Addiction recovery is a journey to greater health. The decision to get clean and sober has some implications built right into it. One implication is that you want to live and you want to be a healthy person. Choosing to continue in addiction is essentially “choosing death” or at the very least, choosing unhealthy living. Deciding to give recovery a chance is essentially “choosing life” or attempting to be healthy.
Starting with a foundation of sobriety and a decision to live a healthier life
In order to start living a healthy life in sobriety you have to have….well, sobriety.
The foundation of all good things in recovery starts with total and complete abstinence. If you are what I would call a “real alcoholic” or a “real drug addict” then the only way to build this foundation of greater health is to start with total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances.
In order to pull that off in my own life I had to have help. Quite a bit of help. I could not transition into total abstinence on my own. To a large extent I believe that this is what really defines addiction. If you can just fix your own problem with no outside help at all, is that really addiction? Or were you just abusing drugs and alcohol and decided to knock it off? For me, I was hopelessly addicted to alcohol and other drugs and I could not figure out how to live a happy and healthy life without them. I did not have the solution for this. I had to look outside of myself in order to get that solution (at least at first).
One of the befuddling things about making this decision to get clean and sober is that it really is not a decision for greater health, at least not at first.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Of course the long term decision to become sober is obviously a choice for better health. Everyone can plainly see that.
But what is going on when the struggling alcoholic or drug addict is making that crucial decision to go get help for themselves? Are they really saying to themselves at that moment: “I would like to be healthier and happier in my life, so I will make the decision to stop drinking and go to rehab now.”
No, that is not even close to realistic. That is now how the decision to get sober goes at all. It is nothing like that (at least in my experience).
No, the decision to get sober is more like this:
“I hate my life and I don’t really want to live any more because I am so sick and tired of being sick and tired. I am miserable and I thought that alcohol or drugs was the only thing that could make me happy in this world, but it doesn’t really seem like they are working so well any more and I am just miserable all the time anyway. I feel like I have no hope left and that I will probably never be truly happy again, so I may as well roll the dice and go to rehab and see if it somehow gets better for me, even though I don’t really think that is possible.”
That is a pretty accurate description of what my mindset was when I finally made the decision to get sober.
Notice how reluctant the decision was. I totally didn’t care about myself or my health at all. I was actually somewhat near being suicidal because I just didn’t care about myself or my life any more. I was so sick and tired of being miserable in my addiction. Life was a total drag and there was no hope in sight for me.
So I do not want you to get the wrong impression here, that a person has to be super positive and all fired up to live this healthier life in recovery in order to get sober. That is not realistic and that is not how it happened for me at all.
No, I was miserable and I was sick and tired and I did not really care much at all about my health when I reached my moment of surrender. I was simply asking for help and going to rehab on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, things would possibly get better some day. But I could not imagine how they would, nor did I have much hope. Nor did I care about myself or my health at that time.
This was the baseline. This was how my recovery started out. I was miserable, I asked for help, and I initially did not care about my own health.
Over time, that slowly changed though.
As I was in rehab I started to feel a bit better. Then I moved into long term treatment and I started to feel even better.
Of course most of this is physical in the beginning because your body is repairing itself and healing after you go through the detoxification process. So naturally you start to feel quite a bit better after a few days of sobriety, and even better after a few weeks.
But there are other aspects of your health other than just the physical part. After a few days in treatment you start to think a lot more clearly. So you become mentally sharper and you can appreciate the fine details again that you may have missed in the past. Socially you may come out of your shell a bit and stop isolating like you may have done in your addiction. So you are talking with others and making connections and you start to feel good about yourself. You may even get a hint of gratitude before you leave that 28 day program and have something like a spiritual transformation.
And those things can all shift and start to make positive changes just while you are in rehab, in very early recovery. But the journey of sobriety lasts a lifetime, and your health is an important part of your recovery that will never go away entirely. It is always an issue, always a priority.
If you love your life and you love sobriety, then your health is the ultimate form of currency. Nothing is really more important than life itself.
Five different areas of health to consider on a daily basis
Because your sobriety is based on your overall health, it makes sense to consider a holistic approach to recovery rather than a spiritual one.
I am not knocking spirituality here. But you have to realize that the holistic approach to recovery includes the concept of spirituality.
But it also expands and goes further than that.
So in traditional recovery (such as AA) the focus is almost exclusively on spiritual growth. It is a spiritual program of recovery.
But spirituality is just one sliver of your overall health. It is important, no doubt, to the recovering alcoholic or drug addict. But it is just one facet of your health.
There are other facets of health: Emotional, mental, social, physical, and spiritual.
These five areas are not something that you can afford to neglect, in my opinion.
Now you might say “Well, there are people in AA who focus on spiritual health only and they are doing just fine. What of them?”
And I would say: “Ah, look closely at their life. Ask them what they do in order to improve their life and their health outside of AA, outside of spiritual practices.”
And you will hear things such as:
They exercise every day. They help other people. They volunteer. They work hard. They seek education. They try to be active and healthy. They try to quit smoking, to eat healthy foods. They focus on quality of sleep and getting good rest. They meditate or pray or have some spiritual practices. They seek emotional balance. They work hard on their relationships. And on and on and on.
So the folks who are rocking it out in AA are giving all of the credit to spiritual growth, but if you really look at their life and their actions, they are working a holistic program of recovery. They are doing all of these things that I suggest in order to take care of themselves in every way. They have a daily practice in which they have formed healthy habits in all areas of their life.
And this is important because relapse can be sneaky.
You could think that in long term sobriety the only thing that you have to worry about is not picking up a drink of alcohol.
This is not really true. Because the real relapse happens long before you pick up the drink. The decision is made long before that moment. The switch is flipped in some other way.
So then, how does that switch get flipped? It can be tricky. Relapse can be sneaky.
So it might be emotional. Maybe you will get so emotionally drained or out of balance that at some point you have justified the idea that you deserve a drink.
Or perhaps it will be social. You may get into a relationship and suddenly when it ends badly you have no other defense against the first drink. The other parts of your life were not strong enough to sustain your sobriety on their own. You were counting too much on the happiness that you got from the relationship in order to remain sober. I watched this happen over and over again with my peers when I was living in long term rehab.
Mental health is an important component of sobriety. If your mental health is compromised then it can definitely put you at risk for relapse. So you need to be sure that you taking care of yourself in every way.
Another common thing I noticed in my recovery journey: People who get sick, who get physically ill, who get injured in recovery: They are at a higher risk for relapse. I have watched that one happen a lot too. People who get sick or get hurt often times end up being prescribed powerful medications. Or they just get wore down from being sick for so long, and it drives them to drink. So your physical health matters in terms of relapse prevention.
And all of it matters. All five areas of your health matter in terms of preventing relapse.
Relapse can sneak in the back door. Maybe you have a strong spiritual program, but you are not taking care of yourself in one of these other ways that I mention. If you neglect that part of your life for too long then you are giving relapse an opportunity to attack you.
What is the solution?
The solution is holistic. I would argue that even a traditionalist in AA is actually using a holistic approach to recovery (if they are successful, that is). So they are not necessarily practicing what they preach when they say “the solution is spiritual.” Because in reality their solution is much more than just spirituality. Their solution is holistic, and they are taking actions every day in order to take care of themselves in all of these different ways. The solution isn’t just spiritual. The solution is physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. And that is the holistic approach.
How not to get overwhelmed in your journey to better health
So maybe you have a week or two of sobriety and you are reading this and you are getting overwhelmed at the idea of holistic recovery.
How in the world are you going to think about these five different areas of your life every single day? How are you going to juggle all of that? Isn’t it easier to just focus on a singular approach by working on your spiritual health instead?
I don’t think it has to be overwhelming. Relax. You have something that you don’t even realize yet: Time.
You have plenty of time in recovery. If you remain sober then you have plenty of time to make these positive changes. You don’t have to rush things.
In fact, if you rush too much, then the changes probably won’t last anyway. So slow down. One thing at a time.
Now then…here is how you should prioritize.
First of all, start with the baseline. Go to rehab and go through detox and get back on your own two feet. This is just my personal opinion of course that is based on what worked for me and what I see working for many others.
So you go to rehab and you sober up in detox. Go to groups, lectures, meetings, talk to counselors and therapists, and get a plan for aftercare. Most rehabs will give you a plan of action for after you leave treatment. This is your aftercare plan. Follow it down to the letter. Do not deviate from it one bit. Stick to the plan exactly. You will have plenty of freedom later on to do your own thing and build your own path in recovery. Now is not the time for that freedom though.
Make an agreement with yourself that you will follow through. Make an agreement with yourself that you will listen to other people and take their advice rather than using your own ideas.
Realize that if you live this way for the first year of your sobriety that it is not going to hurt you. You will not be sacrificing anything by following the advice of others. You really have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
If you live this way and you take advice and suggestions from other people in recovery, some of those suggestions will work out great and others will sort of be a flop. This is perfect. This is what you want. So you are testing out ideas in your life, evaluating them, and keeping the ones that help you the most. So you do a few experiments that may fail and so you simply move on and try other things. In this way your life gets better and better over time.
Just think: If your life gets better by 1 percent each week, what do you think your life will look like in 5 years? In 10 years? I can promise you that it will be amazing. The positive changes and growth that you make in your first year of recovery starts compounding as you move into long term sobriety. It just gets better and better over time. You need to somehow find the faith that this is true and that you will ultimately be rewarded for your hard work in early recovery. Look to the people in AA meetings who have several years sober and who are happy to be alive. Realize that you can have that sort of inner peace and happiness if you are willing to work for it.
Priority one: Get sober, get detoxed, go to rehab if necessary. Build a foundation of abstinence.
Priority two: Get help from other people. Take their advice and suggestions. Follow through. Take action.
That’s really it for the beginning of your journey, and can sustain you for many years if you simply follow through and keep experimenting in this manner.
To help illustrate, consider that in my first year of sobriety, I had sponsors, therapists, and peers in AA who suggested things to me such as:
1) Seated meditation on a regular basis.
2) Working on my relationships to improve them and deepen them.
3) Physical exercise on a regular basis.
4) Improving my nutrition and eating healthier.
5) Ways to get more consistent sleep every night.
6) Suggestions to manage my emotional stability and stay more balanced.
7) Go back to college and continue my education.
8) Go get a job and start doing meaningful work again.
And so on. Those are just some suggestions that I remember off the top of my head that I got during my first year of sobriety.
Of course since that time I have received tons of other suggestions as well, many of which I took and followed through on.
Every suggestion that you take is an experiment. It either works out and you continue with the change, or you drop it and move on. It’s not a big deal in most cases if it fails. But if it works out then you gain this tremendous benefit in your life and your health is transformed yet again.
Ticking off all the check boxes and looking for the weak spot in your life situation
Should you focus on your strengths or your weaknesses in recovery?
I think that you should make a point to definitely tackle your weaknesses. This is essentially what working through the 12 steps of AA does for you: You take inventory, figure out what the negative stuff is, figure out how you are hurting yourself or holding yourself back, and then you take action to correct that.
From a holistic standpoint I believe this is important. Look at your overall life and your overall health in recovery. Where is the weak point?
Maybe you are getting lots of anxiety lately because of a stressful relationship. And you may have to slow down and listen closely to figure that out. You may have to meditate a bit in order to notice that anxiety bubbling up. Or you may have to get feedback from your peers in recovery to see where your problems might be.
So then you prioritize. Where is the anxiety coming from? Find the biggest source, then tackle it. If you don’t know how to do that, ask for help. People in recovery will show you how to do the work.
In this way you are always protecting yourself from the threat of relapse. When you find the biggest negative threat in your life and work hard to eliminate it, you are essentially focusing very tightly on relapse prevention. If you continue to do this over time then you will also become happier and happier in recovery as you remove the negativity and blocks from your life.
What about you, have you found a way to transform your health in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!