What is the common denominator, the one thing that every successful recovering addict and alcoholic does?
What predicts success in recovery more than anything else? What is the secret of sobriety?
These are the questions that plagued me in my early recovery journey. I wanted to know how recovery actually worked. If you read “How it Works” in the big book of AA, it doesn’t necessarily tell you exactly how it all works. Instead, they really just tell you that it works if you work, so you should certainly make the effort to do what they suggest.
This wasn’t good enough for me. Call me stubborn, call me stupid, call me arrogant…..it just wasn’t good enough for me. They were essentially saying to me in early recovery: “Here, work this recovery program, go through these 12 steps, and go to these meetings every day, and your life will get better, we promise. How does it work exactly? Well, you do these things, and your life gets better as a result. That’s as much as we know really. But we know that it does work. So for goodness sake, please just follow the program as directed.”
But I was stubborn, and even though I initially started out by listening and following directions very carefully, I slowly drifted into the land of “so what is it that really keeps people sober?” I wanted to know.
Because quite honestly I was noticing some conflicting information from all of the advice I was getting in recovery. I was noticing, for example, that some people were telling me to “think, think, think” while others were suggesting that the biggest problem of the recovering alcoholic was that they thought too much. So which was it? I was confused at times. And while I certainly would have paid the price of going to a lifetime of AA meetings in order to achieve sobriety, I did not really see the point of doing so unless it was absolutely necessary. I could reach out to people in recovery in many other ways (online for example) and the time investment of one hour per day for a meeting (plus travel time) is not trivial if you are talking about years or decades of attendance.
So if there was a secret to sobriety, if there was a deeper understanding to be had, I wanted to find it. If the solution was “go to AA meetings every day until you die” then I could certainly accept that and deal with it. But I didn’t really believe that this was the ultimate answer, the ultimate solution. Something deeper was going on in terms of sobriety, it had to be more than just showing up to AA meetings every day. What really kept people sober? That was the driving question in my life for many years.
This led me to a couple of ideas and themes that I continue to explore to this day about what really keeps people clean and sober. Some of these themes overlap with AA principles and some of them do not:
1) Surrender – this seems critical to sobriety, period. It is fundamental to recovery and stands as a universal concept in my opinion. Without surrender there can be no transforming recovery journey.
2) Personal growth – if there is one concept that is the real “secret” of sobriety, this is it. You are either improving yourself, or you aren’t. This is what recovery is all about: Positive change and forward progress. Personal growth IS recovery. This is really the one thing that every successful person in recovery is engaged in: improving themselves.
3) Holistic health – how are you improving your life? In what areas are you becoming a healthier person? Holistic just means “whole person.” For example, in AA they tend to focus only on spiritual growth. But you can also improve your life and become healthier physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially too. It is not limited to only spiritual growth.
4) Gratitude – in my opinion this is the spiritual concept that ties everything together and makes it all work. If you lack gratitude for too long then you relapse, plain and simple. If you claim to be “spiritual” but you are not grateful then guess what? You ain’t spiritual. It’s all about having an attitude of gratitude.
Working on recovery, or working on a relapse? What are you working towards?
There is a principle in recovery that is fundamental in that this will hold true regardless of what recovery program you may be working in your life. In other words, the idea holds true whether you are following AA, a religious based program, a behavioral approach, going to therapy or counseling, using a holistic recovery approach, or whatever the case may be.
That principle is simply this, which you can often hear repeated around the AA meetings as well:
“You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”
There is no in between. You may believe that you can coast for a while, but this simply isn’t the case. If you try to coast then guess what? You are no longer working on recovery. And by default, this means that you are, unfortunately, “working on a relapse” instead.
At first I may not have really believed this to be true, the idea that you have to keep working on yourself in sobriety or run the risk of relapse. But then I started to look around myself and realize what was actually working for various people in recovery.
There are really two different groups that you can look at in sobriety. You can look at the people who are currently successful, who have multiple years of sobriety accumulated and who are living happy and healthy lives. Those are the positive examples of what you want to do and who you want to emulate in your recovery journey.
The second group that you can look at it are the people who have relapsed, or who are constantly relapsing. Those are the people who set the counter example for you of what NOT to do in recovery.
Between the two groups of people you can start to get an idea of what you should be doing in order to recover for yourself. What I started to notice when I was watching both of these groups of people carefully was that there were certain fundamental principles of recovery–things that were in common among everyone who was successful in sobriety.
One of those things was surrender. Another was gratitude. And a fairly big umbrella concept for all of it was the idea of “personal growth,” or taking positive action every day in your recovery journey.
The final outcome of a life well lived in recovery is that you continue to grow and improve your life while avoiding relapse. But the threat of relapse is always going to be there in the form of complacency.
The final outcome of anything else is relapse. If you are not moving forward, if you are not taking positive action, if you are not improving yourself each and every day of your life (whether you are following a recovery program or not) is relapse. You either move forward and take positive action, or you relapse. One or the other. There is no middle ground.
The balance between personal growth and self acceptance
There is a constant struggle within every recovering alcoholic and drug addict between self acceptance and personal growth.
It all comes down to the infamous serenity prayer. Changing the things you can is personal growth. Accepting the things that you cannot change is the self acceptance part.
So the key in life is to know which of these you need to do, and when. To accept the current situation, or try to change it. To accept yourself as you are right now, or work hard to try to change yourself.
That is the battle that is always going on with every recovering addict. To accept themselves, or to change themselves. To kick back, relax, and enjoy the serenity….or to fight and struggle and work hard to improve their lives.
At any given moment, it cannot be both. In the long run, and on the whole, when you balance it all out–sure, it can be both of those things. You can both accept yourself and also struggle to improve yourself. But in the present moment, you have to choose one or the other. It can’t be both in the NOW. Right now, you have a choice between personal growth and self acceptance, and you have to choose one or the other.
If you never choose the “personal growth” option and push yourself to make some positive changes, then eventually you will relapse.
Therefore the key is in the serenity prayer itself, when it says “…and the wisdom to know the difference.” The wisdom to know the difference between something that we should fight and struggle in order to change, or the wisdom to know if it is something that we just need to accept (and gain serenity by doing so).
So how do we find that wisdom?
How do you find the wisdom to know the difference?
You can do two basic things when it comes to searching for this kind of wisdom that we are talking about:
1) Pray for knowledge of the wisdom. This is helpful, especially combined with the next idea, which is…..
2) Ask others for help.
The second idea is, in my opinion, critical to the recovery process.
You don’t have to recover by yourself. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to figure it all out by yourself as if no one has ever figured out how to become sober in the past.
People have recovered in the past, and they have wisdom and knowledge to share with you. Your job is to become open to that knowledge.
You do this by asking for help. Plain and simple.
Ask for help. Ask for advice. Ask your peers, your sponsor, your mentor, your therapist, your friends, your family, your friends in AA, ask any and all of these people for their direct guidance.
Get specific. Ask them things like:
1) What should I do each day in order to insure my sobriety?
2) Where should I go to get help for my drinking problem?
3) What should I work on next in my life in order to improve my sobriety and my recovery?
4) What should I do next to improve myself as a person?
5) What do you do every day in order to take good care of yourself?
6) What do you do every day in order to love yourself and be good to yourself?
7) How can I best improve my life in recovery?
Keep asking people these sorts of questions. Keep listening to their answers. Then start taking action based on the ideas that you are hearing.
If you do this every week for the next few years, and you implement just one percent of all of the suggestions that you hear, your life will probably improve a thousand fold and you will become infinitely happier as a result.
This is the power of “borrowing” wisdom from others in recovery. You don’t have to figure it all out for yourself. Others have already done that for you, and you just have to take their ideas and put them into practice.
If you model others who are already successful in sobriety, chances are that you will be successful in sobriety as well. This is not complicated. It is very simple actually. But you still have to be willing, you still have to initiate the action, you still have to do the work.
The difference between success and failure in long term sobriety
The difference between success and failure in long term sobriety can be measured in terms of personal growth.
In fact, if someone relapses after several years of recovery, you can take a look back and see where it all started to go wrong.
What happened? What happened is that the person who relapsed in long term sobriety became complacent. They slowly stopped doing the things that they needed to do in order to make positive changes, in order to move forward, in order to keep learning about themselves.
When I was trying to figure it all out in my early recovery journey, when I was trying to figure out what the big secret of sobriety really was, I looked at many different people. Some of those people were in AA and some of them were not. But one thing that started to shine through was the idea that everyone who was successful in recovery was what we called “a winner.” They had a saying in AA meetings, and that was “Stick with the winners!” And it was true. Obviously you would do better following the example of someone who was doing well in sobriety.
But I also noticed that not all of the “winners” in recovery were in AA necessarily. Some of the recovering addicts that I met who were doing really amazing things in their life were actually outside of the AA program. And this made me realize that there were fundamental principles in recovery that went beyond AA and NA. Those same fundamental principles could be discovered and used within AA, but that was not really necessary for every person in recovery. Some people could find the fundamental principles elsewhere, and in fact, many people had done exactly that. I was one of them.
Success in long term sobriety could be summarized by one thing: Personal growth.
Recovery is nothing if not change. Without change, there is no recovery. Without positive change, recovery quickly turns into complacency, which then leads to relapse. These are universal concepts, they do not depend on the AA program. They exist independently of recovery programs.
Carrying the message by setting an example of personal growth
One way to carry the message of hope in recovery is by joining AA, becoming a sponsor to other people, or volunteering to chair the meetings in your area.
This is one way to give hope to others and carry the message. But there are other ways as well.
One way is to participate in online recovery, such as the forum here at Spiritual River. There are people who use that discussion forum every day who benefit greatly from the community aspect of recovery, who reach out to each other and offer hope and strength through sharing their experience.
Another way is by simply setting the example. My grand sponsor in recovery has a saying that he likes, which is that “healed people heal people.” This is the idea of “paying it forward.” In other words, look at how many ripples of positive change can be created just by helping one struggling alcoholic, especially if that alcoholic stays sober and then goes on to help other people to sober up as well. The ripples of positive change can affect thousands of people in the end due to the nature of how we help each other in recovery.
Of course in order to set a positive example in recovery you can’t just talk the talk; you have to actually walk the walk as well. And that means doing the work in recovery, putting in a real effort to fix the negativity in your life on a daily basis, and pushing yourself to make the really tough changes.
I tend to look the realm of personal growth in the following way:
1) Internal life changes
2) External life changes
So the internal changes are what you would work on if you were working your way through the 12 steps of AA with a sponsor. You would be identifying things like resentments, shame, guilt, fear, anger, self pity, and so on…then you would be working hard to eliminate those things from your life.
The external changes are the people, places, and things that people warn you about in early recovery. If you keep hanging out with your old drinking buddies, for example, then eventually you will probably find yourself drinking again as a result. The same is true if you find yourself trying to order a diet Coke while sitting down at the old bar where you used to drink. That kind of thing just doesn’t work. So you have to make two kinds of changes in recovery: Both internal changes as well as external changes. You have to work on both your inside and your outside.
You can gauge your level of success in recovery by how much you have been pushing yourself lately to make positive changes.
Personal growth and positive change. What you did in the past certainly matters, and you can pat yourself on the back a bit for having come this far. But now you have a serious decision to make: Are you going to prop your feet up and get lazy, risking complacency? Or are you going to push yourself to dig deeper, to get more honest with yourself, and to make those positive changes in recovery? It is not comfortable to push yourself to make these difficult changes in life. But that is the price that we pay in order to avoid complacency and overcome the threat of relapse.