I am certainly guilty of publishing a checklist of tips for sobriety on this website in the past.
But I don’t really think that this is necessarily helpful. You can get some ideas from such a list and you may even implement some of them to your own benefit, but I don’t really think that this is a recipe for sobriety.
It doesn’t work that way.
Why you can’t just check off a to-do list in order to recover from alcoholism
When I first went to rehab I was nowhere near the point of true surrender. I was still stuck in denial and I had no idea how to actually live in recovery. And I wasn’t ready to learn yet.
But I can remember being sort of eager to give it a try. I wanted to get sober as long as it was not too much work, if you know what I mean. In other words, I wanted the benefits of sobriety but I did not want to have to do the work in order to get them. Nor did I really care to stay sober at that point. So I had all sorts of problems with my attitude.
And I can also remember at that time that I just wanted to work the steps and be done with it all. I was basically saying: “OK, so I have to work these 12 steps in order to recover. Let’s do this thing. Show me the workbook, give me the checklist, and I will get through it. Let’s get this over with so I can move on. I’ve already been in rehab for four days and I think I am about ready to go home now.”
That was my attitude and it was terrible. I did not realize that recovery is a process, that you have to turn it into a lifelong process, into a lifestyle.
I was inpatient. I wanted sobriety right now. I did not want to have to wait for it. If I was going to stop drinking and get sober and quit doing drugs, then things had better get better real quick, darn it. I did not want to have to wait around for a miracle. I did not want to have to put in the work.
This is what you are really saying to yourself if you want to use a checklist in order to get sober. You are basically saying: “I don’t want to have to think about this. Just give me the checklist and tell me what boxes I have to check off in order to have this awesome new life in recovery. But please don’t make me think. Don’t make me do any real work.”
So I do not believe that you can get clean and sober just by following a checklist. And perhaps this line of thinking applies to the 12 steps as well, that you can’t just work through the steps and then be done with them forever. Of course you have to live those principles every day, and I think (hope?) that most people in AA realize this. I was confused when I was still in denial because I believed that the 12 steps were something that I could work through like they were a worksheet or a workbook of some sort and then never have to think about them ever again. I could just fill out a form and I would magically be healed forever.
Ridiculous. It doesn’t work that way.
So then…..how does it work exactly?
The different is that we need a recovery strategy. Tactics are no good, though we tend to talk about tactics as well.
An example of a tactic for recovery would be: “If you have a craving then call your sponsor or a peer in recovery and talk about it.”
That’s a tactic. It is a specific action that you can take in order to help you stay sober.
So how is a strategy different from this?
Your strategy is the bigger picture. Take a step back from your daily recovery and look at the whole thing. Actually think about the broad implications.
For example, daily exercise is a part of my recovery strategy. And this helps me to stay sober in many different ways. For example, because I exercise every day it helps me to sleep better. Most people would not even think about that connection at first, but it makes a difference. Better sleep habits have made a positive impact on my sobriety. My life flows much more smoothly when I am getting good sleep on a consistent basis. And the daily exercise definitely helps me with that.
This is not something that I could have achieved from a tactical standpoint. If I was having trouble sleeping and someone told me to go run six miles every day I would have told them that they were crazy. Or if they told me to change my diet around I would have said that was too extreme.
And this is why most strategies in addiction recovery tend to be holistic. In other words, they treat the whole person, not just one aspect of their disease.
A good strategy is more than just a few tactics thrown together. A good strategy is one in which all of the tactics that you use on a day to day basis fit together well and enhance each other. And this is where the holistic part of it comes into play. If you exercise every day then you need better fuel for the body. So you might work on improving your nutrition. Then your sleep starts to improve. Maybe you get more confidence from this new routine and the discipline that you are building. You find the exercise is like meditation for you (or you also start to do seated meditation, or yoga for example). And so you find more emotional balance. And you may discover the power of gratitude in here somewhere and make a spiritual leap forward as a result.
And so what I am suggesting is that you can’t necessarily just develop this sort of lifestyle by going down a checklist. Or rather, you can do so by taking suggestions from other people and then you have to decide what tactics to keep and which to drop from your life. You must prioritize. And so this is why you need a strategy.
My strategy is one of holistic health and personal growth. If someone suggests that I quit smoking, or start exercising, or adopt better sleep habits, then I have to evaluate that idea and decide if the benefits of doing that thing are worth the effort. This is best done with trial period, usually 30 days or more.
So I might try something for 30 days and establish a new habit out of it. Then the question is: Do I want to keep the habit, or drop it and move on to other things?
I have dropped certain things in the past. For example, my therapist once urged me to do seated meditation. It was working for him really well and he was super excited for me to try it. So I indulged this suggestion and I did a lot of research and I practiced seated meditation every single day. I kept his up for maybe two months. I explored different techniques, watching the breath, doing some visualization, and all sorts of things. I even tried to learn to astral project! And after about two months of this I sort of moved on because the benefits of it did not really seem to be worth the effort I was making.
Now some people would say “Oh that is ridiculous, you should have stuck with it, meditation is great!” Ah but you see, I really did stick with it, because eventually I started getting into distance running. This was better than meditation (for me). There are even some devout monks in the world that argue that distance running is superior to meditation. It gives much the same benefits and obviously does a bit more for you physically as well.
So I had to find my groove. Seated meditation wasn’t doing it for me. But exercise was making a huge difference in my life, I just had to discover it first.
And this was a process.
The process was to take suggestions from other people and experiment with various tactics. Yes, distance running could be called a tactic for recovery. The same could be said of prayer. Or meditation. Or yoga.
So I experimented and I found what worked best for me. And so this was then incorporated into my recovery strategy. It became a part of my overall strategy, my philosophy of recovery and good health. And it led to further discoveries based on the fuel I was putting in my body (nutrition) and other issues such as smoking (I quit smoking cigarettes after I became a runner!) and also sleep habits.
So a recovery strategy is something that evolves.
You do NOT have to know what your entire strategy is when you first start out. Shoot, I am 13 years sober and I still don’t have a complete strategy for recovery. But it is getting more and more clear all the time as I learn new things and experiment more and more with new ideas.
It all starts with a baseline of abstinence. So maybe you check into rehab, go through detox. And you make an assumption: “OK, I am gonna be sober now, and not put addictive drugs or alcohol into my body.”
That is your baseline. That is your starting assumption. This is the core of your strategy.
From there, your strategy will build and evolve over time. This will happen naturally as you add to it. This is a process of experimentation.
So in order to recover you have to do things. You have to try things. You have to be willing and open minded in order to discover a strategy that works for you.
They might tell you to “go to AA meetings every day.” This certainly works for some. But it does not work for everyone. And so you must experiment, stay open to the possibilities.
How a recovery strategy is flexible and adaptable
If you depend on a rigid set of tactics to keep you clean and sober then this is good, but it is not optimal.
Instead, you want to be a bit flexible. In other words, you need to be able to adapt your strategy as you learn and grow in recovery.
For example, go find someone who has ten years of sobriety or more. Or even someone with five years. And then ask them this question:
“How is your day to day recovery different now than from your first few months in recovery? How is the last year of your recovery different from the first year? What is different? Do you still do the exact same things to stay sober, or have you changed and evolved in that time?”
If the person only has a few months or a few years sober then they might say that things have not changed much. Maybe they started by going to AA every day and they still do that.
But if someone has multiple years sober then they have gained perspective. And they have been able to watch themselves grow and transform over time.
We evolve in recovery. What keeps us sober in the first 30 days is not necessarily the same thing that keeps us sober after ten years of continuous recovery.
In fact, if that is the case, I would be worried about a lack of personal growth. Something might be wrong if you are not growing and learning in recovery.
A rigid set of tactics does not really allow for this flexibility over time.
I can remember when I had about six months sober and my sponsor was trying to get me to go back to college, and also to start exercising. And I was sort of annoyed at these suggestions because I really thought my job was to focus exclusively on the 12 step dogma for the rest of my life. And here my sponsor was trying to distract me! How little I knew…..
Complacency cannot be reacted to quickly enough. Therefore it must be prevented in advance
What is complacency?
It is when you get lazy and stop learning and growing in recovery.
This typically leads to stagnation and possibly relapse.
If you get too comfortable in your recovery and you are not pushing yourself to learn or to grow then this can lead to relapse.
So how do we deal with this problem in long term recovery?
The popular method is to simply wait for it to occur, then react to it. Some people suggest that “staying plugged into the program” will allow us to “be each other’s eyes and ears.” In other words, we can help to hold each other accountable so that if someone starts to get lazy and complacent their peers will call them out on it. This will hopefully kick start them back into taking positive action again.
I don’t believe that this is the best way to fight against complacency. The method described here is a reactionary tactic. You wait for the problem to occur (complacency), then you hope to notice the problem (either you or your peers), and then you take action to fix the problem (get back to work and take action).
This is not ideal. If you wait for the problem to occur and you are merely hoping that the problem gets noticed then you are leaving all sorts of room for error there.
Is there a better strategy?
I believe that there is. The superior approach is to make the assumption that complacency is already a problem in your life.
Some people get annoyed with this notion. They don’t want to admit that they are already (possibly) complacent.
But if you act as if you are already complacent, what sort of outcomes do you get?
It turns out that this is the path to personal growth. So you assume that complacency is about to cause relapse and you act accordingly.
Therefore you are always asking yourself:
“What can I do next in my recovery to improve my life?”
“What should I be doing right now in order to improve my holistic health in recovery?”
“What part of my recovery strategy is lacking right now? Where are my weak points?”
“Who can I ask for suggestions on what I should be doing next in order to grow?”
These are the sort of questions that should drive your recovery strategy. These are the sort of questions that will lead you to take positive action.
So maybe you ask someone you trust in recovery (a sponsor, a peer, a therapist, even a friend or family member) what they think you should be doing next in order to get healthier, to stay positive, to build a better life. And so they make a suggestion. Maybe you ask several people and get a variety of suggestions.
Then you prioritize and start taking action. Experiment. Give each idea a fair chance if it seems like it might help you. And then look back and measure your results. This is how you build a recovery strategy. You take ideas that are already working for other people (their suggestions to you) and then you implement them in your life. Take action. Then measure the results. Rinse and repeat.
As you continue to do this you will notice that some of the actions you take enhance and help the other actions. For example, when I started running every day and then I quit smoking cigarettes. Those two actions really enhanced and complimented each other in a big way. The benefits of those two combined actions were so powerful and had so many secondary benefits that they both became a part of my overall strategy. And in turn those actions led me to explore additional avenues that built on the previous rewards.
But I had to be willing to explore, to experiment. I had to be willing to take suggestions, to take advice, and to try it out and see how it helped me.
If you could just check off a list of things to do then recovery would be easy
It would be nice if you could just go through a quick checklist for recovery and then be done with it and never have to think about it again.
But this is definitely not how it works. You have to keep pushing, keep learning new things about yourself.
But the bonus is that this is not just some lifelong toil and struggle that never gets any better. What happens is that as you start learning new things and taking these positive actions your life starts to get better and better. In other words, your strategy will start to reward you over time and all of the effort and actions that you put in will pay off in a big way.
The catch is that this does not happen in a week, or even in a month. It takes time. And you have to be willing to experiment, to put in the work, to try new things.
There are a million and one tactics out there. I tend to hammer on the same ideas (such as exercise) because that is what works for me. But those individual tactics are may be quite different for you. For example, I am sure that there is someone out there who does seated meditation every day and doesn’t really do much physical exercise at all. Is that person wrong while I am right? Absolutely not! It is not about right or wrong. It is about developing a personal strategy that works for you and your recovery. And in order to discover what that is you have to be willing to dive into recovery and be open and willing. It is a scary process at first because you don’t know if anything is really going to help or make a difference. But eventually the efforts that you make will start to pay tiny dividends to you, and eventually this will snowball into an amazing new life in recovery.