How to Gain Insight that Leads to Sustained Sobriety

How to Gain Insight that Leads to Sustained Sobriety


After a certain amount of time in you recovery you have to start looking a little deeper. What I am talking about is people who unfortunately often get stuck using what I would call “early recovery tactics” to try to sustain their sobriety for the long term.

In other words, many people who first try to get clean and sober end up going to an inpatient rehab and are exposed to AA and NA meetings. They are told to go to meetings every single day, to get a sponsor, and to study recovery literature. They are told to get phone numbers from their peers in recovery and to call them and make new connections.

All of this is well and good….I am not discouraging any of this. The problem is that many people get stuck at this level, and they never move forward in their recovery. They never take their personal growth to the next level.

You might say that early recovery is based on a controlled environment plus extensive support. Going to inpatient rehab is the controlled environment and going to meetings is the continuous support. The problem is when you base your long term recovery on those two things, without making a shift towards personal growth, holistic health, and taking responsibility.

In order to move forward in long term recovery you have to learn how to take an honest look at your life, evaluate your options, and seek feedback from others about what would be most effective in your situation. Success in recovery requires new insight. If there is one thing that I have learned it is that you cannot recover on your own, simply because you need the feedback from others in order to gain insight. By ourselves, we miss too many opportunities, we miss too many chances for growth, and we fall victim to too much denial. On the other hand, you do not want to rely too heavily on your dependence with others for too long in recovery, or you will end up being too weak in your own recovery efforts.

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So it is my belief that you have to gain new insight if you want to maintain sobriety. You cannot just go to rehab, get dried out, and then coast through recovery. It doesn’t work that way. In order to maintain sobriety you have to take action, learn about yourself, and improve your life situation.

There are different methods that you might use to gain insight. Let’s explore a few options below.

Watching others to see what doesn’t work

I have to admit that during my first year or two of recovery, I benefited a great deal by watching other people and seeing them relapse. Sad but true.

First of all, I was astounded at how many people around me relapsed in early recovery. Of course at the time, I was living in a treatment center, which was also attached to a short term rehab center. So I was seeing a lot of newcomers come through, and most of them relapsed very quickly.

But even out of the people who remained sober for a few months, many of them eventually relapsed as well. This was shocking to me because it seemed as if they should have more stability after having been clean and sober for several months.

In watching all of this unfold before me, I realized that simply going to meetings every day and hammering on the Big Book concepts was clearly not enough. There was something more that led to sustained sobriety, something deeper going on here. At the time I was not really sure what it was (though I believe I know now) and so I was simply scared that I might end up relapsing myself.

I became a bit obsessed with the idea that I needed to find out how recovery REALLY worked. People in AA and NA would try to pacify me and squelch my questions by saying “don’t worry how it works, just work it, and your life will get better.” Sorry, that is not good enough for me, especially since I was watching so many people relapse all around me. My personality type would not allow me to make this leap of faith, to simply work a recovery program on blind faith, just because it works for a tiny percentage of people who try it. Nope…..not good enough.

So I started digging deeper, and I started to really pay attention to people in AA meetings, and I started talking to them to find out what was really important to them in their recovery. How, exactly, did they stay clean and sober? I was especially interested in asking people who had multiply years clean and sober. If you had less than that then any information that you gave me was…..filtered a bit. It is not that I can’t learn anything from the newcomer, it is just that I really wanted to learn the secrets of success from those who had achieved long term sobriety. Listening to the newcomer who has less than 30 days sober prattle on at an AA meeting for 20 minutes was a complete waste of my time. Really. Sure, I could still learn something from that person if I was willing to look deeply into what they were saying, but it was still a waste of time. There are so many other people I could have been listening to, interacting with, learning from, and so on.

In talking with many people who had achieved long term recovery, I came to realize that the only hard and fast rule among “the winners” in recovery was that they never wavered in their number one priority: physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Sort of a no-brainer, right? But you would be amazed at how many people in traditional recovery consider other things to be far more important than this core principle. For example, the pursuit of faith and a higher power. In my opinion this is a total mix up, and such people are confused. They will say “without my higher power, I am nothing.” And I would wish to correct them and say “no, without your sobriety you are nothing. At least with sobriety there is a chance, there is hope, there is the possibility of connection with a higher power. Without sobriety, you are truly nothing, and you have no hope until you can get clean and sober.

Hope starts with sobriety. If you are not clean and sober, then any hope that you have for your life, your life situation, and your future is completely FALSE. The only exception is if you have hope for sobriety. And in that case, you should stop hoping and simply get on the phone and call up a rehab center. Take action and you can fly right past hope into something far more substantial and rewarding.

But people in AA frequently talk like there is something more important than this baseline of sobriety. They often speak as if the connection with a higher power is more important than abstinence itself.

So one of the key insights that I had to develop (on my own) in early recovery was to see through this confusion. I secretly started to believe the idea that my abstinence from drugs and alcohol was far more important than my connection with my higher power. I had to experiment and play with this idea myself, without sharing it with others, because to do so in modern day AA is apparently blasphemous. So I kept quiet about my idea and I simply held my belief to myself.

But over time I came to realize that this key insight I had was actually the truth. Not just for me, but for other people around me who I observed. For example, I had a close peer in AA who was far more spiritual than I was, and I was shocked to find that he relapsed. This was really all the evidence that I needed, because in the past I had looked up to this friend of mine so much, and I always held him in high regard because he was so spiritual. When he relapsed I knew that I must be on to something. I continued to hold my own physical abstinence as my highest value in life after this.

Measuring your success in addiction recovery

I always measured my success in early recovery by simply staying clean and sober each day. I also measured my success by how happy and content I was. Admittedly, not every day was peachy and rosy when I was in my first few years of recovery (and to be honest not every day is perfect these days either!). But that did not stop me from trying to measure, and try to improve. After all, what is the point of getting clean and sober if you are only going to be miserable? And if someone is truly happy while self medicating every day, why not continue with that pattern?

So my success in recovery was based on clean time and happiness and contentment. This seemed to equate to personal growth and achieving goals, but it also depended on simply maintaining sobriety as well. One cliché that you hear around the program of AA is “any day sober is a good day.” I would tend to agree with that particular saying, in that you have to have sobriety as your baseline of recovery.

I have seen many people in recovery who do not measure their success in the same way that I do. For example, some people base their success on spiritual goals that they may have for themselves. This approach never worked for me, but putting my success in terms of clean time and personal growth was much more effective. When I was striving to reach new goals and take more action, I got good results.

Figuring out what is really keeping you clean and sober

If you ask a dozen people in AA what is truly keeping them clean and sober, you will likely get about a dozen different answers. Seriously, go try an informal survey and you will get lots of different answers, even from a group of people who all have multiple years sober. This is infuriating to me, and it also points to the idea that recovery is a very unique and individual path.

In other words, I was going around and talking with different people in recovery, trying to find the common thread that was actually the critical point of recovery. Based on the responses that I was getting, I could not really pin it down. In the end, I had to discover for myself what was actually keeping ME clean and sober.

I had to stop worrying about what worked for other people. I had to let go of their methods, their programs, their steps. It may work for some of them, but that was no guarantee that their methods would work for me. And the fact that so many of my peers relapsed (while trying to follow someone else’s program) was not reassuring.

So I started to pay attention to what actually helped me in my own recovery. I started to take suggestions from other people—such as exercise, meditation, etc. And then I would measure the results….for myself. I refused to be defined by what worked for others in recovery, because no one could give me a clear consensus on what the right path was. There were too many holes. The 12 step program had too many inconsistencies, there were too many leaps of faith to be made, and the daily meetings were a huge time commitment to listen to the same old dribble. I wanted more out of recovery and I wanted to make sure that I was getting the results that I wanted. So I started to pay attention, and I started to measure things.

I noticed first of all that if I stopped going to meetings I got a little squirrelly. I started thinking about drinking. Obviously I had to fix that if I really wanted to find my own path in recovery. So I fixed it. I took suggestions from other people and I started doing things like jogging six miles every day. I kept taking suggestions (other than going to daily meetings) until I managed to overcome cravings and thoughts of using without meetings.

I managed to fix many things in my life through experimentation. Instead of listening to other people or taking their advice without researching it, I simply tested everything and then kept the stuff that actually helped me. So I tried meditation for a while and then skipped it to go jogging instead, because that was a better fit for me.

If you think about it this is exactly what they tell you to do in AA: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” I was doing that exactly, only I was leaving behind the meetings, the steps, and most of the fellowship. And the literature. Instead of reading about recovery I started writing instead.

In order to make this work for you, it takes a different kind of approach. You really have to be honest with yourself and experiment. Then you have to focus on what is working for you, and expand that. You have to be a bit humble too, so that you can take new suggestions.

Doing more of what works and expanding your recovery

Once you find what works for you in recovery, start doing more of it. If you find something that helps you—such as exercise, for example—start exploring that branch more thoroughly (you could branch out into nutrition in this case).

Don’t just take a suggestion and then discover something unique and then stop all of a sudden. Keep going with it and keep talking with the new people you meet. Discover new paths and explore them thoroughly. This strategy has led me from surface level encounters to deepening relationships. It has also led me from a surface level interest in a subject (like marketing) to launching a career path that changed my whole life (starting a business).

The willingness to explore new avenues of growth

Obviously if you want to gain insight into your recovery you have to be willing to explore new avenues of growth. In order to do this you may need to face your fears from time to time, and meet them with a new growth experience. You can’t make lots of personal growth if you never take any risks.

It is easy to be willing when the test in front of you is easy. That is not real willingness. Real willingness is measured in fear. The more afraid you are, the more willing you prove to be if you go forward and confront that fear.

If you constantly avoid your main fears and never take any risks in life, then you will probably not gain much new insight into your recovery. The key to expanding your world is to go out to the edges, where you are a bit afraid to go. This does not mean that you need to take stupid risks. It just means that you need to face the fears that have held you back for so long. You need to dare yourself to dream a little, and then take the sort of action and make the sort of commitment that will result in real progress.

You have to reach out and live the sort of life that you should have been living during your addiction. This takes guts. When you start doing this and walking this challenging path, you will gain a lot of insight into who you really are.

Getting feedback from others in recovery

One last piece of advice about insight in addiction recovery:

Seek feedback from other people.

That is really the number one piece of advice, because if you miss out on this opportunity then you will miss out on all sorts of potential growth experiences. Hence, this is the entire idea behind sponsorship, and also behind the idea of getting support and feedback from your peers in recovery.


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