How do you find your true purpose in sobriety?
What does it really mean to have a purpose anyway?
How do people find true meaning in their lives after dedicating so much time to getting drunk or high for so long?
These are good questions, and it is certainly understandable if you are asking yourself these questions in early recovery.
I know that I was. I was on a search for meaning and a quest for real purpose. And I don’t really believe that I found that purpose through seeking it directly. I found it indirectly by doing what was in front of me. A lot of people in AA and NA meetings like to say “just do the next right thing” and things will take care of themselves. I tend to agree with this advice, even though I never wanted to accept it. I wanted to look deeper, search farther, and find some secret meaning in life. But I think in the end it has sort of always been right under my nose. And that is still true today, even after 13 years sober and counting.
Build the foundation, establish sobriety
For a struggling alcoholic, sobriety is a purpose unto itself. As they say in AA, “more will be revealed,” but it is purpose enough just to stay sober at first.
Of course, this is really just the foundation for greater things in your life. But before you can get to the good stuff you have to build up a foundation. You have to create a platform on which you can grow.
This is best done with a healthy person. You are at your best when you are healthy every single day in all areas of your life. This is when you can find opportunities to grow, to learn, to find new challenges in life. Your purpose is to experience life, to be happy, and to help others along the way. If that was your only guiding principles in this life than that would be enough. And if that were the only thing that you accomplished in recovery then that would be enough as well. Really I think that is all I have done when you get right down to it. I have tried to help others in my own unique way. I have tried to have fun, to live well, to be healthy and happy. It is not easy to do every single day and at times it can be a struggle. Some days are easier than others.
Things change in recovery. Some things get easier I would say over the years. There is no doubt about this. I think it is much easier to face the idea of living without alcohol today than when I had 30 days sober. Today it is not hard at all. It is not in the least bit scary for me to imagine a world with no alcohol or drugs. That idea has no fear for me. I was terrified of this thought on the day that I got sober though! And for the first few weeks of sobriety I was dreading facing the rest of my life sober. I was afraid of it. But as time when on it got easier and easier. Now it is like riding a bike for me. If I have to face a tough situation I know that I have things that I can do other than to self medicate and drink. I know that there are solutions today. Yesterday I reached out for help on the Spiritual River forums and someone told me exactly what I needed to hear. I wasn’t necessarily struggling with sobriety but I would say that I still needed someone to listen. And they did that for me. There are always options.
So before you can get to this place in your recovery, before you can get to the point where you have some strong options to prevent relapse, you have to lay the groundwork.
You have to lay the foundation.
In order to do this you have to be healthy. And you have to be healthy in every way.
Not just physically healthy. But spiritually healthy too. And emotionally healthy. And socially healthy. And so on.
All of these different areas of your life need your attention. It may seem overwhelming at first but it doesn’t have to be. You can take it one thing at a time and really make huge progress in your recovery.
Start with physical sobriety. Abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances, including alcohol. That is the foundation on which you can build a new healthy life.
This is how you get to purpose. This is how you eventually find meaning in life. You have to start with a strong foundation.
So you take care of yourself. Maybe you go to treatment, go through detox, start going to AA meetings. They will push the idea of spiritual health on you. That’s OK. This is one piece of the puzzle. But it is not the only piece. There are several other pieces.
One of the other pieces is your physical health. Your fitness, the food you put into your body, how much you sleep at night, whether you quit smoking cigarettes yet. Your physical health is a huge part of your sobriety, but many people in traditional recovery do not make this connection. They do not see that this is important.
Your social health is important. We are all influenced by other people. You are either surrounded by winners in your life or you are…..well, you get the idea. So you should definitely take the advice that you hear in AA meetings to “stick with the winners.” You need positive people in your circle. Try to hang around with people who are going to raise you up to their level. Find people who challenge you to become a better person. Don’t isolate. If you isolate yourself then eventually this will probably lead to relapse.
Emotional health is so important in sobriety. If you are not balanced emotionally then this will lead to certain relapse as well. So you have to do the work in order to find emotional balance.
Do the work, both internal and external
There is work to do in early recovery. You have been complacent for too long if you have been drinking alcoholically.
The work is not easy to do. Most people will not go through with it because it is too uncomfortable. Too challenging.
If you want to find purpose in your life then you will definitely have to do this work that I am speaking about.
The work is both internal and external. Let’s consider both.
The internal work is the stuff that you have going on up in your head every day. It is the fear, the anger, the shame, the guilt, the resentments, and the self pity. You need to identify all of that stuff and start working to eliminate it. Maybe you will know how to do this and maybe you won’t. If you don’t know how to do it then you can certainly get help for this from a therapist, a counselor, or even a sponsor in AA or NA. If you want to do this internal work then one path to this is to work through the 12 steps of the 12 step program. Get a good sponsor to help guide you through this process. Or go see a therapist or a counselor who can help you identify these underlying issues.
It is not enough to just stop drinking. That doesn’t cure anyone of anything in the long run. Every person who drinks has things inside that need to be dealt with. We all have negative emotions or negative thought patterns that are tripping us up and leading us back to the bottle. If we want to have a chance at real sobriety then we need to take the time to do the work and identify those things and deal with them.
The external work is everything in the real world that you can feel and see and touch and hear. This refers to your external circumstances. Your day job, your education, your relationships, and so on. When I first got sober I had to change a whole lot of that stuff. My whole life was designed so that I could get drunk every day and still somehow try to function. So when I got sober I had to make some tough decisions. My current set of “friends” and drinking buddies were not going to help me to stay sober. My job that I worked at in my addiction was full of drug addicts and alcoholics. I had to move on from that old life.
That said, I did not run away from it either. I did not try the “location solution” of moving to another place to try to cure my alcoholism. We all know that this doesn’t work. I was not really running away from my problems, but I definitely had to make some hard changes. I had to leave my girlfriend because we used drugs and drank together all the time. She had no intention of quitting so I was forced to make a decision.
So that was the external work that I had to do. I had to change friends, change jobs, change all of the “people, places, and things” in my life.
This is all part of the foundation. I had to do the work in early recovery in order to be able to find purpose and meaning in long term sobriety.
Without this foundation work I am sure that I would have relapsed at some point.
Find your path and where you excel
Once I was doing the work in recovery, opportunities started to present themselves to me.
This cannot be predicted or manipulated. This is a very important point. You can’t just take a shortcut to this kind of success. Instead you have to do the work and trust that the opportunities will come to you. If you try too hard to force something to happen it will never happen and you will remain forever frustrated.
Instead, just be. Do the work. Do the work that is in front of you, right now. What is the next right thing? Do that thing. Your life will evolve in its own perfect time and a new solution will come to you when you need it most. Again, this cannot be predicted in advance. It will happen as if by magic, because you have put down the proper foundation in recovery.
This happens due to an effect called “synergy.” This means that when you have done the work in recovery and you have improved all of these various areas of your life, things will come together and new connections will form. You won’t be able to predict this because there is no way to see how the positive connections will interact.
And we hold ourselves back when we stop taking care of ourselves. This severs the connection. It destroys the synergy. If we are neglecting, say for example, our spiritual health, then it doesn’t matter that we are taking care of ourselves physically. The spiritual neglect will end up costing us in the end. We will get selfish and stop practicing gratitude and this will lead us to relapse.
The same thing is true for any area of our overall health. If we are emotionally unbalanced then this will lead to relapse as well. Or if we are physically unhealthy and get sick all the time. All of is trends towards relapse.
Therefore the solution is holistic. You must take care of yourself in all of these different areas of your life, every single day. This is your daily practice. You must find the positive habits that allow you to build a better life.
If I could make one suggestion that would help you to find your purpose in recovery, it is this:
“Help yourself, then help others.”
Everything up until this point describes how to help yourself. Find your daily practice. Find the positive habits that allow you to take care of yourself. Build your foundation. Abstain from alcohol and drugs and start doing the next right thing. Do what is in front of you. Do the hard work in order to change.
But then, help others. Reach out and find a way to help others.
My grand sponsor has a saying that he loves: “Healed people heal people.” It is kind of like the “pay it forward” idea. If you take one alcoholic (like me for instance) and you can somehow manage to heal them, that person might have a chance to go on and help other people to heal in this world. And that can create a ripple effect that has powerful downstream effects.
I was a bit lost in early recovery because I had no idea how I was ever going to carry out the twelfth step in AA. How was I going to carry the message? I was terrified of speaking at meetings. I forced myself to share at several meetings but it never got any easier for me. So I became discouraged.
But eventually I found my outlet. I kept doing the work, kept taking care of myself. And eventually I found the outlet that I needed and a way to carry a message of hope (If you aren’t sure what this message is, you are reading it now here on Spiritual River!). But this did not happen for me overnight. I had to keep doing the work, had to keep listening to others, had to keep taking care of myself in recovery. And in doing this I finally found a way to share a message that resonated with people.
And I can look back and realize that I was only able to help other people because I first helped myself. I did the hard work. This was the part that I always screwed up when I was still stuck in addiction. Back then I would have thought that I could just reach out to other alcoholics, somehow help them (even if I did not know what I was really doing at the time), and that this would somehow be a shortcut to success for me. That because I could skip ahead to step twelve maybe I could avoid having to do all of that other hard work that they talked about in meetings.
This was how I was wired in my addiction. I was always asking “where is the shortcut? How can I do this easier?”
But in recovery that is the wrong question. The question you need to be asking yourself instead is:
“How can I slow myself down enough so that I can learn how to really change my life?”
It takes time. It does not happen overnight. You have to build the foundation first before you can rebuild your life and find real purpose.
But it does come to you if you work for it. Don’t try to force it though. Let your recovery unfold in its own perfect time. Do what is in front of you and do the next right thing. This is how you get to purpose. This is how you find your true path in recovery.
In my addiction I was always trying to rush things. I wanted the reward right now, today. This very moment. I wanted to rush ahead to get to the next thing, and in doing so, I never took the time to enjoy the journey. I was always time travelling….either dreaming of a past buzz I had that was “perfect,” or looking forward to the next one in which I was hoping to achieve that perfect state of happiness (that never really exists with drinking). And so I forgot how to enjoy the moment. I forgot how to enjoy the present.
In recovery you must learn how to enjoy the present again. You must learn how to find purpose in every day, in every moment. And you can’t do that when you are rushing around, constantly looking for that next thing in your life. You have to slow down. Way down.
And in order to do this you have to do the work. You must build the foundation. You have to look inside and find all of the negative stuff and deal with it. Clean it all out. Figure out how to move on and really be free in this world. Because until you do that foundation work you will never be fully happy in recovery, even if you are sober. Until you deal with all of that internal garbage you will never be totally happy, and will always have something holding you back.
Your true purpose will reveal itself to you in retrospect. You won’t decide on your purpose in advance and then go chase it. If you do that then you will later find that the goal posts had moved on you anyway. True purpose will remain elusive if you chase it, and it will come to you easily if you just do the hard work, the hard work that is taking care of yourself in every way, every day. You must take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially. If you are doing that every day consistently and really pushing yourself then eventually the opportunities will come to you and “purpose” will fall right into your lap. And life will be good again and you won’t even know exactly what you did to deserve it.
But I know what you did. You did the hard work, and you made the hard changes in life, and you took care of yourself from a holistic standpoint.