Every treatment center for addiction falls somewhere along this virtual scale.
At one end of the scale is a strictly spiritual approach. They teach you that the solution is spiritual and that is the whole point of their message. Spiritual, spiritual, spiritual. This is how they try to save you from alcoholism and drug addiction. Find your spiritual path in life.
At the other end of the spectrum is the holistic approach. This is not holistic in the sense that they want you to do acupuncture or get a hot stone massage, but instead it is holistic in the sense that they focus on “the whole person” rather than just the spiritual aspect of recovery.
For example, a treatment center may have classes or groups that address:
* Nutrition and better eating habits.
* Exercise and fitness.
* Emotional balance.
And so on.
Notice that spirituality is included in that list, but the topics that are addressed go far beyond just spiritual growth.
The idea is that addiction affected nearly all areas of your life, and therefore any solution in recovery must also affect all areas of your life.
Addiction is a complex problem and therefore the solution must be holistic
If you attend a thousand AA meetings over the next four years I can assure you that at some point you will hear someone say “The solution is simple.” You will likely hear this more than once, in fact. It is a common theme among people who are speaking at AA or NA meetings.
They want for the solution to be simple. They need for it to be simple. This is a fear based response to their situation. They want to have a solution that is neat and tidy and that they can wrap their head around. This helps the person to feel safe. If the solution is actually complicated and intricate then that feels threatening to them. It is scary. Because then they don’t have a handle on it. If they can convince themselves (and others) that the solution is simple then they feel safer in their recovery.
I do not believe that addiction is simple. I believe it is complicated. It is messy. The root of your addiction may be simple–the thing that drove you to drink or to use drugs. But your life and the way it evolved and the different things that were affected by your drinking or drugging–that is a big tangled up mess. Addiction is messy. It ruins your life like a cancer, eating away at each little part of you. So your relationships suffer. Your physical health deteriorates. You stop exercising. You stop socializing. The disease slowly starts to isolate you. You stop pursuing education and growth. You learn how to “settle.” You lose your inner drive. And on and on and on. All of these different areas of your life are then compromised because of your addiction. Instead of making progress or growth in these areas you are backsliding.
This continues until you become so miserable that you finally surrender and agree to get help. Then you have to get clean and sober and somehow fix your life.
When you first get clean and sober you will notice that you are still somewhat miserable. This is because your addiction has slowly and systematically destroyed everything that you value in life. You must rebuild all of it.
You have to rebuild your physical health.
You may have to rebuild your healthy eating habits.
You may have to tear down other new habits such as cigarette smoking.
You may have to rebuild relationships in your life. Or build new ones from scratch.
You may have to seek out new meaning and purpose. While you were addicted your drug of choice was your higher power. Now you may find a lack of purpose in recovery that needs to be replaced with something.
You may feel bored and unchallenged. So you may need to push yourself to accomplish new things in recovery.
And you may need to do all of these things in recovery in order to avoid relapse.
It is a lot of work and a lot of effort, right? And it is certainly not simple and tidy. You have to make an effort in many different areas of your life.
Definitely not neat and tidy. Definitely not simple and straightforward like they promise you at an AA meeting, when someone says “You see, the solution here at AA is real simple…you just follow these 12 steps and do what you are told and everything works out fine for you.”
I don’t buy that simplicity. I don’t believe it is really simple. I think 12 steps is a bit overwhelming as it is. There is no “simple” path to recovery, because our addiction was a complicated mess. It takes a lot of work in order to fix it all and rebuild your life. It is not easy and it is also not simple. It is complicated and requires effort in many different areas of your life.
Example of a non holistic approach that went badly
I had a good friend that I met in long term rehab. We were both living in a recovery house for long term treatment.
He was a bit older than me and he lived nearby. We hung out a lot together. We talked about recovery all the time.
My approach was to branch out away from AA meetings and to start to incorporate new ideas into my recovery. One of those ideas was distance running. I found it to be physically energizing and also very meditative.
My friend thought that this was foolish. He focused on “the solution,” which for him was to focus on AA and the specific AA brand of spirituality.
I started writing about recovery online. I started making changes to my diet. I made a huge effort over several years to quit smoking cigarettes. Finally I succeeded. It took a whole lot of effort but I was finally able to break free from the cigarettes, while my friend continued to smoke.
Finally he got sick. His heart was failing. The doctors told him that he needed to change his diet and to incorporate more exercise. They also told him that he had to quit smoking immediately.
My friend made a last ditch effort to change all of this stuff. But it was too overwhelming. And he told me that. He said “it is too darn overwhelming to try to quit smoking cigarettes while I am also trying to lose weight and eat healthier and have all this stress from being sick.”
Shortly after saying this he passed away. He was too young for that. And I realized then that the holistic approach was more than just a fancy idea. It really was the healthy path forward in recovery.
And when I think back on this story I realize that it is important to start incorporating these ideas in early recovery.
When I was in my first year of sobriety I was trying hard to quit the cigarettes. I noticed that many people in AA who had significant clean time had also managed to quit smoking. But people who were early in recovery continued to smoke. So I worked really hard at it and it took me a few years but I managed to do it.
I also was advised to exercise. This is another thing that you should start yesterday. Just do it. Let it be a part of your healthy lifestyle. Don’t wait until the doctor is telling you that you should have lost 30 pounds a few decades ago and you would not be in the poor physical health that you are in today.
The holistic approach is not necessarily about how to avoid your next drink. It is more than that. It is about how to enjoy life and be healthy while you are staying sober for the long run.
I don’t believe that the holistic approach to recovery is the perfect solution for someone with 3 days sober. They need to focus. They need hope. They don’t need to be overwhelmed by the idea that they need to make changes in every area of their life.
But during that first year of recovery they need to get with this idea. They need to realize that the solution really is holistic (NOT spiritual). The holistic approach includes spirituality, mind you. It is just bigger than that. It includes more areas of your health. Mental health, emotional, physical, relationships, etc. It is more than just a spiritual approach.
My friend died young because he failed to embrace the holistic path in recovery. Had he quit smoking and become physically active earlier in his recovery I do not think that he would have died. When he became sober he only changed part of his lifestyle. He stopped abusing alcohol and he started pursuing the spiritual path. But he failed to address the rest of his health and the holistic approach could have saved him.
Improving the quality of your life on several different levels
It is very difficult to describe exactly how the holistic approach to living will benefit you until you actually do it.
For example, people were encouraging me to exercise when I was in early recovery.
I found this to be annoying. Why did they want me to exercise? I did not want to do it. I wanted to focus on spirituality, because obviously that was the solution, right? I wanted to focus on AA and the steps and my higher power. And here the therapist at the rehab I as living at was trying to get me to exercise. I was annoyed by this.
I tried to exercise for a while but it was a lame effort. My heart was not in it. So I gave up after a while and I moved on with my recovery in other ways.
A year or two later I came back to the exercise idea again. Now my sponsor and also my friends and family were encouraging me to exercise. People kept suggesting it to me so there had to be something valid there. Finally I started running on a regular basis with my dad.
This changed my life. I fell into the habit of running and then I built up the distance that I went. Eventually I was running between 25 and 40 miles per week. During my whole life I had never been into exercise and I never found it to be appealing in any way. I always hated running. But something finally clicked and now my whole life changed.
When people were telling me to get into exercise I could not understand the benefits of it. They might try to tell me some things such as “well you will feel better if you exercise” but I did not really believe them or care about it. But then once things “clicked” and I fell into this habit of distance running I started to enjoy massive benefits from running.
It changed so many aspects of my life that I truly feel it is the main pillar of my recovery today. For me, the benefits of distance running include:
* Feeling better about myself on a daily basis, even when I am not running.
* Having more energy and the ability to take on physical or mental tasks due to extra endurance.
* Sleeping better due to consistent physical workouts.
* Eating better because I put better fuel in my body for long runs.
* More confidence. Knowing that I can tackle difficult tasks and endure.
* More emotionally stable. Running for a full hour several times per week is great meditation. I run outdoors without headphones.
Now here is the key:
Running has worked out great for me but I am not suggesting that everyone needs to go out and try distance running. It is certainly not for everyone.
But I had to be open enough to experiment and try new things in my recovery.
I almost missed out on this one entirely, because I could not see the benefits of it.
I had to dive in first and actually do it myself.
The holistic life is something that you experience. It changes you. So you can’t just theorize about it and say “oh, well, it’s just not for me.”
That doesn’t wash. You are fooling yourself. You are in denial.
You don’t get to predict how the holistic approach may affect you, because you simply don’t know.
You have to dive in and try these things. You have to push yourself to take suggestions from others and push yourself to make positive changes.
Maybe you will change your diet and find that it has a really huge impact. Maybe that will be the key that unlocks huge progress for you in recovery.
Remember that “holistic” just means “whole.” When we talk about the holistic approach to recovery, we are just talking about treating the “whole” person. Physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. If you are neglecting one area then you might want to make an effort to address it at some point. You may find that you were missing out on something really amazing (much like I was in early recovery when I was neglecting exercise).
What is “synergy?” It sounds like a stupid buzzword. But it is actually a very neat concept that will affect you in recovery.
Synergy is a good thing. It is what happens when you start making positive changes in various areas of your life.
This is why the holistic approach cannot be accurately described or predicted. Because you do not know exactly how the positive actions are going to interact and play off of each other.
Let me give you an example from my own recovery.
I had several goals in my recovery. Some of these goals were:
* Stay clean and sober from drugs and alcohol.
* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Start a business and quit my job.
* Run a marathon.
Now in all reality I had a few other goals as well that are not listed here. But the goals that I listed out here were ones that I achieved, and they also played a role in bringing about the success of all the goals.
These goals of mine worked together. They had a synergistic effect on each other.
This is how positive action works in recovery.
I tried to quit smoking for a long time. I kept failing at it.
Finally I started running. I was running six miles per day and I was still smoking cigarettes. This did not last long though. I was finally able to quit smoking because I was replacing that “high” with the distance running.
Later on in my journey I was able to build up my running and I ran a marathon. This was crazy! I did not think that I could ever run that far.
So my confidence grew. And I realized that if I could overcome cigarettes, and if I could run a marathon, then I could probably do just about anything that I focused really hard on.
I learned more from quitting the cigarettes than I did from running the marathon. Perhaps this is because I quit smoking first. I realized in that moment that I could do things, I could accomplish stuff, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted in life. And now I knew how hard to push. Now that I had successfully quit smoking cigarettes, I knew exactly how hard I had to try when I was facing a new challenge.
You had to try real hard. This is what quitting smoking taught me. You have to give it 100 percent effort. But now I understood just how hard that push was. Now I had a frame of reference for how dedicated I had to be to reach a tough goal.
This opened up my world. Now I could target a new goal and I knew that I could achieve it.
And thus my goals started working together. They started to enhance each other. Quitting smoking gave me the confidence to tackle a marathon. Completing a marathon gave me the confidence to build a business. I knew how hard I had to push. I knew what it meant to be disciplined. Achieving each successive goal taught me a new level of discipline. Each goal set me up for the next challenge. Each success equipped me to take on another goal in life.
This is how you build success in recovery. Find a series of goals that aligns with each other. Push to make positive changes.
The accumulation of benefits over time
If you live in the way described above then over time you will start to accumulate benefits in your life.
This is the reward that the holistic approach in recovery gives you. It is the reward of a life well lived. This is why they say in recovery “it gets greater, later.”
It takes time for the benefits of recovery to fully kick in. It takes time for the holistic approach to make a significant difference in your life.
There is a quicker way but it is less effective in the long run. That way is to focus narrowly on one area of growth (such as spirituality). If you focus like this then you will experience much quicker growth in early recovery, but then your efforts will not reward you as much in the end. This is because you will miss out on “synergy,” where all of your goals come together and enhance each other.
When you have different goals in multiple areas of your life then you are in alignment. When your goals all work towards greater health then you are in alignment. This is how to accumulate massive benefits down the road. Only a holistic approach will produce this most positive outcome. By considering your entire life you open up the possibilities for massive growth.