Yesterday we looked at how to be your true self in recovery, even while taking advice and suggestions from other people. Today we want to look at what it really takes to live a good life in recovery, and how you can increase your chances of doing so.
What we thought of as the good life in addiction was nothing but a dead end road
Of course we are all coming from a unique perspective when we first start out in our addiction recovery. We had thought that in constantly self medicating that we were “pursuing the good life” but it turned out that all we did was to enslave ourselves to drugs or alcohol.
Denial kept us stuck in this trap for many years, sometimes decades. We could never see how anyone could possibly be happy without self medicating all the time like we did, and therefore we believed that if we ever quit our drug of choice that we would be miserable. The fear of facing live clean and sober kept us stuck in denial. We thought that we had it all figured out because we deceived ourselves into believing that our drug of choice could make us happy at any given instant. In fact we were miserable about 99 percent of the time and we only had the occasional peak experience with getting drunk or high. Yet we told ourselves that this peak experience could be instantly accessed whenever we wanted simply by using our drug of choice. It was not until years later that we finally admitted to ourselves that our “happiness plan” was not really working so well. Our drug of choice had betrayed us and left us miserable and we finally could see this clearly for the first time. Thus some of us finally made the decision to give recovery a chance, even though we did not necessarily have a lot of hope that we could be happy in recovery without self medicating. But we threw in the towel on our addiction and figured that there might be a better way.
Me, I was still doubtful, to be honest. I did not have tons of hope that I would be happy in recovery. I predicted a lifetime of misery. But I was also sick and tired of the treadmill of addiction, and I finally got a real glimpse into the future and saw clearly that it would never really get any better, that the struggle with addiction would never end if I did not get help. And thus I finally saw through my denial and realized that addiction was a dead end road. I finally admitted to myself that it was not this instant passage to happiness that I originally thought it was. I had based my life around the idea that I could self medicate and become happy at the drop of a hat by using my drug of choice, but this was no longer working. I had to admit that this was a fantasy and that the drugs had stopped doing what I wanted them to do. Instead of being happy every day while self medicating I was actually miserable 99 percent of the time. I had to see this and admit it to myself on a very deep level. Having someone else point this out to me did not seem to be effective…..I had to discover this truth on my own.
Redefining our values in early recovery
When I first got clean and sober I was living my life according to a certain set of values. These had to change in order for me to be happy and successful in recovery.
The biggest value change had to do with my attitude towards using drugs and alcohol. In the past I had put a really high value on the act of getting drunk or high, and I glorified it a great deal in my mind. When I was still trapped in addiction, I believed that getting wasted was actually a spiritual calling of sorts. I had really elevated the act of getting drunk or high to that level in my own mind, like it was some great thing to do. I sort of looked down on “normal people” who did not answer to this spiritual calling and try to get wasted every day. I would wonder to myself how these normal people could possibly enjoy life while they walked around dead sober every day. Weren’t they bored out of their minds? What in the world did they do to have fun? Everything in sobriety was just so lame!
This was my attitude in addiction and it represented my values that governed how I lived my own life. Because I glorified addiction and self medicating I tended to do it as much as possible.
Now the problem that happens when you first get clean and sober is that our values do not change instantly. You can easily observe this in a detox or drug rehab center if you listen carefully to all of the conversations between the residents and peers there who are newcomers to recovery. You will inevitably hear some people “glorify” their drug or alcohol addiction as they experience their first few weeks of sobriety. This is only natural and the reason that it is so prevalent is because we tend to hang on to those old values for a while in our recovery.
I admit that this happened to me as well–when I first got clean and sober, I noticed that I was still glorifying addiction in my mind. Getting wasted and the fantasy of unlimited drug use was still the coolest thing that I could picture in my mind, even though I felt like I had reached a turning point into recovery and away from addiction. The old values still clung there for me.
This is because I did not know what the gifts and benefits of recovery included. If you are just getting clean and sober for the first time ever, you will be in this exact same position. Your old values will be “I like to get drunk or high, and that is what I value most in life.” Your new values in recovery will be temporarily undefined. You will not have them instantly because you will not have a frame of reference to know what they are, or what they might become. You can’t just instantly flip a switch and suddenly shift your core values in a single day. It doesn’t work that way.
This is why early recovery is such in intense time of learning. You are not only learning how to live your life without self medicating every day, but you are also redefining your core values. In the past, the thing that you valued most in life was getting wasted on your drug of choice. That was your highest value and now it has to be replaced. But you can’t just replace it overnight without actually learning and living this new thing called recovery for a while. If you try to move to fast you will only fool yourself into thinking that you have figured it all out. It doesn’t work that way. You have to discover your new values in recovery as you live your way through them, as you experience this new way of doing things and slowly realize the benefits of sobriety and how it will unwind in the long run.
When you first get clean and sober you do not have a way to suddenly know what your new values in life should be. Recovery programs may attempt to fill in this “value gap” for you and tell you that you should find a higher power, work with others in recovery, come to meetings every day, and find joy and benefit in doing these sorts of things. While these suggestions may work for some people, what we all ultimately have to do is to find our own path in recovery and thus discover our true values in life based on sobriety.
In active addiction we had certain values. Once we make the decision to live clean and sober from now on those old values become useless to us. They get erased.
What happens during the early recovery journey is that you are slowly establishing new values. What do hold to be valuable now that you are clean and sober? The answer will not necessarily be the same for each person.
For example, I found that I valued my relationships with friends and family, much more so than I would have believed during my active addiction. I found that I enjoyed spending time and eating meals with other people. I found that I thrived on exercise and that I loved to stay fit and run on a regular basis. I found that I valued helping others in recovery, but only in a unique way that was never really talked about in “traditional” recovery circles.
Note that in order for me to find my new values I had to:
* Be patient and give it plenty of time. I did not discover all of these new values until I was clean and sober for a few months and in some cases a few years.
* Try lots of things and take suggestions. I never would have discovered exercise if it was all up to my own whims and desires. Someone told me to try that, and I am glad that I took their advice…even though it did not sound like much fun at first.
* Give myself a break in recovery so that I had time for these new values to be discovered. If I had demanded that I become happy at 2 weeks sober and instantly find new values for myself, I would have been disappointed. It takes time to grow into this new life in recovery. You have to give yourself a chance to discover what you truly like and enjoy in life now that you are sober.
The gifts and the benefits of recovery are available to anyone who is patient enough to receive them. They do not happen overnight. You get sober and during your first week of sobriety, your highest value will still be “getting wasted” even though you realize that you should not be thinking that way. You are an alcoholic, you can’t help it. We put “the buzz” up on a pedestal for so long, so that is what we naturally value the most: getting drunk or high. It takes time to replace that core value with something more healthy.
Getting out of our own way and taking suggestions from other people
It does not take a genius to live the good life in recovery. Trust me, I am far from being a genius, and yet my life is quite good today.
What I am is a guy who was lucky enough to take some advice and direction in early recovery. That is what is really “genius” and in order to do so you have to (paradoxically!) admit that you are a bit of a fool and that you do not know how to best live your own life.
Your ego will not like this, of course, and in order to develop the humility and willingness to take on advice from others you are probably going to have to suffer greatly in your addiction first. This is what our misery earns us in our addiction: the ability to listen and learn from others. Hitting bottom is your entry card into the world of high powered personal growth. If you are too cocky to realize that other people can help you then you will never be able to benefit from their wisdom.
This is the great shortcut that allows you to find your new values in recovery: taking advice and suggestions from other people. It is simple to do this but that does not mean that it is easy for everyone to do so. In fact it is normally pretty hard for most people to actually ask for help and then take advice from other people. This seems to be true regardless of our circumstances. Even if we have thoroughly proven to ourselves that we do not know what we are doing, we will stubbornly cling to the idea that we alone know what is best for ourselves.
In early recovery you would do well to admit that other people might know better than you as to what is best for your own life. This is very hard to do and your ego will cry out against the idea in sheer terror. How could other people possibly have our interests at heart? No one cares as much about our own life as we ourselves do, right? And yet if you take that attitude then you are missing out on the wisdom of other people in recovery.
You see, we do not have to each reinvent the wheel when we get clean and sober. You could do so if you chose to get sober in complete isolation, without any help from anyone else. But doing so is just making early recovery that much more challenging for you.
The fact is that many of the concepts in early recovery are counter-intuitive. This means that when you first try to solve a problem in your early recovery you will not guess the right approach on the first try. Can you still figure things out? Sure. But it will take you longer, because many of the solutions for recovery are somewhat tricky to discover.
The whole idea of taking advice from others instead of trusting your own wants and desires is just one example. Trusting others in early recovery is counter-intuitive, yet it is the stronger path rather than just trusting only in yourself.
The concept of surrender itself is another example of something that is counter-intuitive in early recovery. If you keep struggling and fighting to control your drug or alcohol intake, you just get further trapped and stuck in your addiction. Giving up is the way to freedom. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, but it is very tricky and counter-intuitive to discover. I would almost say that it takes a bit of luck to get into recovery.
Another example is the amount of dedication and willingness that recovery requires. Most things in life allow you to make a modest effort and get modest results. Average in, average out. Recovery does not work like this, unfortunately. If you make a modest or “average” effort, you will relapse and fail. It is only by putting in an extreme amount of effort that you can get decent results in your quest for recovery. It doesn’t take a genius, it takes guts. You gotta have the guts to go all out in your recovery. Being smart may even be a liability of sorts. Being stubborn enough to go the distance and follow through is what the real key to success in recovery is.
We can be poor predictors of what makes us happy
I hate to admit that I am a poor predictor of what makes me happy in this life. I would like to think that I am smart enough to know what I like and what I want.
The truth is a lot more humbling. The fact is that the things I have stumbled on in my journey have made me more happy than any of my plans ever have.
This only proves further that it doesn’t take a genius. In fact the genius only thinks that they know what they want and will enjoy in this life, while the simple minded person in recovery realizes that happiness will come to them so long as they take the right actions, stay true to their word, treat others with kindness and keep trying to make positive changes. You can’t plan out a perfect happiness so the next best thing that you can do is to embrace the process.
This is why I love the concept of recovery being a slow accumulation of positive benefits. Enjoy the process as it unfolds around you and realize that your health and happiness in recovery are slowly accumulating over time. If you try to rush this process you will only manipulate yourself into being miserable all over again (like you were in addiction). To some extent, we have to let happiness come to us. Don’t demand happiness or it will remain elusive. Instead, just try to kick back and enjoy the process as it unfolds. Take positive actions and try to improve yourself incrementally. Try to help others on their journey as well. Happiness will unfold all around you if you are taking the right actions. Focus on the process rather than the outcome (that you think you want). Most of the time the outcomes will surprise us anyway, and we may find joy in things that we never would have suspected anyway. Chasing happiness is a fool’s errand, just like it was when we tried to self medicate our way to happiness in addiction. Instead, embrace the process of positive changes and see what positive actions you can take today.
Slow and steady incremental improvements
I am a firm believer in slow incremental progress in recovery. Of course early recovery takes a massive amount of change but I think the key is to give yourself the time and the patience to be able to see the full benefits of what you are doing.
Unfortunately you cannot just get clean one day and then be blissfully happy the next. This is not how recovery works. The key to living well in recovery is to embrace the process of positive change itself, and to be excited about future challenges. You have nothing to fear in life if you are willing to get excited about adversity and can see it as a growth opportunity.