Living a happy life in addiction recovery requires hard work.
Particularly, you have to put in a great deal of effort up front in order to enjoy the lasting benefits of a peaceful journey in recovery.
The part that trips most people up is in having to put up that huge effort in the beginning.
We would, of course, like for it all to be so easy. Just stop drinking or taking drugs, and hopefully life will sort itself out and become happy, joyous, and free.
But it doesn’t work that way of course. We all have baggage. We all have a past. We all have reasons that our drug of choice was so enticing to us.
Every addict and alcoholic is medicating a million different forms of fear and self hatred.
In recovery, we have to do a lot of hard work in order to learn how to love ourselves again. How to treat ourselves right again. And that takes time.
But perhaps most importantly, it also takes a massive initial effort in early recovery.
You can’t just tip toe your way into sobriety. You have to dive in head first and make massive changes.
Or rather, that is the only way that I have seen any success in sobriety. I have never watched someone successfully cut down, learn to moderate, learn to slowly control their alcohol or drug intake, and then slowly bring it to a full stop. Has that ever happened? I have never heard of evidence for this.
Instead, successful recovery requires massive change.
Creating a foundation through massive changes in early recovery
I had to build a foundation in early recovery from which I could start to learn how to live sober.
What does that even mean, though, to “build a foundation?”
For me, it had to do with taking massive action and establishing new habits and routines.
Fighting an addiction is an every day battle. It never stops. Every single day is another opportunity for relapse.
Therefore you need to make massive changes, and they have to be lifestyle changes. So you are turning negative habits into positive ones.
For example, I used to live with others who drank and used drugs and I worked in a toxic environment as well. In my free time I would hang out with other drinkers and users. My whole life revolved around getting and using more drugs and alcohol.
The day I got sober, all of that changed forever. This was a massive amount of change and it was difficult. Somehow I made it through these changes.
Here is what I did.
First I went to treatment. I checked into detox. (And even before that, I asked for help. My family directed me to rehab).
Second, I listened to what they told me to do at rehab. This was quite a change from my previous behavior in addiction, where I did whatever I felt like, listening to no one.
Third, I followed through. The therapists and counselors told me what to do, and I actually did it. Again, this was new. A real change.
They told me to move into long term rehab. I did that and lived there for 20 months continuous. This was huge. Massive change.
So with these few changes described here, my whole life was now on a new and different track. Now I lived in rehab, I was following directions, and I was no longer sabotaging my own efforts. In the past I might try to “slow down” or to switch from one drug to the other but those were always just my own twisted ideas about how to beat addiction. And none of it worked.
Nothing worked until I started listening and following directions. That is the hard part that no one wants to do.
This is how I built a foundation. There are other ways to build a foundation and your own unique path might be different from mine. And it might still work out for you.
For example, I know of people in recovery who never went to rehab. They simply sobered up on their own and started hitting AA meetings every single day. And it worked out for them. Does this work for everyone? Definitely NOT. Some people need more help than others. I needed to go to rehab and then I needed to live in long term treatment for almost two years!
And you have to find that line for yourself. If you go to AA and you relapse, perhaps you need more help next time. Try checking into professional treatment. AA will still be there for you when you get out. The same is true if you failed with a 28 day program. Perhaps next time you should go to long term rehab like I did.
And honestly it is not so much that you need more treatment. Rather, it is the idea that if you commit to going to more treatment then this indicates a deeper level of surrender. It is not actually the treatment that is going to “cure” you, because this is misleading. No one gets cured. Going to longer rehab is not necessarily better than shorter rehab. But it shows you what your level of surrender and commitment is, and that makes all the difference. I had to be willing to live in rehab for 20 months in order to get sober. Just going to a 28 day program, for me, was not enough. Your mileage may vary. The important thing is that you build your foundation. If you relapse then you did not build a good foundation. Start over and work harder at it. One way to do that is to seek out MORE treatment. Longer treatment. That is not always the answer but it is one factor that you might consider. And, it worked for me.
What leads to a peaceful life in recovery anyway?
So how do you achieve peace in recovery?
Here is the interesting bit of wisdom:
It is not about finding the perfect spot by the lake and the perfect sunrise and you sitting there doing seated meditation after having a few months or years sober. That may be the ideal image of peace to someone but that is not what builds a lifetime of peace.
Remember that this is a daily battle. Recovery and addiction is an ongoing daily issue. It never stops. It never takes a rest.
Therefore the struggle for peace is an ongoing effort. There is always the chance to be disrupted in some way. To be knocked out of alignment.
So the counter-intuitive bit is this:
It is not something you achieve necessarily. Rather, peace is attained through elimination.
So we must do work to get rid of things. What kind of things?
Mostly stuff like anger, fear, guilt, shame, resentment, and self pity.
If you work hard and you eliminate things like that from your life then you can attain something like peace.
Because think about it:
It’s not about the external circumstances. Peace isn’t found on the outside.
You achieve peace from within. Regardless of your current circumstances. Sometimes in spite of the chaos that is whirling around you.
Some people are really bad at this, and they have no peace in their life not matter what is going on. They could, in fact, have fairly peaceful circumstances and yet have a life that is somehow always filled with drama.
And at the other extreme you may find someone who has a lot on their plate and great stress and responsibility to deal with, yet they somehow remain calm and collected through all of it. They have found peace in the eye of the storm. How do they do it?
This is possible because peace is an inner journey that is based on real work that you have done.
For example, I used to be caught up in the self pity game. That was how I justified much of my drinking. I felt sorry for myself all of the time.
So whenever there was any little drama in my life, I amplified it. I focused on it. I made it out to be worse than it really was. I played the victim. I actually liked to be the victim. Because it gave me an excuse to drink.
When I got sober, I realized that I was still doing this. Yet I was no longer drinking.
And it was costing me my peace. This habit that was left over from my addiction was costing me peace of mind.
So it had to go. I had to eliminate it.
I had to realize first that I was engaging in self pity.
Then I had to learn how to overcome it (this required increasing my awareness of it, making a decision, and practicing gratitude).
So it took work. I had to identify the problem, then I had to do the work. Then that bit of negativity was banished from my life, and the natural peace of mind was restored.
You are the blank slate. Your life is meant to be peaceful. That is truly your natural state.
We complicate this with a million different forms of fear and negativity. And it is all up in our minds. That is where the work comes in.
We have to identify this stuff and then process it. Then we can take action and eliminate it.
If you do this once then you understand the process. Then you can look deeper at yourself, get even more honest with yourself, and find other ways that you might be blocking peace from your life.
If you want a formal way to do this, then get a sponsor in AA and work through the 12 steps with them. You may have to try a few different sponsors to find someone who is willing to do the work this thoroughly as described here.
You can, of course, do the work outside of AA as well.
I would suggest that you start by keeping a daily journal and writing in it. Make this a daily practice, so that you have a good idea of what your current status may be. Your current thinking. Your current issues. Where are you blocking yourself from peace in your life today? What is the source of your stress, your anxiety? If you explore these questions in written form then over time you can learn a great deal about yourself. Especially if you then take that information that you learn about yourself and work to resolve the problems. This is huge. It is a strong path to personal growth.
How to prioritize your efforts at making healthy changes in sobriety
Start with your biggest problem.
Look for the negative. Look for your biggest source of stress or anxiety.
You may be tempted to start with something easier. Resist that temptation. Remember that we need massive action in order to make real progress in recovery.
For me, the first big change was surrender itself and going to rehab. This was huge. I had to do that in order to start building a foundation.
Second of all I had to become aware of my problem with self pity. It was threatening to destroy me by driving me back to relapse.
Third I had to back up, look at my life, and get honest with myself. I had to turn this into a regular process. I did this by asking myself the question:
“What is the one change that I could make in my life now that would have the greatest positive impact for me?”
At one point, the answer to that question was: Quit smoking cigarettes.
That was really tough. I struggled for a few years in my sobriety journey before I was able to successfully quit smoking. But I finally did it. And it was the healthiest thing that I could have done at the time.
At another point in my journey the answer was: Start exercising daily. I had been idle for far too long. Out of shape. I needed a new process, a new routine. This was huge. I started exercising and never looked back. That was about a decade ago.
So there are lots of potential changes that a person in recovery might make in their life.
You want to focus. Make one major change at a time. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Establish a new habit, then move on to the next change. I would say there are two suggestions for how to prioritize:
1) Ask yourself: “What is the one change I could make now that would have the greatest positive impact for me?”
2) Ask others in recovery that you trust. Peers, therapists, sponsors, etc. Ask them what the next positive change in your life should be. Collect feedback. Listen to people.
This second point is important. Many of the major changes that I have made in my life were not my own ideas. Almost all of them were, in fact, suggestions from other people.
Going back to college, starting to exercise, living in rehab, and many other decisions were actually suggested to me. I am glad that I took them.
Also realize that if you take a suggestion from someone and it doesn’t work out, this is almost never a big deal. Simply move on. Find new ideas, new feedback, new suggestions. There is almost never a major penalty for taking the wrong advice, so long as it was positive advice from someone you trust.
This leads you to a life of experimentation. And that is what they suggest at AA as well when they say “Take what you need and leave the rest.” They are telling you to experiment. Try the suggestions, put them into action in your life, and then keep the ideas that actually help you. Discard the rest and move on. Simple and effective.
You can do this with your entire life, but far beyond AA. Do it with personal growth. Do it for your whole life, for every area of your health. Keep experimenting and learning new things about yourself. Keep moving forward.
Never stop experimenting.
That could lead you to complacency, and relapse.
Two potential problems: Not doing the work, or slacking off and becoming complacent in long term sobriety
People have two major problems in addiction recovery:
1) They don’t do the work. They don’t take massive action in early recovery. They never commit. They don’t really start.
2) They find stable sobriety, but then they get complacent and relapse. They slack off. They get lazy. And it leads to relapse.
So the question is: How do you keep a good thing going in addiction recovery? How do you keep yourself from becoming complacent in long term sobriety?
If you go to enough AA meetings you will eventually hear stories about how someone relapsed who had decades of sobriety under their belt. How is that possible?
It happens because people get complacent. They get lazy. They stop doing the things that they need to do in order to remain sober.
Those things, collectively, are referred to as your “daily practice.”
If you have been sober for several years then what maintains that sobriety is your day to day actions. Your daily routines. Your daily habits.
Either they are healthy for you and keep you moving forward, or they have you stuck in a rut.
Stuck in a rut = complacent.
So how do you look at your daily habits and decide that you are moving forward? What if you might be fooling yourself and you are actually complacent?
Complacency is a condition in which you do not believe that you are complacent. Denial is built into it.
That’s a problem.
One solution to that problem is to make a wild assumption:
Just assume now that you are complacent. Assume that you already have this problem of being lazy in your recovery.
So maybe once a week you sit down and write out a quick list. Jot down the three most important things that you need to do for your recovery. What are your most pressing issues right now?
These could be all sorts of things. Maybe you stopped exercising. Maybe your sleep habits have become poor. Maybe you have a relationship in your life that is causing you stress. Whatever the case may be, there could always be some potential negativity creeping into your life.
If you are not vigilant then there is no way to eliminate this. There is no way from stopping it from snowballing.
So you need a way to keep yourself in check. Not just to grind out the old habits of, say, going to AA meetings every day. But to challenge yourself to really look at your life and find the trouble spots, to get honest with yourself about what might really be going on inside of you.
The 12 steps offer a solution for this if you actually do the work. Not all people put in that kind of serious effort though. The step that most correlates with what I am talking about here is step 10: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
Even if you are not in AA and have nothing to do with the 12 steps, this is a concept that is important for long term sobriety. We need a way to keep ourselves in check, to keep moving forward, to keep pushing ourselves for more growth.
Striving for peace through the inner journey of change
If you want peace in your life then you have to take a look at the inner journey.
It cannot all be about changing your external reality. In fact, very little of it will be.
You need process. A way to look at all of the fear, the guilt, the shame, the negativity that is swirling around inside of your head, and then you need to identify all of that stuff and work to eliminate it. This is how you find peace in your life. Through the inner journey and doing the hard work. Most people would like to avoid this sort of work because it makes them uncomfortable. But this is the price that you pay for peace. Do the work, get honest with yourself, and stay vigilant. This is how you achieve peace in long term sobriety.
What about you, have you found peace in recovery? What is your process for achieving it? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!