One of the alternatives to the 12 step program that is so popular in recovery circles is the holistic approach to sobriety.
This is something of a self made path because right now there are not widespread holistic programs that tell you exactly what to do in order to recover. Or at least, there are not programs that are popular like AA that tell you specifically what a holistic path might be.
Another reason that this is a self made path is because the holistic path requires a certain amount of customization. For example, a big part of my own holistic recovery is distance running and working out on a regular basis. Obviously this is not going to work for every single person in recovery and they might have other things that work better for them (such as seated meditation for example, something that I generally do not do). So a certain amount of customizing is necessary with a holistic program, whereas in traditional programs such as AA they are fairly specific and you are expected to follow the same basic path as other people.
The alternative to a specific recovery program is generalized personal growth
When I was living in long term treatment I was surrounded by the 12 step program. All of my peers were heavily focused on it and I was going to meetings every day as well. But I was slowly figuring out that this was not necessarily the right path for me.
The 12 step program is guiding you to grow in recovery along fairly specific lines, spiritual lines. But this was not necessarily making sense to me because I found all sorts of other forms of personal growth that seemed to be relevant to recovery.
One thing I was doing was talking to the “winners” in recovery. These were people at the AA meetings who had several years or decades of sober time and they seemed to have a very positive message. And I noticed that during the AA meetings these people generally preached the idea that daily meetings were your salvation and that everyone should give themselves over completely to the AA program. But then I also noticed that they would talk about many things in their lives outside of AA and it seemed like there was a lot more to their recovery than just the 12 steps and the meetings.
So I started to dig a little deeper. What did these “winners” in AA do outside of AA? It turned out that they do quite a bit. In fact, that is largely where I got the idea that daily exercise might be really important to me in recovery. That is also where I got the idea that you could help others and make a big difference outside of AA and recovery. I also found people who had a spirituality that was not really of the “AA brand.” So it really seemed like AA was just a starting point for a lot of these “winners” at the tables and that they were all going beyond AA in terms of personal growth.
And this got me to start thinking, what is the real mechanism by which a person remains sober in recovery?
What is the real magic? Is it sitting in AA meetings every day? Is that the thing that keeps people sober?
Is it the spiritual transformation that comes from working the 12 steps of AA? Is that really what keeps people sober? And if so, then why keep going to meetings every day? Why is that necessary to maintain sobriety if you really had this inner transformation? It didn’t add up for me. Something was missing.
And that was when I got the idea that it was not really about AA, or about the steps, or even about a spiritual experience. Those were guide posts along the path in recovery, but they were not the path itself.
There is a famous parable that I love to reference called “The finger pointing at the moon.” The guru points at the moon and asks the student what it is. The student replies “the moon.” The guru corrects him and says “no, that is just a finger pointing at the moon! Ha!”
Silly? Maybe a little. But there is a deeper lesson here and an application for recovery.
AA is a program that can help you to become sober and stay sober, but it is not really the path itself. It only points towards the path. Many, many people in AA believe that the 12 steps are the actual path. They are not. They merely point towards the path.
This is extremely important to my own personal journey in recovery because I deviated in my own journey, away from the 12 steps, and I found my own path. And I realized that the path that I found and the 12 steps are both pointing at the same moon. They are not recovery itself, these paths…..they only point towards the path.
This is why you can have someone in AA who is doing well, and someone who is using the holistic approach who is doing well. They are both moving towards the same goal of recovery, though they may walk different paths. Neither is right or wrong.
Relapse can manifest in many different ways so a holistic approach makes sense
The holistic approach makes a lot of sense for recovery because relapse can be a tricky foe.
If you work the program of AA and you stick very closely to the path of growth that they suggest without deviating then you will be well protected against the threat of “spiritual relapse.”
But unless you branch out a bit and start to explore other forms of personal growth, as in holistic recovery, you will not necessarily be well protected against other forms of relapse. For example, you may have some form of emotional relapse which eventually causes you to drink again. Or you may have a tendency to start isolating and this might be considered a form of “social relapse.” This may eventually cause you to drink even though you may be spiritually centered at the time.
Just because you have a strong faith or a strong spiritual foundation does not mean that you are completely immune to relapse. One example of this in my own life was when one of my peers suffered a sudden illness and this led him down a long path to where he eventually relapsed on strong medication. This led him back to the bottle eventually. This was a long process of relapse and it did not happen overnight. Going into this illness this friend of mine was very spiritual and I actually looked up to his spirituality in a lot of ways and was inspired by him. But this was not enough because the disease of addiction attacked him from a different direction.
And this is what you have to watch out for. The disease of addiction is cunning and powerful (as it says in AA) and it can attack you from multiple directions. It is not only a spiritual malady.
Addiction attacks people physically. Relapse happens much more frequently when people are sick, have injuries, or have an illness. The disease gets you while you are down. Some medications lead to relapse and blindside you.
Addiction attacks people socially. If you start to isolate or hang out with the wrong crowd then this can lead to disaster. Our peers can influence us a great deal. So you may have the best intentions to remain sober but you get tripped up by the disease from a social perspective.
Mentally the obsession can overtake us and we can relapse without even wanting to drink. We may drink almost entirely against our will because the mental obsession is so powerful.
There are so many different avenues from which the disease of addiction can attack us. The holistic approach to recovery is an attempt to protect ourselves along all of these attack lines.
Self motivated versus group motivated
If you are going to use traditional recovery then that is generally based on a group approach. So you attend daily meetings and you work with others in recovery and you get some amount of power from the group. The group helps to keep you accountable and you get motivation from your peers. There is value in this approach if it helps you to stay sober.
But not everyone responds well to the group approach. Some people prefer to do their own thing, and that is where the holistic approach comes in.
If you rely on others to help motivate you then you should definitely look into traditional recovery, AA meetings, and sponsorship. These things have a strong social aspect to them and you will definitely benefit from having a group approach.
If you do not like the group approach however you may look into the holistic approach instead. This requires that you be a bit more self motivated.
I realized this when I was transitioning out of AA meetings and into the holistic approach for myself. Quite honestly I was scared and nervous that I would fail and relapse. I honestly did not know if I was going to be motivated enough on my own in order to get myself to pursue the personal growth that I knew I needed.
So at the time I was leaving the daily AA meetings and I realized that I was going to need to take lots of positive action.
Personal growth was the answer. I had seen the light. It wasn’t the meetings or the steps or even the spiritual transformation that kept people sober, it was the personal growth. The positive action every day. The continued learning and forward movement. It was progress, not just spiritually, but in all areas of your life, of your health. I realized these things and I knew that you could grow and maintain sobriety without the crutch of traditional recovery.
But I was still scared. I was scared because I did not know if I would stay motivated enough after leaving the meetings to keep pushing myself. And everyone was warning me that if I drifted away from the daily meetings that I would probably relapse. So I was nervous.
So here is what I did.
I started making lists. And I started to write in a daily journal. The lists that I was making were things that I would do to help myself continue to grow and to learn.
And to be honest I was sort of reacting to the imagined scrutiny of my AA peers. So I knew that in the future I would be questioned along the lines of “Oh, hey, you haven’t been coming to the meetings lately. What have you been up to? Are things alright?”
So I wanted to have a good answer for that. I wanted to have a strong retort. I know that sounds a bit childish and immature, but that is what initially drove me into personal growth when I left the meetings.
So I started pushing myself really hard to take positive action, just for the sole purpose of being able to quiet the naysayers. So when people politely inquired about my lack of AA meeting attendance, I could say things like:
1) Things are great! I am training for another marathon right now.
2) I started a recovery forum online and have some great discussions about recovery there. I am really reaching out to people lately.
3) I am pushing myself to get honest about what I need to change through daily writing about recovery.
4) I am reaching out and doing my best to help others in recovery lately.
I wanted to be able to say those sorts of things to people, so I had to actually do them. I had to take positive action so that I had a good explanation for people.
Because let’s face it, when you leave the daily AA meetings, everyone starts asking you questions because they are concerned that you are going to relapse. And in many ways they are actually scared for themselves and their own security when someone else leaves the meetings. So I was driven by this need to have a good answer for these folks.
I did not want to just say to them “oh, I am doing OK, but yeah I don’t go to meetings any more.” That sounds so lame, like the person is destined for relapse. Instead, I wanted to have a good alternative and make it sound like I was really pushing myself hard to take positive action.
So that is the honest truth about how I transitioned to the holistic approach. I got honest with myself, figured out what I needed to work on, started writing about it every day, making to-do lists, and then taking massive action.
Every day I wanted to be able to confront one of my peers from AA and say to them “here is what I did today to take care of myself in recovery” and I wanted that list to sound darn impressive. I wanted it to make them say to themselves “Wow, this dude is really pushing himself to make positive changes in his life.”
And I think that is a good explanation of the difference between being group motivated and being self motivated. It is interesting that I was really still being motivated (at first) by my fear of confronting my peers in AA, and what I would say to them about my recovery. So in some ways I was still motivated by others. But it was still a very individual path and I had to do the work myself without much accountability. Not that I never had any help or took any advice from anyone, because I most certainly did those things. But I no longer had the accountability of showing up at daily AA meetings or getting motivation directly from that group. So it was definitely a shift from being group motivated to having to push myself.
Pushing yourself to take action with the daily practice
One of the biggest revelations in recovery is that of the daily practice.
Essentially this is the idea that your habits matter.
Whatever your daily habits are for the next few years, those will shape your life, your health, and the person that you become.
So it is important to pay attention to what your daily habits are, and to use the idea of the “daily multiplier” in order to build a new life for yourself.
If you want to get into shape and be physically healthy then you don’t accomplish this overnight. It takes time and it takes consistency. So you get into the habit of eating healthy foods and working out on a very consistent basis. Without the consistency and the dedication you have nothing. Everyone who has ever tried to diet or get into better shape knows this. If you slack off then eventually you have nothing. You are back to your old self.
Everything positive that you build in your recovery tends to work this way. Nothing that has great value in your life is going to come super easy. All of it takes real work.
Think of a goal such as running a marathon. That takes some very specific and dedicated training over a long period of time. In reality just about anyone who is able to do a light jog can work up to the distance of running a marathon, it just takes persistence and dedication.
The same is true of most major goals in recovery. You want to quit smoking cigarettes, you need consistency. You need persistence and dedication. You want to reach out and start working with others in recovery and get real benefit from it? Again, you need dedication and consistency for this.
You want to become healthy, find more emotional stability, learn to practice and cultivate gratitude every day? Those are goals that require real work, real dedication, real willingness. You can’t just try for a few days and then expect for things to magically straighten out for you. It requires persistence.
This is why habits are so important for long term sobriety. You need to find the daily habits that lend themselves to helping you stay sober.
These positive habits may differ from person to person. Again, there is the idea of customization in your holistic approach.
For some people that daily habit might be to go to AA meetings and share what is going on in their life. Or it may be to exercise and participate in an online recovery forum.
I had to push myself in two ways when I switched to the self motivated path of recovery:
1) I had to explore new positive actions based on other people’s suggestions. So I had to try new things and experiment to find out what worked for me, what actually helped me.
2) I had to push myself to actually take action and follow through and persist. I had to learn discipline through consistency. This applied to things that were actually working for me and helping me of course.
Protecting yourself from complacency in the long run
My belief is that the best form of relapse prevention in long term recovery is personal growth.
From a holistic standpoint your options for personal growth are wide open. You simply have more options to explore, more things to learn about yourself, more ways to stimulate new growth in your life. If you restrict this to only spiritual growth then you may be selling yourself short in some ways.