Progression in Addiction Recovery and Phases of Growth

Progression in Addiction Recovery and Phases of Growth


Yesterday we looked at a way to simplify your addiction recovery strategy, and also why you need a strategy in the first place. Today we are going to look at the progression in recovery and the phases of growth that the recovering addict or alcoholics is likely to go through.

Of course everyone will grow at a different pace in recovery but our paths will all have a lot of similarities. For example, no matter how you end up recovering from addiction nearly everyone who overcomes the problem is probably going to find themselves going through a phase of surrender. Without this common element no recovery is possible, therefore certain phases and recovery principles are universal.

On the other hand some people may surrender and initially get clean and sober but they may stop growing and learning new things in their journey. At this point they may end up relapsing or they may also just sort of stagnate and hold on to the sobriety that they have, but without really making much future growth. Some people end up getting stuck in their recovery but they don’t quite end up relapsing either. Such people may remain clean and sober but not be very happy in their recovery.

My own sponsor in recovery always used to say “it’s all about the process, everything in recovery is a process.” I very much agree with this because I have noticed that growth in recovery is almost always based on progression rather than on single events. Some of us get inpatient in early recovery and we want everything to happen overnight but we have to remember that it is all a process and that it all takes time. Growth takes time. Learning new things about yourself takes real patience. You can try to rush it all you want but the faster you go the worse your results are going to be. You can’t recover overnight just because you are anxious and want to be done with it all. Recovery doesn’t work that way.

The solution of course is to embrace the process and enjoy the ride, rather than getting caught up in being done and being at the destination. Forget about the destination. It doesn’t really exist anyway, the “destination” in recovery is an illusion. There was no single day in my own recovery where I said “yup, I’ve officially made it, I’m recovered!” It doesn’t work that way. I was just always striving to do better in life, to do better in recovery, and I am still striving today. There doesn’t have to be an endpoint and part of your success is in being OK with that. Embrace the process; embrace the progression. You are going to grow as you move through your recovery. That’s the whole point.

Your first phase of recovery: surrender

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Surrender is universal. In fact it defines addiction, in my opinion. In other words, if you claim to be living in recovery while having skipped over the concept of “surrender,” then you were never a true drug addict or alcoholic to begin with. That may sound a bit bull-headed or harsh of me to say, but I truly believe it. Recovery is not possible if you are stuck in denial. The only way to get better is to let go of everything. This is the necessary first phase of anyone’s recovery.

Very early recovery is an important time for surrender. Some people continue to use the concept in order to practice acceptance of things in their life that they have no control over. This is also somewhat useful if you are wise enough to know when to accept something and when to push yourself towards change instead. The infamous Serenity prayer seeks to address this issue directly. When should we surrender and accept something, and when should we fight harder in order to move beyond something and grow stronger? Sometimes the wisdom to know such a thing is elusive.

My theory is that the earlier you are in recovery, the more you should defer to surrender and to other people’s advice and feedback. Why? Because you are still very much in the learning phase of recovery. Early recovery is about doing something different, about trying a new way of life. You can’t be stubborn about everything in early recovery and still succeed without getting tripped up by relapse. If you want to discover and learn a new way of life then you are going to have to let go and surrender.

The key is to stop trying to control everything. You can’t worry about every little thing and expect to be able to surrender successfully. You have to have a little bit of trust and a little bit of faith that things will work out even if you are not in the director’s chair the entire time. This is what surrender should feel like. You should be a little nervous that you have handed over so much control of your life to other people. If you feel like that then you are doing it right. On the other hand if you are clinging to something stubbornly within yourself and you refuse to let go of it then you are almost certainly setting yourself up for failure. This could be something as simple as saying “No matter what, I won’t go to inpatient rehab.” Be careful of absolutes when it comes to your willingness. What you want is the willingness to trust other people and to allow them to help you. If you have excuses for everything and why their suggestions will never work for you then you are not ready to recovery yet and you are not fully surrendered to your disease.

When you reach a point of full surrender you will say “Yes, I hear your suggestion for how I can get help, and I think it is worth a try. I don’t have much hope for it to work but I am willing to try just about anything.” That is the exact attitude that you will likely have when you reach “the turning point” and you fully surrender. Notice that you are not jumping for joy in this case, but you are also just willing enough to take some sort of action. It is a fine line for a person to reach and this is one reason why recovery is such a gift. Many addicts and alcoholics never reach this point of surrender at all.

Learning the basics of sobriety

In my experience the next phase of recovery is about learning. This is not necessarily the kind of learning that you experienced in high school where you had to study books and memorize facts. Some people try to treat recovery that way and so they study literature like the Big Book of AA but I think this is mostly just a diversion. Reading about recovery can give you some foundation ideas and concepts but ultimately you have to learn by actually living. This is the real “learning” that I am talking about when I say that you have to do a lot of learning in early recovery. Memorizing recovery literature or studying it or understanding it is really a secondary point that is not as important.

What I had to learn in early recovery was how to function in everyday life and still be content with myself without self medicating all of the time. This was no small thing to accomplish and in order to do it I had to give myself a break.

I want you to stop and think about what that phrase really means, to “give yourself a break.” When I used to hear that at AA meetings I thought it was stupid, because I never really understood it. But now today I can look back and see the truth in it and I have a deeper understanding of it and I want you to understand it in the same way.

When I was in early recovery I was sort of in hyper drive. I wanted to recover overnight and I wanted to be suddenly living this good life and I wanted all of the negative consequences of my addiction to just evaporate overnight. None of that was realistic because it all takes time for these benefits to be realized. Now the truth of the matter is this: if you stay clean and sober and you start taking positive action on a daily basis then your life will get better and better. Really it will. There is no magic here, you just abstain from drugs and alcohol and you take positive action each day and eventually your life will be amazing. But in order to get to that point you have to “give yourself a break.” That means that:

1) You have to allow time for this progression to happen. Be patient with yourself. You did not become addicted overnight, and you will not recover overnight either.
2) You have to be patient with yourself and realize that you can only do so much in a day. Each day is your multiplier. Take positive action each day and the benefits of recovery will accumulate in the long run. But you have to give this a chance to happen.
3) Realize that you deserve to recover and that you deserve a better life. You did not choose to become addicted. You are not a terrible person. You are trying to do the right thing, to get well, and to maybe some day even help other people in some way. This is what it means to give yourself a break. Forgive yourself and realize that you deserve to be happy.

Some people in early recovery may grasp a small bit of that but they usually do not grasp the whole thing. They are generally holding back some small part and so they do not fully give themselves the break that they should be giving. Give yourself a chance to recover!

I had to immerse myself in this new way of living for about two years in order to really learn what I had to learn in early recovery. For me this meant living in long term rehab. For other people this might mean going to meetings every single day or finding some other healthy outlet. I can’t tell you exactly what tactics might work well for you, I can only say that part of your overall strategy in early recovery should be to immerse yourself fully in some new way of life.

Massive learning is universal in early recovery. If you ask a bunch of people who are in long term recovery if they learned a lot during their first year of recovery, they will say “heck yes we learned a lot that first year!” It is universal. You have to learn a lot if you are going to be successful in recovery.

Embracing personal growth as a method of long term sobriety

This one is optional but I would argue that it is necessary if you want to have a successful recovery. Anyone can stay clean and sober by gritting their teeth and being miserable. But if you want to truly enjoy life and enjoy your recovery then you are going to have to embrace personal growth.

This simply means that you stay willing to learn and to grow in long term sobriety. This is the solution to something that they call “complacency.” If you get complacent in long term sobriety then it means that you stop learning and you stop growing. When this happens you may or may not relapse. Either way you will not be very happy with your life. No challenges and no growth makes Jack a sad boy.

The solution is to embrace personal growth, and I would also note that this means that you are embracing a cycle of personal growth.

First of all you have to take positive action each and every day. This is your multiplier. If you take positive action every day then you will end up building an amazing life in the long run.

If you fail to do this then you may end up relapsing, you may not. Either way you will be much happier and more useful to the world if you challenge yourself to keep growing.

It is important to realize that you do not have to have a “Tony Robins level” of intense and continuous growth without any breaks. This is about embracing a cycle of growth, not just blindly trying to improve every day without any pause at all. There is such a thing as burn out. So it is important to pause and reflect on the growth that you have already made in your journey, and also to assess what growth and what type of project you would like to take on next in your life. But make no mistake, you should always be thinking ahead to that next possible challenge, and how you want to learn and grow in the future. This is how you can balance growth and acceptance in your life. This is how you can both enjoy yourself and accept yourself, but also keep challenging yourself to improve and become a better person. There is a time and a place for both. The way to embrace both is to realize that it is all a cycle, a progression.

How to accelerate your progression in recovery

If you want to accelerate your progression through recovery then the best thing to do is to become willing to learn and to grow according to other people’s advice.

This is hard to do, but the rewards are great.

It goes back to the idea of surrender. Even if you have a decade of sobriety or more, you can still benefit from the concept of surrender.

Go to someone you trust (like a sponsor) and ask them for advice. Ask them to look at your life and tell you what they think you should be focusing on next, what you should try to accomplish or improve. Then, listen carefully to their advice, weigh it, and hopefully act on it. At the very least you should try to find some direction and a new course of action after asking for feedback in this manner.

Most of us are hesitant to do this because our ego is too darn big. We do not want to think that other people should tell us what to do. But this is the secret to accelerating your growth in recovery. The reason that this works so well is that other people can shorten your “experimenting time” significantly.

For example, my therapist in early recovery was telling me to exercise. I tried to take his advice but it did not work out. He was trying to give me a shortcut, and I just could not get into it, which was unfortunate. Years later in my recovery I finally “got it” and I embraced fitness and exercise and becoming healthier. But at that point in my early recovery I just could not quite get there (yet).

Had I been able to take his advice that would have been an amazing shortcut to success.

At one point my sponsor urged me to go back to school. This was advice that was well taken. I acted on his suggestion and my life changed dramatically for the better because of it. Had I just relied on myself and stumbled around in recovery, it might have been several more years before I decided to give school another chance. Or I may never have made that decision at all. So getting feedback and advice from other people greatly enhanced my own recovery journey.

If you seek advice from others then it would be wise to find people who are on a similar path that you are on (recovery from addiction) but who are further down the path and are in a place that you want to be at some day. This is modeling and this is the basis of sponsorship. Find someone with results that you like and then try to emulate them. It works, and it is very powerful, but most of us dismiss such an approach in order to protect our precious egos.

Accumulating positive actions every day

There is always another phase of recovery for you to experience and it likely never ends. Even if you are living in “long term recovery” and you are battling against complacency, you are going to look back one day and realize that complacency can attack in many different ways. Therefore your journey in recovery will never really end and so your job in recovery is to always be learning and growing.

The most powerful concept in long term recovery is the idea of positive accumulation. When you were living in active addiction this concept was working against you as you accumulated chaos and negativity which led to a downward spiral. In recover this can be reversed into an upward spiral of growth and positive benefits. The key, of course, is in taking consistent action.

Unfortunately this is a boring way to live at first in early recovery. This is why you have to “give yourself a chance.” It takes a long time (unfortunately) for the positive benefits of recovery to really start to multiply and kick in. But once they do, your life will never be the same again and every challenge becomes a hidden gift. This is how you were meant to learn and grow in recovery–as several continuous challenges in which you embrace positive change.

Recovery means that you are always willing to learn something more about yourself. It also means that you are willing to embrace this process of change and the natural progression that you will go through during the recovery process.

Enjoy the journey. The process is what is important, not the destination. Remember to give yourself a break and be patient enough to let the benefits of recovery to slowly materialize for you. They will come if you take positive action every day.


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