“Excellence, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
The idea of habits in recovery can be very powerful.
This is because recovery is cumulative. Everything that you do accumulates, day after day, as you progress in your recovery.
Therefore if you can create a single positive habit in your recovery journey, and stick to it, then this can become very powerful over time.
The problem that most people face in early recovery is that they lack follow through, and momentum. They may do a single positive act, such as attending treatment, but then they fail to follow through and continue to make positive changes. This leads them to relapse because their life slowly slides back into the negative.
Finding success in early recovery is sort of like achieving enough escape velocity to actually get away from your life in addiction. If you do not make enough positive changes and keep making them consistently then you are eventually going to relapse.
Remember what your default mode is in life
Why is positive habit formation so critical?
Because your default is to use drugs or alcohol and to self medicate.
Think about it for a moment. Your life has become an exercise in seeking pleasure through self medicating. This is how you function and this is how you have come to deal with reality. Most addicts and alcoholics have been self medicating for years or even decades when they finally decide that they have had enough, and now want to get clean and sober.
So consider this baseline. This is your default operating mode in life now. You use drugs or alcohol naturally, as a matter of course, as your normal, every day response to life. It is normal and natural for you to self medicate with drugs or alcohol. This has occurred over time and you have built up this pattern of abuse until it has become the new normal for you.
So the reason that you need to establish positive habits in your recovery journey is so that you can overcome this tendency to self medicate. It is not enough to simply take positive action, because that may only keep you clean and sober in the short run. In order to stay clean and sober in the long run you are going to need to establish a new pattern, a new normal, a new “default mode” for how you deal with every day reality again. Establishing this new baseline is not going to happen overnight after taking a positive action just one time. Instead, this new life can only be formed after you take consistent action and create new positive habits.
Abstinence is your first habit to master, all others are secondary
Now obviously you want to start your journey in recovery by mastering the habit of abstinence. This is first and foremost and without this particular habit in place you do not have a recovery at all. Screw this one up and you are fully relapsed and back to square one, with all progress erased completely.
Your baseline for success in recovery begins with total and complete abstinence from alcohol and addictive drugs. You cannot afford to put anything addictive into your body that is also mood and mind altering. If you have trouble identifying these substances then you should make a serious effort to get clear about what is an addictive substance that is also mood altering and what is not.
Now if you are to have a successful new life in recovery then you are going to have to master a lot of new habits, but the abstinence habit is by far the most important. In fact, it is so important that I believe you should give it special priority in your mind. Your commitment not to take drugs should become your highest truth in life. This is your most important objective, your highest goal, and it is the habit that all other habits and actions in your life seek to support. Yes, it is that important. If you cannot muster this amount of dedication to the goal of abstinence then it is likely that you are not fully surrendered to your disease just yet and you probably have more chaos to endure in your addiction. You may just not be ready to change. You must be of a frame of mind where you recoil in horror at the idea of relapse, of taking an addictive drug. That has to be your level of surrender and your level of commitment to this new life in recovery.
Many people who attempt to get clean and sober screw up their order of operations. They see good things in recovery, such as spiritual growth, and they grab a hold of something like that but fail to master the abstinence habit as their first order of business. So their lives continue to be chaotic and they do not make real progress. They take one step forward by embracing an idea like spiritual growth, but then they take three steps back because they fail to claim abstinence as their highest truth in life. So they approach recovery from the wrong angle, believing that if they practice spiritual growth that this will in some way make it OK that they are still self medicating with their drug of choice. Or they may continue to use their drug of choice while practicing spiritual growth under the vague notion that this will one day lead them to sobriety. Or even worse, they may start practicing spiritual matters even while using drugs under the notion that “they are now forgiven” for their actions with drugs or alcohol and that now they are at least justified in what they are doing. In their minds they have canceled out the bad by practicing the good.
Their attitude is “hey, I went to rehab and I found out that recovery is all about finding God, so I took some steps in my life and I improved my relationship with my higher power, and it’s really great! I actually ended up going back to my drug of choice but that is OK because now I have improved my spiritual condition and so therefore I have made progress and it was all worth it!”
This type of thinking is seriously misguided and I have seen it happen first hand with my own friends in recovery. They are making a fatal mistake of putting something above (what should be) their highest truth in recovery. They are putting their relationship with their higher power above their need to be abstinent from addictive drugs. This is always a mistake and the results of any relapse will prove it. Of course most people are outraged at this idea and they believe it is blasphemous to say that we should put something in front of our higher power in terms of importance. After a few more relapses though they may finally figure it out: without sobriety, their relationship with their higher power goes out the window anyway. Therefore the abstinence habit is more important than your spirituality, higher power, relationship with HP, etc.
So when you think about positive habits in your recovery journey, there are two things to keep in mind first and foremost:
1) Abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol is the most important habit in life, and your highest truth.
2) All other positive habits should support the abstinence habit.
Finding habits that support the abstinence habit
When I first got clean and sober I was not yet thinking about forming positive habits in my life. In fact I was just trying to hang on tight and not relapse at first, because I had never been successful in recovery before and I was terrified that I would relapse and screw it all up again.
I checked into a long term rehab facility and slowly I established a baseline of abstinence. One day at a time, I continued to not use drugs or alcohol.
But I was scared, and I was still terrified of relapse. Why?
Mostly because of what I was observing around me. I was living with eleven other people in treatment, most of whom were relapsing on a regular basis. The rate of success all around me was not very encouraging. I wanted to take actions that would help prevent my own relapse, and I was not sure what the right formula was for doing so. I was observing plenty of examples of what NOT to do in recovery, because I watched so many people relapse in early recovery.
And of course there were examples of people who were successful in recovery too, though there were definitely less of those. These examples of success came to be known in my mind as the “winners” of recovery. They even had a saying around AA meetings: “Stick with the winners.” And so part of my goal in recovery was to try to pick out the common thread among the winners, to see what it was that I should be focusing on in my own recovery journey.
Part of the problem in early recovery is information overload. You go to a few AA meetings and it is all one big advice-fest. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is trying to explain how sobriety works for them and they all put their own spin on it, they all explain things in their own unique way. Even the article you are reading now is heavily biased based on the experience and the ideas of the author. So part of your job as someone who is trying to get sober is to filter this onslaught of information. Who do you believe? Everyone says that something is really important to them and to their recovery, so how do you sort it all out? How to choose what concepts to apply to your own life?
This was the problem that I was wrestling with in early recovery because I was going to so many AA and NA meetings, listening to so many people, and generally immersing myself fully in the recovery community every single day. I needed a way to filter it all.
So I developed my own filter and really what I was doing was evaluating habits. I started to focus on the “winners” at the meetings because, let’s face it, I did not want any information from people who had recently relapsed. I wanted information from people who had significant sobriety in their life. I had to get honest with myself about this because so many people pay lip service to the idea that “we are all the same in recovery” regardless of clean time. I had to get honest with myself and realize that I did not buy into that and that I should not beat myself up about filtering the information from the newcomer. For example, I knew a guy who relapsed at least twice a month for several years straight, and continued to relapse after I met him in the meetings. Yet this guy would talk for at least ten or fifteen minutes at every meeting and act like he had all the answers. I had to get honest with myself and become OK with the idea that I could filter him out. He did not have what I wanted. His information was not valuable to me. So I filtered it.
So what I discovered in this filtering process was that the “winners” in recovery were all habit masters. They were movers and shakers. They did not just get sober and then stand still. Instead, they continued to make positive changes.
One thing that I noticed is that nearly every “winner” in recovery had also quit smoking cigarettes. Ah ha! This is a natural extension of the abstinence habit, simply applied to another drug that is less demonized in recovery, nicotine. So here was a clue that I was noticing over time, that nearly all of the “winners” that I met had quit smoking cigarettes. So this might be a really important habit to adopt, even though it did not necessarily directly relate to success in recovery. (Or did it?)
Notice too that this positive change (quitting smoking) also supports the abstinence habit. Every time that you consider a new change in your life, you have to filter it and question how much it really supports the abstinence habit. Quitting smoking did this in a very direct way, and it was one of the best and most positive changes that I ever made during my recovery.
Another positive change that I noticed among the “winners” in AA and NA was that they almost all exercised. Most of them did not harp on the idea of exercise or tote it as the ultimate solution or anything, but nearly all of them did some form of it in their lives. They all exercised. This is another Ah-ha! moment for us. At some point I realized that there must be something more to this idea of exercise, even though I had tried brief periods of it before and never really been impressed with it.
This was a positive habit change that took me completely by surprise. I could never have imagined the long term benefits that the exercise habit would have on me when I first started doing it. Again, this was precipitated because it was a common thread among the winners in recovery, not because it was something that I particularly wanted to do. In fact I had a bad attitude about exercise going into the idea and I thought that it was totally unrelated to recovery. I just could not see the connection that exercise would have to staying clean and sober.
After “making the leap” with this positive habit change and establishing a regular exercise routine (I am now an avid runner), I could not be more amazed at the benefits. Realize that there are entire recovery programs where people do nothing but attempt to recover from addiction via regular exercise (“Racing for Recovery” is one such recovery program, there are others though).
This is powerful evidence that the exercise habit is definitely supporting the abstinence habit. Remember that you want to find positive habits in your life that support the abstinence habit, and exercise definitely foots that bill. It is difficult to describe to the non-exerciser exactly how this process works, and exactly how you benefit in your recovery due to regular exercise. But make no mistake, those who establish the exercise habit and really get into it would never dream of going without it. Just ask any distance runner in recovery if their running helps them to stay clean and sober. They will give a quick and confident reply in the affirmative: “Oh definitely, my running is a huge part of my recovery” they will say. It is difficult to convey the reasons why this is, exactly, because the positive effect that regular exercise has on your life is so varied. In other words, the positive benefits are numerous and affect so many different areas of your life.
So without knowing exactly HOW the exercise habit could enhance my recovery, I knew it was important because so many of the “winners” in recovery were doing it. It just seemed to me that after I had done a year or two of informal data gathering about the winners in recovery, they had all quit smoking, started exercising, and were living this awesome new life in recovery.
What other habits did the winners have?
* Most of the winners in recovery were reaching out and helping others, though they did not all do this in the same way. This is the equivalent of the twelfth step in a 12 step program, of working with other struggling addicts and alcoholics and finding a way to help others. This is a positive habit that you can establish in your recovery, and most of the winners seemed to do it in some capacity. One might sponsor others directly, another might take meetings into rehabs and jails and institutions, another might connect with recovering addicts online, and so on. But the “giving back to others” is definitely an important habit to consider in your journey.
* Education was a popular habit I noticed, though it was not as consistent as the others discussed here. Many of the “winners” in recovery also were pursuing more education, or at least valued education very highly.
* Health was another common theme. The winners in recovery focused on greater overall health, whether this was physical health, emotional health, and so on.
Evaluating your next big change in recovery
My belief is that recovery is a series of habit changes. Essentially you are creating a new positive habit (abstinence from drugs and alcohol) and then you are going to slowly start picking up other positive habits in your life to help support the abstinence decision.
Habits are more powerful than regular actions because “habit” implies follow through. Instead of just taking temporary action you are attempting to make a permanent lifestyle change when you are attempting to change a habit. This is important in recovery because ultimately what you are trying to do is to overcome the inertia of all of your bad habits in addiction.
Remember that your success in recovery is based on accumulation. Your success in life is based on the sum total of all of the positive things you have done leading up to this moment. If your past is filled with positive actions every single day then you will be in a much better position than if your life has been full of negativity. If your actions repeat then they accumulate. This is why smokers eventually get cancer and suffer.
In the same way that smokers accumulate cancer, you can accumulate an awesome life for yourself in recovery if you take positive actions every single day. When we take action consistently every day we call that a habit. So ultimately you need to establish healthy habits in your life in order to recover.
Start with the abstinence habit, then build from there.