When you are starting out in early recovery it can be very difficult to generate positive energy. In fact you may feel that it is impossible if you are just starting out in early recovery (or have not even taken the plunge into sobriety yet).
This is very, very common. The reason it is so common is because for the typical alcoholic, getting sober at first can feel like the end of the world. I know exactly how you feel because I was convinced for a long time that I would rather die than to face sobriety. This is what I told myself because I was afraid to face my life without the crutch of alcohol.
The other reason that this happens is physical. Alcoholics who stop drinking suddenly have to go through some serious physical changes.
Depression in early recovery
It is not uncommon for someone to be depressed in early recovery. In some cases this may be real diagnosed depression and in other cases it may just be the effects of having to go through alcohol withdrawal.
This is why I avoided sobriety for so many years while running away in fear. I knew what it was like to go for a few days without taking a drink and I did not like the feeling at all. What I was doing of course was projecting that awful feeling of withdrawal on to the entire rest of my recovery. I really believed that I would feel that bad forever if I was to become clean and sober on a permanent basis.
Even if you do not feel like you are seriously depressed in early sobriety it can still be very difficult to get excited about life again and generate positive energy in your life.
And let’s be honest, if you are not excited about your life in sobriety then eventually you are going to go back to drinking. Because after you have been sober for a while the thought of a drink is exciting, even though it will eventually result in misery. This is known as “not playing the tape all the way through” when considering the effect of taking a drink of alcohol. At first it will be fun and exciting but then it will turn into misery very quickly.
So the key in any person’s recovery is to start taking positive action and get out of that depressed mood that is left over from the alcoholism. Alcohol is, in fact, a depressant. And the effects of withdrawal and early recovery can be rather depressing to most people as well. If you cannot escape from this cycle of negativity then you are destined to end up relapsing at some point in the future.
The key is to create positive energy in your life by making changes.
After you have done that, the key is to figure out a way to sustain those changes, and to keep taking positive action on a regular basis.
If you work your recovery hard for a month, then you will stay sober for a month. After that you will need to find a way to reinvent yourself again so that you do not fall back into your old patterns. Recovery is pass/fail. You are either working on a recovery or you are working on a relapse. Therefore you must find a way to keep generating positive action in your life. It is not enough to make one positive change. You must learn how to keep making those changes over time and enjoy the challenges.
How to start out taking positive action when you cannot even trust yourself
One of the biggest problems in early recovery is that of self sabotage.
This happens a lot in early recovery. It is very common. Believe me, I lived in long term rehab for a long time but I also worked in a rehab for 5+ years. Self sabotage is a very common problem that leads people to relapse.
So what exactly is self sabotage? It happens when the alcoholic starts out on the right path to recovery but then for whatever reason they make poor decisions that lead them to relapse. In order for this to happen the person must trust their own ideas instead of other people’s.
Why is this?
Because other people are telling them how to stay sober. Therapists, counselors, drug rehab staff, sponsors, peers in AA and NA—all of these people are telling the recovering alcoholic exactly what they need to do in order to stay clean and sober.
The recovering alcoholic has a simple choice in front of them: they can either DO IT or they can come up with their own ideas and thus sabotage their recovery. When you ignore advice in early recovery you are taking your sobriety into your own hands. Not smart.
I am a huge advocate for carving out your own path in recovery, but I always clarify that this is best done in long term recovery, NOT in early sobriety. In early recovery you need to sit down, shut up, and listen up. Seriously. I know that sounds like a hard line AA approach but it is absolutely true. If you try to create your own program in early recovery you are very likely to fail (in long term sobriety this is an entirely different story).
Therefore when you are in early recovery I strongly suggest that you get out of your own way and start taking suggestions from other people. What I mean is that you should not trust yourself to make any decisions (big or small) without first consulting with other people.
Does it matter who these other people are? Not really. So long as it is people who care about you then it is better than trusting yourself or your own ideas.
For example, you should trust the advice and guidance from:
* Sponsors in AA or NA.
* Peers in AA and NA who are clean and sober.
* Friends and family that love you and that are not abusing drugs or alcohol.
In early recovery you should trust any or all of those people with making decisions about your life before you trust yourself.
If you are not ready to do this yet then do not be surprised. That simply means that you have not surrendered yet to your disease. This is natural and quite common. It is hard to let go completely. It is very difficult to learn to trust other people to make decisions for you instead of trusting yourself.
You are probably going to say at first that “it does not feel right to give someone else control over your life.” But look at the results that you have been getting yourself. They are not good when you are in control of your life. When you let someone else make decisions for you then things will start getting better real quick. In fact this will amaze you if you let go enough to allow yourself to do this. Start following directions and your life will become better by leaps and bounds. And it won’t take very long to start seeing positive results either.
Positive action through support and learning
Two areas that you should focus on at first are learning and support.
These are both important concepts in early recovery. You need learning in order to be able to find out what you can do in order to build a new life and avoid relapse. You need support in order to be able to hold it all together when you go through the tough times in early recovery. You can get both learning and support from most types of recovery programs, whether they are 12 step based, religious based, or even group therapy.
Now obviously if you want to learn anything in this life then you will need to take deliberate action. This means making yourself vulnerable enough to ask questions. Some people have a really hard time with this and that is why it is necessary for you to surrender first before you can start to learn and to heal. If you have not reached a point of ultimate misery yet then it is unlikely that you will go to serious lengths in order to learn what you need to learn. It is too difficult and too challenging and the work is far too uncomfortable. Most people will not embrace recovery because the process is just too awkward for them. Only after reaching that point of total surrender do most people become willing to learn a new way to live and do things.
Some people are afraid to ask for help and support. Or they may suffer from anxiety and not want to make themselves vulnerable in public AA meetings. I have to admit that this was one of my biggest blocks to recovery for a long time. I was afraid of AA meetings and I was terrified of having to share in them. Eventually I became miserable enough with my drinking that I no longer cared about my overwhelming fear of AA meetings. So I sobered up and I went to treatment and I learned to sit through meetings without dying of anxiety. Understand that it was not the promise of an awesome new life in recovery that motivated this “courage” but instead it was an intense amount of misery that I had accumulated. I became so miserable in my addiction that it finally outweighed my fear and anxiety. This is an important and often misunderstood point so make sure you comprehend what I am saying. Alcoholics do not get sober to become happy, they finally break through denial because they are so sick of being miserable. That may not sound very glamorous but it is the truth.
How to create your own positive vibe in recovery
So you surrender to your disease and you ask for help. You go to rehab and you start taking advice from other people. You take positive action and you follow through.
At first this is all just going through the motions. You will be miserable at first. How could you expect anything else? Of course you will be miserable on your first day of detox. The second day of sobriety will probably not be much better.
But by the end of the first week you should start to feel like a real human being again. Maybe you will not be bouncing off the walls happy yet but it is a start. Don’t worry, you are on the right track. You did not become miserable overnight due to alcoholism and so don’t expect it to change back to happiness and joy overnight either. It will take a bit of time. Allow yourself permission to take this time.
The key is to get out of your own way. Don’t try to speed things up by making yourself happy right away. It won’t work. If you try to muscle your way through to happiness in early recovery then happiness will remain elusive. Most likely you will just screw everything up and relapse.
Instead, take your time.
Recognize that recovery is cumulative. Success builds on success in recovery. And that takes time.
You don’t just get sober and then suddenly become happy and your life is all sorted out overnight. You did not fall into the total chaos of addiction overnight either. These are major life changes that take weeks or months to fully implement.
Another thing to consider:
If you start living the perfect life in recovery tomorrow, how long will it take to fully realize the benefits of that “perfect life?” In other words, let’s say that you start eating healthier foods, exercising every day, eliminating toxic relationships from your life, working on emotional balance, pushing yourself to be more grateful, and so on. If you do just the things that I listed here then will you suddenly be all “cured” within a week or two?
Of course not. It takes time for those sorts of changes to really take effect. For example, I was still miserable after one week of vigorous exercise. It was hard work! I would not say that I was having “fun” at that point. It was stressful.
But fast forward a few months. Suddenly the workout is a joy. It has transformed into a nice outlet for me. It is on par with meditation in many ways. It has become a gift because I stuck with it and gave it a chance to work in my life.
You cannot just take positive action and expect for the results to be instantaneous. That was how drugs and alcohol worked, unfortunately. Take the drink, take the drug, get an instant result.
Recovery is about learning a new way of life. Instead of getting instant results or a quick fix, we have to slowly build up these positive results in our lives.
But I promise you that if you take consistent positive action every day that over time you will be able to build an awesome new life for yourself, creating even more joy than you ever experienced with your drug of choice. In the end your drug of choice only brought you misery. Recovery works exactly the opposite of that. It may start out a bit miserable (due to your addiction and withdrawal) but then you slowly build up a more positive lifestyle. In the end you are pushing yourself to make more and more incremental changes to improve your life.
I have things pretty darn good today. I am blessed in so many ways, and yet I still continue to try to improve my life and my life experience. This is the benefit that you get in long term recovery. Your early success in sobriety continues to build on itself. Success in recovery paves the way for more and more positive changes. Of course it is ultimately up to the individual to keep pushing themselves to keep growing, learning, and making these positive changes. It is pretty easy to get complacent and lazy in long term sobriety, after you have achieved some stability and essentially “made it.”
So how does one avoid the complacency trap?
Long term recovery and successful relapse prevention
The key to avoiding complacency is to keep growing.
If you stop growing in recovery then you run the risk that you may relapse. It is as simple as that.
Our default status in life is to drink or use drugs. Our default as an alcoholic or drug addict is to self medicate our problems away. That is our default state of being.
So if you stop paying attention and you allow yourself to just coast through recovery then you will eventually, at some point, revert back to the default. Deep down your alcoholism or drug addiction is a part of who you are. It is not worth denying this simple fact and doing so may be dangerous. Deep down the alcoholic is always going to be an alcoholic. Even if they are sober for 40 years, they are still just one drink away from complete disaster.
So how do you go about remembering this, and actively fighting to avoid complacency?
The secret is that you must take a proactive approach.
You can essentially live your life in two ways:
1) You can “coast” through life without thinking about improving your life or your life situation. (This leads to relapse).
2) You can actively pursue progress, personal growth, holistic health, and incrementally improving your life and your life situation (this is how to reinvent yourself continuously to prevent relapse).
At various times in your recovery it is very possible that you will start to coast for a while. The key is to have habits in place that force you to analyze how much you may be coasting versus how much you are pushing yourself to learn and to grow. If you do not have such a system in place then you are in danger of relapse in the future.
One way that people do this is by active involvement in a recovery program. Some people sponsor newcomers in recovery. It is pretty tough for someone to teach sobriety without also practicing the principles themselves. This is why sponsorship is mutually beneficial. It is also why those who teach are also learning themselves as they teach others. Practice what you preach, etc.
In my experience the best form of relapse prevention comes from pursuing better holistic health. This means looking at all areas of your life and of your overall health: Physical, spiritual, emotional, social, etc. There is more than one way in which you can be “healthy” or “unhealthy” in recovery.
You need to be aware of all of the ways in which you can improve your health and then you need to take deliberate action in order to improve your life in those areas. If you stop doing this for too long and neglect everything then relapse happens. If you are continuously pushing yourself to improve your holistic health then you are able to constantly be reinventing yourself. This is then the ultimate form of relapse prevention. Positive habits and daily action will dictate who you become in the future. We are what we do every day.