How Fear and Anxiety Keeps People Stuck in Recovery
Fear can keep people stuck in their recovery from addiction, and this can prevent them from realizing their full potential and making all sorts of personal growth.
Obviously, this is an outcome that we want to avoid. In order to fully realize your potential in recovery, you are going to have to overcome fear and learn how to really live.
We have already seen the one thing that is most important for success in recovery, and it turns out that this is a strong personal commitment to recovery and to abstinence. The danger in this commitment lies in the idea that you might become so paralyzed with fear that you fail to act at all, and in doing so start to erode your path to success.
Recovery requires change. In fact, it requires massive change. Standing still or staying put in your recovery is generally a recipe for disaster. If you are not making positive growth in your recovery then it is almost certain that you are sliding slowly towards a relapse. So the last thing that you want to have happen is for you to get so paralyzed with fear that you stop taking action altogether, stop moving towards positive changes, and try to cling to what little success you may have thus far.
How fear was holding me back in early recovery
I was definitely being held back by my own fears in early recovery.
What this did was to act as a slow brake on my forward progress. Goals and positive changes that I would eventually make were delayed because of my fear of relapse.
For starters, my biggest fear in recovery kept me from getting clean and sober in the first place. I was terrified of facing life without drugs and alcohol and I was also terrified of the idea of sitting in AA meetings. After having some brief exposure to rehab and the recovery process I let these fears keep me stuck in my active addiction for a long time. Several years I continued to use my drug of choice rather than to face the idea that I needed to make serious changes in my life. More than anything, it was fear that held me back from surrender.
At some point I became miserable enough that my fear was overcome. I was so miserable in my drug and alcohol addiction that I no longer cared so much about my fears and worries about sobriety and recovery. I was scared of AA meetings and speaking in front of others–so what? It was either that or death by alcoholism, at some point. The crushing fear was finally being edged out by a lifetime of accumulated misery due to the disease of addiction. At some point you start to care less, then you don’t care at all. Life (and the threat of death) become meaningless in the face of overwhelming misery from the endless cycle of addiction. You reach a point where you clearly see the futility of it all, that it is never going to get any better, that you will always be chasing the buzz and never really enjoying it, and you start to get hopeless.
Up until this point of surrender, fear had been holding me back from making the leap into sobriety. I was not willing to face the fear of sitting in AA meetings, nor was I willing to face the fear of going in to rehab and detox and facing life without drugs and alcohol. Both things scared me to death and so I preferred to keep my head in the sand and just stay in denial and continue to self medicate with my drug of choice.
In early recovery fear was keeping me from realizing my full potential because I was terrified to venture out and try new things. I moved into long term rehab and I was attending in-house meetings every day. The guys I lived with in the recovery home were willing to take me with them to outside meetings, and I was actually scared to go with them! They forced me to go with them, of course, but you can see just how much fear I was dealing with at the time, wanting to stay safely tucked away in rehab and avoid all exposure to the real world.
Later on while I was living in long term treatment, my therapist started making some suggestions for me that exposed even more fear. He was urging me to go back to college and to start exercising. At the time, I really thought that I needed to focus on “the basics of recovery” and focus on working through the steps with a sponsor and so on.
Instead, my therapist was trying to guide me to a path of positive growth, and I was too scared to embrace it. I was too afraid of relapse to venture out and start making positive changes that were not directly related to my recovery. I did not understand that this was actually the most powerful form of long term relapse prevention, to make these sort of positive growth experiences in your life.
Instead I was focusing on the fear mongering that I heard in AA and NA meetings every day: “You better keep coming to these meetings every day and you better get a sponsor and work the steps and you better be studying this big book because if you do not do these things then you are surely going to relapse and die.”
That is the basic message that I heard over and over again in the meetings and looking back I can see that this is clearly a fear based message. The people who said such things in 12 step meetings were actually trying to convince themselves that if they just stuck to their program that they would be OK and avoid relapse. They projected this fear on to other people under the guise of pretending to warn them about relapse. Instead what they were really doing is trying to assuage their own fears about relapse, and convince themselves that if they stick to the 12 step guidelines that they were going to beat the odds and avoid relapse.
Ultimately I think this sort of fear-based thinking is unhealthy, and one of the main reasons is because it holds us back from making positive changes. It turned out that in my life and in my recovery, holistic growth that branched out away from the core of AA and NA was to become a huge part of my recovery, and has sustained me for over a decade now, while I know dozens of people who stayed stuck in their fear who eventually relapsed over the years.
How the fear of relapse kept me from pursuing holistic growth
As I said, early in my recovery I was scared of deviating from the basics of recovery. I wanted to go to meetings every day, work the steps, study the big book, and hopefully avoid relapse. That was my narrow-minded vision of success.
My sponsor had the vision and the foresight to try to push me into a path of positive changes. Instead of harping on the steps and the big book he pushed me to go back to college and to start exercising.
As I said, I resisted these changes at first. I did not grasp the idea that holistic health and positive changes like this could actually benefit me in recovery. I did not believe that going back to college, quitting smoking, or forming an exercise habit could be part of relapse prevention.
Now that I have lived through over a decade of continuous sobriety I can look back and clearly see that my growth in recovery and my success is based on a holistic approach of personal growth. I originally thought that it was all about AA and NA, working the steps, attending daily meetings, working with sponsor, and so on. I thought that these “basics of recovery” were the whole solution and that I was going to have to cling tightly to those ideas for the remainder of my recovery.
What actually happened was that at about 18 months sober I started to drift away from that path. Fear slowed me down in making the transition to a holistic path of growth, but I did it anyway. I made this transition because the old ideas were no longer serving me. Sitting in meetings every day was not my path to success. I was hearing the same things over and over again and I needed some other form of positive growth in my life.
So around the 18 month mark in my recovery I drifted away from meetings and quickly stopped studying the 12 step program so rigorously. In fact, within another year from that point I was forging my own path in recovery and was no longer relying on the ideas of the 12 step program at all. Instead I was designing my own journey of personal growth in recovery and I was basing it on the ideas of holistic growth.
How fear kept me from discovering a new path to recovery
At this point in my recovery journey I was absolutely terrified of leaving the AA community and then relapsing. The reason that I was so scared of doing this was for two reasons:
1) I did not want to relapse and die.
2) I did not want to look stupid, as someone who left AA and then screwed up, only to return and say “I was a fool to have left,” etc.
So both of these things was keeping me from pursing this new path in recovery.
But the fact is that this new path in recovery kept calling me. I forced myself to go to AA and NA meetings and sit through them, but all the while I was angry because I was not getting much out of the meetings and I could have been doing other things. What kind of things? Stuff like:
* Building a recovery community online, where a growing demand was presenting me with an opportunity.
* Spending time with my family.
* Working on my college degree.
* Going to work (and working directly with other struggling addicts and alcoholics).
* Exercising (which turned out to be one of the most important pillars of my recovery journey, and still is to this day).
* Building a successful business.
These things make up (for me anyway) a successful holistic approach to life in recovery. Going to a meeting every single day was not serving me, because it simply ate into too much time and took away from my true path in recovery. My sponsor used to argue that a meeting was only an hour per day, and was not much of a time commitment. Today I can look back and see the real truth: going to one meeting each day for eternity is a HUGE time commitment, especially when you realize that this comes out of your ever-shrinking pool of “discretionary time.”
I knew that this new path of personal growth that I was embracing was the right path for me. But fear held me back from embracing it fully for several months, because I was so afraid that I would fail and that I would relapse.
It was amazing how long I held on to this fear of failure, this fear of relapse. Even after I had passed the “point of no return” and was committed fully to the this new path in my life, I still could tell that this fear lingered on and made me have negative feelings. One of those feelings was guilt over having left the 12 step program. And of course, I was still fearful that I would relapse and fulfill the prophecy of nearly every fear monger in AA and NA that states you will relapse and die if you leave the 12 step program.
At some point though I made a decision. Things were going so well in my recovery journey and I was making so much personal growth in my life that I could not justify hanging on to this ridiculous fear any longer. I can remember my thought process clearly enough, it basically went like this:
“I know I am defying conventional wisdom by leaving the 12 step program and that I am taking a huge risk, but I am going to do it anyway. Staying stuck in AA and becoming stagnant is a risk too. I am going to push myself hard to make personal growth outside of AA and if I fail, I will have tried my hardest. Therefore I am leaving AA in spite of massive amounts of advice against it.”
And so I made this decision that I was going to let go of the fear and simply push myself to achieve personal growth in my own way. I would deal with the naysayers and the fear mongers as best I could.
Over ten years later I am still clean and sober in my recovery, and I have achieved some pretty amazing things. Meanwhile, many of the fear mongers who tried to convince me to come back to meetings have since relapsed (not all of them have, but some of them did).
At some point my fear disappeared entirely and I became confident in what I was doing and the path that I was on. Weeks stretched into months and months stretched into years. In the meantime I saw many, many people following a more “traditional” path in recovery relapse. I was slowly building more and more faith in the path of holistic growth in recovery.
How to overcome your fear and develop confidence in your recovery
The way to overcome your fear in recovery is to face it and focus on positive results.
This can be tricky because there is some truth to every worry, and there is always going to be some level of validation with every fear that you have. We are not stupid people! So it is not like our fears are completely irrational. For example, many people who do leave the 12 step program do, in fact, end up relapsing. If this were not true then I would not have had such a huge fear about breaking away from traditional recovery.
Most of us have at least heard of the infamous book “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.” Ultimately this is the answer that I never wanted to embrace throughout my whole life and even into my recovery itself. I wanted to learn that there was an easy, softer way that allowed me to hide from my fear and just avoid it somehow.
The truth is that I did not make real progress until I faced my fear head on with no regrets. When I finally drew the line in the sand for myself and said “OK, I am leaving the meetings, and I am going to push myself to maintain personal growth, and if I fail, then so be it. I accept those consequences fully but I am not going to live this life of fear and regret and feel forced to sit through these meetings that are not serving me well.” It was in facing the fear head on that allowed me to finally be free of the constant worry, of the thoughts that I might relapse and die, of the constant worry that everyone in AA is actually right and that if I stop going to meetings I will relapse and die. I finally let go of all of that and focused on my positive path in recovery and told myself that it was time to sink or swim.
I had been living with one foot in each world. I was a person split half in two. One part of me was hanging on to the daily meetings, going sporadically, and feeling guilty when I did not attend for a few days. The other half of me resented the meetings because they were a terrible use of my time in recovery, and I had so much more opportunity for positive growth outside of traditional AA.
And I so for a long time I tried to serve both worlds. I tried to keep one foot in each arena. I was too afraid to completely leave one world behind and step fully into the world of holistic health and personal growth. The solution for me was to finally realize that I was compromised and that I was pulling myself in two directions. I had to take a stand and choose one path or the other.
And to be honest I really did give the 12 step path a fair shot. My fear forced me to do this, to analyze the possibility that I was completely wrong about my new path in holistic growth, and that I would possibly be better off to just forget about my own ideas for long term sobriety and to just go back to AA with full force and start following traditional recovery again. I even attempted to do this at one point, to revert fully to the path of “traditional recovery” and meetings, but my conscious just would not let me. I found myself sitting in a AA meeting, resenting the fact that I was wasting my time just to serve the fear, to serve conventional wisdom, to keep all of the fear mongers happy that were worried that I would relapse and die if I stopped attending meetings. I was stuck in a meeting, resenting the situation, and I said to myself
“This is nuts. I am not going to follow this false path. It is not the right path for me. I am not going to sit in these meetings for the rest of my life and resent them.”
And so I faced my fear and I left the meetings and I pushed myself to find an alternative path in recovery.
And this is how you conquer your fears in life, and in recovery. You face them and confront them as directly as possible.
Personal growth is the result.