It is my experience and opinion that you need a holistic approach to addiction recovery in order to be successful in the long run.
The question is: “Is a holistic approach focused enough to get results?”
There was a time when I was going to AA meetings every single day, sometimes up to several of them in a single day. I needed extreme focus and support in early recovery.
But as my recovery progressed, I needed less and less of that structure in order to maintain sobriety.
When you need extreme focus in early recovery
If you have ever gone through the withdrawal process then you know what it is like to experience an acute craving for your drug of choice. Your whole mind, body, and spirit is crying out for that substance all at once, and it can become overwhelming. The urge to relapse is very real.
This is true during your first week of sobriety, but it can also be true a month later, a year later, and ten years later. While the acute withdrawal is over pretty quickly (generally less than a week), there can be lasting effects that can linger around for years. There is something known as p.a.w.s. that stands for “post acute withdrawal syndrome” and that can have you craving your drug of choice several years later, seemingly out of nowhere at times. So we have to be prepared for the fact that we might suffer from serious drug or alcohol cravings long after we have sobered up.
As such, we need to take certain action in order to rise to this particular challenge. Recovery is a pass/fail proposition in that one drink or one drug will result in a total and complete relapse. A true alcoholic or drug addict won’t ever really “slip” and just take a single drink; that is largely a myth. We can fool ourselves into believing that we got away with just one, but even if we appear to be successful in regaining our sobriety quickly, a seed has been planted. Once you take that single drink or drug into your system it does something to your brain. It awakens the lizard part of your brain, deep down where you aren’t even paying attention, down where some of those addictive impulses live. And so an alcoholic who has a “slip” and then quickly regains sobriety is in serious danger of a full blown relapse, and this outcome is almost certainly just a matter of time.
So sobriety is pass/fail. Any mere slips will likely lead to full blown relapse. You cannot “sort of” sober up….it is all or nothing.
Given that, we need extreme focus in early sobriety. That is when we have to put in all of our best efforts.
If you look at the statistics it will tell you a simple story that should help to illustrate this. Take, for example, 100 random alcoholics who all try to sober up on the same day by checking into a detox center. Let’s assume that they all get to stay for 3 to 5 days of detox followed by ten days of residential inpatient treatment.
Out of those 100 roughly 30 percent or so will relapse within 24 hours of leaving the treatment center. Within 30 days of having checked into rehab, roughly 60 percent will have relapsed.
That is a pretty sharp drop off within the first month. So roughly 30 percent relapse immediately, then another 30 percent relapse within the first month. By the end of the first year post-treatment, maybe 10 out of the hundred will be clean and sober. Many estimates put it closer to only 5 out of 100 being sober at the one year mark.
So the drop off is very steep and very quick. What do you think happens to your chances, however, if you make it all the way to the one year mark after leaving treatment?
That’s right–your odds of achieving long term sobriety increase greatly if you can make it to the one year point.
That first year of sobriety is absolutely critical.
So the mindset needs to be pretty clear to people when they leave a 28 day inpatient program: You need to focus really heavily on your sobriety.
Sometimes I don’t think that this is communicated clearly enough to people.
Recovery is entirely pass/fail. If you “slip” and take a single drink or drug, you are doomed to misery. All of the chaos and misery of addiction comes back into your life full-force if you relapse.
Therefore the first year is critical. All that matter is that you remain clean and sober–the rest of your life must be built upon that foundation.
Therefore you need to dedicate your entire life to sobriety. Period. Everything that you do, from the second that you wake up each morning, has to be dedicated to keeping yourself clean and sober.
Let me help to illustrate just how pressing this need is.
I went to rehab 3 times in my life. The first two times I wasn’t ready, I had not fully surrendered to my addiction, and I just didn’t get it. There was no chance of me staying sober at those times because I just wasn’t ready to do the work.
But I also did not understand the scope of recovery. I did not understand just how much effort it was going to take.
For example, the first time I was in treatment, it was suggested to me that I go to an AA meeting every single day for the first 90 days. I thought that this was a huge commitment. I said: “That’s a lot of meetings….is that really necessary?”
I didn’t get it. I was hoping that maybe I could skate by doing 3 meetings a week instead of 7 or something. I was trying to figure out how to minimize the amount of time that I had to dedicate to recovery.
So here is the news flash that I was missing at the time: If you are trying to minimize the amount of time that you spend working on your recovery, then you aren’t ready to be sober yet. You are doomed to relapse.
I didn’t realize this at the time because I just wasn’t ready. I was in denial. I was in denial of the solution. I did not want to believe that I had to dedicate my life to sobriety in order to fix my problem.
Here is what actually happened when I finally surrendered and became clean and sober:
I did, in fact, dedicate my life to recovery. I checked into a rehab and I knew that I needed long term treatment. I found long term and I lived in rehab for 20 months. I did the work. I attended meetings every day without question, without hesitation. I got a sponsor and worked through the steps. I read the literature every day. I wrote about recovery in a journal and in the stepwork. I got into a sponsorship group and I attended meetings with them. I did the work and I continued to do the work. I took suggestions from my sponsor, from a therapist, and from my peers in recovery. I took their ideas and I applied them in my own life, because my ideas had not made me happy. I had to listen to someone else for a while.
That is what it is like to dedicate your life to sobriety. And you need to do this for at least the first year, telling yourself that you will do anything and everything for your sobriety at that time. Maybe there is an AA retreat this weekend at a campground nearby, and your peers in AA are all going to it–that is the sort of thing that you need to dive into, that you need to start doing automatically. You need to make time for your recovery and then let the rest of your life organize around that new priority.
Some people simply don’t have time for hard core recovery in that first year, and they end up relapsing as a result. You have a simple choice: You can either dedicate your life to recovery and then figure out how to live around that choice, or you can go back to drinking and drugs and self medicating and the chaos of addiction. It is all or nothing though. Recovery is pass/fail. Take one drink or one drug and you are back to full blown addiction. No in between. If you think you found a middle ground in recovery then you are setting yourself up for relapse. The middle path leads to relapse. The easy path leads to relapse as well. The only path that leads to long term sobriety and happiness is the path where you dedicate your entire life to staying clean and sober. And that is not an easy path to take by any means.
Transitioning into long term recovery
At some point, a person who had dedicated their life to recovery is no longer just doing things every day in order to stay sober, they are actually living a sober life in long term sobriety.
It is not always clear when this happens or exactly why it happens. There is no set length of time when someone goes from early recovery to long term sobriety.
For most people it might be around 12 to 24 months when they make this transition into sober living. But the length of time is arbitrary. It is really more about how you are taking care of yourself every day and how you integrate the recovery concepts into your life.
When you first get clean and sober you may go to treatment, you may have a sponsor or a therapist (or both), and people are generally telling you what to do. They are suggesting tactical things to you such as “go to an AA meeting each day” or “Call your sponsor every day for the first 30 days” or “read the big book of AA and work through the steps.” So there are specific actions that they are telling you to do, and hopefully you do them so that you remain sober.
In long term sobriety you no longer have to be told what to do on a daily basis. You have become stable in sobriety and you now know what works for you and what does not. This only comes through experimentation in early recovery. So you have to have taken lots of suggestions at this point from various people and tried to implement recovery tactics into your life. For example, someone once suggested to me that I meditate every day in order to help me remain clean and sober. I tried that for a while, and I eventually decided that it was not the right path for me at the time. I moved on to other suggestions and eventually started exercising and distance running, which was also a form of meditation for me. But I had to experiment in order to figure out what worked for me.
You cannot just wait around, do nothing, and complain that none of the suggestions are helpful to you in early recovery. That is a recipe for relapse, and also a bad attitude. Instead, you need to be willing to try things. So you try the meditation even though you hate it, or think that it is stupid, or believe that it will never work for you. So you try it every day and you give it a fair chance. Then you take another suggestion and you try that. Maybe you go to a yoga class or do some Tai Chi at some point. You try new things in recovery and in doing so you figure out what helps you in sobriety and what does not.
And guess what? It’s different for everyone. There are people out there who would likely relapse if they did exactly what I did every day for my recovery. And that is fine, so long as they figure out what works for them. I can help a few people with my own suggestions, and it may or may not help certain individuals. Some people hear my ideas about sobriety and they say “forget it, none of that helps me, I am looking elsewhere for my sobriety.” That is fine, I wish them well and I hope they find the answers that they seek. For example, there are people who work a religious based program of sobriety that are almost completely foreign to my own methods of sobriety. Our recovery looks completely different, yet we both remain sober, and that is OK. There are certain fundamental principles of recovery that are universal, and we can each discover those in unique ways.
There came a point in my own early recovery where I realized I was depending on my daily AA meeting in order to be happy. Without that daily meeting I was finding myself cranky and upset with the world. What was going on? Was I doomed to a lifetime of daily AA meetings? Quite honestly, I didn’t want that. I wanted freedom from daily meetings.
So I set out to figure this out–what was I getting at the daily meeting that helped to sustain my recovery, and could I meet that need in a different way? That was my objective. I did not want to stay dependent on the meetings each day. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with that, but I just wanted this freedom for myself. I wanted my sobriety to be stronger and more flexible than if I had to go to a meeting every single day.
And so I figured it out by talking to the “winners” in recovery–the people in AA meetings who were obviously doing really well in recovery.
I started casually talking to these people after the AA meetings to figure out what made them tick. What were they doing outside of meetings? What happened when they went home from the AA meeting? What filled up their life other than AA?
And what I discovered was that the “winners” in AA were never focused only on AA–they all had full lives and were living a healthy life in terms of the holistic approach. Meaning that each of these people did a whole lot more for their recovery other than just come to AA meetings every day. For example, I heard nearly every one of them tell me that they exercised vigorously on a regular basis. This was a huge theme that I could not ignore. In other words, if I wanted to break free from daily AA meetings, it was likely that I would have to exercise.
And that turned out to be true for me–exercise was a big part of my eventual solution. The solution in long term recovery, for me, was holistic. I had to take care of myself every day, in every way. Not just spiritually as is suggested in the 12 step program, but also mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially as well.
So I had to surround myself with positive people in recovery. I had to practice being grateful every day, and even in “bad” situations. I had to exercise vigorously on a daily basis. I had to get enough sleep each day and eat a bit healthier than what I used to. I had to seek emotional health and healthy relationships.
This was the holistic approach, meaning that I was taking care of my “whole self” in recovery. And it worked.
But notice that it was during the transition to long term sobriety that this took place. In early recovery during the first year or two of my sobriety, I was all about the tactical approach–meetings, sponsorship, step work, and so on. It was only in long term sobriety that the holistic approach made sense for me as a recovery strategy.
In early recovery, I still believe that you need to focus on the basics and simply do what the experts tell you to do. Listen to your sponsor, listen to your therapist, and get out of your own way. You may have ideas about how to implement a holistic approach to sobriety, but you should save them for after you have built a strong foundation.
You build a strong foundation by listening to others in recovery and doing what they tell you to do. That’s not very exciting, but it works. They told me to go to AA every day, and so I did that for roughly the first year. They told me to get a sponsor and work the steps, and I did that too. It was only as I transitioned into long term sobriety that I started to use the holistic approach and to find my own path in recovery.
In long term sobriety you have to find your own path. This leads to the holistic approach, because you are using different ideas in various areas of your life (physical, spiritual, mental, etc.).
In early recovery you use someone else’s path. You take their advice and their direction. You do what they tell you to do. This is how you build a foundation so that one day you can transition into long term recovery.
The best long term solution is the holistic approach because it is the most adaptable and flexible
In the long run, the holistic approach to recovery is going to be necessary for most people, whether they aware of the ideas or not. The concept is simple: If you don’t take care of yourself in all of these areas of your life (social, emotional, spiritual, physical, mental) then eventually this will corrupt your life and you will relapse.
The solution is to take care of yourself every single day in all of these various ways. That is the holistic approach to sobriety, and in the long run that is what will create a happy and healthy life for you in recovery.
What about you, have you integrated the ideas of holistic sobriety into your own life? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!