How do you learn to love yourself again in addiction and alcoholism recovery?
Heck, when I first got clean and sober, I wasn’t even sure that I could learn to like myself again, let alone love myself. I was a long way from being able to say that I “loved myself.”
In fact, I was pretty darn sick of the person that I had become.
Ground zero: Self care and self love at the point of surrender
This is the point that every alcoholic and drug addict has to start from. The point of surrender is not a very pretty place to be in life. Usually you are filled with fear and anger and you are completely sick and tired of your addiction.
More specifically though, you are sick and tired of who you have become in life. And you are sick and tired of self medicating every day, medicating your feelings away, and wishing that your life were somehow different. This is very typical for anyone who is struggling to get clean and sober. The alcoholic does not like themselves because they see themselves as someone who selfishly self medicates all the time. They blame themselves for the alcoholism and their behavior, but they don’t know what to do about it either. The alcoholic feels trapped because they cannot imagine a life without drinking, without medicating themselves. And yet they hate the selfish part of addiction that makes them do the things that they do.
So when you first break through your denial and ask for help it is very likely that you will not be loving yourself. Some people mask their self esteem issues pretty well, but everyone who is struggling to get clean and sober likely suffers from low self esteem in some form or another. You cannot continuously abuse yourself and also care for yourself at the same time. They are opposed to each other in a fundamental way, because addiction is a slow suicide and every alcoholic knows this. We know that we are slowly killing ourselves but we are powerless to stop it.
For me it was very difficult to even think about taking better care of myself in early recovery. I was trying to do the right thing of course by getting sober, and so I was starting to make some healthier choices, but none of this was really coming from a healthy core of self esteem or anything. It was more because I was so sick and tired of being miserable and afraid all the time that I was willing to try something different. So I started asking for help, I started listening to suggestions, I started taking advice. I had no reason to improve myself other than the fact that I was tired of being miserable all the time.
And in the beginning this is enough. It has to be enough, because an addict or alcoholic who has reached “ground zero” has nothing left to motivate them. At all. They are just sick and tired and they want their life to be different. And unfortunately they don’t know how to achieve that on their own, so they have to ask for help. And hopefully they are ready to listen to the directions they are given.
The idea of holistic health and your journey in recovery
When I was in very early recovery I went to an alcoholism treatment center. They had various meetings and groups to try to help people who were struggling to get sober. One of those groups was about holistic health and living a balanced lifestyle.
Now at the time I actually thought that this was stupid. I did not see how it really applied to me. Here I was at 7 days sober, and they were telling me about how proper nutrition, healthy relationships, and all of this other stuff was important to my sobriety.
I honestly did not see it. I was thinking: “Shouldn’t we really focus on not taking a drink, going to AA meetings, finding a higher power, and that sort of thing?” I believed that I needed to focus in early recovery rather than to look at the idea of holistic health.
And to some extent I still believe that focus is important in early recovery. But the holistic idea is important as well, and I can see that now that I have more time in sobriety. I have gained much perspective over the years and I can see how the holistic approach to recovery is important.
The holistic approach to recovery is about learning how to love yourself in a million different ways.
Traditional recovery programs tend to focus on spirituality. Their solution is to help you find a higher power so that you can have enough faith to remain clean and sober. The solution is spiritual. And this works great for some people and not so well for others. But it is one solution and it is also a very popular one.
Holistic recovery is a bit different than this. With the holistic approach to sobriety, you are looking to expand your life and grow in many different directions, including:
1) Physical health, fitness, nutrition.
2) Mental health and stability. Idea generation. Brainstorming.
3) Emotional health and stability. This is hugely important in terms of preventing relapse.
4) Social health, relationships. Specifically, eliminating toxic relationships from your life.
5) Spirituality. Gratitude. Faith.
So you can see that spiritual growth is still part of the holistic approach, but it is just one part of it. There are other parts and those other parts represent new ways that you can learn to love yourself.
At one time I believed that spirituality was the one and only solution for alcoholism and drug addiction. I believed this because that is what mainstream recovery programs were telling me all along. That is what I learned in meetings, for the most part.
And then I thought back to that group that I went to at rehab, the one about holistic health and living a balanced lifestyle. You know, the lecture that I thought was sort of stupid at the time because it did not really apply to me?
And I realized that this lecture about holistic health was right all along. That was the real truth about recovery–that it was a multi-faceted approach. Not this one dimensional spiritual approach that was so popular at the meetings.
But I had not been ready to hear that complicated message when I had 7 days sober. I wasn’t ready to be overwhelmed with the holistic approach when I was in very early recovery.
And it does sound a bit overwhelming if you ask me. When you are in treatment and you have 5 days sober and you are trying to wrap your head around the idea that you might never drink alcohol again, it is a bit much for people to be telling you that you have to:
1) Abstain from all drugs and alcohol forever.
2) Fix all of your relationships in life and avoid toxic people while surrounding yourself with positive influences.
3) Find emotional stability and eliminate all of the stress in your life.
4) Find gratitude every day and find faith in a higher power.
5) Come up with good ideas every day for how to improve yourself and your life.
And so on. This is really just a quick sample of ideas in the holistic approach, but the real rabbit hole goes much deeper than this.
Indeed, if you go to an AA meeting and ask for advice from the group, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount and variety of suggestions that you receive. How can you ever implement all of it? It can get a bit overwhelming to someone in early recovery.
Which is why I still stand by the idea that “focus” may be a better solution for someone who has 5 days sober.
I did not just get sober one day and start living this holistic approach to life overnight. I actually lived in long term rehab for almost two years straight. That is a long time to learn how to live again. And it was a huge learning process. I very slowly started to pick up the pieces of my life. I got a job. At one point I went back to school. A few years in I started exercising regularly. A year later I managed to finally quit the cigarettes.
I did not heal my entire life overnight!
It took time. It took years actually. I was still smoking cigarettes in my fourth or fifth year of sobriety. I was not exercising all along. Heck, I wasn’t writing about recovery the entire time either. I wasn’t even keeping a journal for much of my early recovery. I had to learn how to take care of myself, one bit at a time.
Today I believe that the solution for addiction is holistic health and personal growth.
You can use a program of recovery and you can focus on spiritual growth if that works for you, but there is also another path that involves a broader type of growth. That is the holistic path. You can learn to take care of yourself in many different ways.
And I believe that everyone has to do this eventually in long term sobriety. You cannot ignore the important areas of your health forever. I had friends in recovery who passed away quite young because they were not taking care of themselves in all of these ways. They may have been “spiritual” but they weren’t taking good care of their bodies.
The disease of addiction will do whatever it can to trip you up and take you down. Your overall health in life is important if you are going to enjoy a lifetime of sobriety. You can’t embrace sobriety and then ignore the rest of your health. That doesn’t make sense. You did not get sober just to die. You got sober to live. Therefore you need to take care of yourself in every way possible. The bonus is that doing this and pursuing greater health is also one way to love yourself.
Building self esteem by going through the motions and taking suggestions
As I said, I did not just one day land in recovery and suddenly love myself in every possible way.
It was a journey of sorts. A battle even in some ways.
I had to fight for this new life that I have built. And I will admit that I had a great deal of help in building it. I had a great deal of direction in order to get to where I am at.
When I first got sober I was essentially at ground zero in terms of self esteem. I did not like myself and I did not care about my life. I was indifferent to the idea that I might continue to live. I did not believe that I really deserved to be happy.
But for whatever reason, mostly because I was sick and tired, I started to take suggestions from other people.
People in rehab told me what to do, and I did it.
Counselors and therapists and sponsors told me what I should do in my recovery, and I took their suggestions and I started to do things in order to take care of myself.
For starters they told me to go to rehab and get through detox. I did that. They suggested that I move into long term rehab and live there. I did that too.
Living in long term rehab meant that I had to do certain things. I had to go to meetings, I had to get a sponsor and work the 12 steps, and I had to be in therapy. It was also suggested that I get a job and go back to school. It was suggested that I meditate and try exercise. It was suggested that I quit smoking cigarettes.
And so on.
I took some of these suggestions and tried to implement them into my life. The only incentive I had to do this was that I was sick of being miserable and I thought there was a tiny chance that doing these things might lead me out of misery. I had not real hope or faith that I would be happy again, but anything was better than the misery that I was living in.
And of course it worked. Taking all of those suggestions and I put them into action and my life started to change. It got different. I felt different. I felt like I had discovered a secret. Because suddenly my life was getting better and I was actually happy for some of the time, even though I wasn’t getting drunk or high any more.
And so this became my little secret. I just had to listen to others in recovery and do what they told me to do. By doing that my life got better and I became happier. I felt like I was cheating the system somehow because these were not my own ideas. I was just borrowing other people’s ideas and using them in my own life. They told me what to do, and I did it. And it was working.
This is really what I had resisted for so long in my addiction. When I was drinking, I was not willing to hand my happiness over to the control of anyone else, even for a second. If someone suggested that I might be happier if I was sober, I thought of that person as being evil and stupid. How dare they try to take away the one thing that makes me happy! But of course I was wrong and I was stuck in denial. That person was actually right, because I was happier now that I was sober and starting to take care of myself in recovery. But I never could have foreseen that when I was still stuck in addiction. I never would have believed it in a million years. Even when I finally surrendered and went to rehab and agreed to try to turn my life around, I still did not believe that I would happy if I was sober. But I was just so sick and tired and desperate that I didn’t care any more. So I was willing to try anything. Even rehab and AA meetings.
Reaching out to others in recovery
One of the strongest parts of the 12 step program is that you reach out to others and carry a message of hope to them. As they say in NA, the “value of one addict helping another is without parallel.”
There are two reasons for this at least. One is that obviously one addict is getting help from the other, and thus is learning how to live a sober life. But the second reason is more interesting, which is that the addict who is reaching out to help is also getting a huge benefit by doing so. When we reach out and help others it actually gives us as much help as it gives them.
This may be the single biggest thing that you can do in terms of relapse prevention–to reach out and help others to recover. It is the same principle that talks about teaching others as the ultimate form of mastery. You are truly learning a subject when you are teaching it to others. That sort of thing. And we need to reinforcement in long term sobriety in order to protect ourselves from relapse.
Who would have thought that we need reminders in sobriety? Who would have believed that?
But it’s true. Even for those in recovery who are really smart and really on top of their game, they still need constant reminders to help them avoid relapse.
Because your brain is fighting this battle. You are just sort of a bystander to all of this.
It is sort of like driving home each day and seeing a poster or a billboard for (what used to be) your favorite beer.
And so you see it every day and your brain starts to soak it up. Even without your permission. Your brain starts to think: “Boy, that would taste pretty good on a hot day like today.”
It might take a few weeks or a few months but eventually your brain will do this to you in recovery. It will start to remember the good old times with alcohol, and it will start to play these games with you.
And that is why we need the reminders. That is why people need to reach out and help others to recover. Because unless you are “plugged in” to something like that, unless you are actively working on your recovery program in some way, the billboards will eventually win out over you. Your brain will eventually start to play the old tapes, the ones in which you were happy while using your drug of choice, and it will start to unravel from there.
You need a way to protect yourself from that phenomenon. I’m not suggesting you avoid the billboards, that is just a metaphor. Your brain is the real enemy, and the fact that it craves alcohol and drugs. It will trip you up eventually unless you are actively fighting back.
And one of the best ways to fight back is to help other people in recovery. Because by learning to love them, you learn to love yourself. By caring about their sobriety, you relearn how to care about your own sobriety too.
The lifelong journey of self improvement
The journey of recovery never ends. This is a life long commitment to self improvement.
The bonus is that you get to enjoy a lifetime of personal growth and rewards if you are willing to do the work.
And there is always another layer of self development to explore. There is always a way to look at ourselves more honestly than before. There is always a way to be critical of the negativity in our life, and a solution to move around it.
And at some point you realize that the challenge of personal growth will never end, and that this is OK. And you don’t have to rush through it, but you don’t have to be lazy and complacent either. And you accept that you are on a journey of personal growth, one that will never end, and that you are OK with that for today. It is this balance between self acceptance and personal growth in which you will find self love. It is a balance that I continue to look for today.
What about you, have you found a way to love yourself in addiction recovery? What has that process been like for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!