When I first got clean and sober I had no idea what a “holistic program” was or how it applied to me in recovery. I just knew that I had to focus on staying clean and sober one day at a time, and attempting to have a spiritual awakening.
My perspective in early recovery was based on this limited view, that I had to keep my head down and “just not drink today” and hopefully good things would happen for me. But I was about to learn what it meant to succeed in long term recovery, and what all that required.
Turns out, succeeding in long term recovery is about a whole lot more than just not drinking. I think that it is also fair to say that if your only real recovery effort is to pursue spiritual growth, you are limiting yourself in that way as well.
Put simply, the holistic approach is based on several different kinds of personal growth: Physical health, mental health, emotional well being, social support and healthy relationships, and spirituality. All of those areas of your life are important. All of those areas of your life can have pitfalls that lead you to relapse if you do not proactively guard yourself against them.
So what does this mean in the real world?
When I was in my first two years of recovery I was living in a long term treatment center and I was trying to find the right path that would lead me to success in long term sobriety. At the time, I had a lot of peers who were going to AA meetings, working the steps of AA, and so on. I had a lot of discussions with my peers about what actually works in recovery and what does not. We had a lot of good discussion and even a few heated arguments.
We also had the opportunity to watch our peers who were struggling to stay clean and sober, and we could sort of evaluate what was working for them and what the potential pitfalls were. And so based on all of this experience and all of these observations I started to form a theory of recovery. Note that most of my peers were not trying to figure things out; they were trying to convince me that these things had already been figured out, and that sobriety was all bundled up in this simple plan that AA had put forth for us to follow, and that I just needed to dedicate myself to this simple program.
I had other ideas. My issue was that of personal growth and holistic health. For one thing, one of the popular AA meetings in our area was in a basement with no windows and there was smoking allowed. You can imagine what that meeting was like when you were trying to breathe! It was worse than an underground speakeasy.
And I was not necessarily judging the recovering alcoholics for smoking cigarettes, that was not my intention or my point. Instead, I was thinking of the broad recovery principles and how they all fit into my own life. I was a smoker for the first 4 years of my recovery, then I quit successfully. But during those 4 years as a smoker in recovery I knew that I needed to quit, and that quitting smoking was an extension of the recovery principles that I was already practicing.
Now what do I mean by that? What I mean is this: When you get clean and sober from drugs and alcohol, you are making a decision that you want to live. You could just relapse and self destruct and ultimately perish as an addict or alcoholic, but instead you have seen the light and you want better for yourself and you have chosen life. You choose to live. You choose recovery.
Having chosen life and recovery, you are making the choice for better health. That is what your decision really comes down to: Your own health. Not just your physical health, but also the mental, emotional, social, and spiritual parts of your life as well.
When you choose recovery you are choosing to improve your holistic health. Holistic meaning “whole person,” all the parts of your life.
This is why a recovering alcoholic instinctively knows that they should quit cigarettes, even if they are still clinging to that addiction and holding on to it during early recovery.
The decision to work a recovery program is the decision to pursue better health in all areas of your life. You are trying to become the best possible version of yourself.
Now when you first start out in recovery you are basically focusing all of your efforts on the immediate threat of relapse. That is fine, and that is what you need to do in early recovery. Do whatever it takes to avoid picking up a drink or a drug. But as you remain clean and sober, the game slowly starts to change. After you accumulate some clean time the threat shifts a bit. It is no longer that difficult to make it through a single day clean and sober. However, you still have work to do. You can still relapse if you are not careful.
So how do you proceed after early recovery? How do you transition into long term sobriety in a way that is safe and protects you from relapse?
One thing that I want to caution you about is the idea of “doubling down” on early recovery tactics. Don’t just go to more AA meetings and think that will help. Don’t just dive back into the same literature and expect that reading the big book 50 times is going to save you.
What worked at 30 days sober may not work at 3 years sober. Why not? Because you are changing as you grow in recovery. You are evolving. This is a good thing. So your recovery efforts must change and evolve as well.
I would advise you to seek out counseling, therapy, and or sponsorship as you transition into long term recovery. In other words, don’t rely on your own decision making, but instead ask others to help you to find the path. Keep asking for advice and keep taking suggestions from your mentors.
And test out ideas. Keep seeking advice and testing that advice out for yourself. You don’t really have to take anyone’s word for it–instead, test out what they are telling you and see if it works for you. If not, drop it and move on. If it is does, then keep it up and form a new habit.
Making new habits is how you lock in the positive gains that you make in early recovery. This is why they recommend going to AA every day. It is a net positive for most people and if you do it every day then the net positive effects start to build up over time.
The same is true with things like healthy diet or exercise. If you turn those into regular habits then you lock in the gains over the long term.
This is why my life in recovery just keeps on getting better and better over time–I have tested out many suggestions from people and turned them into positive habits. Those habits have, over time, transformed my life for the better.
And this is the essence of recovery from addiction–trading in one set of habits for a healthier set of habits.
Lock in the positive changes by establishing new habits, and over the long run you can see your life change for the better. Good luck!