Reader Mailbag: What Does Advanced Addiction Recovery Look Like?

Reader Mailbag: What Does Advanced Addiction Recovery Look Like?

What does advanced addiction recovery look like?

I believe that a discussion of “advanced addiction recovery” is worthwhile for anyone who is struggling to get or stay clean and sober.

Not in the sense that “I am advanced and my recovery is better than yours,” but more in the sense that “I have made it through early recovery and now I am much more stable in my sobriety.” We want to get stronger in our recovery and be more and more protected against the threat of relapse.

Part of it is the element of time, you simply cannot claim to be in “advanced recovery” during your first 30 days of sobriety no matter how badly you wish for it to be so. But on the other hand just accumulating time in sobriety is not necessarily going to do it either, as it requires positive action and real progress to be made. You cannot just coast through your recovery and reach an advanced stage where the rewards are then multiplied. If you want great rewards in recovery then you have to work for them, and you have to do so consistently over a long period of time. Consistency and discipline are important keys to this.

Crawl before you walk: Getting the basics down in early recovery

Before we can examine the advanced stages of recovery we have to look at the foundation. How do people who are living successfully in sobriety get clean and sober to begin with? The foundation is important because that is what we will build on later in our journey.

The first and most basic principle in early recovery is that of surrender. Every alcoholic has to surrender in order to break free from denial and get started on their recovery journey. Without this complete surrender there can be no real progress.

Second of all the recovering alcoholic or addict must ask for help. They have to ask for direction and then take action when they are given advice. This is actually quite rare, to take advice and to act on it. It is a sure sign that the person is truly at a point of surrender when they take advice.

Finally the person must follow through. So many people who try to start out in recovery end up faltering. They relapse because they don’t follow through. They don’t stick with it. They don’t commit to daily action, to real change. Because change is hard and it is so easy to go back to our old ways.

These are the basic principles as I see them in early recovery. You surrender, you ask for help, and then you follow through and take real action. If you lack any of these principles then it will lead you to relapse.

Advanced recovery as an extension of the basics

In order to learn how people actually get clean and sober you would have to examine their behavior during the transition from early recovery to long term sobriety. I am fascinated with this transition because I believe that it holds the key to recovery.

Think about the basics and how most people get clean and sober: They go to rehab for 28 days and they start going to AA meetings while in treatment. Then after 28 days they leave treatment and they probably have either counseling or therapy or outpatient sessions each week. Then suddenly they are on their own and they are expected to remain sober. Some people relapse at this point and others go on to live a lifetime of happiness and sobriety.

So what are the successful people doing that the relapsed people are missing? What is truly important in this transition phase, where you go from the protected walls of a treatment center to the outside world where you can freely drink alcohol again if you choose? What really keeps people sober when they leave rehab?

If you look at someone who is happy and stable after ten years of sobriety then you are looking at one form of “advanced recovery.” I don’t care what their tactics are or what their daily methods are, they have achieved something substantial and they are living in the solution. So whatever that person is doing to stay sober, we should look carefully at it in order to learn from it.

But then what we really need to do is to take this a step further and look at 10 different people who are all living in long term sobriety successfully. Now we need to look at the commonalities among their approaches. Because one of them might meditate every day and the other one might exercise instead. They all have suggestions but obviously the specifics are not what is keeping them clean and sober. There are broader themes at work here and that is what we need to focus on. Thus we can look at a pool of successful people in sobriety and deconstruct what is really working for them and helping them to stay sober. If we can learn what those things are then we can apply these ideas to our own lives in recovery.

I have been obsessed with this idea for a long time (deconstructing successful sobriety) and I believe that there are a few concepts that can apply broadly to everyone.

The most obvious of which is personal growth.

Personal growth as a long term recovery strategy

Personal growth is the single most important concept for long term sobriety in my opinion.

It implies action. It also implies self analysis. In order to pursue personal growth you have to first be dissatisfied in some way, which means that you are looking critically at yourself or at your life and making a decision to change it. This is healthy.

Second of all the concept of “growth” is broad enough that it can apply both internally as well as externally. So you can make positive changes to internal problems such as anger, fear, guilt, shame, self pity, and so on….but also to external problems such as your career, your relationships, and so on.

Attached to this idea of personal growth is the implication of holistic health. Growth is about change and we want to make sure that it is positive change rather than negative change. In order to help insure positive changes we should consider the different areas of holistic health in our lives:

* Physical health.
* Mental health.
* Emotional health. Stress.
* Social health. Relationships.
* Spiritual health. Gratitude.

If you are taking care of yourself in all 5 of those areas on a regular basis then this sets you up for success in long term sobriety. In fact I would argue that there really is no other definition of success other than to achieve better health in all of these areas. If you are neglecting one of these critical areas then this will hold you back from peace and happiness. It will not feel like “success” if something is holding you back in this way.

Therefore the concept of “advanced addiction recovery” is really about ticking off all of these check boxes in terms of your health and your peace of mind. If you neglect any one area then it will keep you stuck in “beginner mode.” Because if you are neglectful of one thing then that thing will turn into a major headache in your life and all of your energy will focus on that problem.

The idea of achieving advanced recovery is only about establishing a healthy baseline. You need only eliminate all of the negative stuff from your life in order to achieve this state of being. It is not a secret path to enlightenment or anything, you just have to take care of yourself in all 5 of those dimensions. And you have to do it every day on a consistent basis. Keep doing this over time and eventually good things will fall into place as if by magic. You don’t have to go out of your way to try to create magic if you are simply checking off these boxes each day and taking care of yourself in all of these ways. The synergistic effect of taking care of each part of your life will eventually create miracles for you. In other words, when everything in your life is working well together then you will become much happier and things will just work out better.

But it takes time and effort to build towards this outcome. You have to be consistent. You have to put forth real effort and you must commit to personal growth over the long term.

Pushing yourself to avoid complacency and keep growing

One of the most important tips for long term sobriety is to learn how to avoid complacency.

The biggest threat to sobriety in early recovery is usually resentment. But the biggest threat in long term sobriety is complacency. This is because at some point you will learn how to deal with resentments and you will process them all. Then you will live in such a way that you will stop creating new resentments. And yet, even with this lack of resentments it is still very possible to relapse. But how?

People get lazy. People get to comfortable in their sobriety. Maybe they go to AA meetings every day and they come to rely on the meeting to help keep them sober. Then later in their life they may be in a situation where they cannot attend meetings every day like they are used to, and wham! Their support system is suddenly compromised.

Or maybe they keep attending daily meetings and they just get lazy and they stop pushing themselves to grow and make positive changes. Eventually they relapse because they are bored, they are complacent. This can happen outside of AA as well. In fact it has nothing to do with AA directly, complacency can affect anyone, regardless of what kind of recovery program you may follow.

So the question is: How can you prevent complacency from becoming a problem in your own recovery?

First of all, realize that this is not the kind of problem that you can typically discover and then react to. If you discover your complacency naturally then it may very well be too late. You may relapse before you are willing to admit that you are complacent. It is a sneaky problem like that.

Therefore your strategy in fighting against complacency should be a proactive strategy. You cannot wait for the fight to come to you. You must take the fight to complacency yourself. Only by being proactive can you truly overcome this problem in the long run. Your strategy must work to prevent it on a daily basis.

And what sort of strategy is that?

A strategy of continuous growth is what naturally fights against complacency. If you are willing to push yourself to keep learning and growing in your recovery then you will stay well protected from complacency.

If you are comfortable then you are doing it wrong

The problem with overcoming complacency is that it often feels uncomfortable.

It is not easy to face our fears, even in sobriety. Yet this is where the biggest gains in personal growth are always at. Whatever we are afraid of is where the biggest payoff is. If we can face our fears directly and overcome a problem then that is a huge opportunity for growth.

If you sit and meditate for a while you can get a better idea of what your issues are currently. What is stressing you out? What is causing problems in your life? In my experience this is how you find opportunities for growth in recovery. You find the negative stuff, the problem areas, and then you seek to eliminate them.

Do this one at a time. Never try to work on multiple things at once. Divide and conquer. Find your biggest issue or problem in life and then tackle it with all of your energy. Then move on to the next problem area and tackle that. Put all of your focus and energy into one problem at a time. Keep doing this over and over again in an iterative process. If you keep this up then your life will keep getting better and better as you eliminate problems.

The opposite strategy of this is to either do nothing, or to chase after things that you want in life. I have found that both of those are dead ends. If you do nothing then you will inevitably return to drinking or drugs eventually, because your addiction is the default state of being for your life. In order to overcome the default state you must take action. So doing nothing is a losing strategy.

Chasing after your wants is also a losing strategy. The main reason for this is very counter-intuitive: When you are chasing after your wants, this is not harmful in itself at all. The problem is that you are ignoring the negative stuff in your life that needs to be addressed in terms of personal growth and change.

We only have a limited pool of willpower from which to draw from in making these sort of life changes. We have a fixed and limited amount of energy with which to make decisions and change our lives. Therefore if you choose to chase after your “wants” in life then you are taking away from the resources for addressing the negative stuff.

This sounds like it is backwards. We are usually told in our society to ignore the problems and chase our dreams. This is wrong. It will not make you happy. Don’t chase your dreams in recovery, instead fix your problems. Start out by fixing the negative stuff. Because if you don’t do this then while you are chasing your dreams, even if you achieve some of those dreams, you will still be unhappy because of the negative stuff in your life that holds you back.

This is what the 12 steps of AA are all about. They don’t have a lot of “fun” built into them, do they? But if you work those 12 steps and you get a sponsor and you go through the hard work then in the end you will eliminate all of that negative junk, all of that resentment and fear and guilt and shame. You have to do this internal work (not necessarily using the 12 steps though) in order to free yourself. Only later after doing this hard work and laying this foundation of health can you go “chase your dreams” and actually enjoy them when you achieve them.

If instead you get sober and then immediately chase your dreams, you will be unhappy even if you achieve them right away. Because you have not laid the foundation, you have not taken care of all of that negative stuff that drives our addiction.

For me the negative stuff consisted mostly of self pity. I was really good at sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. I had to figure out how to overcome that problem before I could be happy in my recovery. This took time and effort. It was a process that I had to unravel on my own. And in doing so I set the foundation for future peace and contentment in my life.

How to be “advanced”

If you want to make it to an “advanced” stage of recovery then here are my suggestions for you:

1) Surrender fully to your addiction.
2) Ask for help.
3) Take action and follow through based on the advice you are given.
4) Pursue personal growth and keep taking suggestions. Test ideas in your recovery.
5) Keep testing new ideas for personal growth and keep taking new suggestions from others in recovery.
6) Keep improving your life on a continuous basis.

It is in pursuing this path of personal growth that you will grow stronger in your sobriety. The final challenge is always complacency, after you have conquered the basics of recovery then the only remaining threat is that you might get lazy at some point. So you have to stay hungry for more growth and for more challenges in life.

Most of your growth will come from eliminating negative problems. In AA they suggest that you do a daily review so that you can monitor and find any new problems that might be creeping into your life. If you are not examining your own life and your own situation then there is not much hope for growth. If you are not paying attention to your own life then any growth you experience will simply be random luck. We don’t want to rely on luck in order to stay sober. Therefore you need to pay attention to your life and keep evaluating it on a daily basis.

Remember the checklist to monitor your health in 5 different categories (physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual). Look at those categories each day and ask yourself what you are doing to grow in each of those areas. If you don’t have an answer for something then that is something that you need to start paying more attention to.

The way to be advanced in your recovery is to master the basics. Surrender, ask for help, take action and follow through. Rinse and repeat. If you are testing new ideas every day and how they can help you to improve your life in recovery then that is the foundation of good health and happiness. Keep moving forward and maintain a healthy attitude while doing it. In my opinion this is what it means to be living in “advanced addiction recovery.”

Do you have a question for Spiritual River? Contact us and let us know your question and we will try to answer it in a future post.