The recovery process from alcoholism or drug addiction is an enormous lifestyle challenge. Most people who try to get clean and sober have to try several times before they realize just how much effort it is really going to take in order to make a permanent change.
I have had the opportunity to make at least 3 different lifestyle changes that I consider to be significant. One is when I stopped drinking and using drugs. Two was when I quit smoking cigarettes. And three was when I started exercising on a daily basis.
None of these changes were easy. But there is a special insight that I gained as I look back on the three lifestyle changes: They got progressively easier.
The reason for this is not because one change was necessarily easier than the others. The reason is because I learned more and more as I went along what was really required in order to make a serious lifestyle change. I better understood the depth of the challenge.
Therefore when it came time for me to start exercising every day, I had a pretty good idea of just how hard I was going to have to push myself. I could remember how difficult it was to quit smoking cigarettes and I could also remember how difficult it was to stop drinking alcohol. So I simply applied that same level of effort to the new challenge in my life. The reason that I knew that it would be so difficult was because I had tried and failed so many times in the past. Many times in my life I had tried to develop the habit of exercise and every time I had failed. This was very similar to quitting smoking and overcoming alcohol addiction. My past was riddled with failures so I knew that this particular challenge was going to be especially difficult to conquer. Therefore I finally figured out that you have to try really, really hard when you are facing a lifestyle change like this. As in, harder than you have ever tried before! If you just make a casual effort then you are bound to fail.
Once you get into recovery and you become stable in sobriety I believe that the best path is to find your next healthy change in life. If you can do it once then you can do it again. What I mean by that is the fact that you had the determination to get yourself clean and sober, so you should extend that same effort to other lifestyle challenges that would improve your life even further. This is the path of growth in recovery.
Oh sure, there are lessor goals that you can pursue as well. But the real growth comes from tackling the challenges that are the most difficult for you. Your biggest problem is also your biggest opportunity. Your biggest obstacle in life will also become your greatest reward.
For me, quitting smoking was a really big deal in early recovery. It took me a few years to finally come to terms with it and put in the right amount of effort in order to overcome that particular challenge. After doing so, I had a bigger realization: I could do anything! This was like a slap in the face for me. I had struggled to quit smoking for so long that I had almost given up hope. But then when I finally overcame the addiction I realized that I had power. That I could make any change that I wanted in life, even if it was difficult. It was all a matter of applying the right amount of effort. Most lifestyle changes require much more effort than what we are willing to put in at first. We secretly hope that it will be easy if we try to lose weight, quit smoking, overcome an addiction, or whatever the particular challenge may be. We secretly hope that it will magically fall into place and be really easy for us and require almost no effort. When this doesn’t turn out to be true it is easy to get discouraged.
You don’t just accidentally run a marathon!
Since I have been in recovery I have run two marathons. This is something that I never thought that I could do in my life because it used to be very difficult for me to even run half of a mile. So the idea of running over 26 miles at one time was pretty ridiculous to me. But I eventually did it.
And I can tell you one thing that I learned for sure about running that marathon: It doesn’t happen by accident.
You don’t just casually walk out there on the day of the race and decide you will run it. You would have to be in super fantastic shape to pull something like that off.
In fact, if you do a bit of research, there are all sorts of marathon training schedules out there that you can follow. Most of them run for several months. It takes a lot of hard work to build up to that sort of distance.
You don’t run a marathon by accident.
In the same way, you don’t make these difficult lifestyle changes by accident. You don’t overcome an addiction by accident. You don’t just accidentally change your ways and everything suddenly become easy and changes for you. That is not how it goes.
I have heard it said that “recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.” It is process rather than an event. Recovery is process. It is ongoing. It is continuous. And it is going to require deliberate action over a sustained time period. You don’t just accidentally overcome an addiction.
How much focus and attention does it really require? For me, it required my full attention to overcome alcoholism. I had to dedicate my entire life to recovery for several years. Seriously. I had to stop everything that I was doing in my life (which was nothing at the time, actually) and go live in a rehab center for 20 months. Then after that I stayed fully immersed in the recovery community, I was active with online recovery, I associated only with friends who were in recovery, and so on. Nearly everything that I did for the first few years revolved around recovery. That was the level of effort that it took for me to make a serious lifestyle change.
Later on I was able to overcome nicotine addiction. I tried and failed for several years in my recovery to quit smoking and I was getting discouraged. Finally I made a deal with myself that I would give it a supreme effort and I would do everything that it took this time. I scheduled my quit a bit in advance. I took time off work for it. I arranged a vacation around it. I saved up reward money so that I could reward myself. I used every single bit of knowledge that I could find and I took lots of action. I created a plan that was more detailed than anything I had ever tried before.
And it finally worked. I was finally able to overcome nicotine addiction. The reason it worked was because I finally got serious enough to dedicate my entire life to the goal. But realize that I am not making that up! I really had to dedicate my life to the change. I actually took time off work for this! I had to get serious enough to take real action.
In the past I had always used a different approach. One that failed for me. And that approach was usually putting the rest of my life first and the goal second. So I was thinking about it all wrong. I was saying to myself “OK, I’ll just go along and keep living my life here, and oh by the way, I will also try to quit smoking this week.”
That is not the kind of attitude or planning that is going to help you overcome a lifestyle challenge.
You have to flip it around to something more like this:
“Next week I am going to quit smoking on Friday morning. I have the following week off of work and I have a big vacation planned to help distract me through the weekend. I am dedicating my life to the goal of quitting and it is the most important thing for me right now. I will not accept myself if I just continue to smoke. I will not take “no” for an answer. I am going to focus on this goal above all else in my life until I achieve it.”
This is the level of dedication that you are going to need to muster if you want to overcome a serious lifestyle change. Anything less and you just open the door to failure.
The agonizing rate of change with most lifestyle changes
The problem with making lifestyle changes (in my opinion) is that it takes so long to see the benefits.
For example, take quitting drinking. Every alcoholic has “stopped” at various times. Even if they just black out or pass out for the night, they still wake up the next day at some point and they have technically “stopped drinking.” They may be planning to start right back up again but they have stopped for the moment.
In a similar way, most alcoholics have actually “stopped” for at least a day or two over the course of their drinking career. So they sort of know what it feels like to start to go into withdrawal. Many alcoholics have gone through withdrawal completely and tried to stop for a longer period of time. Maybe they have been to rehab before but they eventually relapsed.
Whatever the case, most alcoholics have had at least some experience with stopping. Even if it is just a little bit.
So what this teaches the alcoholic is that stopping is hard. It’s not much fun. It feels bad. It feels uncomfortable. Not only do you get the discomfort of withdrawal, but then you have to start facing reality without being able to self medicate. You can’t medicate your feelings. You can’t medicate your emotions.
Of course if you remain sober and you start learn how to deal with life again without self medicating then things will get better.
Now the question is: How fast do things get better?
For most lifestyle changes the answer is always: “pretty darn slow!”
That may not actually be the case. In fact, the alcoholic who quits drinking my experience a lot of positive change in a short amount of time. But it doesn’t usually matter because they are not going to see those changes immediately. They will be thrown off by the fact that they are sober and they can no longer self medicate. So they won’t necessarily see or appreciate the progress that they are making in early recovery.
The same is true with other lifestyle changes. If you start to exercise you are probably going to feel pretty rough for the first few months. You may feel like it is not getting any easier. I can remember feeling this way myself. I kept exercising every day and yet it was not getting any easier for me. How long did that go on for? I really don’t know and it seemed like forever. But then at some point I could look back and realize that “hey! Exercise is no longer a chore for me! It is actually sort of a joy now! When did that happen? How did that happen? Amazing!”
But it took a long time. A really long time! And so I had to press on through the tough beginning. I had to struggle through the early part of the process in order to get to the rewards later on.
They have a saying in recovery: “It gets greater, later.” Sort of an annoying thing for the newcomer to hear, right? But it’s absolutely true! Why else would they say it? Every recovering alcoholic and drug addict who has significant clean time can look back at their early recovery and say to the newcomer something like: “You just hang in there, I know it may be tough right now when you are first getting sober, but it all works out for the better if you keep taking positive action and don’t use drugs or drink….you will be amazed one day in the future, you will wake up and think to yourself how blessed you are and how amazing your life has become. It does get better. Hang in there.”
And this is how it goes with lifestyle changes. They are incredibly difficult and they take a lot of time. So the key is to be persistent. To keep pushing until the miracle happens. Because eventually it will happen and your life will be so much better. But you have to get through the hard part first. That is where all of the growth and change comes into play.
Commitment, persistence, and daily habits
For me, everything comes down to habits. We can call this your “daily practice.”
I started with a daily practice of AA meetings, therapy, group therapy, reading recovery literature, and so on.
Later on my daily practice evolved into other things such as: Online recovery, journal writing, daily exercise.
In both cases these were the things that I had to do every single day in order to keep moving forward in my recovery.
If all you have in recovery is an event then you don’t have much of anything. An event cannot save you. A one time event is not very helpful. Say, for example, that you go to one meeting. Or you go talk with a therapist just one time. That is an event. It is not very powerful. It may help you a little but then after the event you are sort of on your own again.
Everything is process. Recovery is process. If you want to succeed in overcoming an addiction (or mastering any lifestyle change) then you need to master a new process. That means daily practice. Your daily practice is what creates your process of change.
You become what you do every day.
So today I write every day about recovery, I explore ideas about recovery every day, and I exercise my body every day. In addition to that I have spiritual process that I engage with (prayer and meditation). This is all part of my daily practice. If I stopped doing these things every day then in a few years (or even a few months) my life would start to become different. The reason that I keep engaging with this same process is because I like the results that it is getting me.
If you want different results in your life then you must engage with a new process. Most people say you have to “do something different.” They are half right. The part that they are leaving out though is that you have to “do something different” over and over again, every single day, for a really long time! That is, if you want to see significant results. So it is misleading to just say “do something different!” Instead, it is more helpful to say “try a new process in your life.” The idea of “process” implies that you are going to make an ongoing change, a permanent habit change, a daily change. Not just a one off event. But a permanent change in daily habits.
How to create daily habits that lead to a more positive life
Start taking suggestions.
Ask for help.
Ask other people to tell you what to do.
Then, do it.
Follow through with their suggestions. You don’t have to follow them blindly. Test their suggestion out for yourself. See if it helps you. Give it a chance so that you can see if their process helps you get the results that you want.
For example, someone suggested to me in early recovery that I meditate. They showed me how to do it. So I was sitting quietly and meditating in silence for a while. It was somewhat helpful.
Later on I took another suggestion to start exercising. Now I was distance running. This replaced my meditation. For me, running long distances was a form of meditation. So I stopped doing the “sitting in silence” thing and I just focused on running.
So I took some suggestions. I tried some different things. And I kept the ideas that worked best for me. I allowed myself to change and evolve in recovery.
Determination comes from hitting bottom
One last thing to point out about lifestyle changes is that your motivation is not always going to be enough.
For certain changes in your life you are going to have to reach deeper than others in order to motivate yourself.
In extreme cases you will not be able to muster enough motivation unless you have really hit bottom. You have to reach a point of total defeat and misery before you can rebuild your life and make positive changes.
I believe that you can choose your bottom. You cannot do this in an instant, mind you, but you can still choose your bottom to some extent.
You do this by focusing on the negative. It may take some time. But if you are conscious about how something is impacting you negatively then you will slowly start to “wake up” and get through the denial.
So if you are smoking cigarettes then you should start consciously focusing on bad they are, how stinky they are, how much they make you cough and choke, how they hurt your breathing, and so on. Don’t minimize those things. Focus on them. Embrace them. Because doing so will bring you closer to change. Focusing on the negative is how you reach your bottom.
If you are in denial and you are telling yourself that everything is just fine then you are not at your bottom! Therefore you cannot change.
So to bring yourself closer to change you must reach your bottom and focus on the negative aspects of your situation. A bit counter-intuitive but true. We are always told to focus on the positive, right? But in the case of motivation for a lifestyle change you have to reach bottom first!