In order to do well in long term sobriety you must be on a path of personal growth.
In fact, recovery itself can perhaps best be defined as personal growth. There are various programs that will allow a person to recover from addiction, but if you study these programs and the things that they seek to accomplish, you will find some common threads among them. Ultimately, a recovering alcoholic is either making positive changes in their life on a continuous basis, or they are not.
Growth, or stagnation. Positive action or complacency. When you boil it all down between recovery and relapse, these are the defining concepts involved. Either you are moving forward or you are stuck. And if a person stays stuck for too long then eventually it leads them to relapse.
If you look at your overall life in recovery you can slice it up into different areas. One way to do this is to look at the various areas of your health: Physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. If you are lacking deeply in one of those areas then it can trip you up and lead to relapse.
For example, I had a close friend in early recovery who became physically sick. His health spiraled further and further out of control as he tried to get control of his weight issue and cigarette addiction. Eventually his illness wore him down to the point that he relapsed. It was then that I realized that physical health, when neglected, could become a trigger for people in recovery.
When I was first getting clean and sober I noticed that a lot of my peers in recovery would relapse when a romantic relationship ended. This is one of the reasons that you would often hear advice in AA to the effect that people should avoid new romantic relationships during the first year of their sobriety. When people became emotionally upset it could definitely trigger them to drink or use drugs.
These are just random examples, but I am quite sure that if you neglect one of these 5 areas of your health for long enough that it can compromise your recovery. Relapse can come from any direction, therefore the only real solution for sobriety is a holistic approach that addresses all of these different areas.
In other words, you cannot just focus on one aspect of your overall health and expect for it to keep you clean and sober forever. Nor can you expect to “just do the next right thing” in your recovery journey and hope for a lifetime of sobriety and happiness.
Instead of vague hopes for the future, you need to get deliberate with your personal growth. Meaning that you need to take a full inventory of your life and your personality and then make a plan of action to fix the problem areas.
If you work through the 12 steps of AA or NA with a sponsor then you can see some of this idea in action. You take inventory in step 4 and then you figure out what your character defects are, then you seek to eliminate them. If you fail to do this work then eventually those defects can trip you up and cause you to relapse at some point in the future.
Whether you do this work via the 12 steps or not is beside the point. What has to happen is that you need to remove these roadblocks so that you don’t fall victim to relapse in the future.
Let me give you an example of this. When I first became clean and sober I realized that I was doing something that was potentially dangerous to my recovery. I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself for no apparent reason. Why was my brain doing this? What was going on?
I realized that this was how I used to justify my drinking and drug use. If there was all sorts of drama going on in my life, and if I could make myself out to be a victim in some way, then it was easier for me to feel decent about the fact that I was drinking and taking drugs. “If you had my problems then you would drink too.” That was what my brain was doing.
Now that I had become clean and sober, however, I noticed that my brain was still running through that same self pity loop. It was still trying to convince itself that I was a victim and that I deserved to do anything and everything to make myself feel better. So this mental loop was only useful if I wanted to justify a relapse. So I determined that it had to go; it was not serving any useful purpose for recovery.
At that point I made a decision to do the work in order to develop gratitude and let go of self pity. This was a deliberate process and I had to ask for advice and help in order to learn how to do this. It was an example of deliberate and conscious growth.
But this example was just one area of my life, and of my recovery. It dealt with the mental part of my recovery, and the cognitive processes that were helping me to remain clean and sober.
However, there are other areas of our lives that we need to worry about as well. Some time later in my recovery journey I started to exercise on a regular basis, and it was only after starting to do this that I realized that I had been neglecting my physical health quite a bit. I also quit cigarettes at some point.
Again, this is all part of the holistic approach to recovery. You have to consider all areas of your life and all areas of your health if you want to be successful. There are many opportunities for personal growth when you consider the different parts of your life and of your health. Don’t make the mistake that I did in early recovery in which I limited my search to only spiritual growth. While spirituality is important, it is not the only dimension of growth that you should be focusing on in recovery.
If you talk with some of the “winners” in recovery and you ask them what they are doing in order to live a good life in recovery, you are going to hear a lot of suggestions that go far beyond spiritual growth. You will likely hear people talk about physical exercise, relationships, mental health, emotional balance, and so on. In other words, there is more to living a good life in recovery than just spiritual growth. The real win in recovery is holistic, meaning that you must consider the “whole person,” and look at all of these different areas of your health.
The only enemy in long term sobriety is complacency, meaning that if you stop pursuing positive action and personal growth then you could very easily fall victim to relapse. The key, therefore, is to stay open and willing to learn new things about how to find new solutions and improve yourself and your life. Staying plugged into this process of learning and personal growth is the key to remaining clean and sober. If you become stagnant then you run the risk of relapse. Instead, figure out what your biggest stumbling block is in your life right now, then gather advice and make a plan to eliminate it.