You have probably heard of the idea of a holistic approach to alcoholism recovery, as opposed to other more traditional methods of treatment. But what exactly is the holistic approach, and is it really a valid alternative in sobriety?
My opinion is that the holistic approach has a lot of value, and everyone who is recovering from addiction should at least learn about it and consider it. This is not necessarily an “either or thing,” as you can still be in AA for example and still benefit a lot from these ideas. In other words, you can be in traditional recovery but still incorporate a holistic approach into your recovery strategy.
The holistic approach is actually a strategy rather than a group of tactics. On the surface it probably just looks like a bunch of tactics: Go through detox, eat healthy food, get good sleep, improve your relationships, work on your spirituality, quit all your other addictions (smoking), start exercising, and so on. All of that can be part of a holistic approach, don’t get me wrong. But what is more important than the list of tactics (eating healthy is one tactic. Practicing faith is another tactics. Etc.) is the overall strategy that dictates your actions in recovery.
In other words, can you actually think on your own two feet based on your recovery strategy at some point? Maybe you cannot do so during your first week sober, and that is understandable. I definitely needed to be told what to do for at least my first year of recovery.
But at some point I worked hard at developing my own strategy for living. In other words, I needed my own set of guidelines and my own philosophy that could guide me to make decisions. Was it better for me to go to this meeting today or to go for a jog? Was it better for me to write this article online about addiction or watch television? What I needed in order to answer these questions was my own personal philosophy of recovery. I needed a system. I needed a way to guide myself based on a set of beliefs.
So the beliefs that I adopted had to do with this idea of holism.
The core of it all is that addiction was not just a spiritual disease, as is painted in some traditional recovery programs. Instead, the disease infiltrates every area of a person’s life—including their physical being, their mental health, their social world, and so on. It affects everything. Addiction destroys the entire person from the inside out, but it affects nearly every part of their life.
Therefore the core of the recovery philosophy is that you need a holistic approach instead of merely a spiritual one. Yes, spirituality is still one leg of the stool. But there are other legs as well, that are too often neglected or overlooked in traditional recovery programs. For example, how many people tell you to exercise at AA? I am sure it does come up from time to time, but in my opinion it should be one of those 12 steps! Seriously, it has had that big of an impact on my recovery and yet no one is talking about it. Why not? The solution for me thus shifted to a more holistic approach.
I realize too that not every person in recovery is going to respond to exercise in the same way that I did. This is the beauty of the holistic approach—it is expansive and all encompassing. You would not just go exercise and decide that the holistic approach is not for you, this is an oversimplification and you would have missed the point. Instead, you need to seek personal growth in all areas of your life, with physical health being just one of those potential areas.
Furthermore, you will evolve in recovery over time. For example, the first two years of my recovery had nothing to do with exercise, or even physical health for the most part. I stayed sober and I learned a lot about recovery but I did not exercise and I continued to smoke cigarettes. Not only that but I worked swing shift and therefore had terrible sleep patterns. Not exactly an image of good physical health. But I remained sober during that time and about two years later I started to improve those things: I got a “normal” job where my sleep was much improved, I started exercising every day and I also quit smoking cigarettes.
Does this mean that the first two years of my sobriety were worthless? Of course not! Just because I had not figured all of that stuff out right away does not take anything away from the success I was experiencing in early recovery. We grow and change in recovery. Expect it. Count on it. Give yourself a break and allow yourself time to make progress.
Do you really need a holistic approach to stay sober?
Probably not. If you look at traditional recovery then you will see many people who completely ignore these concepts. For example, it is possible to go to AA meetings and use the daily ritual of AA as the sole basis for your ability to resist relapse. I have met many such people during my recovery journey. If they stop going to AA meetings every day then they quickly find themselves craving alcohol and in many cases they will relapse. These are the same people who declare that “meeting makers make it.”
When I noticed that in early recovery I had about a year sober, and I was going to meetings on a daily basis at the time, and I wondered to myself: “Is this the outcome that I really want in my life—to be so dependent on these daily meetings that I might relapse if I miss one?”
It was an important question in my mind and I was also questioning the value of my time spent in meetings every day. Not that meetings were a waste of time, because I normally got some genuine value out of being there. But I also got value out of being with my new friends in recovery, and I got value out of interacting with recovering people online, and I got value out of going to my job, and so on. Just because it has value does not mean it is a good use of my time, because there are always an infinite number of alternatives.
And part of the holistic approach is realizing that these alternatives are important to your sobriety. For example, running for an hour every other day as opposed to sitting in a meeting. Some will argue with this and say “why not do both?” That might work for some people, or it might severely cramp a schedule for others. It all depends on what you fill your life up with. You choose your actions deliberately and with the holistic approach you want to make sure that you are not neglecting any one area of your life (mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, etc.).
I took a look at the people who relapsed after missing a few days worth of AA meetings, and I decided that I wanted something better for myself. So I started to talk with the “winners” in recovery who had plenty of time in sobriety, and I started to dig down and figure out what made them successful. I was finding more and more that it was always a lot deeper than just showing up to daily AA meetings. In all cases these people had a life. They did many things outside of the AA world, even if they still attended meetings. And so this was how I first glimpsed the holistic approach to recovery, because these people who showed up to AA meetings and preached one thing (go to AA, don’t drink, etc.) were actually doing something else entirely—they were pursuing personal growth in many ways outside of AA, outside of spirituality, and so on. They had interesting lives and they were always pushing themselves to grow in life.
And so I was discovering people who were not vulnerable to relapse just because they missed a few AA meetings. They were not vulnerable because they had built up a strong foundation in recovery based on personal growth. They did not depend on the daily meeting for their sobriety. Instead, they pushed themselves to make progress and improve their life in many different areas.
To some extent I believe that your self esteem can be an accurate measure for your strength in resisting relapse. If you hate your life and you are upset with yourself then the possibility of relapse is much greater. On the other hand if you love your life and you are pleased with your own personal growth then why would you throw all of that away by taking a drink?
Thus you can “build a moat” around your sobriety by pursuing personal growth. Not by creating false self esteem, but by actually achieving new things in your life and making real progress. If you take positive action on a consistent basis then this builds your life into something that is worth protecting. If you improve yourself and your life over time then you are not just going to throw it all away on a relapse.
This is a big part of the holistic approach. Spirituality is one key component of this, but it is not the only piece of the puzzle. You can improve your life in many ways and this can help you to rebuild your life and prevent relapse.
If you are recovering alcoholic then there is a piece inside of you that wants you to get drunk and go back to your old life. That will never go away, ever. So the solution is to reinvent yourself on a continual basis into something that is better than the “old you.” It is not impossible to do this but it does take a serious effort, and a consistent effort. You can’t just quit doing it after a few months. You have to reinvent yourself all over again. And again. It is this continuous self improvement that leads to “the moat around your sobriety.” You protect yourself from relapse when you make personal growth.
People in AA who focus on spiritual growth are essentially doing the same thing, but their focus is different. Instead of a holistic approach they are just focusing on spiritual growth. But the outcome is basically the same if they put in the work—they reinvent themselves and thus they are protected from relapse. If they stop putting in the work and the effort then they are in danger of becoming complacent.
With a holistic approach you just have more chances to reinvent yourself in new ways. It is a broad approach to recovery rather than a narrow approach.
Why this approach to recovery is not a good fit for everyone
Some people need explicit directions and a narrow focus if they are going to succeed. Some people don’t want the flexibility to reinvent themselves in many different ways. They just want to do their thing, go to their meetings, and do the spirituality thing.
If you can achieve personal growth by being in a traditional recovery program then you probably don’t need these ideas and concepts here about holism. They could probably make you healthier though and they could even make your recovery stronger.
Let’s say that you depend on AA for your sobriety and if you quit going to meetings that you would eventually relapse.
Now let’s say that you adopt a new recovery strategy that makes it so that if you miss a whole bunch of AA meetings in a row, then you don’t relapse but instead you remain clean and sober.
Which is the better position to be in? Which is the stronger recovery?
In my opinion it is the second path. That is the holistic path, the one that does not depend on a narrow focus but instead can draw strength from many different sources.
For example, there was a time when I was going through a really difficult event in my sobriety, and I used exercise to get through it. Sure, I could have called someone up in the program, or I could have contacted my sponsor, or I could have went to a meeting and spilled my guts. But instead I used exercise. I used it in a way that was helpful for me, that helped me to deal with my immediate problem. It was an outlet for me when I really needed an outlet.
Now this is a very pointed example but in most cases the holistic approach does not work like that. Instead it has to do more with a concept called “synergy,” where everything is working together in your life to create a better outcome.
How does the holistic approach lead to synergy?
The word “synergy” sounds like a stupid buzzword, I know. But the concept is important and really helpful.
The final goal of your overall strategy in recovery is to develop a bunch of different goals in your life that all work together.
Because it is entirely possible that you could have conflicting goals. You could develop goals that cause you to work against yourself and develop friction. You want to avoid this.
The opposite of this is when your various goals all compliment each other and enhance each other. This is “synergy.”
There are two ways that you might develop this. One way is by thinking about it beforehand and planning out goals that compliment each other. For example, I did this once when I deliberately started exercising before I attempted to quit smoking cigarettes. I knew that if I could exercise every day that it would help me a great deal in giving up nicotine.
The other way to achieve synergy in your life is to simply experiment and find what works well together. This is very powerful and it is hard to screw it up. In fact you cannot screw it up so long as you are willing to keep trying at it.
The best way to do it is to find someone in recovery who is a “winner” and then ask them for advice. Ask them what actions you should be taking in your life today. Ask them what actions you should be taking outside of AA, outside of spirituality. If you don’t include that disclaimer then it is likely they may just point you towards “the basics” and the narrow approach of pursuing only spiritual growth.
Then what you need to do is to implement their ideas. Test them out in your own life. They exercise every day? Do the same. Try it for six months. Heck, try it for a year. The kind of suggestions that you get when doing this are not likely to be a big waste of your time. Nearly everything that is suggested to you will have real value. Most of it will be incredibly helpful. But you won’t know until you test it out for yourself.
This is how you can establish new habits in your life. These are the sort of positive habits that can help you to rebuild your life and avoid relapse.
After you do this once, then go do it again. Remember the term “reinvent yourself.” After you make progress, go ask for more advice. What is next? What else can you do that would strengthen your recovery? What is your next step in terms of personal growth?
If you ask people who are already successful in sobriety then you are taking a shortcut by borrowing their wisdom. If you do this then you can avoid a lot of pain and agony for yourself. You can benefit from the mistakes that others have made and avoid making them yourself.
Living a life that avoids complacency
What happens in recovery if you stop growing, stop pushing yourself to reinvent yourself all the time?
You get complacent.
This is bad. This can lead to relapse. In fact, complacency may be the biggest threat to anyone in long term recovery.
The only solution for complacency is to adopt a strategy that keeps you on your toes. That keeps you eager to learn more and to experience more personal growth.
From a spiritual perspective this can be realized through gratitude. If you are grateful for what you learn each day, if you are grateful for the new experiences that you have, then this will help to protect you from complacency.
You can also take a “shortcut” to overcoming complacency. Simply keep asking for advice and feedback from other people. Ask them what you should do next, then go do it. Take suggestions and act on them. If you do this as a matter of daily routine then your life will keep getting better and better in recovery.