Most people believe that the answer to overcoming alcoholism and drug addiction is spiritual. This is based on the current system we have in the substance abuse industry because that is what we are pushing at people as the solution. It works for some and we don’t seem to have any better tested alternatives.
But my job today is to try to wake you up to the fact that spirituality may just be one piece of the puzzle, and that there may be a broader path in recovery that is more powerful than “just” spirituality by itself.
Traditional recovery and the spiritual solution
There is no doubt that from a historical perspective the revolution that AA provided was a big deal. Before that point they had not real hope for alcoholics and drug addicts. They were simply locked up or given up on entirely because no one could figure out any way to help them.
AA was the turning point in being able to offer such people any sort of help. It gave people hope where there was absolutely none before. This was a really big deal and certainly nothing this big has happened since then in the treatment industry that I can think of. It is not as if we have developed a medication today that “cures” addiction or makes any sort of massive impact on recovery outcomes. AA is pretty much the only major innovation the field has seen, at least from my perspective.
The spiritual solution is not wrong. It is a tactic by which a person can overcome their addiction by shifting their attitude, their perspective, and their decision making process. It works for many people but it does not work for all people.
There is also the issue of timing. I have had several peers in recovery who have done well in early recovery based on the spiritual solution, but in long term sobriety they fall apart. They relapse. Why did the spiritual solution fail them in the long run, and what is the answer for that?
I believe after much observation and seeking that I may have an answer for that. I am not sure if it is the only right answer (seriously doubt it) but I believe that it is one valid answer.
The reason such people relapsed in long term recovery is because they got complacent. They had a good foundation of spirituality in their early recovery but for some reason they got lazy in long term sobriety and this led to relapse. So what could have prevented this from happening? Were they not spiritual enough? What is the solution in a case like this?
I believe that the solution is to think of recovery not as having a spiritual solution, but in having a holistic solution.
Spirituality is but one part of the holistic approach. But it is not the whole approach.
What is the holistic approach to recovery?
The holistic approach to recovery is all about your overall health, not just your spiritual health.
In traditional recovery they are only concerned with spiritual health. They seem to disregard physical health. Have you ever sat in an AA meeting where they allowed smoking and coffee? I have, several times. And it is alarming to see just how much of those substances are flowing through the atmosphere. There is so much smoke you can’t see through the room at times!
Now I realize that most AA meetings are non-smoking, and this is just one example. But I don’t remember people telling me at AA meetings that I should get out there and exercise. Or that I should be concerned with my emotional balance.
And that is kind of the point. Traditional recovery focuses only on spiritual health, and there are these other areas of personal health that can be important to your long term sobriety.
Again, there is an issue of timing here. In very early recovery the holistic approach does not matter as much in terms of relapse prevention. In very early recovery, you only have one job: To stay sober on day at a time and to find yourself again. There is nothing wrong with pushing hard on the spiritual angle in very early recovery, in my opinion.
But what happens after six months if you are still only focused on spirituality? What happens after 2 years, after 5 years if you are not looking at your emotional health, your physical health, your mental health, and your relationships? What then?
Relapse happens. That is what will happen in the long run if you completely ignore the holistic approach. The reason this is true is because your disease is so sneaky and relapse can happen in many different ways. In order to prevent these various forms of relapse you need to be able to protect yourself and your life from these threats. It is difficult to juggle all of these threats and respond to them so it is better to use a proactive approach instead. The way to do this is to take care of yourself in a holistic manner.
In traditional recovery you take care of your spiritual health and this prevents a spiritual relapse. In holistic recovery you take care of all areas of your health (including spiritually) and this helps to prevent relapse on several different levels all at once. It is a more comprehensive form of relapse prevention.
Every day you need to tick off the check boxes: Are you taking care of yourself:
* Physically? Fitness, nutrition, quitting smoking, eating right, getting enough sleep, etc.
* Mentally? Are you generating new ideas about how to improve your life and your life situation? Are you forcing your mind to practice gratitude?
* Emotionally? Are you stable in your emotions? Have you eliminated stress? Is it a smooth ride or do you need to make changes?
* Socially? Are you helping others in recovery? Have you eliminated toxic relationships?
* Spiritually? Are you grateful right now this very second? Can you do anything to change that? Do you practice gratitude daily?
If you are not doing all of those things then you are leaving a door open for the disease to sneak back in and cause relapse.
Most people in traditional recovery just focus on one of those check boxes, the spirituality one. And even then many of them ignore the most important part of spirituality and they fail to find gratitude on a moment to moment basis.
So this particular approach is not about being more spiritual, it is about being healthy every single day in all of these various areas. If you fail to check off these boxes in your daily life then you are much more vulnerable to relapse.
What makes the holistic approach so effective for long term sobriety
In long term sobriety the threat of relapse is much harder to protect against. It is no longer about controlling an immediate craving and rushing out the door to go drink on a moment’s notice. That threat is gone in long term sobriety so the old tactics for relapse prevention become useless. For example, they advise you if you have a craving to “go to a meeting” or “call your sponsor.” These things work in early recovery but in long term sobriety you are not necessarily going to be in the habit of doing those things. After ten years sober the relapse will creep up from a different direction. For example you may fall physically ill due to poor sleep, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. Then you find yourself addicted to painkillers or anxiety medication all of a sudden based on this illness. I have watched this sort of thing happen to recovering alcoholics who had over a decade sober. They get hooked on a medication and suddenly they are drinking again.
How can you react to a situation like this or protect yourself from it? There is no way to plan for such situations directly other than to use a holistic approach. That is because the holistic approach is proactive and you are preventing all sorts of problems like the one in this example by striving for better health in all areas of your life.
This is what makes the holistic approach so powerful. The only reason you could relapse in long term sobriety is if you are neglecting one area of your overall health. So the way to prevent this is to wake up every day and to check off those boxes, make sure that you are striving for better health in every one of those areas. It is not enough to pursue spiritual health in recovery because that will leave you vulnerable to relapse in other areas. Spirituality is only one dimension of your overall health in recovery. There are four others and they are emotional, physical, mental, and social. You need to be making an effort to improve all of those areas on a daily basis in order to truly prevent relapse.
During my early recovery I watched several of my peers relapse while I was living in long term rehab. At the time I was baffled by this because many of these peers of mine were very spiritual people, and I considered some of them to be “more spiritual” than I was. This is what led me to start investigating these ideas and to figure out why the holistic approach to recovery is better at preventing relapse than a strictly spiritual approach.
Why you should at least consider a holistic approach to your recovery and daily life
There is more to the holistic approach to recovery then mere relapse prevention.
In fact if you use the sort of holistic approach that I am outlining here then your life will continue to get better and better in all areas. This is really the point of recovery in my opinion because then you are constantly being rewarded on your recovery journey.
I used to hear people say this in AA meetings (before I got sober): “It just keeps getting better and better!” I always wondered what they meant because at the time I was still drinking. Now today, over a decade of sobriety later I definitely know what they are talking about. Life just keeps getting better and better in recovery because I continue to push myself to improve my life.
This is the reward system and the cycle of progress that I have adopted in recovery. I keep pushing myself to improve:
1) My life – meaning my internal life, my mind, my mental status. Eliminating things like fear, anger, resentment, self pity, shame, and so on. Doing internal work.
2) My life situation – meaning my external world, my physical health, my relationships, my career, etc.
I think it is important for people to do both of these things. It can be a bit overwhelming at first to try to consider both of these types of changes (both internal and external) but in long term sobriety I think it is very important for people to explore both types of growth. I think there is a tendency in traditional recovery to only focus on the internal stuff as those changes are outlined by the 12 steps. But the actual steps say nothing about making these sort of external changes, although you might hear it mentioned at meetings that you need to “change people, places, and things.” Well, this is really important to do! In my opinion if they are going to give you direction and real help then this should be in the 12 steps as well. Many people relapse as a result of failing to change these external problems in their lives.
Building a daily practice that can help to prevent relapse
My belief is that your day to day routine will ultimately determine your long term success in recovery.
We become what we do every day.
Therefore you need to establish a daily practice. You need to adopt the daily habits that will get you to where you want to go. You want to adopt the right habits to produce the outcome that you want in life.
This starts slowly in early recovery when you ask for help or possibly go to a rehab center and start working a program of recovery.
From there you build it up and eventually you have to make it your own. When you have two weeks sober it doesn’t really matter, simply listen to other people and do what you are told to do and you will remain sober. But after multiple years sober it gets a little bit trickier. Not harder or easier, necessarily, but now it is more up to you to find your own path in recovery. Because you can only take orders from other people for so long. I did it for about 18 months or so and was able to build a new foundation. But I realized at some point that I was not going to live that way forever, I was not going to just keep going to meetings and asking for advice from a sponsor and living according to someone else’s whims forever. I had to find my own path in recovery and I had to develop my own strategy. And this is what having a daily practice is all about. I had to establish the healthy habits in my life that would carry me through to success. “Success” being the outcome in life that I was desiring, the sobriety and the peace and the contentment.
In early recovery you should be taking suggestions. You should not be coming up with your own ideas just yet if you are in your first year of sobriety. You should listen to other people. I don’t say that to be mean, I say that because it is 100 percent the truth. Kill your ego and get out of your own way. Go to AA and do what they tell you to do.
But after that first year you will realize that you have to make recovery your own. You must find your own path. By all means, build that foundation first, but then you have to start figuring things out eventually. And my suggestion to you is that you take a good look at those “check boxes” that I talk about checking off every day, those five different areas of your health. For example, a big part of my daily practice comes from exercise. I did not figure this out until I was in my third year of sobriety. You have to consider all aspects of your health in order to prevent relapse. The spiritual approach is not enough.
So take suggestions from other people. Talk to recovering alcoholics outside of AA meetings. They are expected to push the spiritual approach in AA meetings but outside of the meeting you might be able to get them to talk more about the real truth. That truth being, what do they actually do on a day to day basis that keeps them sober after ten years in sobriety? Because I can promise you that their daily habits are not made up of just the limited spiritual stuff they talk about in AA meetings.
In other words, people in AA believe they have to cater to the newcomer. They talk about going to meetings, prayer, meditation, finding a higher power, surrendering, and so on. But what does the 10 year sober person do every day to maintain sobriety?
They exercise. They eat healthy. They focus on improving relationships. They seek emotional balance. They use a holistic approach and they strive to improve things other than their spirituality. And they don’t talk about this stuff in an AA meeting, because it is not really relevant to the newcomer. The newcomer in AA is suffering a spiritual crisis, among other things, and the solution is to “not drink, find God, and hold on tight for the ride.” But that is not what keeps people sober after 3 years, after 5 years, after ten years. Sure, it is still part of the foundation. But it is not the whole solution. Spirituality is but one sliver of the overall holistic approach.
Every day you wake up and you have to keep building something positive in your life. If you fail to do this then the default is that you will relapse. As an alcoholic or a drug addict the default mode is to self medicate. You will relapse if you do not take action.
Now if you have ten years sober will you relapse tomorrow if you fail to take action? Probably not. It will take weeks, months, or even years for the relapse to happen. But it is certain to happen eventually if you are not actively working against it. And the way to do that is to improve your life, improve your life situation, and strive for better health in all of these areas we have discussed. You can do this most effectively by establishing a daily practice, one in which you check off these boxes each and every day of your life. Did I take care of myself today physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Socially? Spiritually?
Am I grateful today? Am I doing the things that I need to do in order to move towards greater health and wellness?
These are the sort of questions that can drive your success in using the holistic approach.
What about you, have you found the holistic approach to be helpful in your own recovery journey? Are you focusing only on spirituality? How is that working out for you so far? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!