Why exactly is the holistic approach to alcoholism treatment so effective? What is it that makes a holistic approach so much better than a traditional recovery program?
Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn.
The problem with one dimensional recovery
The biggest problem with traditional recovery is that it is strictly one dimensional. There is only one focus, and that is on spiritual growth. The problem with this is that alcoholism is not only a spiritual problem, but it is also a physical problem, an emotional problem, a social problem, a mental problem, and so on. In fact there are many dimensions to the problem of addiction and the spiritual component is just one of these factors. The idea behind traditional recovery is that if you fix just one component (the spiritual part) then all of the other parts of your life will just magically fall into place.
The problem with this approach is that I have watched it fail many times during my journey. For example, I had a friend who was living with me in long term recovery and he was much more spiritual than I was. In fact I looked up to him and I tried to do everything that I could to be more spiritual like he was. Eventually he relapsed though and this was quite shocking to me, because my current worldview at that time was that recovery equaled spirituality. I could not understand how or why this person had relapsed, when they had so much good stuff to offer on the outside.
Now most people who defend the idea of spirituality being the only key to recovery would look at that person and say “well obviously they were just wearing a mask, they were not truly spiritual on the inside where it really counts.” And maybe they are right, because the person who relapsed would also likely agree with this–that they were not really “walking the walk” even though they were very good at talking the talk.
In fact it does not really matter how well you present yourself as being spiritual to others, as this is not what creates long term sobriety. If your only goal is to appear to be very spiritual to other people then you will eventually relapse. This is what I learned from my friend’s relapse. He appeared to be the most spiritual person that I know but in the end he relapsed anyway, because he was not “right on the inside.”
But just being “right on the inside” with your spirituality is not really enough. Or rather, the word itself (“spirituality”) has become a bit useless because of the things that we attach to it.
As a suggestion to you now I would say “Don’t worry about what spirituality means to you, just let it exist in whatever form you think of it normally. For example, to me spirituality means prayer and meditation and helping others when I can.” I am not asking you or telling you to change your internal definition of spirituality. Just go with it.
Instead, I want you to realize that spirituality is but one piece of the puzzle. If you go to AA and NA they will tell you that spirituality is the entire solution, that is the answer to all of your problems. This is a confusing way to look at it because then you have these assumptions about what “spirituality” really means. What does it mean exactly? Does it include getting out and exercising each day? Does it include working on your relationships with other people? Does it includes emotional balance? Does it include your peace of mind?
It would be easy to say “Yes, of course spirituality includes all of those things.” But what do we really do in the real world when it comes to spirituality? Most of us go back to our old definitions that have been planted in our heads for our entire lives: Spirituality is prayer or meditation.
Let’s say there is an AA meeting and someone says “I want to hear what each of you has done in the last week that was spiritual, just give me an example.” Would you say “I went for a run?” People would raise their eyebrows at that because they have this definition in their mind of what “spiritual” is. And they are wrong.
At some point we are quibbling over the definitions of words, and that is probably a waste of energy. But the solution is not only spiritual, not in the way that most of us think of the word. And that is an important distinction.
For the first two years of my recovery I tried to figure this out. On the one hand, I was being told over and over again that the solution was spiritual. But on the other hand, my sponsor was trying to get me to go back to school and to start exercising. Neither of those were “spiritual” in my book, or in anyone else’s that I spoke with. Those things were not spiritual, so why was he pushing me to do them?
So I was sort of torn. I believed that the best way to protect myself from relapse was to embrace the spiritual lifestyle, and that I had to “be more spiritual” if I was going to be successful. But counselors and therapists and sponsors seemed to be telling me to do other things, to find personal growth in things that had nothing to do with prayer and meditation.
Was my definition of spirituality wrong? Or was I misinformed about what recovery is really all about?
Over ten years later I believe I have found the truth.
Recovery is not one dimensional.
Spirituality is but one tiny part of the solution.
The real solution is holistic.
Our addiction affected us in many ways, not just spiritually. It also affected us physically. And it drained us socially and isolated us. And it led to emotional imbalance. Most of us screwed up our finances due to addiction. And so on. There are many ways that our addiction dragged us down. Spiritually is just one aspect of this. So why would we focus only on spirituality as our solution?
The real solution is holistic. Meaning that we must explore growth in many areas of our lives, not just in the spiritual realm.
How the holistic approach allows you to accumulate benefits in recovery
If you only focus on spirituality in recovery then your growth will be relatively slow. You may succeed using this method and you may even stay clean and sober but ultimately you will be leaving a whole lot of growth potential on the table.
The benefits of recovery tend to accumulate over time. This happens when you remain clean and sober in the long run, and continue to take positive action on a regular basis. Over the months things start to improve in your life on many different fronts. Multiply this by several years and your life will be completely transformed. The positive benefits tend to multiply in the long run.
Sobriety is pass/fail. If you relapse then you go back to the starting point, usually in a bit worse shape then you were in the past. This is due to the progressive nature of the disease. It gets worse and worse over time. But recovery has the same sort of progression, but in the other direction. If you are pursuing a life of holistic growth then you will accumulate more and more benefits over time.
For example, at one point during my early recovery I quit smoking cigarettes. This was not something that everyone in recovery does, as many of my peers in sobriety were still continuing to smoke. But I was lucky enough to push myself to quit, and I have stayed quit every since then. Just like my sobriety itself, I have “locked in” this gain from quitting smoking, and it continues to benefit me every single day.
The same is true of exercise. Many years ago in my recovery I finally took the suggestion from other people that I should start exercising on a regular basis. So I did that and I have stuck with it for many years now, rarely skipping a day. So the benefits of doing that have just continued to build up over time. It has become a part of my lifestyle, one of my permanent habits, part of my daily practice. I don’t think about it; I just do it. It is part of who I am now.
So each change that I make in recovery is different from when I was stuck in addiction.
Why is it different?
Because when I was stuck in addiction nothing was permanent. I would change one day and then go back the next. I would try something new and then I would give up on it quickly. Nothing would ever last. No positive change was permanent, because my addiction kept screwing things up for me. I had no discipline during my addiction, because the alcohol robbed me of it.
In recovery I have learned discipline. This started with quitting drinking, but it evolved from there. Now I know what it is like to give something up, a habit that is tough to break. And I did it with cigarettes too so I know how to do it on at least two different levels. I have gone on to make other positive changes as well that I was able to “lock in” for long term benefits. So my life has evolved and become much different today, based on all of these positive changes that added up over time.
Not just a useless buzzword: the power of synergy in your recovery efforts
When everything in your life is working together and the different parts of your personal growth are enhancing each other, we call that “synergy.”
In other words, if you choose to make certain positive changes in your life, these changes can actually enhance each other and lead to benefits that add up to much more than what you would expect.
For example, I did not just quit smoking. I also started exercising as a mechanism by which I might quit smoking. These two positive changes did not just add together, they multiplied. The resulting change was far greater than anything I could have predicted. This is because the two goals went so well together that they enhanced each other’s results.
Later on in my recovery I decided to build a business. This goal was enhanced a great deal by my new habits of exercise and not smoking. I never would have been able to predict that or see any sort of correlation in advance. But looking back I can absolutely see how the discipline and efforts that I made with exercise and quitting smoking helped me to build a successful business. I don’t believe that I could have done it unless I had conquered the other goals first. I had to learn that level of discipline before I could move forward towards a bigger goal.
When you have multiple goals in your life and they are all working towards the same positive outcome then everything just works better. On the other hand if your goals are not in alignment and you are fighting against yourself (any sort of addiction produces this state) then you will be constantly frustrated.
If you want to produce “synergy” then your goals have to be in alignment. If you are frustrated with your progress in recovery then what you might do is to ask for feedback from others. Perhaps they can see where your goals are not in alignment with each other (even though you obviously thought that they were!).
How to branch out and explore new forms of personal growth that will strengthen your recovery
Holistic growth tends to focus on the negative.
This is a good thing. What I mean is that if you are trying to live a life of holistic growth then you are going to be seeking to eliminate negative things in your life.
For example, you started with alcoholism. That was the biggest negative in your life that needed fixing. So you eliminated alcohol and started living sober.
But now there are other negative things in your life that you want to change as well. This is how the holistic approach should work. You look at your physical health and realize that you are badly out of shape. So you start exercising. You make a positive change in order to correct something negative (lack of exercise).
Maybe you do the same thing with your nutritional habits at some point. You may realize that you are not eating very healthy food on a consistent basis. So you make another change and you start eating healthier food.
These are not trivial changes. I know groups of people in recovery who focus on just one of the changes mentioned above as their entire process of recovery! Imagine if you combine them? This is the power of the holistic approach. It is powerful because it can encompass many different paths to recovery.
But it is not just about exercise and nutrition. There are other positive changes that you can make as well (spiritual, emotional, social, mental, education, finances, etc.). The point is that if you are ignoring nearly all of these in order to focus on spiritual growth then you are missing out on a great opportunity.
I have a phrase in my own recovery: “Points of misery.”
These are just what they sound like. Are you miserable for any reason? If so, why? What is causing it?
Find out, then fix it. This is actually a very good approach to recovery. Figure out what makes you miserable, and then fix it. As you do this you will realize that you are making positive changes that are “holistic.” Some will be physical changes. Some may be emotional. Some may be social. And so on.
Simply eliminate your points of misery, one by one. When you are done with this process your life will be a blank slate, leaving behind only the good things and your happiness. If more points of misery remain then you simply have more work to do (and more to learn as you go along!).
Sometimes, however, we cannot self diagnose these points of misery. Sometimes our denial prevents us from doing so. In that case, we need another way to help us to move forward. We need another way to inspire change in ourselves.
That way is quite simple:
Get other people to tell you what to do.
Ask for advice. Get a sponsor and find out what they think you need to do. If you like, you always have the option of ignoring their advice.
But you are also missing out on an opportunity if you do not do this. Because other people will see things in us that we cannot (or will not) see in ourselves unless we ask for help.
Some people believe that this makes them weak, or that their recovery is not strong if they have to ask for advice or feedback from others. But nothing could be further from the truth. You will become much stronger if you seek outside guidance. Simply ask people you trust in your life: “What do you think I most need to be working on right now?”
See what people say. Ask most than one person for this same advice. Listen to see if there are any patterns that pop up as you get feedback. If everyone is telling you the same thing, then you should definitely take a look at what they are saying. (“They can’t all be wrong!” etc.).
Relapse prevention done right
In traditional recovery they teach you how to prevent relapse by reacting.
Have a trigger, call your sponsor. Feel an urge to drink, connect with your peers in recovery. Go to a meeting. See a problem, react to it. Feel the urge to drink, reach out and get help quickly. That is what they teach.
This works for some people but from what I have witnessed my guess is that it is not as good as a proactive approach. Most people who realize that they want to drink are too far along to reach out for help. Most relapse prevention is too little, too late. This is why people refuse to pick up the phone and simply go through with getting drunk instead. We would look at statistics here but the rate of relapse is not very good in traditional programs.
What I am suggesting is an alternative approach that is based on self sufficiency and a pro-active approach. Instead of relying on others to bail you out in times of trouble, build up your own self to be strong enough to resist the relapse to begin with.
The holistic approach to recovery is about taking positive action in order to improve your life and your life situation. Your life improves, gets better, and you become happier. This is the intended course of relapse prevention. If your life is going well and things are looking up then you are not likely to throw everything away on a relapse. Thus, living well becomes a preventative form of relapse prevention. Instead of reacting to bad situations you will be avoiding them altogether. Instead of dealing with cravings and wishing you could drink you will be grateful to be sober in the first place.
Of course you will still have the option of calling a sponsor or a peer in recovery if you get into a pinch. But you will also be actively trying to prevent relapse through making positive changes, improving your life in recovery through a holistic approach.