I believe that anyone who is recovering from an addiction or alcoholism is actually on a journey to greater holistic health.
Now what do I mean by “holistic health?” Are we talking about getting hot stone massages every day or relying on acupuncture to keep us sober?
Not at all. Holistic just means “whole,” as in, we are treating the “whole” person in recovery.
The areas of your life that are affected by addiction and recovery can include:
And so on. Some recovery programs focus on just one of these aspects at the expense of all the others (for example, some religious based programs).
The best plan for long term recovery, however, is to consider all aspects of your person, and to use a holistic approach to recovery.
So why would we want to use an holistic approach to recovery over some of the more traditional methods? Why even attempt to address all of these areas of an addict or alcoholic’s life, when a simpler program that just addresses the spiritual malady might be sufficient?
In my opinion there are several reasons to consider the holistic approach:
1) Failure to consider the holistic approach can be dangerous or fatal.
2) Value of exploration – finding what really works for you in your recovery.
3) Long term health in recovery is as important as sobriety itself.
4) Quality of life is derived from balance and the holistic approach.
5) The concept of “synergy” and being in alignment with your goals.
Failure to consider the holistic approach can be dangerous or fatal
Let me give you an example from my own life when it comes to the holistic approach.
I had a close friend in early recovery who was also recovering from drug and alcohol addiction just as I was. He worked with me but he was a bit more active at work than I was, and he argued that this was enough of a difference that he did not really have to pursue any form of exercise or activity outside of his job. He also had a pretty bad diet and was not eating very healthy foods, plus he continued to smoke cigarettes.
As I was pushing myself to consider the holistic approach, I was actively seeking to make these sorts of changes: healthier eating, quitting smoking, active exercise on a regular basis, and so on. And as I indicated, my friend was not keen on making these changes, and he also argued that they were not central to his recovery effort. He argued that the important thing, the truly important thing, is that he did not relapse on drugs and alcohol, because then things would go downhill really fast. He argued that “he was doing pretty good, because things could be a lot worse, especially if he relapsed.”
This is the wrong attitude in my opinion, it is the wrong approach. Recovery is not about just getting to a stable level of recovery and then coasting. You have to keep pushing yourself. You have to keep pursuing more and more growth in order to keep moving forward in recovery.
My friend eventually relapsed and passed away, and I really believe that this could have been prevented if he had used a more holistic approach in his recovery. If he had quit smoking, improved his diet, lost weight and started exercising regularly, I believe that he would NOT have relapsed, and I also believe he would not have died. These are of course just guesses on my part and we never know anything for sure, but even his doctors were urging him to make these critical changes all along, so I know that this cannot be far from the truth. The holistic approach is important.
The fact is that many addicts and alcoholics typically have a lot of extra problems that come along with their addiction or alcoholism. They pick up bad habits, they smoke, they gamble, they have emotional issues, they have psychological issues, mental health issues, past abuse issues, and so on. Any of these things and more can threaten to trip us up in our long term recovery IF we do not take pains to address them along our journey.
If you get healthy and get into recovery, then there is a natural push to regain self esteem, recognize that you have shifted from an unhealthy lifestyle to a more healthy one, and then make an effort to continue on that track by making more incremental improvements in your life.
People who ignore this idea and who ignore the push for holistic growth in recovery are basically saying “I just want to be clean and sober, please don’t bother me to do anything more than that, I just don’t want to drink or use drugs.” Well, it’s not that simple. If it were that simple then you would not need a program of recovery, you could simply not drink or drug and go on about your business. But we all know how tricky and pervasive addiction really is, so we have to stop drinking and drugging and then we have to DO MORE. We have to go beyond mere abstinence in recovery, because abstinence by itself is never enough. If we just try to abstain without any sort of plan in place, we are doomed to relapse.
So we need a plan. This is a program of recovery that we can follow. And any good program of recovery is going to push you to better health, to improve your life in all areas that relate to addiction, including your physical health, your emotional stability, your socializing with others, your spiritual fitness, and so on. This is the holistic approach, and those who ignore it and simply cling to the idea that a one-dimensional solution can cure their addiction are generally headed for relapse.
Addiction is complex, and infects nearly all areas of our lives. Your recovery solution needs to address this complexity, and seek to fix multiple areas of your life as well. Just focusing on one aspect of your “addicted self” is a mistake.
Value of exploration – finding what really works for you in your recovery
One of the reasons that you want to try an holistic approach in your recovery is so you can truly explore the different recovery techniques and find out what works best for you.
Let me give you an example from my own life.
I was early in my recovery and was living in long term treatment. A counselor who took charge of the recovery home was working with me on my situation and he was encouraging me to do certain things in my recovery. For example, he encouraged me to go back to college, and to explore meditation. He also was encouraging me to explore exercise and fitness.
Now at the time, I took some of his suggestions but not all of them. I went back to college and started taking classes again, and I also experimented heavily with meditation, but I did not really pick up on the idea of exercise.
The meditation was helpful but really it was not a huge breakthrough for me. Pursuing my education was a huge deal for me though and I went on to finish up my degree. This had a major impact on my recovery and I was quite glad that I explored this avenue.
But the real lesson here is the exercise. I had failed to take my counselor’s suggestion to start exercising at the time, but then later on in my recovery I started running on a regular basis with my dad. This had a huge impact on my recovery that I never could have predicted, a much bigger impact than even the education probably.
Running and exercise turned out to be a really big part of my recovery, and at this point, I could not imagine going through my recovery without exercise and fitness. It is at least as important to me as, say, the 12 step program is to the average person in recovery. It is THAT big a deal to me. For whatever reason, regular vigorous exercise just works well for me, it replaces those chemicals that I used to seek in active addiction, and it goes a long way in helping to prevent possible relapse.
Now of course this is not going to be true for everyone. Not everyone will respond like this to exercise, or to fitness, and find it to be such an integral and important part of their recovery.
And this is the whole point of exploration and the holistic approach–no one knows exactly what you are going to connect with most in your recovery journey, or what will really help you the most in staying clean and sober.
The average person in recovery therefore needs to explore the holistic approach. They need to take some suggestions and try some new things.
I find it amazing that almost all of the breakthroughs that I had in my recovery were based on taking suggestions from other people. This baffles me because I am normally not what I would call a stupid person. But the best ideas I’ve had in my recovery were almost always coming to me as suggestions from others.
This is part of the holistic approach. Listen to others, seek feedback, and actually act on some suggestions. My dad encouraged me to run. Others encouraged me to go back to college. These were both incredibly useful suggestions that I would not have otherwise arrived at myself. They were not my ideas. I had to go outside of myself in order to find these ideas and act on them.
So the holistic approach demands a bit of exploration, and you have to get a bit of humility in there, and start listening to other people and see what they suggest for you.
Long term health in recovery is as important as sobriety itself
The holistic approach in recovery is important because your health is at least as important as your sobriety. I hear people constantly get this backwards in the program and it is sort of tough to explain, but my friend who died in the above example is a good way to illustrate it. By ignoring the holistic approach, he became sick and it took his life away. What of sobriety if you are dead? Your health is at least one step more important than your sobriety. Being sober and dead ain’t so great, as people in the program seem to think it is.
Obviously you want to be alive, healthy, and sober. But the key here is that you must not stubbornly cling to your sobriety while ignoring other aspects of your overall health.
If you are dying of lung cancer while smoking cigarettes, don’t tell me you are proud because at least you have not relapsed back to booze. That should be obvious. Yeah, you need to be sober. But you ALSO need to do more to pursue better health in this situation. Improving your holistic health is a natural extension of your sobriety.
If you choose not to pursue this, if you choose NOT to pursue better holistic health in recovery, what are you really doing? You are just sort of stagnating, you are agreeing to be sober but not to push yourself to make ANY more positive changes. This is not a good strategy. Recovery is about personal growth. And what are you really doing, what possible positive changes could you be making, if you are not making positive changes regarding your own personal situation and health?
Positive changes in your life will almost always be along the lines of better health in some way. It may be spiritual fitness, it may be emotional health, it may be physical health, and it may be your social connections. But any positive changes that you make will almost always be things that improve some aspect of your overall health. Addiction is a slow death. Recovery is about life, living, improving your health and self esteem.
Many people equate “dying sober” with being the ultimate goal. But this is a mistake, and it is a selfish mistake to boot. What good are you if you remain sober, only to pass away before your time? Who cares? Who does that really help? No, the real goal is not to dye sober, but to LIVE sober. Recovery needs you alive, helping others, working with others in recovery, helping those who are struggling, and so on. This is what recovery is all about. You are recovering the positive things in life, actually making a positive contribution, not just existing or dying sober off in the corner somewhere. Recovery is about participation.
It is sort of sad to walk into some 12 step meetings and be greeted with a huge cloud of smoke from all of the cigarettes. So many alcoholics can justify their smoking because it is not as bad as being drunk. Those who cling to this justification are probably not doing themselves any favors though. And the people down the road need them healthy too, the struggling alcoholics who will walk into those meetings in ten years, twenty years down the road…..we need to be healthy so that we can help THEM.
Your highest truth in recovery is not your sobriety, it is your health. Sobriety is just one part of your overall health–a very, very important part, but it is still just one part of your overall health. People who forget that (or confuse it) can end up with a fate worse than relapse. Once you are dead, you are completely useless. Game over. Therefore, your number one goal in sobriety should be to pursue better holistic health for yourself. This is the most important thing for becoming useful to others.
Quality of life is derived from balance and the holistic approach
What is your quality of life in recovery? Is it worth living in recovery, or are you unhealthy, miserable, sick all the time, full of anxiety or emotional issues, and so on?
Those who are miserable in recovery for long enough tend to relapse. Why remain sober if you are completely miserable?
The same thing can happen with illnesses. Being sick for a long time in recovery can wear a person down, I have seen it happen at least twice now. At some point the addict or alcoholic says “what is the point? I may as well just use or drink.”
What is the point of sobriety if you are miserable? There is no point–you may as well self medicate instead. Any addict or alcoholic knows this deep down, that they are not going to live in misery for a long time without reverting back to their drug of choice. At least with their drug of choice they get a few glimpses of “happiness.”
Therefore, you have a responsibility in recovery to avoid this fate. You have a challenge in recovery to raise the quality of your life through conscious effort.
Of course this starts with your physical health, as that is your most vital asset when it comes to being alive and healthy. But you want to go further than that in pursuing a better quality of life, and that is where the holistic approach comes in.
If you have emotional issues or things from your past that you have not dealt with, facing those challenges head on and getting some resolve and some relief can make a huge difference. Or maybe you are out of shape or hanging on to nicotine addiction. Perhaps you are isolated and lonely and could benefit tremendously from improving your social health. Or maybe you are spiritually lacking in some way and you need to seek inner truth.
Whatever the case is, you can achieve balance and greater health in your life by pursuing the holistic approach, and addressing any possible problems in various areas of your life. As you eliminate negative things from your life one by one (smoking, lack of fitness, emotional instability, past issues, etc.) your quality of life will slowly improve over time.
This is the core of “real” relapse prevention. Improve your life, raise the quality of it, and you will become much more protected against the threat of relapse. Why throw it all away when you have a good thing going? The tendency is to NOT want to do throw it all away, so it makes sense to pursue holistic growth and incrementally improve your life in many areas.
The concept of “synergy” and being in alignment with your goals
The holistic approach to better health makes most sense when your goals are all working together toward the same overall end.
This works really well with the idea of holistic health. Your healthy life is the standard unit of measurement. Poor health in any area (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, social) is a trouble area that needs to be worked on and improved.
So you get clean and sober and then you seek to start making MORE positive changes. What are your trouble spots? What needs work in your life? Where are you lacking? What is out of balance?
Remember to seek feedback from others in order to get direction on this. We can often not see what are most pressing problems really are, or what could benefit us the most. Crushing to the ego, I know, but taking direction from others will make you infinitely stronger in your recovery. They see the important changes that we often miss.
The idea of “synergy” is that all of your goals and positive changes in recovery will hopefully be in alignment with each other. You will not be fighting against yourself by trying to be clean and sober, but then damaging your health in some other way due to a destructive habit. Instead, your goals will all point toward greater holistic health, and thus they will start to reinforce each other.
When all of your goals in recovery are in alignment, then you are really benefiting from the holistic approach, and your recovery effort becomes that much more effective.
You may also want to consider if the 12 step program empowers you or not, and if that is going to be part of your overall recovery plan as well.