Positive habits are the day to day secret sauce that fuels a successful recovery.
If you do not change your habits then any success that you experience will be short lived because it will be based on fleeting action that you are not going to establish as a regular pattern.
In my early recovery I watched this happen over and over again with my peers in recovery.
For example, someone would come into rehab and they would get detoxed from their drug of choice. Then they would make a few changes in their life, such as going to 12 step meetings every day. But eventually that change would fall by the wayside and they would stop going to meetings. The next thing you know they have relapsed.
Was it because they failed to attend meetings? Not necessarily. Rather, they failed to establish a new habit. They did not follow through.
It may surprise you to learn that the follow through it actually a lot more important than the actual model of recovery you are following. Most people cannot really grasp that idea and even when they do they often do not believe it. This is because most people become heavily biased to whatever method finally got them clean and sober in life. Therefore they believe that whatever program helped them to get sober must be the only way that works for anyone else. This is short sighted though because there are actually many different paths to recovery.
One idea that I have been kicking around lately is the idea of mapping your recovery. Part of this mapping process would involve modeling someone else, and this is already an established part of the recovery process in the form of sponsorship.
With sponsorship, we find someone else in recovery who is living the sort of life that we would like to live, and then we start modeling that person. The concept is very simple and it can be very effective. If you want what someone else has then you need to take the same actions that they took.
But mapping our recovery can go much deeper than this. I am not yet sure of all of the implications to this mapping process but I am going to thoroughly explore it.
First of all there is the idea of simply going from point A to point B. If you are using a map and you want to get somewhere specific, then you actually need to know at least two pieces of information:
1) Where you are going to.
2) Where you are starting from.
So in the beginning you must evaluate where you are starting from. This is how you start using the idea of a “map” in recovery.
Now there are really two different ways that this breaks down.
One is the idea that you don’t really know what happened in your life but you know that it is thoroughly screwed up. You are miserable and you finally admit this to yourself. This is the point where you finally surrender and you break through your denial. It doesn’t matter “where you are” on the map because you just know that you want something different in life. You are not happy and you want things to change.
There is nothing wrong with this and I believe that everyone basically starts out at the point of surrender in much the same way. You are miserable and you want something different in life. You don’t really know where you are and you probably don’t really know what a successful recovery looks like either.
If someone could hand you a perfect map at this point and show you exactly where you would end up in recovery, do you know what you would say to that?
I know, because I remember saying it. I said “I don’t believe it.”
I did not believe that I could be really happy in recovery in the long run. I was so miserable and I thought that I was so unique and different from other alcoholics and so I did not think that I could build this happy new life in recovery that they were describing to me.
But at some point it did not matter because I got miserable enough and I just wanted the chaos and misery to go away. So I surrendered, even though I did not really know what I was surrendering to.
And that is OK when you first get through denial. You either cannot see the whole map, or you don’t really believe it will work anyway. No problem. Just surrender and go with it.
Now at this point we can sort of separate recovery into two parts.
The first part is short term recovery. We are talking about maybe the first few months to maybe the first full year or so of recovery. This is when you just recently got clean and sober. Maybe you are still in detox. So at this point you just know that you want things to change in your life.
But after a while you will get a little more stable. Maybe you are in treatment or you are going to meetings or you are seeing a therapist on a regular basis. You manage to string a few months of sobriety together and things are slowly starting to improve slightly.
It is at this point when you need to use the idea of “mapping.”
Once you are through the process of surrender and you are basically stable in your early recovery from alcoholism, it is time to take a step back and do some assessment.
Specifically, you need to figure out two things:
1) Where you are at in life.
2) Where you want to get to.
Before you can dive in and start figuring out goals and purpose for yourself, it may be appropriate to figure out exactly where you are first. This is the idea of using the map. If you don’t know where you are starting from then it is difficult to know where you are going, or for that matter, how you are going to get there.
Evaluating your starting point in early recovery
So you go to detox and you make it through rehab. Maybe they send you to counseling after you leave treatment or maybe they just recommend that you start going to AA meetings. Whatever the case may be, hopefully you can find some stability in those first few weeks of recovery so that you can get a fresh start on life.
At this point you want to evaluate your starting point.
In order to do this you will want to assess where your life is at right now. Hopefully you have a few weeks or months of sobriety under your belt at this point.
You may want to write these things down in order to really evaluate your life. Specifically, I would look at two possible categories:
1) Internal stuff – Thought processes, self pity, resentment, anger, shame, guilt, etc.
2) External stuff – Your job, your relationships, your career, your education, your social network, your fitness and exercise, nutrition, etc.
Now at this point it is probably most helpful when you are doing this assessment to focus on the negative elements that tend to pop up.
So for example, if I looked at my own life at about the 3 month sober point, I would have said the following in my assessment:
1) Internal – Tendency to engage in self pity, some resentments as well. Obsessive thoughts about feeling sorry for myself.
2) External – Poor fitness, addicted to cigarettes, lack of education, working a job that is not very satisfying.
Now after you brainstorm these things you may want to also seek feedback from someone else in recovery, such as your sponsor (if you have one). Ask them if they can help you figure out what these negative “blocks” in your life may be, both internally and externally.
If you are sponsored through a 12 step program then they will probably suggest working through the 12 steps in order to identify your internal blocks (things like resentment, shame, self pity, etc.). That is fine if that works for you.
But then you will also want to go beyond the internal blocks and also look at your day to day life as it is lived in the external world. This includes everything that happens outside of your mind, things like fitness or relationships or education. What are your weak points? What needs work? What is causing you stress or pain or misery? What is dragging you down in your life? What is holding you back? Ask people you trust to help you identify these negative points. Write everything down. Keep pushing yourself to expand these thoughts and to dig deeper. Be thorough.
You can focus on the positive things in your life if you like, but do not do that at the expense of looking at all of the negative stuff. Because quite honestly it is the negative stuff that offers you the most potential for growth. In order to make progress in recovery you are going to have to look at the negative stuff in your life and get honest with yourself. Because this is uncomfortable most people do not want to do it.
So what you are really doing when you create this “map” is you are defining your starting point. In a way you are also defining some pretty obvious goals for the next few months or years of your recovery. For example, if you identify a negative characteristic such as “self pity” (like I did) then you can be that at some point in the future you are going to work hard at fixing or eliminating that issue.
Prioritizing your progress in alcoholism recovery
So after you have built a substantial list of negative stuff in your life that you want to try to fix, you have a pretty important decision to make:
How are you going to tackle that list, and in what order do you proceed?
The answer to this can be a bit tricky. First of all I want to caution you against a very common pitfall, and that is when someone starts to try to fix everything all at once.
This never worked for me. It always backfired. It was like trying to spread yourself too thin on too many projects at once, and you end up getting nothing done on any of them. You don’t want to do this.
Instead you want to focus. Intense focus is what will create progress. But, what to start with?
My suggestion is that you prioritize your recovery in terms of impact.
What does that mean?
Look at your map and consider each of the negative elements in your life. You may also consider the positive stuff too and the idea that you could improve on that stuff further (but you should know that you almost always get more impact for the effort by fixing a negative trait instead).
Now go through your list and imagine what it would feel like if you had overcome each negative issue. Take them one at a time and do not consider them all in unison. Just focus on one at a time, and really try to imagine what it would feel like if you had totally eradicated that problem.
What you are trying to do is to determine how much of a positive impact this would have on your life. Do this with each negative thing on your life. If you want to, assign a number between 1 and 10 to each thing in terms of how much positive impact it would have.
This is how to prioritize your changes in recovery. Figure out what will have the biggest impact, then do that first.
This strategy has several bonuses to it.
First of all you will gain huge momentum by doing it this way. This is what happened to me when I finally managed to quit smoking cigarettes. This was a huge win for me and it gave me the confidence to go on and tackle other goals. Big goals. I really got excited when I finally conquered that particular issue and it gave me a lot of additional incentive.
Second of all your life will improve more quickly if you are going after the biggest impact stuff first. If you do the little changes first and save the juicier goals for later then you are missing out on a lot of upside. Start with the higher impact goal first and give yourself a fast, big win in life.
Finally, when you tackle the bigger impact items first you give yourself “permission” to go after other big goals. This is how to build success on top of success and create momentum. If you are only tackling small impact goals then you will not get as excited about your personal growth in recovery.
This is how to prioritize your recovery. Find the biggest impact change that you can make, then focus all of your energy on it until you conquer that change. Then re-evaluate and move on to the next issue in your life.
Walking the map
There will be times when the above method fails.
Because you will find at certain times that you must take a step back and start over again.
For example, I had two goals at one time:
1) I wanted to get into shape.
2) I wanted to quit smoking.
At the time I determined that quitting smoking was more important. So I tried to quit.
Then I tried again and failed.
And I failed some more.
I got really sick of trying to quit smoking. It was getting to be annoying. I felt like a failure!
So at some point I decided to change strategies. Since I was not having any success in quitting, I took a step back and decided to start exercising.
So I “broke the rules” and started distance running on a regular basis, while I continued to smoke.
Everyone said I should not even be able to run long distances while being a smoker. Everyone was wrong. This was the correct order for me.
I continued to smoke for a few months as I built up my distance with running. After a few months though I was able to stop smoking, strictly because I had established myself as a regular runner.
The running gave my brain the chemicals that it needed (the dopamine) in order to be able to quit the cigarettes.
But I had to get the order right.
This is an important lesson:
If you prioritize your changes and things are not working out, you may need to take a step back and reorganize.
Internal versus external changes
Here is another thing to watch out for:
You may be working on one of your goals in recovery and you will realize that things are not going well for some reason.
Like maybe you are working on an external goal and you are trying to advance at your job. But for whatever reason you are not getting the results that you want.
If this is the case then (again) you may need to take a step back and look at your map again. What you might find is that there may be an internal change on your list that has to happen before a certain external change can occur (and vice versa).
So maybe you have a lot of resentment and anger and this is what is actually holding you back from that promotion. If you do the necessary work to let go and release that anger then it may set you up to be in a better position to get that promotion finally.
This is not something that you can necessarily plan out perfectly in advance. Sometimes the map is revealed to us as we are walking the path. So what is important here is to increase your awareness and constantly be evaluating things. Are you moving forward toward your goals? Are you finding one of your goals very difficult to achieve? If you have been struggling for too long then that is a sign that you may need to step back and assess again. Look at your list of goals (your map) and figure out if you might need to switch your order. Even if you prioritized things differently, the real world might be demanding that you change things up and go out of order instead.
Revisiting the map
Continue to look at your map. You may also want to keep redefining the map by getting more feedback from other people in your life. They can see things that you may not be able to see at first, and sometimes those are the changes that we most desperately need to make. This can be just as true after ten years sober as it can be when you are still stumbling around in active addiction.
The idea of mapping in recovery is very exciting to me and I think it can help a lot of people. We have not even really considered the ideas of:
1) Defining your destination on the map.
2) How you will get there.
Those two points will offer a lot of insight to us as well if we care to explore them. Check back here because we are going to do exactly that pretty soon.