What You Should Focus on in Early Recovery from Addiction and Alcoholism

What You Should Focus on in Early Recovery from Addiction and Alcoholism


Early recovery can be overwhelming. How can we know what to focus on?

Photo by Bob Jagendorf

Just attend any AA or NA meeting, and you’ll get a whole slew of suggestions:

* Go to 90 meetings in 90 days

* Get a sponsor

* Read recovery literature

* Do some service work

* Work the steps

* Get phone numbers from others in recovery and call them

And so on. It can be a bit overwhelming to the newcomer.

So, how exactly can we decide what to focus on? How can we prioritize?

First things first: physical detoxification is the baseline necessity to get started

Before you can start to focus on anything in recovery, you have to first get a clean body and a clear mind. This requires physical detox and total abstinence from mood and mind-altering chemicals. A couple of things to point out here:

1) For me (and a whole lot of other drug addicts and alcoholics), that means no booze, and no drugs. If you want to quit hard drugs and alcohol but continue to smoke Marijuana, then you are still hanging on to your addiction, and you probably won’t find much success if you try to go that route. Many have tried the Marijuana maintenance program and they all fail miserably. A drug is a drug.

2) Those who try moderation instead of abstinence are in for a tough road as well. If you can do it, “our hats are off to you” (as they say in the Big Book of AA), but then why are you concerned with addiction and alcoholism at all? If you don’t have a problem then you don’t have a problem. For the true addict or alcoholic, moderation is not an option.

Therefore, you’re going to need to start your recovery journey with physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol. This is the baseline for recovery. Keep it firmly planted at the front of your mind for the remainder of your life. Seriously! How can you expect to be successful if you don’t keep this one supreme goal firmly planted in your mind?

3) You may need assistance to get off the drugs and/or alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal in particular is dangerous and can actually kill you. Call a local detox or drug rehab or treatment center or whatever resources you have available in your area.

Remember: Abstinence from all mood and mind-altering drugs is the baseline for recovery. It is the bare minimum to get you started on your new life. Call this priority number one.

Physical sobriety and it’s importance for early recovery: 10 out of 10.

Your life situation will dictate some of what you must focus on

What we focus on in early recovery necessarily stems from our life situation and our circumstances. For example, one profound truth that I have seen played out over and over again in recovering addicts all around me is this: The younger you are, the more you need a new network of sober friends. Why is this? Because friends and peers become less of an influence and less important as we age. So someone who is 65 years old might not benefit as much from a strong support network of peers their own age, whereas an 18-year-old addict almost certainly will.

The 65-year-old will likely need to do service work, get involved in other ways that don’t necessarily depend on their peers, such as chairing regular meetings or perhaps sponsoring other addicts.

The key is to assess our needs in recovery. What do we need to stay clean and sober? If we keep an open mind and honestly assess our situation, we can find the path to sobriety.

Here is another example: say you are attending AA meetings but you feel a real need to reach out and help addicts in a more direct way. You notice when you connect one-on-one with a newcomer that both of your seem to benefit tremendously from the exchange. So you want a new way to connect. There are a number of ways you might do that:

1) You might get involved with H&I meetings, where you take AA or NA meetings into institutions such as hospitals, treatment centers, or jails. These meetings provide a unique setting where you are carrying a message exclusively to the newcomer.

2) You might go back to school with the aim of becoming a therapist or a counselor, so that you can connect one-on-one with people more often.

3) You might start sponsoring newcomers in recovery and taking them through the 12 steps.

And so on….

The point is, you might need to figure out what you need in order to stay clean, and then incorporate that into your recovery program.

Life situation and it’s importance for early recovery: 3 out of 10.

The less experienced you are in recovery, the more you need a sponsor

Some people strongly advocate sponsorship in recovery, while others are not so enthusiastic about the idea. Again, this is going to be based on your personal needs, which you have to assess as honestly as possible.

If you don’t think you need a sponsor, then go solo. But if things continually don’t work out, then you might want to try something different, and take some different suggestions eventually. We can always learn something from just about anyone. Our “teachers” are everywhere in recovery.

Photo by Slingshots

I personally never focused heavily on sponsorship (it was really more of a backup plan for me), and that path has served me well. Some people seem to respond better to the idea of sponsorship than others, and that’s fine. Go with what works for you.

If you’re interested in working a 12 step program, and don’t have a clue about how to work the steps, then getting a sponsor might not be a bad idea.

Sponsorship and it’s importance for early recovery: 4 out of 10.

What about going to AA/NA meetings every day?

If you go to AA meetings and listen, you’re going to hear that AA meetings are a mandatory lifeline for successful recovery.

This is only partially true. Remember, AA meetings are a self-selecting group. That means that you don’t hear the opinions of those who are working a successful recovery and are not at the meeting. And those people are out there. I am one of them.

Again, what do you need to focus on to stay clean and sober? What works for you? A lot of people who relapse in the first year say that they stopped going to meetings (though many of them relapsed emotionally before they stopped going, and still picked up eventually).

In early recovery, going to a ton of 12 step meetings could rarely be called a mistake. The level of support you get from daily meeting attendance is unparalleled. You simply can’t get the experience of full immersion in AA from anywhere else. For many addicts and alcoholics, meetings are indeed a crucial lifeline in early recovery. Focusing on them should be higher on the list than, say, reading recovery literature every day.

If you’re not going to go to 12 step meetings, that is fine…there’s nothing wrong with that. But what are you going to focus your energy on instead, and how are you going to connect with others in recovery? Finding a way to interact and hear the stories of other addicts and alcoholics is still going to be an important part of recovery. Make sure you have a way to relate to others if you’re not going to meetings.

Most people will find that these connections in recovery are of the utmost importance. Where and how you “connect” with other addicts in recovery is entirely up to you.

Your recovery network and it’s importance for early recovery: 7 out of 10.

The power of service work

“You have to give it away to keep it.” As I’ve pointed out before, most people underestimate the power of service work. Chairing AA meetings, sponsoring newcomers, or getting involved with H&I meetings (that take 12 step meetings into jails or institutions) can be one of the most powerful techniques for maintaining your own sobriety.

The reason for this is simple: helping other addicts strengthens our own recovery immeasurably. Nothing can come close to the good feeling you get from reaching out and actually making some sort of connection with a newcomer in recovery who needs help.

The way this works is simple: as recovering addicts and alcoholics, we carry a message of hope to the newcomer. We try to convince them to give recovery a chance because a better life potentially exists for them. Carrying this message reinforces these concepts in our own minds, making our own sobriety nearly bullet-proof.

It is nearly impossible to relapse if we are in the habit of helping other addicts and alcoholics on a regular basis. Most of the power of fellowship-based recovery programs (such as AA or NA) stem from this idea.

Also, service work involves working with newcomers who might be fresh out of the grip of addiction. This can be a powerful reminder of where we came from, and what we don’t want to go back to. It also functions as a source of gratitude for us.

Service work and it’s importance for early recovery: 8 out of 10.

Spiritual development

Spiritual growth sets the foundation for a strong recovery. Without it, we are in danger of stagnating and eventually relapsing.

There is the potential for a lot of controversy when it comes to spiritual matters. Some people in recovery are religious and return to those roots as source of strength in recovery, while others develop an almost cult-like adherence to the 12 steps as the only possible path to recovery.

Surely there is a reasonable, spiritual path out there for every addict….but I’m convinced that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Some will have to find their own path.

Realize, too, that the very term “spiritual” has become watered down and is devoid of meaning….it is thrown around so much and probably has personal connotations that we each assign to it ourselves. What is “spiritual?” How do we become more “spiritual?” The answer to that is going to be a bit different for each person. There is no “right” or “wrong” here, just a holistic approach that will benefit you greatly as soon as you realize that it’s all spiritual. Part of our error is that when we define spirituality for ourselves, we are actually excluding things instead of including them. It’s a big bad universe, though, and we might do well to realize the sacredness of a walk through the woods, or the meditative quality of our afternoon jog.

In other words, don’t define spirituality so tightly that you can’t live up to it. Find delight in the simple things. Wonder at the brilliance of it all.

This also speaks to the holistic approach of the creative theory of recovery. Number one, it’s all spiritual. Number two, any time you grow in recovery, that involves spiritual growth. And number three, a holistic approach allows you to grow spiritually in a number of different areas. You work on relationships. You work on controlling your anger. You learn some relaxation techniques. And you do these things through a spiritual connection, through the seeking of a higher power. It’s all spiritual. Having a holistic approach only broadens your horizons for potential growth and can only serve to enhance your spiritual connection.

Words overhead at AA and NA meetings a thousand times over: “I relapsed because I didn’t get with the spiritual side of the program.”

Spirituality and it’s importance for early recovery: 9.5 out of 10.

This is a 9.5 only because I have seen recovering addicts put faith and spirituality in front of their physical sobriety. You will lose anything that you put in front of abstinence, including your spiritual connection.

In other words, I’ve seen recovering addicts who got so caught up in spiritual pride and ego that they eventually fell victim to relapse. Physical abstinence must come first. Forget that, and you will lose everything.

Conclusion: a plan for you

We’ve covered a lot of material here, but I think we are finding some common themes, and priorities are starting to emerge.

According to this study, having a sponsor and doing service (helping other addicts) correlated more highly with positive outcomes than meeting attendance, and the study also found that it is especially important to start doing some sort of service work by the end of the first year of sobriety.

In other words, it is really important to get out there and start helping other addicts and alcoholics, even in early recovery. (Especially in early recovery).

To recap, here is what you really need to focus on in early recovery (in order of importance):

1) Physical abstinence – this has to be number one. Don’t pick up, no matter what.

2) Spiritual growth – a broad and complicated topic, unfortunately. This can mean different things to different people. Remember the holistic approach. Do what works for you and empowers your life.

3) Service work – more powerful than either sponsorship or meetings, although it might involve either of those things. Find a way to help other addicts in recovery.

4) Network – the friendships and connections you make with others in recovery. For many this will come through AA and NA meetings. True recovery requires more than just a network, however. (see numbers 1, 2, and 3 above!)

5) Life situation – your unique life situation will probably take care of itself if you truly engage with the creative life in recovery. Likewise, if you put your priorities near the top of this list, the bottom of the list will take care of itself. (In other words, if you stay clean, focus on holistic spiritual growth, and involve yourself with service work, then the rest of your life will likely take care of itself, and things will simply start unfolding for you. Your life will start to “click.” This is the power of the creative life in recovery).

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