I believe that the solution to alcoholism is always going to be holistic. Even if you find some other recovery solution that focuses mostly on a single aspect of your overall health (such as spirituality, to cite a common example) you will still have to somehow find a holistic path in order to be successful in the long run.
In other words, recovery demands that we become healthier on a number of different levels. We can’t just pursue spiritual growth without also improving our lives physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally as well. So why not admit to ourselves that these things are also important, and pursue growth in those areas as well? This is the idea behind making a conscious decision to pursue holistic health in recovery.
What really makes people relapse is when they ignore the important stuff
What makes people relapse?
If we can learn the answer to this question then it can help us to avoid the common pitfalls. Certainly if you look at the numbers many people in early recovery do end up relapsing for one reason or another.
I worked in a rehab center for 5 plus years and so I had the opportunity to watch thousands of people try to recover from alcoholism. What I learned from that experience is that recovery is essentially a pass/fail experiment. You can’t “sort of succeed” in alcoholism recovery. You either stay sober or you relapse. There is absolutely no in between. This is unfortunate but people would do well to accept this as truth and then build on the knowledge. Because recovery is pass/fail, you had better be willing to put everything that you have into your effort so that you don’t fall below the line (so to speak). You are either pushing yourself really hard in order to stay sober, or you relapse. It is as simple as that.
But again, why do people relapse? There are a million and one excuses, to be sure. We all have excuses. And any given day, even if an alcoholic does not have an excuse, they can certainly make one up. We all became masters at justifying our drinking or drug use. Finding an excuse is not the problem here. The real issue is, what made the person decide to throw their chance at recovery away? What made them give up the fight?
In my opinion it is a lack of priorities. In early recovery you have to make a commitment to yourself. You have to make a decision that you are not going to drink or use drugs no matter what. You have to make a commitment that you will seek professional help and then be willing to see that decision through no matter what. The important thing here is the strength of your commitment. You have to be more serious about this commitment than you have ever been before in your life. You must commit fully. This is what surrender is all about.
Most recovery programs focus on spiritual growth in early recovery. This is important, but it is not the only important thing. I had a close friend in recovery who failed to focus on his physical health, and it cost him his life. What good is sobriety if you are dead? I am not trying to be funny with that question, this is a hard lesson that I had to watch unfold before my eyes and it was very painful to see it happen. This is why we have to take care of ourselves on many different levels: Physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and socially. If all you do is focus on spiritual growth then you may be missing the bigger picture. Some people argue that “spirituality is the bigger picture!” but such people have typically not lost a young friend in recovery to illness or disease. There is more to health than spiritual fitness. This is why the holistic approach is valid and important.
Personal growth happens on many different levels. How can you take care of yourself today?
Personal growth in recovery happens on many different levels. We make progress in recovery when we take care of ourselves and improve our lives over time.
Recovery from alcoholism is your life in constant motion. You are never standing still. If you think that you can stand still in alcoholism recovery then you are fooling yourself. Try to stand still for a while and make no progress and in reality you will be sliding back down the hill towards a certain relapse. You cannot stand still.
Therefore your choices are this:
1) Make progress in recovery, or
You can either move forward in your recovery and achieve personal growth, or not. It is your choice. One path ends in a better life of sobriety and the other path ends in relapse.
So the question you want to ask yourself is:
“How can I take care of myself today? What actions can I take today that will have a positive impact on my health in recovery?”
And you want to consider all of the areas of your life. Not just your spiritual health (though spirituality is important as well, it is not the only thing to consider).
It should be noted that the power of habit in recovery is very important.
When you establish healthy habits in recovery what you are really doing is building a foundation for success.
Because then you sort of take out the variability factor. Some people who struggle in recovery are doing so because they are not consistent. They might make a lot of personal growth in a short period of time, but then go through a dry spell where they do nothing for a while or even slide backwards. This is not as good as slow and steady growth. In fact it may even lead to relapse during one of the “dry spells” where they are not making any progress.
So the solution is to use the power of habit. If you create a positive habit in your life then it also builds up your discipline muscle. For example, maybe you decide to write in journal every day about your recovery and how you are feeling. This may sound like something simple but it can have a huge impact on your life. And this is especially true if you turn it into a consistent habit and you do it every single day. Maybe it will work for you and help you a great deal and maybe it will not. So what you need to do in recovery is to start test driving positive habits.
How do you know what habits to test drive? By asking for advice from other people. Ask people who are already successful in recovery what their positive habits are each day. Ask them what they do every single day in order to take care of themselves in recovery. And try to dig deeper when you ask these questions of people. For example, ask several recovering alcoholics how they take care of themselves emotionally each day. They will have to think about this for a while. They will have to talk it out, figure out the real answer, piece it together. Listen to them. And be sure to ask several sources. Again, find people who are already sober and living a good life in recovery.
Ask them how they take care of themselves physically. Do they exercise? Do yoga? Meditate? Eat healthy foods? Ask more than one person. Get lots of input. Get lots of feedback. Hear how several people take care of themselves in recovery.
If you do this footwork I am speaking of, if you seek out these sort of opinions and listen to how people take care of themselves, then you will gain powerful insight into recovery. I can tell you what works for me but that is only one single example. My example may not apply to your life very well as we are two completely different people. But if you ask several different people in recovery about these things then you will find:
1) Common things and similarities among the answers. You will find fundamental truths. These are super important!
2) People who you relate more closely to than others. So you will tend to take to their advice more and it will be more useful to you.
If you are in early recovery then this is a very important process.
You need advice. You need new information. You need to find a new way to live.
We live our lives on a day to day basis. Therefore we need to establish new daily habits. We need to find new actions that we can take that happen every single day. That way we can do these new actions each and every day and they can therefore make a positive impact on our lives. In addition to this, we can learn and build up our discipline by adopting a daily habit.
But the truth is that not every habit that you “try on” will work out for you in the long term.
And that is fine.
You need to experiment. And to do this you must be really honest with yourself. Because you don’t want to cast aside a new daily habit just because you are lazy and don’t want to do it. You need to really give these ideas a fair chance in your life and evaluate if it is working for you or not.
Some examples of daily habits that you might “try on” in recovery:
* Going to an AA meeting every day.
* Calling up a sponsor in recovery every day.
* Prayer or meditation daily.
* Reading recovery literature daily.
* Writing in a journal daily.
* Exercise daily.
* Eating healthy food every day (and no junk!).
* Reaching out and helping others in recovery daily.
And so on. These are just examples. Your actions in recovery may be totally different from this short list of suggestions. These are all things that I have tried in my own journey, and to be honest a lot of those things did not really work well for me in the long run. But a few of them did and so I continue to use those habits every day.
So you need to “try on” these positive habits (or some other habits, it doesn’t matter which ones really) and then find out what works for you. And simply discard the things that do not work and move on. But the key is that you are honest with yourself and that you move on. And by “moving on,” I mean that you go find new advice from others and you follow through on it and take more action. Most people who “move on” just use it as an excuse to relapse. As in “Well, those AA meetings are clearly not for me, I guess I am just not meant to be sober.” That is not the attitude we are looking for and obviously it will result in immediate relapse.
How relapse creeps up on people who become stagnant
I am a big fan of the idea that you should have a balanced lifestyle in recovery.
If you don’t have balance then typically you will either be going way to fast or way too slow. And inevitably it will be both of those extremes as someone will always crash and burn eventually if they are going to fast. So balance is an important thing to strive for.
If you become completely stagnant in your recovery then this eventually leads to relapse. Now some people in sobriety become stagnant and they do not relapse right away. They might cling to sobriety for years or even decades even though they are basically a “dry drunk.” But keep in mind that even though they may remain technically sober they are still miserable. We want to avoid this outcome.
So the key is to be sober and also be engaged in personal growth.
Relapse can creep up on anyone if they are not doing the work. If you are stagnant in your recovery then relapse can creep into your life when you least suspect it. It just happens. Your defenses are down because you are not actively trying to improve yourself. That’s just how it works.
The defense against complacency is to keep pushing yourself to grow in recovery. But obviously we need to do this with some sort of balance.
This can be tricky. Some of the challenges in recovery require you to push yourself really hard. So in these cases you may push for a while to do something particularly difficult (such as quitting smoking) and then when you finally achieve that goal, you may rest for a while. You may bask in the glory of your achievement and rest for a bit.
But the key is, after you reach that goal, you need to set a new one. You need to constantly be evaluating your life and figuring out what the next step is. How can you improve yourself further?
We should always be asking ourselves: “What is my next move to improve myself in recovery?” If you do not have a clear answer on this question then ask for help! Ask others in recovery (who are successful) what you should be doing next. Ask them what your next goal should be.
We cannot afford to be idle in recovery. Our natural state in life is to self medicate with drugs or alcohol. So in order to overcome that tendency we have to do some serious work. We have to keep busy. We have to keep pushing ourselves to improve our lives.
This is not a bad thing. Sure, it is a lot of work. But the work is rewarding. We have to keep pushing, but at least we are rewarded for our efforts. We get to improve our health and our lives on a regular basis.
When I was struggling to get sober I once heard a man speak at an AA meeting. He was running the meeting and had significant time sober. I will never forget what he said, even though at the time I was not really ready to surrender (I relapsed shortly after that rehab experience). He said: “Life just keeps getting better and better in recovery. I cannot believe it but it just keeps getting better and better, every single day and with each passing month and year. What have I done to deserve this awesome new life, this incredible existence? How did I get so lucky? It just keeps getting better!”
And I wanted that experience that he was speaking of. But at the time I was not quite ready. I was still stuck in denial and I was too afraid to make the changes necessary to embrace recovery. I was not ready to surrender and really listen. I wanted to do things my way. So I relapsed before I really got started. I had to go out and drink and experience more pain and misery before I could come back to recovery and really be ready to listen.
The solution is personal growth. The direction of that growth is improved health
The solution to alcoholism and drug addiction is personal growth. You are either moving forward or you are moving backwards.
But what is the direction of that personal growth?
The direction of that growth is your holistic health. We can measure our success in life by how well we are taking care of ourselves. And not just physically, but holistically. In all areas of our lives.
Some days we lose sight of these ideals. Some days we drift off course and we may realize that we are not really taking care of ourselves like we should. And if we ignore the path for too long then we can be in danger of relapse.
And this is why we must always return to the basic question: “How can I take care of myself today?” And we need to ask that question of ourselves in terms of holistic health. In other words, we cannot afford to neglect our physical health, our spiritual health, our mental health, our emotional health, and our social health. If we neglect one of these for too long then it can get us into serious trouble.
When someone makes the decision to get sober they are making a commitment to themselves. They are essentially saying: “I want to live a healthier life. The most important part of that decision is that I not drink alcohol.”
The decision is not to just stop drinking. If that were true, then why? What is the point of quitting drinking?
The point is that you are seeking a better life. Better health. A happier life. A healthier life.
Therefore, don’t just stop by quitting drinking and then claiming that you are done with it. Don’t just become sober and decide that this is “good enough.” It’s not good enough. It is just the start. Sobriety is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole lot of potential growth and healing that happens when you walk this path in recovery. The real rewards of sobriety come after the hard work that you do, the work that you do over months and years that helps to keep you sober.
The holistic life includes spiritual growth as well
A vote for holistic recovery is not a vote against spirituality.
The holistic approach to recovery includes spiritual growth.
But it is also bigger than that. The holistic approach is more broad than the traditional spiritual approach to recovery.
Maybe you have done well with the spiritual approach, and never had to consider the other aspects of your health (holistic approach). If so, then my hat is off to you! For everyone else, I would urge you to ask yourself the question every day: “How can I take care of myself in my recovery today?” And do not feel the need to limit yourself to only “spiritual” answers!