I believe that holistic health is a natural path for nearly everyone in addiction recovery. This is mostly due to the expansive nature of the approach itself, allowing you to find personal growth in so many different areas of your life. While so many people get hung up on the idea that they need to zero in and focus exclusively on spiritual growth, the real ticket to successful sobriety is to broaden your horizons and consider a more holistic approach to recovery.
Many people instantly get up upset when you start bashing the idea of spirituality, and saying that it is not the end-all and be-all of addiction recovery. But the holistic approach to recovery is actually broad enough to encompass the entire spiritual approach, and then some. It is bigger than spirituality. It includes spirituality. So don’t get too bent out of shape at the idea that spirituality may not be “number one” in your recovery anymore. There is a new game in town, and it is holistic health. If you achieve it, it is more powerful than the basic spiritual approach by itself is, because it contains spiritual growth as well.
Surrender is the first of many healthy decisions
I think one of the fundamental principles of recovery is the act of surrender. You cannot escape this concept no matter how you choose to find sobriety in your life. Every addict and alcoholic must first go through the process of surrender if they are going to have any sort of chance at getting clean and sober.
It really doesn’t matter too much what program of recovery you are trying to follow if you never fully surrender. What will happen is that you will simply end up relapsing because you will not really be completely done drinking or using drugs. Without this critical step you will always be tempted to return to your drug of choice, and you will not have the guts to take the massive amount of action that is needed to ensure long term sobriety.
Successful recovery requires surrender, regardless of how you choose to get clean and sober.
Don’t be thrown by the term “holistic”
So what is holistic health? What is this approach to recovery really about anyway?
The term “holistic” just means “whole,” as in the “whole person.”
So if you go to AA and you are trying to recover using their program, you will notice that they focus almost exclusively on spirituality. Their goal is to bring each individual to a spiritual awakening. So they focus entirely on this one aspect of your health: spirituality.
If you use a holistic approach instead then you will be focusing on much more than just spirituality. In fact you might consider all of the areas of your overall health. These might include things such as:
* Physical health.
* Mental health.
* Emotional health.
* Social health and relationships.
* Financial health and reducing financial stress.
* Spiritual health and relationship with higher power.
Notice that this list of the different aspects of your health still includes spiritual health, which is the only thing that they focus on in traditional recovery.
Now you are probably asking yourself: “Is it helpful to broaden your horizons in recovery and branch out like this, or is it better to stay focused in on spiritual health as they do in AA?”
The answer to that will depend on your individual preferences. Personally I found the constant focus on spirituality in traditional recovery to be extremely limiting. It was helpful to me up to a point but then it sort of left me hanging as I started to branch out on my own anyway.
For example, I started to exercise and I really got into distance running. This would not have necessarily been a big deal for me but I could not help but notice how incredibly beneficial it was to my recovery. Not just that it made me feel a little better, but that running every day actually had the power to keep me clean and sober. All by itself. It really was that powerful for me. And on top of that it was part of a new healthy lifestyle for me. Now keep in mind that I was already in recovery, I was already going to meetings and working with a sponsor and writing about recovery and reading the literature and doing all of those other things. But then I discovered exercise and it grabbed a hold of me and I realized that it was more powerful than all of these other tactics that I was using at the time.
So I talked with some people in AA and some of them agreed with me and said “Oh yeah, exercise is a huge part of my recovery as well. Everyone should try it, as it would probably help a lot of people in AA a great deal!”
OK, so why is it not part of the program? Why have I never heard it mentioned after going to over 500 AA meetings in 2 years?
But it doesn’t really matter–the people in AA have dialed into their solution and they don’t want to hear about anything else, they don’t want to screw up a good thing, “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it,” they just want to pursue their spiritual transformation. This is their solution and they don’t want to hear about anything else.
But here I was in recovery, a few short years into my sobriety, and I discover that daily exercise is more helpful to me than daily meetings. Really, I am not making this up, I was simply noting my reaction, how each made me feel, how each recovery tactic worked in my life. I was judging them both fairly and it was obvious to me that exercise was the more powerful tool.
And so I realized at that time that limiting yourself to spiritual growth does not make much sense. That the people in AA who are so obsessed with this spiritual transformation are missing out on a whole lot of other potential growth in recovery.
There may also be an important element of timing in all of this as well. If you are in very early recovery then the idea of holistic health may not be as important. Your job is to simply stay clean and sober at any cost. But when you get a year or two in the program then you might want to start branching out and seeing how you can pursue a more holistic approach. I have a close friend who died young in the program because he was overweight and smoked cigarettes and was never able to quit. He had several years in the program but he was focused in on the idea that spirituality alone could save him. I think a more holistic approach would have done him wonders, but we will never know for sure. He is gone.
How many people in traditional recovery continue to smoke cigarettes but have this enormous amount of spiritual pride because they have worked through the 12 steps and have had a spiritual transformation? I can assure you based on my own observations that it is a lot of people! Not that you cannot be spiritual and continue to smoke, but I am just suggesting that such people may be missing a more important point here: that the real solution is holistic, that the deeper and more meaningful solution is holistic, and that claiming that the solution is spiritual is really sort of misleading and shallow. Look a little deeper and realize that holistic health is a more meaningful metric than spiritual health.
Why pursuing overall health can lead to synergy
What in the heck is “synergy?”
I don’t mean to use a new age word like that, but it can’t be helped. The idea of synergy comes into play when you talk about holistic health because it is one of the amazing benefits that happens when you start to consider your overall health in recovery.
Say that you follow traditional recovery and you simply pursue spiritual health and that is all you focus on. If you do this then you may get a certain amount of benefit to your life based on your spiritual growth. The relationship between your amount of effort and the benefits that you receive is fairly linear. You put in effort, you receive benefits. It is straightforward.
Now say that instead you decide to pursue a holistic path in recovery instead. So instead of just pursuing spiritual growth, you also try to improve your health in other areas as well. You start exercising and you stick to a new exercise routine in your life. You start eating a healthier diet at some point. You work with a counselor in regards to your relationships and your emotional health. Maybe you take special measures to get your financial life back in order so that you reduce financial stress. And you also pursue spiritual growth as well.
Now what will happen in the short run between these two examples is somewhat misleading. Because of the extreme focus, the person who is just pursuing spiritual growth will actually get faster results. Because their focus is so narrow they will experience a quick boost in their recovery and they will enjoy the benefits of spiritual growth very quickly. But they will also top off their growth much quicker and “plateau” in their growth at some point.
Now the person who chooses instead to pursue holistic growth will have a different sort of experience. They will have slow and steady growth instead of the fast growth because they are spreading their efforts out a bit more. They are not focusing in exclusively on spiritual growth so they will not experience the quick benefits due to extreme focus. But they are expanding their horizons and they are pursuing new avenues of growth in all areas of their life. So while they will not receive the benefits quite as quickly, they will not plateau as quickly either and they will have many more options for future growth down the road. Their options are limitless and they can continue to grow in the future. On top of that, they will also experience “synergy” at some point due to their holistic approach.
The idea behind synergy is that the growth that they are making in various areas of their life will combine to enhance each other in ways that can never be predicted beforehand. For example, when I was attempting to quit smoking cigarettes I had no idea that distance running could (or would) ever play a part in that. But this is exactly what happened after I combined those two goals in my life. The discipline that I learned from building up my jogging distance translated perfectly into helping me quit smoking. And believe it or not this same discipline that I then learned from quitting smoking and becoming a runner also helped me in my business goals later on.
This is what you cannot really predict in advance, the way that traditional recovery attempts to predict that spiritual growth will save you from addiction (which it actually can and will, but is still a short sighted and crippled approach in my opinion). You can do so much more by expanding your efforts to include holistic health and pushing yourself to make growth in multiple areas of your life.
Therefore you should not limit yourself to only spiritual growth in recovery. This is perhaps the biggest mistake that most newcomers are making today and it is also the reason why you get people who are barely satisfied with their life in long term sobriety. They are not excited, they are not making personal growth in leaps and bounds, and they are staying sober simply based on this weak spiritual growth that they have made (growth that would be so much stronger if they enhanced it by branching out their efforts and looking at other areas of their overall health).
Holistic health is the right path to pursue. There is another very important reason that this is the case.
You might think that your success in recovery is based on being happy, content, or achieving positive things. The real truth though is that successful recovery is based on elimination of negatives and getting yourself back to a clean and healthy slate. In other words, it is the negative stuff that threatens to tear us down in recovery.
You can have this sort of “negative stuff” in your life in many different areas. Earlier I pointed out that a close friend who was clean and sober was smoking cigarettes and was overweight. Sobriety is not much use if you are dead. That is not meant to be humorous in any way, it is the absolute truth and I mean it with all sincerity. My friend had a hugely positive impact on people’s lives and he helped a lot of people. So what good is it now that he is gone? That doesn’t help anyone. And his main problem was that he did not take a step back in recovery and look at the overall health in his life. He did not consider all of the angles. He only considered the angle of “spirituality.”
Your health is the ultimate form of currency, even over sobriety
I have heard a lot of people in traditional recovery make this mistake:
They put their sobriety above their health.
This is stupid, and they are confused.
Sobriety is a subset of your health. You cannot have sobriety at all unless you have your basic health as well.
But people get this mixed up all the time, and they talk as if their sobriety is more important than their life itself.
They say ridiculous things such as “I would rather be dead than to end up relapsing again.” Or they might say something like “I would rather be killed than to end up taking a drink.”
This is just plain stupid, folks. If you are dead then it is game over. I am not saying that anyone should want to relapse but at least if you are still alive then you have a chance to grow and improve your life from there. If you are dead then it is game over.
And this leads to an important point about all of this: your health is the ultimate form of currency in recovery.
This is what I believe and that is why I advocate for the holistic approach to recovery. Those in traditional recovery believe otherwise: they believe that faith is the ultimate currency in recovery. They believe that if their faith is strong then it will solve any and all problems that they might encounter in their journey. Their relationship with a higher power is their ultimate goal and therefore it is the most important thing to them.
So it is all a matter of perspective and what really works best for you. In my opinion your overall health in recovery is the most important thing. This would include your sobriety, your spiritual condition, but also things like your emotional health, your physical health, etc.
Traditional recovery does not believe this. They believe that your faith in your higher power is the most important thing in your life, and that your overall health is a very distant consideration compared to this. If you go to hundreds of AA meetings and listen to what is being discussed you will see that this is most definitely the case: no one is talking about exercise or nutrition and emotional balance and things like that. You may hear a brief mention of such things every once in a great while but the overwhelming focus is on faith, your higher power, and spiritual development.
How to be healthier in recovery
If you want to be healthier in recovery then pursue new forms of health in areas that you may not have considered in the past. For example, what have you been doing lately for your physical health? What has your diet been like? What about daily exercise?
Don’t stop there though. Move on and ask other people in your life for feedback on what you might do to become a healthier person. Take some suggestions and try some new things. Have you tried meditation lately? What about exercise? Yoga? Breathing exercises? Expand your efforts a little.
What about your emotional health? Do you feel balanced and content most of the time? Or do you get frazzled and bent out of shape? Could you talk to someone or get counseling or help for your emotional state? Could you take steps to learn how to live a smoother life emotionally?
Do your finances stress you out? Could you take action to address this so that one day you may no longer have to worry and stress out over money problems?
Hint: the answer to these questions is always “yes,” it is just a matter of deciding to expand your focus in recovery and grow in new directions.