This idea is really at the core of my entire philosophy of recovery from addiction.
Relapse prevention is said to be many things.
Relapse prevention is typically viewed as a combination of tactics, such as:
* Go to 12 step meetings.
* Work the steps.
* Got a sponsor and call them frequently.
* Get phone numbers of your peers in recovery and use them.
* Hang out with sober people rather than with your drinking buddies.
And so on.
So the idea of relapse prevention is typically outlined as a group of tactics that you then try to incorporate into your life.
This works for some people but obviously not for everyone. And my belief is that this is really a sub-optimal strategy.
There is a better way.
And that is to use the concept of “personal growth” as your entire relapse prevention strategy.
Why we all need a long term strategy to prevent relapse
It is important to realize that we need a long term strategy to prevent relapse.
You might think that relapse is only a true threat in the first few months (or even the first few years) of recovery.
But this is not the case. If you look at the long term trends, people still relapse when they have multiple years sober. It is always a threat.
And it even happens to some people who have over a decade of solid recovery. Relapse can happen to anyone.
So there is a real need to look at this problem from a long term perspective rather than as a short term fix.
You don’t want to focus hard on your recovery for a year and then just slack off until the point that you relapse.
It is a little bit like the old saying at AA meetings when someone asks how many meetings they should go to. The old timer will (half) joke with them and say:
“Just start cutting back on your AA meetings, and keep cutting back, and then when you relapse you will know how much is too little.”
Of course, my philosophy is that the meetings themselves are not necessarily keeping you sober unless they serve to help you promote your own personal growth. The meetings are just a tool and some people who go every single day still end relapsing. It’s not the daily meetings that keep people sober, it is the trajectory of personal growth that they may (or may not) be on.
It is easy to assume that someone who attends AA meetings every day is on a path of personal growth, because this usually IS the case. But it is not a perfect correlation, and just because you go to lots of meetings does not insure your sobriety. On the contrary, it is all about the positive action you are taking and if you are really pushing yourself to learn and to grow in life. One can attend meetings daily and not be doing these things. It is all about walking the walk, rather than just showing up to AA every day and “looking good.”
So back to the long term strategy.
Your strategy might involve AA meetings and it might not. That is not the point. The point is that your long term strategy should be based on the idea of personal growth.
So what exactly does that even mean when we say the phrase “personal growth?”
Simply put, personal growth is positive change. Deliberate positive change.
So you are going to try to make changes in your life, and you are going to be deliberate about it, and you are going to try to make more positive changes than negative ones.
You might also think of “personal growth” as being the same as “conscious growth.” So you are raising your awareness about yourself. You are learning about yourself. You are saying to yourself:
“OK, here are some of my issues, here are some of my problems in life. How can I fix these things, make them better, so that I am happier and more helpful to other people?”
The 12 steps of AA are one way to do this. But you don’t have to work through the 12 steps in order to “do the work.”
You can “do the work” in many different ways and by taking various positive actions.
But regardless of how you go about doing it, many of the same principles are going to apply. The same concepts that you find embedded in the 12 steps of AA. For example, looking at your life and finding some of the problems and the issues and the flaws. And then asking for advice and coming up with a real plan to address those problems.
This is a universal concept of personal growth. Because even if you are striving to achieve a specific goal in life (maybe you want to be a guidance counselor and help people for example) you are never going to be truly happy and protected from relapse unless you address some of the problems and the negative issues in your life. Maybe you have a tendency towards self pity (like I did). Well, if you never stop to examine your life and really find out what is going on, then you won’t be able to identify that negative flaw (the self pity) and then come up with a plan to eliminate it. If I had not done this then I probably would have relapsed long ago. It doesn’t matter if I am taking positive action and meeting some other goal in my life, if I still have the problem with self pity, then I am going to be unhappy and dragging myself down in the long run.
This is why there is such a heavy focus on resentments in AA. Many people have resentments and these can come back to bite them later on and lead them to relapse. The person may be making all sorts of positive progress in their life but if they don’t do the work, the hard work, the self examination and really find out what this anger is that keeps popping back up in their life, then they will never be free.
So this is personal growth. It is not about chasing your dreams or doing something positive necessarily. Instead, it is about self examination and finding what is holding you back, finding out how you tend to sabotage yourself.
Every alcoholic and drug addict has a way that they sabotage themselves. For me it was self pity. For many people it is resentments.
So you have to find out what that thing (or those things) are and then work on them.
And it is hard work!
And you might need some help in order to do it. You might need a sponsor, or a therapist, or counselor in order to help you uncover these issues.
And then you have to take action and come up with a plan and then do something about these issues.
This is how you create freedom. This is real personal growth.
And this is also how you prevent relapse. If you are unhappy or you are living in fear or you are hanging on to anger then your recovery will always be in jeopardy.
The solution is to do the work. The 12 steps are a pretty decent guide, but they are not the only way to work through this stuff. They are just one path that will lead you to freedom.
But in reality they are just a pointer. The steps are a very loose guide. But the actual work that you do and the self honesty and the self assessment–that is where the magic really happens.
The continuum of recovery and relapse
Imagine the recovering alcoholic for a moment.
Put them on a continuum. A big line.
There is this big line and at one end of the line is relapse.
At the other far end of that same line is recovery. Not just recovery, but really awesome personal growth and complete happiness. Really rockin’ recovery.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle, most of the time.
For example, I am not going to try to convince anyone that I am always at the far end of super awesome and happy recovery 100 percent of the time. That would be a bit arrogant of me and it would also be a completely lie.
I have a great life in recovery today but it still takes work. I still have days that are not perfect. I can still get down on myself, though I try not to stay there for long.
But what I am saying here is that we are all sort of shifting on this continuum. We are sliding up and down it, moving a little bit each day.
Maybe one day you go through some really stressful stuff and you take no time out to care for yourself or be kind to yourself. And maybe you don’t exercise or pray or meditate or do anything that you generally do that might help you to take care of yourself.
And maybe that happens for a few days in a row. Or even for a few weeks in a row.
In that case, you are sliding down towards that relapse end of the continuum. You are moving further and further away from that far end where ultimate happiness and peace and contentment is at.
My point here is simple:
We are all on this sliding scale. And each day, you are either moving closer to the awesome end, or you are moving closer to the relapse end of the line.
And obviously if you have too many days in a row where you are sliding backwards, at some point a real relapse will happen.
So the question you need to ask yourself is:
“What kinds of things can I do every day in order to make sure I am moving towards the super awesome happy end of the continuum?”
What are those actions? What habits help to promote that? How can I take better care of myself so that I am always moving closer to that end of the spectrum?
So when I say that “personal growth is the best form of relapse prevention” what I am really saying is that we need to keep moving forward on this continuum.
If you are constantly moving away from relapse, then that is relapse prevention! Pretty simple, right?
But, you may say, “how do I take better care of myself? How do I know what actions are healthy? How do I know what changes to make?”
This is why you need help in recovery. This is why we can’t do it alone. This is how you benefit from “borrowing” the wisdom of others in recovery.
Stick with the winners. Emulate them. Learn from them. Listen to them. Take their advice and test it out for your own recovery.
Rinse and repeat. Keep doing this. Even after you have several years sober, keep looking up to your mentors. Keep finding new teachers in life. Keep looking for the next lesson.
Always be learning more about yourself. This is hard to do because it takes a certain degree of humility. Many people seem to lack this quality. They don’t want to admit that they could improve themselves if they would be willing to get honest about it.
Acceptance of self versus personal growth and development
There is a dynamic in recovery that the Serenity prayer addresses. That dynamic is between two concepts that could apply to any given situation in your life: Acceptance of self versus personal growth.
When you accept yourself there is no need for change. If you accept one of your character flaws and say “that is just me, that is who I am” then you are declaring that you not going to change that flaw. Instead, you accept it.
The alternative to this is to reject that character flaw and say “This is not acceptable. I don’t like this part of me, and I want to change it.” This is the personal development angle.
So the question is, how do you know when to practice acceptance, and when to step up to the plate and decide to make a change for the better?
There are multiple answers to that question. Some are just guidelines at best. The serenity prayer suggests that you should pray for the wisdom to know the difference, to know when to practice acceptance and when to try to change your life.
I would take this a step further and suggest that you also “stick with the winners.” Go find your mentors, your counselors, your sponsors, the people who you look up to in recovery, and ask them for guidance.
And you might ask multiple people what they think. Get several opinions. Should you accept yourself (or this certain part of your life) or should you try to change it? There may not be a perfect answer to every question, but you have to have ways to draw on the experience and wisdom of others in recovery. This is what having support is all about when it comes to personal growth. Because many people can say “I can relate to your problem, here is what my situation was, how it was similar, and how I handled it. And these were my results.” And so then you can take that wisdom and make a decision for yourself and move forward in your life.
When is it OK to say “I am good enough?”
My belief is that you should not declare yourself to be whole and perfect and done with personal growth.
I am sure there are people who disagree with this, and they may be just as “right” as I am in this case. It really is all about what works for you.
In my situation, I don’t do well when I practice 100 percent acceptance of self, and declare myself to be whole and perfect and done with growth.
Instead, I have to dig for the flaws. Find the next lesson. Figure out where I can improve. Figure out what my current situation is trying to teach me about myself.
So for me in my own recovery journey, I find it somewhat limiting to practice acceptance of self to a great degree. I can try to accept myself in some ways, but I have to limit it, otherwise I just use it as justification to be lazy and not push for growth. I have to keep seeking. I have to keep pushing myself.
The benefits of long term personal growth
One of the long term benefits of personal growth is that you eventually arrive at a more balanced lifestyle.
I used to think that this was unimportant.
But today I realize that a balanced lifestyle is a big part of overall happiness in recovery. If you have extreme focus on one area of your life then I think it is much more probable that you would relapse in that case. Having balance is much better in terms of relapse prevention.
The main reason for this has to do with how relapse attacks us.
My theory is that relapse attacks us at our weakest point. So it does no good, for example, to focus only on spiritual growth at the expense of all other types of personal growth. I watched this happen in my early recovery journey with some of my peers, and I could not figure out (at first) what was going on. How did people who were so spiritual end up relapsing? It made no sense to me.
Then I learned that the solution is holistic, not just spiritual. Personal growth in all areas of your life are important. A great example to illustrate the truth of this is to study everyone who has relapsed in AA, and get their full story. You will find (if you keep listening to people for long enough) that many of these people got physically sick or ill, and this was a major part of why they relapsed.
This is a strong clue. Our overall health is important, not just our spiritual health.
And so this is how we see relapse unfold around us: It attacks the weakest point. So you can’t just have this super narrow focus on one aspect of your health, such as your spiritual connection, and expect for that to protect you. That is very short sighted. Instead, you have to have a more holistic approach to recovery, so that you are always examining your weaknesses and asking yourself “How can I work on this to better protect myself from relapse?”
For example, during the first two years or so of my sobriety, I was out of shape and believed that exercise was pretty much useless in terms of relapse prevention. I had no idea what an impact it would have on my life. That is, until I started to work out every day, and did so for a considerable length of time. Then I saw the benefits. And I realized “wow, my recovery is much stronger based on the fact that I engage in this exercise every day, for a variety of reasons.” And those reasons are difficult to convey to others, which is why it took me so long to discover the importance of exercise in the first place.
But the same is true for other aspects of your health, and these may vary a bit from person to person. So you must experiment, you must test things out, you must find different avenues of personal growth. Because relapse can attack you from several different directions. You need a holistic strategy for personal growth that can help protect you from these various attacks.