What is the optimal path in recovery in order to find life purpose and real meaning?
Can you expect to find meaning and purpose in your life just because you are clean and sober now, instead of self medicating every day?
Surprisingly, the answer is “not necessarily.” If you want to find meaning and purpose in life then you will probably need to create it for yourself. Luckily, this is not difficult to do. It just requires effort.
Will your recovery help to define your life purpose for you?
Some people in addiction recovery get back to a certain baseline. They stop drinking and using drugs every day. They might go to a few meetings in order to help them remain sober. But they may not necessarily “get into” recovery in the same way that other people might.
If you go a whole bunch of AA meetings (typical for someone in early sobriety) then you will notice something about the meetings. You will notice something about the different individuals who make up the AA meetings. In particular, some of the people at an AA meeting have made AA into their life purpose. For them, this is what it is all about now. They live and breathe the AA program.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. I am not criticizing in the least here. I am just pointing out that a certain percentage of people who go to AA turn the program into their life purpose. Good for them–they generally seem to do well in recovery. They have a sponsor, and later they sponsor other people. They attend lots of meetings. They have found a solution that works for them and they have become passionate about it.
Then there is another group of people at AA meetings who might still be using the program successfully, but they are not quite as “into it” as the first group of really passionate AA people. Again, I am not criticizing here. They are doing what works for them. They are staying sober. And, they have found meaning and purpose in their life OUTSIDE of AA. Therefore they do not have to get “into” the program quite as much, they do not have to make it the entire focus of their life like the other group of people.
Now both of these groups of people can (and do) stay sober in recovery. Neither group is any better than the other. They just are what they are. They each stay clean and sober in their own way.
There is also a third group of people who is not yet mentioned here that is completely outside of AA altogether. These people stay clean and sober without going to meetings every day, and they may (or may not) have found meaning and purpose in their life, as well.
I belong to this third group (that does not go to meetings every day).
And yet, I believe that I have found meaning and purpose in my life through other means. Just as you have the group of AA people who don’t really derive their life purpose through AA, I have found a way to live my life in sobriety that (also) does not derive my life purpose from daily meetings or a recovery program.
When I first became clean and sober in recovery, I was living in a long term rehab facility. They required me to go to meetings every day, which I did for the first 18 months or so of my recovery. But as I was doing this I slowly realized that the daily meeting routine was not for me. It was not going to be my lifelong practice.
And so this led me to the question: “What was my lifelong practice going to be?”
Because quite honestly I was terrified. Everyone was constantly telling me that if I stopped going to AA meetings that I was going to drink and then I would die. That was a pretty scary message. And it seemed to be coming from nearly everyone around me. It was a consistent message.
It was also wrong.
Somehow, while I was living through this process and still attending AA meetings, I realized that their warning message was wrong. It was based in fear. And it really came down to this group of people that go to AA meetings every day in order to get sober, warning me that if I abandon their solution that I was going to relapse.
It was not just that they believed that the meetings kept people sober. It was more than that. It had to do with this purpose and meaning stuff. Because there were 2 groups in AA:
1) The group that found their purpose in AA itself, and
2) The group that was using AA to stay sober, but would eventually find meaning and purpose elsewhere (but still attend AA).
The second group might have even been worse than the first, because they felt guilty. They felt guilty that they were not deriving their full purpose in life from AA. Yet they “knew that they needed AA” in order to stay sober. So I believe this group of people would try even harder to push me back into AA meetings. They had the attitude of “this is just what you have to do in order to stay sober, deal with it.”
Eventually I rejected the warnings from both of these groups (that if I left the meetings I would drink and die).
This took a long time for me to summon the courage. In the meantime, many of my peers in AA had relapsed, and I was busy trying to figure out exactly what kept people clean and sober.
What concepts and principles really kept people sober?
When you removed all of the recovery programs and the meetings and the steps, what were the actual principles that kept people sober?
Was it possible that I could figure out what those were, and just focus on living the right way in my life, without having to go sit in meetings every day?
So I basically started deconstructing successful sobriety in my mind. I was figuring out what really kept people sober.
Because let’s face it:
If you walk into an AA meeting and you ask them what really keeps people sober, you are going to get a wild answer. It will be an answer that contains a bit of “magical thinking” if you like. You will definitely hear people talk about having faith in something that cannot be precisely defined. You will also hear people say things like “trust in the process….” And you might even hear people say “just sit down, shut up, and do what you are told” if you want to stay sober.
That type of “solution” was no longer good enough for me. If I was going to stay sober for the rest of my life, I had to know how it really worked.
And so I started to deconstruct recovery, and figure out what “the winners” in recovery actually did every day.
Surprisingly, it was not what I expected (go to meetings, read the big book of AA, meditate on a prayer mat, etc.).
The real winners in recovery had a process that went far beyond the suggestions you hear about in AA meetings. My question is still “why don’t they talk more about that process?” Their answer is because “it is off topic and they might lead the newcomer astray.” In other words, they don’t want to talk about how daily exercise helps them to maintain sobriety, because that is too far off topic for the newcomer who walked into AA and needs to know how to make it through the next 24 hours without a drink. So they stick to the basics and dumb it down for the newcomer, in other words.
Again, not good enough for me. I wanted more. I wanted “the next level” in my recovery. This is why I moved on, and sought to find purpose and meaning outside of recovery programs.
It turns out that finding purpose and meaning has everything to do with what you actually do every day.
Your daily habits define your purpose.
How to find purpose and meaning out of your daily practice
Perhaps this a bit of a chicken or egg question.
Does your purpose in life define your daily habits? Or do your daily habits define your meaning in life? Which is it?
I think we all assume that it is the former. We assume that you have this purpose or this mission in life, and that mission drives us to take certain actions every day.
But recovery sort of flips that equation around. Because in recovery, you start from nothing.
When you get clean and sober in recovery, you do not have meaning or purpose. I can firmly say that I did not have any purpose in my life when I reached the point of surrender. I had been reduced to a single point in my life that had to do with drinking, or not drinking. That was all I was. I was an alcoholic and I existed to get drunk. I existed to self medicate. You are not going to get clean and sober and start the journey of recovery unless you have reached this point of surrender.
The point of surrender is like the death of your ego. So even if you had dreams or purpose or meaning in your life before you started drinking or using drugs, that meaning is crushed when you become an addict or alcoholic. By the time you reach the point of surrender that I am describing here, that purpose in life is all but gone. You are reduced to almost nothing. You have no hope in life. Just a tiny sliver of hope remains with which you decide to give recovery a chance. If you have purpose in life, it is simply to see if recovery might be able to turn your life around (though you probably have very little hope that you can ever be happy again). At the point of surrender, you are nearly hopeless and life has almost no meaning.
Therefore, you start the recovery journey from scratch. You start off with the death of your ego. Your soul is crushed. You ask for help. You stop manipulating others. You ask them to tell you how to live, because whatever you are doing no longer leads to happiness. You don’t know what to do with yourself anymore. And so you trust in the fact that if other people tell you how to live for a while that things might get better. This is ego death. You are pushing your own ideas aside so that you might get a new start in life.
So you do not have a purpose in life when you first get clean and sober. Instead, you create meaning and purpose through your daily practice.
What is your daily practice? It is what you do every single day. Your habits. And obviously those will have to change a great deal from when you were drinking or drugging. In order to recover, you must take positive action every day. A new direction.
Life is cumulative. Recovery is cumulative. They say that addiction is a “progressive” disease (meaning that it gets worse and worse over time). Recovery works the exact same way. It is progressive as well, and therefore your life will get better and better over time. This is because you will form new positive habits in recovery and you will take positive action every single day. Therefore these positive actions will accumulate over time and things will just keep getting better.
This is how you derive purpose and meaning in recovery. It doesn’t happen overnight. Because the positive benefits of your actions need time to accumulate.
For example, you get clean and sober. You detox in a rehab. You start living better. You eat healthier. You exercise every day. You start improving your relationships. You start working on the internal stuff, the guilt and the shame and the resentment and the anger. You work through that stuff every day and you get rid of it. You keep pushing yourself to be healthier and healthier.
You do this for 6 months. You do this for 3 years. You do this for 10 years. Obviously your life gets better and better over time because your daily practice involves improving yourself and your life situation.
Now look at the timeline. Let’s look at the point where you are 3 weeks sober. You have already started doing some of these things. You have already started doing the work on your guilt and your shame and your anger. You are trying to improve your life.
Are you happy?
Probably not yet! And that is because it takes time. You have to create and build this new life in recovery over time. It takes time for the benefits to accumulate. It doesn’t happen overnight. There is no way to rush this stuff. You are already rushing by taking positive actions every day, and doing what you can to be healthier. But it all takes time.
And in following this daily practice, your life starts to slowly take on meaning and purpose.
Part of your purpose is in personal growth. You become healthier, you feel better, and you get into a positive feedback loop. You push yourself to improve and become even healthier.
To what end? Helping others is always part of deriving meaning and purpose, regardless of who you are or what programs you have been exposed to. And you cannot help others unless you can help yourself first. So a big part of becoming a better person in recovery is all about being able to help others in new ways. This is a very powerful concept and you find it duplicated in nearly every recovery program.
You get clean and sober. You take positive action every day. Through this daily practice, purpose and meaning emerge in your life. From there, you push yourself to take more positive action, become even healthier, and part of why you do that is so that you can help others in this world even more. That said, helping others does not have to be your soul purpose. But it is nearly always a side effect of a life well lived.
Why you cannot see your true purpose when you first get clean and sober
You cannot see your true purpose in life when you first get clean and sober because you just killed your ego.
In order to get sober you must surrender. When you surrender you will effectively kill your ego and start listening to other people instead of yourself. This is how you get started in recovery, by taking direction from others.
Later on, you will grow stronger in recovery. At that time your ego will come back and you will be able to come up with ideas for yourself again without necessarily sabotaging your own recovery.
I worked in a detox at a rehab for over 5 years and I have listened to many people wrestle with this sort of question. They are trying to do the right thing by getting clean and sober. Yet they feel hopeless and they are full of shame and guilt. Many of them say things like “I don’t even know what I am trying to get sober, I am totally worthless. I should just go off myself instead.” This is very common when someone is at the point of surrender. They cannot see the value in their life, nor can they see the value that they might have if they were to recover. What they don’t realize at that moment is that “healed people heal people.” By getting sober, they can go on to help others, and become a positive force in the world rather than being a negative drag. But it is almost impossible to see what when you are stuck in addiction or at the point of surrender.
How to effectively clear away the negative stuff in your life
Want to find your purpose in life?
Here is one way to do it if you are alcoholic:
1) Surrender to your disease.
2) Ask for help.
3) Do what you are told (kill your ego).
4) Fix all of the negative stuff in your life (guilt, shame, self pity, anger). All of the internal garbage.
How do you fix the negative stuff? Either through therapy, counseling, or stepwork in AA. Do all of that or some of it, but do the work. It takes work. It takes effort.
In order to find purpose in your life, you must eliminate all of that internal garbage.
Once you eliminate that stuff, your life purpose will reveal itself to you. In truth, it was probably there all along, but we can never see it clearly when all of that negative stuff is in the way.
Do the work. Eliminate the garbage. Your life will get better.
Healed people heal people!
Whether you see it or not, healed people in recovery go on to heal others. Even if just by example.
In other words, if you are stuck in addiction for the rest of your life and drinking alcohol every day, you are not going to create many positive ripples in the world. You will have mostly negative effects on others rather than positive effects.
If you get clean and sober and stay that way permanently, you will start to have positive effects on people instead. Then those people can go on to help others as well (think, “Pay it Forward”). Healed people heal people.
This is purpose enough in recovery, though your real purpose will probably be even deeper than this once you are living your daily practice, and taking positive action each day.