How can you challenge yourself every day in recovery to make the positive changes that will keep you sober?
What is the driving question that can bring about these (sometimes difficult) changes in your life?
In my opinion, the question can be reduced down to one single idea:
How are you taking care of yourself today in recovery? What actions are you taking?
What are you doing on a day to day basis in order to take better care of yourself?
Another way to word the question is with the idea of love. What are you doing today in order to love yourself? To better care for yourself?
It is in answering this question that you will hopefully find the motivation and the inspiration to live a better life in recovery.
Of course this relates heavily to self esteem. When I first got clean and sober and I had less than a month of sobriety, I was not necessarily eager to take really good care of myself just yet. I had made the decision to give recovery a chance to work in my life, but I was a long way from actually “loving myself” and wanting to take better care of myself.
So this is a learning process. It is an evolution of the self. You can’t expect to be a master at this overnight. Every one of us in recovery is a work in progress. We strive for progress, as they say in the AA literature. Continuous self improvement is a very worthy goal in recovery. In fact, it might be the only real goal worth having.
Luckily there are a number of ways that you can take care of yourself and love yourself in recovery. It is really a fairly broad topic and the playing field is wide open.
For example, at one point in my recovery journey I decided to quit smoking cigarettes. Actually, before that happened, I continued to smoke and to struggle with that particular addiction for several years. I did not just quit overnight. It was a long and painful process of letting go of nicotine addiction.
And I can look back today and see how this was related to my self esteem at the time. It was all about how much I loved myself and how much I wanted to take care of myself.
If a change was really easy to make in early recovery then I did not have much resistance to it. No discomfort, no problem. I was willing to try some new things in order to achieve this better life in sobriety.
But when it came to putting down the cigarettes (or even something like daily exercise) the level of discomfort went up quite a bit. So there was a dynamic at play here: How badly did I want the change in my life, how willing was I to face my fears and my discomfort and my anxiety, versus how much I loved and cared for myself and wanted a better future? So self esteem was a definite factor in all of this. If you do not value your own life that highly then you are not likely to go through much discomfort in order to make the difficult changes.
And so as I remained clean and sober and started to see how my experience could benefit others in recovery, I started to feel like my life had a bit more value. I felt better and better about myself and the value that I was contributing to others over time. Therefore I felt like my life had real value and I felt like I wanted to take care of myself more so that I could be of service to others in the future. I could help people! This was a revelation to me. When I first got sober I thought that my life was totally worthless and that the world would probably be better off if I were gone instead. But as I learned and grew in my recovery I started to see how I could help others and make a difference.
There is an idea that my great sponsor in NA just loves to talk about, and that has to do with the ripples of change that we can create in terms of “paying it forward.” This is a very powerful concept and you can actually see it working in your life and the lives of those around you if you care to pay attention to it. I can just imagine how different my life would be if I had never become sober, or if the people who encouraged me to get sober had not been there for me when I needed help the most. And in turn, I have helped some people since becoming sober and then some of those people that I helped have gone forward to help and influence others. That is a pretty amazing “spider web of cause and effect” to be a part of, and it can give you a significant boost to your self esteem once you see the concept in action. In the AA literature they make you a specific promise regarding this concept, that “no matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” It is an amazing gift that should hopefully drive more positive changes in your life once you see and understand how it all works.
The power of positive habits in recovery
Positive changes are one thing.
Positive habits are another thing entirely.
I think that people in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction should pay especially close attention to the habits that they have established every day.
A great deal of our time and energy should be spent on optimizing those habits to get you to where you want to go in life.
So we need to take a look at our health in recovery. After all, our health is the greatest currency that we have in life. Without health, we cease to exist entirely. So your health is fundamental to sobriety. It is the building block of a happy life in sobriety. Without your health you have nothing.
What kind of health? Not just your physical health, though of course that is important.
And in AA and many other recovery programs they tend to focus on spiritual health.
But that is a limited view as well.
No, when it comes to taking care of yourself in recovery and loving yourself, I think we need to take a more holistic view of things.
Your health is not one or two dimensional. In fact, it has many facets.
Dividing it up like this seems to make sense to me:
1) Physical health.
2) Mental health.
3) Emotional health.
4) Social health.
5) Spiritual health.
Of course there are other aspects of a person’s health that we could consider as well, but these 5 seem to be the fundamentals off of which all other forms of health are based on.
So the key in recovery is that you have to give some attention to each of these five areas.
It is not enough, as many people in traditional recovery falsely believe, to focus exclusively on spirituality. That is actually quite dangerous.
I know at least a few people in my past who have fell victim to this trap. I always looked up to them and considered them to be “more spiritual” than I was, and yet such people ended up relapsing while I remained sober. Meanwhile, my sponsor was pushing me to take a more holistic approach: He encouraged me to go back to college, to get a meaningful job, to quit smoking cigarettes, to start exercising, to meditate, to write in a daily journal, and so on.
So I established certain habits in my recovery journey and then I watched closely to see how this effected my sobriety efforts. Was it making it easier to remain sober, or not really helping much? This is why, for example, I drifted away from seated meditation and ended up focusing on distance running as an alternative to that. It worked for me; your experience may be different. And that is OK. The key is that you try on these different “lenses” in your life, experiment with new habits, and figure out if they are helpful to you or not.
One of the most powerful tactics for accomplishing this is the 30 day trial. So for example, you could set a challenge to yourself to get out and walk two miles every day for the next 30 days straight. You make a commitment to yourself that you are not going to miss a single day.
Then you do it. You follow through. At the end of 30 days, you give yourself full permission to stop whatever it is you were doing in the trial. Of course if you like the effects that it has on your life, you may choose to keep doing it. At this point you are in a powerful position because after 30 days it is likely already established as a regular habit for you. In this way you can sort of “trick yourself” into achieving some powerful goals that you might normally struggle with. Anyone can challenge themselves to stick to something for 30 days!
You may be in a position where you want to make positive changes, but you don’t know exactly what you should be doing.
Going to an AA meeting and asking for advice can be overwhelming. You might get dozens of different suggestions in which you could potentially try many different things, but you certainly don’t have the time to try all of them at once. So how do you prioritize? What do you focus on first in your recovery?
I have two recommendations for immediate action and results in regards to this question:
1) Look carefully at the negative issues in your life and seek to eliminate them as your first priority. So if you are struggling with shame, guilt, fear, anger, resentment, self pity, etc. then take a look at working on those problems first. Also consider your external reality: A stressful job, toxic relationships, other addictions in your life, etc. Find the trouble spots, the things that are causing you stress and anxiety, and address those problems first and foremost. Hint: You may need to seek outside advice and help in order to deal with such issues and make progress on them.
2) Ask others for guidance and direction. This is one reason that having a sponsor in early recovery can be especially helpful. Ask for advice, then act on the advice. Get some guidance and take action. This can be a shortcut to wisdom. You benefit directly from the experience of others. Easy in theory but difficult for most of us to implement this in the real world. If you do it though the results are generally outstanding. You have to have some level of trust, or faith, to listen to others and act on their advice. Or you have to be desperate. Or both.
Once you create positive habits in your life and continue to refine them over time, things just start to get better and better. This is because your life experience in recovery is cumulative. The benefits of recovery are cumulative. They add up over time. The progress you make in early recovery paves the way for bigger and better growth experiences later on.
Think of early sobriety as building a foundation for the future. If you don’t do the work in early recovery then you won’t experience as much growth down the road. It all builds on itself and accumulates over time.
A good example of this in my own life has to do with exercise. For whatever reason, daily exercise has been an important “vehicle” for me in my journey. It taught me a great deal of discipline. It taught me the importance of emotional stability (and how much vigorous exercise could contribute to that!). It taught me that I could probably achieve a great deal more than I believed if I was willing to focus on something and really push myself. And it taught me something about my overall health, how the food that I put into my body is fuel (so practice better nutrition, etc.).
So after I took that suggestion and made daily exercise a part of my life, the story did not end there. That experience grew into more discipline, more focus, and greater rewards in other areas of my life that were not necessarily directly related.
I could not know this after a few weeks or even a few months of exercise, however. I had to commit to this as a lifestyle change, as a new positive habit, in order to let the rewards of it accumulate in my life. I am lucky that I listened to the advice and feedback of others so that this had time to happen in my life. I am not always very patient!
“Taking action” still requires intentional direction and wisdom behind it to be effective
The idea that you need to “take action” is flawed if you don’t have a clue as to what you should be doing next in your life.
I think getting feedback from others in recovery is one of the most important things that you can do. This is especially true in early recovery, where your experience is severely limited in terms of living in recovery. Simply put, you don’t know what you are doing yet.
So you can seek guidance and advice from many different parties. If nothing else, go to AA meetings. Participate in an online recovery forum. Go see a professional counselor or therapist. Get a life coach even, one who specializes in recovery (they do exist!). Even a clergy person can be helpful, and I have found that many of them have experience in recovery as well.
The point is, don’t just expect “positive action” to save you, especially if you are in very early recovery. You don’t know what works and what does not yet. You are not aware of all of the traps and pitfalls of addiction recovery (of which there are many). For example, how many people who are single got clean and sober, found themselves diving head first into a new relationship, and then consequently relapsed because they did not realize how tough a break up could be emotionally in early recovery? I can tell you from experience that the frequency at which this happens in early recovery is astounding. It would shock you to see how many people relapse in early recovery due to a failed relationship.
So these are the kinds of things that you need to learn from other humans in recovery. You cannot necessarily get all of the information from your own ideas or even from books or the Internet. Those are just tools, and you need all of the help that you can get. So I would urge everyone who has less than a few years sober to seek advice, seek feedback from others in recovery, and try to get some good guidance and direction from real people who are sober. It makes a tremendous difference.
Habits that force you to review your life and how well you may be taking care of yourself in recovery
One special habit that I think is very important is reflected in one of the 12 steps of AA, and that is the “daily personal review” (step 10). I believe this is an important concept and the way that I have used it in my own life is through the use of a daily journal.
Some people do it by going to AA meetings. Right or wrong, they show up to a daily AA meeting and talk about how things are going in their life. So in effect they are doing a “daily review” and putting it out there for other people to judge. I do it privately in written form in a journal. But either way, I think this is an important habit to have.
This way you are always pushing yourself to dive deeper, to keep exploring your own issues, to keep yourself in check to some degree. Once you start coasting in recovery it can be very hard to notice that you may not be pushing yourself as much as you used to. Or to believe that you are already doing all that you need to do to remain sober, when it fact you may be drifting into complacency.
Defeating the monster that is complacency in long term sobriety
What is complacency?
Not doing the work.
Not pushing yourself to learn, to change, to grow.
This is the path to relapse in long term sobriety.
Once you have a few months or a few years of recovery, things are relatively stable. You figured out how to not drink or use drugs, for the most part.
But maintaining this is not automatic. It is not guaranteed. You have to work at it.
And this is very easy to forget in long term recovery. Because being sober becomes, at some point, very natural again.
I am at the point now where I have been sober for almost twice as long as I drank for. So it can be easy for me to forget just how bad my addiction was, just how crazy it was, just how close I came to killing myself.
So I have to stay vigilant. Because I know if I relapse, it will be less than a week and I will be drinking enormous amounts of booze again and seeking out all kinds of crazy drugs to go along with it. I don’t want that to happen because I am enjoying the rewards that sobriety has given me. Life just keeps getting better and better today. But this is because I continue to work at it.
So what about you, how are you loving yourself today in recovery? How are you taking care of yourself today? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!