My decision making has improved over the years. I am still a work in progress, just as we all are. Nowhere near perfect. But I’m getting better.
If you compare my life today to when I was still stuck in active addiction, it is no contest. When I was stuck in my alcoholism I was a perfect example of “self will run riot.” I only cared about medicating myself on a consistent basis. I did not try to hurt other people, but I was certainly not trying to help them either. I was only worried about where my next buzz was coming from. This was the main driver of all of my decisions at that time, which eventually led me to some undesirable consequences. So it goes with every addiction. We put our drug of choice in front of other things that we really care about. Then we lie to ourselves about that. This is denial.
Today my life is so much different, not only in the fact that I am clean and sober, but also in the sense that I am no longer running my life completely on self will. I don’t do that any more. I don’t try to judge and be the entire master of my universe all by myself any longer. That wasn’t working out for me so I had to drop the idea when I surrendered to my addiction.
In other words, when I was stuck in addiction I believed that my main goal in life was to make myself happy. I tried to do things that I thought would accomplish this goal without really hurting other people. Of course in the end that led me to the destructive cycle of alcoholism and drug addiction. And after a certain period of time I was lucky enough to realize that it wasn’t working any more. I wasn’t truly happy. In fact, I was almost never happy.
So I made what was probably the best decision that I have ever made in my whole life, and that may have been luck or it may have been a blessing. Either way, I decided to seek help. To really seek help and to try to learn a different way to live my life.
They call this state of being “surrender.” If you are real addict or a real alcoholic and you cannot achieve this state, I believe that you are bound to keep abusing your drug of choice. At some point hopefully you will have had enough misery, and this will cause you to reach this state of surrender.
I honestly don’t know how or why I really surrendered. I just remember doing it, feeling this weight lift, and realizing that I could just quit struggling. I could let it all go. And I mean let everything go. I even gave up on the idea that I might be happy again one day. I felt like I was ready to die, or possibly be reborn. And that is exactly what happened, because I was finally willing to ask for help.
This is really how to make excellent decisions in recovery, and in life: Ask for help.
You don’t have to do it alone. You don’t have to be a genius. There are plenty of other people who have been through your struggle who can be your guide.
But you have to let them in. You have to be willing. And you have to listen.
Setting yourself up for success through total and complete surrender
I didn’t know what I was doing when I first got clean and sober. I was clueless.
I had no faith or hope that I would ever be happy again. I had no real conviction that I could remain sober forever, or if recovery would work at all for me.
And I definitely did not know how to be happy with myself, living in my own skin. I was full of anxiety and fear.
This is how my recovery started.
So what did I do? I asked for help. This is the key.
Close family urged me to go back to rehab. In fact, they helped set it up. For that I am definitely grateful. I don’t think I would be sober today without inpatient treatment. I don’t believe that my sobriety would have turned out nearly as well if I had never gone to detox, residential, and eventually long term treatment.
In the past I was not as willing to go to rehab. And I was terrified of the idea of long term treatment. I could not believe that anyone would willingly live in a rehab for longer than 28 days. The idea just astounded me when I was still drinking.
But here I was, in early recovery, considering the idea that I probably needed to live in rehab for a very long time. I ended up staying 20 months. Today, at 13 years sober, I no longer think of that as “a really long time.” Compared to the rest of my journey, those 20 months were just a drop in the bucket. I have learned so much since then.
But don’t get the idea that everyone who is struggling with alcoholism needs to go live in treatment. This is not really the solution. It is just one solution, and it is one that worked for me.
There are other solutions. You can see these if you are willing to listen and learn from other people.
For example, I went to a lot of AA and NA meetings during my first 18 months of recovery. And I met people who had never been to a rehab center in their life, and they got clean and sober strictly by coming to daily 12 step meetings. That is pretty impressive to me when I stop and think about it. I had to live in rehab for 20 months, and these people never even went to detox! How did they do it? I am still amazed by this at times.
Don’t mistake one form of treatment or any specific recovery program for being the whole solution. It never is. The solution is recovery itself, the solution is sobriety. But there are many different paths that lead to this solution.
Your job (if you are struggling with addiction or alcoholism) is to figure out what path will lead you to freedom, to sobriety, to a better life.
I believe that there are ultimately two different ways of doing this. One way is to figure out your own path, test it out, and hope that it works for you. This is possible, but difficult.
The other way is to not bother trying to reinvent the wheel, and just use an existing recovery program. This works for a lot of people. One example of this is the 12 step program.
To be perfectly honest, my journey has involved both approaches. During the first 18 months of my recovery, I was following advice, going to AA meetings, working the steps with a sponsor, and so on.
But for the last 13 years of my recovery, I have not been doing those things. I have gotten away from the 12 step approach and I basically do my own thing. Call it a more holistic approach, if you will. I sometimes refer to it as the creative theory of recovery. But either way, there is an important lesson here that I don’t want you to miss.
Do not try to design your own recovery program in early sobriety. That’s just poor timing. Self sabotage is very common at this stage, so you will almost certainly drive yourself to relapse.
The best way to design your recovery program is get some stability in early recovery first by using someone else’s ideas.
If I am honest about it, that is exactly what I did. I lived in long term rehab for 20 months. I worked the 12 step program for about 18 months. And then I left treatment and sort of rejected the whole model and tried to find my own path instead.
I don’t think that AA is wrong, or that it doesn’t work. It most certainly does work. But it wasn’t a perfect fit for me, and I believe that other people might find better ways to achieve sobriety as well.
And at one point, I made the decision to leave the daily AA meetings, even though pretty much everyone told me that this felt like it was wrong. Really wrong.
But it worked out perfectly, and I have had an amazing and healthy journey ever since. I am grateful that I had the guts to make that decision.
In early recovery, that would have been a very poor decision to make.
That is why I recommend to people in early recovery not to make decisions at all. Instead, outsource your decision making entirely to people that you trust and who understand recovery.
Removing yourself from the decision making process for the first year of sobriety
I suggest that if you have less than one year of sobriety, you stop making decisions for yourself.
Instead, led someone else make them. Every time.
That might sound extreme or ridiculous. But it worked very well for me and it turned my life around almost instantly.
I actually made an agreement with myself when I had a few weeks sober. I said to myself “I am not going to trust any of my own ideas any more. I am only going to take advice and suggestions from my therapist, my sponsor, my peers, and people that I trust in recovery. I am not going to use any of my own ideas unless I clear them with other people first. I don’t care if this makes me unhappy. I will do it anyway.”
This is essentially stomping out your own ego. You are removing yourself from the driver’s seat. You are saying “someone else is going to direct my life for a while, rather than myself.”
And it works. In fact, if you do this seriously, the results will amaze you.
I did it when I was just two weeks into my sobriety. And by the time I had six months sober I was amazed. It was like I had found some secret cheat code for a video game. I had unlocked the biggest secret of the universe. I had discovered the path to happiness.
And it was so simple, yet counter-intuitive.
Simple, because all you had to do was ignore your own ideas and trust other people. You had to follow directions. It was like being in kindergarten.
It was very counter-intuitive, however, because we all believe that only YOU can know what would possibly make you happy in this life. How could anyone else ever know?
But when I got to this point in my journey I was so miserable from my addiction that I no longer cared. I was willing to try or do just about anything. And I was sick of being miserable. I was sick and tired of it. So I made this agreement with myself, that I would only trust other people’s advice and not my own. That I would follow directions and I would do what the therapists and the counselors told me to do. Just like a good little student.
And it worked. I was absolutely amazed by the time I had 6 months sober. My life had been transformed through no real genius on my part. I had just followed directions, done what people told me to do.
If you have less than one year of sobriety, I strongly urge you to try this technique. It takes one year to do it. Make an agreement with yourself that you will not make any of your own decisions for a full year. That you will trust other people, take their advice, and you will ignore your own advice to yourself. Trust others rather than yourself. Do it for one full year. See if your life doesn’t change and amaze you. Just see if you do not find a new reason to be happy, to be grateful in recovery.
Learning to trust ideas from other people through open mindedness and the testing process
You may be worried at this point. I certainly was. I did not just want to hand over full control of my life to anyone else. But I was miserable enough that I was willing to live in rehab, so I guess that proved I was at least partially willing.
The other part required a testing process. So here is what you do.
Don’t worry so much that you are giving up control. You are actually not. In the end, you still have this little voice in your head that gets to have the final say, that gets to make the final decisions. Everyone knows that they can still force their legs to walk down to the corner bar if that is what they decide to do. You are ultimately still in control of yourself.
But you have to make an agreement with yourself to relinquish control. Surrender to the wisdom of others. This is your ticket to a new life.
Now, how can you trust these new ideas? How can you trust other people in recovery to point you in the right direction?
First of all, if you are in detox or just now getting clean and sober, you can probably trust just about anyone other than yourself and it would be an improvement.
Second of all, if you genuinely ask for help and you follow through on the advice that you are given, the quality of the advice that you get should start to rise. In other words, I asked my family to help me and they sent me to rehab. I asked for more help and they put me in long term treatment. I asked for help there and people told me what to do and how to live.
Notice that the first two stations really just passed me along to “better help.” I had to get to where I was going! And people were more than happy to send me there. Maybe you will ask for help and end up in an Emergency room. That might work out, because someone there might refer you to inpatient rehab. Or a social worker will get you placed somewhere that can help you better. It’s about trusting in the process. Once you put down the chemicals and honestly seek help you will probably find that doors open up a little bit easier for you.
And eventually you may be living in recovery and be stable in your sobriety, and you will still be in the business of trying out ideas and seeing if they help you.
I have 13 years sober and I am still asking people for help and testing out their ideas. I meet new people, find out what they do to stay sober, and then see if that might help me or not.
Let me tell you a story. At one point fairly early in my recovery journey, my therapist at the time told me to meditate. He showed me how to do it and I researched the topic quite a bit as well. I practiced it for a few months time and I really got into it for a while.
In the end, I quit meditating. Why? Not because it wasn’t working for me, because it was beneficial. But ultimately I found something that worked better for me personally, and that was distance running.
“Couldn’t you do both?” Sure you could. Anyone could do both. But I found that I got the same benefits from the running that I did from seated meditation, only it was a much better fit for me and seemed to do so much more. I researched this further and I found that there are a group of monks that prefer running over seated meditation. Interesting stuff. So I had to find what worked for me, I had to take suggestions from various people and try out their ideas and keep testing new things in my life. And just because I found one solution doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better solution out there to replace it. This is part of what being open minded is all about.
Figuring out what is really important to your personal growth in recovery
In very early recovery, you don’t know what is truly important.
The day I got sober, I believed that the most important thing in life was making myself “happy” every day with booze and drugs.
As I have progressed in recovery, what is most important to me is something that has continuously evolved and changed over time.
I no longer believe that “my happiness” is necessarily all that important, because chasing it directly doesn’t work anyway! It just moves further and further away, like a carrot on a stick.
Some of the things that are really important to me in recovery today are things like:
* Being grateful
* Fitness, being in shape
* Good health, free of disease
* Loving others, caring for others
* Family, close friends
* Helping people in recovery
And so on. That list is just off the top of my head, I could probably drill down and refine that list quite a bit and add more to it, but I think it is a decent snapshot of what is really important to me today.
Now here is a critical point that I want you to take away from this:
I did not figure out this list of stuff on my own. I never would have believed this list on the day I got sober. Or even after 3 years sober.
I had to be shown these principles. I had to live and experience things. I had to follow directions and learn from other people in my life.
And my ideas have changed over time. These are the things that are important to me today, after 13 years in recovery.
During my first year my list would have looked quite different.
Taking advice and feedback from other people has had a major impact on my life today. One great example of this is with exercise and fitness. People pushed me for years to do this and I resisted it. Finally I caved in and got into shape. Now fitness is a huge part of my recovery, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What about you, have you learned how to make strong decisions in recovery? Are you still in the learning process with this (like I am?). Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!