What is a true measure of success in addiction recovery?
It is not an easy question to answer. This is because the issues involved are complicated and do not always focus exclusively on drug addiction or alcoholism.
In my own unique situation, things were fairly cut and dried. My drug and alcohol addiction was my biggest problem, by far, and fixing it was my number one priority.
Interestingly, this is not always the case with each individual. For example, some people have mental illness issues that may actually overshadow their addiction. That is, not just having mental illness that can contribute to addiction, but having mental illness that is actually more destructive than their addiction is. Of course this is not necessarily a very helpful distinction because the two would always be occurring in tandem anyway, and both may be very destructive. You would not want to address one problem without also addressing the other. But this also begs the question: can you call it a success if you only address one of two problems like this? Can you call it a success if you are sober from your drug of choice (say it is alcohol) but you continue to self medicate using powerful prescription medications that are highly addictive?
And perhaps most importantly: if you are clean and sober in the long run but end up fairly miserable, is that really a success?
I think it is important to ask these sort of questions of yourself so that you can measure.
Measuring is important. We have to measure in order to avoid denial.
If you are not measuring things in your life then you may be living in denial.
Think about drug and alcohol addiction. When you continue to abuse your drug of choice, even long after it is making you miserable, that is living in denial. You are failing to measure your happiness. If you could suddenly take a big step back and become able to measure what is really going on in your life, then you would see that abusing your drug of choice is only making you miserable in the long run.
There are two things that you need to do in recovery, and in life:
1) You must take positive action.
2) You must measure things.
When you measure the results of your actions, you are better able to make decisions in the future. You can evaluate what is working well for you and what is not.
At one time I was taking the suggestion from a therapist to meditate. Not just for five minutes each morning, but to really meditate–to sit in silence for a good 30 to 60 minutes each morning and perhaps once again in the afternoon. I stuck with this routine for several weeks, noticing the benefits (and drawbacks) of doing so. For me, there were some real drawbacks, believe it or not. For one thing, when I would do this meditation stuff every day, I noticed that I became less tolerant of startling noises around me. It was annoying. When I skipped the meditation I was not bothered by any noises.
So after a few weeks I dropped the meditation. Was that a mistake? I don’t think so. I measured and gave it a fair trial. Then I moved on and took another suggestion, taking more positive action. Eventually I found “my groove” by getting into distance running, and this served the same purposes as seated meditation for me. But again, I had to be willing to take action, and to measure the results (honestly).
So in order to do well in recovery, you need to take positive action on a regular basis, and you need to keep measuring and evaluating what the results of that are. You may become discouraged at times, but this is no excuse to stop moving forward and taking positive action. If you run out of potential actions then you should simply look outside of yourself for feedback and get suggestions from others. For example, I got several suggestions from my therapist and sponsor during early recovery, and I acted on much of their advice. Some of their suggestions worked out and some of them did not. But the key is that I was willing to take the suggestions, try some things in my recovery, and then I measured the results.
When they say in an AA meeting: “Keep what you need and leave the rest” what they are really saying is that you have to measure your results. If you are not measuring, then how would you know what to keep and what to discard? You have to evaluate what is truly useful to you and what is not.
Is recovery pass/fail?
I have to admit that I have flip flopped a bit on my stance with this. Allow me to explain my positions.
When I was still a struggling addict and alcoholic myself, I did not see recovery as being pass/fail. I had not surrendered yet and I did not want to stop drinking and so my secret hope was that I could control it some day. Moderation was my hope. So I was looking for middle ground. None of this pass/fail stuff, (or sober/drunk if you prefer). At that time I did not believe that sobriety was “all or nothing.”
Then I finally surrendered to the disease and I was forced to make this mental transition. The switch that I made mentally was to believe that recovery was now an all or nothing proposition, and that I could only succeed in recovery if I dedicated my entire life to it. It was now an all or nothing thing for me. Complete and total surrender caused me to make this mental transition. I credit my success in early recovery with making this mental leap. I had to surrender fully to recovery and become willing to follow the path of treatment, of AA, of whatever was suggested to me. I had to get out of my own way. I was no longer looking for a middle road. I was willing to take an extreme path in recovery in order to stop being miserable.
So after getting clean and sober I could look back at this transition that I went through in early recovery and my thought was that recovery was “all or nothing.” And I would watch other newcomers in recovery, people who were struggling to become clean and sober (because I worked in rehab), and I thought to myself: “Don’t these people get it? It is all or nothing! Don’t they see that they have to let go completely and give themselves entirely to this program? Don’t they see that they have to dedicate their entire life to solving this problem of addiction, that it is entirely pass/fail?” This was my new mindset.
For the first decade of my recovery I continued to think this way–that recovery is entirely pass/fail, and only those people who approached this in an extreme way would ever really “get it.”
But in recent years I started to shift away from this mindset a bit. There are a few reasons for this:
1) I have noticed that in some cases, addiction is not the biggest problem that a person may be facing. As noted earlier, mental illness may be a far bigger problem in some cases. (Some people have challenged this idea, saying that addiction is always the bigger problem. But I have peers who have commited suicide because of mental illness, and to me that constitutes a bigger problem than the chaos and turmoil of addiction).
2) I have become more sensitive to the fact that some people have had a much harder path in their life that has led them to addiction or alcoholism. For example, having a horrible childhood, constant abuse, and so on. I no longer feel like I can judge such people harshly and say to them “all you need to do is focus on sobriety and recovery.” I no longer believe that is fair. Such people may have many more issues than I ever had to deal with.
Basically what this means is that I no longer feel that MY standard for success in recovery should be applied to all people. That may not be fair. Other people have not had the same set of challenges that I have faced. Many people have faced far greater challenges. That said, I can only speak for myself, and what has created success (and failure) in my own recovery journey.
Complete abstinence: your baseline for success
My first measure of success in recovery is the baseline of abstinence. When I first got clean and sober I was struggling to figure out what was really important to my recovery journey. Based on the AA and NA meetings that I was attending at the time, I thought that there were two possibilities for this (keeping in mind that I never really voiced these concerns, I just silently observed and thought about it):
1) That finding and connecting with a higher power was the most important thing in recovery.
2) That maintaining physical abstinence was the most important thing in recovery.
Honestly, if you go through traditional recovery channels and go to a typical rehab and attend lots of 12 step meetings, you will see that the first idea gets much more focus than the second idea. And yet the second idea is far more important in my opinion, and I secretly figured this out during my early recovery. Yet when I saw other people who questioned this idea in meetings, the group would jump on them and correct them, stating that they were nothing without their higher power, that no sobriety could really be achieved without creating a connection with their higher power.
While I heard people talk about this, I grew secretly suspicious, but I was reluctant to voice my concerns. My main concern was that complete abstinence was much more important than connecting with a higher power. So what I did was to simply create a policy with myself, a secret, internal, mental policy….that my top priority in life would be abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Now you might think that this should be an obvious revelation but if you go to AA and NA meetings every day this is not the primary message that you hear about. Instead you will hear that your salvation is in your faith in a higher power.
This is not a trivial point in my opinion and yet many people in AA and NA attempt to trivialize it. They will often do this by saying “Why do you have to choose either one? Why can’t you say that both physical abstinence and your connection with a higher power are both equally important?” To me this misses the point and misleads people. The point is that my spiritual life falls apart without my sobriety in place. If i go back to drinking and using drugs then you can forget about my spiritual connection.
What you typically hear in meetings is the other way around: that we have lost all hope if we lose our spiritual connection with God, and therefore this is the most important thing. More important than anything, and even taking priority over sobriety itself.
What I am saying is that I picked up on this mindset, I noticed it in very early recovery, and I made a decision to make up my own priorities. In my own mind I was going to make sobriety itself my top priority, rather than to make the spiritual pursuit my top priority.
But I kept silent about this (until now). I even noticed that other people in AA and NA seemed to judge others by “how spiritual” they were (and not necessarily based on their length of clean time). I secretly felt that there was something wrong with this, put I could never really voice my concerns out of fear of verbal retribution. How dare I say that the connection with a higher power is not the most important thing in recovery? This was the attitude that I felt like I was up against. So I kept quiet and did my own thing.
I did not want to measure my own success by “how spiritual” I was. I wanted to judge my own success by my sobriety. I wanted to remain clean and sober. That was the whole point for me, and to pursue a life of happiness and contentment. People would often say in meetings “Clean time does not equal recovery.” I always raised an eyebrow when I heard that phrase. Someone who said that was discounting clean time as being insignificant, or less significant than some other metric. Well in my mind, the most important metric was physical abstinence. Therefore I (secretly) based my own success on continued sobriety. If I could figure out how to be happy, content, and make spiritual progress in the meantime then that was a nice bonus. But my ultimate goal was to be physical sobriety. Without that, I knew that I had no chance for happiness or growth, period.
So this is how I came to measure my own success in recovery. And I have also heard other people allude to the same measuring stick in meetings when they say “Any day that you don’t drink or use drugs is a good day.” There are a million cliches in recovery and this is one that I happen to agree with. My own personal measure of success is to remain clean and sober each day. Without that, everything falls apart. Without that baseline of physical abstinence, nothing will get better in my life. Therefore it is my top priority over everything else.
The quality of your life in recovery
I can look back and compare my life in active addiction to my life today. The difference in quality is night and day.
The amazing thing is that this was just as true after 1 year of sobriety as it is now after 12 years of sobriety. Of course I have made many more incremental improvements in my life over the past decade, but I would also point out that probably 80 percent of the true benefits were gained in the first year of sobriety alone.
This should be a huge incentive to anyone who is struggling to get clean and sober. You can enjoy most of the benefits of sobriety right away, if you are willing to take action and work for it. It is not like you have to be sober for several years just to see a trickle of growth. Recovery starts out with bang because in order to get traction in early recovery you basically have to change everything. Therefore many benefits are realized right away and then the follow up growth that you make in long term recovery is really much slower.
In other words you tend to grow fast and furiously in early recovery, and this is an amazing gift. The quality of your new life in recovery (even in very early recovery) is just one more measure of success. Be grateful for each benefit that you receive in sobriety.
What have you learned about yourself?
Another measure of success in recovery has to do with learning and growth. I feel that part of my success in recovery is based on the lessons that I have learned, especially those lessons in which I learn more about myself.
The opposite of recovery is to stop learning entirely, to simply go through your life the way a pinball ricochets around a pinball machine, never really pausing to reflect on what has been learned, nor planning anything specific to be learned in the future. This might be called “living unconsciously.” Sadly, many people live this way or lean closer to living this way rather than to be fully conscious. By “conscious” what we really mean is to examine the life that you are living, to not just live but to analyze your life, analyze your situation, and measure your actions and your progress.
If you look back on your progress in recovery, can you see the growth that you have made? Can you see what learning experiences you have had? Remember to go all the way back, to remember what it was like to be stuck in addiction, and compare that to where you are right now. Judge yourself fairly by comparing to the misery that you used to be trapped in.
If you relapse and have learned nothing in your recovery, then try again. Take more direction this time. Take more suggestions from other people. Let go more. Surrender more. Then start measuring your progress again.
Measuring the 2nd and 3rd order effects of your recovery
One last point on measuring success has to do with second and third order effects of your progress.
It is not fair to look at your recovery and say “well, I am clean and sober, but that is about all.”
This view ignores the positive second and third order effects of sobriety.
For example, a second order effect of my sobriety is that now I am also a distance runner who is more health conscious. This is a second order effect of my sobriety.
A third order effect of this is that I am more aware of the fuel I am putting in my body for my exercise, so I now focus a bit on nutrition. So better nutrition is a third order effect of my sobriety.
Therefore it is not fair for me to judge myself harshly and say “I have done nothing other than become sober.” The truth is that there are many second and third order positive benefits of my sobriety, all of which should be included in my own measure of success.