Yesterday we looked at how some of the best rehab centers offer a choice between recovery options. Today we are going to extend that idea and explore how the holistic approach is really the best form of treatment.
Traditional recovery is based on a spiritual approach
If you take a close look at addiction recovery today, nearly all of it is based on the 12 step program, and thus on producing a “spiritual awakening.” This has become the preferred method of treatment and this is what you will find if you attend 9 out of 10 treatment centers.
“The solution is spiritual,” goes the thinking. The idea is that drug addiction and alcoholism is a spiritual malady, and fixing it must therefore be done from a spiritual angle. Find God and you can overcome addiction.
Most of the treatment in the world today is based on this very idea–that addiction is best dealt with as a spiritual malady, or as a spiritual disease.
Is addiction just a spiritual malady? Or is it more than that?
The problem is that drug and alcohol addiction are both much more than just a spiritual malady. For some people who get addicted while extremely young, the disease has nothing to do with spirituality at all! If someone gets a six year old child addicted to painkillers, is that a spiritual failing on the part of the child? That is not a fair assessment against the child and yet six year old children can (and have) been addicted to drugs. Many adults believe that their addiction was a spiritual malady but obviously there is more to it than that.
When we talk about “holistic” what we really are talking about is the “whole” person.
Addiction does not just affect a person spiritually. This is a very narrow-minded approach. Instead, addiction affects ALL areas of a person’s life.
Just think about how drug addiction or alcoholism can:
* Cause physical damage in the body, cause people to eat less healthy, exercise less or not at all, take health risks due to their disease.
* Cause mental damage directly to the brain, or simply due to the fact that people who are addicted generally stop going to school, stop pushing themselves to learn new things, etc.
* Cause emotional damage as you medicate your emotions away and become averse to feeling anything real in this world any more, preferring to be numb instead.
* Cause relationship problems, as you argue and fight over your addiction and the consequences of it.
* Cause financial problems, as work becomes a burden and more and more money is used to fuel the addiction.
* Cause spiritual problems, as you become numb to a higher calling of any sort and become more and more self centered in your disease.
* Cause social problems, as your addiction forces you more and more into isolation.
And so on. There are even more areas of your life that addiction can affect than what I have listed here, these are just the obvious areas.
So it is fairly narrow minded to think that the only real problem with the disease is the spiritual malady (although that can be part of it). It is also narrow minded to believe that it all hinges on spirituality, when extremely young people can become addicted before they have even developed any sort of spiritual self. Obviously in the case of younger addicts, something more is going on rather than just a spiritual limitation. It is probably more accurate to say that for young people, it is a combination of peer pressure and physical dependence that fuels their addiction rather than a spiritual malady.
At the very least, programs that focus on spirituality at the expense of all other areas are ignoring what I believe to be the most important part of an addiction or recovery program:
The physical part.
Addiction has a large physical component to it
The biggest category of addiction and recovery is not the spiritual aspect, but instead is the physical aspect.
Our disease is largely a physical one. Addiction happens in the real world based on molecules and atoms and chemistry. You only conquer your addiction when you can control it 100 percent from a physical standpoint.
I have met people in recovery who believed that they were so spiritual, and to be honest, I thought they were very spiritual and I envied this in them (at the time), but this person that I am thinking of ended up relapsing. They relapsed physically. They put drugs and alcohol into their body.
Many opiate addicts fall into addiction based on a need to physically manage their pain. They have a physical problem that they try to treat with medication, and they end up becoming addicted. For them, even though their addiction may be partly mental, partly emotional, (even partly spiritual!), it all started with physical pain. They were trying to medicate their body’s pain.
The theory in traditional recovery is that we always relapse emotionally first, before we relapse physically. Therefore we are traditionally taught to ignore the physical aspect of recovery and instead focus on the spiritual and the emotional side of things. If we can prevent that emotional relapse (through practicing spirituality) then the thinking is that we can then prevent the later physical relapse where we actually pick up the drink or the drug. This is the traditional wisdom but in my opinion it is misguided and somewhat lacking.
The problem is that it ignores the physical part of the disease. Most people who relapse do so because they are emotionally upset or frustrated. But this can be dealt with in other ways, not just by following a spiritual program.
For example, consider the person in recovery who is using a holistic approach and thus they:
* Exercise on a regular basis.
* Eat healthier foods.
* Get good sleep every night (also helped by the exercise and the healthy eating).
* Experience less illness and sickness as a result of their physical health.
Such a person is much better protected from the threat of relapse than someone who ignores all of these aspects of recovery.
Obviously this is not a direct path to avoid relapse. These sorts of healthy choices are a very indirect method of recovery. Thus we are talking about a holistic approach to recovery, one that is broad and covers all of the bases.
Consider for a moment how many people relapse in long term recovery (after they have become well established in sobriety). Do you know how this often happens?
Most people would never guess this unless they had lived through at least a several years or a decade of recovery. It is because people get sick.
I am not talking about the newcomer in recovery, as they can relapse for all sorts of different reasons. But people who have a “solid” recovery can still fall victim to relapse based on something that sneaks up on them out of left field. They get sick, they fall ill, and this leads them to relapse. Many times it is because they need medication that they do not realize is addictive. Other times they are just sick and tired of being sick and it becomes a natural excuse to self medicate.
But I have seen this happen over and over again in my recovery journey. Someone has a few years clean and sober, I thought they were relatively stable in their sobriety, and suddenly they get really sick and end up relapsing as a result. When we get sick we become much more vulnerable to relapse, based on what I have observed in my recovery.
So take a moment now to reflect on that example above, the person who is using a more holistic approach in order to take care of his physical self. Exercise, healthy eating, good sleep, and less illness. Is such a person more protected from the threat of relapse? My answer is “yes,” of course they are.
Recovery can be separated into two very distinct time periods:
2) Relapse prevention.
That’s it. You disrupt your disease (perhaps by going to detox and rehab), then you get out of rehab and you are clean and sober and it all comes down to relapse prevention. That’s it. First you get clean and sober, then you try to stay that way. End of story.
Relapse prevention, done right, is about holistic growth.
Think about this for a moment because it is really important.
There are only 2 basic phases of recovery. Disruption and relapse prevention. Once you get spun dry in a detox center, your only task that remains is to prevent relapse. That’s it. It all boils down to relapse prevention in the long run.
So there are 2 basic ways that you might try to prevent relapse. If you go with the traditional wisdom, then simply pursuing the spiritual experience is what you will engage in. If you go with a more holistic approach, then you have all of these other potential avenues for growth (including, but not limited to, spiritual growth).
I think it is crazy not to start exercising on a regular basis in early recovery. Moving your body and getting physically healthy has such a huge impact on your overall health and feeling of well being that it is just awesome. I wasted about two years of my recovery before I “discovered” this. Looking back, I could have felt so much better and had so much more confidence in my recovery if I had been exercising all along, but I had not learned this important aspect just yet.
There are only so many things that you can focus on in a day. We only have so much time with which to spend in recovery. We only have so many “positive actions” that we can take in our recovery. We cannot do it all, we must pick and choose. We have to prioritize.
And therefore I have learned to prioritize my physical health in recovery. This is something that is just never discussed in traditional 12 step programs. It is just not part of their belief system there. They focus on the spiritual aspect of recovery almost exclusively. That is the entire focus of their program.
For me, I needed a more holistic approach. I discovered that spending an hour per day running was doing me more good than spending that same hour sitting in an AA hall discussing spirituality while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. It is all about priorities. Sure, you could try to do both, and I am sure some people do exactly that. But for me I had a life filling up with new stuff (school, exercise, relationships, business) and I had to prioritize. In traditional recovery, I was not hearing anything about how this physical aspect of recovery was important. I was not hearing anything about how a holistic approach to relapse prevention might be more powerful than just focusing on one dimension (spirituality). I was not hearing about how many people relapse after they get sick in recovery, and that traditional recovery programs did not really have much of an answer for that particular problem (other than go to more meetings, etc.).
Therefore I found traditional recovery to be somewhat lacking. They had a model for recovery but it was only based on a very narrow dimension of growth.
But I saw opportunity for growth in several different dimensions. When I started running and embraced distance running as a way of life, this was serious growth in a new area of my life. It would be hard to say that this was “spiritually motivated.” It does not suggest distance running in the 12 step program. And yet this as become one of the foundations of my health in recovery, it has become as effective for me in staying sober as going to daily meetings is for most other people.
Am I suggesting that everyone should become a distance runner in recovery? No, that is missing the point. The point is that you can grow in ways other than just the “spiritual” path that is laid out in traditional 12 step recovery. Furthermore, I believe that you SHOULD try to grow in ways that the 12 step program ignores. You do not have to be a runner, but you ought to deeply consider your physical health, and find ways to improve it. Your situation is unique and therefore your solution will be unique, but you still need to get out there and start exploring and find it.
Holistic growth does not happen in the basement of a church at some meeting. You may experience a spiritual breakthrough in that scenario but this is still a limitation on your recovery. A more powerful form of relapse prevention awaits you if you can find ways to grow outside of the spiritual realm, outside of AA, outside of traditional 12 step recovery.
Relapse prevention done correctly is holistic growth. It is more resilient than traditional relapse prevention because it protects you on more than one dimension. Think back to the idea that many people get sick and then this causes them to relapse eventually. A more holistic approach fights against this “unknowable variable” because you are working to improve your health in all areas, in many different ways, and thus you end up preventing (or minimizing) that random illness.
To some extent this is about preventing the “unknowable unknowns.” What can you do about a threat that you do not even know exists? With the holistic approach to recovery, you are doing the best that you possibly can. You are seeking to improve your life and strengthen yourself in all areas, such that you are better prepared against the unknowable unknowns.
There is no need to overwhelm yourself with all of this possible growth all at once. Recovery is long. You have a lifetime of growth ahead of you. There is plenty of time to do the things that you want to do in recovery. But priorities are still important. So how do we prioritize our holistic growth in recovery?
How to prioritize your holistic growth
Start with your biggest negative.
For struggling addicts and alcoholics, this will almost always be their addiction. This means that the need to seek out a disruption (like rehab) and then go about building a new life for themselves.
Why start with sobriety? Because it is the healthiest and highest-impact change that they can possibly make.
After you have some stability in early recovery, you are faced with your next challenge. What do you try to do next? What is your next positive action in recovery?
Here is how you prioritize.
* Always eliminate negatives from your life before chasing other goals.
* Always start with the highest impact change first.
That’s it. So you may sit down and write out your goals and potential changes. You might get something like this:
* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Start exercising.
* Build a new business.
* Go back to college.
So with this particular list of goals, you would start with the idea of “eliminating negatives” first. So your first task would be to quit smoking cigarettes. After that you would put the other goals in order of which one would have the greatest impact on you (sometimes you will be guessing on these, but no matter….you have plenty of time!).
The reason you “eliminate negatives” as your first priority is because doing so has the greatest “return on effort” for you. The bad things in our lives hold us back and reduce our enjoyment of the good stuff. So we can create the most happiness more quickly by eliminating negatives (rather than chasing positive goals). This is somewhat counter-intuitive.
Overall health is as important as sobriety
One of the key ideas to take away from this article is that your overall health in recovery is just as important as sobriety itself.
Because you’re no good to anyone if you’re dead!
Seriously, this is an important concept and I have seen many people miss it completely in their recovery journey.
Your overall health can be just as important as your sobriety, if not more so.
Sobriety is just one aspect of your health. Granted, it is a very important aspect of your health, but it is still not the ultimate goal. A health YOU is the ultimate goal, and I realize that your sobriety is a critical part of that.
But I have watched many recovering addicts and alcoholics die during my journey, and it was not always due to a relapse. Many times it was because they failed to use a holistic approach to recovery, and to life. They were so focused on the “spiritual” aspect of recovery that they never got out of that church basement and they never quit smoking cigarettes and they never got around to the whole exercise thing. Some of those folks are dead now!
And, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Sobriety is critical, I get that. But if the strongest form of relapse prevention also involves you pursuing better health in ALL areas of your life, why would you ignore that approach and choose to be lazy instead? Why sit in that church basement your whole life with your feet propped up, smoking cigarettes, and telling yourself that you are “on a spiritual path to enlightenment?”
Now I know that I am sort of stereotyping here, but don’t miss the underlying point. We could all push ourselves to pursue growth in a new area of our lives. The holistic approach knows no boundaries, really. You can get into shape, go seek more education, push yourself to improve relationships, and yes, maybe even pursue a more spiritual life. But don’t limit yourself to growth along one single axis just because traditional recovery claims that this is where all the answers are.