Many of my readers really resonated with the idea that it might be necessary to set and achieve goals in order to be successful in recovery.
Along with this was the idea that you did not necessarily have to follow a recovery program such as AA or NA, but you had to push yourself to keep taking positive action on a regular basis.
This begs the question:
What is that like? How do I do that? How do I know if I am doing it right?
So let me share with you the specific actions I took that I believe most benefited my recovery.
Experience is our greatest teacher, and this is the stuff that worked for me. If you want similar results, just take similar actions. My life is awesome today. I would go so far as to say it is “super premium!”
First, a word about timing
When you do things in your recovery journey makes a difference. You don’t want to worry about fitness and nutrition while you are still detoxing, and you do not need a sponsor holding your hand at 20 years sober.
Thus, pay attention to the idea that certain actions make more sense at different times in your recovery journey.
Actions for early recovery
People are bound to argue about what “early recovery” really means. For me, it meant the first two years of my sobriety, give or take a bit. We all grow at different rates and so there is no need to label this or judge it in any way.
One definition we might use for “early” recovery is the time period when the alcoholic is still learning the basics of how to live a “normal life in recovery.” A very subjective definition, yes. But a useful one in my opinion. Because after you figure out the basics in recovery, after you figure out how to pretty much stay sober and not go crazy, it is then that you have to ask: “What now? What comes next?”
And the answer to that question is all about personal growth in other areas of your life. The answer to that question is basically: “OK, now that you know the basics of sobriety and recovery, go live your life, and do positive things, and grow as a person.” That is long term recovery. This starts when you say to yourself “OK, I have a firm grasp on my sobriety. What should I be doing with my life?” That is long term sobriety.
So what then are the actions we should take in early recovery? What are the actions we should take before we get to this point, before we become well grounded in our recovery?
Here are the actions that I took:
* Surrendered – and stopped fighting for control. Made a real decision to accept help, in whatever form I could find it. Vowed to go to rehab, and to make it work this time. (Note: I am not sure that I initiated this surrender. It happened).
A big part of this surrender was making abstinence from drugs and alcohol the most important thing in my life. Many people miss this simple concept.
I repeat: the most important thing in your life is not using drugs and alcohol.
It is more important than family, more important than your job, more important than your higher power. Yes, it has to come first, before all else. Screw this one up and you relapse, plain and simple.
* Sought treatment, then more treatment – I checked into detox, then residential short term treatment. Knew I needed way more help than that. Pushed a therapist to help me find long term. I asked for help, and I got it. The therapist placed me in long term recovery. I credit long term rehab as being critical in my recovery.
* Took direction – This is really more of an attitude that you need to adopt in early recovery, rather than a specific action that you need to take. But make no mistake, this is still critical for your success.
In order to succeed in early recovery, you have to be willing to take direction from other people.
Why is this necessary?
It is necessary because when we first get clean and sober, we have been doing things our way, and that does not work. Therefore, the answer is to relinquish our power in early recovery. Let someone else tell you what to do for a while. Let go completely and allow this to happen, and your life will get better.
The big surprise is that by doing this and taking direction, you will grow powerful and have more freedom than ever before.
* Explored recovery literature – Some people are big on books and reading and such, while others are not. I was fairly big on it and so I read a ton of books when I first got clean and sober.
The amount that this helps you is going to be related to how much of the stuff you put into action. I actually discussed a lot of what I read with my peers in recovery, and put some of the ideas into action myself. Thus, I did actually benefit quite a bit from the literature I was reading.
I should also point out that I read many books that were not directly related to recovery, but instead were about personal growth or spirituality. My opinion is that positive action is positive action, regardless of the source. I have even benefited greatly by reading about personal finance in my recovery.
Growth is growth. If you limit yourself to 12 step based literature, you are missing out on a lot of good information. Recovery is about living, not about recovery. Expand your horizons and reap the rewards.
* Kept a journal – I continue to write to this day, though it is now in a bit more structured format. In early recovery, I simply dumped my thoughts of each day on a page (in electronic format in a Word document). This was hugely therapuetic, again, in ways I could not have predicted.
For example, we think that we have such awesome control over our own minds, and we really do not. But we can regain some control of it if we use journaling as a tool. Using a journal as a “brain dump” allows you to free up tons of mental energy that might otherwise occupy your mind. This must be experienced to be appreciated.
Another benefit of journaling is that it allows you to see your growth. If you do not journal, it can seem like you are just treading water in your recovery, and never really reaching new milestones. You may feel as though you have not made any progress at all. If you keep a journal, it is easy to remind yourself of how much you have grown and how far you have come. Glancing through old entries from years or even just months ago will give you the perspective that you need to stay positive.
Journaling is a powerful tool. Use it!
* Figured out my weakness, then eliminated it – Early in my recovery I quickly noticed exactly how I tend to sabotage myself – I use self pity as an excuse for relapse.
Knowing this, I vowed to make it different this time, and somehow correct this with a positive change.
Without really knowing how to do so, I simply created a zero tolerance policy with myself regarding self pity.
I said to myself: “I cannot allow myself to engage in self pity. As soon as I recognize that it is happening, I will shut it down, and force myself to see the positive things instead.”
This worked well enough to get me through early recovery, and later it developed into a habit of practicing gratitude on a regular basis.
What you need to do though is figure out your own weakness, your own method of sabotaging yourself. Perhaps it is resentment towards others. Whatever it is, you need to figure it out, increase your awareness of it, and deal with it accordingly.
If you do not know how to tackle your weakness, then ask for help.
Actions for long term sobriety
* Started exercising – I cannot over emphasize how huge this was for me. Interestingly, when I was about a year or so into my recovery, someone pushed me to start exercising, and I gave it my best effort.
But it was not to be. I tried for a few weeks and then gave it up. It just was not the right time for it.
Later on, the idea of getting into shape came up again, and this time I was ready for it. For some reason I just took off, and have been exercising ever since.
It is impossible to describe exactly how much and in what ways exercise benefits you in recovery. I would emphasize the following points though:
1) It must be vigorous exercise. You have to work up a sweat.
2) You should probably do it every other day or so. Three times a week is fine as long as it is intense.
3) It need not be competitive. You don’t need to run, jog, bike, or anything in particular. But you do need to push yourself. If you don’t push yourself, you will not get the full benefit to your recovery.
There are recovering addicts and alcoholics out there who swear by exercise. That is all they focus on in order to recover, and it works for them.
You need not be that extreme….but you can still benefit greatly from the concept. Push yourself to exercise vigorously 3 times a week, and it will transform your whole life (and your recovery).
* Went back to school – I resisted this idea at first, thinking I needed to concentrate on my recovery instead. Learning and recovery go extremely well together.
I thought that going to college would distract me from learning more about how to stay clean and sober. What I did not realize at the time was that I had already learned the basics of recovery, and needed to push myself to learn more in other areas.
Going back to school expanded my recovery in a positive way that I could never have predicted. It was truly a growth experience for me.
* Found a unique way to give back – I started out on the deferred path of traditional 12 step recovery, and was instructed to attend meetings every day. This did not click well with me, and thus I did not really get into sharing at meetings, sponsorship, and so on. At the same time, I did see the value in working with others in recovery, and the tremendous benefit that a person received when they helped other struggling addicts and alcoholics.
So what to do?
I had to find a way to connect with struggling addicts and alcoholics. I had to find my own unique way to give back.
For me, this process took some patience. It did not happen overnight. I had to experiment, try new things, and stay open to new ways to connect with others in recovery. Eventually I found 2 paths that worked very well for me. One was working in a drug and alcohol rehab, the other was starting a website about recovery. Both have made a huge difference in my life, and both have benefited me in ways that I could not have predicted (take positive action without too much expectation).
Everyone in recovery has certain strengths and talents. Find a way to use those strengths to help others in recovery. Do that, and you will be amazed at the results. Again, this could happen both in or out of a 12 step program.
* Full time employment – I did not relish the thought of working when I first got clean and sober. To be honest, I thought that work was a trigger for me. In the back of my mind, though, I knew that being productive in some way was probably in my future.
During my transition from short to long term recovery, I started working again, part time at first. A bit later I returned to full time work, and have been doing so ever since.
Looking back, I have to say that employment was an important part of my journey. While not directly related to staying sober, work was something that I had to relearn, now that I was no longer self medicating. There were lessons that I learned in working during my recovery that I would not have thought to be important, but they were.
Much like education and exercise, work is a part of the discipline and responsibility that you are learning about in your new life of recovery. It may not directly relate to staying sober, but indirectly, these sort of growth experiences make a huge difference in long term sobriety.
Another part of the equation is self esteem. Building up your self esteem is probably the most effective way to prevent relapse, in my opinion.
If you are working regular hours at a job–any job at all–this will help with self esteem.
If you are attending classes and striving for higher education, this will help with self esteem.
If you are exercising on a regular basis and getting into great shape, this will help with self esteem.
If you do all of this stuff and stay open to new growth oppurtunities, your life will have balance, and things will get better and better. Your life will have real value, and you will recoil in horror at the idea of throwing it away on a drink.
But you don’t build this stuff up overnight. It takes time to create real value in your life. This is how you build healthy self esteem over time–one positive change at a time.
Special note: do not overwhelm yourself and try to do everything at once. Master one new change at a time while maintaining sobriety. Take on too much at once and you risk relapse. Focus on just one major goal at a time, then master it and move on to the next. Your life will improve slowly and steadily.
* Reduced dependency on groups/meetings – If you take the actions that are suggested here, your dependency on group therapy or 12 step meetings will naturally become reduced, or completely eliminated.
If you stay clean and sober only through dependence on AA or NA meetings, then this might be something that you want to change.
You do not have to abstain entirely from meetings, necessarily. But your recovery will be stronger if you do not depend on them to keep you sober.
I have one friend in recovery who actually attends quite a few meetings, but he is nowhere near dependent on them. He takes lots of positive action in his life outside of meetings, and he has an incredibly strong recovery as a result. The foundation of his recovery is in helping people in recovery on a regular basis. He can easily forgo the meetings without becoming unstable in his sobriety (and has done so at times throughout his recovery).
This is not about “meetings are bad.” That is not the point. The point is, if you rely on meetings to stay sober, then you could benefit greatly from making changes in your recovery program. Taking enough positive action so that you do not depend on meetings any longer will give you a much stronger recovery. Plus, you still have the option of going to meetings–you just no longer need them as your only lifeline.
* Started creating something; building something positive – I am not sure if this is critical for every person in recovery, but it has made such a tremendous impact on my life that I have to include it here.
I created a website about recovery, and it has grown to become a real destination on the web. I connect with a lot of people because of it, and this creates a positive feedback loop in my life. I push myself in new ways because of this thing I created.
I see this with other people in recovery, too, who have not necessarily created a website. For example, I have a close friend in recovery who started his own AA group. He has created a very tight and close knit community that continues to thrive after many years. They do things a certain way and are extremely supportive of each other in their recovery, and the group has taken on a life of its own. My friend created this, started it, built it up from nothing, and now gets tremendous benefit from it.
So I am not sure I can tell you exactly what action to take here. My instructions have to be general I am afraid. But the instruction is this:
Start something amazing.
If you fail, who cares? Try something else.
Keep trying to build something great in your life, in your recovery, or in your community.
It is easy to tear something down. It is easy to criticize something. But it takes guts to make something out of nothing. Seek to build; to create.
If you create something positive that becomes larger than yourself, the resulting impact on your recovery is amazing.
Striving for a goal of this nature is beneficial for recovery, even if you fail.
Therefore, you have no excuse not to take the reigns and attempt to do something amazing.
To sum up
So here are the actions I took that helped me to recover:
* Seek treatment.
* Take direction from others.
* Explore recovery literature.
* Keep a journal.
* Identify and eliminate self sabotaging behaviors.
Long term recovery actions:
* Engage in vigorous exercise.
* Seek more education.
* Find a unique way to give back to others in recovery.
* Reduce your dependency on groups/meetings.
* Create something awesome.
I know that these actions worked for me in my recovery. The actions listed above are simply my personal experience.
If you took the same actions in your life, I am confident that you would get similar results.
No magic, no mystery. Put forth the effort, reap the rewards. Recovery is hard work.
You knew that, right?