Your recovery from any addiction is actually an extension of a greater goal: that of improved health.
Think about it for a moment:
You don’t just decide “oh, I guess I will get clean and sober for no good reason.” There is a motivation to sober up, and it has to do with your health.
You are really making a decision to move towards better health. You are “choosing life” rather than the path towards chaos, sickness, and death.
This is how we frame the decision to surrender to our disease in some cases. We don’t necessarily think about our health when we choose to get sober, but really that is one of the main motivations for doing what we do. We are trying to prevent our addiction from flat out killing us. We are choosing a healthier path.
But what happens after we have already made this initial decision to surrender, and we are now living in addiction recovery, struggling every day to maintain our sobriety and make the kind of decisions that will strengthen our recovery? How does our overall health play into that scenario, and what do we need to be aware of?
Let’s dig deeper into the connection between your holistic health and your ongoing sobriety.
Why holistic health?
When we talk about “holistic” health I don’t want you to be suspicious of that word at all. “Holistic” just means “whole” in this case. We are not necessarily talking about hot stone treatments or anything here (though that may be helpful to some people!). What we are talking about is the idea that your health is not just one dimensional. We are not talking about just avoiding the flu and staying alive in general. We are talking about all aspects of a human being’s health, including things such as:
* Physical health and avoiding major illnesses.
* Mental health.
* Emotional health and stability.
* Social health, not being isolated.
* Spiritual health and the connection with a higher power.
* Financial health (and the lack of stress that may come from that).
And so on. There may even be more dimensions than what is listed out here that you may consider at one point.
Now you may be asking yourself:
“Why bother to think about all of this stuff? Why not just focus on staying clean and sober, and avoiding alcohol and addictive drugs? Isn’t that the point?”
That would be a really good question. The fact is that it is mostly an issue of timing. Your question would be a valid one, because in the early days of recovery it is probably most helpful to ignore the idea of holistic health for a while just to focus on maintaining sobriety. You must learn to crawl before you can walk (sort of thing). Master the basics of simply not using your drug of choice every day until you start trying to branch out and take on the whole world with this holistic health stuff.
But in time, you eventually do need to branch out and start exploring growth in these areas. “Ah! Growth!” you say. Yes, this is about personal growth. The idea is that holistic health is really just a framework in which personal growth can occur. These are lines along which you may grow in recovery. In the big book of AA, it talks about “growing along spiritual lines.” My theory is that this is far too limiting, and we need to expand that “spiritual line” to also include lines such as emotional health, mental health, social health, and so on. Thus the term “holistic.” We don’t just want to consider the spiritual aspect of recovery, that is far too limiting and restrictive. Instead we want to consider a holistic approach to recovery because it encompasses growth in far more areas.
In my experience, people who have been clean and sober for many years are no longer so narrowly focused. If you really talk to someone who has ten, fifteen, twenty years sober they will reveal that their approach to recovery has widened a great deal over time. This is what I have found anyway. At first, when I was very early in my recovery, I felt betrayed by this a little because I had truly believed that the ultimate answer to recovery was an extreme focus on the 12 step program as the solution. It felt like a betrayal that an old timer in recovery would not focus heavily on AA, and had actually branched out in their recovery a great deal. For example, my sponsor’s sponsor only went to one 12 step meeting each week, and was doing other things in his life like going to church and working with people outside of AA and things like that. I was taken aback when I learned this because I could not believe that someone with so much clean time had strayed so far from the daily grind of meetings. My assumption was that you had to focus narrowly on your recovery solution forever in order to maintain sobriety. I had no idea at that time about the concept of holistic health, or that someone might have a holistic approach to recovery that might involve more than one solution.
Using health as a platform for personal growth projects
When I look back at my recovery, I can see the progression of growth that I made. It is measured in terms of actions that I took and things that I did in my life. What is amazing to look back and see now is that nearly every positive change that I made was really a decision to improve my overall health in recovery.
For example, when I was still very early in my recovery I was encouraged by many people to go back to school. Well, this is really part of holistic health in my opinion. Educating yourself further is a step towards greater mental and emotional health.
I was also encouraged by many people to start exercising in some form. So at some point I picked up the exercise habit and it finally stuck for me. Again, this was most definitely a decision towards greater health, and one that strengthened my recovery a great deal.
No one had to tell me to quit smoking cigarettes, I knew full well that I needed to do that at the time. But I struggled with it for a few years in my recovery before I was able to kick the habit. But again, this was definitely one of the biggest steps in my personal growth, and it was definitely a move towards greater health.
If you are asking yourself “how can I improve my life in recovery by making a positive change?” then you are almost certainly asking yourself “how can I improve my holistic health?” They tend to point to the same sort of actions.
This is why improving your holistic health and recovery go hand in hand. If you focus on making positive changes to improving your holistic health, you will invariably strengthen your recovery from addiction by doing so.
How recovery is a decision to improve self esteem
When you make the decision to get clean and sober, you are really deciding to improve your self esteem. This means that you are going to start making positive choices in life. You would not get clean and sober only to throw your life away due to some other sort of negativity, right? Your decision for sobriety sort of implies that you want to start living a better life in general. It is not just about leaving the drugs and the alcohol behind. You are seeking a better path in life. You are looking for a better way to live, one that is rewarding and fulfilling.
We do this because we had been looking for fulfillment from our drug of choice and it remained elusive. We thought we had it for a short while and then we chased it for years only to be disappointed over and over again. So it is no surprise that we are on a quest for self esteem in addiction recovery. We don’t just want to be free from drugs and alcohol, we want to feel better about ourselves and have a reason to love our life.
The pursuit of holistic health becomes like a feedback loop. Once you are improving your health in recovery and making positive changes, you will start to feel better about yourself as a person. Once this happens, guess what? You will be even more motivated to make positive changes in your life! This is why I always say that “success breeds success,” and this definitely applies in the world of addiction recovery. If you are doing well in recovery then it gives you opportunities and a platform to do even better things with your life.
You can’t choose to embrace recovery and then also decide that you want to feel worse about yourself as a person, or that you want to beat yourself up, or that you want to feel down about yourself. They don’t go together, at all. They are not compatible in the long run. You will have to choose one or the other. Recovery is a decision to be positive, to make positive changes, to take a positive attitude. If you never build any healthy self esteem in your life then you are always going to be vulnerable to relapse. On the other hand, building up positive self esteem is what protects you from the threat of relapse.
For example, I can make it through this day right now without relapsing based on my current self esteem. I feel good enough about myself right now that–pretty much no matter what happens today–I am confident that I will be able to weather the storm without taking a drink or a drug. I don’t know what the future will bring and I realize that a series of tough events can indeed unravel a person’s self esteem (if enough bad and unlucky things happen in a row). But just for today I am not getting knocked off of my square. Not fully, anyway. I may walk into some serious chaos latter and I may have to deal with some really wild stuff but I am holding firm in my sobriety based on my current level of self esteem.
This “square I am standing on” is really my level of self esteem, it is a measure of how much I love my sobriety and myself in recovery. It is a measure of how far I will go to protect my sanity and my sobriety today. And this platform was not built in a single day. It was built over time, and I don’t necessarily think that the number of years or months seriously matters in this case. What matters is the positive changes that I have made in my life. So about eight years ago I quit smoking cigarettes during my recovery, and that is part of what is keeping me clean and sober today. I don’t want to throw that progress away. It took a lot of struggle and effort to put down the cigarettes, and I was darn proud of that accomplishment.
But quitting smoking is not what is keeping me clean and sober today. That accomplishment is just one tiny sliver of what is contributing to my overall self esteem in recovery. In order to get a real glimpse at that platform that I am standing on (the square that addiction would try to knock me off of!) we would have to add up all of my positive changes that I have made over the years. We would have to consider all of the positive changes to my holistic health.
I know full well what comes along with a relapse. It is not just a drink of alcohol or a simple drug. It is a whole lifestyle that comes along with it. I know that I would return to smoking cigarettes. I know that I would stop exercising. I know that my other areas of health would suffer greatly as well.
So it is not just a question of “do I want to take a drink or a drug right now?” Because of the work that I have done in my recovery, because of the efforts that I have made in terms of holistic health, the question becomes:
“Do I want to throw away everything I have worked for, including all of the health gains I have made?”
If you make the decision to pursue greater health in recovery, then it helps to protect you from relapse in the future.
How to increase your self esteem when starting from zero
One of the problems that happens in very early recovery is that you will often times have zero self esteem. You are starting from nothing, from scratch, with no real incentive to make positive changes. How can you get a break in recovery if you don’t even feel good enough about yourself to care about the outcome of your own life?
I have to admit that I felt this way in my early recovery. I honestly did not care much what happened to me because I was so miserable from my addiction. And I had sort of given up hope on everything because I really believed that recovery was probably impossible for me. I think this is a pretty typical state of mind for people entering recovery as well, and it sort of goes along with the state of true surrender. It is not a state that is filled with lots of hope. Instead, it is more like a state of total despair. You have given up on trying to control your drug of choice, but in order to do that you sort of have to give up on everything. You stop caring in general. That was how it was for me anyway.
So even though I did not really care so much I was still willing to go through the motions and ask for help. This was the lucky part that eventually led me to success. I was lucky enough to have asked for help, and then taken some direction.
Because therein lies the secret: if you cannot build your own self esteem, other people will tell you how to do it.
Of course our ego gets in the way of this if we are not in a state of full surrender. That is how you can tell when you are probably not ready to quit using drugs and alcohol yet: you won’t listen to other people’s advice. If that is the case, don’t beat yourself up. We have all been there, and many people never get past that stage at all.
But eventually you may get to the point where you are so miserable that you can no longer stand it, and you don’t care what happens any more, you just want the pain and suffering and chaos of your life to subside. The key is that you must want for this to go away at nearly any cost. You have to abandon your self in a way and stop caring, but still want the suffering to end. This is a pretty accurate description of the moment of surrender. If you have arrived there, then you a ready to start rebuilding your self esteem from scratch. Ask for help, ask for treatment, ask for detox and rehab.
If you simply ask someone that you trust for help and then follow their direction, your life will start getting better. This happens slowly at first, but then later on in your recovery you will be amazed at how quickly your life transforms. The key is to maintain your state of surrender for long enough to be able to take the suggestions and follow through with the advice you are given.
If you do this you will be amazed at how it actually does build your self esteem. Just by taking positive actions and doing the right thing (even at the direction of other people) you will slowly start to feel better about yourself. This is because you will realize that even if you are simply taking the advice and following the direction of other people, that ultimately you are still in charge of your decisions and you still deserve the credit for any actions that you take. You will intuitively realize this and feel better about yourself, regardless of who is telling you how to live.
In other words, living right will make you feel better. Even if you are in a controlled environment and being told what to do (like rehab).
Some ideas for working on your own holistic health
If you are seeking to improve your own holistic health, there are a number of suggestions that you might take:
* Start with addictions. Are you free of drug and alcohol addictions? What about “secondary” addictions such as nicotine or gambling? These are your main priority to eliminate because they have a lot of destructive power. Your step towards a healthier “you” has to start by eliminating all addictions (I draw the line at caffeine because the recent studies are arguing about health benefits there, so that one could go either way….other than that, I think we know what destructive addictions include!).
* Consider physical health. Things like disease, illnesses, injuries. Also consider nutrition and fitness when you consider physical health. In my own experience, regular exercise has proven to be one of the cornerstones of my recovery. I would no sooner go without exercise as many traditional people in recovery would go without AA meetings.
* Consider emotional balance. This may be more difficult to address directly but if you have emotional turmoil in your life then you definitely need to address it. It is part of your overall health and may even spill into and affect other areas of your health (like physical health).
* Consider spirituality. If you are in traditional recovery (such as AA or NA) then this will by your primary focus anyway. If not, you may do well to explore a spiritual path and seek deeper meaning in your life.
* Consider financial health. This may seem strange and out of place but after working in a rehab for 5+ years and talking with countless folks who have relapsed, I really believe that this is an important part of becoming stress-free. Many people who have relapsed complain of money problems. Probably an issue worth addressing at least.
What about you, what do you do to improve your holistic health? Let us know in the comments!