What is the secret to living better in long term sobriety? Some people get stable in their early recovery, but never fully make the leap to a better life in long term sobriety. In order to avoid this fate of complacency, there are certain things that we should focus on in our journey. Timing is an important consideration as well. You are not just going to be able to take over the whole world during your first week (or month) of sobriety. It takes time for healing to take place, and we have to be realistic about it. That said, there are still certain actions we can take and techniques that we can focus on in order to live the best life that we can in recovery. The question is: “What are those actions, and what should we be focusing on?”
The strength of your foundation in recovery
First things first. If you want to live better in long term sobriety then you have to have a strong foundation in early recovery. I was lucky enough to build a strong foundation for myself by living in a long term rehab for almost the first two years of my recovery. That said, long term rehab is not necessarily a ticket to success in recovery, as I watched many of my peers relapse even while living in the supportive environment of long term treatment.
The important lesson here though is the strong foundation. Anyone can create a strong foundation in early recovery, and the secret is not necessarily in professional treatment services (although they might help a lot and be a big part of your strategy). Instead, the big secret is massive action. They have a saying in recovery: “The only thing that you need to change is EVERYTHING.” This is often quoted at meetings because it is true. The key, therefore, is not just to take action in early recovery, but to take massive action.
I have watched people do this (take massive action) without going to rehab at all. For example, one person that I know basically dried out on someone’s couch, then they sat in AA meetings all day, every day, for the first few years of their recovery. They did little else other than attend meetings. A bit extreme, but they wanted recovery very badly and they did not have any other resources or options. If you cannot afford to live in rehab then you can do almost as well by simply attending every single meeting that you can get access to. Of course this will vary a bit depending on where you live and the availability of meetings in your area. In some places there are 12 step meetings nearly 24/7.
There are also people in recovery who took massive action in early sobriety without 12 step meetings or traditional rehabs. These would mostly be people who found a path in recovery that was based on a religious program. Again this is not the traditional path (go to detox, do inpatient rehab, go to AA/NA meetings) but it does work for some people. And of course many people who choose the religious path to recovery also relapse. There is no secret method of recovery that works for anyone and everyone. Instead, nearly any path in recovery will work for someone if they are willing to take massive action and put in a serious effort. It is all about the willingness to follow through. If you have the willingness then the exact program that you follow matters very little.
Without a strong foundation in early recovery it is not likely that you will enjoy “the better life” in long term recovery. At best you may flirt with sobriety for a while but until you fully commit to recovery you will not likely enjoy long term progress. The depth of your surrender is therefore important to your long term success. Those who only have a surface level surrender are not likely to endure for years or decades in recovery.
Creating freedom in degrees to allow happiness to occur naturally
One way to enjoy a better life in long term sobriety is to focus on creating new degrees of freedom. For one thing, it can be difficult to achieve happiness in recovery (or in life) if that is your only goal. Rather, happiness is more often a by-product of living well. Therefore we should try to live well rather than to chase happiness.
If you resist something it generally grows stronger against you. Therefore you should focus on achieving degrees of freedom in your life as a path to more happiness. Actually the freedom itself does not make you happy, but it allows you to be happier. Or maybe it just takes away your excuses to be miserable, and thus it shows you that your happiness really is your own responsibility. For example, say that you have a job and at this job you have a horrible supervisor. You complain all of the time about your boss and how badly you are treated. If you could just get out of that situation, then you would finally be happy, right?
In such a situation, you may strive to create freedom in your life. Maybe one day you find another job where you have a terrific supervisor, or maybe you create your own business and therefore no longer have a boss at all. In either case, what you learn is that the mean supervisor was really just a surface on which you projected your unhappiness. Now that your boss is gone, you are basically forced to take responsibility for your happiness. You can no longer blame it on the mean boss. Because you achieved this new level of freedom, it forces you to “grow up” and stop blaming others for your feelings.
There is a second reason to focus on achieving new degrees of freedom in your recovery. The second reason is about your ability to help and serve others. If you are trapped or enslaved in some way then you have all sorts of excuses for not helping others. By doing that you miss out on huge opportunities for growth and personal development in your recovery. Better to achieve freedom, remove the excuses, and start doing work that really matters in this world. This is the work (and the path) that can help you to become who you were really meant to be in recovery. You were meant to use your gifts and talents to help and serve others. If you have excuses for why you are not doing that yet, then you need to work on removing those excuses.
Maybe one excuse is that you have no energy for doing this sort of work, for making a difference in the lives of others. If that is the case then you are lacking freedom because you lack the physical energy to make a better contribution. In such a case you probably have a choice that you do not fully realize (or care to accept). That choice is to make a dilberate effort (and a sustained effort) in order to get into better shape, so that you have more energy.
Or perhaps you have an excuse that you never have enough money, and that your finances are holding you back from living a better life. If that is your excuse then you could ask others for help, learn how to better manage your finances better, and become empowered to have more freedom in the future.
The fact is that people are generally happy unless they have constrained their own freedom in a way to create misery. Just look at how drug and alcohol addiction is a constraint on our happiness. We get trapped in a cycle of drug or alcohol abuse and it keeps us from our happiness. The same thing can happen on a number of different levels, even in our recovery. Therefore you need to ask yourself “How am I limiting myself from enjoying a better life in recovery? What is holding me back from living the best life that I can?”
The answers to those questions will change and evolve over time, even as you maintain sobriety. For example, when I first got clean and sober I had a number of things that were still impeding my overall freedom. One of them was my nicotine addiction, which took several years for me to overcome. Eventually I was able to kick the habit and reclaim that freedom. Another limitation in my life I was not even aware of for at least the first 3 years of my recovery journey. I was out of shape and did not even realize how this was a restraint on my freedom. It was only after I started exercising on a regular basis and got into shape that I could look back and see how being out of shape had limited me.
Each time you make a breakthrough and achieve a new level of freedom, you should pause and then look carefully at your overall life, looking hard to find the next layer to uncover. There is always another layer to peel back and a new level of freedom to uncover. Each time we do this we are moving towards a better life in recovery. We are also helping to prevent relapse by taking positive action.
The focus on holistic health as part of your long term strategy
One of the keys to living a better life in recovery is in pursuing holistic health. This should become a focal point of your overall recovery effort.
Think carefully about what you value in recovery. Your own life and your own health has to come in as one of your highest (if not the highest) values. Without your life and your health, you can do nothing to help and to serve others.
The reason I use the term “holistic” health is because I have watched so many people slip through the cracks in recovery. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that I have watched people who focus heavily on one aspect of recovery (such as their spiritual fitness) while neglecting other parts of their health, even to the point of death. I have lost several friends in recovery who thought that it was more important to be spiritually connected than it was to quit smoking cigarettes.
When you talk about a holistic approach to health, what you are really doing is viewing the person in recovery as a “whole person.” Therefore you would not ignore the health threat of continued cigarette smoking in favor of spiritual development. Both would be important considerations with a holistic approach to recovery. What good is sobriety if you are dead? Trust me, it’s not worth it! This is what makes the holistic approach to recovery so important. If you achieve spiritual recovery but then lose your physical health, this is no good to anyone.
In addition, many of the degrees of freedom that you can achieve in life have to do with your overall health. If your health is bad then your freedom then your freedom is limited. This can be true of physical health, mental health, and so on.
Using negative visualization in order to magnify your gratitude
One of the best techniques for living better in recovery is “negative visualization.” This is very counter-inuitive and you may believe that it would actually make you unhappy until you tried it. But like most things in recovery, you have to put this into action in order to really benefit from it. Don’t just read about an exercise like this, actually do it and see what the results do for you.
Negative visualization is something that you should reflect on every once in a while in order to keep yourself grateful. If you are in a state of gratitude then this is almost a perfect state in recovery. People who are truly grateful do not relapse. They may relapse later when they are ungrateful, but they will not do so while they are in perfect gratitude. Therefore gratitude is something that we should try to cultivate and practice. Negative visualization is a way to do exactly that.
What you should do is to picture yourself in a negative situation every once in a while. When you hear bad news about others, really put yourself in their shoes and try to experience the deep feelings that they might have. You may believe that this will “bring you down” and make you sad but I would challenge you to try it. You will find that when you visualize yourself in negative situations that it actually increases your gratitude.
In essence, you are saying to yourself “well, it could be worse.” But then take it a step further and actually picture yourself in such a situation, spend some time painting that picture in your mind, make it real for a moment and imagine what the terrible feelings would feel like. This may sound like it would be a horrible thing to do all of the time, but if you try it you may be surprised with the results. In doing so you can multiply your gratitude. And if you are grateful for much of your life then you will be happy and living much better.
Avoiding the stress caused by hedonic adaptation
There is another aspect of gratitude that is important to grasp in the modern world. The concept of “hedonic adaptation” is that if you suddenly triple your income (and also your spending) then you will not be three times happier. You can plainly see that this is true because people who win the lottery often realize that they were happier before they hit the jackpot, or that the added money did not really increase their happiness (but it did increase their stress).
If you think carefully about our degrees of freedom that we are striving for, you should see that the real ticket here is to be happy with less. The key is that we have to condition ourselves to realize that and to actually live it.
One way to do that is to have a “spend nothing day” or even a “spend nothing week.” Why would you do that? To prove to yourself that spending money does not change your happiness! And why is this important? Because most people in recovery still try to tie their happiness to their spending, even though it clearly does not work that way. And the added stress of trying to spend your way to happiness is clearly not something that leads to a better life in recovery.
Instead, the ticket to freedom (and happiness) is to be happy with less, and to really be able to experience that on a deep level. If you are trying to spend your way to happiness then this is another form of enslavement. Freeodm from this is another step towards a better life in recovery.
What does it really mean to live better?
There are many different ways to try to measure “living better” in recovery, but my method basically has two criteria:
1) Stability of sobriety.
2) Uncovering new layers of freedom.
I believe that this is the path that we were meant to walk in recovery, because uncovering new layers of freedom is an extension of sobriety itself. We were caught in the chains of addiction and now we are uncovering a new life of freedom. Even after years or decades in recovery we can still do this and explore new avenues of freedom. A new diet, a new exercise program, a healthier way to live, a way to reduce stress. All of it can add up to a better life in recovery. The icing on the cake is that living consciously like this and pushing yourself to make positive changes is perhaps the best way to prevent relapse in the long run. Recovery is personal growth.
What about you? What is your secret to living better in recovery? Have you found the ideal life yet in sobriety, or are you still struggling to create more degrees of freedom? What can you do today to move closer to freedom?