Yesterday we looked at how to mentally commit yourself to total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and why this has to be your highest truth in recovery.
Today we are going to look a little further ahead in your recovery process, at the cycle of personal growth and reflection.
In my experience, personal growth is cyclical.
The idea of course is that you want to come into recovery, get clean and sober, and then start pushing yourself to make healthy changes. This is the goal and this is how you prevent relapse from sneaking up on you–you have to keep making progress in your life.
But there has to be some form of balance here, because you cannot make constant, earth-shattering breakthroughs every single day of your life, forever. There has to be some lulls in the action. There has to be some space in between “goal achievement” for reflection.
In fact, I believe that it is perfectly fine for most of your time in recovery to be spent NOT achieving these amazing personal goals that you have for yourself. This is because most of your time is going to be spent planning and evaluating potential goals, rather than actually pursuing them.
In fact, the process of achieving something is not all that complicated. Basically you have to decide on what it is that you want to accomplish, then commit to doing the work, then you have to actually do the work to achieve it, and then it’s over. At that point you find yourself reflecting on the action that you took, evaluating how it all went and whether the goal was worth the effort or not to you.
So much of our process is actually NOT in the “doing” part. Of course that is a critical step and if you do not put in the work or make the effort then you cannot make progress at all (in fact, most people get stuck here in terms of laziness or what is holding them back in life….they simply don’t do the work). But just realize that actually doing the work is the simple part, it generally does not take that long, and if we just put our bodies in motion and take consistent action then this part of the process is actually quite simple.
Doing the work is certainly important, but there are other critical parts to the process as well. Here we will try to break them all down and figure out what it is that propels a person through personal growth in recovery.
In my opinion, this is how relapse prevention really works. This is how to live your life in long term sobriety in the most effective way–a continuous cycle of personal growth, reflection, and planning. It all fits together and the basic idea is to tell yourself “I need to improve my life….how can I do so next?”
The foundation of all growth in recovery is the baseline of total abstinence
Of course before you can even get started on this cycle of personal growth you have to have a baseline of abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Without this it is impossible to even really get started because you will find yourself struggling in areas of your life that you never expected. Real growth will be impossible because as you try to make improvements in one area of your life (such as your physical health, for example) your addiction will be punishing you and creating huge setbacks in other areas of your life (such as in your relationships, perhaps).
This creates huge problems and you will feel like you are “taking one step forward and two steps back.” Because of denial you will blame these “two steps back” on external circumstances every single time, but the truth is that you are sabotaging your own life due to your drug or alcohol addiction. It is your addiction that is creating chaos and holding you back from making progress, but you will never be able to see that and accept it if you are stuck in denial. Your denial will cause you to point the finger and place blame on others instead of taking responsibility for your own setbacks. You will cling to the idea that you tried to do something positive in your life and your denial will be screaming how unfair it is that your relationships are all screwed up right now. Well, the truth is that you are in denial and if you were clean and sober then your relationship problems would resolve themselves much more easily. Your denial will not let you see this truth and therefore you will just blame others instead of being able to make personal growth in your life without being restricted due to the chaos and misery of addiction.
Getting clean and sober gives you the clean slate that you need in your life in order to make positive changes. Once you are clean and sober and established in recovery, the world becomes your oyster. Want to do yoga or start eating healthier? Want to repair the bad relationships in your life and make peace with someone? Want to go back to school or create a business that will set your free? You can do all of that and more, so long as you establish a baseline of abstinence. Without sobriety as your foundation, you will be stuck in that back-and-forth world of chaos where you make a tiny bit of progress in one area, only to have your life fall apart in some other area.
Once you establish your baseline of sobriety, you will then be able to “lock in” positive changes that you make in your life. Now when you learn something or achieve a certain goal, you are not in danger of just throwing it away due to the chaos of your addiction. Because you will be sober and lucid you will better be able to judge what an achievement is worth, and therefore you will not just throw away things that you have accomplished if you happen to find them valuable enough. This is something that happened all of the time during our active addiction, because no matter what we achieved or how valuable something was to us (including a relationship), we were always willing to throw it away in favor of our drug of choice. We put our drug of choice first, every time. And that caused us to throw away a lot of potential growth experiences.
Drug addiction and alcoholism destroys stuff. It ruins stuff. It takes things away from us.
Recovery is therefore about building something. It’s about creating stuff. All of those things that addiction destroyed, you can get back. All of those things that addiction took away from you, you can create them again. Recovery is about creation.
Hence “the creative theory of recovery.” The idea is that we are going to first eliminate the drugs and the alcohol from our lives, then we are going to start building from there. We cannot build unless we have a clean slate. This is also why I encourage people to clean their slate even further, such as by quitting cigarettes. The “lessor addictions” like smoking, gambling, sex, or spending can still be a huge drag on your personal growth in recovery, holding you back in a big way.
The creative theory holds that we need to clear away all of the garbage in our lives before we can build something amazing, before we can create that which we really want in life.
And so obviously the biggest problem that you need to overcome in order to get any kind of traction in recovery is to get that “clean slate.” For me this meant going to detox and getting my body physically free from chemicals. Furthermore I had to establish a baseline of sobriety and abstinence by being clean and sober for a while in a controlled environment before I could do it “out in the real world.” For me this meant going to inpatient treatment. How long you stay in treatment is going to vary from person to person, but obviously you have to be able to be clean and sober and walk around out in the real world, with all of its temptations to use drugs and alcohol. If you cannot get to that point on your own then you need to ask for help in order to do so. If you cannot establish this baseline of abstinence without any help, then you need to seek outside help. For me this meant rehab and in fact I ended up living there for quite some time. You may not have to go that far but in order to start creating a positive recovery you need to achieve this baseline of abstinence.
This process of growth and this cycle we are describing is enough to KEEP you clean and sober, but it is not the solution for getting you clean and sober. That requires disruption, and for me that meant inpatient rehab. After treatment, it was up to me to embrace a lifestyle that would protect me from the threat of relapse, and I found that solution in this cycle of personal growth.
After you have achieved your baseline of abstinence and sobriety you are ready to start making positive changes in your life.
You have already made one huge positive change and that was to “change everything” by getting clean and sober to begin with. We say that this requires you to “change everything” because such a decision to become sober really affects nearly every action in your life. Our old way of dealing with reality was to self medicate almost constantly, so our new way of dealing with reality has us re-learning how to do every little thing without being wasted. All of life is suddenly different and somewhat challenging because now we are facing each unique experience without the veil of addiction. Our crutch is gone, our protector is gone, and so we have to face every little part of our life again fresh.
The outsider might look in at us and say “all you have done is eliminated the drugs and alcohol.” But the recovering addict who is struggling through early recovery knows that this is a gross oversimplification. The reality is that each new moment in life presents a unique challenge in early recovery: “How do I make it through this moment without self medicating, when that used to be my automatic solution for every problem?”
So we have made “the ultimate change in our lives” by changing everything and eliminating the drugs and alcohol. We have achieved our baseline of sobriety and now we have a new challenge: “How do we live the rest of our life without going back to our drug of choice?” The temptation can be great and the threat is never removed entirely. We will always have to deal with the temptation and possibility of relapse.
The way to deal with the possibility of relapse is to embrace the theory of creative recovery. The idea is simple: after removing all of the garbage and negative stuff from our life, we are going to intentionally and purposefully create the life that we really want.
This can only be done in one way, really. You have to:
1) Get clean and sober.
2) Figure out what positive changes you want to make.
3) Prioritize those changes.
4) Focus on the most important one first.
5) Take action. Do the work. Follow through. Make the change.
6) Pause and reflect on what you just achieved. Figure out if it was worth it. Evaluate your next possible change in life. Set a new goal. Find a new vision. Take the next step in your greater vision for yourself. Etc.
This is really “the creative theory of recovery” in a nutshell. It is basically goal based living. You set a goal, then work like a dog to make it happen, then you figure out what your next goal should be. Pretty simple really, though not necessarily easy as pie to pull off.
Taking time to reflect and evaluate previous changes, finding what has worked well, etc.
So creative recovery is simply goal oriented living. You figure out what you want, then you go after it and achieve. Not so complicated, right?
But there are always some details, and one of the big ones in goal oriented living is the “pause and reflect” stage.
This is important because:
1) You want to evaluate if achieving a goal was worth the effort that you put in. There are in infinite number of goals that you could pursue and you only have a limited amount of time and energy to pursue them. Therefore you must actively judge if a goal was worth it or not. Doing so will help prepare you to evaluate if potential future goals are worth pursuing or not.
2) You want to get good at identifying second and third order effects. In other words, these are the unintended benefits (or negatives!) that achieving a goal may have in your life. For example, I had a goal at one time of getting in shape and becoming a runner. My first order effect that I was looking for was to get healthy and to get into shape. But there were some second order effects that I did not count on:
* Slept much better every night and was sleeping more consistently due to the exercise.
* Felt much better after quitting smoking as the endorphin rush from running helped to replace the chemicals from the cigarettes.
* Gained discipline that was later used to achieve other goals. I realized that if I could build up the discipline to be a distance runner that I could achieve other difficult goals too.
* Gave me more confidence (see last point for how this happened, it came along with the increase in discipline).
And so on. These were just second order effects. But notice that some of these effects could have spawned third order effects that created more positive changes even deeper in my life (such as increased focused and concentration based on a healthier sleep pattern).
So it is not enough to just evaluate a goal that you have achieved (or might be thinking about pursuing) and saying “oh yeah, that is a good goal.” Well, why is it a good goal? There are plenty of other goals to choose from, so will this one really have the impact that you are hoping for?
Finding your most important change and then focusing on it until completion
By looking at goals in this way and digging a little deeper to see just how it affects your life in total, you can then find what your biggest impact goal will be in recovery. Three of my biggest goals in recovery were:
* To quit smoking cigarettes.
* To exercise regularly/become a runner.
* To create a business.
I had other goals as well throughout my recovery but they all fell by the wayside at some point. They were not giving me what I wanted and they were not the high impact changes that I was seeking.
You are going to be taking action in your recovery and making an effort at something, so you may as well take the time to evaluate what would be your best bang for the buck. What is the biggest, most important positive change that you could possibly make in your life today? What is your biggest goal that you could possibly achieve?
What goal that, if achieved, would change everything for the better?
Figure out what that goal is in your life, and then focus on it and go after it like a madman.
After you achieve that goal, pause and reflect. Think about what price you really paid to achieve that goal, and whether or not it was worth it. Think about the second and third order effects that the goal produced, and consider if any of them were negative too. Sometimes achieving a goal can have a hidden cost that we do not anticipate. This may mean that the goal is no longer worth pursuing. Of course you have to weigh all of this consciously, which is the whole point here. Don’t just get clean and sober and then kick up your feet and watch cartoons every day. Go build something. Go create something. Figure out what is truly important in your life, and then go pursue it. Set a goal and achieve it. How did it work out? Was it worth it? If not, then find another goal. Try something else.
But don’t just sit there! If you do then you will relapse at some point. The key is to embrace the cycle of growth. This is creation.
Pushing yourself to define what is important in your recovery
There are two places that you might find potential goals for yourself:
1) Your own ideas.
2) Someone else’s ideas.
Most people would never think to look to other people for ideas about how to live their own life. Doing so is a blow to the ego.
But recovery forces us to do this anyway in order to get clean and sober. Most of us could not figure out how to overcome our addiction without any help at all. I had to live in rehab for 20 months, and I got tons of advice from other people about how to live in recovery. I definitely did not create all of my own success by myself. I had help. I asked for help. And I accepted a lot of that help in order to get to where I am at today.
So use the idea of asking someone else about your life goals. A trusted individual, a sponsor in recovery, a therapist or counselor, or a trusted friend that you look up to. Ask them what you believe you should be doing now in your recovery. Ask them what goal you should focus on next. Have a discussion with them. Brainstorm with them. And then ask them what you should do. Get their opinion.
This can be more enlightening than you would think. Other people can see angles that we are too close to notice ourselves.
Therefore if you are lost for what to do on your next goal in recovery, ask another human. They can give you some great ideas that you would otherwise miss on your own, you just have to be open to the feedback.