The path to success and happiness in addiction recovery is through personal growth.
They have a saying in AA meetings that is a popular bit of wisdom: “You are either moving forward in your recovery, or you are moving backwards.” Or sometimes they say it as “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”
The concept is pretty simple, really. And we have found it to be very true. You cannot stand still in sobriety and expect to recover. You are either moving in a positive direction or you are moving towards a relapse. There is no way to just coast along and end up in a good place. If you are “coasting” in your recovery then the final outcome of that is always relapse.
Personal growth is the solution. If you want to improve your life then you need to take positive action. Do this every day on a consistent basis and the end result is slow and steady progress. We have a label for that kind of progression, and it is “personal growth.” You are either working to improve yourself and your life, or you are moving towards a relapse. Your choice. But you must choose, and if you fail to make a deliberate choice for personal growth, then your life will just continue to drift towards relapse as the default.
Why is relapse the default? Because we are addicts and alcoholics. That’s what we do. We drink and take drugs. We self medicate. That is the nature of our disease. That is our default mode of operation. So if we let ourselves drift, if we let ourselves return to the norm, then we relapse eventually.
The only way to overcome this is to create a plan for personal growth. A plan to take positive action. A plan that involves overcoming the natural tendency to relapse.
I work at an inpatient treatment center and I always ask people who are about to leave if they have a plan or not. If they say “not really, I am just going to wing it,” I always warn them that they should get a plan, get with a therapist and come up with a concrete plan before they leave. If you don’t have a plan then the probability of relapse is extremely high. You don’t just stay sober on accident. Relapse is the natural default in our lives, so it takes deliberate action to overcome that. You need a plan to do so. And that plan should involve positive action every single day. It’s all about personal growth and making positive choices. If you make those positive choices consistently enough for a long enough period of time then your life will become exponentially better and you will overcome your addiction. If you don’t “do the work” in early recovery then your option to relapse will look all the more enticing.
You have to give yourself an excuse NOT to relapse. How can you do that? The only way is to make your life better in recovery than it was in your addiction. If it is the same or worse then relapse actually makes a lot of sense. I would take a drink too if my life just got worse and worse in sobriety! That is the honest truth. We are simple people and we respond to simple incentives. In order to maintain sobriety in the long run you have to give yourself every reason not to take a drink.
So how do you give yourself that excuse not to drink? You build a better life in sobriety. You get excited about living your life sober. You start to have fun in recovery. You start to get excited about living in sobriety.
This doesn’t happen overnight. This may not happen after one week sober. It takes a bit of time to get there. But you have to give yourself that chance, and you have to have faith that you will get there eventually. After you are sober for a while and you are doing the work in early recovery, your life will slowly start to get better and better. It starts so slowly that you won’t notice it at first, and you might even be discouraged. Hang in there. After a few months or even a few weeks though you will look back at that first week of sobriety and be amazed at how far you have come, at how much happier you are now.
It starts slowly because you are repairing your life on so many different fronts, in so many different ways. For example, you stop putting drugs and booze into your body and so it becomes difficult to sleep at first. And you may find it difficult to socialize at first too because you are used to having the drugs or alcohol to give you courage. So maybe those two things are a big negative in early recovery and they make you want to drink again.
So you start to work on it, and you are also working on a million and one other things at the same time. You are working on the steps, you are trying to eat better food, you are working with a sponsor or a therapist, and you are going to meetings every day. Maybe you are working on the relationships in your life. You are trying to make some amends to people you have hurt in your addiction. You are trying to fix all of these things in your life, all at the same time, and it can be a bit overwhelming. And it takes time to do all of these things, to fix the various parts of your life.
I can remember having a few weeks in early recovery and still being very messed up in terms of sleeping. I was sleeping poorly for the first few months. This was because my body was used to having booze every night so that I would simply pass out. Now that I was sober I couldn’t really get into a good sleeping pattern.
I was also struggling to speak in front of other people at the meetings. I was nervous. I had a lot of anxiety because I was used to self medicating with alcohol and other drugs.
So both of these things took some time. I did not overcome either of them in the first week of sobriety. But after the first year I could look back and realize that I was completely over both of those problems. I was sleeping well again and I was able to socialize and share with other people without any fear. I conquered those problems in recovery but it took some time.
Now I had other problems at the time and other issues that I was working on in my early recovery as well. For example, I was trying to quit smoking cigarettes, I suffered from chronic self pity, and I had some unhealthy relationships in my life at the time. All of these things did not just magically get fixed overnight. They all took some time and I had to give myself a chance to work on all of it. In the end, it all came together and my life got exponentially better as I figured out how to overcome all of these issues.
If you are in early recovery and you are unhappy and you want faster results, you need to take a step back and take a deep breath for yourself. You need to breathe. Slow down. Realize that it all takes time. You are not going to fix everything overnight. If you are doing the work consistently then you will look back in a year and be amazed at how much progress you have made. Of course in order to get to this point you have to keep pushing yourself and doing the work consistently. That’s the path of personal growth. That is how we recover from addiction–by moving forward.
Sobriety is a foundation for most positive changes to occur
Sobriety is the foundation for positive change to occur in your life. Just think about the decision to stop drinking in the first place. You are making a decision to become a healthier person.
How can you then extend that decision? Everything that you do in your sobriety should be something to increase and further your health. With every action you should ask yourself “Does this enhance my health and my life in recovery, or does it hurt it?” The decision to become sober is a decision to live a healthier life. You need to extend that idea into your everyday life during your sobriety. This mindset should help to drive your personal growth efforts in sobriety.
For example, I like to think of the positive action that I take every day in recovery in terms of holistic health. The goal is to take care of myself every day in terms of mind, body, spirit, emotions, and social health. Therefore I have to take a step back in my everyday life and look at whether or not I have done anything lately for my physical health, for my emotional stability, for my mental health, for my social health, and for my spiritual health.
If I am neglecting one of these areas then that is a red flag. You may be wondering why it matters at all, why someone should worry that they might be neglecting one of these areas of their health.
The reason is simple. When you neglect one of these 5 areas, you are opening the door just a crack for relapse to enter back into your life. The way to protect yourself from relapse is to work on personal growth in all of these different areas.
For example, you would think that if someone were very strong in their spiritual health that they would be well protected from relapse, even if their social health was floundering. I have found in my own experience that this is not the case. I have witnessed many peers who fell in with the wrong crowd during their recovery and because they were hanging around the wrong people it influenced them to drink or use again. A simple concept like peer pressure is still important in our adult recovery.
Likewise, I have watched people relapse due to poor physical health. These people were spiritual fit, even more so than I was at the time, and yet their failing health drove them back to relapse. Being physically sick can wear you down in sobriety. Being physically sick can lead you to take more medications. Being physically sick for too long can be a big trigger for relapse. I have watched this happen over and over again to various peers in my recovery journey. If you want to protect your sobriety then you need to take care of yourself physically. Sleep, nutrition, fitness–these things are all really important in long term sobriety. Without them you are susceptible to disease, sickness, and a slow downward spiral that might end in relapse.
Relationships are absolutely critical in sobriety. This is part of your emotional health. Everyone who relapses, everyone who finally raises that poison to their lips again is in a bad place emotionally when they do it. They are saying “screw it, I am just going to drink or take drugs. I don’t care any more.” And one of the biggest emotional triggers in our lives comes from our relationships and our social connections.
I lived in long term rehab with eleven other men for about 20 months. While I was living there, I watched many people relapse. The reason that they relapsed, in almost every single case, was because of a failed relationship. In every single case it was an emotional relapse. The person drank or took drugs because they did not want to feel their emotions, because they were hurt, because a relationship had gone badly.
And so the solution is holistic and personal growth cannot be in one single direction. You have to look at all of these areas of your life in order to prevent relapse. It is not enough to be on a path of spiritual growth only. If you are focusing on spiritual growth, that is good, but you need to do more than that. You cannot neglect your physical health, your emotional stability, your mental status, your relationships, and so on. You have to consider the overall picture, the holistic approach. Failing to do so is leaving the door open to relapse.
Personal growth in recovery has to consider the whole picture. This is what makes the holistic approach so effective. Or rather, if your focus is to narrow then you are vulnerable to relapse.
What do you think the point of being sober is?
Why get sober at all if you are not going to move forward and take positive action?
You may have heard of the term “dry drunk.” This is someone who is no longer self medicating, but they are not working on their recovery either. They are just coasting and somehow managing to grit their teeth and not relapse. But they are miserable.
Don’t do this. Don’t get sober just to be a miserable dry drunk. There is a better life in recovery if you are willing to embrace it.
But you have to make the decision that you want to improve your life, that you want to engage in personal growth, that you want to get healthier. Personal growth is a deliberate choice in recovery. It won’t just happen by accident. You have to pursue it. Have you made the decision that you want to improve your life in recovery?
How to prioritize your life improvements
The first and most important choice is to eliminate the drugs and the alcohol completely. No positive change can occur while you are still self medicating. Sobriety is the foundation for personal growth.
After you are clean and sober then you have to figure out how to prioritize all of the changes that you want to make.
In early recovery you probably do not know how to prioritize this. You are most likely guessing as to which is the most important step you should take next in your life.
Therefore I would urge you not to guess. Instead, ask for help. Get a sponsor, a therapist, a helpful peer in recovery who has significant clean time, and ask them to help you prioritize your recovery efforts. Ask them to tell you what to do. Take their advice and put it into action. You need to get out of your own way for a while in recovery. You can only do this if you are listening to someone else tell you how to live, rather than using your own ideas.
Make an agreement with yourself that you are going to get out of your own way for a while. Later on you can make your own decisions again if you like. But in early sobriety you need to rely on someone else to direct you.
Once you achieve some stability in your sobriety you will want to take on new personal growth projects. Ask yourself the question: “What is the one thing that I could change in my life right now that would make the most positive impact, that would make all the difference for me in my life?” Then focus on that one thing until you have mastered it, fixed it, overcome it, or whatever the case may be.
For me, at various times in my recovery, the answer to that question was “quitting smoking,” “Exercising every day,” “Starting a website about recovery,” “Going back to college,” and so on. The answer changes over time and that should direct you in your efforts. This is simply goal setting, but you are also prioritizing based on whichever goal will have the most impact for you.
The opposite of personal growth is complacency
If you stop growing in your recovery then you become complacent by default.
Complacency kills. It is the number one problem in long term sobriety. In early recovery, your problems are different. For example, in early recovery the biggest problem that most people have is anger and resentment. They get emotional and want to relapse. But in long term sobriety that particular problem is solved, and the bigger threat is that of complacency. Inaction. Laziness.
So how do you combat this? The solution is personal growth. You overcome complacency when you push yourself to take on a new challenge, to learn something new, to reinvent yourself again in sobriety. You can do this over and over if you are willing to hear feedback, to take suggestions from other people, to keep pushing yourself to move forward. When was the last time you pushed yourself to get your hands dirty and really learn something new, or challenged yourself to hit a unique goal? This is how we reconnect with our recovery source. We need to find ways to keep pushing ourselves in recovery.
But how do I stay motivated to keep making positive changes?
Celebrate the small wins. Notice the progress that is happening every day, even if it is just tiny little micro changes.
Personal growth is its own reward, but you have to have the right attitude towards it.
Use your peers too and help to encourage each other. This is important because we can often see the early growth in others before we can see it in ourselves. We can notice the progress that a peer is making while we dismiss our own progress. It is easy to be too hard on yourself, so use your peers to help motivate each other.
Everyone in recovery should be working on something, pursuing some goal of personal growth today. What is yours? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!