One thing that I have discovered in long term sobriety is that there is always another layer of growth to explore during your recovery.
You will hear it over and over again if you attend AA meetings, that this is “an education without a graduation.” It is cliche but it is absolutely true. You never really stop learning. And the real danger is that if you think that you have “arrived” and have learned all that you need to learn in order to remain sober then you are setting yourself up for failure.
I always thought that the idea of having 12 steps in recovery sort of set you up to think that you would “finish” them at some point. But in reality you will need to find a way to keep living the principles in your life on a day to day basis (this is essentially why the last three steps are written to be ongoing projects in your life and not one time events).
In early recovery you make some seriously big gains in a short amount of time. You quit drinking alcohol. You change your whole life. You establish healthy habits. And so on.
But in long term recovery you no longer have that string of “big wins” in order to sustain your positive attitude.
What, then, will come of your recovery? What will you do in order to sustain the positive momentum in long term sobriety? After 5 years sober? After ten? After twenty?
My answer to that (so far) is “personal growth.”
I have watched several people in traditional recovery who got clean and sober, started making positive changes, but then they ran out of steam. For some reason they just stopped growing, they stopped pushing themselves, and they stopped learning new things about their life and their recovery.
This led to relapse. Every time.
The only way to sustain sobriety in the long run, from what I have learned, is to keep moving forward. To keep learning. To keep growing as a person. To keep improving yourself and your life. This has been the key to my recovery.
Incremental growth as the key to beating complacency?
You may be wondering–why incremental growth? Why settle for small gains?
They are really not small gains. Only in long term sobriety do the gains become smaller, because you have already picked all of the “low hanging fruit” in early recovery.
In other words, did you quit drinking? Check.
Quit other drugs and quit smoking cigarettes? Check.
Start eating decent? Check.
Start exercising? Check.
Meditation? Prayer? Some form of gratitude or regular spiritual growth? Check.
If you follow any sort of traditional path in recovery, then chances are good that you will check off all of these boxes at some point.
So then…..what’s left?
The big transformations are gone. You did them.
This is not to say that you are “done.” You are never done. You will never be perfect in recovery. There is always more growth to explore.
And so what I think is really important is that you figure out how to celebrate the little victories in recovery. You must do this early on, because later in recovery you may feel foolish otherwise. And at some point, you will have nothing left but little victories to accomplish. It will all be incremental growth at some point.
But that is fine, so long as you learn how to have the right attitude about it. Because it still matters. Of course it still matters. And that incremental growth is necessary to help you stay positive and to help you stay sober.
People get complacent all the time in recovery. When this happens they get lazy and there is a chance that they will relapse because of it.
You don’t want to take that chance. There is no way to know in advance if getting lazy or complacent will cause a person to relapse or not. Therefore you must assume that it will cause you to relapse. This is the only sensible approach to long term recovery. It also has the added benefit that you keep pushing yourself to improve your life and your life situation. So as you maintain sobriety and keep living your life, your life in general (and your perception of it hopefully) keeps getting better and better over time. This is the real gift of recovery, and it is one that is well worth working towards. You are going to have to do some sort of work anyway in order to maintain sobriety, so why not work on improving your life and your overall happiness? Why wouldn’t you use that approach? What benefit could you get from doing it any other way? It only makes sense to build a more positive life in recovery by…..taking positive action!
Learning how to assess your life and look for your next potential area of personal growth
In order to do the sort of personal growth that I am talking about, you will want to be able to make an honest assessment of yourself and of your life.
This is best done with the help of other people.
If you try to do this by yourself then you can make some gains in the process, but your overall growth will be limited. We cannot see all of the potential from where we (alone) are sitting. We need to bring in an outside pair of eyes and ears in order to gain more helpful perspective.
For example, maybe you have peers in recovery who have been clean and sober for a really long time. If you ask them questions or advice about what you might be doing with your time and effort in recovery, they may be able to save you a lot of heartache and pain. They made mistakes in their journey and they can help prevent you from making those same errors.
Or you may have a sponsor in recovery who can help to give you advice as well. Maybe you can ask this person for feedback on what your biggest problems might be in your life. Or you can really get to know this person and explain how your thought processes work on a day to day basis, and they can help point out where you may be using self defeating self talk, or sabotaging your recovery efforts by giving into anger, resentment, self pity, shame, or guilt. There are all sorts of pitfalls to watch out for in recovery and chances are that you cannot diagnose them all by yourself. You are going to need some help in order to figure out what the next best thing for you to do is.
Think about that for a moment because it is a really important concept.
I am a smart enough guy (or so I like to think). But the reality is that I don’t know what is best for me. And I don’t know what will make me happy.
Oh sure, some of the time I know. And some of the time I figure things out, and take the appropriate action. But if I were to had ignored all of the advice and feedback that I received throughout my entire recovery journey, I would probably be really messed up and miserable right now.
There were times when someone gave me advice in recovery, and I thought to myself “That is really…..stupid.” But I had nothing else to go on, and my own ideas at the time were not working. So I entertained the new idea, and I applied it in my own life.
And unbelievably….it started working. Things started getting better. Even though I thought (quite honestly) that this person who was trying to help me was a bit of an idiot. And I thought their suggestion was worthless. But I had nothing better to do (or to try), so I gave it a shot.
And things got better. And they did not just get a little better, but they got a lot better. I was in rehab, and I was taking advice and direction from other people, and things were just getting a whole lot better for me in a very short period of time. It was like magic. I was seriously amazed.
And the reason I was amazed was because I never thought that these other people really cared about me. Or that they would care about my happiness. And so I did not think that they could ever know what would truly make me happy. How could they? They were not me, they did not have my past, or my experiences. So how could they know what would make me happy?
But they knew. Obviously, they knew what to suggest for me, and they knew how to guide me, and they knew what advice to give me. And so little by little, my life got better and better. Even though I did not think it would work. It got better in spite of myself, in spite of my own disbelief.
So in order to move forward and grow in recovery, you need to get really good at assessing where you are at. This is just as important at ten years sober as it is at 30 days sober. If you don’t know where you are at then you can’t very well try to get to where you are going (sobriety, fulfillment, etc.). So self assessment is really important.
So important that you should not hesitate to ask others to help you with it.
It takes guts to ask others for advice. To ask them to give you advice. But if you want to become happy and joyous in recovery, this is the biggest shortcut there is. It is the shortcut to wisdom. Talk with others in recovery (especially those who have more sober time than you) and ask them what you should do next in your journey. Ask them for advice.
Then, take the advice and run with it. Follow through. You will be amazed at the results. And the reason that you will be amazed is because the person that you are asking has actually applied the advice that they are giving, and they know what the results are. And the results = an awesome life in recovery.
How to become complacent and relapse
If you want to become complacent and relapse then the formula for doing so is pretty simple.
Just stop learning.
Stop looking deeper into your life and your life situation.
Stop the process of self assessment. Stop peeling more layers back of your life in order to see those new opportunities for growth.
Oh, and don’t bother asking your peers or sponsor in recovery what their advice is for you. Because doing that is not going to get you any closer to relapse.
No, if you want to screw up your recovery and relapse, then the path for that is pretty simple. Just stop pushing yourself. Stop learning. Stop growing. Assume that you know it all, and that there is nothing more for you to learn or figure out. This is how relapse evolves. It starts with pride. It starts with the assumption that you have recovery all figured out now.
The truth is that you never figure it all out. There is always more to learn.
Being in a position to be able to keep pushing yourself for more improvement
So what I am essentially saying here is that personal growth is the whole key to recovery.
Push, push, then push yourself some more to keep learning, to keep growing, to keep facing new challenges in recovery.
But what if you aren’t exactly up for that?
What if you are down in the dumps today? Or what if you are really feeling down this whole week? Or month?
What if you don’t have any momentum because nothing is going right in your life since you tried to get sober?
What can you do if everything just seems to be stacked against you, and you can’t even catch a break now that you are trying to do the right thing finally?
I’ll tell you what then.
Here is what you do when you are down on the floor and you can’t even muster up the guts to reach out and ask for help.
What you must do is this:
First of all you have to ask for help. Even if everyone has left you and you truly have no one in the world any more, you can still ask for help. Call up an addiction hotline. Call up a local rehab center. Tell them that you are at the end of your rope and you need help desperately.
Second of all you need to start taking positive action. Ideally you want to get into an inpatient rehab center as soon as you possibly can. If you don’t have the insurance or the resources to do this then you simply haven’t found the right resources yet (or perhaps the right people). Keep trying. Keep making phone calls. Keep asking questions. Someone out there must be able to help you.
Third of all you need to get detoxed. You can’t get anywhere if you are pumping alcohol or addictive drugs into your system every day. This is why rehab and detox are so important. Without this “clean slate” you cannot really move any further than this point anyway. You must disrupt your pattern of addiction before you can start rebuilding your life.
After you are detoxed then rebuilding your life must begin one day at a time. Even though that is very cliche it is still very true. You must take positive action each and every day, right from the moment that you set foot into a detox ward.
Start taking care of yourself. The choice to get sober is really part of a much bigger choice, which is to take care of yourself. If you are not going to take care of yourself as a whole then why get sober at all? Don’t bother.
So your choice to get clean and sober is really a choice to improve your overall health. And that means that you need to take better care of yourself each and every day.
And when it comes time to start pushing yourself to make personal growth, you will only be in a position to be able to do that if you have been pushing yourself to improve your overall health every single day in these various areas:
* Physically – quit drugs, alcohol, quit smoking. Eat healthy. Sleep better. Exercise on a regular basis.
* Emotionally – get the toxic relationships out of your life. Strive for emotional balance.
* Spiritually – develop gratitude. Make gratitude lists every single day. New lists. New reasons to be grateful. Every. Single. Day.
* Socially – find people in recovery who you look up to who can help guide you. Start hanging around with the right people. Eliminate the energy vampires, etc.
* Mentally – Push yourself to keep assessing your life and your life situation. Explore your opportunities for self improvement. Act on them. Follow through.
If you are not doing these things every single day then you will not be in a position to keep pushing yourself to make more and more personal growth.
If you stop doing all of these things then you may very well relapse. If you completely ignore one of these single categories and it gets really bad then it can lead to relapse.
On the other hand if you really give each of these areas serious consideration every single day then you are actually taking care of yourself in a holistic manner. This is when opportunities for growth become plentiful and recovery becomes joyful.
Feeling stuck? Seek feedback to jump start your growth again
So maybe you try out some of these concepts that I have outlined here, but at some point you still feel yourself getting stuck.
In that case I have two recommendations for you:
1) Look at the “daily practice” and the things that you do each and every day in order to take really good care of yourself. What are you neglecting? Maybe you have slacked off in a particular area lately? If so then that is your answer, you need to step it back up so that you bring your health into balance again. Then the opportunities for growth will re-emerge.
2) Seek feedback and advice from someone you trust. Ask them to tell you what they see as your biggest problem. Start with the negative. Ask them to point out your flaws, your negatives. This may sound really negative, right? But it is the quickest way to get to the heart of your problems and start moving forward again. If you have the courage to ask for this kind of feedback and then actually act on it, your recovery will become really powerful and the benefits of recovery will keep raining down on you. It gets better and better so long as you stay willing to do the work.