when you don’t see a way out of the cycle that you are stuck in? How can you break free from the chains of addiction when you cannot even see your life continuing in any way without your drug of choice?
How can we create hope out of nothing?
It is possible. Read on and let’s take a look at how real freedom is created in recovery.
Establishing a baseline of freedom starts by removing your biggest chains
In order to get started in recovery you need to establish a baseline of freedom.
The way to do this is simple: Take a step back, look at your life, and figure out what your biggest “chains” are. Figure out what is holding you back the most. Figure out what is the leading cause of your misery right now.
If you are still struggling with drug or alcohol addiction then there is a 99 percent chance that your biggest “chains” in life are your substance abuse addiction. You need to stop putting chemicals into your body on a regular basis. This is a prerequisite for you to even get started on this new path towards freedom.
For example, someone who is trapped in addiction can actually start working towards other types of freedom in their lives, all while continuing to drink or use drugs every day. Such people feel like they are taking one step forward and then two back, because they have not yet dealt with their biggest issue. They might create some success or freedom in some other area of their life, but they will always be unhappy because they have not confronted their biggest problem. They are still wearing the massive chains of addiction. So any success that they create in other areas will always be dragged down to an extent. Their unhappiness will remain.
Now the process of recovery and reclaiming your freedom does not end when you put down the bottle. If it did then recovery would be quite easy and it would not be the massive struggle that it is for more people. In other words, you don’t just get to quit drinking and then go back to your old patterns. You can’t just remove one set of chains and then call it a done deal. We all have multiple chains in our lives and your job in recovery is to break free of them. Through this process you will find freedom and contentment. But in doing so you have to be willing to examine your life, put in the hard work, and then later on you get to reap the rewards. Building freedom has a delayed effect when it comes to your happiness. It is not an immediate gratification thing like it is when you drink alcohol or take drugs. Therefore you need to have some patience and some faith when you are pursuing this line of personal growth.
Freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, it simply avoids misery
You might think that the goal of gaining this new freedom in your life is so that you will be happy.
This is not entirely accurate. It is more accurate to say that if you achieve freedom in your life then it simply sets you free from the misery you were experiencing.
This is counter-intuitive. Most people misunderstand this point.
You don’t chase freedom in order to be happy. Instead, you pursue freedom in your life so that you are not miserable. There is a subtle difference there but it is an important one.
You see, most people who are unhappy are chained down in their life in some way. They are complaining about things that make them unhappy. And so the solution in such cases is to eliminate these points of misery. This is how you build freedom.
Denial is when the alcoholic cannot see that their own drinking is leading to their misery. They believe that drinking is the only thing that can make them happy, and they are not seeing the damage and the misery that the alcohol is causing them in their life.
And after the alcoholic sobers up they have other “chains” that need to be removed. I was unhappy in my life because I was still smoking cigarettes, I was out of shape, I had poor sleep habits, I did not exercise, and so on. All of these things were different “chains” that were holding me back in life and creating misery for me. I had to fix them one at a time in order to eliminate the misery. Did doing these things make me happy? Not directly. Instead, they simply eliminated the misery that I was experiencing and allowed me to become happier in the long run.
How to systematically build more freedom in your life through your actions
So how do you build more freedom in your life?
You do so by taking action. You have to put in an effort in order to eliminate the chains.
You do this by identifying and prioritizing.
In the 12 step program one of the steps is to take a personal inventory. You are looking at your life and figuring out what is negative and what is holding you back. Then you take action in later steps in order to fix those things.
So you have to engage in self assessment. You have to look at your overall life in a very honest way and figure out what is making you miserable.
Then of course you have to prioritize and take action.
Ask yourself: What is the one thing in my life that is creating the most negativity or misery for me? Then focus all of your efforts on eliminating whatever that is.
Rinse and repeat.
You might segment your life into two parts for this self assessment: Internal and external.
If you go to AA and work through the 12 steps then that will focus almost entirely on the internal stuff. You will look at your fears, resentments, self pity, anger, shame, guilt, and so on. All of the stuff that goes on within you. All of the negative stuff is only holding you back and creating unhappiness. You may as well systematically eliminate it in your recovery. That stuff can only make you unhappy.
But there is also a great deal of change and growth that can be made by looking at your external life as well. Things like your job, your career, your relationships, your finances, your physical health, and so on. These are things in the real world, in the outside world, that can all have a significant impact on your sobriety. They deserve your attention as well.
And the same prioritization applies to the external things in your life: “What is creating misery in your life? What is holding you back or causing unhappiness?” Then focus your efforts and eliminate it.
You may complain at some point that you either:
1) Cannot figure out what is making you unhappy, or
2) You figure out a cause of unhappiness but do not know how to eliminate it.
If either of those are the case then you simply need to ask for help.
Do this by finding someone in recovery that you trust and getting their advice. You might go to AA and find a sponsor, or you might talk to a therapist or a counselor, or you might just have friends in recovery who can give you direct advice. Seek such people out and ask for their feedback. You might ask them things like:
“What do you think I should be focusing on in my life right now?”
“What do you see as the source of my unhappiness?”
“What is my next step in recovery?”
“What would you do next in life if you were in my shoes?”
My suggestion is that you ask such questions, get some feedback, and then decide on a direction for your immediate future. In early recovery you should always have a goal of some sort that you are striving towards. You should always be trying to improve your life or your life situation in some way.
Limitless freedom as fueled by personal growth
Striving for freedom is the path of personal growth.
When you make negative changes in your life then you are typically adding more chains. Negative changes cause less freedom and more misery.
When you make positive changes in your life then you are removing chains. This is the path to freedom and you are eliminating sources of misery.
When we make positive changes in life then this is the path of personal growth. We want to improve ourselves as we navigate future changes.
Again, if you do not know what changes to make in your life then you should seek advice and feedback. Get this feedback from multiple sources, but only focus on one major change at a time.
I did this in my early recovery when I asked for advice from multiple people. At the time I was hearing that I should go back to school from everyone. Because I heard the same advice from multiple sources it really gave the advice a lot more credibility. This is similar to when everyone is telling you that you have a problem with drugs and alcohol! Later on in my recovery I kept hearing the idea and the advice that I should start exercising and get into shape. When you hear the same advice more than once it is a red flag that you should probably look into the idea. There is probably a great opportunity for growth if more than one person is telling you something.
And of course you are never finished when on a path of personal growth. There are always more positive changes that you can make in life. There is always another goal that you can set and achieve.
In recovery we are challenged with having to reinvent ourselves. What most people do not realize is that you don’t just do this once. You have to keep reinventing yourself over and over again. If you fail to do this then at some point your disease will threaten you with relapse in a way that you could never anticipate. So the way to anticipate this relapse is to prevent it with a proactive strategy, one that revolves around personal growth and continuous action.
If personal growth is the strategy of your recovery then holistic health is the theme. Your overall health is the direction that your growth should move you in.
Adopting a theme of holistic health in your life
If you back up far enough and look at the big picture, then what is your life and freedom really measured by? Your health is the greatest form of currency in your life.
It doesn’t matter what freedoms you might have attained in life if you are unhealthy and you perish. Health is the ultimate currency of recovery.
Sobriety itself is just one aspect of your overall health. You could be sober but then fall victim to disease through poor lifestyle choices and seriously compromise your happiness in that way. I have watched this exact problem play out many times among my peers in recovery. Someone gets sober but then they fail to take care of themselves in other ways and this leads to either sickness or even death.
If you want to stay clean and sober then you have to keep reinventing yourself. You have to keep pushing yourself to make positive changes in some way. So you may as well strive for greater health in recovery.
This is not limited to just your physical health (although that is very important, obviously). Holistic health also includes:
* Mental health.
* Emotional health.
* Spiritual health.
* Social health.
And so on. These different areas of your overall health are all potential points of misery. This is why having poor health in one area of your life can actually lead to relapse.
For example, when I was in very early recovery I lived in a long term treatment center with eleven other men. It was a six month to two year program. While I was living there many of my peers in that program ended up relapsing. When someone would relapse, the remaining group would talk about it and try to figure out what the person did wrong. We wanted to learn from the relapse so that we did not fall into the same trap.
And it only took me a few months before I realized the obvious: Most people who relapsed in early recovery did so because of relationships. Nearly every guy who left the rehab center on bad terms did so because of a relationship. It happened over and over again.
Now we all heard warnings about this sort of thing in AA meetings and such: “Don’t get into a relationship for the first year of your recovery.” Or they would suggest that we buy a plant and keep it alive for at least a year before getting into a new relationship.
But these suggestions were warnings that were obviously not often heeded by my peers. It was just too easy to fall into a new relationship and use it to make yourself feel instantly better in recovery. One guy remarked that getting into a romantic relationship in early recovery was like replacing your higher power with a partner. I believe that this is why it sets people up to fail in early recovery. You put all of your happiness into one other person, and people are fallible.
So this relationship example is just to illustrate that you cannot afford to neglect any one area of your holistic health. Relationships are just one slice of the pie. There are other slices though that deserve equal attention. Like your spiritual health, for example. If you are not grateful in recovery then you are probably going to drink or use drugs at some point. It is easy to justify a relapse if you are not grateful for anything in your life. On the other hand, if you practice gratitude every day then it goes a long way in protecting you from the threat of relapse.
Most people think that spirituality is all about prayer and meditation and seeking a higher power. And it can be all of those things, but first and foremost it should be about practicing gratitude. Because even if you pray and meditate every day it is completely useless if you are not feeling grateful as well. Gratitude is the ultimate currency of your spiritual health. If you are spiritually bankrupt then it doesn’t mean that you have lost your higher power, it simply means that you lack gratitude. If you are spiritually abundant then it means that you are grateful for existence itself and you are beaming with the opportunity to experience another day of life. Prayer and meditation and belief are a mere afterthought in comparison to the concept of gratitude.
These examples regarding holistic health can go on and on forever. In order to be strong in our recovery we need to strive to improve our health in all of these different areas. It is not so much about “chasing happiness” as it is about eliminating points of misery and building freedom. When we strive for holistic health we increase our freedom.
There is also a synergy effect when you are pursuing holistic health because all of these parts of your life will start to work together and enhance each other. In other words, after you put in this hard work and improve your life over several months or years, there is a multiplicative effect from making all of these positive changes. You start to get a network effect. The positive changes that you make in one area will spill over and enhance the positive changes that you make in other areas. Everything in your life will start to work smoothly together because it is all in alignment with each other. This is especially true if you use the idea of holistic health as your guide. When all of your actions are in alignment and moving towards similar positive changes then you get a big boost from this in terms of your overall results.
If you run out of ideas for positive changes then you should seek feedback. Most of the wisdom that we stumble on in recovery comes from suggestions from our peers. We can take a shortcut to wisdom by borrowing the ideas and concepts that have worked for other people.
Total abstinence is the baseline for recovery. If you need help in this area then go to professional treatment. After that the real challenge begins, and you have to start pursuing freedom by taking positive action. My advice is that you seek out suggestions and feedback to point you in the right direction.
Achieving freedom in recovery is much more powerful than simply chasing happiness (which will always remain elusive if you chase after it). Instead, building freedom leads to strength and contentment. It leads to peace. This then allows you to discover happiness without having to force it.
What about you, have you been able to achieve freedom in your life of recovery? Do you still have chains in some areas? Are you going to make a plan to break free from these chains anytime soon? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!