Reader Mailbag: Can I Design My Own Recovery Program and Expect to Stay Sober?
Before I ever got clean and sober I was very interested in this question. Could I design my own program of recovery? Did I have to use a recovery program in which people told me what to do and how to live? Or was it possible that I could “do my own thing” and overcome alcoholism?
Obviously for me at the time I did not like the idea of following any sort of recovery program. I was too scared and too stubborn to listen to other people. And I had an even bigger problem than that–I had not yet surrendered to my disease. I was still clinging to the idea that maybe I could one day drink or use drugs successfully.
For many years then I struggled with the idea that I might be able to figure out my addiction and recovery entirely on my own.
I was wrong.
The question is all about timing
The most important concept when it comes to designing your own recovery program has to do with timing.
If you have never lived in recovery before and you are struggling to overcome your alcoholism, this is not the right time to figure out your own path in recovery.
I believe that it is a simple matter of timing. If you try to figure out sobriety on your own then you are going to find yourself struggling more and more. This is due to a number of issues:
1) Self sabotage. The alcoholic wants to drink, deep down, so they will screw up their own recovery efforts because they know it will result in drinking.
2) Resistance to total abstinence. I had a strong aversion to the idea that I could never drink alcohol again. The idea struck me with terror. Therefore my own solutions for addiction never involved abstaining entirely, because I was too scared to face that fear head on. Better to find a way to moderate (which of course never works for a real alcoholic).
3) Fear of sobriety and change. No one wants to face the unknown. Getting sober is a big unknown. You don’t know exactly how you will change but you just know that nearly everything will change if you do, in fact, become sober. Fear is a huge block to recovery.
4) Ego. No one wants to listen to other people tell them what to do. We would all like to think that we are smarter than that. But we’re not. Or we would figure it out on our own. And obviously that has not worked out well, right?
So let’s say that you go to rehab and you start your journey in sobriety. You want to be clean and sober. You go through detox and you start taking suggestions. They tell you to go to meetings, to go to counseling, and you do these things. You start doing what you are told to do. Things start to get better. You keep it up and the months turn into years. Suddenly you look back and realize that you are quite stable in your new life. You have transitioned from short term recovery to long term sobriety.
Now you are on a journey of personal growth. You have taken lots of suggestions over the years and you have retained the concepts that worked well for you. And you continue to take suggestions from other people to try out new ideas in your life. But in addition to that you begin to trust yourself a little bit more. Because now you have a pretty good idea of what makes up a good suggestion in recovery, and what is probably not going to help you in your sobriety. It has taken some time to learn this. You have slowly absorbed it over the first few years of your sobriety based on the testing you have done. You have tested lots of different suggestions and you simply keep the good ones. Therefore you begin to learn what makes up a typical “good” suggestion for your recovery.
At this point you can start to make decisions again. You can begin to trust yourself again.
When I had 90 days sober I could not trust myself. I was not allowing myself to come up with my own ideas about sobriety yet. To do so would have been dangerous. My own ideas (in the past) got me drunk and miserable. When I only had a few months sober I was not yet ready to start designing my own path in recovery. I could not trust myself to do so. I could not trust myself to make good decisions that would not lead me to relapse. I had to learn that slowly over time.
After several years in recovery I transitioned into something that was much more stable. Now my own ideas tended to reflect the sort of suggestions that I would get in early sobriety. Now my own thinking was more aligned with the positive actions that are normally suggested in recovery. In a way it is like I had to relearn how to think, how to have good ideas, how to live a stable life in recovery.
When I had 90 days sober I was not there yet. I could not come up with my own ideas for positive action just yet.
Actually that is not quite true. Even in early recovery you are free to come up with your own ideas and your own recovery plan, but only so long as you do not rely only on your own ideas. You have to check yourself. And that means getting feedback and advice from other people. To be honest I would not bother trying to orchestrate your recovery if you have less than a year sober. Let someone else tell you what to do for a while.
Seriously. I know it sounds awful but you cannot imagine how awesome the benefits of doing this are. Kick back and stop worrying about your recovery. Let someone else worry about it. Take advice and direction from people you trust and simply do what they tell you to do. You can’t screw this up if you just trust in the process and let go. You need to let go of your own ideas, of your own need to control your life. Just let it go. Know that if you make this leap of faith that your life will get better and better and you will be happy again. It may take a bit of time for the happiness to arise but if you let go “absolutely” (as they say in AA) then you will realize this peace and contentment in your life.
The amazing thing is how quickly this will happen if you do it thoroughly. The key is to distrust yourself and only listen to people you trust. Don’t trust yourself. This is something that you will rebuild over time. We all know that we can build trust, right? Well, before you can design your own program in recovery, you have to prove to yourself that you know how to live a stable and sober life according to someone else’s directions. You don’t have to figure recovery out as other people have already done it. So just listen to them. Take their shortcut to wisdom. Do what they tell you to do. And your life will get better and better and more stable.
It is entirely an issue of timing if you look at it from this perspective. After you have a year or two of solid sobriety under your belt, then you have built the foundation from which you can start to explore your own ideas in recovery. But if you don’t have that foundation then nothing that you do is going to keep you sober (if it is your own ideas). There is a reason they talk about “surrender” so much in early recovery. You cannot surrender to your own ideas. You can only surrender to someone or something else. Not yourself. If you surrender to your own ideas then it will just lead to relapse.
What you should do in early recovery if you want to stay sober
You can usually tell when someone is quitting drugs and alcohol for good if they are willing to do whatever is suggested to them without trying to manipulate the situation.
And therein lies the key to early recovery: What are you resisting?
When I was struggling with my alcoholism I resisted the idea of inpatient rehab for a long time. To me it felt like surrendering yourself to jail or prison. I did not want to go to rehab because I was afraid. I was afraid of facing life sober, I was afraid of what the groups in rehab might be like, I was afraid of meeting and associating with other people. Everything inside of me was resisting the idea of inpatient rehab. This continued for a long time and kept me from pursuing recovery.
If you want to get clean and sober then you need to face your biggest fears. And if you are self medicating with drugs and alcohol every day then you definitely have some fears that you are hiding from. You are hiding from yourself in a way. And it is scary to remove the alcohol and drugs and face reality and get honest with yourself. It is hard to look in the mirror when you don’t really like yourself. In order to get sober we have to learn how to face the mirror again and get honest with ourselves.
One time when I was in detox one of the nurses told me to go take a good look at myself in the mirror. I had bruises all over my body and I did not look particularly healthy. And I had no idea that I looked that way because I had been medicating myself for so long. Alcoholics do not prefer reality. They would prefer to keep their head in the sand and avoid the pain that they have been living through. But at some point you have to get honest with yourself if you want to turn your life around.
So if you want this new life in recovery then you have to ask for it. The way to do this is simple, but that does not mean that it is easy to do. It’s just simple. You ask for help. Ask for help from people you trust, then do whatever they tell you to do. Seriously, it is that simple. Just get out of your own way for a year or two. Make a commitment to yourself that you are not going to follow your own ideas for the next two years, and instead you will only listen to the advice of others. Ask for help and then be willing to take action.
You can’t ask for help and then say “well, that’s a nice idea you have about taking me to the AA meeting, but I really don’t want that sort of recovery.” Or you can’t say “well, it’s nice of you to try to set me up in rehab for a 28 day program, but I really cannot afford to be away from my job/family/whatever for that long.”
If you are doing this, where you ask for help and then you shoot down the suggestions, you are not ready to stop drinking yet. I don’t mean to sound harsh but you may as well go buy your next drink at this point, because you are simply not finished yet. You may have thought that you were ready to surrender, but your actions give away the real truth. Surrender does not make excuses. Surrender does not reject these sort of suggestions. If you really surrender then you will be willing to take advice and suggestions without trying to weasel out of everything. Time to face the music and do something about your problem. If you are not ready to take action and follow through then you are not ready for serious change in your life.
If you are ready to change then the path forward could not be more simple. Don’t bother trying to design your own path in recovery, that will happen naturally in long term sobriety. But the stage of surrender and early sobriety is not the time to be in control. In fact, you can’t be in control at this time and expect to get sober. If you are “in control” then your disease will just take over and screw everything up. In order to prevent that you have to let go, you have to give up all control, you have to surrender completely. Just let it all go. Stop making excuses. Stop thinking that you can’t go to rehab for a month (or more) because you have responsibility. This is silly. I know alcoholics who said that they could not “afford” to go into rehab because they had too many demands in their life, and then a week later they were dead from drinking. Seriously! Now how smart does it sound to say that you cannot afford to miss out on 28 days of your life to be in rehab, and then a week later your alcoholism has killed you off? That makes no sense at all. The stakes are probably much higher than the average alcoholic believes them to be.
When I finally surrendered I walked away from a job, an apartment, a group of “friends,” and an entire life really. It wasn’t much of a life but it was mine. And it took guts to walk away from it all in order to get sober. But I reached a point where I realized that I really was fighting for my survival here. I had to have the courage to walk away from my life, from the familiar, and step into the unknown. It sucks to be afraid but I had to face that fear. Because I realized that the alternative was death, or would be very shortly if I kept drinking.
How to transition into long term recovery
Long term recovery, in my opinion, is about balance. At some point you actually get back to the business of living your life, not just going to meetings or being in rehab.
Long term recovery is about personal growth. There is a problem that some people run into and that is that they become complacent over time. You can get lazy in sobriety. It can happen to anyone. It has happened to me at various stages of my recovery, but not to the point that I relapsed. Of course if I had not “woke up” and kicked myself into gear then I believe I may have drank eventually.
In my opinion if you are fighting against complacency then you are living in long term sobriety. If you are not yet dealing with the complacency problem then you are still in short term sobriety.
In short term sobriety you are learning how to live a sober life. You are learning the basics, the foundation. In early recovery you are simply learning how to deal with stress and everyday life and make it through each day without drinking. You are seeking stability in your sobriety.
In long term sobriety you have your foundation built. You are stable in recovery. You know how to make it through a crisis without drinking.
But once you reach this point there is another but more insidious threat. That threat is complacency. Getting too comfortable. Getting lazy. This can lead to relapse if left unchecked.
In my experience there are two concepts that can help you to fight back against complacency. Note that such a strategy must involve active planning rather than passive living. If you live a passive life then relapse can take you by storm before you even know what hit you. Passive living is complacency. Active growth is the solution.
The first concept is holistic health. Holistic just means “whole person.” So we are talking about your physical health, but also mental, emotional, spiritual, and social health. All of these are relevant to your sobriety. All of them help to build the foundation.
If you work on each of these areas a little bit each day then it protects you from relapse. If you neglect any of those 5 areas for long enough then it can cause relapse. This is what I mean by a “holistic approach to recovery.” You must take care of yourself in all of those areas, every day. You must strive for better health in all of these different dimensions.
Health is the currency of recovery.
I have one friend in recovery who passed away quite young. He had some lifestyle issues that he failed to address and he is now gone. Health is the primary currency of recovery. Being sober is important but it is also important to be alive. Dying sober is not as good as living sober.
Second, the primary strategy for overcoming complacency is personal growth. Note that if you are pursuing holistic health then that usually involves some sort of growth experience. You start taking positive action in your life in a certain area that you were neglectful before. This is growth. This is progress.
Personal growth is the cure for complacency, and holistic health gives you the direction for that growth. You don’t pick up a smoking habit and call that “personal growth.” The reason is because we use our health as the measuring stick. If you improve your health then that is progress. If your health is getting worse then we see that as a bad thing.
The idea of poor health and relapse is also a common theme that I have found over the years. People who fall ill are much more likely to relapse. Some of this is based on the idea that they are often prescribed medications. Of course not all medicine is addictive, but many times in my recovery I have known people who lost control of their sobriety due to an injury or illness. I have watched it happen a lot. Again, good health is the currency of recovery. Your sobriety is but one aspect of a healthier “you.”
Therefore I suggest that if you are in early recovery that you should defer to the suggestions of others. If you have multiple years sober then hopefully you have a foundation and are stable in recovery so that you can start to experiment with your own ideas. Remember the themes of holistic health and personal growth. Keep in mind that your number one goal in long term sobriety is to overcome complacency on a daily basis.
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