There is power in the idea of having a replacement strategy for recovery from alcoholism.
Think about it. The alcohol struggles because their life is defined by drinking every day. In order to recover they are going to have to replace that drinking activity with other things.
We know that just putting the alcohol down is not enough. If it were that simple then recovery would not be such a challenge; it would be easy. But of course it is not easy and everyone knows that abstinence is just the first building block of recovery. From there you must make many additional changes in order to enjoy a lifetime of sobriety.
When drugs and alcohol are your everything in life
My problem when I was still stuck in addiction was that I relied on alcohol and drugs for everything. They were my main source of happiness in life.
Other interests that I used to have before I discovered drinking were long gone. I had replaced those “normal activities” with drinking and using drugs every day. So my entire world revolved around getting drunk and high all the time.
I switched jobs. Actually, I lost jobs here and there because I was such a mess from the alcoholism. And in finding new jobs, I always seemed to find the sort of job that had a culture of drug and alcohol abuse surrounding it. The people that I worked with got drunk or they got high (or both). And if they didn’t, then I simply did not connect with that person on the same level. I would find the people who were into getting drunk and high and then I would make strong connections with those coworkers and we would drink and use together.
My time spent outside of work was almost entirely based on the idea of getting drunk and high on drugs. Everything that I did in my spare time always revolved around this. If I was not actually using drugs or alcohol then I was hunting for more, or trying to figure out how I could get more.
This may sound trivial but the constant obsession is actually a really big part of the addiction. It was ceaseless. It never really stopped, even for a day or two. There was this constant push to find more drugs and use them constantly. It was never ending.
And so you can imagine that when a person suddenly makes the decision to try to get clean and sober, this transition to a sober life is one heck of a shock. Suddenly your old crutch is completely gone. It is as if you are falling through space and you are trying to reach out and grab a hold of something to save you and there is just air there instead. There is almost a feeling of panic when it comes to this sensation because suddenly your best friend (drugs and alcohol) has been torn away from your life.
There is also an emotional component to this loss, believe it or not. It might be hard for a non-alcoholic to believe that but it is absolutely true. The newly sober alcoholic is, in some way, mourning the loss of their drug of choice. The alcoholic will probably not want to admit just how scared they are in early recovery. Letting go is terrifying. Facing the world sober is terrifying. Of course if you have been sober for a long time or you happen to not be an alcoholic then it is no big deal. But if you are an alcoholic or a drug addict and you are suddenly in free fall without anything to grab on to–it is absolutely terrifying. It can almost induce panic in a person. If you need confirmation of these ideas then simply look at the relapse rates or the success rates of newly recovering alcoholics at 3 months, 6 months, and 9 months sober. The rate of failure is terrifying because getting sober is terrifying. It takes guts.
So how do you deal with this fear? How do you get past the panic of realizing that you may never use drugs or alcohol again?
No one wants to be told that they need to take positive action and replace those old behaviors with something new.
I know that no one wants to hear that, because I did not like hearing it myself.
What I really wanted was a magic trick–I wanted someone to wave a magic wand and make all the fear and panic and cravings for alcohol just magically disappear.
Not gonna happen. There is no shortcut to the magic. You have to do the work instead. And it is going to take some time.
You might hear this phrase or similar in AA meetings: “You did not become alcoholic over night so you are not going to completely recover overnight either….it takes time.”
Wise words that no one really wants to hear or accept. It is a process, it takes real work and effort, and it takes time.
And a big part of that process is in replacing those old behaviors.
Let’s talk replacement strategies.
Having a replacement strategy in early recovery
Say you are an alcoholic who gets out of work every week day and hits the corner bar. On the weekends you drink at home. A typical alcoholic who drinks on a regular basis at the regular sort of hangouts.
So you get clean and sober at a rehab and they suggest that you go to AA meetings instead.
So instead of going to the corner bar each day you go to an AA meeting in the evenings.
And on the weekends, maybe you mix it up and go to a few meetings, maybe a few AA conferences, do some exercise, find new sober friends and do coffee, and so on.
This is a replacement strategy. You are taking all of those old habits when you used to drink alcohol and you are replacing that with new healthy activities.
This is powerful if you follow through with it. This is powerful if you are persistent with it and allow the changes time to benefit your life.
You may notice that a lot of these new habits are not going to change your world overnight. You may not see the benefit of attending AA meetings during the first few months so much. Or rather, you will notice a small benefit to it, but if you keep it up for 3 years straight and then look back at your first year, you will realize that you were severely underestimating just how helpful those early meetings were to you.
In other words, we can’t see the benefits of these sort of changes as we are going through them. If you start going to AA meetings today, you won’t really appreciate the full benefit that those meetings give you until you can look back at it after several years. It is only then that you will gain the perspective to realize just how helpful the changes were.
Because not only are you doing something positive, but you are also avoiding something negative (being at the corner bar).
And it is in this way that every replacement strategy in your life will also require some small leap of faith.
I mean, if you already believe in the strategy and the change then it is no problem and you are likely already doing it. No big deal.
But for someone to really make an important change in recovery it may require a bit of faith. You won’t feel sure of yourself at first. And even after you get started you may not feel sure of it.
At one point I started exercising every day and shortly thereafter I quit smoking cigarettes. Sounds pretty obvious and easy, right?
No. That was one of the most difficult changes I have ever made in my entire life, period. When I was going through nicotine withdrawal I actually believed that I was delusional in some way and that I must have made a serious mistake when I decided to quit smoking (this is a documented side effect of nicotine withdrawal by the way, you will question your decision to quit on a brain molecular level! Incredible. No wonder it is so tough!).
In other words, you have to have that faith element in there. Not necessarily “faith” in the sense of a higher power, but you have to have faith in your actions and that you are on the right path in your replacement strategy.
I wanted to replace my old behaviors in addiction with new healthy behaviors in recovery. And that has been a journey and a process.
I want to suggest to you that you should seek feedback and advice along this journey. Because without getting feedback and advice from others you will likely be second guessing yourself a great deal when it comes to your actions.
If you are in early recovery then it might not be easy to know what to focus on. Are you pushing yourself hard enough to make positive changes? Are you doing all the right things in your recovery? Are you in danger of relapsing because you may not be trying hard enough? And so on. It is enough to drive you crazy. This is why it is helpful to have a sponsor or someone in recovery that you trust and can talk to.
When you get clean and sober it is like being dropped into a freezing cold lake. Suddenly you are in shock because you have no alcohol or drugs any more. And it is also likely that you will be giving up many old behaviors that are obviously no good for you (hanging out at the corner bar, hanging out with people who use drugs or drink, etc.). And so if you just sit at home each day and stare at the walls without replacing these old behaviors then it is going to drive you crazy.
So you have to have a mechanism by which you get out there and start to replace your old life with a new life.
In a sense you have to create this new life in place of the old one.
Understand that this is an act of creation. You are going to be taking new actions and doing positive new things that will naturally take the place of getting drunk, being high, hanging out at the bar, and so on.
But you create it with positive action. It is not the same as simply quitting drinking. It is an act of creation.
And that can be scary.
Filling the void with spiritual and other means
In traditional recovery there is a strong push to “fill the void” with spirituality and a higher power.
So this is the basic prescription in mainstream recovery when it comes to having a “replacement strategy.” Your old higher power was drugs or alcohol. Your new higher power is God and your faith and belief in that entity. This is the essence of the spiritual solution in alcoholism recovery. You are replacing your alcoholism with faith and spiritual works.
My opinion is that this is only one possible solution, and it may not even be the optimal solution.
Spirituality is always going to be a part of recovery, because spirituality is a part of our overall health.
Your choice to get clean and sober is essentially a choice for life, a choice for better health, a choice for a more positive future.
Spirituality and faith in a higher power is one sliver of that process. But in my opinion it is not the entire process, nor should it be.
For some people, focusing heavily on spiritual growth is the entire solution, and it works well for them. But even in these cases I think such people are just using spirituality as a springboard. In other words, they focus heavily on spiritual growth but this leads them to take better care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially as well.
So it is never just about spirituality. Spiritual growth is never the entire replacement strategy, even if it looks like it is. There is always more to your recovery than strictly faith.
Your health is a measure of your progress in recovery. Not just your spiritual or physical health, but also your mental, emotional, and social health as well. All five of these factors play a role in your recovery. To neglect one of them can mean that you are no longer “filling the void” properly.
When someone quits drinking they suddenly have that void in their heart. That is the feeling that I described earlier where you are falling through space and clutching at thin air because your alcohol or drugs are suddenly yanked away from you. That is the void that you are feeling, and many traditionalists suggest that the only way to fill this void is through faith and a higher power.
My opinion is different than this. What I am suggesting is that spirituality is only one part of what is used to fill this void. The other parts are the other areas of your holistic health: Mental, emotional, physical, and social health. If you neglect those areas and focus only on spirituality then you are missing an opportunity in my opinion. The void is best filled with personal growth, and holistic health is the overall theme of this growth. Spirituality is but one part of that growth.
Why the spiritual solution is not as powerful as the holistic solution
I had a friend in recovery who I looked up to a great deal. I had about a year sober at the time and I was still quite early in my recovery journey. My friend had slightly more clean time and he was really into the spirituality stuff.
At the time I was convinced that the entire solution to this problem of addiction was spirituality. Faith in a higher power. This was my ultimate solution and I was convinced that this was the only way forward.
My friend knew a great deal about spirituality and he was always teaching me new things. I really looked up to his wisdom.
Then, suddenly he relapsed.
I was shocked. It jarred me out of my complacency. I had been living under this belief that I just had to keep pursuing this sort of “spiritual pride” that I was developing inside. I could look back and see what I was doing now–I was developing spiritual pride rather than a healthy faith.
A healthy faith and a strong spiritual foundation is not made up of this feeling of pride. Instead, it involves humility and gratitude. But it was very hard for me to see that at the time when I was first stumbling my way through all of this.
And so after my friend relapsed I had to question what I was doing all over again. It sort of rocked the foundation of my belief system. How could my friend have relapsed, when he was so much more spiritual than I was? What chance did I really have if he relapsed?
And in going through this transformation I realize today that it led me to the exact sort of principle and ideas that would make me stronger.
For one thing I was grateful. I learned real gratitude. Now, more than ever before, I really was grateful to be sober. Wow, my friend had relapsed, who I had put up on this spiritual pedestal. And yet here I was, still sober. Second of all, I started to look much wider for the answers. For the solutions. I started to get with the idea that maybe a replacement strategy is not ONLY about spiritual growth.
I started to talk more and more with people in recovery who were into the holistic approach. People who said that exercise was one of the core components of their sobriety. What did these people know that I was missing? What could I learn from people who were not saying “The solution is spiritual” over and over again? Maybe they had some answers that could help me. And maybe I had not really figured this thing out, in that simply chasing spiritual growth (which amounts to having spiritual pride in my experience) is not the only answer.
And so this taught me real humility. I didn’t have all the answers. And I had a lot to learn.
Changing old habits into new habits
I am really big on the power of habit.
If you can take positive action on a consistent basis every day then it can compound into huge benefits over time.
I have watched this work in my life to a great degree.
And there are at least two sides to this concept. On the one side, you have the positive actions that you are taking. Maybe you go to AA meetings on a regular basis, write in a journal, start exercising, and reach out and help others in recovery. These are your positive habits that you engage in regularly (just as an example).
So the benefits of these actions are tremendous over time. They compound. It is not a linear scale of growth. In one year your life is a whole lot better, but in three years your life is absolutely amazing. And withing ten years your life is stunning beyond your wildest dreams. The positive benefits of these good habits compounds over time.
But the second effect of this is the opportunity cost. It is the replacement part of the strategy.
In other words, what are you NOT doing now that you have these new positive habits that you stick to so persistently?
You are not drinking, you are not relapsing, you are not using drugs, you are not losing jobs and wrecking cars and fighting with family members. You are not self destructing due to addiction. You are not wasting time and money and life energy on your addiction.
And this is a huge part of the calculation as well.
And therein lies the power of the replacement strategy. It is a two part deal that is very powerful. You eliminate the bad habits and replace them with good habits. And in doing so you turn your life around and unlock much joy and happiness in the long run.
But it takes time. And it takes real work and real persistence.
What about you, what you have you replaced your addiction with? How has that worked for you so far? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!