The Creative Theory of recovery is evolving a bit, which is a good thing I believe. Rather, this system for staying clean and sober is not necessarily changing–as the same principles and concepts of sobriety are timeless (in my estimation). What is evolving is my understanding of those concepts and my ability to communicate them. Also I am going to use a number of articles here on Spiritual River to attempt to further define what the entire philosophy of recovery actually is.
For example, look at the social aspect of traditional programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Regular meeting attendance is part of the 12 step model and it some people really like attending meetings while others do not get as much out of them. There is definitely a social element to the 12 step recovery program because of the meetings (also because of sponsorship and 12 step work, which both create more interaction and relationships). Given all of these social elements, would we say that any complete philosophy of recovery would have to address the social angle to some degree? In other words, should every recovery effort for every individual have some amount of social interaction in it? What should we be telling struggling addicts–that they should try to embrace this social element in recovery? Is that more important than, say, the commitment to remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol at all costs? How do we prioritize such ideas? In order to do so we need to explore a complete system of recovery. We need to develop a full philosophy of recovery, one that can be explored, tested, argued, and improved.
Really this is all I have been doing myself, is testing my own ideas with my own recovery over the years. I felt that the 12 step program was not a good fit for me and so I struck out on my own to try to create my own recovery program, just for myself. In doing so I discovered a path of success (sober now for 12 years+) and I have shared some of these ideas here on Spiritual River. But the idea is that in order to have a meaningful discussion about recovery we need to get more in depth, more specific, and be able to say what is working and what is not.
In other words, my ideas about creative recovery are only useful if they can help other people. If it only helps myself then it still has value, but then the message must change significantly. For example, one way to present the Creative Theory of addiction is to say:
1) “Look here, I was a struggling addict and alcoholic, now I am clean and sober today and living an awesome life. Here is what I did and here is what I continue to do. You should do the same things so that you can get sober and have a better life.”
2) “Look here, I was a struggling addict and alcoholic and now I am clean and sober today. Here is how I was able to discover a new path for myself. Your path will certainly be different, but here is how you go about discovering it.”
Another example to help illustrate what I am getting at here:
Part of my success in recovery is based on exercise. For many years in my journey I did not exercise at all, then suddenly I discovered distance running and my life was transformed for the better. My recovery improved significantly as a result of regular exercise. In periods of injury when I could not run, I noticed that my recovery feels a lot worse–it gets worse, I am not as happy or effective at making positive changes. This discovery was a really big deal for me and it has had a huge impact on my success in sobriety. However…..
Does that mean that exercise is a critical part of every person’s recovery? Or that it should be? Does that mean that if someone is struggling with sobriety, that one of the suggestions should be that they exercise more? Just because it had such a profound effect on my own recovery?
I don’t think that you can answer these types of questions easily unless you have more data. My own experience is just one data point and that is not enough to support an entire program of recovery. Perhaps I am just a very odd duck, after all! On the other hand, maybe a lot of my ideas really work well for other people and help them to stay clean and sober. If that is the case then at some point we should be able to whittle the data down and find what is truly important. Find the universal principles. Maybe the social element of recovery will be found to be truly important some day, and the fact that I am not “12 step meeting dependent” is a bit of an outlier. Or maybe some day they will do enough studies to prove that exercise is actually really effective for nearly everyone in recovery….or that it is almost totally worthless and only helps 1 out of a 100 people. Who knows. The point is, most of the stuff has not been thoroughly tested. The field of addiction recovery is still quite young compared to most other fields. We still know very little about addiction (though we are definitely studying it more and more now).
But for all of the studies that they are doing about addiction, we seem to gain very few insights into what can help to keep us clean and sober. They are studying addiction more and more, they are studying the brain and the minds of people who are addicted and figuring out what chemicals are triggered and what actually happens, but this is not (yet) producing real insight into how we can change recovery itself. It would be nice if all of this medical science could suddenly invent a miracle cure for addiction, but this is seeming less and less likely as they collect more and more data.
We need a complete philosophy of addiction recovery
Because the study of addiction and recovery is so young (only a matter of decades really) I feel like we need to make an effort to map out the solution. Right now we really only have a few models of recovery, the most popular one being the 12 step model. There are some other models of course (one of them being religious based recovery) but these do not get nearly as much exposure as the 12 step program.
It may also be the case that in trying to develop and refine a “complete philosophy of recovery” that we discover it is an impossible task. That is, the best we can do is to try to help struggling addicts with the somewhat clunky approach of modern 12 step recovery–where there are so many suggestions made that you could not possibly follow them all even if you wanted to. Perhaps we cannot whittle it down and find the core principles that can truly help anyone. Perhaps there will always be a need for diverse and unique approaches to recovery, and that we will never be able to get significantly better treatment than what currently exists (and thus our success rates in treating addiction will remain miserably low as well).
I think it is important to try though. I think it is important to explore this idea and start trying to collect data, to refine what works. I am talking about medical science and medical studies here. We need to keep experimenting and then study the data and figure out what is truly useful for recovery. It is only then that we can take a giant step back from all of these recovery models and say “OK, here are the core principles of recovery that apply to everyone. Here are 3 sets of secondary principles that each individual might lean towards (maybe it is social/meetings, exercise/fitness, and religion/spirituality). Here are the percentages of how likely each path might be based on our data. Here is the rate of effectiveness for each path. And so on.
I am not suggesting that my own ideas are the only path to recovery, because I can clearly see that this is not true. Others follow very different paths from mine and still manage to find long term sobriety. But I think it would be nice to try to document the entire solution and then start figuring out what applies to most people, what is optional, and what the various choices really are. Then we could present it all as a total philosophy of recovery, with all of the models being clearly presented.
Right now if you try to get clean and sober you will likely be presented with a single path to recovery (which may or may not work for you). Judging by the success rates this is either an unsolvable problem or we are just really bad at giving people choices. Some treatment centers are advanced enough to present more than one recovery model, and that is certainly a good start. But I still feel like we need more data and a complete theory of recovery that we can then refine.
I am not saying that having a complete recovery philosophy can solve everyone’s problems or that it can cure addiction. It would just be a starting point so that we can start shooting it down, refining it more and more, getting closer and closer to the core principles of recovery and the real truth. Our mission is obviously to help people; to help them recover. I don’t want to keep pushing the idea of exercise on everyone if it only helps 3% of the recovery population. On the other hand, if it actually makes a dramatic difference for MOST people, then this should be an important part of any complete recovery philosophy (right now it barely gets mentioned in most modern recovery models). The exercise idea is just one example, there are other aspects of recovery that need to be tested in depth as well.
Testing this sort of thing is not easy or consistent either, because relapse can seemingly happen for unrelated reasons. In other words, a lack of total surrender may be the only thing that really drives a relapse, regardless of what variables you are trying to test for. Simply exercising may not have helped someone because they never fully surrendered to begin with. But how can you only measure people who have “surrendered fully to their disease?” And would that even be a fair test? Probably not.
Addiction is complex and therefore recovery is complex as well
Part of the problem (and why I believe we need a complete philosophy of recovery) is because addiction is so complex.
There is a natural resistance to this complexity and you can see it when you go to traditional 12 step meetings. People say things like:
“It’s real simple, you see, you just need to follow these steps, and…..”
“Recovery is simple. Don’t drink and go to meetings.”
“We drug addicts and alcoholics are famous for complicating things, and that is why we need to keep recovery simple.”
And so on. People seem to have this desire to try to simplify the complicated in order to deal with it in their minds. They don’t want for addiction or recovery to be complicated. They very much want it to be simple, to be easy to grasp, to be wrapped up in this tidy neat little box. It gives them security to think that there is a very simple plan laid out that can create sobriety for anyone. “Just follow these steps, anyone can do it…..”
But reality seems to say otherwise. Addiction is complicated. It is messy. It is not neat and tidy. There are often issues that accompany addiction that increase this complexity (abuse history, self esteem issues, chronic pain issues, the list goes on and on).
To say that addiction is simple is a big mistake. To suggest that recovery is simple as well is to ignore this basic truth (that addiction is complicated).
One model of recovery (such as the 12 step model) can help a certain amount of people, but it is obvious by now that it cannot help everyone. Therefore I cannot look at the 12 step program and say that it is a “total philosophy of recovery.” It leaves too many individuals out in the cold. It does not offer an alternative to the people that it cannot help, it only says “obviously you have not hit bottom yet, otherwise the AA program would help you and save your life. You lack willingness.” But perhaps the reason that so many people lack willingness is because the program is such an incredibly bad fit for their personality. A complete philosophy of recovery would outline all of the alternative that are working for real addicts out in the real world.
Existing programs are arbitrary in design because the total solution is still unknown
The 12 step program helps some people but it does not help everyone. It is important to realize that the 12 steps are somewhat arbitrary and do not really create a magical sequence of success for anyone who works them.
There is an underlying principle in AA and that is the foundation of complete abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol. The understanding is basically this:
Step one – don’t use alcohol or addictive drugs no matter what.
Step two – follow the rest of this program, go to meetings, get a sponsor, and don’t forget step one!
Notice that “step two” as written above is completely arbitrary. It is an abstinence based program that tries to bring about a spiritual awakening based on a change in personality. The only part that really matters is step one–the “abstinence based” part. The rest of it is arbitrary. For example, say that we tweaked step 7 in the 12 step program to be something completely different. Would the program of AA still work in that case?
Of course it would! It is an abstinence based program. See step one–“don’t use alcohol or addictive drugs no matter what.” If you screwed up then you forgot this critical step. Changing step 6 or 7 is not going to make or break your recovery. It is arbitrary. It may be helpful, and it may lead to a better life in recovery, but it is not absolutely critical to everyone’s sobriety in this world.
For example, let’s say that we replaced one of the 12 steps with “Made a commitment to strive for the best physical health possible, eliminating other addictions (like cigarettes) and embracing physical fitness and proper nutrition.” Do you think that this substitution would suddenly create more relapse? Or is it possible that the change would actually help people in recovery?
My point is that we know so little about recovery and addiction that no one knows for sure about this, but yet at the same time we can see that much of our current solution is arbitrary. The program “works” only because of the underlying principle of step one–don’t use drugs or alcohol no matter what. Everything following that is arbitrary and largely untested. From a personal perspective, I tested all of it myself (working through all 12 steps with a sponsor in early recovery) and found it to be lacking compared to more holistic suggestions (such as the one that promotes fitness and exercise).
We don’t know the full solution of recovery yet, the science of addiction is still too young. We are all experimenting.
My goal is to keep experimenting until a more complete picture is known. The creative theory of recovery states that we can create the life that we really want through conscious choices. One of the core concepts is abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol. But as you can see from the examples above, this is obvious and not very useful. Any program of recovery can be designed in an arbitrary way so long as step one is “don’t use alcohol or addictive drugs no matter what.” After that you can just write in whatever steps you like, whatever seems to help you, and hopefully that will help people to recover, right?
But we want to go further than that, to find what core concepts and principles exist and are universal. Does exercise help everyone? Is 12 step work (reaching out to others) a necessary part of long term recovery? Is personal growth a necessary component of sustained sobriety? What are the core principles for overcoming long term complacency? What are the core principles of surrender and disruption? Does everyone break down in the same way in order to surrender? And so on.
We still have more questions than answers in recovery.
I think it is a mistake to look at modern recovery solutions and say “that is it, take your pick. Either AA or religious based recovery. Nothing more can be learned.” This attitude is especially prevalent in the 12 step community. People basically argue “AA works for me, so just accept it as your solution and make it work for yourself too.” But the data and the success rates indicate to me that this is not good enough. We can do better (I hope).
The only consistent core concept is abstinence, followed by faith or growth
Future articles will attempt to explore this complete philosophy of recovery much further. It is unacceptable to me that we not try to learn more about how we can help people to recover. Much of this journey may be in shooting ideas down, and that is OK. We need to cut through what doesn’t work so that we can find what is truly effective. Science is busy trying to assemble a more complete picture of addiction and how it really works, but we need to do the same for recovery philosophy. Many questions need to be asked, then explored. It is only then that we can learn how we can best help struggling addicts and alcoholics.