Everyone has to have a strategy for alcoholism recovery.
When you are at a rehab facility they tell you that “you have to have a plan.”
Everyone has to have a plan. If you don’t have a plan in recovery, guess what will happen? You will relapse.
This is just the way it is. Your disease of alcoholism or drug addiction has a plan of its own–it wants you to relapse. Plain and simple. If you don’t do anything special then you are almost certain to relapse. Your disease wants you dead. It wants you to drink, to take drugs, to self destruct. That is the default plan in your life, simply because you are an alcoholic or a drug addict.
In order to overcome that tendency you need to make a special effort. We call that effort “recovery.”
People who go to treatment and then fail to follow through always relapse. In fact, even if you make a modest effort after leaving treatment, you still end up relapsing for the most part. Why is this? Because it takes a great deal of inertia to overcome addiction. It takes a really consistent effort in order to build a new life in recovery.
There are all of these forces pulling you back to drinking, back to drugs, back to the disease. It takes a great deal of effort to overcome those forces.
So in recovery we make suggestions. “Get a sponsor.” “Go to AA meetings.” “Read the big book.” And so on.
Those are tactics. Those are actions that you can take on a daily basis that might help you to stay sober.
But the overall direction of your journey in recovery is determined by something greater. That would be your recovery strategy.
A strategy is a result of some higher level thinking. So we need to decide what our overall goal in recovery is.
Obviously we want to avoid drinking and taking drugs. That is going to be a part of anyone’s strategy in recovery. But we need to go deeper than that. We need to find a way to motivate ourselves in recovery. We need to find outlets for our energy. We need to find ways to build a new life in recovery.
When we talk about a recovery strategy, we generally talk about health. That is why we mention having a healthy strategy. I’m not just saying that you need a good strategy that allows you to stay sober and therefore remain healthy. What I am really saying is that you need a strategy that promotes good health. In other words, if you find a strategy for living that promotes a healthier “you,” then that strategy will help you to remain clean and sober.
The decision to get sober is your first step towards greater health
Why would anyone want to get clean and sober? What is the motivation behind the decision?
Why bother at all?
There are perhaps two obvious reasons. The first is that the alcoholic is completely miserable. They obviously want to avoid misery. They would rather be happy. So that is reason number one to sober up.
The second reason is health. Most of us have a drive within us that says that we want to live, we want to survive. Self preservation. Alcoholism is killing us. Drug addiction is killing us. So in order to live, to continue to live, in order to thrive in life–we need to stop drinking and taking drugs. We sober up in order to achieve greater health.
So the decision to get clean and sober is really a decision to get healthy. It is a decision for greater health.
It would not make much sense for someone to sober up and then let themselves go in other ways that were dangerous to their health. No one gets sober just so that they can live dangerously or commit suicide. There is no point in that and it is completely illogical. If you were suicidal then you probably would not even bother to try to stop drinking or taking drugs. It is far too much work and staying addicted would get you closer to your goal of self destruction. Sounds morbid but that is the obvious truth–you don’t get clean and sober only to go and hurt yourself. It makes no sense.
So when you decide to get clean and sober, when you decide to embrace a new life in recovery, you are making a decision regarding your health. That is because you are making a decision regarding your life in general. Essentially what you are saying is “I want to live a healthier life rather than what I have been doing.”
By extension, the life that you live in recovery is one based on a greater health. You made a decision to get sober, to become healthier. Now in recovery you must extend that idea and continue to push for greater health.
Think about how you might prevent relapse on a day to day basis in recovery. Your disease wants you to drink alcohol, to go back to the madness and chaos, back towards death. How do you run away from this trap? You do it by making choices that take you even further in the other direction. In other words, the more you make healthy decisions in recovery, the more protected you become against relapse.
This is because you know when you take a drink or a drug that you are rushing back towards the madness of addiction that eventually spirals into death and destruction. Everyone knows that if they take a drink or their drug of choice that it will end badly. We all know this. The only reason someone would relapse at that point is if they did not care.
Self esteem plays a huge role in relapse prevention. If you don’t care about yourself in your recovery journey then you are much more likely to relapse. One of the ways to protect your sobriety is to really care about yourself and to love yourself. How do you do this? You do it by taking really good care of yourself, and by taking good care of the people around you. When you help others you feel inherently more valuable to the world, because you know deep down that you are making a difference; that your life has value. Therefore if you can help yourself then you can eventually help others, and by doing so you can feel that your life has value. This is one way to build real self esteem in recovery and that will help you to prevent relapse.
You cannot help others if you are not healthy yourself. You cannot teach others how to be healthy if you don’t know the path yourself.
Therefore you need to take action in early recovery in order to rebuild your health.
Now before we go any further it is important to know what we mean by the terms “healthy” and “health.”
We are not just talking about your physical health. We are not suggesting that being healthy means just being free from disease.
Instead, we are defining “health” in this sense as being holistic. So that means when you take care of yourself in recovery, you need to consider all of the parts of your overall health, including:
If you look into traditional recovery programs, most of them just focus on one or two of these aspects of a person. They might consider physical health in a treatment center setting (detox), and then they attempt to teach people about spiritual health via the twelve steps or a religious based program.
But such programs often do not teach much about emotional, social, or mental health. Such programs often do not emphasize physical health to a great degree when it comes to things like nutrition, sleep habits, exercise, and so on. In particular, alcoholics anonymous teaches that the solution is spiritual, and they push you to focus on that as your ultimate salvation. While this may work great for some people, it may be a short sighted approach for others. Your overall health in recovery is important, not just your spirituality.
Therefore the goal in recovery is to take care of yourself in all five of these ways, every single day. If you ignore one of these areas then eventually you might find yourself drifting very close to relapse. This is because you are protected in sobriety by your good health and by the self esteem that this brings to you. If you slack off in one of these areas then it brings you that much closer to relapse.
There are many examples of this. When I first got clean and sober I was living in a long term treatment facility for several months. Many of my peers were single at the time but they would often get involved in a new romantic relationship. I started to see right away that this was a very dangerous thing to do in early recovery. Nearly every single one of my peers who dove into a new relationship ended up getting burned by it. Nearly every one of them relapsed.
Why did this happen? They weren’t ready for a new relationship that early in their recovery, and so their health suffered as a result. Their emotional health, to be exact. Falling for someone in early recovery is also a spiritual crisis, because what happens is that you start to “worship” the other person in the relationship rather than your higher power. This may sound a bit extreme but it is exactly what happens to anyone in early recovery who falls in love. There is absolutely no incentive to build a relationship with a higher power when you are falling in love with someone in a romantic way. This is because it is so easy to fall in love and it is so incredibly difficult to build a relationship with a higher power. No one has the discipline to focus on their higher power when they are faced with the easy and good feeling of falling in love. As a result your spiritual health suffers because you are putting your faith into something that is fallible.
Furthermore, when you fall in love in early sobriety there are only two possible outcomes. One is that everything works perfectly like in the fairy tales and you get married and live happily ever after, forever and ever. The other is that the relationship ends at some point and you get emotionally hurt. Guess which one is extremely likely? It’s not the fairy tale ending that you should expect. Yet nearly everyone who falls for someone in early sobriety acts this way, they think that it is going to turn out perfectly and that they will not get emotionally hurt.
The pain of a relationship ending or going badly is generally too great for people to take without self medicating.
We all believe that we are stronger than average.
We all believe that we are special, and that we are stronger, and that if we get hurt in a break up that we won’t react badly or need to self medicate.
We are wrong.
You are average. You are similar to other people in that your emotions are vulnerable. If you fall in love and get burned then it is going to hurt. And it is going to hurt very badly.
To believe that are immune to this is just crazy. Yet nearly everyone in early recovery behaves this way.
How do you take care of yourself emotionally? One way is by not taking a huge emotional risk when you are most vulnerable to relapse. And that means not diving into a romantic relationship in early recovery.
How long is “early” recovery? Some people say it is one year. Others say it is six months. Still others say it is the first two years.
Obviously there is no set length of time that everyone agrees on. But if you are smart you will not dismiss this warning just because the length of time is ambiguous. Early recovery is a very dangerous time when you are extremely vulnerable, and getting into a new relationship during that time is a huge risk. Period.
Extending your healthy choice to get sober in new directions
There are some people in addiction recovery who basically stay clean and sober through physical exercise alone.
Think about that.
Now obviously this is not going to be the case for everyone. There are a whole lot of people going to AA meetings who would disagree right off the bat. But the fact remains that there are entire programs of recovery that are based entirely on physical exercise.
This is a hint to you and everyone else who wants to be healthy in recovery. If you want to stay sober then you need to take care of yourself. One way to do that is through physical exercise.
Not all of us are world class athletes, of course. But you don’t have to be. You just have to find a way to take care of your body in recovery.
You might consult with your doctor in order to find a good way to do this.
At first this may not feel so good. If you are out of shape then exercising every day is going to be hard. It’s going to be a chore. It won’t be fun at first.
Do it anyone. Go talk to your doctor and find a way to start moving your body; a way that is safe for you.
Then find a way to start pushing yourself. So that you can improve your physical health. Find a way to break your body down so that it rebuilds itself stronger. You can do this by simply walking. You can jog. You can lift weights. You can swim. Whatever.
It doesn’t necessarily matter what you do, what matter is that you take action. That you do something. That you strive for improvement. That you push yourself towards greater health.
So you made a decision to get clean and sober. This was a decision to become healthier. Now you must extend that decision in new directions.
One direction is in terms of your physical health. So exercise is one way to do that.
Another way is through eating healthy foods. Eliminating some of the junk.
Or by quitting cigarettes. Or by getting a better night of sleep.
All of these decisions will start to add up.
What happens in recovery is that you start to take better care of yourself and your begin to make these better decisions. At first, nothing will appear to change. You will be in early sobriety and you will not have the perspective that others have.
When you are at this point you will probably feel stuck. You may feel like you are not making much progress. Your sponsor, your therapist, and your peers might look at you and say things like “you are doing great, you are right where you need to be right now.” And you won’t see it. You will feel like you are floundering, like you are struggling, like you are not making much progress. Maybe you will be clean and sober at that moment, but you won’t be happy just yet. Maybe you will have a few months sober at that time. And so others will say that you are doing just fine but you might feel like it is a real struggle.
And they will say annoying things to you like “Just hold on, it gets greater later!” And you won’t care because you want it to feel good right now. You want to be happy today, not in the future. You got sober and you are doing all of this work and you want results right now.
And so here I am going to tell you what you don’t want to hear. I am going to tell you what no one wants to hear, which is the truth, of course.
And that is that all of those people are correct. It does get greater, later.
But I will help you out a bit and try to explain why.
Here is why there is a delay.
Here is why you have to struggle for a bit, why you have to do the work today and not feel better until later in early recovery.
The reason is because you are working on so many different areas of your health in early recovery.
You stop taking drugs and alcohol.
You stop obsessing about them mentally.
You leave the old toxic relationships. You start meeting new healthy people.
You start sleeping a bit better (this takes time of course).
You start eating a bit healthier.
These are just a few examples. There are a million ways in which your life starts to slowly heal in recovery.
It all takes time.
You may have heard this annoying saying too: “Give yourself a break.”
It may be annoying but it is true. You need to give yourself a break, you need to give it some time.
It takes time to heal in sobriety.
This is because you are not just healing physically.
You are healing physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially.
It all takes time.
So give yourself a break.
A healthy web of goals
The ultimate recovery strategy is one in which you are striving for greater health in all of these different areas of your life.
Take better care of yourself every day, in every way.
This is how you build a better life in recovery. Set goals that allow you to become a healthier person. Set goals in your life that are compatible with each other, that allow you to build yourself up into a stronger person. This is how you become the person that you were always meant to be in recovery.