What exactly does the search for meaning in addiction recovery entail?
How do you go about finding purpose and meaning in your life after giving up alcohol or other drugs?
Quite honestly, this was by far the most important question that I was facing before I reached the point of full surrender. Interestingly enough, after you reach the point of *true* surrender, you will no longer care about whether you find meaning or purpose in recovery or not. It will be enough to simply move on from the pain and chaos of addiction. In the beginning, that is reward enough in itself.
I should also point out though that I had no real hope when I finally surrendered. It is not like I said “OK, good, I am finally giving up on trying to be happy with drugs and alcohol, so now I can move on and my life will magically become better and better!” That is not the essence of surrender. Instead, I was miserable and had hit bottom. I had no hope. I had not belief that things would get better over time. I had no hope that my life might have purpose again some day.
Fast forward to 12 plus years later, and BAM! My life has purpose and meaning today. Of course I can still strive for more, I can still try to improve my life and the relationships around me, but as it is now I am quite blessed. There is no excuse for me to complain today because I am blessed to have plenty of meaning in my life. My life itself has at least some positive value, if just through example alone. I am lucky enough to have lived through over a decade of sobriety and counting. If this isn’t hope, I don’t know what is. As it was, I was a real alcoholic who had pretty much given all hope at one point. To be sitting here today and to be able to connect with others, to help them in some small way is pretty amazing.
As with any sort of gratitude, though, it only benefits you if you choose to acknowledge it. We have all watched examples of people who had the whole world in the palm of their hand, yet they were not satisfied because they wanted something more, something else. They are never happy because they choose not to be.
In recovery, you have the same choice facing you every day. You can be amazed and astounded at the miracle of life itself, at the fact that you are not falling down drunk today and ruining your life (yet again), or you can be selfish and annoyed at your first world problems.
Seriously, my problems that I experience today in recovery are trifling. They are not even worth mentioning, so long as I can gain the perspective that I need in order to remain grateful.
In other words, maybe I am having a stressful and hectic day today because I am having a problem on the phone with customer service. Or because I am stressed about creating an article for a website. Or any number of things. And yet, compare this to my darkest days in addiction, when I was on the floor, depressed and full of fear, and contemplating just ending it all rather than to go on and try to keep drinking and drugging. Just look at how much better my problems are today. I still have problems, but they are no longer “scrape-me-off-the-floor” problems. Today my problems are actually just opportunities for growth. They are not even really problems, because most of the time I have learned (now in recovery) that I don’t have to be a part of the problem, I don’t have to drink or use drugs over the problem, and I don’t have to make pathetic excuses as to why my life is horrible and I need to medicate.
Each day lived sober is an opportunity. Recovery is about progress. You move forward. If you start moving backwards in recovery for long enough, eventually you will reach the point of relapse. This is like jumping off a cliff. Once you pass that critical point it is all over. You are in for a ride. You may never make it back to recovery, or you may make it back after ten years, or five years, or 35 years. No one knows for sure and least of all you, the alcoholic who finally said “screw it” and picked up that first deadly drink. Once you set it in motion again, no one can predict the results. Eventually alcoholism and drug addiction are always fatal, though sometimes people cannot see it through to death because they get stuck in jail or an institution first. Or, they surrender and sober up, avoiding the lifetime of chaos and misery.
You don’t actually have to do very much in order to find purpose and meaning in recovery (as we will see below in a moment).
There is an easier way to give your life meaning in recovery. Fairly simple but definitely not easy. Most will avoid it because it is hard work.
Establishing a baseline of success in early recovery
I usually separate addiction and alcoholism recovery into at least two stages, for the sake of discussion. We could separate them into 4 stages or maybe even 5 or 6 stages, but for our purposes it makes sense to look at just two.
You surrender and you ask for help. You want to stop drinking and you are now taking action to make it happen. You are in “early sobriety.”
This is where you go to detox, get out, and maybe start attending AA meetings every day. You go get a sponsor. You are learning, learning, learning. Every single day you learn more about how to live your life without drinking. This is early recovery.
When does this stage end? Well, for one thing you never stop learning completely. So a small part of you will always be in “early recovery” for the rest of your entire life.
But at some point you will have learned quite a bit, enough that you are now fairly stable in your day to day sobriety.
When you have just two weeks sober, you can easily relapse in a single day. What do I mean by that?
I mean that if you only have 2 weeks sober and you happen to have a really terrible day, and just by chance an enormous opportunity shows up to tempt you for relapse (Swedish bikini team bus rolls up, offers you a ride across country, has keg of beer…that sort of thing). So what can happen when you are in this frail state?
You could relapse. It could happen very easily, very quickly, because you have not had much time to “build a moat around your recovery.”
Now what does that phrase mean, “building a moat around your recovery?”
It means that after several years or months in recovery, you should have taken enough positive action that you become a lot stronger. If you are doing the right things in your recovery journey, then you should not be teetering on the brink of relapse after a certain length of time.
In other words, after I had several years sober, I went through some tough circumstances where life just kept showing up and happening to me, without my permission. In the past it would have been enough of an excuse to relapse. Or it would have driven me over the edge and back to drinking.
But because I had built up enough personal growth and progress in my recovery, I was not susceptible to a quick relapse. It was not going to happen on a whim, not in just 24 hours.
Now here is the tricky thing:
Anyone can relapse, regardless of how long they have been sober. Doesn’t matter if you have 40 years of sobriety under your belt. You can still relapse.
But is important to realize the difference here:
If you have 2 weeks sober, then you could suddenly relapse in a single day, just through bad luck and poor circumstances.
But if you have several years sober and you have “built a moat around your recovery” then you are not likely to fly off the handle in under 24 hours. When the stuff starts hitting the fan, you know enough (and have learned enough) and have practiced enough so that you know what to do: Take action, meditate or pray, call your sponsor, write about it, get feedback from your peers, get in touch with your support system, and so on. You have done these things in the past, you have practiced them, you have built up these actions and these themes over time so that you are no longer as vulnerable.
Simply “building the moat” can give your life a ton of purpose and meaning. If that is all you ever did (and focused on), it would be enough. Personal growth is not a destination, it is the journey itself. And the best relapse prevention in the world is continuous personal growth.
It all fits together.
How to set yourself up for long term growth with a daily practice
Now if you wait for the bad stuff to hit the fan in your life, you are going to be caught off guard. You may relapse as a result.
You do not want to be reacting to life when it shows up as if you are unprepared and scrambling around. This is what produces more chaos, more misery, and possible relapse.
Instead, you need a proactive approach to recovery.
If you do what most people do, then eventually you may find yourself on the ground again (either literally or figuratively) saying “I just need one thing in order to stay sober, just this one thing and I will be alright, but please just give me this one thing, grant me this one request,” etc.
If you are in that position then you are already on the brink of relapse. You are holding on by a thread.
You don’t want your recovery to be held together by a single string. You want something stronger than that. Something so that if one of your strings should break, you will not fall. There will be other strings in place to hold you up (to keep with this analogy for a bit).
What you need then is more of a web. Many people in traditional recovery use a single string, and that string is “faith.” Or they label it as “spirituality.” Or they call it their connection with a higher power.
If that is the only string that you have holding your recovery together then you are vulnerable. I am not saying that your recovery is weak, but it could definitely be stronger if you were to add more strings.
Adding strings is the goal of a holistic approach.
One of my “strings” today that hold my recovery together is daily exercise. I run long distances and I work out with weights. I do this every single day, either one or the other. I don’t skip days. I don’t take a day off because I don’t feel like doing much. I do it every single day and I am consistent with it.
As such, this habit of daily exercise has a tremendous amount of power in my recovery. It is almost enough to keep my sober all by itself. Seriously, think about that for a moment. There are entire recovery programs out there for drug addiction and alcoholism that are based entirely on physical exercise. Not to your liking? Don’t believe it? Not a problem. Just adopt the idea as a single part of your overall strategy.
You want to see a strong recovery? Look at 3 or 4 different programs that all use a different strategy. Then combine those strategies and employ all of them in your life. If the strategies conflict with each other then you must discard the one that helps the least. But most recovery strategies compliment each other very well.
For example, there are 12 step based programs such as AA and NA. There are religious based programs that may be based on Christianity or other faiths. Then there are programs that rely entirely on physical fitness and exercise.
Those 3 program examples happen to work together as well. There is nothing in one of those programs that completely invalidates the others. Therefore if you borrow concepts from all three you will not be fighting against yourself. You will not make progress in one area but then hurt your progress in another.
Your overall strategy in recovery is to keep building up greater health in such a way that you are creating more of these “strings” that hold up your sobriety. I have several such strings that can all help to support me:
1) Supportive family and friends in my recovery.
2) Spiritual pursuit and higher power connection, faith.
3) Daily exercise.
4) Writing about recovery on a daily basis and connecting with others.
Life is chaotic and random. It is very possible and maybe even likely in the long run that one of those “strings” will get cut, at least temporarily. For example, I have suffered injuries while exercising that forced me to sit idle for months on end with no workout. If my recovery depended entirely on physical exercise in order to feel good and maintain sobriety, I probably would have relapsed.
But I have diversified my “strings” that hold my recovery together. When I was injured I spent more time on the other things, I shifted my strategy and my priorities so that my injury had time to heal.
The holistic approach is not only more powerful, but it is also more flexible and adaptable. You can substitute or even replace one of your “strings” at any given time if you need to. And because life is so random, eventually it is a given that you will need to (even if temporarily).
The holistic approach may sound fluffy or complicated, but it is pretty straightforward.
What you want to do is to segment your life and potential personal growth into categories.
Categories such as:
1) Physical health, fitness, nutrition, quitting smoking, etc.
2) Mental health, feeling sharp, education, learning new things, etc.
3) Emotional health and balance. Not being stressed.
4) Spiritual health. Connection with higher power. Meditation. Feeling connected to others.
5) Relationships. Specifically, eliminating toxic ones.
And so on. There may be more categories that you find are important to your own life and your own health.
Then the key is that you must not neglect any of these categories for too long.
How long is too long? In early recovery, a full day is probably too long to ignore any one of these things. You must strive to improve in all areas, daily.
In long term sobriety (when you have more stability) you can focus in on one thing at a time and make bigger gains, making more pinpoint growth.
The idea is this:
If you are doing all of these things every single day in your recovery, and being mindful that you are making progress in all of these areas, then you will not be as vulnerable to relapse.
Remember the image of being down on the floor, praying that you get just what you need in order to feel good again? In order to get back on your feet? In order to not relapse and somehow be happy?
If you use a holistic approach and you take action on those items each and every day, then you will not end up on the floor, begging for a miracle. Your life will become the miracle. This is how the holistic approach works.
How fixing the negative stuff in your life will lead you to more happiness
How can you find meaning and be happy in recovery?
Here is a simple breakdown of the process:
1) Identify your fears, guilt, shame, and anger.
2) Find someone to help you work through each and every one of those things.
3) Keep looking for more negative stuff (guilt, fear, anger, shame, etc.) in your life, and when you find it, always tackle it and work on it so that you eliminate it.
4) Rinse and repeat. Keep doing this for 5 to 10 years.
At the end of that time you will have been through some major struggles. It will be painful at times. It would be much easier to find those fears (or the anger, or whatever) and just drink it away or take drugs. That is the easy path.
But if you do that then the negative junk will just resurface again later.
In order to be happy and free in recovery, you have to do the work. Clean the slate. If you study the 12 steps of AA, they get down to this same sort of business. It is like putting on gloves and going down into the dirty parts of your soul and cleaning it out.
This leads to real joy. This is true happiness. There are other ways to pursue happiness (that many will be distracted by) but none of them will have the lasting impact on your happiness as much as “doing the work” will do.
It’s hard to do the work. It’s not fun.
But that is what leads to happiness, purpose, and meaning.
If you do the work that I am suggesting here (holistic approach every day, positive action, doing the work and tackling your fear and anger) then you will eventually reap huge rewards in recovery. Life will get better and better and it will also take on new meaning.
Not just “oh, I no longer have a lot of anger” but real purpose and real meaning. You will find that your happiness in the path was but a fraction of the true joy that you experience today.
Healed people heal people, and why relationships will drive the joy in your recovery
Once you are healed in recovery, you go on to heal others as well. This can be done through 12 step work, or completely outside of AA. It doesn’t really matter.
Even if you just live as an example, this will have a positive effect on many.