I believe one of the greatest hurdles that you have to overcome in order to get clean and sober has to do with breaking through your denial.
The problem is that we typically try to do this intellectually. We try to reason our way through our drug addiction or our alcoholism. Unfortunately this almost never works.
What worked for me in the end was when I finally threw in the towel (intellectually) and stopped trying to figure out my alcoholism. I had to let go of all that and just trust in a new path. I had to have the guts to ask for help and follow someone else’s advice. This completely goes against the intellectual pursuit of sobriety. You cannot figure out recovery on your own and ask for help at the same time. They are in direct conflict with each other so you will have to choose one or the other. Most struggling addicts and alcoholics have been trying to figure out how to overcome their addiction for a long time, so the breakthrough moment often comes for them when they finally let go and allow themselves to ask for help.
Can you think your way into good living? I certainly tried. I believed that I was pretty smart (still do!) and I could not pull this off. I could not figure out how to overcome my alcoholism and my drug addiction through my brain power alone. My intellectual efforts were not enough.
Instead, I had to take action. I had to actually do something to get clean and sober. Just thinking about sobriety was not enough. Just trying to outsmart my drug of choice was not getting me anywhere.
Is it possible to live your way into good thinking? My answer is “yes.”
Does action follow attitude or does a good attitude come from taking actions?
I learned how to change my life when I checked into long term treatment. This is the equivalent of “putting one foot in front of the other.” I was simply asking for help and doing what was suggested to me. I was getting out of my own way from an intellectual standpoint. I had proved to myself over and over again that I could not overcome addiction or alcoholism under my own power without any outside help. So I asked for outside help and I was told to live in long term rehab.
At first I was afraid to live in long term treatment and I thought that it would be very much like volunteering to go to prison. I could not have been more wrong. Living in rehab was nothing at all like prison, and in fact I had a great deal of freedom at that time. I also had a lot of support in my life, which is the entire point of living in long term treatment. You get a lot of support from your peers and from the fact that you live in rehab–this is what allows you to grow and have a stable life in early recovery while you are trying to transform your life.
Long term treatment was nothing like prison. I learned how to stay clean and sober on a day to day basis while I was living there, and I slowly learned how to re-enter the real world with my sobriety intact. I went back to school and finished up a degree. I started working a regular job again. I started meeting new people and new friends who did not use drugs or alcohol. In effect, I was learning how to live again while also having a tremendous amount of support. I was living my way into sobriety.
Now this probably sounds like the ultimate answer and the best way to get clean and sober, but honestly I watched a lot of my peers relapse while living there. Long term rehab is just a tool, and it is still up the to the individual to surrender fully and follow through on their recovery. Many of my peers relapsed while living in rehab simply because they had failed to fully surrender to their disease. They thought that they were serious about changing their life but they later learned that they were not done drinking yet.
Many people get this idea backwards, and they believe that they have to shift their attitude first before they can go be successful at rehab. I don’t think it is the attitude that is so important as it is the level of surrender. You can be pretty down and depressed with your life (like I was) and still do well in early recovery, so long as you are willing to ask for help and to follow through. I did not come bouncing into early recovery with a big smile on my face and a great attitude. I believe that people who do that are already set up to fail. The problem is not in their attitude (which doesn’t really matter for sobriety) but it is their lack of surrender. They have not fully surrendered. Their addiction has not beat them down enough yet. They are not at their bottom. In order to grasp recovery they are going to have to be much more miserable when they finally surrender. Sad but true. I am not trying to be a downer in any way, this is just being realistic. Keep in mind that I also worked in a detox and residential rehab for over 5 years. I watched a lot of different people try to surrender, and most of them did not make it in the long run. The people who came in with too much enthusiasm never made it. Was it an attitude problem? Not really. It was a lack of surrender.
The healthy attitude will come over time when you start living a new life. Your thinking will improve as you start to take the right actions each day.
People believe that their thinking is absolutely critical for recovery. The believe that they cannot recover because their thoughts are screwing them up, holding them back, and generally causing them to relapse. They believe that they have to change their thinking first if they want to have any sort of chance at recovery.
The truth is that if they follow this line of thinking then they will never be able to recover and change their life. If you wait for your thinking to be pure and wholesome again then you will always be preventing yourself from taking action.
The key is to realize that your thinking exists on its own, and it is screwed up after years of addiction. You can still fix it, but not by merely thinking about it. You must fix it by taking action. You have to put one foot in front of the other–that is the solution that has eluded you for so long. Ask for help and then follow through. Ask for help and then take advice. This is how you fix your thinking–with action. Not the other way around. Don’t think that you can fix your thinking by sitting on the couch with a beer in your hand.
You fix your thinking by living the right way. After you take the right actions your thoughts will start to align with this new life that you are building. But you build this new life through taking action, not through merely thinking about it.
How to kick start positive growth in recovery
The way to kick start positive growth in recovery is to take massive action in your life.
Get a plan and do something. Follow through.
For me this meant asking for help and then going to treatment. From there I checked into a long term rehab and this was a very important action that changed my life for the better.
Who can you trust? Who can you ask for help?
Ask whichever friend or family member cares about you the most. Ask them what you should do in order to fix your addiction. Tell them that you are willing to do anything in order to change, and that you just want help.
Or are you not yet to that point of desperation?
You see, the whole key to recovery is desperation. If you are completely sick and tired of using your drug of choice, if you are tired of being miserable, then you have a very good chance at recovering from addiction at this point. But the key is that you have to be totally fed up with the cycle that you are trapped in. If you are not sick and tired of your disease then it may not matter what actions you take. And from my experience you will not be willing to take massive action at this point anyway. It is more likely that you will want to keep self medicating until you reach the point of full surrender.
The problem is that it is very difficult to know when you are at your full bottom in addiction. Many people think they have reached it and then they relapse again and experience even more terrible consequences in their life. When do you get to the point where you say “enough?” When do you decide that you are done being miserable?
The way to accelerate your moment of surrender is to focus on the misery. Don’t try to avoid the fact that you are miserable in addiction. Don’t try to cover it up or convince yourself otherwise. Instead, embrace your misery and realize that it will only get worse as you continue to self medicate. This will help steer you towards surrender and breaking through your denial.
Focus on the misery. Get desperate for change.
Advanced recovery tactic: the 30 day challenge
If you are already living in recovery then you still have an opportunity to benefit from healthy living.
Even if you are already clean and sober you can still use the strategy of “living your way into healthy thinking.”
For example, I was clean and sober for many years before I found the gift of regular exercise. Somehow I had to find a way to break into this new habit and make it a part of my life.
I can tell you right now that I did not “think my way into better health!” No, I had to put one foot in front of the other–literally.
The idea of the 30 day challenge is very powerful. Simply commit to taking a specific healthy action in your life, every day, for the next 30 days. No excuses. If you miss a day on your challenge then you start over and do another 30 from scratch.
So this is what I did in order to start jogging. I started with a mere 2 mile walk and slowly increased this to a 3 mile jog. But the key was that I forced myself to do it every single day for the next 30 days straight.
I am not a natural runner. I don’t like exercise as a general rule. But this 30 day challenge changed my thinking. It taught me how to unlock discipline. It changed my life.
In doing this I learned how to create a new reality for myself in recovery. The key was in consistent action (hence the 30 day challenge).
Looking back, I realize now that I had already used this strategy once in order to get clean and sober. When you embrace abstinence in early recovery you are really committing to not use drugs or alcohol each and every day. All you are really doing it taking positive action, one day at a time, and stringing those days together.
So you can use this idea to change your life, to teach yourself true discipline, to become healthier and make your life better.
Why 30 days?
Do you can give yourself an “out.” The key is that you allow yourself full permission to do whatever you want after the 30 days is up. If you want to stop exercising after that, you can. But the key is that you have done it for long enough (30 days continuous) that now it is an established habit. And if you want to continue with the positive action then you are in a strong position to do so at that time. Thus you have “tricked yourself” into building discipline and taking positive action. It works, try it.
Taking suggestions from other people to improve your life
One of the other powerful techniques in recovery is to take suggestions from other people.
None of us really want to hear that this is the solution. It is a blow to our ego to think that we should take advice or direction from others.
But if you refuse to use this simple strategy then you going to be fighting an uphill battle in recovery.
Because when you take advice from other people in early recovery, you are using a massive shortcut. They have already gone through an experience, they have learned from that journey, and now they are transferring their best advice and knowledge to you. This is why sponsorship exists in 12 step programs–so that the newcomers can benefit from the wisdom of people who have already worked through the program.
It is possible to go through a recovery program without listening to anyone else, and figuring everything out for yourself. Buy why would you want to make it so much harder on yourself, when you could benefit from the wisdom and advice of others?
Often times we can see growth opportunities in other people that we cannot see in ourselves. We are too close to our own life and our own situation in order to see the potential. So we need other people in order to tell us what we might be focusing on.
This was definitely true in my own situation when my sponsor and others were suggesting that I go back to school. At the time I was focusing heavily on the 12 step program and I believed that school would just be a big distraction from that. I did not realize that going back to school would be an important part of my growth and a healthy dose of “real world recovery.” My belief at the time was that I had to focus exclusively on addiction recovery.
The nice thing about taking suggestions from other people in recovery is that it is not permanent or fatal in any way. You can take advice, try it on for size, and then promptly reject it if it does not suit you. I have done this many times in my own journey and there is nothing wrong with doing so. In fact I would encourage it. You need to experiment in order to find what works for you in recovery.
Let me give you an example: It was suggested to me at one point that I explore the world of meditation. So I started meditating each day. I also read up about meditation online and I got some books about it. I studied it as best I could. I practiced every day and I meditated for up to 30 or 40 minutes at a time (that is a long time to meditate by the way!). I got some benefit from it but later on I would learn something very interesting: Exercise was a much better form of meditation for me than seated meditation was. I got the same mental benefits from jogging that I got from seated meditation, but it was a lot better fit for me due to other factors. Seated meditation was nice and somewhat helpful, but jogging was better for me in nearly every way. So I replaced seated meditation with jogging.
So the people who suggested to me originally to start meditating were not rejected–I took their advice, tried it out, and found that it wasn’t really for me. But at least I tried it and took action. And this is the secret of taking suggestions in order to make progress in recovery: Take action, evaluate, find new suggestions. If you keep doing this earnestly and really take positive action in your life then you are going to discover many powerful things that actually help you in recovery. But you have to be willing to try something things, you have to be willing to try things that don’t work for you, you have to be willing to fail. Because most of it will not work out. But so what? You have to try new things in order to find what works best for you.
And this is how to use suggestions in order to live your way into a better life in recovery. Experiment and take advice. Seek out suggestions and take positive action. Discard the stuff that is not a good fit for you. They even say it outright in AA: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” Good advice, both in AA and in life. But in order to apply this you have to take suggestions and try new things.
Being helpful in your recovery will improve your attitude
One last thing to note about living your way into a better attitude:
You should focus on helping others.
If you focus on helping other people in recovery then you will notice that this does wonders for improving your attitude. This is the entire foundation of step 12 in AA–that when we carry the message of recovery to other people, it gives us a huge boost in our own sobriety.
I have found that managing your own self esteem is really important for recovery. If you are helping other people then your self esteem will skyrocket and this will help protect you from relapse.
Don’t know how to help others? Then simply start asking for help, taking suggestions, and following through. If you do this then you are bound to become useful to other people.