Finding real meaning and purpose in your life becomes possible again once you get clean and sober.
At first this is not going to seem like the case to the struggling alcoholic, at all.
In fact, the first day or two of sobriety is going to make you feel like life has no meaning at all! Because at least when you were trapped in the cycle of addiction, you had the illusion of purpose. Chasing that next drunk or that next high at least gave you a worthy goal. But when you suddenly remove that next high from the equation then you are suddenly sitting there without any purpose at all. You start going through withdrawal, you are not exactly happy, and you feel like you have almost nothing to live for.
This is one of the big reasons why the transition into stable sobriety is very difficult. There is an adjustment period that everyone has to get through and it simply takes some time. There is no way to rush through this period of discomfort or to mask the discomfort in any way. Think about it: The only way to really avoid this painful time would be to self medicate it away, which would defeat the whole purpose of sobriety to begin with!
But life does get better. Sobriety gets better. In fact, that is one the exciting things about recovery, that it just keeps getting better and better as time goes on. Your life, your happiness, and your sense of purpose will continue to grow over time as you remain clean and sober. But in order to achieve this you have to put in the work and give it lots of time. This is not something that is easy to do, especially if a struggling alcoholic or drug addict just wants everything to happen RIGHT NOW!
So it can be a tricky thing to get through. The truth is that we did have meaning and purpose in our addiction, but it was rather hollow and meaningless.
Why the cycle of addiction is a meaningless existence
I was in rehab one time and I was talking with one my peers and he said something to the effect of:
“I just wish sometimes that I could lay in a bed all day and have an IV piped into my arm with really strong painkillers, and I could just lay there and be medicated the entire time.”
And for whatever reason that just struck me as being horrifying, because I realized that part of me wanted the same thing. But the other part of me (the sane part of me?) decided that such a meaningless state of existence was downright disgusting. I mean really, how are you any different from a robot or a computer at that point? You are just being kept alive to lay in a bed all day and be fed high powered drugs and painkillers so that you don’t have to feel anything. What is the point of existing if you don’t even know that you exist? If you can’t do anything, if you can’t build anything, if you can’t grow and change as a person?
I was a bit older when I discovered drugs and alcohol. I was about 19 years old when I first tried getting high. And I can distinctly remember the experience because it was like a massive revelation for me. I said things like “This is what I was put here on this planet to do!” and “I am going to use drugs for the rest of my life, this is great!” Of course at that point I had no idea that I was an addict and an alcoholic and that things would spiral out of control and get so bad for me.
But the point is that from the very first moment when I first got high, I instantly took this on as my life purpose.
Now my life had purpose. It had meaning.
And my full time job was to get as drunk and as high as possible, and to stay that way for as much time as possible.
This was my mission in life and I actually elevated that existence in my mind to something spiritual. I thought that it was “cool” to live that way and that I was somehow superior to others for choosing that path. As if I even choose that path….ha! I was addicted from the start and lost all control of my decisions and my life, and I lived for the drugs and the alcohol. It made me a slave and yet I thought I was the master of my own universe. This is just one way that I deceived myself.
And so I settled into several long years of uncontrollable drinking and drug use. My only goal in life was to be “happy” and to “party” as much as possible. I felt sorry for people who did not “party” all the time like I did because they were missing out. They had no real purpose in life, their life was meaningless, because they did not know how to really have fun by getting totally drunk and wasted like I did.
That was how I thought at the time when I was stuck in my addiction.
And this belief system that I had slowly unraveled for me was I became more and more miserable in my addiction.
I slowly started to rethink my life strategy. My purpose was to get high and drunk as much as possible in order to be “happy.” But my reality was not necessarily backing that up very well. Because the truth was that I was increasingly more miserable as time went on.
Any alcoholic or drug addict can justify this misery for a while. They can point to external circumstances and blame things outside of themselves. If only I had more money, more freedom, better relationships, less drama in my life. And so on. There is always an excuse that you can point to during your addiction and say: “If my life was different in the following ways, then I could still get drunk or high and I would be genuinely happy. But because the universe is not cooperating with my wishes, I am miserable and unhappy lately, even though I really should be happy because I take drugs or get drunk all the time.”
That is the basic rationalization process for all addicts and alcoholics. Their basic belief is that their drug of choice is a solution for them, and if it is not working well at the time (and they happen to be miserable), then they will simply blame other things. They will blame their circumstances, they will blame other people, they will blame the state of society or things that are beyond their control. They will blame everything and anything except the one simple fact:
That they are ruining their life due to their drug of choice.
They will step around that simple fact doing whatever sort of mental gymnastics that they have to do.
And this is denial. Pure and simple, this is what denial is all about. The alcoholic or drug addict clinging to the idea that their drug of choice is a solution, when in fact it is their biggest problem.
My life ceased to have meaning and purpose when I was stuck in addiction.
The drugs and the alcohol became my only real purpose, squeezing all others out of the picture.
For example, friends and family got put on the back burner, far behind the priority of getting drunk and high.
Things that I used to do for fun in my life get discarded in favor of getting drunk or high instead.
My addiction cost money to sustain. Sacrifices were made. Other things that may have cost money that gave my life purpose got eliminated so that I could buy more drugs and booze.
I had sober friends in the past that I drifted away from because they did not get wasted or “party” like I did.
The only spiritual meaning in my life came from the buzz itself. I worshiped the drugs and they basically became my higher power. I believed that I gained insight while getting high that other people lacked. Of course I was just in a drunken stupor and my “enlightenment” was totally contrived. It was pathetic in retrospect.
All of the meaning and purpose that I thought drugs and alcohol gave me were a big illusion. It was all built on a house of cards. None of it was real, none of it had any substance to it. I told myself that my life had meaning and purpose because of the drugs, but this was just a lie that I told myself to feel better about my hopeless state of addiction.
In fact I was becoming more and more like the person who just lays in a bed all day with painkillers pumped into them. That was becoming my ultimate fantasy more and more as time went on.
So purpose and meaning in my life continued to deteriorate until I surrendered and became sober.
From there it started to build back up, very slowly.
Building from a foundation of sobriety in early recovery
When you first get clean and sober you don’t really have much purpose and meaning yet in your life.
Actually you do, but you probably won’t feel it just yet. Or you won’t appreciate it yet.
Instead you will be too miserable and focused on the fact that you just lost your best friend, which was your drug of choice.
It’s a tough transition no matter what you do. Many will go to treatment, some will go to 12 step programs and meetings, some will live in recovery homes, and so on.
The foundation of your new purpose and meaning in life is total and complete abstinence. This is priority number one and it always will be.
After 13 years in sobriety my number one priority in life is to simply NOT put drugs or alcohol into my body. And I am fine with having that as part of my life purpose today.
This has to be my foundation. It has to be my highest truth and my greatest priority. It may not be very exciting at first, and you may not see how it creates much meaning for you.
But that perspective will come over time. Because today, after being clean and sober for 13 years, I can look back and see how this foundation has allowed me to create meaning and purpose in many other ways.
It’s not like you sober up in one afternoon and then later that day you are saving the whales and running your own charity foundation. I’m not talking about finding purpose and meaning overnight like it is magical or anything.
What I am suggesting instead is that you start out slowly, humbly. Go get help. Go ask for help. Go to treatment and start building your foundation of sobriety.
In reality this is not something that you have to worry about. You don’t have to worry about finding purpose and meaning in your life, because it will come to you naturally if you are simply following the recovery process.
When you first get clean and sober, it will help to keep the following in mind:
1) Ask for help, get clean and sober, build a foundation of sobriety. Your number one priority is to stay clean and sober.
2) Know that purpose and meaning will come to your life on its own. You don’t have to rush it or panic about not having purpose.
3) Personal growth is the path of recovery. Some will say “do the next right thing.” If you do this consistency then purpose will follow.
4) Sobriety is cumulative and so are the benefits. It gets really, really good as you persist and keep making positive changes.
Those are the important points to realize if you are just starting out. There is nothing to worry about at first other than the priority of total abstinence. As you start to get comfortable in your sobriety your focus should shift heavily into personal growth. Take positive action and learn to take care of yourself in every way, every day (the daily practice) and your life will begin to transform.
How the daily practice can give you an opportunity to allow meaning and purpose to come into your life
Let’s say that you just got clean and sober but you are still somewhat early in your recovery.
Maybe you have a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years of sobriety under your belt. But you may feel anxious because you don’t really feel like your life has purpose or meaning in it yet. You may feel restless, like you haven’t discovered your great purpose yet.
What do you do?
My suggestion is simple. You are going to be upset with my answer because it is not very specific, unfortunately. I don’t have a straight answer. I can’t tell you to go save the whales, or to start sponsoring people in AA, or to go back to college so you can be a therapist at a treatment center some day.
I don’t have those specific answers for you because obviously everyone’s journey may be different.
But I do know how to create the foundation so that you can engage in a process that allows you to discover your purpose in life.
And that foundation is one of optimal health. This is where the “daily practice” comes into play.
You can be sick in a number of different ways, even in your sobriety.
You could be sick physically, you could be out of shape, you could be eating junk food every day and feeling sluggish, you could be mentally drained or exhausted, you could be emotionally unbalanced or unstable, you could be suffering due to toxic relationships in your life, you could be spiritually disconnected and ungrateful, and so on. Those are just a few examples that could be manifestations of your disease.
So what you need to do in recovery is to discover a daily practice that allows you to combat all of these potential problems. You need to develop a routine, a set of positive habits, so that you are constantly taking good care of yourself in all of those ways (and more).
When you do this foundation work and take positive action then you set yourself up for success. You are giving yourself the opportunity to be able to discover real meaning and purpose in your life.
I cannot tell you the whole process here, because it is so unique for every person. But it starts with this foundation of health. You have to be good to yourself. You have to be kind to yourself. You have to nurture yourself every day, in a million different ways.
And this sets a foundation. The connections that result and the way your opportunities will evolve from this foundation could never be predicted in a million years.
This is an important point:
No one could possibly predict how you will be delighted with your life if you are doing this daily practice and taking excellent care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially.
Because when you take care of yourself in all of those ways then neat little things start to pop into your life. Connections are created that could not have been anticipated. You may be able to look back one day and realize how it interconnected, but there is no way to know this or predict it in advance.
For example, it was once suggested to me that I get into shape physically. I started running every day and built up distance.
I could later see that the discipline that I learned from this exercise directly translated into discipline that I then applied to my career and business. I got that “can do attitude” from the fact that I had conquered exercise and I used it to propel myself in the business world.
This is something that I would have turned my nose up at in the past and thought it was silly. But I did the work and I saw it transform my life. The daily habits that I was engaging in were creating opportunities for me that I never would have anticipated. My life really did transform in a profound and positive way because of the positive habits that I used in taking better care of myself.
The foundation of personal growth in recovery is your overall health. From a holistic perspective. Take care of yourself every day, in every possible way, and this will create new connections that lead to real meaning and purpose.
No, I can’t give you specifics in your own life. I can give you examples from my own experience, but I am quite sure that yours will be unique. And that is exciting!
Finding meaning and purpose in helping others
There is one more thing to note when it comes to purpose and meaning in sobriety, and that is the idea of helping others.
If you are taking care of yourself via the daily practice as described above, then helping others in your life should come naturally.
This is the essence of 12 step work and a huge reason why AA is successful. “The value of one addict helping another is without parallel.”
But you can also benefit a great deal by helping anyone in this world–even if they are not addicts or alcoholics.
And that will come naturally to you over time as you do the work. As you improve yourself and take care of yourself and start to see those benefits in your own life.
It will become natural at that point to want to see others achieve that same growth.
What about you, have you found purpose and meaning in sobriety? If not, have you tried the technique of the daily practice, and finding new ways to take better care of yourself? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!