There is one strategy in the world of alcoholism and addiction recovery that I believe is fundamental. After all I have learned and witnessed in my own journey of addiction and recovery, it is my belief that the strategy of personal growth is the one thing that can change everything for someone on the path of addiction recovery.
If you work at a facility where people are trying to recover from addiction and alcoholism you can watch this happen over and over again. Either it all comes together for people or it does not. And what has to happen ultimately is some form of personal growth. Without personal growth there is nothing to push towards sobriety, no reason to remain clean and sober.
The direction of that personal growth is important as well. You are not just striving for anything, you are striving for personal improvement. What does this mean in the world of addiction and recovery? It means improving your health. It means becoming a healthier person. And how do you become healthy in sobriety?
The key is to view your health in addiction recovery as being holistic. So you are not just considering your physical health. Instead, you must consider all aspects of your overall health in recovery, and make an effort to focus on all of them. This includes things like your:
* Physical health, fitness, nutrition, sleep habits, quitting smoking, etc.
* Mental health, relief from obsessive thinking, clarity of thought.
* Emotional health, relief from stress, emotional balance.
* Social health and eliminating toxic relationships from your life. Surrounding yourself with “winners.”
* Spiritual health and the practice of gratitude. Finding ways to be truly grateful every day.
It is not enough to just strive for greater health. You have to strive for better health in all 5 of these different areas. This is the holistic approach to recovery. It is important because many people who relapse do so because they become unhealthy in one of these key areas, but not always the same area.
For example, an alcoholic may relapse because they become selfish and forget to be grateful.
Or they might relapse because they become physically unhealthy to the point that they get ill, and this wears them down to the point where they take addictive medication, which may lead them back to their drug of choice eventually. That might sound like a stretch but I have watched it happen many times.
Or a person may become emotionally unbalanced to the point of relapse. This is often the result of a relationship that has gone bad, or that is creating lots of stress in your life.
Whatever the case may be, the only defense against these sort of relapse triggers is to be vigilant in taking really good care of yourself in a holistic sense. If you are not taking care of yourself in all of those ways then you open the door up for problems.
Personal growth + holistic health = synergy
If you take care of yourself in a holistic manner and you are striving for personal growth then an amazing thing will happen over time.
You will eventually experience something called “synergy.” They talk about this phenomenon in AA without really calling it that. Sometimes they may just say “it gets greater, later.” But in many cases they are referring to the same concept.
What is synergy? It is when all of the efforts that you have been making towards personal growth finally all come together at once. So instead of being one plus one equals two, it is more like one plus one equals ten. So you may be wondering, how does the math work like that? How are you getting such a big bonus, and why?
Here is what is going on:
When you get clean and sober, the idea is that you strive to improve your life in several different ways. So let’s say that do the following things:
* Get clean and sober, maybe go through treatment, and you remain abstinent.
* Quit smoking cigarettes. No more chemicals. Totally clean.
* Start exercising every day. Push yourself for vigorous exercise.
* Because you are working out hard, it helps you to sleep better eventually. This really kicks in after a year or so (better sleep).
* Because you are pursuing better health and also exercising, you start eating healthier foods.
All of these things have a benefit to them. But here is the thing:
* If you do just one of these changes at a time, you probably won’t notice much benefit.
* If you do one of these changes for a short period of time, you probably won’t notice the benefits of it.
Therefore, the solution is simple (but not easy). You must do all of those things (or most of them) for a long time in order to realize the full benefits of doing so. It is only in the long run that you will notice the full benefits of the holistic model.
“Yes,” you say….”but what is this synergy stuff?”
What will happen in the long run is that the benefits that you get from this holistic approach will start to interact with each other. For example, if you start exercising and also eat healthier foods and you are sleeping better too then you might eventually realize that you are much more balanced emotionally. You are on an even keel more of the time. How did this happen? It happened because of the holistic approach. The daily exercise is one piece of it. The improved sleeping patterns are another piece of it. You put all of those pieces together and new benefits will emerge, including things that you never would have predicted necessarily.
Tactics can fail in unknown situations whereas a strong strategy can overcome
So the strategy is personal growth and holistic health. What is the tactical alternative to this strategy?
If you listen at most traditional recovery programs you will hear the tactical approach to recovery instead. This is the reactionary approach. The idea is simply this: You get a trigger, you take a certain action in order to deal with it. So maybe you walk past the liquor store where you used to buy your booze, and it makes you think of drinking, so you call your sponsor. Or you go to an AA meeting. You experience a trigger, then you react to it.
The problem is that tactics can ultimately fail in certain situations because you will not always have an obvious answer when things go wrong. For example, what happens if you are facing a strong trigger to drink alcohol and you call your sponsor and all of your peers but they all happen to be on a meditation retreat that you could not attend due to your work schedule? (True story). Suddenly all of your lifelines are down and your tactical approach has failed you. The trigger popped up, you reacted to that trigger, and it was not good enough because the tactics essentially fell through for you.
So what can we do when tactics fail? We go up a level and rely on strategy instead. Because when you use a strategy to stay sober it allows you to improvise, it allows you to figure things out on the fly, it allows you to implement new ideas without having to go exactly by the book for everything. I know a lot of people in recovery who are terrified of doing anything that is not “by the book,” but in long term sobriety your hand is going to be forced at some point. In other words, at some point you are going to have to think on your own two feet. You are going to have to know how and why your sobriety really works, from the inside out.
You see, most of us only know it from the outside in. Go to a meeting, call your sponsor. If these are the building blocks of your sobriety then you need to evolve a bit. Those are tactics. They point to sobriety but they are not sobriety itself. They are only pointers.
A strategy is strong yet flexible. A strategy is saying “I push myself for personal growth and my goal is to get a little bit healthier every day.” This allows you to improvise when your support network breaks down.
Hypothetical scenario: You call your sponsor and you are shocked to find out that they have relapsed. What now? Well guess what? This happens every single day around the world, and some day it might happen to you. Therefore you don’t want to put all of your recovery eggs into one basket. You don’t want to rely on single tactics to keep you sober. You want instead a recovery strategy that is flexible and robust. The combination of personal growth and holistic health is exactly that.
Why holistic health? Why try to improve your health at all in recovery?
You got sober, didn’t you?
Why did you do that? Why did you choose to get clean and sober?
Let ask you a very simple and bold question:
Did you get sober because you wanted to live, or did you get sober because you wanted to die?
That is a pretty easy concept to understand. Choosing sobriety means that you choose life.
If you stay stuck in addiction then that is NOT choosing life. Everything in addiction brings you closer to illness, suffering, chaos, and death.
Addiction is death, and recovery is life. When you choose to get sober you are choosing life.
This is why the strategy of improving your holistic health makes so much sense. It is an extension of your idea to get sober in the first place. And every time you go against this original decision you get closer and closer to relapse.
It was shocking to me how much people did not understand this in early recovery. If you want to be healthy in long term sobriety then you really have to focus on two things:
1) Being sober, and
2) Being healthy.
If you fail to focus on being healthy then guess what? It becomes that much easier to justify a relapse.
What is the point of staying clean and sober, really, if your health is falling apart all around you? What is the point of preserving your sobriety if you are so unhealthy as to be dying anyway?
I have heard a lot of people in the program say things like “well at least if I die, I will die sober, and that is the most important thing!”
I completely disagree with this. Dying sober is a bad deal. Why not choose life instead? Why not strive for greater health in recovery? I have even heard someone use this justification when they were sober in an AA meeting but smoking cigarettes. They said if they died of lung cancer then at least they would die sober. I think they are a fool who has completely missed the point. The point is to be healthy and happy in recovery, not to sober up just to find some other stupid way to die.
Sobriety without health is worthless. Quite honestly, if I had to buy my health by getting drunk, I would do it. Your health is the highest form of currency that you have. Once your health is gone it is “game over.” So a decision to get clean and sober should also include a decision to live a healthier life in recovery as well. What good is life if you are dead? Answer: It is no good at all!
Defining personal growth
So how do we then define personal growth in our recovery journey? What counts as growth?
It can be a difficult question because everything is based on priorities. You can’t do every little positive thing that there is to do in recovery. You must pick and choose.
Personal growth is when you learn something new about yourself, make a change, and that change results in greater health for you in the long run. Now that health may be emotional, mental, social, physical, or spiritual. It doesn’t just have to be the traditional sort of health that we often think of (most physical health, avoiding illness, etc.).
Personal growth is when you make a change to your life or your life situation. Your life is your internal issues and your life situation is your external issues. In order to succeed in recovery you generally have to focus on both of these. If you ignore one for too long then it can lead you to relapse. “Doing the work” is often referred to as being the internal changes that you have to make, such as by doing the step work in AA. This would be things like eliminating resentment, overcoming fear or anger, getting past self pity, and so on. All very important things if you want to be successful in long term recovery. But you also may have to make external changes in your life too, such as by eliminating toxic relationships, getting a less stressful job, and so on. Both types of changes may be important.
How to live your life in long term sobriety
One way to live your life in long term sobriety is by pushing yourself to make positive changes.
Most people hesitate to live this way at first because it is so much more comfortable to practice self acceptance instead. You may notice if you go to traditional recovery programs (such as AA) that you can find advice to do both of these things and therefore find some contradictory advice at times. Should you accept yourself as you are now, or should you push yourself to make changes and pursue growth? Can it be both at the same time?
Many people would argue that it can be both at the same time, but that is only true if you are considering multiple issues. For example, maybe you have accepted your level of fitness, but you are still upset with your daily practice of gratitude. In such cases you would practice the Serenity prayer and “focus on changing the things you can” while also accepting the things that you can not. That is a fine line to walk for someone in alcoholism recovery, though, which is why it will always be a struggle…..
What about you, have you found a strategy that works for you in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!