People often talk about a holistic solution for recovery from addiction or alcoholism.
But what exactly are the talking about? What defines a holistic approach?
And how is it different from the “regular” approach to recovery?
What makes the holistic approach special?
Let’s take a closer look.
The traditional recovery fix
If you look at traditional alcoholism recovery programs they are generally based on either the 12 steps of AA or a religious based program. Of course there are a few alternatives but those two options make up the vast majority of recovery treatment options.
These are spiritual solutions. In AA they will tell you that “the solution is spiritual.” Obviously a religious based program is going to have similar values. The key is in a total personality transformation which comes through spiritual growth. The alcoholic changes the person that they are through spiritual growth. This is the primary method of overcoming an addiction in traditional recovery.
Obviously this works well for some people and not so well for others. Some of this depends on willingness but it may also depend on your personality to a certain extent. It may also be influenced by your background and past experiences with spirituality or lack thereof. Of course, anyone with the proper willingness can make spiritual growth but if the willingness is not there then this is a bit of a non-starter. Some people are simply not open to the idea that a higher power can change their lives.
Traditional recovery is, for the most part, based on spirituality and spiritual growth.
What does it mean to have a spiritual awakening?
If you have a spiritual awakening then it gives you a new perspective in everything that you do. Nothing really changes in your life and yet, at the same time, everything changes because you have changed in a profound way from within. It is an inner strength that is difficult to put into words to someone who has no spiritual experience or beliefs at all.
Your first “awakening” is your moment of surrender. This will probably happen very close to your last drink or drug use. It is when you realize that there is no more fun left in your addiction and that chasing the next high will never lead you to lasting happiness. It is a moment of defeat because you tried for so long to make it all work out. And you failed. You are miserable using drugs or alcohol and you finally confront this truth. So you give up. You stop fighting. You ask for help and you say to the world “Show me how to live!” This is real desperation.
This is the beginning of the awakening. From there it will evolve if you start listening to others and taking suggestions. To be honest, I don’t believe that it really matters much at this point who you listen to or what actions you take, so long as you take positive action and strive to improve your life and your health. That probably sounds pretty general but consider the fact that some recovery programs exist based on various treatment methods: Religion, 12 steps, therapy, exercise, even creative arts. All of these have been used to successfully overcome an addiction and then later organized into a program of recovery to help and guide others. Not all of these methods work for all, but all of them work for some.
After a spiritual awakening the alcoholic no longer puts their own happiness first. They no longer chase after the high of drugs or alcohol, and instead seek to help others and improve themselves in new ways. Happiness becomes a by-product of this type of living. As such, it requires a “leap of faith” because if you start living a recovery program and taking positive action the results will take considerable time to manifest. It doesn’t happen overnight. Therefore you must be patient. More importantly, you must be in a state of full surrender.
Maybe an alcoholic has a particular rough night and they feel bad and they want to quit drinking. So the promise themselves to quit the next day. Of course this may or may not work out. But then they may reach a point of extreme despair and desperation where they really don’t want to go on living in misery. This is the difference between “wishing you were not alcoholic” and actually hitting rock bottom. People who hit rock bottom can then recover. People who just wish that things were different have a much greater struggle in changing their life. They simply don’t have the incentive necessary to overcome the enormous obstacles to change. Recovery requires massive action. Most people are not desperate enough to take massive action.
Can spiritual transformation lead you to this massive action? Can the pursuit of spiritual growth lead you to a better life in recovery? That is a question that only you can answer for yourself, no one else can answer it for you (though many will try by pushing you towards programs focused exclusively on spiritual growth!).
One alternative to spiritual growth is the holistic approach.
But what is that exactly?
The holistic solution is a long term strategy for growth
My suggestion in early recovery is to go to rehab, get detoxed, and learn the basics of recovery.
The exact program you attend is not important. All that is important is that you attend and follow through. Any abstinence based program will work (if you work it!).
What matters much more is what happens when you leave rehab and get back out into the real world. How does the recovering alcoholic fare after a year, after six months, after five years post-treatment? This is the real question.
And this is where the holistic strategy comes into play.
When you go to traditional rehab and learn about spiritual growth, you have one dimension of personal growth to go in. Spiritual growth.
When you take a more holistic approach to recovery, you have 5 basic dimensions in which to experience growth: Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social.
Notice that the holistic approach to recovery includes spirituality. That is a pretty big point in its favor right there.
But the holistic approach goes beyond traditional recovery because it takes more areas of growth into account.
For example, when I was in early recovery I had a close friend who passed away somewhat young (58). The reason this happened is because he did not exercise and continued to smoke cigarettes. Yet he followed a traditional recovery program and participated in daily meetings. Spiritually he was doing well and people always told him this at the meetings and such. He was looked up to in many ways from the standpoint of spirituality. Yet the lack of a holistic approach cost him a great deal.
This was a wake up call for me. What was the point of living in recovery if I was not taking care of myself in all 5 of these areas? Why sacrifice my happiness or quality of life because of poor physical health, or poor social health, or whatever? Why not take a more holistic approach and attempt to improve my life in all of these areas?
The kicker is that this makes for a stronger recovery. We can build up resistance to relapse through this sort of personal growth.
There are two ways that you can improve your life in recovery: Internally, or externally.
Internally is all of the stuff that goes in your mind. Your fears, anger, resentment, anxiety, self pity, guilt, shame, and so on.
All of that stuff that the 12 steps tries to address. We try to identify all of it and process it so that it does not come back to trip us up later on and cause us to relapse.
This is the internal work that needs to be done.
Then there is the external stuff. Have you ever heard someone say in an AA meeting that “we need to change the people, places, and things in our lives?” They are talking about making real changes, but these changes are external. They are outside of our minds. But obviously they are still important.
And so this speaks to the holistic approach. We need to treat our “whole life” in recovery, not just our spiritual deficit. Yes, we still need spirituality. Yes, spirituality is still important for recovery. But it is but one piece of a much bigger puzzle. The holistic approach attempts to address these other areas of our life (and of our health).
So how do you do this in the real world? How do you apply the holistic approach of recovery to your daily life?
You do it by practicing it. Every day.
What is the daily practice in recovery like?
If you want to create a new life in recovery for yourself then you need to take action every single day.
This is the only way to create massive change. It has to happen over time, because the changes are so big, and this takes time for all of it to unravel. You must be consistent. You have to take positive action every single day. You can’t relapse every fourth day in your recovery and expect to make progress. You will just keep winding up back at square one.
So recovery is a daily practice. The holistic approach is a daily practice. You must take care of yourself and your “whole body” every single day.
This means taking care of yourself physically. Getting good sleep, eating healthier foods, exercising on a regular basis, quitting smoking, and so on.
This also means taking care of yourself emotionally. Staying away from high stress situations, keeping yourself content and happy through the rest of these suggestions.
It means taking care of yourself socially, by eliminating toxic relationships and cultivating healthy ones. By reaching out and helping others.
It means taking care of yourself spiritually, by practicing gratitude every single day and seeking out purpose and meaning in your life through that gratitude.
And it means taking care of yourself mentally, by forcing your brain to recognize the gratitude in your life, to keep practicing it, to brainstorm the gifts that you never realized that you had.
If you neglect one of these areas then it will compromise your recovery. You might even relapse (or die) as a result of letting one of these areas completely slide. This is what happened to my friend in recovery who stopped taking care of himself physically.
So you have to practice these themes every day. They are all themes of greater health. Of improving your health.
Think about it:
When you quit drinking and using drugs, you made a decision to improve your health. That is the whole point of quitting, right? Addiction is unhealthy. We quit our addictions to improve our health.
So why stop there? If you want to hang on to sobriety, you need to continue the trend. Quit drinking, and then seek other ways to improve your health.
After you stop drinking you say to yourself “OK, that is good. I stopped drinking and I am healthier now for it.”
But if you happen to get down on yourself, there is not necessarily a lot of protection against relapse unless you build that protection up.
How do you do that?
By improving your life and improving your health. Every day.
If you practice this every day and are constantly taking positive action then eventually it will lead to these “walls of protection.”
Any recovering alcoholic can relapse. I realize this is true. But today I have built some walls of protection. So it may be possible that I might relapse in the future, no one really knows and I don’t know what the future will bring for sure. But I can tell you this with confidence: I will not relapse today. I know this because I have built these walls of protection from doing the daily practice. From pursuing holistic health. I have improved my life and my health a great deal and–just for today–I am not going to throw away my sobriety for anything.
So you have to ask yourself, what am I doing today to build up these walls of protection? What am I doing today that will help to prevent relapse in the future?
You could exercise. Get good sleep. Write out a gratitude list. Join a supportive community. Or do all sorts of different things that you consider to be “positive action.”
Or you can ask for help. Take suggestions from others who are sober. Ask them what works for them. Then follow through and take action based on their suggestions.
There is no insurance in the distant future that anyone will be sober. This is because any recovering alcoholic could suddenly stop “doing the work.” They could potentially stop doing the daily practice. They could stop taking positive action.
Will they relapse tomorrow? Probably not.
Next week? Probably not.
Within the next few years? Almost certainly, if they have stopped “doing the work.”
And what does it mean to do the work?
You find what works for you and then you turn it into a daily practice. For some people this means going to AA meetings every day. For others (like me) it means following a more holistic approach where they try to take care of themselves in many different ways.
Of course, you have to be honest about what really works for you and what does not. If AA meetings are working well for you then, by all means, keep going to them. You can always expand your daily practice while still attending AA. My message here is not anti-program, rather, it is pro-holistic approach. The programs are tools. Use them as you see fit, but do not be constrained by them. Recovery is bigger than any single recovery program, be it AA or anything else.
A word about complacency
The final hurdle in long term sobriety is complacency.
This is when we get lazy. When we stop “doing the work.”
My belief is that you need a strategy to combat this problem. Or you can stick to traditional recovery and actually participate and get heavily involved. From my observations that seems to work pretty well, but you have to actually be doing the work (chairing meetings, sponsoring newcomers, etc.).
The alternative can be a much more individual path if you prefer, but it still involves work. And that means the daily practice. It means taking positive action every day to improve yourself and your life. Of course you can still kick your feet up at times and take a rest, but you can’t do this forever. If you try to kick your feet up permanently then you will eventually relapse. Again, this won’t happen tomorrow or even next week, but it will happen eventually if you are not taking action.
When I first got into recovery I was hearing a certain message from the people who were trying to help me. That message seemed to be saying “if you try to recover on your own you will eventually fail.” I did not accept that message and therefore I tested out the assumption for myself.
What I learned is that you can recover “on your own” in long term sobriety, but you still have to take action and do the work. I also noticed that some people in traditional recovery programs would relapse, and it was always because they were not actually doing the work.
Some of us need a program to put the structure in our lives, and others will do much better on their own path. I think in the beginning everyone can benefit from structure, rehab, meetings, and formal programs. But in long term sobriety these things become far less important and sometimes even become complacency traps. Everyone in long term recovery should consider the holistic approach and what they are doing on a daily basis to pursue personal growth.
The holistic approach will work if you actually put it into practice. Cultivating gratitude on a daily basis is a powerful step in the right direction. Anyone who is truly grateful is nearly 100 percent protected from relapse. The problem is that this gratitude has to be generated every day. And it gets easier with regular practice.
The same principle applies to the other areas of your health. Physically sick people are far more likely to relapse. If you have bad relationships or lots of emotional stress then you are far more likely to relapse. So we have to take care of ourselves on all of these levels. And we have to keep doing it over and over again.
Recovery is essentially about reinventing yourself. You are most successful at it when you open to learn new things and experiment to see what works well for you. The holistic approach has many different directions you can grow in and this gives you lots of options for taking positive action.
The results of this are cumulative. Over time, the positive actions that you take every day in recovery will continue to build. You cannot notice the benefits when you have two weeks sober. But you definitely notice the benefits when you have two years sober. This of course assumes that you are taking positive action daily and pursuing better health in all 5 of the key areas.
What about you, have you found the holistic approach to be helpful? Or has it been better for you to focus exclusively on spiritual growth? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!