Yesterday we looked at a path in recovery that will give you no regrets and lead you to continuous growth. Today we want to look at the ultimate advice for getting clean and sober, and how you might apply that advice if you are starting out in recovery.
Strangely enough I never received this advice directly when I was first getting clean and sober. The advice is simple enough: make abstinence the number one priority in your life. If you really do this then it will naturally follow that your recovery program will then become the more important thing in your life.
If you go sit through a hundred AA meetings then this concept will get danced around quite a bit, but very few people will actually come out and say it like this. They will not ram the point home to newcomers (like they should) that staying clean and sober has to be the most important thing in their life, period. They don’t ram the point home that this is the greatest challenge that a person could ever face, and therefore it requires a greater effort than what you have ever put forth in the past. This is it, fight like heck!
The message should be one of extreme urgency and importance. I believe that people in traditional recovery do attempt to convey this concept in some ways, but the message gets lost in so much noise. I mean, twelve steps is actually sort of a lot to grasp. Multiply that confusion by the fact that you are likely getting advice from about thirty people during your first AA meeting that you ever sit through, and you can see where the message would get muddled and distorted.
They talk about “keeping it simple” but is that the message that they are really delivering? Are the concepts that you are taught in a 12 step program really simple, especially given that there are no less than 12 of them?
In my experience, recovery can be summarized in less than three sentences, not in 12 drawn out steps.
Ultimate advice: make sobriety the most important thing in your life
If I was going to teach someone how to recover in just 3 sentences I would choose these 3:
1) Make recovery the most important thing in your life.
2) Don’t drink or use addictive drugs no matter what.
3) Take positive action towards personal growth every single day.
That’s it. That is the formula for success and honestly you could probably get rid of steps 2 and 3 as those are just there to clarify the proper actions to take. If you simply make this serious internal commitment with yourself that recovery is the most important thing in your life, then the “right actions” should naturally follow. You should seek them out and try to learn everything that you possibly can in recovery because that is how you have prioritized your life.
I definitely did not get this when I first tried to get clean and sober by attending rehab. I was guilty of attempting to compartmentalize my addiction and my life outside of addiction, without realizing that they were hopelessly intertwined. I wanted to be clean and sober and I wanted my addiction to go away somehow, but I did not want to dedicate my life to recovery or anything. I certainly did not want to have to attend AA meetings every single day or live in a long term rehab center. I equated such actions with being in prison or jail, because how dare a recovery solution infringe so deeply on my normal, everyday life! Or so I believed. What I did not realize is that this is the only way to get clean and sober–by diving into recovery head first and making it the biggest priority in your life.
That is why they have this saying in traditional recovery: “You are either IN the program or you are AROUND the program.” What they mean by that is that if you just try to hang around a recovery program without making it your main priority, it is never going to work for you.
Most people start out in their recovery journey this way….they fail to dive in completely at first. So what happens is that they might go to rehab or they might hit a few AA meetings or something, but they don’t really dedicate their entire life to recovery right away. They sort of hang back a bit and try to figure out if they might stay clean and sober without going completely bananas with this new recovery stuff. “Do they really expect me to go these ridiculous meetings every single day for the rest of my life?” That is the basic attitude that most newcomers have in recovery as they react to the idea of recovery. Such people are still compartmentalizing recovery. They are trying to put “quitting drinking” or “quitting drugs” over in this tiny little box, far away from the rest of their life, so as not to disturb the rest of their life at all. This is not realistic and this is not how recovery works. You cannot compartmentalize your recovery and this is really what this ultimate piece of recovery advice is boiling down to:
You have to make recovery priority number one. Everything else in your life must come second to your recovery. Your job, your family, your religion, everything.
If you do not believe this then relapse will quickly teach you the lesson much better than I ever could. For if you fail to make recovery your main priority, then you are almost certain to relapse until you can give recovery another chance in which you finally learn your lesson and realize that you have to go “all in.” No more attempting to compartmentalize. It doesn’t work. You either live life with recovery as your main objective, or you end up relapsing. There is no in-between here and that is just the way that it is. Those who try to find a middle ground always gravitate towards relapse. Eventually such people learn that they were not trying hard enough, they were not taking recovery serious enough, and they did not prioritize their recovery correctly. Hopefully such people will go back to rehab, double down in their efforts, and realize that they have to take it more seriously and do exactly what they are told to do “this time around.”
This is exactly what happened to me after 2 failed attempts in rehab. I finally became willing and ready to accept that recovery had to become my entire life. In the past when they suggested long term rehab I was absolutely terrified of the idea. But by the third time around I was utterly defeated in my addiction and I had fully hit bottom. Now my attitude had shifted and I was more open to other solutions. I had stopped trying to compartmentalize my recovery. I realized that if I was going to change my life and get sober that it was not going to be this tiny little side project that I worked on during the weekends and for an hour each evening. No, it was going to take a huge effort, a monumental effort, and it would likely be the hardest thing I had ever done. I finally accepted the fact that I could not just wave a magic wand and make my addiction go away. It was going to take guts. It was going to take massive action. And it was going to take a sustained effort for months, years, or even decades. I had finally accepted all of that and realized that in the past I was trying to compartmentalize my recovery in order to minimize its impact on my life. I did not want to go to long term rehab in the past because it was just “too disruptive” to my precious life. How ridiculous! I was miserable anyway due to my addiction, and yet I was not willing to go live in a rehab center in order to get my sanity and my happiness back? Why the heck not? Because addiction is a tricky foe and I was simply a stubborn person, that is why. This is how denial works. You tend to not trust that others have a superior solution for you, or that they could possibly know what you need better than yourself.
So the last time that I attempted to get clean and sober, everything was different. What had changed was that I had hit bottom this time and I was completely defeated from my addiction. To be honest I no longer cared what happened to my life, to my soul, to my existence. You could have threw me in prison or threw me over a cliff, I really don’t think I cared. This is the state of mind that I had to be in so that I could finally accept long term rehab as my solution. I had fought against it for so long and I had made it out to be such an evil thing in my own mind.
I am not sure how to tell a person to reach this point of surrender. I had to “earn” my way to that point through accumulated misery and chaos of addiction. I simply got to that point by being miserable for long enough. I don’t know of any other way to force someone to hit bottom and surrender. I do not think it is possible to manufacture this state of being without actually “earning” it. You have to go through the pain and misery if you are going to reach this deep level of surrender–the one in which you finally say “yes, I will do anything you tell me to do in order to try and get better. Show me how to live. My way has not worked.”
Most people hit a roadblock or two on their way to reaching this level of surrender. They may get to a point where they wish that things were different, but are they really willing to do whatever it takes, to fully embrace a recovery solution? Most people reach a point where they are not quite there yet. This is why relapse happens. People want to change, but they do not yet have the extreme level of willingness that it takes in order to make this huge leap into long term sobriety. They are holding back. They have reservations about recovery. They are willing to take SOME action, but not to take ANY action. They are not willing to fully commit. They are still trying to compartmentalize some piece of their recovery, or of their life.
The solution is obvious: dive into recovery head first, and make it your entire purpose. Tell yourself: “For the next two years, I will focus on nothing other than maintaining my new found sobriety. That will be my sole purpose in life, because all good things will flow from my sobriety.” This is how to reach the level of willingness that it takes to stay clean and sober.
How spiritual pride can trip you up
This is a very tricky subject because if you go to traditional recovery programs they all tell you that “the solution is spiritual.”
I believe that this is slightly in error–the real solution is holistic, not spiritual. What makes this confusing is that the real solution, the holistic solution, also includes spirituality. But to say that the entire solution rests on spirituality is a narrow minded approach.
Therefore you will sometimes see a person in early recovery who gets so wrapped up in the spiritual journey that they lose sight of their first priority.
This should always be to “not put alcohol or addictive drugs into your body, period.” This has to stay priority number on in recovery. Believe it or not, people can screw this up and lose sight of this simple truth.
The problem is that when you lose sight of that priority, you open the door to relapse, and then all spiritual progress is lost anyway.
I have seen this happen in early recovery before. The spiritual journey may be extremely important to some, but it should never overtake your first priority, which is to abstinence itself. Some of the people who I was surrounded with in early recovery were much more “spiritual” than I was, yet many of them relapsed anyway.
Your first priority is not to spirituality, nor to religion. It is to sobriety. Abstinence is job number one.
The most important thing in your life is recovery. Physical abstinence is the foundation of this. You must not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
This is how to prioritize your recovery, and your life. All other good things will flow from this.
The mental game you must play to avoid relapse – the zero tolerance policy
There is a mental tool that you might use for this called the “zero tolerance policy.”
In order to do this you have to watch your own thoughts. This is no big deal and it is easy to do. Simply observe what your mind is chattering about, and if you happen to start thinking about using drugs or taking a drink, you need to shut that line of thinking down and distract yourself.
Do this instantly, swiftly, and without hesitation. The second you find yourself starting to romanticize the idea of getting drunk or high, remind yourself that you can no longer “go there.” If you allow yourself to indulge in these mental fantasies it will only make you miserable. Therefore every time you can shut this line of thinking down you are making your recovery that much stronger.
You can be happy in recovery without using drugs or alcohol but your own mind is going to fight against this and try to make you miserable. Don’t let it! When you find yourself fantasizing about getting drunk or high, shut it down immediately. If you keep doing this consistently for about a week or so then it will become automatic and you will not even have to think about it consciously in the future. But for the first week or two you WILL have to think about it consciously, and monitor and “watch” your thoughts very carefully.
I call this your “zero tolerance policy.” You have to refuse to tolerate those thoughts of using and getting high. Sure they will still pop up from time to time, but you can have power over them by refusing to indulge them and allowing them to make you miserable. If you shut them down and distract yourself then they lose power over you, and you get stronger in your recovery.
How to take recovery seriously enough
The key is to surrender totally and completely. As I mentioned earlier I am not sure that you can decide to do this on a whim, just because you wish that things were different. It has to come from a very deep place of surrender, that place where you are miserable beyond belief. In the program they call it “being sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Once you hit this deep bottom then you will have the willingness to take your recovery seriously.
You can measure how serious you are about recovery by your level of willingness. What are you willing to do, to sacrifice, to prioritize in order to recover? If you are still holding back and saying that “you will not do this, and you will not do that,” then you are probably not quite ready yet. Letting go of all of those limitations may be the key to finally “getting it” and changing your life.
I had to become willing to go to long term rehab in order to recover. Your solution may be different than that, it all depends on your situation. How are you to know what the right path in recovery is?
The answer usually falls to one key concept:
Asking for help.
If you refuse to ask for help then you are probably not ready to recover. On the other hand, someone who is willing to ask for help from people they trust AND willing to follow through on that advice is definitely headed in the right direction. It’s about willingness. You do not necessarily have to be extreme in order to recover (such as living in rehab for multiple years) but you do have to be willing to ask for help and then follow through. This is the key to early recovery. We have to “get out of our own way” so that we can stop sabotaging our own efforts.
What it means to take massive action and use overwhelming force
In my opinion you are not going to be successful in early recovery unless you take “massive action” and use the concept of “overwhelming force.”
Your addiction is the enemy, and when you make the choice to try and recover, you are entering into battle with this enemy.
“Am I going to make a half hearted effort at defeating this enemy? Am I going to put forth only what effort I think might be necessary, in order to barely squeak by?”
Or are you going to completely crush your goal by throwing every possible ounce of effort that you have at it?
The answer is obvious. The people who succeed in recovery are those who are putting forth a serious effort. They have prioritized their recovery and their lives correctly. They are no longer trying to stuff their recovery in this neat little box and separate it from the rest of their lives. Instead they have become willing to tackle recovery head on, to accept and embrace a new solution their lives, and to put forth the greatest effort that they can possibly muster. This is it, fight like heck!
Recovery comes first. Physical abstinence is goal number one. Get your mental game lined up with the zero tolerance policy. Prioritize your life with sobriety first!