“I just want my life back” exclaims the struggling alcoholic or drug addict.
I am sure you can relate to this. It plays out over and over again for anyone who has ever struggled with substance abuse problems.
They have a feeling like they have lost control of their life, and that things used to be good, and now they have turned very bad. And they just want it all to end. The person just wants their old life back. Anything is better than total misery and chaos.
The problem, of course, is denial. Most people who are at this point in their journey are still stuck in denial. They want to change their life, but they haven’t quite reached the point where they are willing to do anything and everything in order to change. They are holding something back. And that “something” is their denial, keeping them stuck in addiction.
What are they in denial of? When I was at this point in my own journey, I was in denial of the truth. The truth that I was completely miserable with my drinking and drugging, even though I told myself that it was the only thing that really made me happy. This was a lie. Alcohol and drugs used to make me happy in the past, but they had long since stopped working. For whatever reason I clung to the idea that they still worked, that I could become happy on demand at the drop of a hat, just by consuming the right combination and quantity of alcohol and drugs. But this was all a lie. It was denial. I was in denial of the truth. The truth that I was miserable in my addiction, and that drinking and drugs had stopped being fun a long time ago.
So if you want to get your old life back, you have to break through denial. The question is, how do you do that?
Being stuck in denial and how you can break free
Can you choose to break through your denial?
I think you can.
You might believe that just knowing about your denial immediately banishes it forever. After all, if you know that you are in denial of something, haven’t you sort of figured it out? Doesn’t that mean that you have moved past the denial?
Not so. In fact, I knew that I was in denial for a long time, but I could not figure out how to move past it. I guess I just didn’t believe the truth, that I could be happier in recovery than I could be in my addiction. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was miserable while I was drinking and using drugs at the end of my run. I was totally miserable. And yet I was scared because I imagined that if I forced myself to stop drinking and using drugs that I would become even more unhappy to the point that it would kill me. I really thought that I would die of unhappiness and boredom if I were sober! How silly is that? Yet this is the sort of belief that I was clinging to. This is the denial that kept me stuck in addiction.
And I knew about it. I had been to rehab twice before in my life and also spoke with several counselors and therapists. I had talked about my addiction quite a bit. I knew that it was real. I knew that I was a hopeless alcoholic. I had no problem with this label. I accepted that I needed to self medicate every day. I really did identify as an alcoholic. I had no problem with that. So I was not “in denial” of my problem. What I was in denial of was the solution. I did not believe that the solution applied to me. I did not believe that I could go to AA, go to rehab, do whatever, and become happy again without alcohol and drugs in my life. I did not think that it was possible. I did not believe happiness could occur for me in recovery. It was a fantasy.
So how did I break free?
I finally got sick and tired of it all. And I was so sick and tired of it that I no longer cared about my fear of recovery. It was fear that was holding me back from getting sober. That fear never went away. It was always there, even as I walked into the rehab center where I finally got sober. I was scared.
But something happened in relation to this fear. Something had to overcome that fear. And what overcame it was my loathing of addiction. I hated my life, who I had become, and I was sick of it all. And that feeling had to get bigger and bigger over time, until it was bigger than the fear that was holding me back.
I had to be miserable.
I had to get so miserable in my addiction that the misery outweighed the fear.
So how can you do this?
Your addiction and the consequences of it will do this for you, but you have to pay attention. Because living in denial simply means that you minimize, rationalize, and ignore the consequences of your addiction. You justify it and make excuses for your addiction.
Stop doing that. Stop making excuses for your addiction and start calling the shots as they really are.
Also, start measuring how happy you are each day. Every day have a “happiness check in.” Are you really happy today? No? Then make a change in your life. This is how to force yourself out of denial. You have to pay attention. You have to wake up. If you are telling yourself that you are happy when in fact you are miserable then you will never change your life. You can’t break free from denial if you pretend to be content all the time.
Get mad. Get angry at your addiction. Hasn’t it ruled over you for long enough? Demand your happiness back. Demand your old life back.
Rebuild your life from scratch
There are different ways to rebuild your life in sobriety. There are different programs out there that are all just a bit different.
But they also share many similarities. These common elements represent the fundamentals of recovery.
For example, surrender is one of the fundamental principles. If you are going to get clean and sober, you have to surrender first. It doesn’t matter what approach you use or what recovery program you follow, you still have to surrender to your disease. Surrender is fundamental.
In the same way, the idea that you have to rebuild your life and create something new seems like another fundamental element of recovery.
You cannot just eliminate drinking and drugs. That is only one half of the solution, perhaps even less than half. What are you going to fill your life up with in its place? If you do nothing then the old patterns of behavior are likely to slide back into place. Relapse will happen unless you are on a deliberate path to avoid it.
The process of rebuilding your life from scratch starts with abstinence. For this I recommend that you go to addiction treatment, or inpatient rehab. Get a baseline of success by being in treatment for 28 days. When you walk out of rehab you will have 28 days clean and sober. This is significant and it becomes your foundation for recovery.
If you follow through on what they tell you to do at rehab, you can continue to build a new life for yourself. They will probably suggest that you take action after leaving treatment in the form of daily meetings, outpatient therapy, counseling, group support, and so on. If you dive into those solutions then this will go a long way in building a new life for yourself. Instead of going to the bar you can go to a meeting and then get coffee afterward with people who are sober. This is one piece of how you rebuild your life from scratch. You have to get out there and do stuff. You have to take action. You cannot just sit at home on your couch and expect for recovery to come to you. You have to go out there and claim it for yourself.
Why it is necessary to hit bottom first and surrender
Rebuilding your life from scratch sounds like a great idea, right? Why doesn’t everyone just do this and enjoy a new life in recovery?
I will tell you why most people don’t (and won’t) do it:
Because it is difficult.
It is so much work, in fact, that most people would prefer to stay stuck in the misery of addiction instead.
This is about that dynamic that we talked about earlier between fear and misery in overcoming denial. You cannot overcome your fear until you finally get miserable enough to do it.
The same thing is true with the willingness that you put forth in recovery. You are not going to have the willingness there to recover unless you have “paid your dues” in addiction with misery and chaos. That misery is what fuels your ability to take action.
You have to “empty yourself out” before you can fill yourself back up with something positive. That is what hitting rock bottom is all about. If you have not hit bottom yet then you will not be receptive to recovery principles. They will not seem important to you, they will not seem useful enough, they will not seem like they are worth your time.
Imagine someone who is alcoholic but they just started drinking recently. They have experienced almost no consequences at all so far. They are early in their addiction. They are still having fun for the most part. They are not miserable yet.
Now imagine that you take them to an AA meeting and you try to get them to work through some of the steps. They would not have the slightest bit of interest in trying to work through the steps because they have no reason to do so. They have no desperation about them. They are not desperate for change. They would rather go drink and have “fun” at this point. They have no willingness because they are not miserable yet.
It is only after the person becomes completely miserable in their addiction that they become willing to try to change, to work through the steps, to listen to other people’s advice. No one wants to do the work if they can avoid it…and recovery is hard work!
Finding a happiness and contentment that you never knew existed
There are some people in recovery from addiction who never knew a good life in the past. They may have had a rough childhood and they never really knew happiness in the first place.
Such people can still recover. Instead of “getting their old life back” they are building something new that they never knew existed.
It is still possible for such people to recover and to enjoy life.
The first goal in recovery is not happiness. It is contentment. And this is really worth striving for even more so than happiness. If you try to chase happiness then it will forever be elusive. It is sort of like drinking alcohol or using drugs. We are always reaching out for a certain high that is usually just out of reach. If only we had a little more drugs, a little more money, a little less responsibility, and so on. When we chase after happiness it remains elusive.
So in early recovery my suggestion to you is to seek contentment instead. Don’t chase happiness and joy. That will come later as a result of living the right way in recovery. And it will come eventually but it is something that you build up over years, not something that you stumble on overnight.
If you can stumble on happiness or joy overnight then you can also lose it overnight. What we seek in recovery is a more lasting sort of peace and contentment.
Many people never knew that they could even feel content. They may have felt fear and anxiety their entire life, even before they had tried drugs or alcohol. So this will be a new experience for them and one that they never could have even imagined. What an incredible gift to give yourself in sobriety, that of peace.
Don’t strive for happiness. Strive for peace and contentment.
How not to get stuck in long term recovery
Once you get your life back, how do you keep it?
How do you prevent yourself from slipping back into the world of addiction and self medicating?
There are a couple of suggestions for long term recovery:
1) Balanced lifestyle. You should seek to live a balanced lifestyle in long term sobriety. This is part of what will bring you peace and contentment.
Keep in mind that this is really a long term recovery strategy, not something for your first month of sobriety. In early recovery you should seek to focus your recovery efforts. That does really lend itself to balance. No, in the first year of your recovery, my suggestion is to do the opposite of “balance”: dedicate your entire life to recovery. If you go to meetings, go to one every single day. If you have a sponsor, then talk with them every day. Go nuts in recovery during your first year. Put the pedal to the floor. Go all out. Don’t seek balance in the first year of sobriety, seek focus.
Later on when you have achieved some stability in recovery then you can seek balance. My suggestion for balance is to ask yourself if you are neglecting any of these areas in your life:
* Physical health, fitness, nutrition.
* Mental health, coming up with new ideas, keeping your mind sharp, practicing gratitude.
* Social health, reaching out to others in recovery, eliminating toxic relationships.
* Spirituality, being grateful, practicing gratitude every day.
* Emotional health, staying balanced, healthy relationships, gratitude, etc.
It is not that you have to be a superstar in each of these categories. Instead, if you are completely neglecting one of them then you could be in trouble. That is how relapse sneaks back into your life.
That is how complacency works in long term recovery. You become complacent when you ignore one of these areas for too long. When you stop growing.
Notice two that the concept of gratitude overlaps into at least 3 of those 5 categories. In fact it overlaps all 5 of them but it is difficult to describe exactly how it does so. Needless to say, gratitude should be one of the pillars of your recovery, and part of your daily practice.
2) Daily practice. Your path in recovery should change and evolve over time. What you do each day should reflect your daily habits.
It is important that you think about your daily habits and consider where they are taking you in life. Extrapolate your habits out 20 more years. Do you like what you see?
If not then it is time to change up your daily practice.
Think about those 5 areas of your life that are listed above (physical, mental, spiritual, etc.). What are you doing each and every day to move forward in each of those areas?
This is the nuts and bolts of successful recovery. If you figure out healthy and positive actions to take each day then you can rebuild your life through the power of positive habit. What you do each day will determine who you become over the next few years.
If you don’t know what to do each day then you need to ask for guidance and direction from others. Find people that you trust in recovery and ask them what their daily habits are. Then start modeling people and figure out what works for you and what does not. Simply discard the ideas that do not serve you well.
I did this once with meditation. It was suggested to me by several people in recovery and I gave it a fair chance. I read books about it. I studied it. And I practiced it, up to 1 hour per day. I kept at it for a few months. Eventually though I found that exercise served me better than meditation. You might think that those are two completely different things, but I found that they served the same purpose, at least for me. So I discarded the idea of “daily seated meditation” in favor of exercise.
3) Personal growth. My most powerful suggestion for someone in long term recovery is to be mindful of personal growth.
Your recovery is on a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is relapse. At the other end of the spectrum is “personal growth.”
Now really that is just a label. But what it describes is important. The idea is that if you are taking positive action every day and you continue to reinvent yourself then you are engaging in “personal growth.” That is an important concept if you want to protect yourself from the threat of relapse.
And this goes way beyond “getting your old life back” in recovery. If you follow these suggestions then you will eventually realize a life that you have never known before, because it will be much better than your old life.
What about you, have you got your old life back now that you are sober? Are you hoping to do so someday? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!