Living sober is the goal of many recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.
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The idea is not to simply abstain from drugs and alcohol, but to achieve some semblance of sanity in our lives. But how can we go about doing this?
First things first: the baseline must be a drug and alcohol free body
You’ve got to start you journey to living sober with a full detox and a zero tolerance policy with yourself: no more drugs or alcohol. This should be obvious, but it bears mentioning, because so many people screw it up. If you can achieve successful moderation with drugs and alcohol then chances are good that you are not an alcoholic (congratulations, our hats are off to you!). But if you are here because you want to learn how to live a sober life and be happy and content with yourself, then you will need to understand the importance of a drug and alcohol free existence. This is your new baseline: abstinence from chemicals, and it is the base structure from which all additional growth will come from.
In short: you have to maintain physical sobriety if you want to live sober in the long run. Obvious, but important nonetheless.
Making the transition to living sober
Living a peaceful life filled with serenity doesn’t just happen overnight when you first quit drinking. There is a term in recovery called “emotional sobriety” that refers to our state of mind and how screwed up we can get even without ingesting any drugs or alcohol.
It is so easy in early recovery to become emotionally unbalanced, because it can be such a roller coaster at first. And depending on how long you have been abusing drugs and alcohol, it may be some time before you can claim peace and serenity on a daily basis.
At first such states of mind and being will be fleeting. But if you are progressing in recovery and growing as a person, then eventually your life and your emotions will smooth out. The roller coaster of early recovery will fade away and you will gain some degree of stability in your life–without having to self-medicate with chemicals.
How exactly does this happen? Through a number of individual growth processes:
1) Emotional responsibility – we stop dodging responsibility in recovery and start owning our emotions and facing them head-on instead of medicating them. This is a growth process that improves over time. Others will help us with this part of our emotional development.
2) Aversion to chaos – we learn to avoid chaos and push chaotic people our of our lives. Peace becomes more valuable to us and we start structuring our lives accordingly as we progress in recovery.
3) Social aspect – we network with others in recovery and benefit from the mutual relationships. We help each other in different ways and keep each other accountable.
4) Holistic processes – that will vary greatly among individuals. For example, some might meditate, do yoga, practice Tai Chi, find peace and serenity on the golf course each morning, take up jogging or hiking, find peace in painting or art, and so on. These types of processes might seem insignificant to the newcomer, but they hold potentially great depth and spiritual power for those pursuing long term sobriety.
So our path to living sober might be marked by a number of individual growth processes. It is not a matter of simply “not drinking.” Our whole lives must transform if we are to achieve lasting and meaningful sobriety.
Living sober = Purposeful living
What do you fill your days with? You are what you focus on, and the company you keep reflects on your life as well.
Real living sober occurs when you can become as passionate about spiritual matters as you were about drinking and drugging.
Ask anyone who has relapsed and picked up another drink and they will tell you: the moment they made the decision, their state of mind was basically screaming “SCREW IT.” They had ceased to care anymore. They got overwhelmed with whatever life was throwing at them and they finally caved and said “screw it. I will drink.”
Now the key here is to pay attention to the idea of saying “screw it.” We have to pay attention to that idea and remember what it feels like to abandon all hope and give in to a bad decision like that. To be successful in recovery, we have to always be on guard against that state of despair. We must find a way to maintain hope.
One of the biggest ways to do that is to find purpose and passion in our lives. It is not enough to want to avoid the misery of addiction. Instead we must find something positive that can motivate us for continued success. This is a big part of the creative life in recovery.
Purposeful living in sobriety means finding your passion
For some recovering addicts, finding their passion in sobriety means reaching out to others at AA or NA meetings and heavy involvement with sponsorship. For others, purposeful living might mean regular meditation and reconnecting with their family. And yet for still others in recovery, their ultimate purpose might be something unrelated to helping addicts, but still be something meaningful enough to provide them with enough motivation to maintain their creative life in recovery. For example, someone who works with developmentally disabled people in a group home setting might find enough joy and meaning in the work that it qualifies as a real “purpose” in life for them.
Whatever your purpose ends up being, it becomes something of a replacement strategy in recovery. Some people might simply involve themselves heavily in AA or NA, and this can comprise a replacement strategy all by itself. But I would caution that in doing so, you had better be truly passionate about working the program and involving yourself deeply with the fellowship and sponsorship and such. Anything less is likely to bring about substandard results and possibly a relapse.
A replacement strategy can be almost anything in recovery, as long as it works for you. It has to be something that you’re passionate about, and it helps if your replacement strategy allows you to reach out and help other people as well. These are the key principles in finding purpose in recovery.
Because sober living is more than just abstaining from chemicals, holistic principles become very important for long term sobriety.
In the beginning, recovery should be simple and straightforward. Abstinence is the only real goal at first. You have to achieve that initial baseline of being drug and alcohol free, and then from there you can start to build.
After you’re clean and sober for a short while, you start to learn the coping skills and strategies for maintaining sobriety. You might start some spiritual practices as well in order to help you stay sober. You stay clean and sober for one day at a time, and thus make it through your early recovery.
As time goes on the coping skills, strategies, and spiritual practices that you use to stay sober become more automatic. They become second nature to you and being sober starts to become second nature as well. Arguably, there is a transition here from early recovery into long-term sobriety.
How is living in long-term sobriety different from early recovery? For one thing, a lot of our problems have changed. Instead of clawing the walls and desperately trying not to drink in early recovery, in long-term sobriety we are facing the subtle but deadly foe of complacency. We no longer face the imminent threat of relapse, but on the other hand, complacency can make the threat of relapse just as real, because now it is sneaky and subtle. So there is still growth to be made regardless of how long we have been sober. Holistic approaches to recovery make more sense the longer you have been sober, because we start growing in different directions, and the threat of complacency can attack us from any number of different directions.
Complacency is sneaky. I have seen at least one recovering alcoholic fall victim to poor health and die fairly young, because they never bothered to change their eating habits, lose weight, quit smoking, or get any exercise as they maintained sobriety. A holistic approach could have saved this person’s life, but instead they focused only on maintaining abstinence from alcohol, without looking further as to how to better themselves.
Recovery is a process. It takes time for your new life to be rebuilt. At first, approaching recovery through a wide variety of holistic approaches is not ideal. But as time goes on, and the newcomer transitions to the creative life in long term sobriety, holistic principles become more and more important every day.
Worrying about nutrition and exercise is not a key priority during your first month of sobriety. At that early stage, you would want to stay focused on abstaining from chemicals and making it through each day without relapsing. But as time goes on, and maintaining physical abstinence becomes more and more automatic, the recovering addict needs to start branching out and improving their lives in other ways. Most programs focus on spiritual growth. Many addicts and alcoholics in recovery have died early from a variety of non-spiritual afflictions: mental breakdowns and suicide, heart failure, lung cancer, and so on. This is what makes a holistic approach so critical in long-term sobriety. It makes seemingly irrelevant activities important to long term sobriety, because they help fight complacency and keep you active, involved, and living with purpose.
Action items – what you can do:
1) Embrace the creative life in recovery.
2) Actively pursue purpose in your life. Abstinence is a baseline, not the end goal.
3) Explore holistic approaches – meditation, yoga, exercise, the arts, and so on.
4) Explore different support networks – 12 step groups, church groups, etc. Find ways to reach out and help others.