For a long time in my early recovery I struggled to figure out what the most important strategy was for addiction recovery. To be honest there was a lot of conflicting information when I first checked into rehab and started attending meetings every day.
It was pretty easy to get confused. There were so many concepts and recovery strategies that people told me were important. For example, I was told by many people in my first year of recovery that the most important thing was that I “keep coming back to meetings.” Not only that this was important for me to do, but that it was actually a priority over all of the other suggestions for recovery. On the other hand, when I studied the recovery literature in AA it did not seem to emphasize that as being important, nor did it even mention it really. So at the very least it did not always seem like I was getting a consistent message about how best to remain sober.
Therefore at some point I set out to discover the truth on my own. I wanted to reduce the addiction recovery process down much further than the suggested 12 steps that were given to me. To be honest I was always a little overwhelmed at the idea that there were 12 steps, as 12 is sort of a lot! And people in the meetings were calling this a “simple program for simple people.” I had to wonder how they thought that it was simple if there were actually 12 critical steps to be followed. In my opinion 12 steps to do anything makes for some serious complexity. One step is simple. Three steps might be simple. But 12 steps? Now c’mon. How can that actually be simple? That was my thought anyway in early recovery.
So I started to pick out recovery concepts that were important in my own life. I started to observe other people and to watch who actually stayed clean and sober and who actually relapsed. I wanted a very specific result in my life and that was to remain clean and sober and to experience joy in recovery. To be honest most of my peers were not achieving this standard in their recovery, and in fact most of them ended up relapsing outright. And so I became an observer of “what works in recovery” and what does not.
I also worked in a rehab for several years and I got a chance to watch thousands of struggling addicts and alcoholics attempt to get clean and sober. So I collected a lot of ideas based on my observations while working in a treatment center and I tried to test those ideas in my own life. I would do this frequently by trying to make predictions about who would remain clean and sober and who was probably going to relapse. I could not help but make these silent predictions because I was in the business of trying to help people to get sober. This is what happens when you work in a detox and residential unit for 7+ years. You start to notice patterns and part of you becomes a bit cynical after you watch thousands of alcoholics relapse. On the other hand, you never really lose hope completely, either, because sometimes a struggling alcoholic will surprise you and they will transform their life against all odds. You never really know for sure who is going to “make it” in recovery. That said, I got pretty darn good at figuring it out because I watched so many people try to do, and paid close attention to their strategy, their attitude, and their level of surrender.
In many ways, surrender is the most important concept in recovery, because it is the gatekeeper to sobriety. Without surrender there is no chance for recovery, period. So it is very important.
However, I don’t think that surrender is the most important concept in recovery, mostly because of what I observed while living in long term rehab. All of my peers in long term treatment had surrendered enough to come live in rehab with me, but most of them did not remain clean and sober. So there was something else that was more important that drives success in recovery, but it took me many years to drill down and discover what that concept was.
Surrender is extremely important but it is not the only thing you need to succeed
As I said you cannot even attempt to get clean and sober without surrender, so it is very important to the recovery process.
And in may ways we can trace problems that someone might have in recovery back to a lack of surrender.
Did someone relapse after a year or two of sobriety? Maybe they did not surrender fully.
Did someone relapse after ten or twenty years of sobriety? Perhaps they had a reservation, and they did not surrender fully when they first got sober.
Did someone relapse who was living in long term recovery out of complacency? Maybe if they had surrendered fully they would have taken more action in order to overcome their laziness in recovery.
And so on. Every single problem that you encounter in addiction recovery can be traced back (potentially) to a lack of surrender.
That said, just because you surrender deeply to your disease does not necessarily mean that you are going to automatically embrace all of the recovery concepts and strategies that will help to keep you clean and sober. That requires additional effort on your recovery journey.
The problem of overcoming alcoholism or addiction is, in my opinion, rather complicated. The 12 step program tries to claim that it is a simple solution for a simple problem, but this is challenged by the fact that there are no less than 12 steps that need to be followed.
Surrender is certainly an important concept because it is the gateway to recovery. Without surrender you cannot even attempt to become clean and sober. So this is the natural starting point of recovery and everyone must master this concept first and foremost.
But after surrendering most alcoholics and addicts will need to take additional actions in order to remain clean and sober in the long run. If you go to an AA meeting and you ask for suggestions on how to remain sober you will likely get at least 50 different suggestions and possibly over 100 suggestions for your recovery. What are you to focus on? How do you manage this sort of advice in early recovery when you feel overwhelmed? What is truly important in recovery, and what can be overlooked? You cannot concentrate on everything all at once. You cannot take all 50 suggestions that you get from your first AA meeting and implement them all during the next 24 hours. It’s not even possible.
So we need a way to focus. We need a way to narrow down our recovery strategy. At least this was true for me–I needed to find a way to filter all of the noise that I was hearing from the hundreds of suggestions about recovery. What was truly important? What should I focus on?
So after years of trying to learn the real secret of addiction recovery, I narrowed it down to a single concept. Really I believe that it is best described as two concepts, because the surrender process is quite different from long term sobriety in my opinion.
If you want to get clean and sober, you need to surrender.
If you want to stay clean and sober, you must take action.
What kind of action? Positive action. And that can best be labeled as “personal growth.” You have to try to improve your life in order to remain clean and sober.
This is the most important concept for long term sobriety. It is an extension of surrender in the fact that you would not be able to pursue personal growth if you had not surrendered to your disease in the beginning.
On the other hand you have to realize that many, many people will surrender to their disease, get sober, and then later relapse because they are failing to embrace this concept. They are failing to pursue personal growth as their strategy for recovery.
People who stop growing in recovery relapse.
People who stop learning in recovery relapse.
People who stop doing “what they are supposed to do” in recovery relapse.
All of those ideas point to the concept of personal growth.
They have a saying in AA: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”
What they are getting at is the idea that you are either pursuing personal growth in your life and taking positive action, or you are failing to do so and are headed for relapse.
People often note that “we cannot stand still in our recovery,” meaning that we are either making progress or we are headed for trouble. But we never really stand still. If you think that you are standing still then you are likely headed for relapse. The only direction that leads to sobriety is positive action, progress, learning, and personal growth.
Your life is either improving or it is getting worse. And if it is getting worse then the eventual outcome of that is relapse.
Therefore, your mission in recovery is to make sure your life is getting better.
One of the first AA meetings I went to, the chairperson said “life just keeps getting better and better in sobriety!” That has to be the case. If it is not, then you will go drink or use drugs. Why wouldn’t you? I don’t blame anyone who relapses if their life is getting worse all the time. I would drink too.
No, the solution must include a better life. The solution has to have a promise of better things, a hope for the future. It is not enough to be sober and be miserable. Who would want that? If you are miserable in recovery then eventually you are going to go drink. So your job is to take positive action, to improve your life, to avoid relapse by creating a reason to avoid it.
I avoid relapse today because my life is worth living sober. If it was not worth living sober then I would probably end up relapsing.
Now some people will argue against this and say “well you should not drink no matter what! Just because things get bad does not mean that you should have an excuse to relapse.”
I would agree in part with this argument, but I think they are missing the point. Stop complaining and start taking action. Go find a sponsor who has the life you want and ask that person what they did in order to get there. Start taking positive action and build a better life for yourself. Envision the life that you really want to live and then start creating it. Either you are taking positive action in your life to create change, or you are not. Which is it? There really are no excuses. Recovery requires personal responsibility. You have to take action.
And this is the most important concept in recovery, in my opinion. It is even more important than surrender, because surrender just gets your foot in the door, it does not produce sustained recovery on its own. For that, you have to actually take action. Positive action. On a regular basis.
Personal growth is the key concept that I was searching for while I was new in AA. That program actually used many of the same ideas but they do not label the steps as “positive action” and they do not attempt to pursue “personal growth” directly (though that may happen if you follow the AA steps). There are many paths to growth. I was just seeking a more general path rather than the specific 12 steps offered by AA. I found it when I discovered that I could stay clean and sober by taking positive action on a regular basis.
Fundamental principles of recovery
There is more than one way to get clean and sober. The 12 step program is just one possible path.
For example, there are religious based programs of recovery that have helped many people. Do they work for everyone? Of course not. And neither does AA.
It drives me crazy when someone states that there is only possible way to get clean and sober. Or when someone says that there is only one program that can lead to sobriety. In fact this makes me pretty upset, because I feel like they are dashing the hopes of people like myself. When I was first trying to get sober I was afraid of AA meetings and I was worried that this was the only possible path to sobriety. Surprisingly even my addiction counselor told me that this was pretty much the case–that it was AA or the highway.
The truth is that AA can work for some people, but so can other paths. This is because there are fundamental principles in recovery that are universal. This is what I had to figure out by studying so many different people who got clean (and hundreds who relapsed).
For example, we know that surrender is a fundamental principle of recovery. It doesn’t matter what program (or religion) you may use to try to find sobriety, you are going to have to embrace the concept of surrender. It is fundamental to your success in recovery. You can’t succeed without it.
My discovery is that the only other fundamental principle is “personal growth.” You can be in AA, a religious based program, or simply doing your own thing (like I do), but if you are not engaged in personal growth then you will eventually relapse. It is a fundamental principle. The path you are following or the program you are in does not really matter if you are not taking positive action and making positive changes. Personal growth fuels your success and sustains your sobriety. If you are not moving forward and making progress then you run the risk of relapse. Simple as that. This is fundamental and you cannot avoid it, no matter what program or path in recovery that you choose.
The best strategy for fighting complacency
The last problem that you will face in addiction recovery is that of complacency.
In fact, this is really the only problem that exists in long term sobriety. If you already figured out how to get clean and sober, then your only remaining challenge is to figure out how to stay clean and sober. Complacency wins when you stop taking positive action in your life and end up relapsing.
Therefore the solution to the complacency problem is also a fundamental principle of success in recovery: you have to push yourself to keep growing and to keep taking positive action.
I like to describe this in my own life as a “cycle of growth and acceptance.”
What happens is that I try to practice acceptance, until I find that I cannot anymore in some aspect of my life. That means it is time to change.
And so I make an effort to change, which almost always involves taking action and also a learning process. Succeed or fail, so long as I am learning about myself then I am probably on the right path. This is life, and it is also the path to personal growth. Seek continuous improvement and take real action in order to pursue it. Don’t be lazy.
This is what has worked for me in recovery, and I see it working for other people as well. Those who succeed in the long run have a willingness to keep learning and growing.
Your most important concept in recovery = personal growth.
Take positive action today!