Sobriety for the Real World – A Modern Approach

Sobriety for the Real World – A Modern Approach

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Yesterday we looked the truth about why most people fail to remain clean and sober in recovery. Today we want to look at a modern approach for “real world sobriety” that may not depend on programs, meetings, and group support in order to be sustainable.

Keep in mind that this “modern approach” are simple the new ideas that are working for me and others in my life–they may not work for you. As with everything in recovery, you should test techniques and strategies out for yourself and use what works well in your own life. “Take what you need and leave the rest.” The real message here is not to just follow suggestions blindly, but to take lots of different suggestions and test them out and see what works for you and what does not. Experimentation is the key. In order to experiment you need willingness as well. And of course you need to be honest with yourself about what is really working for you and what is not.

Old approach – dependency on programs and group meetings

The old approach was to rely on AA and NA meetings in order to maintain sobriety.

I personally found that this did not work well for me for a few reasons:

* I had enough anxiety about speaking in front of a group of people that for many years I avoided recovery altogether. It is fear that keeps us stuck in addiction and for me it was a fear of public speaking. The idea of talking in front of others in a typical AA meeting was terrifying for me.

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Now many people try to counter this with the argument of “Well, just don’t say anything in the meeting. When it comes to you, just pass your turn. You don’t have to talk.”

People who make this argument do not understand the nature of anxiety in my opinion! Being put on the spot and having to pass your turn at a meeting is the same exact thing has speaking in the meeting. Both put the center of attention squarely on your shoulders. Just because you pass your turn in AA does not mean everyone is not focused on you for a few seconds. For someone who has serious anxiety this attention is a big deal!

I found that after I started going to meetings it was actually easier on my anxiety if I forced myself to talk and say a few sentences. Why? Because this looked less awkward than just passing my turn.

To be honest I am not even sure if this is real “clinical anxiety” or not but I do know this much: it never got any easier. The therapists and counselors that I spoke with always told me that if I continued to force myself to share at meetings that it would get easier and easier over time, and it never did. I kept it up for about 18 months until I realized that it was not getting any easier for me, and that I may as well try to find a new path that did not depend on meetings.

* Meetings were a huge time investment for me. I was going to one meeting per day with about 30 minutes of travel time each way before and after the meeting. This amounts to almost a month of time out of each year! Now I am not saying that this is a complete waste of time for everyone, but obviously it is a huge time investment to attend a meeting every day of your life. If you are not getting a huge benefit from that time investment then it is a serious misuse of your time.

I am an introvert who actually pays attention. This makes meetings a poor fit for my personality. When I sit in a meeting I actually listen to every word that is spoken. I have found that this is not true for everyone else at an AA meeting. However, I sit there and analyze every single word that is said and I also remember everything that is said. This may not sound like a big deal but if you go to an AA or NA meeting every single day for a year straight then it becomes a big deal. Why? Because it is so inefficient! You hear the same things over and over again from the same people. Even after mixing it up and going to different meetings (from both fellowships) I was still suffering from massive “meeting burn out.” There had to be a better way…..

* Dependency on meetings was originally taught to me as a strength. Now I see it as a weak part of a recovery program. If you depend on meetings in order to remain clean and sober then to me that just shows that you are not putting forth enough effort in other areas of your recovery.

I have heard many people in AA and NA state that if there were to stop going to meetings that they would surely relapse. Don’t you see this as a problem? I see it as a problem and as a huge weakness in your recovery program. If you depend on meetings for sobriety then that does not say much for your personal growth in recovery.

* Meetings suffer from self selection bias. This is tricky to escape and overcome unless you think carefully about it. The people who give advice at meetings are also the people who go to meetings every day! Seems sort of obvious, but you have to realize that people who give advice about attending meetings have a serious flaw in their logic. They are not citing people (like myself) who have left meetings are successful in recovery. By their logic such people do not even exist, as everyone who has disappeared from the meetings must have surely relapsed! However this is not true because people do leave the meetings successfully and find other ways to stay clean and sober (as I have done).

New approach – building self reliance and strength

The new approach in recovery (or the one that is working for myself and many others) is to not rely on 12 step meetings in order to stay clean and sober.

This is not to say that you need to swear off AA or NA and never go to another meeting again. It just means that you can still recover without becoming a slave to the daily meeting ritual in order to maintain your sobriety.

So what is the alternative to meetings? In very early recovery going to lots of meetings may actually be the best course of action. But in long term sobriety it does not make sense to depend on daily meetings in order to maintain sobriety. If you are still dependent on AA meetings after a year or two in the program then you must not be working the steps very well into your daily life.

The key is to take action and make positive changes in your life. You can do this in a general sense (so long as you are self motivated) or you can do this through the 12 step program. However you do it, the key is in the positive changes that you make and the personal growth that you achieve. It is this action and these results that cause you to achieve and maintain sobriety.

What has happened in “modern day recovery” is that meetings have become so widespread that people have come to depend on them for constant support. In the early days of AA there were not constant meetings to be had every day, around the clock. There may have only been one or two meetings each week and people managed to stay sober at that time. How did they do it? By taking action–studying the literature, applying what they learned, and working the steps. Today’s society probably finds all of that to be a lot of hard work, and it is easier to just show up to the daily meeting and get your regular dose of “therapy.”

I see this as being how modern AA actually works for most people: Instead of applying the program and doing the work involved, people are content to just go through the motions and show up to meetings every day. They want it to work simply, through osmosis, by just showing up and absorbing the information at meetings. Maybe they can talk for a while and vent their problems and frustrations. This was not how AA was designed to actually work, but this is what it has slowly become. There are dozens of meetings every day and they are spread all over so you don’t have to do much footwork or learn to rely on yourself–you can just keep showing up to meetings and depend on them for support in your recovery.

The new approach (or the one that works for me) rejects this dependency on daily meetings.

The idea is to reject the daily meetings and then figure out what you need to do in order to maintain sobriety. This is how it worked for me anyway. I said to myself: “This is crazy. I sit in these meetings every day and listen to the same people say the same things over and over again, and it is not really building up my strength in recovery in any sort of meaningful way. How can I work my own recovery without depending on meetings for my sobriety?”

This was the line of questioning that forced me to take a look at my actual recovery and what actions I was taking each day. In order to “break free” I had to design my own program of recovery based on my own ideas. But most importantly I had to spur myself into action and make sure that I stayed motivated. I was convinced that I could avoid relapse if I pushed myself to keep making positive changes.

Really this was the entire secret of recovery for me: I realized that AA and the 12 steps were just a set of guidelines for positive change, and the real driver of sobriety was the personal growth that resulted from making changes. I intuitively realized that there was no magic in the 12 steps themselves, but only in the fact that they led to a process of positive action.

Stop taking positive action and you relapse eventually. Keep taking positive action and you remain sober. It really was as simple as that and so I just needed a life strategy that would encourage me to keep making positive changes.

Old approach – relapse prevention as tactics

The old approach was to approach relapse prevention as a series of tactics that one might use in response to various triggers and urges.

This was a tactical approach. Therefore, they tried to teach you how to respond to various situations such as:

* You find yourself craving your drug of choice. What do you do? Answer: call your sponsor or go to a meeting, etc.
* You have to go into a dangerous situation where you know you will be tempted to relapse. What do you do? Answer: take a peer from recovery with you, call your sponsor before and after, etc.

This is old school relapse prevention. Identify the triggers and create a plan to counter those triggers.

I can picture the workbooks in rehab centers right now: “Write down 5 things that trigger you to want your drug of choice. Now write down 5 things that you can do in order to overcome these triggers.”

And so on. This is the old school approach.

I suppose that this probably works for some people in recovery because it seems like they continue to teach such methods. But I would also caution that this method will only work if you practice your responses on a daily basis (or close to a daily basis). So in other words, if your response to a trigger is to go to a meeting, then you had better be in the habit of going to meetings every day. Likewise, if your response is to call your sponsor, then you had better be in the habit of calling your sponsor every day. Otherwise, when the trigger or urge actually occurs, there is no way that you are going to be able to follow through with your plan unless you have been practicing every day.

Notice that there is not a lot of flexibility built into this old school approach. If you have to improvise or think on your feet, forget it. You are supposed to respond and react, not discover new solutions for yourself. The approach is rather limiting.

New approach – strategy for relapse prevention rather than tactics

The new approach for relapse prevention is to adopt a strategy for personal growth and positive action. Building up real self esteem is a big part of relapse prevention that almost never gets discussed in traditional recovery approaches.

Successful recovery is all about personal growth and taking positive action every day. If you are doing this and making real progress then you will feel better about yourself. The state of being that a person is in right before they relapse is what we are trying to avoid. In order to avoid relapse you have to:

1) Care about yourself and your life.
2) Be excited about the positive changes that you are making.
3) Be pushing yourself to make personal growth and improve your life.

As noted you can do this in AA or outside of the program as well. There is no magic in the 12 steps that allow you to embrace this path of personal growth.

So instead of using a bunch of tactics you can adopt a strategy that guides your actions instead. This is more powerful and flexible than a bunch of tactics because you do not have to rely on others as much for your sustained sobriety (meetings, sponsors, etc.).

A recovery strategy does not have to be 12 steps long and it does not have to be complicated either. For example, your recovery strategy could be as simple as:

1) Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Take positive action every single day.
3) Seek better health for yourself.

My own strategy for personal growth is recovery has never strayed very far from these basic ideas. And the strategy itself is not of critical importance anyway; it is what you wake up and do each day in recovery that is going to make or break your success. Action is the key.

Old approach – spiritual conversion. New approach – personal growth

The old approach as taught by 12 step programs is all about spiritual conversion. Some have even gone so far as to say that you are just switching dependencies–from drugs or alcohol to God or religion (or the pseudo-religion of AA/NA). Trade your addiction for chemicals to this other “addiction” for religion/spirituality and daily meetings.

If this is an accurate picture then the modern alternative is to trade in your old addiction to chemicals to one of positive change and personal growth.

Can you get “addicted” to personal growth? I suppose an argument can be made that you can, but then a new avenue of growth for you is to simply find a healthier balance in life as you seek to make improvements.

I do not believe that anyone should seek to stop growing entirely. There is always room for more positive changes. The nice thing about recovery is that it mirrors your entire life–therefore it is holistic. If you think you are done growing then you are simply not considering all areas of your life. There is always another layer of growth to discover within ourselves.

The old approach says that “spiritual growth is the answer.”

The new approach says that “holistic growth is the answer.” Why limit it to just spiritual growth? There are so many other ways that you can grow in recovery, and some of them have just as big an impact on your success (for example, physical fitness has played a huge role in my own success).

Old approach – just do what we say because it works. New approach – that’s not good enough!

The old approach was to say to the newcomer: “Sit down and shut up because you have a lot to learn. If you do what we say you can stay sober.”

The new approach is to question this and ask: “Why does it work? What is your success rate with this method?”

Those are two very difficult questions for traditional recovery to answer. Number one, they don’t really know why it works (and they don’t care), and second of all their success rate is nothing to boast about.

If a recovery program only works for a slim percentage of people who are exposed to it, should we declare that it really works?

The modern approach is to find a path in recovery that works for you. This should be based on experimentation and honest self assessment. If you do well by going to meetings every day then don’t try to kid yourself and pretend that you don’t need AA–go to the meetings! If you hate the meetings and find yourself resenting them, then start pushing yourself to succeed without depending on them. This is about finding the best path to real growth in recovery. If the 12 step program is not helping you to make positive changes then find a path in life that will allow you to do so.

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