In order to succeed in early recovery you must learn how to tackle your fears and accept certain challenges.
One thing that I have learned as I have gone through this journey of recovery is that the two ideas are very often the exact same thing (facing your fears and overcoming a new challenge in life).
In fact, the biggest breakthroughs that I have made in my recovery were when I was able to face a fear directly and overcome it. This has always been my biggest source of gains.
Facing your biggest fears in recovery gives you the biggest opportunities
By far the biggest fear that I have ever faced in my life was the fear of sobriety. Once I was addicted to drugs and alcohol I could not imagine what my life would be like without them. When I was still drinking every day the thought of trying to become sober was seriously depressing and quite honestly it made me have thoughts of suicide. Not that I really wanted to kill myself, but rather the logic sort of said “Gee, if I ever had to become sober, I think I would rather die than to face my life without drugs or alcohol.” This is what living in fear is all about. You are afraid of everything, and most of all you are afraid of facing life without your crutch that you have found in addiction.
So the biggest fear in the journey of recovery is to simply surrender to the idea that your life is all messed up when you are drinking and using drugs. This is very difficult to do but after you get past this “hump” then everything else becomes so much easier. For example, you may face additional fears in your recovery journey and they may in fact challenge you some more, but none of those subsequent fears should be anything like the leap that you had to make into surrender to begin with. In other words, just getting clean and sober is by far the biggest challenge of recovery. If you can do that then surely you can push yourself to conquer even more fears and challenges, right?
Not so fast. Unfortunately, many people who make the leap into early sobriety do not follow through with these additional fears and challenges. The pressing concern in alcoholism recovery is that you have to make personal growth in order to remain clean and sober. If you sit idle in your recovery and do nothing then you are not going to be able to make real progress in terms of personal growth, and as a result you will be more vulnerable to relapse. Regardless of what they tell you in early recovery as far as “the secret to success” (i.e., working the steps, attending meetings, etc.) ultimately it all comes down to taking action and personal growth. If you are not moving forward in recovery then you are sliding backwards. And we all know where “backwards” will have you wind up at…..relapse.
So it is not enough to merely face that initial fear of sobriety (even though that is definitely the big Kahuna). In order to remain sober you must keep challenging yourself to find that next layer of growth in your life. What more can you learn about yourself? How can you get honest with yourself in order to make positive changes? If you are not exploring these avenues of personal growth then you may be setting yourself up for failure.
Challenging yourself to go after the “big wins”
I have to admit that when I was in very early recovery I had no idea what I was doing in terms of personal growth, at least initially.
It took me a few years to really be able to figure out what was working in my recovery and what was actually helping me to stay clean and sober.
One of my biggest “wins” in early recovery was quitting smoking.
I tried to quit smoking cigarettes for a long time in early recovery, and I repeatedly failed for a long time. It was a tough battle.
Eventually I had to take a step back and try a new angle. Using nicotine patches and taking advice from my peers was not necessarily helping. I just kept trying and failing to quit.
So what I did was to take another suggestion that was seemingly unrelated. People and my peers in recovery were suggesting that I start exercising.
This was the key that finally unlocked my nicotine addiction. It was through exercise that I was finally able to quit smoking.
In fact, I continued to smoke cigarettes as I picked up the “exercise habit” in my life. I started jogging with a family member and eventually worked my way up to about 40 miles per week.
And I was still smoking!
This is a key point. I could not just quit the cigarettes on my own. I could not even do it with medications or with the patch. Instead, I had to really tackle the problem from a long term perspective and start exercising before I could even attempt to successfully quit smoking.
And this worked. It was a long and difficult path, but it was the path that finally worked for me.
You might think of this as “the holistic approach” to addiction and recovery.
I did not just quit smoking cigarettes.
Instead, I had to get clean and sober first. Then I had to start exercising and build up my endurance and fitness.
Then, and only then, was I able to conquer that final addiction (to nicotine).
Now the key point here is that overcoming nicotine addiction, for me, was a “big win.”
Bigger than getting clean and sober even!
Now of course in reality the sobriety thing is a much bigger deal. No one can deny that. But after I got clean and sober I started to take my sobriety for granted a little bit. And so when I tried to quit smoking and I failed so many times, it really turned out to be “my biggest challenge in recovery.” It turned into a monster. And it just seemed like I could not defeat it for the longest time.
So what happened after I quit smoking was this:
I got a ton of confidence. I was really on top of the world now. I realized that I had power. I realized that I could probably overcome just about any issue that I might have in the future. I realized that I could probably achieve just about any reasonable goal that I might conceive of. This is because it was such a “big win.” Because quitting smoking was so incredibly difficult for me that once I finally achieved it, this unlocked a huge amount of confidence in me.
To be honest, this was like the biggest positive turning point for me in my early recovery. I believe this happened at around the 3 year mark perhaps? It did not happen right away when I got sober, that is for sure. I struggled to try to quit for a long, long time. It was agonizing.
So once this happened I realized that I could achieve darn near anything that I set my mind to. It was a huge confidence booster. It really opened up my world to more personal growth.
For example, at some point after quitting smoking I decided that I should run a marathon. I had never run more than six miles at a time, but I knew that I could build up to that level if I really decided that I wanted to do it. This confidence came to me–quite honestly–because I was able to finally quit smoking cigarettes. Isn’t that strange?
So what I would suggest to you is that you explore your fears. Figure out what your biggest fear in recovery is, or alternatively, your biggest challenge. Figure out what it is that you would need to accomplish in order to call something a “big win.” Then set out to make it happen, actually make a long term plan to get all of the help, guidance, and support that you need in order to reach that big goal and get that “big win.” Because doing so can unlock a lot more potential growth in your recovery.
Why you need to keep pushing yourself in order to remain sober
My theory is that if you stop growing in your recovery then you will eventually relapse. Or perhaps you will not actually relapse but you will most likely get bored, frustrated, and potentially miserable. These are certainly conditions in which relapse starts to look enticing.
Maybe you go to meetings every day. Maybe you have a certain job that you do. Whatever.
If you don’t push yourself to learn anything new, to grow, to challenge yourself, then this when you might end up getting bored. And if you get bored then you might get lazy. And that is how complacency can set in. We don’t want this to happen.
I like to look at my life in two different aspects. Call them two different “lenses” if you like. One is the internal aspect (self pity, resentment, anger, fear, shame, guilt, regret, etc.) and the other one is the external aspect of your life (job, career, relationships, education, finances, etc.).
It is a mistake in my opinion to focus on one of these aspects while completely ignoring the other aspect. If you study people who are working various programs of recovery, you will typically find in a lot of cases that people end up doing exactly that. They focus on either the internal or the external without paying enough attention to the other aspect of recovery.
But both are important. And if you neglect one aspect for too long then it can trip you up and lead you to relapse. So it is important to consider both of them on a daily basis.
If you fail to consider a potential area for growth in a given day, then you open the door to the possibility of relapse on that given day.
In long term sobriety it can get a little tricky. For example, say that you normally exercise and it makes you feel good about yourself and it helps to prevent relapse (I have found this to be very true for myself). So then let’s say you have ten years sober and you happen to skip a day of exercise. Do you relapse immediately?
Of course you don’t. And that is what makes it so tricky. Because you can get away with it. And you can even skip it twice.
In fact, depending on how your recovery works, you might be able to just completely quit exercising altogether and end up being just fine–no threat of relapse. Because in that case, you would have so many other aspects of your recovery that are in balance to help hold your sobriety together. For example, your spiritual health. And maybe your relationships with others in recovery. And so on. So if one aspect of your recovery suddenly suffers (like eliminating exercise) it does not cause you to instantly relapse.
So you can see how this would get tricky. There is a complicated threshold where a person might relapse after a few day (or weeks, or months) when they drop too many of these “balls” that they are juggling in recovery. Their spirituality, their emotional balance, their healthy eating, their regular exercise, their good sleeping habits, their AA meetings, their recovery literature, and so on and so forth. Surely a person can “afford” to drop one or more of these balls for a certain time period, but how many can be dropped completely (and for how long) until it causes a relapse?
Now here is the important part:
You would never know the answer to this unless you relapsed.
Not good, right?
So what is the answer?
The answer is that you must be proactive. You must prevent this situation from occurring before it happens.
You must act as if relapse is a constant threat, because essentially it is.
How most people fail in recovery
Most people react to things in recovery. They are not proactive as suggested above.
So when things get bad, they start going to more meetings.
Or if things get bad, they call their sponsor.
They are reacting to things that happen in life. They try to patch up the rough spots.
The alternative is to anticipate the rough spots in life. If you keep living and existing in the modern world, then you should just assume that there will be good times, there will be normal times, and there will also be a few rough spots. That is not bad news, it is just the way things are. We all go through ups and downs.
Therefore, in order to anticipate these rough spots in life, you need to engage in a daily practice that will allow you to be prepared for whatever life is going to hand you that day.
This is also why it needs to be a DAILY practice, rather than something that you check off your to-do list once a month or once a week.
You must live every day so that you are prepared to prevent relapse.
And how do you do this?
You do it holistically. You do it by taking care of yourself.
So in order to take care of yourself in a holistic manner, this means that you must take care to improve your life in terms of:
* Spiritual health. Practicing gratitude every day. Connection with higher power. Prayer, meditation, or whatever works for you. Gratitude is especially powerful.
* Physical health. This is huge. Detox, stay clean. Quit smoking. Healthy eating. Good sleep habits. Take care of your body. Prevent illness.
* Emotional balance. This is tough. It helps to do all of the rest of these items to help keep your emotions in check. Toxic relationships ruin this one.
* Social health. Eliminate toxic relationships. Find mentors and sponsors who you look up to. Connect with people who want to help you.
* Mental health. Reduce obsession, anxiety, depression. Again this one requires a holistic approach as well.
If you fail to consider any of these areas for too long then you could fall victim to relapse.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are very “sneaky” diseases in that they only need a small foothold in order to creep back into your life. For example, someone in recovery might get sick or injured and suddenly they find themselves on painkillers, which eventually leads them back to their drug of choice. They did not plan on relapsing due to their sickness or injury, it just happened. And yet it may have been preventable if they were following the holistic path as outlined above.
There is always another level of incremental improvement to make in your life
You never finish this journey. If you look at the holistic categories above then you will realize that while you might make growth in one area, there is always going to be something else that you can work on in order to improve your overall health and well being.
At the highest level of recovery you will be making incremental improvements in your health and in your life. This is because you will have already made many of the basic changes in order to overcome addiction and improve your life and your health. But it makes no difference, because you need to keep striving for this improvement in order to fend off the threat of relapse. If you stop improving (and learning) then you will tend to get bored and this can lead to complacency. Better to strive for incremental improvement than to kick back, put your feet up, and become lazy in recovery.
Of course in order to get to this point in recovery you have to first make the decision that you want to surrender and change your life. This takes guts. When you make such a decision then you make a silent agreement with yourself that you are going to take positive action and try to improve your life from now on, rather than to give into your addiction and go back into a downward spiral. You are either moving forward and making positive progress or you are headed towards relapse. A key point in recovery is realizing that there is no middle ground. You cannot stand still in recovery. Standing still is defined as complacency and this leads to relapse.
Your biggest gains in recovery will come from tackling your biggest fears. If you can find the help and support that you need in order to conquer those fears then it will allow you to have that much more confidence in the future. Success breeds success in recovery. If you can overcome one fear then the next one is that much easier. This is what I learned when I finally managed to kick the cigarettes for good. After that I had the confidence that I needed to be able to conquer even more challenges and fears in my life.